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Safia Latif, "Heaven and Earth"

If Not Secular, then What? Reflections on an Islamic Dialectic

The idea of the modern secular presupposes the existence of a holistic premodern world in which the amorphous phenomenon of religion penetrated all realms of life. But the existence of an Islamic distinction between the religious and non-religious domains suggests otherwise: not a latent secularity, but rather a difference of an altogether different kind. But if it is not equivalent to the “secular,” then what is it?

To affirm the existence of “the secular” in Islam is to commit a category mistake. Not because it would be illogical per se: Islam contains a whole range of concepts of which “the secular” may very well be one. Instead, the confusion I wish to highlight is one of a discursive nature (a problem in translation if you will).

The error, I propose, is rooted in the neglect of the seemingly obvious fact that “the secular,” far from being an abstract entity floating in the ether, is a politico-theological concept which emerges at a certain point in human history. Beginning with the notion of the saeculum in pre-Christian Rome, the concept came to function as an expression of political authority arising out of an “eschatological” grappling with the fact of temporal finitude (this problematic, of course, outlives this specific context). This all-too-human struggle to square the circle of our groundless existence, however, takes on an insurmountable pressure with the arrival of the Messiah, which in the interpretation of Jacob Taubes in The Political Theology of Paul polemically demanded a “faith in the paradoxical” at the expense of the significance of “works,” adding another layer of existential tension to the problem: a certain mind-body dualism (10). It is within this problem-space of the homoousios that we find—according to the radical reading of Walter Benjamin—a figurative representation of the “theological-political” dialectic by which a self-destructive secular political order counteracts a redemptive moment of “messianic intensity” which will only reappear at the end of time (306).

Admittedly, this all may be too bitter a pill to swallow, in which case we may at the very least acknowledge that “the secular,” as it has come to inform our imagination, is predicated on certain metaphysical assumptions scattered throughout the books of the New Testament, which were later canonized and socially disseminated through various practices and institutions associated with Christianity. Were we only to take the example of the ontological opposition between spirit and flesh, we may include among its most enduring manifestations the development of monasticism, the division between clergy and laity, and the celibacy of the priesthood. Yet the story does not end here, for it was at the middle of the second millennium that multiple derivative ideas centered around the rejection of the impure, embodied, quasi-human “Other” came to replace these assumptions almost without a trace (Sylvia Wynter has documented this transformation with a rare passion).

In this way, “the secular” comes to symbolize a process of purification by which human beings are transformed into uncontaminated subjects (those untouched by their surroundings), which brings about new forms of life in the guise of the “objective” analyst, the “neutral” observer, the “liberal” citizen, the “liberated” woman, and the universal “man.” The “secular age,” conceived as such, thus arises out of a single discursive tradition (that is, a context which conditions one’s involvement in an argument) in which the followers of Paul grappled violently over the correct understanding of how to overcome the human body in order to attain fullness in the “body of Christ.”[1] To suppose that all of this can somehow be relevant to—let alone present within—a tradition which has no stake in the Christological question is a highly misguided presumption, to say the least.  

Yet equally misguided is the fetishization of this negative proposition, which leads us into a condition that I call, taking inspiration from Giorgio Agamben, the “museification of Islamic discourse.” The Italian philosopher sees in the phenomenon of “the Museum” an encapsulation of the operation of capitalist abstraction by which modern individuals are stripped of their ability to navigate between the sacred and the profane (more specifically, to continuously transfer objects and people between the two) as the act of pilgrimage historically allowed humans to do. “The Museum,” instead, pulls us into a “separate dimension to which what was once—but is no longer—felt as true and decisive has moved” (84). We are trapped, zombie-like, in “the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing,” which I take to be an apt characterization of not only the voyeuristic phenomenon of tourism but also the dominant approach to the “Muslim-Secular question” (so called because the legitimacy of the secular order rests on the problematization of “the Muslim question”). By continuing to work within this matrix—that is, by continually defining Islam as the “pious, traditional Other” of the secular—we unwittingly extend the impossibility of its use by reducing it to a mirror image of ourselves (something untrue and insignificant). [Relevant here, of course, is Theodor Adorno’s observation that “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite” (247).] Thus, in “the museum of the post-modern,” we peer into Islam, as it were, “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The production of this glasswork, I want to emphasize, lies not only in the manufacturing of secular subjects and knowledge but also in the mechanical (in the sense of “unspontaneous”) questioning of the secular, which closes our eyes to the possibilities latent in the more radically constructive question: if not secular, then what? It was these final words which rung loudly in my ears many years ago and eventually pushed me towards the painstaking path of philological labor; that well-trodden road towards an “otherness” which “cannot just be imagined” but “must be laboriously exhumed from the depths of the textual past” (Sheldon Pollock, 955). It was there that I encountered, quite serendipitously, a radically contingent conception of worldly-otherworldly difference in the dialectic of din and dunya

One of the first things which struck me in my initial survey of this Arabic pair was the absence of an implicit antagonism between the two. Unlike the invocation of the Latin saecularis,[2] the adjectival dunyawi carried no negative connotation and was routinely employed in the neutral sense of being an object or action of direct utility to the preservation of human life on earth (I mention the term “direct” here because the dini—what we would now understand as the things of religion—are also, under this imagination, of utility to human flourishing in this world, as so many Muslims theologians and jurists have attested throughout history). Yet it is precisely this immanence—that is, an embeddedness in the world rather than rootedness in revelation/the other world—that constitutes the realm of the dunyawi as first revealed by the Prophet Muhammad on the occasion of a famous error regarding a farming technique (perhaps the most important skill for the flourishing of pre-industrial life), which elicited the following profound delimitation of religious authority: when “something thing has to do with your dunyawi affairs, you may do as you like; but if it is something to do with your diniaffairs, that belongs to me.”[3]

            Medieval reflections on where to draw the line between the Greek and Arabo-Islamic sciences; on what aspects of the law are informed by observation rather than revelation; on how to distinguish between political competence and divine sanction; all of these traced themselves back to this initial moment of epistemic differentiation between the vertical (heavenly-terrestrial, moral-cosmological) nexus emerging out of the “bringing down” (tanzīl) of “The Book” of revelation and the lateral connection between humans (past, present, and future) which perpetuates the body of knowledge that ensures our secure existence. Hannah Arendt would designate the latter as the subject of “work,” which in creating unnatural and enduring artifacts bestows “a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time” (8).

We thus return to the temporal nature of the secular problematic, only in this case the Quran (like Arendt) affirms the artificiality of this construct—the dunya is nothing but “the joy of deception”[4]—while also simultaneously sanctioning the “worldliness” required for this activity in its recognition that God has “rooted the perpetuation of their existence within it” (istaʿmarkum fī-hā).[5] Suffice it to say that the Prophet’s worldliness (which Nietzsche valorized and Voltaire disdained) helped facilitate the transformation of this theoria into praxis. It should come as no surprise, then, that Muslims customarily pray for flourishing in both din and dunya (an inextricable pairing found in various vernacular liturgies). This moral elevation—rather than devaluation—of worldly life would inevitably generate a different understanding of the relationship between the so-called religious and non-religious, one which happened to be more amenable to analytics (in the sense of “setting free”) than polemics (in the sense of “making war”), as was the unfortunate fate of Christian modernity.

My language here is no slip of the tongue (or rather “finger” in this case), for I maintain the relevance of “religion” for a tradition which possessed a concept like din, a term which functioned from a very early period as both a signifier of those aspects of human existence that are directly concerned, in and of themselves, with the relationship between God and humans (e.g., scripture, prophets, prayer) and a label attached to various collectivities which constitute their sense of belonging in terms of a common belief (faith? covenant?) rather than a common ancestry or history of cohabitation (although in the case of the Jews, theirs was a belief about their goy).[6]

This din—reified long before “the modern West” entered the scene—would come to be used adjectivally (dini) in juxtaposition with the dunyawi as a way of marking, for analytical purposes, the aforementioned epistemic divide (this would also come to be useful for governance). Learning the art of politics from Aristotle, the practice of medicine from Galen, or the value of chess from Bozorgmehr thus became unapologetically Muslim practices as a consequence of the detachment of this realm of life from the existentially necessary binding of din (whose jurisdiction is, in contrast to all of this, fixed to a particular revelatory moment), yet in such a way that did not antagonize the latter but rather affirmed it. This dialectic functioned as a sort of estuary where the dini flows overhead towards its heavenly telos, leaving the dunyawi running below it along the currents of this world. One might even venture to say that it was this circular imaginary that sustained a healthy epistemology like that of medieval Islam, which recognized the universal nature of dunyawi inquiry without purging the dini of its localized character. 

For a paradigmatic example of this conceptual formulation let us turn now, before concluding, to an aphorism which was cited widely across medieval Islamic mirror for princes, which reads as follows:

There are two kinds of discipline (al-siyāsa siyastān/al-adab adabān): the discipline of revelation/religion (adab sharīʿa/siyāsa al-din) and the discipline of governance/this world (adab siyāsa/siyasa al-dunyā). Now, the discipline of revelation is that which discharges religious obligations (ma addā al-farḍ) while the discipline of governance is that which enriches the world (ma ʿamar al-arḍ). Both of these, [however], spring from justice (ʿadl), which is the means by which power is made secure and the lands prosperous (ʿimāra al-buldān), since he who abandons religious obligations harms himself, and he who ruins the earth harms others.[7]

Here disciplina (instruction or knowledge) must be obtained from two sources (din and dunya), both of which are oriented towards two distinct ends. Yet by embracing its own contingency this dialectic amounts to a careful division of labor, one which places individuals in an ongoing practice of ethical negotiation that preserves the interdependence of individual and collective life required to produce justice/balance/equity. 

Of course, this is all just an ideal, one which Muslims—by virtue of their humanity—failed to uphold again and again. But ideals matter—they may in fact be the most significant thing in our lives—which is why I have here attempted a conscious break from the doctored image of “the secular” (and note here its decisive grammar) and a speculative shift towards a more open-ended (and yet, inevitably, no less theological) dialectic between din and dunya

[1] On this, see especially Colossians 2. 

[2] For an illuminating case-study of this, see Gerda Heydemann, “Nemo miltans Deo implicat se saecularia negotia: Carolingian interpretations of II Timothy II.4,” Early Medieval Europe 29 (2021): 55-85.

[3] This widely circulating report is rendered here according to the variation found in the canonical Sunni collection of prophetic traditions by Ibn Māja, Sunanal-kitāb al-ruhūn 16, bāb talqīḥ al-nakhl, no. 2371. 

[4] Quran 57:20. 

[5] Quran 11:61. The classical commentaries on this verse regularly emphasized the “worldliness” embedded in this conception of human life. 

[6] I have made an extended case for this in Rushain Abbasi, “Islam and the Invention of Religion: A Study of Medieval Muslim Discourses on Dīn,” Studia Islamica 116 2021, 1-106. 

[7] Māwardī, Adab al-dunyā wa’l-dīn, 218; Usāma b. Munqidh (d. 584/1188), Lubāb al-ādāb, ed. Aḥmad Muḥammad Shākir (Cairo: Maktabat Luwīs Sarkīs, 1935), 56; Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad Raqqī, “Aḥāsin al-maḥāsin” in Khams al-rasāʾil (Constantinople: Maṭbaʿat al-Jawāʾib, 1301/1883), 145; ʿAbd al-Raʾūf al-Munāwī, Fayḍ al-qadīr sharḥ al-Jāmiʿ al-ṣaghīr, 6 vols. (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tijārīya al-Kubrā, 2nd edition, 1391/1972), 4:143; Ibn al-Ḥaddād, al-Jawhar al-nafīs fī siyāsat al-raʾīs, ed. Riḍwān al-Sayyid (Beirut: Dār al-Ṭalīʿa lil-Ṭibāʿa wa’l-Nashr, 1983), 61.

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