Talal Asad

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Talal Asad
BornApril 1932 (age 88)
CitizenshipSaudi Arabian (formerly)[1]
Spouse(s)Tanya Asad[2]
Academic background
Alma mater
ThesisThe Kababish[3] (1968)
Doctoral advisorE. E. Evans-Pritchard
Academic work
School or tradition
Notable studentsSaba Mahmood[7]
Notable worksFormations of the Secular (2003)
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Anthropology of religion
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Talal Asad (born 1932) is a Saudi-born British cultural anthropologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.[10] 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".[11]

His long-term research concerns the transformation of religious law (sharia) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt with special reference to arguments about what constitutes secular and progressive reform.[12]


Asad was born in April 1932[13] in Medina,[14] Saudi Arabia, to the 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).[15] When Talal was just eight months old, his parents moved to British India, where his father would play a pivotal role in the Pakistan Movement.[16][17] Following Pakistan's independence in 1947, his father joined the Pakistani government, serving the country in various administrative and diplomatic posts.[18][19] Talal was raised in Pakistan,[20][21] and attended a Christian-run missionary boarding school.[22][23] He is an alumnus of the St. Anthony High School in Lahore.[1] His parents divorced shortly before his father's third marriage.[19]

Asad went to the United Kingdom for higher education aged 18, initially to study architecture per his father's wishes but later switching to anthropology.[22][23] He traveled on a Saudi Arabian passport, as Pakistan did not have naturalized citizenship laws in place yet; later on, he received a Pakistani passport which enabled him to live and work freely in the UK as a Commonwealth citizen.[1] He graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an undergraduate degree in 1959 and from the University of Oxford with a Bachelor of Letters degree and, in 1968, a Doctor of Philosophy degree.[24] He worked at the University of Khartoum and, thereafter upon returning in the early 1970s (following which he also acquired British nationality),[1] at the University of Hull before moving to the United States in 1989.[10] He then served as professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research and then Johns Hopkins University.[10] He later became distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.[10]

Critical thematics[edit]

William E. Connolly attempts to summarize Asad's theoretical contributions on secularism as follows:[25]

  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[edit]

Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity is both an original work and a reworking of previous essays and papers by Asad.[26] 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 September 11, 2001, 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".[27] However, rather than simply letting such a coincidence pass, Asad continues by stating that such behaviors are "intertwined" with secularism in a "modern society".[27]

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.[27] He further notes that despite the nominally secular character of the United States, "repressive measures have been directed at real and imagined secular opponents."[27]

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.[28]

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."[29]

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.[30]

Select bibliography[edit]

  • 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
  • Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason. Columbia University Press, 2018. ISBN 9780231189873

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Ovamir Anjum (21 February 2018). American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 35:1. International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). pp. 67–70. GGKEY:K67P7GX8KKT. When I switched my Saudi passport for a Pakistani one it made me a member of the Commonwealth, and that gave me the freedom to move and work as I pleased... But eventually, I think it was when I came back from the Sudan, that I decided to get British Nationality
  2. ^ El-Messiri 1980, p. ii; Watson 2011, p. 100.
  3. ^ Asad 1968.
  4. ^ Jakobsen 2015, p. 114; Kessler 2012, pp. 203–204.
  5. ^ Kessler 2012, pp. 203–204; Mirsepassi 2010, p. 55.
  6. ^ a b c Landry 2016, p. 78.
  7. ^ Jakobsen 2015, p. 118.
  8. ^ Mozumder 2011, p. 7; Uğurlu 2017, p. 5.
  9. ^ Mozumder 2011, p. 7.
  10. ^ a b c d Watson 2011, p. 87.
  11. ^ Connolly 2006, p. 75.
  12. ^ "Talal Asad". New York: Graduate Center, CUNY. Retrieved 11 July 2014.
  13. ^ Windhager 2006, p. 224.
  14. ^ Asad, Talal (16 July 2013). "5 . Talal Al Asad". YouTube. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
  15. ^ Chaghatai 2006, p. 339.
  16. ^ Iqbal, Muzaffar (2016). "The Making of a Free Thinker of Islam (Part I) Muhammad Asad: The Pakistan Years". Islamic Sciences. Summer 2016, Vol. 14 Issue 1, p3-24. 22p. Retrieved 7 May 2020. Asad, then thirty-two, arrived in Karachi with his third wife, (3) Munira bint Husayn al-Shammari (ca. 1915-1978)... and their eight-month-old son, Talal.
  17. ^ Misch, Georg (2008). "A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad" (PDF). Mischief Films. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  18. ^ Hyatt, Ishrat (27 October 2019). "Austrian embassy celebrates national day". The News. Retrieved 7 May 2020. He later served at several administrative and diplomatic positions and as Pakistan’s envoy to the United Nations.
  19. ^ a b Chaghatai, M. Ikram. "Muhammad Asad – the first citizen of Pakistan". Iqbal Academy Pakistan. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  20. ^ Mirsepassi 2010, p. 55.
  21. ^ Seth Daniel Kunin; Jonathan Miles-Watson (2006). Theories of Religion: A Reader. Rutgers University Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-8135-3965-2.
  22. ^ a b Eilts, John (2006). "Talal Asad". Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  23. ^ a b Conversations with History - Talal Asad on YouTube
  24. ^ Watson 2011, pp. 87–88.
  25. ^ Connolly 2006, pp. 75–76.
  26. ^ Asad 2003.
  27. ^ a b c d Asad 2003, p. 7.
  28. ^ Asad 2003, p. 25.
  29. ^ Asad 2003, p. 24.
  30. ^ Asad 2003, pp. 1–2.

Works cited[edit]

Asad, Talal (1968). The Kababish (DPhil thesis). Oxford: University of Oxford. OCLC 46544933.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
 ———  (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-4768-4.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Chaghatai, M. Ikram, ed. (2006). Muhammad Asad: Europe's Gift to Islam. 1.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Connolly, William E. (2006). "Europe: A Powerful Tradition". In Scott, David; Hirschkind, Charles (eds.). Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp. 75–92. ISBN 978-0-8047-5266-4.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
El-Messiri, Sawsan (1980). Class and Community in an Egyptian Textile Town (PhD thesis). Hull, England: University of Hull. Retrieved 1 November 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Jakobsen, Jonas (2015). "Secularism, Liberal Democracy and Islam in Europe: A Habermasian Critique of Talal Asad". Contrastes. 20 (3): 113–125. doi:10.24310/Contrastescontrastes.v20i3.2419. ISSN 1136-9922.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Kessler, Gary E. (2012). Fifty Key Thinkers on Religion. Abingdon, England: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-49260-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Landry, Jean-Michel (2016). "Les territoires de Talal Asad : Pouvoir, sécularité, modernité". L'Homme (in French) (217): 77–89. doi:10.4000/lhomme.28860. ISBN 978-2-7132-2523-9. ISSN 0439-4216. JSTOR 24700222.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Mirsepassi, Ali (2010). Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-5864-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Mozumder, Mohammad Golam Nabi (2011). Interrogating Post-Secularism: Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad (MA thesis). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 1 November 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Uğurlu, Ali M. (2017). Is There a Secular Tradition? On Treason, Government, and Truth (MA thesis). New York: City University of New York. Retrieved 1 November 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Watson, Janell (2011). "Modernizing Middle Eastern Studies, Historicizing Religion, Particularizing Human Rights: An Interview with Talal Asad". The Minnesota Review. No. 77. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. pp. 87–100. doi:10.1215/00265667-1422589. ISSN 2157-4189.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Windhager, Günther (2006). "Vom Kaffeehaus an den saudischen Königshof Leopold Weiss' (später Muhammad Asad) Begegnungen in Wien und Berlin auf seinem Weg zum Islam". In Heuer, Gottfried (ed.). Utopie & Eros: Der Traum von der Moderne (in German). Marburg, Hesse: LiteraturWissenschaft.de. pp. 209–228. ISBN 978-3-936134-18-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

External links[edit]

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