|Born||April 1932 (age 87)|
|Thesis||The Kababish (1968)|
|Doctoral advisor||E. E. Evans-Pritchard|
|School or tradition|
|Notable students||Saba Mahmood|
|Notable works||Formations of the Secular (2003)|
|Part of a series on|
|Anthropology of religion|
Ancient statues discovered in Peru
|Social and cultural anthropology|
Talal Asad (born 1932) is an ]cultural anthropologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 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 reform.
Asad was born in April 1932 in Medina,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). He was raised in Pakistan.
Asad 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. He worked at University of Khartoum and the University of Hull before moving to the United States in 1989. He then served as professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research and then Johns Hopkins University. He later became distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
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 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". However, rather than simply letting such a coincidence pass, Asad continues by stating that such behaviors are "intertwined" with secularism in a "modern society".
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. He further notes that despite the nominally secular character of the United States, "repressive measures have been directed at real and imagined secular opponents."
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.
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."
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.