Talal Asad

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Talal Asad
Born 1932
Saudi Arabia
Nationality Pakistani and American
Fields Anthropology
Academic advisors E. E. Evans-Pritchard
Notable students Saba Mahmood
David Scott
Charles Hirschkind
Part of a series on
Anthropology of religion
Social and cultural anthropology

Talal Asad (born 1932) is an anthropologist at the CUNY Graduate Center.[1]

Asad has made important theoretical contributions to post-colonialism, 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".[2]

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 reform.[3]


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 1978).[4]

Critical thematics

William E. Connolly attempts to summarize Asad's theoretical contributions on secularism as follows:[5]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 the day.
  4. 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.[6] 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 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”.[6]:7 However, rather than simply letting such a coincidence pass, Asad continue by stating that such behaviors are "intertwined" with secularism in a "modern society".[6]: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.[6]: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.”[6]: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.[6]: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 secularism:

In my view the secular is neither singular in origin nor stable in its historical identity, although it works through a series of particular oppositions.[6]:24

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.[6]:1–2

Select bibliography

  • 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.
  • Editor, Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter. Ithaca Press, 1973. ISBN 0-903729-00-8
  • 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. ISBN 0-8018-4632-3
  • Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8047-4768-7
  • On Suicide Bombing. Columbia University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-231-14152-9

Further reading

See also


  1. Fifty Key Thinkers on Religion by Gary Kessler
  2. William E. Connolly in Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors, Stanford 2006, 75.
  3. "TALAL ASAD". http://www.gc.cuny.edu/Page-Elements/Academics-Research-Centers-Initiatives/Doctoral-Programs/Anthropology/Faculty-Listing/Talal-Asad. City University of New York. External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Chaghatai, Muhammad Asad, Vol. 1, p. 339.
  5. Connolly, pp. 75-76.[1]
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Calif: Stanford, 2003.

External links