Two tumultuous decades have passed since the landmark publication of Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, a work which radically imagined what it would look like if the West were to turn its analytical gaze inward, not simply towards the discursive architecture of the various human sciences (as Foucault had already done) but to the very grammar—that is, the rules shaping the game—of the most modern of modern terms: the “secular,” a concept whose structural mediation has come to determine and discipline humanity’s varied sensibilities, practices, and beliefs. What, at first glance, might have appeared as universal notions like myth, reason, and even the “human” in “human rights” were exposed, in the light of Asad’s illuminating interrogation, as highly contingent constructs which function to establish, authorize, and perpetuate distinctively modern and Western modes of being and knowing (naturally, at the expense of others). In one fell swoop, Asad revealed that far from being a benign force in the world, the secular was in fact an insidious form of power.
In terms of initiating a methodological turn in academic scholarship, Asad’s intervention was a resounding success. We live in times in which it is no longer fashionable for scholars to simply assume the universality of secular discourse (and its attendant categories, e.g., religion, science, politics) when approaching societies and traditions before and beyond the narrow confines of the modern West. And yet this scholarly trajectory is one constituted by an emphatically apophatic proposition—namely, that these worlds are defined by their unmodernity—leading me to wonder whether this useful shift in perspective has mutated into an unhelpful form of navel-gazing.
Asad was the first to propose that the secular “is best pursued through its shadows,” which he took to be the dark underbelly of Western power. But how subversive can a contemporary inquiry be if it remains a paradigmatically modern- and Euro-centric affair (as the critical literature on the secular has historically been). My suggestion is that if the secular is a temporal and spatial concept emanating from the modern West (as many would agree), its “shadows” will necessarily lie elsewhere.
What is it, then, that the “secular” as a conceptual object obstructs from the clarifying light of knowledge? What (of the where and the when) does it cast into the darkness of its own ideology? What, like a shadow, continues to follow its trail, haunting its very existence? There is perhaps no better candidate for this phantasmic condition than the so-called premodern world.
If the “secular” is constituted by certain practices (“science”), institutions (“democracy”), and ideas (“freedom”), the premodern past is its dialectical “Other.” According to this imaginary, the world before modernity existed beneath a sacred canopy, one which directed humanity towards ideological unity rather than differentiation. This was a world, so it is said, in which religion infused all things, which is precisely what obstructed the emergence of the myriad modern ideals mentioned above. Although the critical study of the secular has successfully questioned the presuppositions underlying the latter proposition, the former continues to linger in our consciousness, preserving—albeit in a different guise—our secular hubris towards the past.
The series of essays that follow slowly chip away at this modern myth by examining how premodern societies engaged with the question of where to draw the boundaries around religion, thus offering us an entry point into the shadowy world obscured by the secular as well as its critique. This group of historians share no theoretical starting point; instead, they each begin from the sources and archives of their respective traditions, attending to the echoes that emerge from the great contestations and debates of former times. They then ask what these exercises in thought, transformations in political life, or developments in legal doctrine tell us about how various religious traditions delineated the domain of “religion” prior to modernity. The point of this collaborative effort is not to offer a totalizing theory or critique of the secular, but rather to offer glimpses into the past that may help reconstitute our present understanding.
We kick things off with Conor O’Brien, who argues that a proper “historical” understanding of secularity—one which may destabilize the teleology of the secularization thesis—should incorporate those “secularizing strategies” which premodern societies (in his case, the Visigoths) employed as a way of resolving a variety of mundane social and legal questions. O’Brien’s focus on the medieval world is then complemented by my own essay on the Islamic Middle Ages, which proposes that the Muslim differentiation between din and dunya offers us an alternative, non-Christian ontology of worldly and other-worldly difference. Christoph Kleine subsequently shifts our gaze eastwards as he makes a strong case that the social, political, economic and ideological developments that accompanied the transition from the Heian (794–1185) to the Kamakura period (1185–1333) generated epistemic and social structures of a longue durée that remained permanently available as a resource for a self-contained Japanese form of secularity.
Returning to the West, Sita Steckel revisits the master narrative of the gradual separation of church and state, reflecting on recent historical research which centers the significance of political power-play and cultural plurality in our understanding of how human beings have historically negotiated the boundaries between the religious and the secular. Neguin Yavari analyzes a supra-confessional trend in the post-Mongol Persophone zone and reflects on what it put into place for the ideologues of Iran’s 1979 revolution to later appropriate. The series concludes with a study of the Jewish discourses on the “reasons for the commandments,” which in the view of Orit Malka offers a new way of thinking about the common association of religion with irrationality (one which is affirmative rather than critical of religion).
Let me conclude by relaying my thanks to each of the contributors for taking the time out of their busy schedules to offer their reflections on this important topic. The fact that each of us independently arrived at a common conclusion—that so-called premodern and non-Western traditions have much to teach us about the “religious” and the “secular—is a testament to the significance of this simultaneously historical and theoretical endeavor. I would also like to thank the editors at Political Theology for their graciousness in facilitating this collective effort, which centers a new set of diverse historical perspectives in approaching the issues surrounding the place of religion in the public sphere.