Celebrating Life and Work of Talal Asad

Apr 14, 2022, 1:00 pm5:00 pm
Prospect House, Garden Room



Event Description

The Department of English is pleased to support a celebration of the life and work of Talal Asad. The event will take place on Thursday, April 14 from 1:00-5:00pm in the Garden Room in Prospect House with livestreaming available.

For on-line participation please register at:

Event Sponsors:
Department of ReligionCouncil of the HumanitiesDepartment of HistoryDepartment of EnglishDepartment of AnthropologyNear Eastern Studies

Talal Asad (born 1932) is a Saudi-born cultural anthropologist who is currently a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His prolific body of work mainly focuses on religiosity, Middle Eastern studies, postcolonialism, and notions of power, law and discipline. He is also known for his writing calling for the anthropology of secularism.


Asad’s work generally involves taking an anthropological approach to political history and analysis, specifically with regard to colonial history and religion. Asad identifies himself as an anthropologist but also states that he is critical of allowing disciplines to be defined by particular techniques (such as ethnography or statistics, for example).[12]

He is often critical of progress narratives, believing that “the assumption of social development following a linear path should be problematized.” Another main facet of his work is his public criticism of Orientalism. He has expressed frustration with Orientalist assumptions, particularly about religion, which he has said comes from his multicultural Muslim background.[12] His father considered Islam to be primarily an intellectual idea, while his mother considered it an “embodied, unreflective way of living.” Asad’s own interest in religion was based in an attempt to engage with theoretical explorations and to make sense of political and personal experiences. He is particularly interested in conceptions of religion as an embodied practice and the role that discipline plays in this practice.[12]

Following the 2013 coup d’état in Egypt, Asad wrote an essay, “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today”,[14] in which he engages with Hannah Arendt’s notions of revolution and tradition.[15] Asad argues that the founding of a political tradition is marked by the necessity of violence, and both revolutions and coups use the narrative of necessary violence towards saving and securing the posterity of the nation. The difference, Arendt and Asad both agree on, is that a revolution involves a vision of beginning anew by founding a new tradition, a new system, whereas a coup is meant to replace individuals in power, therefore conserving a living tradition.[15] This is just one of many notable essays Asad has written that deal with concepts of power, discipline, and law.

William E. Connolly attempts to summarize Asad's theoretical contributions on secularism as follows:[16]

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 to be either 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 that some bearers of these very definitions seek to ameliorate.