Dr Yasir Qadhi writes on Facebook today:
One of the most fascinating academics of our times (for me at least), from the perspective of both a personal biography and intellectual contribution, is Talal Asad.
From a personal perspective, I still can’t get over the fact that he is the son of the famous Muhammad Asad, author of ‘The Road to Makkah‘ (a Jewish convert to Islam from Poland; and someone who played a pivotal role in both the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and that of Pakistan – there’s an amazing documentary about him that I’ll like to in the footnotes), and his mother is a Saudi lady from Makkah, Munīrah al-Shammarī. Thus he has Polish Jewish cousins on the one side, and Saudi Muslims in Makkah on the other! He himself was born in Madinah in the 1930s when his father was advisor to King Abd al-Aziz. His life took him in many interesting directions, between Saudi and Pakistan and Africa, and he ended up doing a PhD in Anthropology from Oxford, and then settling in New York in the 80s. He is currently a professor at City University.
In terms of academic output, Talal Asad is an intellectual that all Muslims who are grappling with the realities of liberalism and secularism should read. He has created a name for himself within academia (and specifically the field of post-modernism) by dismantling the notion that ‘secularism’ is somehow an unbiased arbiter of, and hence inherently superior to, all religious faiths. Rather, he argues quite convincingly that ‘secularism’ itself has become a new religion as it were, and in defining itself as a concept against ‘religion’, it also falls prey to positing a version of society and humanity that is simply untenable. One of his main contributions is to turn the tools of anthropology, which have typically been used to dissect ‘other’ traditions and faiths and objectify them, against mainstream secular anthropology itself, and to ask the question, ‘What might the anthropology of the secular look like?’ In doing so, he exposes the hypocrisies inherent in Western thought (following Foucault of course, and also Edward Said).
He has been especially vocal after 9/11 in showcasing the blatant hypocrisy of the Western paradigm of tolerance and superiority. One of my all-time favorite quotes is his questioning, “Why is it that aggression in the name of God shocks secular liberal sensibilities, whereas the act of killing in the name of the secular nation, or of democracy, does not?”
He has many books and articles, and his most famous one (although be warned, it is DENSE reading) is “Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity.”
Here’s an documentary about his father, with clips from Talal as well:
This is a shorter one, not as thorough: