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For more than three decades, anthropologist Talal Asad has challenged the
governing assumptions of western “knowledge” of the non-western world.
In fact, his itinerate career marks the parameters of a dynamic and crucial
period in western academia. It is Asad’s undermining of British social
anthropology in the late 1960s and ethnographic functionalism in general
that anticipates the postcolonial theories that would emerge many years later.
More than being a simple icon of a generation that challenged the conventions
of Orientalism, it is Asad’s essential (if often unacknowledged) contribution
to our current self-critical engagement with the larger world that
makes this book so valuable.
At the heart of this book is an invaluable exercise of productive engagement
and dialogue arranged by the editors. The clever manner in which
Asad’s most complex and often misunderstood interventions on power, the
West, and the study of the non-western world is put into action in a unique
way. By bringing together nine quite different scholars who invest considerable
energy in their papers, we are treated to an honest exploration of Asad’s
contribution to a wide range of disciplines. Well-known sociologist of religion
Jose Casanova; anthropologists Steve Caton, Veena Das, and Partha
Chatterjee; and renowned political scientists William E. Connolly and Hent
de Vries all clearly took their task seriously. Perhaps the most fruitful outcome
of this exercise is the intimacy of the engagement. In many ways, this
book reads as if the readers are listening to a round-table session that proves
crucial to understanding Asad’s influence on how all of these scholars of
religion have reframed their work over the years ...