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Contesting secularism/sSecularism and Islam in the work of Talal Asad



This essay deals with the influential anthropological work of Prof. Talal Asad on Islam, secularism and the secular. I argue that the binary `Western—non-Western' which is constitutive for Asad, the relative absence of ethnography in Asad's work, and the state-centred nature of Asad's approach to secularism and the secular has contributed to an anthropological impasse whereby the complex engagement of Muslims living in secular and liberal `Western' contexts with the secular has become difficult to conceptualize. I argue in favour of the conceptualizations in a nascent body of works which transcend some of these binaries, most notably those of Marsden and Soares and Otayek, and in favour of investigating the secular as a vernacular practice.
Anthropological Theory
DOI: 10.1177/1463499609105477
2009; 9; 188 Anthropological Theory
Sindre Bangstad
Contesting secularism/s: Secularism and Islam in the work of Talal Asad
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Anthropological Theory
Copyright © 2009 SAGE Publications
(Los Angeles, London, New Delhi,
Singapore and Washington DC)
Vol 9(2): 188–208
Contesting secularism/s
Secularism and Islam in the work of
Ta l a l A s a d
Sindre Bangstad
Oslo University College, Norway
This essay deals with the influential anthropological work of Prof. Talal Asad on Islam,
secularism and the secular. I argue that the binary ‘Western–non-Western’ which is
constitutive for Asad, the relative absence of ethnography in Asads work, and the
state-centred nature of Asads approach to secularism and the secular has contributed
to an anthropological impasse whereby the complex engagement of Muslims living in
secular and liberal ‘Western’ contexts with the secular has become difficult to
conceptualize. I argue in favour of the conceptualizations in a nascent body of works
which transcend some of these binaries, most notably those of Marsden and Soares
and Otayek, and in favour of investigating the secular as a vernacular practice.
Key Words
Talal Asad • Islam • Islamic discursive traditions • Saba Mahmood • Muslims •
In recent years, there has been a flourishing of literature in various fields exploring the
historical, philosophical and anthropological lineages of secularisms, both in European
and non-European contexts.
In anthropology, no other author on secularisms has been
more influential than Talal Asad. Asad’s seminal contributions to this field of study in a
number of essays and books
have had a profound impact on how contemporary anthro-
pologists conceptualize secularisms
in theory and practice. That it has become
commonplace in anthropological studies to regard the secular and the religious as
implicated in one another, to emphasize that secularisms are as much about embodied
practices as they are about political doctrines, and to assert the problematic nature of
the pretensions towards universality inherent in modern forms of secularisms speak
volumes about the professional influence of Asad’s work. If, as Varisco (2007: 9) claims,
it became a kind of initiatory bismillah to cite Edward Said in literary texts about colonial
discourse, the same can be said with regard to citing Asad in anthropological texts on
secularism – or, for that matter, in anthropological texts on Islam. And it is not only
anthropologists who have paid attention to Asad’s reflections on secularisms – references
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to Asad abound in works of historians, religious studies scholars, philosophers and so
forth. This article forms part of an ongoing personal engagement with Asad’s oeuvre.
It is written in acknowledgement of the immense importance of the challenging ques-
tions about modern forms of secularism which Asad raises. It is intended less as a
critique than as an attempt to reflect upon some of the silences and inconsistencies in
Asad’s work on secularism in order to be able to contribute to an ongoing discussion
in anthropological circles about the study of secularism. There are certainly numerous
personal and political stakes involved in debates over secularism in contemporary
academia (Bakhle, 2008: 256). Nevertheless, I would like to resist the temptation to
think that one must either defend secularism or attack civil religion”’ (Asad, 2006b:
526) or for that matter engage in ‘blanket declarations about secularism one way or
another’ (Bakhle, 2008: 258). For as Bakhle reminds us, critiques of secularism are not
only found among partisans of the Left but are also commonly among partisans of the
I argue that some of the silences and inconsistencies in Asad’s work on secularism
relate to the status of binaries such as ‘non-Western’ and ‘Western’, and to the absence
of ethnography in Asad’s oeuvre. I furthermore argue that the current impasse in
anthropological studies of secularisms in European contexts is related precisely to the
difficulties of transcending these ontological and epistemological binaries, and to the
absence of ethnographic studies describing precisely in what ways secularisms are
defined, appropriated and contested by our anthropological informants.
‘In my view the secular is neither singular in origin nor stable in its historical identity,
although it works through a series of particular oppositions’, notes Asad in Formations
of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003: 25). ‘The “religious” and the
secular” are not essentially fixed categories’, he continues (p. 25). The genealogy of
secularism that Asad offers in this and later works is nevertheless in many respects quite
conventional. ‘Secularism as a political doctrine arose in modern Euro-America’ (p. 1).
Secularism may have ‘many origins’, but for Asad, as for the philosopher Charles Taylor
(1999), the most ‘useful’ story of secularism begins with the 16th-century wars of
religion (Asad, 2006b: 497), in the aftermath of which Western Christendom adopted
the ‘cuius regio, eius religio principle’ in an attempt to solve the political problems of
Western Christian society in early modernity (Asad, 2003: 2).
This genealogy of secu-
larism, which sees Christendom as a pre-cursor to the development of modern forms of
secularism, has become even more commonplace in the years after the publication of
Asad’s book. Taylor’s seminal volume A Secular Age (2007) has performed a Christian
act of appropriation of and reconciliation with secularism by to a large extent leaving
out the internal contestation over the status of the secular within European Christian-
ity and obscuring the role of non-religious freethinkers in its development. Taylor’s
reading of secularism stands in the tradition of Marcel Gauchet (1997), in the sense
that both regard Christianity as the sine qua non of secularism. Efforts similar to
Blumenbergs (1983) and Löwiths (1949) attempts to ‘disentangle secularism from
Christianity’ (Viswanathan, 2008: 170) have as an indirect result now become virtually
unimaginable. It is a necessary reminder when Asad claims that ‘in European Christen-
dom, it was only gradually, through continuous conflict, that many inequalities were
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eliminated and that secular authority replaced one that was ecclesiastical’ (2008: 582),
and asks whether ‘we are to understand that the ideological roots of modern secularism
lie in Christian universalism’ (2006b: 516).
The European wars of religion, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment
are all historical events commonly referred to in studies of the emergence of modern
forms of secularism. Asad notes, however, that contrary to popular assumptions,
examples of the separation of religious from secular institutions of government can be
found in medieval Christendom as well as in the Islamic empires (Asad, 2003: 1, cf. also
Asad, 2006b: 499). But the separation of religion from power must for Asad ultimately
be ‘a modern Western norm, the product of a unique post-Reformation history’ (Asad,
1993a: 28). For Asad, ‘the secular’ is conceptually prior to the doctrine of secularism
(Asad, 2003: 16). The secular, in Asad’s rendering, refers to ‘a variety of concepts, prac-
tices and sensibilities’ which over time have come together ‘to form “the secular”’ (p. 16).
‘The secular’ for Asad ‘is neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded
it’, ‘nor a simple break from it’; it is ‘a concept that brings together certain behaviours,
knowledges and sensibilities in modern life’ (p. 25). Changes in concepts reflect changes
in practices (p. 25) Religion and the secular are closely linked in thought and in the way
that they have emerged historically (p. 22). For Asad, there is a clear distinction between
the epistemological category of the secular and the political doctrine of secularism (Asad,
2006a: 228).
The designation ‘secularism’ was introduced by the utilitarian free-thinker George
Jacob Holyoake c.1851. Secularism as a political and governmental doctrine has its
origins in 19th-century liberal Europe, and was introduced by Holyoake and other free-
thinkers in order to avoid the charge of being atheists in a ‘still largely Christian society’
(Asad, 2003: 23). For Asad, secularism ‘is an enactment by which a political medium
(representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating
practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender and religion’ (Asad, 2003:
5, emphasis in original). Secularism presupposes a particular construction of religion
based on Protestant Christian understandings of religion as disembodied and individual
faith (cf. Asad, 1993a: 45), inner states rather than outward practice, and a particular
distribution of pain which tries to curb the ‘inhuman excesses of what it identifies as
religion’ (Asad, 2006b: 508). Asad takes issue with the republican view of the
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (in Taylor, 1999) to the effect that secularism is
applicable to non-Christian societies everywhere that have become modern (Asad, 2003:
2). Taylors view may be described as republican because it is based on a conviction to
the effect that a functioning democratic society requires some commonly recognized
definition of ‘the good life’ (cf. Taylor, 1995: 181–203), and it may be described as
deterministic in defining secularism as ‘inescapable’ by virtue of its flowing ‘from the
nature of the modern state’ (Taylor, 1999: 38). For Taylor, ‘equidistance’ and ‘inclusion
represent ‘the essence’ of secularism (p. 52). A secularism of Rawlsian ‘overlapping
consensus’ diverging from the historical ‘common ground strategy’ and ‘secularism as an
independent ethic’ (pp. 33–6) ‘is the only form of secularism available to us in the diverse
societies of today’ (pp. 52, 53). Asad will have none of this. For Asad’s conceptualiza-
tion of the European nation-state, as well as of its secularism, at the very outset differs
markedly from that of Taylor. ‘Religious toleration was’, in Asad’s terms, ‘a political
means to the formation of strong state power that emerged from the sectarian wars of
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the 16th and 17th century rather than the gift of a benign intention to defend plural-
ism’ (Asad, 1993a: 206). For Asad, pace Taylor, the distinctive feature of modern liberal
governance with which modern secularism is linked is ‘neither compulsion (force) nor
negotiation (consent) but the statecraft that uses “self-discipline” and “participation,”
“law” and “economy” as elements of a political strategy’ (Asad, 2003: 3, emphasis in
original). ‘The origins of the modern [secular] state are connected to the concern for
agreement among “reasonable” men and thus the creation of a margin to which
religion” (and other forms of uncertain belief) properly belong’ (Asad, 2004: 285). In
secular societies, secular modes of reasoning and argumentation are seen as the embodi -
ment of a universal reason, and religious believers are expected to wear their beliefs
lightly (cf. Asad, 2006b: 515). Secularism is not so much about a differentiation between
religious and secular spheres or about the generation of toleration as it is about the
sovereign power of the modern nation-state (cf. p. 508). There are strong echoes of
Michel Foucaults interpretation of modern ‘governmentality’ here. The modern nation-
state requires particular subjects of law, geared towards a modern autonomous life and
enmeshed in a market economy (Asad, 2003: 253). The identity of this subject is made
up of ‘layers of educated emotions’ (Asad, 2006b: 514). The secular state forms secular
citizens who are, alas, not necessarily ‘irreligious’ (p. 514).
Violence is ‘embedded’ in
the very concept of liberty ‘at the heart of liberal doctrine’, and in a liberal secular society
the morally autonomous individual has the right to choose his own life, and the sover-
eign state has the right to use violence in defence of the conditions for the good life
(Asad, 2007: 59). Asad is keenly attuned to the mechanisms of exclusion and to the
structures of inequality in modern nation-states and finds problematic Taylor’s and other
republicans’ positing of the nation as a community of sentiment rather than the state as a
structure of law (Asad, 2006b: 495).
‘The call for “unity” and “integration” may be seen
as part of the problem of centralized state control’ (p. 496). Asad is not alone in this
criticism. It is a crucial criticism to make, for if the nations ‘unity’ is seen as an affective
one, than those who do not share this affective bond are bound to be seen as outsiders
to the nation (Chipkin, 2007: 210). In a contemporary world of ‘multiple belongings’
and ‘porous boundaries’, secularism as a political doctrine of the state ‘devised for the
purpose of dealing with state unity’ faces problems in acknowledging the fact that people
may identify with victims in other countries as ‘their own’ (Asad, 2006b: 511). And it
is of course Islam which in contemporary Europe has become ‘the stranger within
(p. 495) or the ‘other of secularism’ (Hurd, 2008: 8). In other words, where secularism
for Taylor represents the largely benevolent result of reforms within Latin Christendom,
to which Christians and secular humanists are both inheritors (Taylor, 2007: 675), and
has the potential of offering a required minimal common denominator between the reli-
gious and the non-religious alike, for Asad secularism is part of a modern project pursued
by people in power (Asad, 2003: 13) and of the historical ‘European wish to make the
world in its own image’ (Asad, 1993a: 12).
It is precisely the asymmetry of power
between the secular state and what it defines as ‘religion’ that articulates the sovereign
power of the state (cf. Asad, 2006b: 505). Asad has noted that ‘the sovereign state cannot
(never could) contain all the practices, relations, and loyalties of its citizens’ (Asad, 2003:
179). Casanova (2006: 21) has nevertheless alleged that Asad all too easily assigns to the
secular the power to circumscribe the social and political space within which the
religious may operate.
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Asad has, however, been careful to point out that he regards secularism as being in
need of ‘refashioning, not elimination
and wants to ‘preserve secularisms virtues
without clinging to its vices’ (Asad, 2001: 147). In other words, there are limits to Asad’s
attempt to un-think secularism and the secular. But this begs the question as to precisely
how Asad wants to preserve secularisms virtues, when any attempts at locating common-
alities and possible points of convergence between Islamic and non-Islamic traditions in
his own work ultimately seem to dissolve into assertions of identitarian and religious
difference (Brittain, 2005: 154).
Asad’s empirical material on secularism is by virtue of his own admission drawn almost
exclusively from West European history. Except for one essay on ‘Reconfiguration of Law
and Ethics in Colonial Egypt’ in Formations of the Secular, Asad’s case material concern-
ing secularism and the secular is exclusively European. It is therefore somewhat paradox-
ical that Asad should have faulted Michel Foucault for displaying a lack of interest in
the history of the non-Western world’ and ‘the West’s encounter with that heteroge-
neous world’ (Asad in Mahmood, 1996: 3).
One may think of several reasons for this.
For Asad, Europe, or its extension, ‘Euro-America’, is the privileged site for the explo-
ration of non-European experiences with secularism. The reason for this is, in Asad’s
own words, that European history has had profound consequences for the ways in which
the doctrine of secularism has been conceived and implemented in the rest of the
modernizing world’ (Asad, 2003: 25). It is, as Asad noted in Genealogies of Religion,
through European pasts that ‘universal history has been constructed’ – so much so that
non-Westerners who ‘seek to understand their local histories must also inquire into
Europes past’ (Asad, 1993a: 200). For Western political, economic, and ideological
power ‘unleashed in Enlightenment Europe’ ‘continues to restructure the lives of non-
European peoples, often through the agency of non-Europeans themselves’ (p. 229).
The binary between the ‘West’ and the ‘non-West’ is of course central to much post-
colonial theorizing, and Asad is no exception in this regard. In his introduction to the
edited volume Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1975), Asad refers to the
unequal power encounter which goes back to the emergence of bourgeois Europe’, an
encounter which ‘gives the West access to cultural and historical information about the
societies it has progressively dominated, and thus not only generates a certain kind of
universal understanding, but also re-enforces the inequalities in capacity between the
European and non-European worlds (and derivatively, between the Europeanized elites
and the “traditional” masses in the Third World)’ (1975: 16). Knowledge and power is,
in other words, intimately linked in the domination of non-Western peoples by Western
peoples – a contention which demonstrates the profound interconnections between the
thought of, for instance, Asad, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and Michel Foucault.
genealogy of secularism is nonetheless open to the charge that it has ‘a restricted notion
of context’ (Das, 2006: 101), and the ways in which specific societal and political
contexts impinged on the formulations of secularism in practice in the colonial
encounter. Social anthropologist Veena Das finds fault in Asads rendering of the geneal-
ogy of secularism in that the German Begriffgeschichte School on which he relies in part
has a restricted notion of context, leading to a picture of the secular as a unitary system
or a notionally complete totality of legal rules.
The binary schemata involving the
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West/non-West, the European/non-European world and Westernized/Europeanized
elites versus ‘traditional masses’ is one which reappears with regularity in Asad’s later
work. In an essay on Islamic public argument in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, for instance,
Asad (1993a) explores the discursive tradition of nası¯ha (advice) that Saudi ulama
(religious leaders) regularly offer to the ruling Saudi family, and distinguishes this tradi-
tion from the discursive tradition of criticism of religious (and political) authorities
derived from Kant and the Enlightenment in Europe. He also distinguishes this tradi-
tion from that exercised by ‘Westernized Saudis’ (Asad, 1993a: 232). The legitimacy of
nası¯ha in the eyes of the rulers, as well as those who resort to it among the ulama, is that
it claims to be based explicitly on the sharı¯’a, to which both parties claim to adhere. If
Asad had been content to assert that some understandings of Islamic discursive tradi-
tions are more valued than others due to their identification with certain carriers and
groups (Eickelman, 1987: 20), he could not be faulted for it. But the term ‘Western-
ized’ which Asad invokes is is not a neutral term in the intellectual lineage of post-
colonialism and post- structuralism in which Asad stands. It suggests that there is an
‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to particular traditions, and that what is for analytical purposes
defined as being on the inside carries greater ‘legitimacy’ and/or ‘authenticity’.
usage of this designation would appear to be problematic, in so far as it seems to pre -
suppose that there are ‘authentic’ Saudis who adhere to modes of public argumentation
that are legitimate according to ‘traditional’ discursive traditions, and ‘Westernized’
Saudis who do not. It is a surprising turn from an anthropologist who in 1979 had taken
fellow anthropologists to task for failing to problematize ‘the whole business of looking
for and reproducing the essential meanings of another society’s discourse (its “authentic
culture”)’ (Asad, 1979: 623). One would perhaps think that Saudis who do not adhere
to the mode of public argumentation required by the tradition of nası¯ha are for the
purposes of anthropo logical theorizing no less ‘Saudi’ than those who do.
The case for
such a reading of Asad is further strengthened by his reference to French Muslims who
support the French version of secularism (laïcité) as ‘assimilated Muslims’ (Asad, 2006b:
505). For if the figure of an ‘assimilated Muslim’ is to make sense at all, it presupposes
the existence of a binary between an ‘assimilated’ and a ‘non-assimilated’ Muslim. If an
assimilated Muslim is a European Muslim convinced of the ‘virtues’ of secularism, then
the existence of such Muslims outside the context of such binary framings seems prob-
The spectre of the ‘authentic Muslim’ – although never explicitly referred to
– lurks in the background of these formulations.
In an erudite and trenchant critique of the Indian Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad’s In
Theory (1992), published in a special edition of the post-colonial studies journal Public
Culture in 1993, Asad argued that ‘the conceptual contrast between a West and a non-
West is essential for understanding the account of global transformations’ (Asad, 1993b).
Ahmad’s In Theory was a rebuttal of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) from a Marxist
point of view, and occasioned what Varisco refers to as ‘a post-colonial dressing-down
of Ahmad for daring to criticize Said’ (2007: 177). Ahmad argued strongly against the
binaries between ‘the West’ and the ‘Third World’ which characterized Said’s work. The
problems with Ahmad’s book for Asad related to Ahmad’s retention of classical Marxist
concepts such as ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ in accounting for changes in literary and
cultural theories since the late 1960s. Against Ahmad’s classical Marxist conceptual -
ization, Asad argues that a serious understanding of modern capitalist production
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required ‘systematic reference to legislation, litigation, accountancy, insurance, advertis-
ing, and taxation’ or, in other words, ‘signifying practices’ (Asad, 1993b: 32). Asad
continues with the assertion that
the European project requires not the production of a uniform culture throughout
the world but certain shared modalities of legal-moral behaviour, forms of national-
political structuration, and rhythms of progressive historicity. It invites or seeks to
coerce everyone to become the West – to express their particularities through ‘the
West’ as the measure of universality. (Asad, 1993b: 36)
In spite of the many criticisms of the analytical value of such binaries in much post-
colonial academic literature,
the binary of ‘the West’ and ‘the non-West’ has a consti-
tutive status in the work of Asad. To the extent that real people living real lives intrude
in his work, it is often as instances illustrating the continued force of this binary. In spite
of the stated equivocation with regard to the origins of secularism in Asad’s Formations
of the Secular (2003: 25), secularism in Asad’s reading seems to form part of an histori-
cal script pertaining to the West, and to the extent that it has been appropriated by the
non-West’ it is seen as forming part of ‘Western’ dominance through ‘Westernized’ elites
and as constituting a script written by ‘Westerners’. The notion of ‘Westernized elites
would then seem to account for the development of theories and practices of secularism
in, for instance, modern Turkey.
As in much post-colonial academic literature, non-
Western agency ‘dissolves before the terms of colonial power’ (Chipkin, 2007: 37).
There are (at least) three further charges that may be made with regard to the analyt-
ical usage of this binary. Firstly, one may doubt whether European dominance decades
after decolonization continues to hold this much explanatory value. Secondly, one may
argue that the fact that a phenomenon originates somewhere tells us virtually nothing
about how it is appropriated, elaborated and transformed in particular contexts
(Chipkin, 2007: 45). Thirdly, one may ask whether globalization and a world which is
by virtue of Asad’s (2007: 14) own admission more densely interconnected than ever
before has not rendered such macro-level binaries unworkable from an analytical point
of view. This is not to argue for the naturalization of structures of inequality implied
and constructed in and through globalization (cf. Ferguson, 2006: 47) – only a call for
coming to analytical terms with a world in which power and influences are much more
complex than it would appear from looking at the world through the prism of European
colonialism and its aftermath.
There is a further paradox in Asad’s usage of this binary. For it was Asad who faulted
his erstwhile anthropological colleague and ideological nemesis at Oxford, Ernest
Gellner, for writing anthropological texts with a lack of Islamic actors who ‘speak and
think, rather than behave’ (Asad, 1986: 8). Asad undertook his last ethnographic field-
work among the Kababish of the Sudan in 1961–6 (Scott, 2006: 248 – published as
Asad, 1970) and has largely concentrated on anthropological theory rather than ethno-
graphic practice ever since. Whilst Asad is right to note that the positing of an equiva-
lence between the craft of anthropology and the practice of fieldwork is problematic,
and that ethnographic fieldwork can be ‘pseudo-scientific’ (Asad, 2003: 17), there is
certainly a case to be made about the lacunae the absence of empirical data generated
through ethnographic fieldwork creates in Asads own work. For if, in the words of
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Sherry B. Ortner, an ethnographic stance implies a commitment to ‘producing under-
standing through richness, texture and detail, rather than parsimony, refinement, and
. . . elegance’, and such a stance is required in order to ‘know and speak and write of the
lived worlds inhabited by those who resist (or do not, as the case may be)’ (Ortner, 1995:
188, my emphases), then fulfilling the requirements of a commitment to such a stance
may seem to require more actual immersion into the daily lives of ‘Westerners’ and ‘non-
Westerners’ than what is on offer in Asad’s work. This does not imply, however, that I
think that ‘understanding the place of the secular today’ does not ‘require more than
ethnographic fieldwork’ (Asad, 2003: 206). But I would argue that the ‘systematic
inquiry into cultural concepts’ (p. 17) or the ‘careful analysis . . . of culturally distinc-
tive concepts and their articulation with one another’ (p. 206) recommended by Asad
for the study of the secular is insufficient. If it is the case that ‘one must work through
the concepts the people concerned actually use’ (Asad, 2007: 44), then explorations of
historical texts by Islamic reformers such as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (Asad,
2003), or for that matter Saudi Salafis such as Safar al-Hawali or Al Za’ayr (Asad, 1993a),
will not do in and of themselves, because their concepts are obviously not necessarily
the concepts of all ‘the people concerned’. Firstly, the very selection of cases reflects the
pre-supposition that one is dealing with ‘culturally distinctive concepts’ of secularism.
Secondly, if one retains the notion of the existence of ‘culturally distinctive concepts’ of
secularism, one is also forced to enquire about precisely where cultural distinctiveness
begins and ends. For instance, how are we to understand ‘the culturally distinctive
concept of secularism’ in, say, a young Saudi Muslim female educated at universities in
the USA, or for that matter, a young European Muslim male educated at a European
university? It would be hard to tell, but their concepts of secularism are likely to be made
up from multiple strands, none of which necessarily reflects cultural distinctiveness. To
argue for the existence of culturally distinctive concepts of secularism in such a case
would be akin to placing people into cultural compartments. Furthermore, such an
approach does not open the vistas towards an understanding of the place of the secular
in the lives of ordinary people in ‘Western’ as well as ‘non-Western’ worlds – nor towards
the complexities, contingencies and contradictions involved. This epistemological
problem becomes particularly acute with regard to the anthropological (or other) study
of peoples whose lives transcend the boundaries erected by the invocation of binaries
such as ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’, ‘religious and secular’ and so forth. One could not
think of better illustrations of this than contemporary European Muslims, whose very
lives often turn upon a series of practical and pragmatic accommodations with the
Asad’s work has been an important inspiration for recent ethnographic studies on ethical
formations among Muslims, such as those of Mahmood (2005) and Hirschkind (2006).
As Silverstein (2003: 499) argues, these studies form part of a critique of models of
agency and selfhood derived from liberalism – models that are apparently inapplicable
to Islamic contexts. Silverstein contends, however, that these critiques come at the cost
of equivocating on the degree of alterity to be ascribed to ‘non-Western’ traditions,
including Islamic traditions, and at the cost of construing ethical Muslim selves as being
constituted prior to articulation with practices and discourses that are not specifically
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Islamic. For Silverstein, it is clear that part of the problem lies in ‘the analytical primacy
accorded to the notion of continuity’ in Islamic traditions. Silverstein provides interest-
ing examples from late Ottoman history in order to argue that ‘Westernization’ is an
inadequate concept for understanding the reforms that took place in the Ottoman
Empire in the relevant period. But since Asad was responsible for introducing the notion
of Islamic discursive traditions in the so-called anthropology of Islam, I want to return
to the article in which he first outlines how Islamic discursive traditions are to be under-
stood, namely ‘The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam’ (Asad, 1986), and explore how
Asad defined the alterity of that tradition vis-à-vis non-Islamic traditions in this and
subsequent work.
In this seminal essay, Asad argued that ‘if one wants to write an anthropology of Islam
one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes
and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the ahadith’ (Asad, 1986: 14).
Furthermore, Asad defined an Islamic discursive tradition as ‘simply a tradition of
Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with
reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present’ (p. 14). Central to Asad’s concep-
tualization of Islamic discursive traditions is ‘orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy in Asad’s usage
refers to the centrality of the notion of ‘“the correct model” to which an instituted
practice – including ritual – ought to conform, a model conveyed in authoritative
formulas in Islamic traditions as in others’ (Asad, 1986: 15). And orthodoxy ‘is not a
mere body of opinion but a distinctive relationship – a relationship of power. Wherever
Muslims have the power to regulate, uphold, require, or adjust correct practices, and to
condemn, exclude, undermine, or replace incorrect ones, there is the domain of orthodoxy
(p. 15). An Islamic discursive tradition is ‘a mode of discursive engagement with sacred
texts’ (Mahmood, 2005: 115). Asad appears sceptical towards any inclination to working
with substantial definitions of religion. However, he does not argue for a completely rela-
tivistic definition of Islamic discursive traditions. The centrality accorded to founda-
tional Islamic texts such as the Qur’an and the ahadith, as well as the reference to
orthodoxy, is designed to distance Asad’s concept from nominalistic and universalistic
understandings of Islam. For Asad, it is clear that ‘not everything Muslims say and do
belong to an Islamic discursive tradition’ (Asad, 1986: 14). For in actual fact, one of the
targets of Asad’s criticism in the article in question was the anthropologist Abdul Hamid
El Zein, who in Asads view had suggested that there were diverse forms of Islam which
were all ‘equally real’ and that they were all ‘ultimately expressions of underlying uncon-
scious logic’ (Asad, 1986: 2).
This suggests that there must be an ‘inside’ and an
outside’ to any Islamic discursive tradition. Asads concept of an Islamic discursive tradi-
tion draws heavily upon the work of Alisdair MacIntyre on tradition, and of Michel
Foucault on discourse.
But where Foucault’s notion of discursive formations
on contradictions and discontinuities, Asad’s concept of a discursive tradition is essen-
tially about continuity. This is borne out by Asad’s formulation to the effect that
a tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regard-
ing the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is estab-
lished, has a history. These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice
was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance
has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured
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in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a
present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions and social conditions). (Asad,
1986: 14)
A central problem is how to account for change and rupture in terms of the Asadian
concept of an Islamic discursive tradition (cf. Schielke, 2006: 243). For even though
Asad in later writings has made it clear that he does not refer to tradition in the sense
of ‘the passing on of an unchanging substance in homogeneous time’ and that in
tradition ‘the “present” is always at the centre’ (2003: 222), Asad does not offer any clear
guidelines towards understanding how change and rupture occur within Islamic discur-
sive traditions, and what affects it. It is therefore understandable that Asad should have
profound misgivings about the emphasis on recovering the agency of colonial subjects
in the subaltern studies school in the 1990s (cf. Mahmood, 1995, where he refers to the
contemporary ‘intoxication with agency’ in social science as a mere ‘product of liberal
individualism’). For agency and its linkage with rupture and change poses a problem to
Asad’s model of a discursive tradition which, to my mind, remains unresolved. Further-
more, Peter (2006: 110) has argued that Asad’s concept of an Islamic discursive tradi-
tion does not say anything about the specific ways in which Islamic discursive traditions
are tied to certain forms of religious authority. In Asad’s 1986 essay, he chides the anthro-
pologist Michael J. Fischer (1980) for not going beyond ‘drawing parallels’ and attempt-
ing a ‘systematic exploration of differences’ between Islamic and non-Islamic traditions
(Asad, 1986: 4). This interest in the difference or alterity (Keesing, 1989) of Islamic
discursive traditions is a recurrent theme in Asad’s oeuvre. In his essay on Islamic public
argument in Saudi Arabia in Genealogies of Religion, Asad calls upon anthropologists to
consider each tradition in [on?] its own terms’ (Asad, 1993a: 200); in an interview with
Nermeen Shaikh in 2002, he declares that Islamic traditions ought to lead us to question
some of the liberal categories in themselves (cf. Shaikh, 2002); and in his essay on legal
reform in colonial Egypt in Formations of the Secular he takes an Egyptian legal scholar
to task for his apparent ‘denial of difference’ (Asad, 2003: 213–14) in suggesting that
Egyptian law was not merely a colonial import. The problem here is not so much the
usage to which the underlying notions of alterity and incommensurability may be put,
but the very particular directions that this may encourage anthropological research to
take, and what it does to the required focus on the many Muslims and non-Muslim
informants who inhabit the interstices between such traditions. Social anthropologists
have a responsibility to explore both difference and similarity – but if we are only to seek
difference, then difference is certainly what we shall find.
Asad has remarked that he sees ‘nothing [as] less plausible than the claim that secular-
ism is an essential means of avoiding destructive conflict and establishing peace in the
modern world’ (Asad, 2006b: 509). Asad has also written that ‘it should not be forgot-
ten that we owe the most terrible examples of coercion in modern times to secular total-
itarian regimes – Nazism and Stalinism . . . it must be said that the ruthlessness of secular
practice yields nothing to the ferocity of the religious’ (Asad, 1993: 236). There are
certainly shifting registers in Asad’s style of writing, from the coolly analytical to the
temperamentally polemical. The statements in question ought to be read as polemical
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statements. But to what extent, and under which analytic pre-conditions, do they
actually accord with the historical record?
First, however, we should note that the assertions that Asad here makes depend on a
relatively clear-cut analytical distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’, which
stands in an ambiguous relationship with the assertion of the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious
as being historically contingent and overlapping with one another found elsewhere in
his work (cf. Asad, 2003: 25). Contrary to common descriptions, Asad asserts that the
sacred is not only an essential part of ‘religion’ but also of ‘the secular’. This also means
that liberalism has its own secular redemptive myths, which are not to be confused with
the redemptive myth of Christianity (p. 26). Asad sees, for instance, human rights as an
expression of such secular redemptive myths (pp. 127–58). Modern human rights are
inflections of a specifically ‘Judeo-Christian’ claim to universality (Asad, 2000: 2), which
privileges the states norm-producing function and enables the modern state to ‘use
human rights against its citizens’ (Asad, 2003: 6–7).
Central to human rights is a
restriction on the distribution of pain effected by secular agency.
Secular agency is confronted with having to change a particular distribution of pain,
and while in that capacity it tries to curb the inhuman excesses of what it identifies
as ‘religion,’ it allows other cruelties that can be justified by a secular utility and a
secular dream of happiness. It replaces patterns of pre-modern pain and punishment
with those that are peculiarly its own. (Asad, 2006b: 508, emphasis in original)
As a case in point, Asad refers to the ‘abhorrence’ with which ‘Euro-Americans’ regard,
for instance, female circumcision.
This abhorrence, Asad argues, is causally linked to
‘Western’ conceptualizations of bodily integrity, and the view that individuals – and
women in particular – have a right to sexual pleasure as part of their rights as humans
(Asad, 2003: 149).
In a footnote to an essay on the French Stasi Commission report
and its approach to the issue of what it deemed to be religious symbols in French public
schools, Asad writes the following:
The Stasi report cites various international court judgements in support of its
argument that the right to religious expression is always subject to certain condi-
tions.... My point here is not that this right – or any other – should be absolute and
unlimited; it is simply that a right cannot be inalienable if it is subject (for whatever
reason) to the superior power of the state’s legal institutions to define and to limit.
To take away a right in part or in whole on the grounds of utility (including public
order) or morality means that it is alienable. (Asad, 2006b: 765, ftn. 24)
The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR, 1948) as
well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1975) both
refer to the ‘inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. Freedom of religion
undoubtedly forms part of the ‘inalienable rights’ to which UNDHR and ICCPR refer.
But the framework which gives meaning to the concept of ‘inalienable rights’ implies
that these are rights that individuals have vis-à-vis states. In principle, then, these are
‘inalienable rights’ only to the extent that the individuals in question belong to states
that have signed and ratified these declarations and conventions. It is therefore, pace
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Asad, in the very nature of these ‘inalienable rights’ that they are ‘subject to the states
legal definitions to define and limit’. And there is, of course, virtually no state in
existence in the world which does not in some way or another define and limit the
exercise of freedom of religion.
Asad asserts that he wants to ‘get away from the idea that the secular is a mask for
religion, that secular political practices often simulate religious ones’ (2003: 26). This is
a crucial point on which the credulity of Asad’s assessment of secularisms historical
record in promoting peace and avoiding violence hinges. For here, Asad goes against the
grain of much theorizing about the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Philosopher
John Gray introduces his book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
(2007) with the assertion that ‘modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion
(p. 1), and goes on to assert that modern political religions such as Nazism and Soviet
Bolshevism (p. 6) are modern and secular articulations of early Christian apocalyptic
and millenarian beliefs in redemption of history through the actions of God in the first
version and through actions of humans in the second version. This notion has a fairly
long lineage in 20th-century post-Second World War European intellectual thought
and has been articulated by, for instance, Karl Löwith with regard to Nazism (Löwith,
1949) and Leszek Kołakowski with regard to Marxism (Kołakowski, 2005).
Blumenberg distinguished between various forms of transpositions of ideas from a reli-
gious to a secular context (which Gray does not),
but can also be read as belonging to
the same intellectual lineage of thought as Löwith and Kołakowski.
Few anthropologists would consider themselves sufficiently competent to settle the
issue as to whether modern totalitarian movements in 20th-century Europe were an
expression of ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ practice, or both. There can be little doubt that
modern utopian ‘Western’ totalitarian experiments with social and political reform
unleashed violence on a terrifying scale in the 20th century. But an historian might
perhaps want to know whether it is ‘the secular’ as such which explains its alleged
ferocity’, or the specific social and political contexts and the nature of the totalitarian
regimes in which ‘secular’ visions have been imposed. More so, since Asad takes issue
with the attribution of violence to religious motives by positing that in order ‘to identify
a (religious) motive for violence one must have a theory of motives that deals with
concepts of character and dispositions, inwardness and visibility, the thought and the
unthought’ (Asad, 2003: 11).
But then, equally, the same must in fact be the case for
the violence that Asad attributes to ‘secular’ motives. Does this depend on the existence
of a ‘secular subject’ (Warner, 2008), and what does this mean, given that Asad later
asserted that it was ‘European Christians’ who perpetrated the genocide against the Jews
in the period between 1933 and 1945 (Asad, 2007: 24)? It is not a matter of great dispute
that modern totalitarian regimes in 20th-century Europe, such as Nazism and Bolshe-
vism, drew heavily and consistently on imaginaries and symbols of a quasi-religious
nature, and were implemented in social and political contexts in which the population
it mobilized were by all accounts quite religious.
In other words, to trace the brutali-
ties of the Shoah back to the Enlightenment, as has been commonplace after Zygmunt
Baumans seminal study (Bauman, 1989), risks ignoring the significance of German
Romanticism (‘a formidable Counter-Enlightenment in itself’, according to Appiah,
2005: 119) in German Nazism. Finally, for a balanced assessment of secularisms claim
to being an essential means of avoiding destructive conflict and establishing peace in the
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modern world, one must go beyond citing the examples of Nazism and Bolshevism as
being somehow representative of the secular’s potential for violence and coercion.
European secularism after the Second World War, as embodied in the legal trans-
nationalism of the European Union (EU), has for all its shortcomings by many accounts
in fact contributed to the relative absence of wars involving European democracies. The
USA, one of many embodiments of modern secularism, has not seen war or large-scale
conflicts on its own territory since the Civil War in the 1860s. Post-colonial democra-
cies such as South Africa and India adopted their own varieties of secularism in the after-
math of horrendous civil strife: 20,000 South Africans are estimated to have been killed
in political violence between ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters in the
period 1990 to 1994, and thousands were killed in the course of the anti-apartheid
struggle in the 1980s. Except for the fact that the apartheid state, its laws and policies,
was often inspired by particular readings of Dutch Reformed Christianity, the violence
unleashed under and in the aftermath of it had little to do with religious fractures, but
it would be difficult to argue that there has been more destructive conflict under a liberal
and secular post-apartheid regime in South Africa, and lesser freedoms for religious
minorities, than under apartheid. Violence during the partition of India resulted in the
uprooting of some 12.5 million (Metcalf and Metcalf, 2002: 219), and the killing of an
estimated 500,000 to 1 million people. It is of course impossible to tell what the impli-
cations of South African and Indian post-colonial states without secularism might have
been, since this is to engage in counter-factual history, but it may be noted that secular-
ism has strong defenders among Muslims in both countries, who see the principles
embodied in it as the only possible guarantee against domination and curtailment of
religious freedom by non-Muslim majorities.
Chatterjee (2006) notes, for instance,
that there has been an absence of communal strife under the rule of the Left Front in
West Bengal, India, for 25 years, and this in a province with a large Muslim population
and with a long history of communal conflict up to the 1960s (Chatterjee, 2006: 67).
In West Bengal, the (secular) Left has consistently won the greater part of the Muslim
vote. In developments in West Bengal, Chatterjee sees the potential, if not the actuality,
of a ‘different modality of secular politics’ in spite of not having any notion of an ‘innate
secularism’ among Bengalis, whether Muslim or Hindu (p. 74). The historical record of
secularisms as regards violence is certainly mixed, but so is it as far as the alternatives are
concerned. Might it be that categories such as the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ have a
limited explanatory potential with regard to violence in and of themselves, that there are
no ‘totally convincing answers to these questions, which we face in common, whatever
our metaphysical or religious beliefs’ (Taylor, 2007: 691)?
One of many reasons for the highly charged debate on secularism and secularization in
the ‘Muslim’ world is the global asymmetries of power with which the concept is
commonly associated (cf. Tayob, 2005), and the positing of secularism as an articula-
tion of ‘Western’ ‘irreligiousity’ in modern Islamist thought (cf. Masud, 2005).
A nascent body of work in anthropology exploring the lives of Muslims in different
social and political contexts has attempted to transcend some of the binaries of ‘Western
and ‘non-Western’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-Muslim’, ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’ on which
Asad’s thought depends. A case in point is the work of anthropologist Magnus Marsden,
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whose intriguing exploration of the everyday lives of Muslims in the Chitral region of
Pakistans North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) attempts to challenge ‘any lingering
notion in the anthropological study of Muslim societies that the daily thought and
actions of Muslims is best understood in terms of what falls within the domain of the
Islamic and what lies in the realm of “practical reason”’ (Marsden, 2005: 53), and the
contention that ‘revivalist’ Islam is the most powerful dimension of Muslim thought and
identity in the modern world’ (p. 9).
Both within and beyond anthropological circles,
the ‘Muslim world’ ‘is still measured by the “exceptionalist” yardstick of which religio-
centrism is the core’ (Bayat, 2007: 3). But what, then, of Muslims whose dreams and
aspirations are ‘neither religious nor secular’ (Dabashi, 2007: 246)? Anthropologist
Benjamin Soares has, in collaboration with René Otayek, introduced the concept of an
islam mondain’, referring to ‘ways of being Muslim that exist in secular societies and
spheres, without necessarily being secular’ (Soares and Otayek, 2007: 17). There is in
these attempts to think through the implications of Muslim lives in contexts that are
neither describable in terms of nor reducible to ‘Western’ or ‘non-Western’, ‘religious’ or
secular’, a potential to effect a rupture with understandings of what the anthropology
of Islam and the ethnography of Muslim lives in secular contexts is and ought to be
about which has dominated anthropological thought for a number of years. It is a
rupture to be welcomed. But it is also a reflection of the importance of the work of Talal
Asad that such a rupture cannot avoid engagement with his seminal texts concerning
the anthropology of Islam and secularism.
One of the greatest challenges for anthropology in the years to come is to concep-
tualize the transformations that Muslims living in Western secular contexts are expe-
riencing. This requires a profound re-thinking of the categories and habits of thought
which surround the ethnographic study of Muslims living in these contexts. For these
are not necessarily Muslims who inhabit and embody the cultural and religious
compartments to which they are so often assigned. There are multiple ways of being
Muslim in a modern and secular world, and most of these Muslims, particularly the
young among them, inhabit the interstices between the ‘religious and the secular’ and
engage in practical and pragmatic acts of accommodation to, contestation of, or resis-
tance to the secular worlds and frameworks in the contexts in which they live. Whilst
the term cognitive contamination (Berger, 2006: 14) may not represent an accurate
description of what transpires in these Muslims engagement with the secular (for it
suggests, again, that there is a pure and un-adulterated way of being Muslim), it has
the value of capturing the fact that these Muslims are affected by the social and polit-
ical worlds in which they live in profound ways. They are entangled in the secular
logic of the state’ (Tripp, 2006: 8), but it would amount to traducing the ways in which
they are entangled in it to suggest that this entanglement reflects a mere assimilation
or ‘inauthenticity’. The Asadian approach is in many respects quite state-centric, rests
on a ‘Western’–‘non-Western binary, and may therefore blind us to the agency at work
in many European Muslims engagement with the secular. An anthropology of the
secular as a vernacular practice has to explore and understand the concepts and prac-
tices of secularism and the secular that these Muslims bring to the table whether
these concepts are based on notions of convergence or incommensurability between
what is defined as ‘Islamic’, the secular and secularism. The secular is an analogue,
rather than a digital concept: societies and individuals for that matter may be more
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or less secular, but cannot be either secular’ or ‘religious’. It is only in this manner that
anthropology can contribute to contemporary Muslims being seen as something more
than secularisms other’.
I thank Dr Frank W. Peter for making an unpublished paper on Asad available to me
and for comments on drafts of this article. I would also like to thank Drs Samuli
Schielke, Benjamin, F. Soares and Simon Innvær for comments and criticisms, as well
as Anthropological Theorys two anonymous reviewers.
1 For some contributions see Bakhle (2008); Berlinerblau (2005); Bhargava (1999);
Bilgrami (1999, 2004); Connolly (1999); Habermas (2008); Jakobsen and Pellegrini
(2008); Needham and Rajan (2007); Norris and Inglehart (2004); Masud (2005);
Mufti (1995); Roy (2007); Salvatore (2005, 2006); Taylor (1999, 2007); Tejani
(2007); Yared (2002); and Zubaida (2005).
2 Cf. for instance Asad (1993a, 2001, 2003, 2006b, 2008).
3 I follow Jakobsen and Pellegrini (2008: 7) in referring to secularisms in the plural
and in order to underline that formulations of secularism vary greatly in and between
societal and cultural contexts. Whilst Asad is very clear about the existence of
different and variegated forms of secularism (cf. for example Asad, 2006b: 507), he
nonetheless retains the established convention of referring to the phenomenon in
the singular. For Asad, national differences in the way secularism is understood in
Europe articulate ‘family differences’ (cf. Asad, 2003: 208).
4 I suggest, therefore, that Wilsons conclusion to the effect that ‘to say [with reference
to Asad] that secularism originates in the history of Western Europe is nonsensical
(Wilson, 2006: 199) is problematic.
5 In the work of Asad’s former student and close associate Saba Mahmood, this is taken
one step further: secular liberalism for her ‘defines, in effect, something like a form
of life’ (Mahmood, 2005: 191). It needs to be noted here that though secularism
and liberalism are connected in ‘Western’ imaginaries, ‘neither is entirely reducible
to the other’ (cf. Connolly, 1999: 10), and that ‘secularism is not dependent on liber-
alism, since there can be perfectly illiberal forms of secularism’ (Bilgrami, 2004:
6 For Asad’s critique of republican notions of the state, cf. Asad (2004).
7 Wendy Brown has taken this claim one step further, and argues that ‘secularism is
an instrument of empire’ (Brown, 2007). This begs the question as to whether secu-
larism was and is by virtue of historical necessity, or contingency, an instrument of
empire. Post-Ottoman Turkeys decreed imitation of Western secularism under
Atatürk was not the result of Western imperialism (cf. Pamuk, 2008), nor did this
appear to be the case in the context of post-colonial India (cf. Sen, 2005). But
Browns notion of imperialism appears to refer primarily to contemporary neo-
liberalism (‘one of the key imperial forces of our time’) rather than to specific
historical instances of imperialism. Whilst concurring in principle with Brown,
Gourgouris argues that the challenge is to understand how ‘secularism can work
against empire’ (Gourgouris, 2008: 439).
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8 This is in actual fact a verbatim but unattributed citation from William Connolly’s
Why I Am Not a Secularist (Connolly, 1999). Connolly writes in Chapter 1 of his
book that ‘Secularism needs refashioning, not elimination’ (1999: 19).
9 The assertion about Foucault is strictly speaking problematic in as much as Foucault
took a great interest in the Iranian revolution of 1979. Cf. Afary and Anderson (2006).
10 In an article from 1985, Said mentioned Asad’s work on anthropology and colonial-
ism as a pre-cursor for his own work on Orientalism. Asad (1980) offered a
laudatory review of Saids Orientalism.
11 For Asad’s response to this particular critique, cf. Asad (2006).
12 As noted by Aziz al-Azmeh, the notion of an Islamic authenticity is also central to
Islamist discourse, and leads to an historiographic practice which classifies every
historical event according to categories such as ‘internal’ and ‘external’, ‘authentic’
and ‘imported’ (Al-Azmeh, 1993: 83).
13 I thank Dr Frank W. Peter, from whose unpublished paper on Asad I have drawn
this point.
14 But these do in fact exist. A case in point is the Sudanese-born Islamic scholar
Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na‘im, who in Islam and the Secular State (2008) argues for the
compatibility of Islam and secular models of state. Cf. Bowen (2008) for a critique.
15 Cf. Varisco (2007) for a particularly insightful critique of the binaries characterizing
the late Edward Said’s work on Orientalism.
16 For ethnographic accounts of Turkish secularism, cf. Navaro-Yashin (2002) and
Çinar (2005).
17 Chipkin, writing about post-colonial South Africa, directs his criticism at two
prominent post-colonial African academics, namely Mahmood Mamdani (1996 in
particular) and Achille Mbembe (2001 in particular). But the critique is to my mind
no less relevant in this case.
18 Varisco (2005: 146–7) has suggested that Asad here misreads El-Zein, and that there
is less disagreement between the two of them than what Asad implied.
19 As noted by Mahmood (2005: 115).
20 In ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ (Foucault, 1972: 155–60).
21 Pecora contends that Asad in the end ‘must implicitly accept some of the most
unyielding and reductive accounts of the difference between a secularized West and
a religious non-West, despite his claim to keep these boundaries open’ (Pecora, 2006:
42). Reductive intellectual accounts of alleged (and real) differences between
‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ traditions have of course been central to right-wing political
movements in both Europe and the USA in the last decades.
22 From a human rights perspective, one could be forgiven for thinking that states
simply ignoring the human rights obligations which flow from human rights treaties
and conventions is a much greater problem than states using them against their own
citizens, but this is a moot point. Asad’s critique is directed against the power
assigned to modern states by human rights.
23 Female circumcision is the term generally preferred by anthropologists. UN agencies
and some NGOs prefer the much more normatively loaded term female genital
mutilation or cutting (FGM/C).
24 Like Pecora (2006: 43), I find Asad’s positing of this as peculiar to ‘Western’ concep-
tions of bodily integrity unconvincing.
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25 I would like to thank Prof. Njål Høstmælingen and Assoc. Prof. Tore Lindholm at
the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights in Oslo, Norway, for useful clarifications
on this point.
26 An important impetus for this interpretation was provided by the British historian
Norman Cohns study of revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the
middle ages, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957).
27 In a review of a re-issue of Leszek Kołakowskis Main Currents of Marxism (2005),
historian Tony Judt (2006) similarly argued that ‘political Marxism was above all a
secular religion’.
28 See Bull (2007) for a critical review of Grays ideas on this.
29 In the context of analysing Muslim suicide bombing, Asad rightly notes that ‘the
open-endedness of motive inevitably leaves considerable scope for interpretation
(Asad, 2007: 41).
30 Cf. Afary and Anderson (2006: 56) on German National Socialists’ appropriation
of one of the oldest Christian passion plays in Europe at Obergammerau in the
Bavarian Alps in order to disseminate their anti-Semitism.
31 India has, for instance, the NGO Muslims for Secular Democracy, in which the Shia
Ismaili dissenter Ali Asghar Engineer has a central role. See
32 Here, Marsden explicitly argues against the work of Hirschkind (2006), Mahmood
(2005) and Starrett (1998).
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SINDRE BANGSTAD holds a cand.polit. degree in social anthropology from the University of Bergen,
Norway, and a PhD from Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. His research focuses on Muslims
in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa. Address: Social Welfare Research Centre, Faculty of Social Sciences,
Oslo University College, PO Box 4, St Olavs Plass, N-0130 Oslo, Norway. [email: sindre.bangstad@sam. or]
at Kings College London - ISS on June 12, 2009 http://ant.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... Hybrid popular cultures are emerging that mock overly-zealous Islam, but also assimilationist practices such as the promotion of the 'right to insult'. According to contemporary anthropologists and sociologists such as Agnus Marsden (2005), Sindre Bangstad (2009), Jeanette Jouilli (2009, and Annelies Moors (2011), Islamic identities can be hybrid and simultaneously pious or orthodox, underlining the complexity of these notions themselves. ...
... The immanent divergences within practices guarantee their multi-interpretability. It would be helpful to focus on this aspect of religious practices in order to determine how they tend to dilute dogma, instead of simply going along with their interpretations in terms of dogma (Soloveitchik 1994, Bangstad 2009). This implies that we consider people who practise religion publicly as, in principle, just as reasonable or unreasonable, impartial or biased, as any others. ...
... Therefore, the concept of political Islam and its related notions and terms are considered false, imaginative, innovative, Western, elitist, academic, etc., concepts, that are formulated based on the interests of the colonial, secularistic regime of power. It is argued that these ideas and concepts can be suspended and deconstructed through genealogical, anthropological, or radical historicist approaches, allowing for an exploration of the active regimes of power/knowledge behind them (Bangstad 2009;Asad 1993Asad , 2011aAsad , 2011bScott 2007;Mahmood 2006Mahmood , 2008Mahmood , 2013. Cultural, historical, anthropological, and philosophical perspectives are primarily employed in these critiques, highlighting a negative reaction against dominant foundationalist definitions and perpetually engaging in a critique of essentialism (Enayat 2017). ...
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The exploration of the quiddity of political Islam and the diverse range of categories and terms associated with it has emerged as a prominent research agenda within the social and political sciences. The application of these terms to a wide array of heterogeneous phenomena and currents among Muslim populations worldwide, coupled with the utilization of multiple theoretical approaches to define and formulate them within the realm of social studies, has posed significant challenges to their usage. The inherent ambiguity and lack of determinacy surrounding the dominant categories and definitions prevalent in the study of political Islam have led to a decline in their explanatory capacity, giving rise to a host of theoretical, methodological, normative, and political dilemmas and predicaments. This problematic state, compounded by the extensive body of research in the field of political Islam, necessitates an epistemological interrogation into the prevailing categories and definitions within this scholarly domain. Through a critical examination of prevailing definitions within the field, particularly in relation to the idea of foundation, the present article draws on the post-foundationalist approach to propose a distinctive conceptual apparatus for understanding and interpreting the phenomena categorized under political Islam. By juxtaposing the notions of discursive tradition and social configuration, the article endeavors to construct a nuanced understanding of political Islam that not only incorporates and comprehends the singular characteristics of the objects of inquiry but also encompasses varying levels of universality in elucidating the social phenomena observed among Muslims and in the Islamic world.
... Following Talal , many studies of the secular have explored how 'religion' and 'the secular' emerge in relation to each other and how such taxonomies and imaginaries of a secularising modernity have shaped power dynamics in different social contexts. Despite widespread criticism of such a dichotomy (e.g., Bangstad 2009;Dressler and Mandair 2011;Schielke 2010), scholarly approaches nevertheless struggle to account for a mode of being secular that might not fit into this binary or relate to religion in any direct way. One promising solution to this problem has emerged in recent scholarship that attends to the aesthetic, embodied and performative dimensions of the secular (see Binder, this volume;Gholami 2015;. ...
... The term "secularism" was introduced by the utilitarian freethinker George Jacob Holyoake (1817Holyoake ( -1906 in the mid-nineteenth century (Bangstad 2009;Khondker 2010). Holyoake and other European freethinkers introduced the designation "secularism" as a political and governmental doctrine to avoid the charge of being atheists in a still largely Christian society (Asad 2003). ...
This chapter covers the theoretical and conceptual framework. This study draws on several sociological theories such as secularization theory and its paradigms, modalities of secularism, and Weberian sociology of religion. Secularization theory and modalities (multiple types) of secularism are significant in grasping the sociopolitical and cultural dynamics of Bangladesh. Bangladesh as an independent country started out by practicing secularism. However, within a short space of time, secularism was eroded and Islamization gradually took its place. Both state and non-state actors contributed to the erosion of secularism and the preponderance of Islamization in the country. Secularization theory is relevant to explain this phenomenon. Modalities of secularism have helped us understand the type of secularism Bangladesh has been practicing over the years. To understand the practice of Islamism alongside secularism in Bangladesh’s democracy, the theory of secularism has been deemed pertinent. Weberian sociology of religion is also deemed important in the case of explaining the role of Islamic traditions in promoting democracy and pluralism in Bangladesh. Apart from the theoretical frameworks, this study also employs several conceptual threads such as democracy. In order to garner a deeper understanding of the concept of democracy, this study has employed the conceptual threads that include “polyarchy” and “hybridity of democracy.”
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Literature through ages, it's relationship with the sacred and the secular
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The purpose of this paper was to examine the perception of Islamic religious cultural policy in Burundi. The research focused on the perception of culture-shaping policies based on Islam by Burundians. The discussion of the views of informants was based on Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas' approach to Islam and secularism. Primary data were collected from 40 university Christian students through questionnaires. The subjects included undergraduates and postgraduates studying in the Department of Languages and Social Sciences at Ecole Normale Supérieure. Secondary data were obtained from books, policy documents, and internet resources. It was found out that Christians in Burundi do not desire the Islamic cultural policy that is applied in Islamic States due mostly to its relation to radicalism and terrorism and the rejection of Christianism as a divinely revealed religion. Additionally, it was found out that some habits and practices among Muslims such as marrying many women, growing beard, and the secret bathing of the bodies of dead Muslims generate a negative perception of Islam. However, some values and arts that are practiced among Burundi Muslims such as women veiling, fashion, cookery, knitting, and embroidery are highly appreciated.
Secular society remains a popular concept in the Western world, with the separation of religion and politics, or the state, often being associated with progress, democracy, and freedom. Whilst states like France have become strictly secular in their separation of religion from public life, others such as the US, which openly criticise religious states in other parts of the world, have retained this intertwined relationship. When examining state engagements with secularism, it becomes apparent that there is no uniform model, and more importantly, no universal definition. The degree to which states identify as ‘secular’ varies, thereby reinforcing the need to recognise how secularism was introduced to states, alongside their current position on the secular spectrum. Through an exploration of secular introductions and engagements in early twentieth-century Egypt and Iran, this chapter argues that, in order to understand engagements between secularism and the state, and/or the politics, how secularism occurred across states is key. To achieve this, the chapter proposes a framework exploring internal and external introductions of secularism, and with sub-divisions assisting with understandings and classifications of various secular typologies.
This chapter widens the discussion of anthropocracy by proposing that it be understood as one ‘non-theocratizing’ possibility in modern politics and ideological discourse. Clearly secularism and laicism are others. To clarify distinctions between them the chapter explores central concerns of the burgeoning literature on secularity, including deconstruction of its standard philosophical and historical lineages. The chapter considers the claim that in many contexts the export of ‘secularism’ to the ‘non-European world’ occurred as an aspect of Western colonial governance. It makes a counter-argument to suggest that concentration on the implementation of the West’s doctrine of liberal secularism in the modernizing world simplifies the experiential dimensions of secularity there. These discussions in Part Two pave the way for the project’s empirical case-study in Chap. 3, the diagnosis and the application of anthropocracy as an alternative term to explain Turkish laicism.
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I use Edward Said’s metaphor of exile to identify an archive that offers an alternative discourse in the study of Islam. By drawing on Western and Muslim traditions, this archive occupies a place of exile that does more than constructing a representation of the Muslim world. Like Said’s work, it continues the critique of Orientalism. In addition, it includes a deliberation on ethics that has generally eluded the dominant discourse on the making and unmaking of the Islamic World. I contrast this archive with a post-Orientalist discourse that sometimes takes a deconstructivist approach to Islam, and sometimes one that emphasizes agency. The use of agency draws attention to Muslim imbrication in the social, political, and religious fields, but fails to account for political and economic hegemonies. Such strategies side-step the continuing dominance of Western political power games in Muslim societies and states. I therefore turn to scholars in exile and propose that their interest in critique and ethics offers a different way of imagining the Islamic world. Their questions and concern offer a different perspective to ‘post-Saidian’ Islamic Studies.
The development of mass education and the mass media have transformed the Islamic tradition in contemporary Egypt and the wider Muslim world. This book focuses on the historical interplay of power and public culture, showing how these new forms of communication and a growing state interest in religious instruction have changed the way the Islamic tradition is reproduced. During the twentieth century, new styles of religious education, based not on the recitation of sacred texts but on moral indoctrination, have been harnessed for use in economic, political, and social development programs. More recently they have become part of the Egyptian government's strategy for combating Islamist political opposition. But in the course of this struggle, the western-style educational techniques that were adopted to generate political stability have instead resulted in a rapid Islamization of public space, the undermining of traditional religious-authority structures, and a crisis of political legitimacy. Using historical, textual, and ethnographic evidence, the author demonstrates that today's Islamic resurgence is rooted in new ways of thinking about Islam which are based in the market, the media, and the school.