Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Talal Asad on tradition

The concept of "tradition" requires more careful theoretical attention than the modernist perspective gives it. Talking of tradition ("Islamic tradition") as though it was the passing on of an unchanging substance in homogeneous time oversimplifies the problem of time's definition of practice, experience, and event. Questions about the internal temporal structure of tradition are obscured if we represent it as the inheritance of an unchanging cultural substance from the past - as thought "past" and "present" were places in a linear path down which that object was conveyed to the "future." (The notion of invented tradition is the same representation used subversively.) We make a false assumption when we suppose that the present is merely a fleeting moment in a historical teleology connecting past to future. In tradition the "present" is always at the center. If we attend to the way time present is separated from but also included within events and epochs, the way time past authoritatively constitutes present practices, and the way authenticating practices invoke or distance themselves from the past (by reiterating, reinterpreting, and reconnecting textualized memory and memorialized history), we move toward a richer understanding of tradition's temporality.
note 39: [...] One should not take it as given, as progressivists tend to do, that all positive invocations of the past are inevitably "nostalgic."

-Talal Asad, "Reconfigurations of Law and Ethics in Colonial Egypt" in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 222-3.