Asad, an anthropologist, is one the most interesting minds working on the concept of secularity vis à vis modernity and its tendentious universality. The entire work is loosely an examination of the secular as an epistemè and secularism as a political doctrine respectively as well as the interrelation between the two. Asking what an anthropology of secularism might look like, he avoids being bold and shuns an attempt to actually construct one. It's a concept that he's flirted with before in GENEALOGIES OF RELIGION, but any attempt to construct a magisterial theory are absent. As a work overall, the end result is a disjointed collection of previously published articles inter-mixed with new ones; however, it is worthy mentioning that even the previously published articles that reappear in this work we significantly revised from the original-at least the ones I was familiar with. Nevertheless, this doesn't detract from the collective value of the book. All the ideas he puts forward are cogent, probing, and provocative.
His leading contribution is in the area of how secular discourse is perceived from the periphery of the modernization process-a periphery that `doesn't fit' into the metanarrative of Amero-European modernity since the Enlightenment. Thus, the conluding essay on the transformation of law and social ethic in colonial Egypt is alone worth the price of admission. His treatments of human rights, agency and pain, cruelty and torture, and Muslims in Europe best demonstrate the feasibility of employing anthropology as a disciplinary lens through which to scrutinize modernity and its `essential' components [esp. secularism].
Asad crosses the barrier of viewing the secular simply as the mere `separation between church and state' and enters into territory where questions can be posited such as `what created the historical moment which made possible the thought of secularism?' As such, he rolls back the shiny veneer of modernity to unravel the threads of it inner fabric. Thus, he facilitates the process whereby we can shed facile questions like: "when will Muslim societies secularize?"-moving on to questions that inquire into the historical processes that formed the secular/human subject of normative modernity in Europe. Localizing European/Western experience in such a way, a more lucid account of the advent modern society, state, religion, etc. in its non-European manifestations becomes increasingly attainable.
Though rhetorically convincing, there are parts of the book that remain tendentious at best. In particular, this goes for his arguments for secularism origins lying in the modern cleavage between private morality and public law. Systematic delineation of the two spheres is actually quite old whether one refers to the Christian or Islamic tradition-just to mention a few examples, one could take the ETYMOLOGIES of Isidore of Seville or the various Muslim jurists extrapolations of the principle of "al-amr bi'l-ma'ruf wa-l-nahy `an al-munkar" (i.e., commanding the good and forbidding the wrong). Hopefully, fuller elucidation will more fully distinguish these pre-modern conceptualizations from their distinctly modern (and secular?) configurations.