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Revolutionary Mural, Khartoum Sudan, December 2021, artist unknown, photo by author.
The Brink

Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow. 

Over the past few years, a number of excellent monographs have been published that uniquely bridge the gap in earlier literatures between a discussion of the place of religions within modern political systems and a reckoning with modes of religious sovereignty that exceed them. As it seemed to the editors at Political Theology that a critical mass had been achieved, the idea for a forum emerged to bring these works into conversation with one another—across methodologies, traditions, locations, and histories—to see what productive parallels, synergies, and dissonances might be generated in placing these works side-by-side, constituting a distinct field of inquiry. The uniquely generative results of this effort, which you will find below, are nothing short of paradigm-shifting. The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow. 

It has been a privilege to help curate this forum, given my own research interests, between a recent book on the modern state and a new project on the religious and communal solidarities that have emerged through its foundering. But what excites me the most in reading these essays is that they, perhaps collectively for the first time, fearlessly offer a diagnosis of modern sovereignty, not merely as a function of power, but as an intervention into the nature of life itself, its possibilities, and its limits.  In this, these essays pass beyond standard accounts of modern governmentality, or how we have come to order and discipline, which preoccupied a previous generation of scholars of religion and politics. Instead, the authors look at a power that intervenes to reform being itself, “the unity of life” or its dissolution, to put it in terms that both Milinda Banerjee and Wilson Chacko Jacob engage in their perceptive works. In each of the books on which these essays are based, we are able to see the process of modern sovereignty coming into existence in real time, as, to quote Amal Sachedina in her essay, “two different visions of sovereignty and statehood” come into conflict “one anchored to divine authority while the second to the territorially bounded land itself,” the modern nation-state. This appreciation of what we might call the theological—that “divine authority” housed in law and scripture, on the one hand, that condition of being whose dissolution secular power requires, on the other—is just one aspect of this conversation that makes it stand out from previous attempts to unpack religion’s encounter with modern power.

While these essays are written in the genre of the book forum, responding to publications that have emerged in the last three years, they are also works of profound scholarship in and of themselves.  In one sense, the essays serve as gateways to the close reading that the books themselves demand. (Indeed, each book is not only a thrilling read, but, with deep and detailed scholarship that underlies the clear and cutting arguments that propel them, are highly effective pedagogically as well. I saw these books delight and inspire when I read them recently with students as part of an experimental graduate seminar I taught at my university in the Fall of 2022). In another sense, what the essays that follow uniquely do, specifically in drawing out the intervention of each monograph in conversation and contrast with that of another, is highlight how each book is not merely a work of history/ethnography/religious studies about a particular place and time, but a work in political theory as well.  That is to say, by reading these books “out of context,” that is, next to and alongside somewhere or somewhen else, we see that the models they provide are generalizable to processes and problems that exceed their direct context, deriving a set of analytical foci and tools that are applicable far beyond their natal homes.[1]  With this, these essays introduce us to six truly milestone works of contemporary political theory, devised not in airy labs of abstraction, but rather deriving their analyses and models from concrete lifeworlds, ones too often ignored in the universalized categories that still, all these years on, dominate that field.

While the analytical contributions of these books will surely be gifts that keep on giving for many years to come, it is the rich descriptions of the lifeworlds that they unpack that is what makes them such a joy to read.  Each book speaks to multiple methodologies, linguistic and cultural archives, and academic debates (heritage studies; affect theory; subaltern studies; nations and nationalism; Islamic, Hindu and Christian theology and mysticism, to name but a few). In doing so, each exposes the machinery by which the tangible, often material and embodied, processes by which sovereignty is built, secured, and destabilized, functions, in ways we have rarely seen before. Working ethnographically, micro-historically, with popular literatures, and with monuments and cultural artifacts, these books take us to the laboratory of modern sovereignty, showing us both its vanities and its anxieties, offering as well multiple accounts of discontents from those groups who have been on the other end of its reformist logics because of class, location, ethnicity, and/or religious orientation. These are minority positions that create alternative loci of sovereignty in some cases, and in others simply embrace modes of being that are incommensurate with the logics that underlie the modern sovereign project. They emerge into view only by paying attention to the “gaps and tensions that are revealed through a close study of everyday life,” as Shenila Khoja-Moolji puts it in her essay, and tell us something about sovereignty’s incompleteness: it is, as Khoja-Moolji continues, “by delineating the formation of counter- and ambivalent publics [that] the books outline how sovereignty remains unfinished.”

 What has also struck me in reading the essays published here is that a conversation is emerging that is beginning to address in new ways what has long been a problem for many in accounts in and about political theology, that is, whether or not such a concept has the capacity to be more than a euphemism for the persistent over-reach of modern power across all forms of life and how it is lived (that is, a “political-theology”—hyphenated—for what other kind of theology can there be these days, given such overreach?). Such skepticism has correctly recognized the way modern power is hegemonic, inescapable, and ubiquitous, yet what has sometimes been taken for granted is the exhaustion of the modifier, the political. Yet can the political be reanimated in other ways so that political theology might be imagined anew? Regardless of their take on the term itself, what the books on which this series focuses do is dislodge those limited meanings, showing us a way to imagine politics in other registers, illustrating forms of communal life and modes of being that while never escaping modern power cannot be reduced to it either. Part of this work is done through helpful contrast: by describing the sorts of political imagination that have been colonized or rendered inert (or even sometimes linger, despite it all), we see the strangeness of that which is deemed universal. By destabilizing its naturalness (even if not always its inevitability), each of the six interventions offers material for us to imagine a political with ends that exceed our regnant teleologies of progress, our unwaivering identifications with territory and ethnicity, and even the nature of human flourishing itself.

Pairing each of the invited authors with another author whose book overlaps in theme— debates between multiple visions of  sovereignty unmoored by the sunset of empires and the arrival of the colonial state; material and aesthetic formations that produce attachments to new visions of state and religion, linked and delinked from those of sedimented pasts; theology’s place within the crucible of post-colonial ethnic and religious nationalism and the problem of minority belonging— while differing in geography and religious tradition, the three pairs of essays you will read provoke a true conversation across regions and times that are too infrequently explored together. What do we learn when we read these people, places, and traditions together? As Christopher Tounsel recognizes in his essay, when comparing Sudan and India (which, despite being both countries partitioned as the fallout of British colonial design, are rarely read together),once sacred histories are delinked from the ethnic landscapes that they seek to sustain, they allow an even larger decoupling, “with an approach that immediately challenges national identities that are seemingly inseparable from faith communities.”

How can the deep and textured local histories that each book offers contribute to the sort of global political history to which a journal like Political Theology aspires, one in which Euro-America and Christendom (despite recent displacements), still remains over-represented and over-determined? Shail Mayaram even ponders what it would mean to think outside these borders, of rigid boxes of religion and nation all together, reminding us of anti-colonial activism in which “multi-religious discourse for the freedom struggle draw[s] upon the Bhagavad Gita but also on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, particularly its moving line, the meek shall inherit the earth.” Putting India and Sudan, Oman and Pakistan, Bengal and the Malabar-coast-and-the-Indian-Ocean-world into direct conversation with one another, without the common instinct to triangulate to Europe as the necessary (even if, sometimes, inexorable) fount and engine of our epistemological, theological, and political language, produces rare and generative results. This is not a south-south dialogue that pretends we can reach a utopian decolonization; if anything, it is concerned with stories of the erasure of lifeworlds, of ways of being, of belonging, that the modern nation state has rendered dormant, despite periodic eruptions. Rather, the essays, by bringing these contexts together, render the story of the emergence of modern sovereignty as a halting, conflicted and thus essentially unfinished, and maybe unfinishable, project. Collectively, the essays offer a glimpse of, as Wilson Jacob puts at the conclusion of his contribution, “not so much an alternative or ‘lost’ genealogy of sovereignty, rather… an interruption of the seamless narrative of transition to political modernity.” It is in their ability to think these phenomena across space and time that the review essays included here demand close reading; and, it is as prescient diagnostics of the nature of modern sovereignty in our fractured age that the books that inspired them will surely be discussed and appreciated for many years to come.

[1] Their generalizability equally derives from the fact that no matter how deeply situated in places and times these phenomena are, they are also the product of global forces, necessitating in response the kind “global intellectual history” on which Banerjee insists, and that putting these volumes together on the same page further facilitates.  Sachedina reminds us that the devices states use to secure sovereignty that are the topic of so many of the volumes in this forum are, after all, not merely local constructions, but “products of transhistorical forces, structured and structuring power relations that define the parameters of national sovereignty in today’s post-colonial world through practices of inclusion and exclusion…” Rather than erasing religion, they seek to “pummel” its “authority and law into hierarchical relationships in attempts to align the very definition of religiosity with the governing logics of empire and the subsequent nation-state.” Though Sachedina is speaking of her book and that of Khoja-Moolji here, I extract the quote as it is a particularly well-formulated account of what is going on in each and every one of the volumes in this series, pulled between local forces and transnational and transhistoric vectors well beyond their control, all the while sculpting, transforming, and incorporating, rather than extinguishing, religion’s singular sovereign power.

Symposium Essays

Introduction: Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow.

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

The Public Lives of Sovereignty

By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.