Reviewed by: Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: Ethics
This roundtable panel brings together anthropologists who are interested in questions of religion, politics, and critique for a discussion on Irfan Ahmad’s recently published book Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (UNC Press, 2017). Ahmad’s book challenges the common association of religion, and especially Islam, with blind following and aversion to critique, as well as the view of critique as the sole product of Europe and its history. Ahmad is not simply interested in bringing Islam and critique together, like finding a Muslim equivalent of modern Christian reformism or finding cases where Muslims themselves adopt secular liberal sensibilities. He instead lays out a historical and theoretical framework that would help researchers to consider “Islam as critique; indeed, Islam as permanent critique.” Combining a genealogical analysis of post-Enlightenment thought with a historical and ethnographic examination of Islam in the modern South Asian context, the book also makes a strong case for approaching mundane social-cultural practices – not only intellectuals and their projects – as a proper domain of critique.
This roundtable aims to explore and engage important questions raised by the book including, but not limited to:
1) If every critical inquiry, as Ahmad claims, is immanent (e.g., presupposing a shared background), how do different (religious or non-religious) traditions of critique interact with each other? More specifically, in what ways do Islamic and Western traditions of critique come into contact? Is it possible to imagine a conversation between these two traditions without falling into ‘radical incommensurability’ or ‘absolute isomorphism’?
2) What does an anthropology of critique look like? How is the anthropologist’s inquiry different from, say, an intellectual historian’s or a philosopher’s investigation? If critique is not solely an intellectual-epistemological concern and is part of everyday aspirations and struggles, how can anthropologists capture its manifestations across multiple cultural genres and settings (e.g., from theological commentaries, to poetry, to popular media, to daily encounters)?
3) If it is increasingly untenable to associate critique with the secular against the religious, what is the predicament of the anthropologist’s own practice of critique? What theoretical and methodological insights does the anthropological tradition offer to those who seek to refashion critique beyond the secular and religious dichotomy? Would imagination, sensibilities, and emotions play any role in this new anthropological critique?
4) Drawing on his ethnographic research in India, Ahmad demonstrates that Qur'anic references can be used in both a patriarchal critique of new gender roles and an egalitarian critique of those very patriarchal views. If authoritative sources can be open to such competing interpretations, would it be more useful to talk about multiple traditions of critique in each religious community? What conditions renders one critique more effective among rival critiques at a given situation?