Report: Seminar “Secularization, Religion, State” Session 4

13 June, 2008 HANEDA Masashi, NAITO Mariko, Secularization, Religion, State

On June 9th, the fourth session of the Seminar “Secularization, Religion, State” was held.

In this session we read Talal Asad’s Genealogies Of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993). We discussed the Japanese version, which translated all but Chapter 5 and Chapter 7 of the work. According to Kojima and Masako Chiba, who summarized Asad’s work, we can grasp his argument as follows:

Asad’s Genealogies Of Religion, which is based on Michel Foucault’s work on power, examines how the category “religion”, which is considered as a domain free from power, has been historically established in Europe. He considers the engagement of power in the genealogies of “religion”, and concludes that the modern category of religion contributed to our understanding of the nature of Islam and Christianity.

In his opening two chapters, he examines how the study of anthropology historically developed the concept of “ritual”; Chapter 1, “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category”, exposes the limitation of Clifford Geertz’s definition of “religion” in universal terms, which regards “religion” as a cultural system. Asad argues that “there cannot be a universal definition of religion” because the definition itself is the historical product of discursive processes. In Chapter 2, “Toward a Genealogy of the Concept of Ritual”, he examines the genealogies of the concept of “ritual”, which, during the medieval period referred to a prescription for action, but in the modern period denotes symbolic behavior.

In Chapter 3, "Pain and Truth in Medieval Christian Ritual”, Asad draws on Michel Foucault’s argument to argue that the shift in the judiciary system from the primitive ordeal to confessional inquiry was not motivated by the development of rationality or religion’s departing from the judiciary but promoted by the fact that confession and penance became systematized at the Fourth Lateran Council in 12th century. Chapter 4, “On Discipline and Humility in Medieval Christian Monasticism”, traces how humility was linked with the obedience to authority by receiving instruction for reshaping individual desires in medieval Christian monasticism. Chapter 6, “The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East: Notes on Islamic Public Argument”, takes the case of Saudi Arabia and connexts the differences between the Kantian tradition in Europe and the Islamic tradition of critical inquiry to the nature of religious and politic issues and their limits. Chapter 8, “Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses”, reads the political context woven into Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which works to live up to the expectation of liberal people, who belong to middle class in England.

Discussion followed the reporters’ comments. Some participants claimed that the meaning of some terms such as “power” and “liberal” are not coherent in Asad’s work. Another comment concerned Asad’s idea on history: while Asad means to deconstruct the West by tracing genealogies of Christianity, he seems to end up consolidating the division between West and East.

Since we are supposed to read Asad’s other work, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003) next month, we will have one more chance to discuss Asad’s argument.

Reported by Mariko Naito

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