Talal Asad and Sir Edward Tylor


The debate over structure versus agency in the social sciences remains alive today. Some scholars argue that understanding religion in terms of subjective mental states reflects a Protestant bias and that religion is best understood through institutional structures. Others, however, argue that a coherent account of religion cannot exclude mental states. Hence, this article aims to highlight Asad’s critical approach to religion and Tylor’s opposition to categorizing non-European cultures into separate categories.

Asad’s critical approach to religion

Asad’s critical approach to religion argues for a different way of thinking about religion. He challenges modernist views of religion and secularity and stresses the need to study everyday practices. His critique of liberal theories of religion aims to build an alternative political future. He is critical of Western liberalism and its failure to address contemporary social and political needs, particularly those relating to religious pluralism.

The project’s aims are to take Western readers through intellectual exercises to think about Islam today. However, these objectives are not evenly distributed throughout the book, rather, they are repeated throughout individual essays.

Tylor’s opposition to dividing European and non-European cultures into separate categories

Sir Edward Tylor is a British anthropologist who was a prominent figure in the late 1800s. He promoted theories of cultural evolution that attempted to explain the development of customs and beliefs across cultures. He also proposed that there were stages in the development of religion, including polytheism and monotheism. His definition of culture was influential, forming the basis of the concept of culture in modern anthropology.

Boas was another important opponent of Tylor, but he emphasized the importance of history and environment in understanding human evolution. He rejected the distinction between primitive and civilized societies and criticized early evolutionists’ efforts to explain cultural variation by genetics. He argued that all human cultures passed through the same evolutionary stages, although they did not necessarily go in order. Instead, it was necessary to study different societies individually to understand their differences and similarities.

Asad’s monothetic approach to religion

While the Assad regime has not explicitly suppressed religion, it has increasingly given it more state support and an expanded role in public spaces after the start of the current conflict. Historically, Baathism has been a secular ideology, but as the conflict intensified, Assad began to equate religious faith with national identity. Although some interpreted this as a concession to religious conservatives, it is clear that Assad has used the interpretation of religion to increase his own legitimacy.

Asad’s monothetic approach to faith has been criticized by some scholars. Harrison asserts that the word “religion” was first used by the Renaissance. However, Asad formally rejected the term “religion” as early as 1993. Moreover, he protests against ‘non-realism’ in his writings.

Asad’s critical aim

Talal Asad’s critical aim in religion is to explore how secular and religious ideas have changed over time. His aim is to question the idea of the two as separate, and to highlight their dependence on each other. His book is an important contribution to the literature on secularism.

Asad’s work is also important for Muslims. In a recent essay, he engages with Hannah Arendt’s ideas about revolution and coup. He argues that both a revolution and a coup use the narrative of necessary violence to begin anew. The former replaces individuals in power and the latter conserves the living tradition.