The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam

Talal Asad


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In his article The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, written in 1986, Talal Asad focuses on the conceptual basis of the literature on this problem. What, he asks, exactly, is the anthropology of Islam? What is its object of investigation? There appear to be at least three common answers to the question, according to the author: (1) that in the final analysis there is no such theoretical object as Islam; (2) that Islam is the anthropologist’s label for a heterogeneous collection of items, each of which has been designated Islamic by informants; (3) that Islam is a distinctive historical totality which organizes various aspects of social life. We will look briefly at the first two answers, and then examine at length the third, which is in principle the most interesting, even though it is not acceptable. Talal Asad criticises the textualization of social life, and redirects analysis away from the interpretation of behaviors and toward inquiry into the relation of practices to a discursive tradition. Asad’s new concept became important not only for anthropology of Islam, but also for a number of fields, concerned with ethics and religion in modernity: anthropology, religious studies, postcolonial studies, critical theory. Despite it was written three decades ago, the article is still a must read for any scholar in the field of Islamic Studies, especially in Russia.


Anthropology of Islam


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