Interview with Talal Asad

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Ovamir Anjum



The work of Talal Asad, in particular his two landmark volumes Genealogies
of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity
and Islam (1993) and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam,
Modernity (2004), has given new life to critical study of secularism
and the idea of “religion” across the disciplines of anthropology, political
science, religion, history, and colonial studies. In fact my first
published article, “Islam as a Discursive Tradition” (2007), was a
methodological inquiry into efforts to conceptualize Islam, focalized
through the work of Asad and his interlocutors. The preface to
my 2012 book on Islamic political thought remarked my broader
indebtedness to Asad’s notion of “discursive tradition” (against simple
accounts of the “politicization” of modern Islam). Shortly after
the book was published, in June 2012, I conducted a dialogue with
Professor Asad in his Manhattan apartment, unique also for being
a dialogue between an anthropologist and an intellectual historian.
Our conversation spanned topics of mutual interest: secularism
and the nation-state, democracy, Islamic tradition, the questions of
reform and coercion, and too (what was at the time) Egypt’s new
revolution and so the possibilities and limits of Islamist politics.
Since then, Asad has published articles which touch on themes we
discussed (for example, the pair of 2015 essays in Critical Inquiry
41:2 and 42:1), and a few other interviews have appeared in which
he also reflects on his intellectual trajectory and methodological
considerations (see in particular the interviews by Fadi Bardawil
and by Basit Kareem Iqbal). Now, nearly six years later after they
took place, AJISS publishes an edited transcript of our 2012 conversations,
both for their remarkable theoretical and biographical
candor and for how, when read in relationship to the essays he has
published since then, they make visible the development of a sustained
argument regarding “tradition” and the project of modernity ...

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