Talal Asad (born 1932) is an anthropologist at the CUNY Graduate
Asad has made important theoretical contributions to postcolonialism,
Christianity, Islam, and ritual studies and has recently called for,
and initiated, an anthropology of secularism. Using a genealogical
method developed by
Friedrich Nietzsche and made prominent by Michel
Foucault, Asad "complicates terms of comparison that many
anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists
receive as the unexamined background of thinking, judgment, and action
as such. By doing so, he creates clearings, opening new possibilities
for communication, connection, and creative invention where opposition
or studied indifference prevailed".
His long-term research concerns the transformation of religious law
(the shari'ah) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt with special
reference to arguments about what constitutes secular and progressive
2 Critical thematics
3 Formations of The Secular
4 Select bibliography
5 Further reading
6 See also
8 External links
He was born in
Saudi Arabia to Austrian diplomat, writer and reformer
Muhammad Asad, a Jew who converted to
Islam in his mid-20s, and a
Saudi Arabian Muslim mother, Munira Hussein Al Shammari (died
William E. Connolly attempts to summarize Asad's theoretical
contributions on secularism as follows:
Secularism is not merely the division between public and private
realms that allows religious diversity to flourish in the latter. It
can itself be a carrier of harsh exclusions. And it secretes a new
definition of "religion" that conceals some of its most problematic
practices from itself.
In creating its characteristic division between secular public space
and religious private space, European secularism sought to shuffle
ritual and discipline into the private realm. In doing so, however, it
loses touch with the ways in which embodied practices of conduct help
to constitute culture, including European culture.
The constitution of modern Europe, as a continent and a secular
civilization, makes it incumbent to treat Muslims in its midst on the
one hand as abstract citizens and on the other as a distinctive
minority either to be tolerated (the liberal orientation) or
restricted (the national orientation), depending on the politics of
European, modern, secular constitutions of Islam, in cumulative
effect, converge upon a series of simple contrasts between themselves
and Islamic practices. These terms of contrast falsify the deep
grammar of European secularism and contribute to the culture wars some
bearers of these very definitions seek to ameliorate.
Formations of The Secular
Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity is both an
original work and a reworking of previous essays and papers by
Asad. In Formations of The Secular, Asad examines what he views as
the curious character of modern European and American societies and
their notion of secularism.
Secularism, often viewed as a neutral or flat space that forbids
religious opinion or interference in political questions, is found to
be somewhat curious to Asad. Specifically, Asad's experiences with the
response to the 2001
September 11th attacks
September 11th attacks from the point of view of
a Muslim in
United States exposed him to "explosions of intolerance"
that seemed to him "entirely compatible with secularism in a highly
modern society".:7 However, rather than simply letting such a
coincidence pass, Asad continues by stating that such behaviors are
"intertwined" with secularism in a "modern society".:7
This leads Asad's deployment of the genealogical method in order to
understand why a country like the
United States denominates itself as
secular despite the distinctly religious Manichaean tones – "good"
and "evil" – often found within the historical record of the United
States.:7 He further notes that despite the nominally secular
character of The United States, "repressive measures have been
directed at real and imagined secular opponents.":7
These events, as well as other questions, lead Asad to what might be
termed the thesis of the book:
The secular, I argue, is neither continuous with the religious that
supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a
sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the
opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred). I take the secular to
be a concept that brings together certain behaviors, knowledges, and
sensibilities in modern life.:24
Building on that notion, Asad is also critical of the more common
concept of secularism, which he views as having no distinct features
that demarcate it from other prior forms of secularism found elsewhere
in the world. Instead he favors another approach to viewing modern
In my view the secular is neither singular in origin nor stable in its
historical identity, although it works through a series of particular
With that said, Asad's goal for the book is to understand how a more
general pre-secularism mutates into the more familiar "novel" form of
secularism present within Euro-American societies – Asad makes clear
his interest in this specific "novel" variant.:1–2
The Kababish Arabs: Power, Authority, and Consent in a Nomadic Tribe.
Praeger Publishers, 1970. ISBN 0-900966-21-1
"Market Model, Class Structure, and Consent: A Reconsideration of Swat
Political Organization." Man 7(1) (1972), pp. 74–89.
Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter. Ithaca Press, 1973.
The Idea of an
Anthropology of Islam. Center for Contemporary Arab
Studies, 1986. ISBN 978-9991289526
Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in
Christianity and Islam. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford
University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8047-4768-7
On Suicide Bombing. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Main article: List of important publications in anthropology
Charles Taylor (philosopher)
William E. Connolly
William T. Cavanaugh
^ Fifty Key Thinkers on Religion by Gary Kessler
William E. Connolly in Powers of the Secular Modern:
Talal Asad and
His Interlocutors, Stanford 2006, 75.
^ "TALAL ASAD". City University of New York. Retrieved 11 July
^ Chaghatai, Muhammad Asad, Vol. 1, p. 339.
^ Connolly, pp. 75-76.
^ a b c d e f g h Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular:
Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Calif: Stanford, 2003.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Talal Asad
CUNY Graduate Center
CUNY Graduate Center
Anthropology Faculty Website
Interview with Asad on YouTube
"AsiaSource Interview with Talal Asad" by Nermeen Shaikh
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