Hasan Azad interviews Talal Asad in Jadaliyya:
Let me first of all address the question of transcendence. The irony, it seems to me, is that although self-styled atheists say they reject “transcendence,” they are in fact subject (often willingly subject) to transcendent forces. Such as the transcendence of the market, which is a crucial part of modern capitalist society. And the transcendence of the state–the political form in which everyone lives in our world and makes absolute demands on our loyalty as citizens. And then of course there is the transcendence of “free speech.” In liberal society we claim that it is sacred and therefore has an absolute character. But we know (or should know) that “free speech” inhabits a structured space: not only is “hate speech” legally forbidden in liberal societies, but there are also laws protecting the circulation of copyrighted material, and the reproduction of trademarks and patents without explicit permission. And of course government secrets and commercial secrets cannot be breached without incurring severe penalties, which is an aspect of the transcendence of the modern sovereign state. I have discussed this point elsewhere and argued that there is a crucial distinction in liberal societies between the circulation of representations that are regarded as property and those that are not. Claims to the absoluteness of “free speech” are not very persuasive in this context.
Another, problematic example of “non-religious” transcendence is of course “humanity” and the worship it requires. And very closely connected with it is the modern notion of (cultural and moral) progress, which is assumed to be an open-ended movement that transcends all particularities, and stands over and above particular improvements of some particular state of affairs, the righting of something that is evidently wrong. To reject the transcendent progress of humanity is not necessarily to accept the status quo for what it is. So I think the different forms of transcendence need to be critically examined.
The notion of “humanity” as a form of transcendence derives, I think, from the conviction that intellectuality possesses an absolute power, from the demand that our best behavior depends on our ability to think abstractly, in terms of a universal rule, about something called humanity, that we need to understand humanity abstractly so that we can act responsibly towards those who represent it. But it seems to me perfectly possible to act humanely towards other beings, whether humans or animals or plants. One simply has to learn how to behave. To behave “humanely” it is perfectly possible to do without the notion of “humanity.” Language has multiple uses, and is embedded, as Wittgenstein pointed out, in different forms of life. It is not necessary to have this grand concept of “humanity” in order to behave decently.
I recall, incidentally, a striking expression from al-Ghazali: “Ah, to have the faith of the old women of Nishapur!” which, as I understand it, is really a recognition of the importance of deep everyday faith, of apprehending transcendence not primarily with one’s intellect but in the way one lives one’s daily life.
Read the rest here.