Talal Asad: Religion as a ‘Discursive Tradition’


Anthropologist Talal Asad’s notion of a “discursive tradition”, proposed back in 1986 at the Occasional Paper Series sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, has shifted dominant paradigms and penetrated the work of anthropologists, sociologists, religion scholars, postcolonial theorists, critical theorists, and more. This entry outlines Asad’s thought presented in his suggestions for a more adequate anthropology, and his view of religion as a discursive tradition. Asad’s engagement with religion as a discursive tradition is motivated by Western interests in Islam; he writes,

“In recent years there has been increasing interest in something called the anthropology of Islam. Publications by Western anthropologists containing the word “Islam” or “Muslim” in the title multiply at a remarkable rate. The political reasons for this great industry are perhaps too evident to deserve much comment” (1).

Asad says that although the obvious area of study here is Islam, he concedes that conceptualizing Islam as the object of an anthropological study is a complex process and that many Western anthropologists have so far studied Muslim communities incorrectly. Asad reduces Western anthropological perspectives of Islam down into three perspectives (2):

[1] The view that there is no such theoretical object as Islam;
[2] That Islam is the anthropologist’s label for a heterogeneous collection of items, each of which has been designated Islamic by informants;
[3] That Islam is a distinctive historical totality which organizes various aspects of social life.

Asad disagrees with all three perspectives, particularly the first two but finds the third one important for further consideration. With respect to [1], this position is largely useless because if Islam is not an analytical category, then there cannot be such a thing as an anthropology of Islam. Undercutting [1] is the fact that the religion of Islam exists and there are Muslim persons, communities, and countries across the globe. Surely there can be an anthropology of Islam. Neither is [2] appropriate. Perspective [2] is underpinned by the idea that no form of Islam may be excluded from the anthropologist’s study on the grounds that it is not the true Islam. Islam is simply what Muslims everywhere say it is. But this is undermined by the fact that it is Muslims themselves who say that what other people take to be Islam is not really Islam at all. Asad writes,

“This paradox cannot be resolved simply by saying that the claim as to what is Islam will be admitted by the anthropologist only where it applies to the informant’s own beliefs and practices, because it is generally impossible to define beliefs and practices in terms of an isolated subject. A Muslim’s beliefs about the beliefs and practices of others are his own beliefs. And like all such beliefs, they animate and are sustained by his social relations with others” (3).

Regarding [3], Asad views this as superior in contrast to the other two perspectives but also finds fault with the theorists who have presented it. A major issue is that proponents of [3] have tended to present a far too self-contained view of the Islamic tradition, which is often present in anthropological works comparing Islam to Christianity,

“[T]he virtual equation of Islam with the Middle East, and the definition of Muslim history as the “mirror image” (Gellner) of Christian history, in which the connection between religion and power is simply reversed. This view is open to criticism both because it disregards the detailed workings of disciplinary power in Christian history and because it is theoretically most inadequate. The argument here is not against the attempt to generalize about Islam, but against the manner in which that generalization is undertaken. Anyone working on the anthropology of Islam must be aware that there is considerable diversity in the beliefs and practices of Muslims therefore one of organizing this diversity in terms of an adequate concept. The familiar representation of essential Islam as the fusion of religion with power is not one of these” (4).

Generalized notions of “the world of Islam”, “the religion of the tribes”, and the “religion of the cities” (all referring to Muslim societies) have proven insufficient as analytical categories of Islam. They present generalizations that do not account for diversity, which is further problematized because of dramas ascribed to these categories omitting actors. In some anthropological analyses of the Middle East, actors such as the peasants, women, and unlettered are not depicted as doing anything: “They have no dramatic role and no distinctive religious expression…” when compared to those with more authority or influence (5). Any anthropology of Islam is deficient if these actors are not considered.

Anthropological theories that perceive societies as self-contained units are incorrect, argues Asad. Societies and the idea of a “Muslim Middle East” are never isolated from external relations and are therefore never entirely unchanging. Their dramas never have a fixed, predetermined story, meaning that anthropologists can “look for connections, changes, and differences… We shall then write not about an essential Islamic social structure, but about historical formations in the Middle East whose elements are never fully integrated, and never bounded by the geographical limits of the Middle East” (6). The concept of “the world of Islam” is more appropriately viewed as a concept organizing historical narratives and not the name for a self-contained collective agent. Asad offers the following suggestions for an anthropology of Islam (7):

[1] Narratives about culturally distinctive actors must try to translate and represent the historically situated discourses of such actors as responses to the discourse of others, instead of schematizing and de-historicizing their actions.

Here the anthropologist is to put the actor into his context, historical or other, while also acknowledging that his behaviours and responses have been influenced by the discourse of others. Discourses are texts, arguments, discussions, language, and other phenomena used by members of a tradition. The anthropologist’s duty is to discover what these discursive influences are.

[2] Anthropological analyses of the social structure should focus not on typical actors but on the changing patterns of institutional relations and conditions (especially those we call political economies).

The anthropologist must analyze the influence of political economies on actors and social structures. Asad uses his study of north Sudanese tribes as an example. He discovered that changes in their political economy significantly influenced their military capabilities and manpower. Factors such as patterns of seasonal migration, forms of herding arrangements, types of animals reared, rights of access to pastures and watering points, distribution of animal wealth, degree of dependence on returns through sales, gifts and tribute from political superiors or inferiors all influenced how many spare men could be used for war, how readily, and for how long. Asad noticed how such factors drastically influenced possibilities for mobilizing large numbers of fighting men of the tribes. That political economy can have such an effect on actors must be accounted for.

[3] The analysis of Middle Eastern political economies and the representation of Islamic “dramas” are essentially different kinds of discursive exercise that cannot be substituted for each other, although they can be significantly embedded in the same narrative, precisely because they are discourses.

Political economies and dramas are both a part of a tradition that should be objects of anthropological investigation.

[4] It is wrong to represent types of Islam as being correlated with types of social structure, on the implicit analogy with (ideological) superstructure and (social) base.

[5] Islam as the object of anthropological understanding should be approached as a discursive tradition that connects variously with the formation of moral selves, the manipulation of populations (or resistance to it), and the production of appropriate knowledges.

Traditions are home to members who reason to moral conclusions or positions, suggesting they to also hold diverse notions of morality. Traditions also include the manipulation of populations, perhaps under leadership or different types of ruling styles, and the production of appropriate knowledges, such as ideas, concepts, and arguments that are deemed appropriate by the tradition’s members. Members determine what is debatable and enunciable, and anything that extends beyond these boundaries will be viewed as being outside of the tradition.

Religion as a Discursive Tradition

We arrive now at Asad’s conceptualization of Islam as a discursive tradition. As such a tradition, Islam’s pedagogical practices articulate a conceptual relationship with the past through an engagement with a set of foundational texts (the Quran and the Hadith), commentaries, and the examples of exemplary figures. Understanding the past is important for understanding what is occurring in the present and what might occur in the future. To understand Islam as a discursive tradition, one needs to engage processes of reasoning, such as argumentation, discussion, and debate that produce knowledge. In this, all Muslim actors must be considered, including women and unlettered persons who use reason to engage with sacred texts to solve practical problems. For example, Muslim women will engage texts from the Qur’an or the Hadith on matters of appropriate behaviour between men and women (8). They might debate what texts are authoritative to Muslims and should be obeyed, or what instructions were relevant only to Muhammad and his Companions, etc. Important it is to take into account the context of power relations, such as hierarchy, age, and gender, through which truth in an Islamic society is established.

In summary, one might conclude that the major areas within a discursive tradition in need of analysis are: texts (foundational and other), actors (who speak, think, use language, and texts), dramas, processes of reasoning used to produce knowledge and solve practical issues, and power relations that influence knowledge production.


1. Asad, Talal. 2009. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Qui Parle 17(2):1-30. p. 1.

2. Asad, Talal. 2009. Ibid. p. 2.

3. Asad, Talal. 2009. Ibid. p. 3.

4. Asad, Talal. 2009. Ibid. p. 7-8.

5. Asad, Talal. 2009. Ibid. p. 14.

6. Asad, Talal. 2009. Ibid. p. 15.

7. Asad, Talal. 2009. Ibid. p. 10.

8. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 115.


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