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Talal Asad. Photograph by Jay Van Rennselaer,
used by permission of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Thinking About Blasphemy and Secular Criticism” is the title of the Presidential Lecture to be presented by Talal Asad, the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.  Living up to his family name (which means lion in Arabic), Asad has been a major force in the field of anthropology, always pushing its boundaries.  In his own words:

…I’ve been constantly trying to pull away from established anthropological positions and move in interdisciplinary directions.  One reason is simply that even if you think of British anthropology, its most fruitful moments have involved engagements with something outside: theology in the nineteenth century, classics at the beginning of the twentieth century, sociology through Durkheim, linguistics through Saussure, political economy and history through Marxism, and so forth.  Whatever one might say about each of these, about the results of each of these encounters, they have certainly been fertile moments generating interesting questions.  So I see myself as somebody who was educated in this very loose discipline called anthropology, familiar therefore with most of the major texts in its history, valuing it as a tradition.[1]

Born in Saudi Arabia and brought up in Pakistan, Asad attended a missionary boarding school where he was one of only a few Muslims among a majority of Christians.  This situation seems to have given Asad a particular view toward East-West relations and influenced his later studies.  After his boarding school experience he was sent to England to be schooled in architecture.  The study of architecture had no special appeal to him and he moved on to Edinburgh where he began his studies in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.  In general the British anthropology scene at the time was concerned primarily with the study of social structures.  But at Edinburgh he was exposed to American styles of anthropology, such as psychological anthropology, symbolic anthropology, and the like.  After obtaining his M.A. at Edinburgh he went on to Oxford to work with the renowned social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who had done studies in the Middle East and Africa, notably on the Nuer tribe of the Sudan and the Sanusi of Libya.  It was as a result of his association with Evans-Pritchard and his work that Asad chose to do his field studies for his book on the Kababish during a five-year stint teaching at the University of Khartoum in the Sudan, a position he obtained through the close relationship between the Sudanese university and Oxford.

Asad’s book The Kababish Arabs: Power, Authority and Consent in a Nomadic Tribe (1970) was a reflection of his thinking at the time about colonialism and anthropology. Asad’s interests became focused on colonialism and on the ways the West defined the East as “non-Western.”  On colonialism, Asad later wrote: “The historical process of constructing a humane secular society, it is said, has aimed at eliminating cruelties.  Thus it has often been claimed that European rule in colonial countries, although not itself democratic, brought about moral improvements in behavior — that is, the abandonment of practices that offend against the human.”[2]  He continued: “I want to propose, however, that in their attempt to outlaw customs the European rulers considered cruel it was not the concern with indigenous suffering that dominated their thinking, but the desire to impose what they considered civilized standards of justice and humanity on a subject population — that is, the desire to create new human subjects.”[3]

During his time as a lecturer at Hull University, Asad and his colleagues Roger Owen and Sami Zubaida began holding regular seminars and publishing papers on Middle East studies, and they founded the journal Review of Middle East Studies (1975- ) in order to publish the papers from these seminars. When Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism was published in 1978, its popularity was a reinforcement and encouragement to Asad’s own investigations on the uses of Western-world standards as measures of the non-Western world.

After his time at Hull, Asad  moved across the Atlantic and joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research as a professor of anthropology.  His book Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993) was published after his move.  Parts were written and published separately prior to his relocation.  The work was well received and much reviewed.  Bryan S. Turner in his review of Genealogies stated: “The book concludes with an analysis of the nature of British national culture under the impact of multiculturalism, Islamization, and religious change, especially as these issues have been illustrated by the case of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.”[4]

The work defines religion as being contextual: each religion is the product of its specific cultural and historical developments.  This follows Asad’s view on the interchanges between East and West, between the “developing” and the “developed” worlds, and on who should participate in them. As Bruce Lincoln writes in his review of Genealogies, Asad “maintains that ethnographers and others ought to limit themselves to description, reserving critique to those who participate firsthand in the language and culture under discussion: that is, people who offer their criticism on the basis of shared values and are prepared to engage in a sustained conversation of give-and-take.”[5]  Measuring non-Western societies with a Western Christian measuring stick places the non-Christian, non-European societies in a position of never being able to advance to that standard.

Asad’s recent writings have been focused on his investigations into secularism and modernity (e.g., his book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, 2003.)  In his essay Thinking about Secularism and Law in Egypt, Asad defines secularism thus: “A secular society [...] is a modern construct based on the legal distinction between public and private, on a political arrangement requiring ‘religion’ to be subjected by law to the private domain, on an ideology of moral individualism and a downgrading of the knowing subject, on a celebration of the physical body as well as on a range of personal sensibilities, that all emerged in Western Europe together with the formation of the modern state.”[6] 

On modernity Asad has said, “One of the things that modernity has done, as you know, is to extinguish various possibilities."[7] Further, in an interview with Saba Mahmood published in the Stanford Humanities Review, Asad explained that Western academics “still make assumptions that prevent them from questioning aspects of Western modernity.  For example, they call these movements [such as Islamism] ‘reactionary’ or ‘invented,’ making the assumption that Western modernity is not only the standard by which all contemporary developments must be judged, but also the only authentic trajectory for every tradition.”[8]

Given his background and interests, Asad has of late become a popular commentator on current events: he has been asked to talk and write about fundamentalism in the Islamic world, and his analyses of secular societies facing fundamentalism have been the focus for a number of recent articles.[9]

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[1] Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors.  Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2006. p. 274.

[2] Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003. p. 109.

[3] Ibid. p. 110.

[4] Bryan S. Turner, Deakin Univeristy, in Sociology of religion, V. 55, N. 3, (Fall 1994) pp. 371-373.

[5] Bruce Lincoln, University of Chicago, in History of Religions, V. 35, N. 1 (August 1995) pp. 83-86

[6] Thinking about secularism and law in Egypt. Leiden, ISIM, 2001. (ISIM papers, 2) p. 1.

[7] David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, editors, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2006.  P. 274.

[8] Interview, “Talal Asad, modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions” by Saba Mahmood.  Stanford Humanities Review, v. 5, n. 1 (http://www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/5-1/text/asad.html)

[9] E.g., Thinking about Secularism and Law in Egypt. Leiden, ISIM, 2001 (ISIM papers, 2), and “Reflections on Laicité and the public sphere,” Beirut Conference on public spheres, October, 22-24, 2004.  (http://www.islamamerica.org/articles.cfm/article_id/94/)



Text by John Eilts, Curator of the Middle East Collection

Stanford University Libraries ©2006.



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