Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity

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Opening with the provocative query “what might an anthropology of the secular look like?” this book explores the concepts, practices, and political formations of secularism, with emphasis on the major historical shifts that have shaped secular sensibilities and attitudes in the modern West and the Middle East.

Talal Asad proceeds to dismantle commonly held assumptions about the secular and the terrain it allegedly covers. He argues that while anthropologists have oriented themselves to the study of the “strangeness of the non-European world” and to what are seen as non-rational dimensions of social life (things like myth, taboo, and religion),the modern and the secular have not been adequately examined.

The conclusion is that the secular cannot be viewed as a successor to religion, or be seen as on the side of the rational. It is a category with a multi-layered history, related to major premises of modernity, democracy, and the concept of human rights. This book will appeal to anthropologists, historians, religious studies scholars, as well as scholars working on modernity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A dark but brilliantly original work, Formations of the Secular is one of the most important books on religion and the modern in recent years.”—H-Net Reviews

Formations of the Secular is also a difficult if stunningly eloquent book, a response both elusive and forthright to the many shelves of ‘books on terrorism’ which this country’s trade publishers are rushing into print.”—Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature

“This wonderfully illuminating book should be read alongside the author’s Genealogies of Religion . . .”—Religion

"...Asad's brilliant study remains a defining piece of intellectual and scholarly contribution for all of those interested in exploring the religious and the secular in the modern era."—The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences

" of the most interesting scholars of religious writing today."—Christian Scholar's Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804747684
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 2/3/2003
  • Series: Cultural Memory in the Present Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 523,249
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Talal Asad is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Genealogies of Religion.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Thinking about Secularism....................1
1 What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?....................21
2 Thinking about Agency and Pain....................67
3 Reflections on Cruelty and Torture....................100
4 Redeeming the "Human" Through Human Rights....................127
5 Muslims as a "Religious Minority" in Europe....................159
6 Secularism, Nation-State, Religion....................181
7 Reconfigurations of Law and Ethics in Colonial Egypt....................205
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First Chapter


Christianity, Islam, Modernity
By Talal Asad


Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-4768-4

Chapter One

What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?

Sociologists, political theorists, and historians have written copiously on secularism. It is part of a vigorous public debate in many parts of the world—especially in the Middle East. Is "secularism" a colonial imposition, an entire worldview that gives precedence to the material over the spiritual, a modern culture of alienation and unrestrained pleasure? Or is it necessary to universal humanism, a rational principle that calls for the suppression—or at any rate, the restraint—of religious passion so that a dangerous source of intolerance and delusion can be controlled, and political unity, peace, and progress secured? The question of how secularism as a political doctrine is related to the secular as an ontology and an epistemology is evidently at stake here.

In contrast to the salience of such debates, anthropologists have paid scarcely any attention to the idea of the secular, although the study of religion has been a central concern of the discipline since the nineteenth century. A collection of university and college syllabi on the anthropology of religion prepared recently for the Anthropological Association of America, shows a heavy reliance on such themes as myth, magic, witchcraft, the use of hallucinogens, ritual as psychotherapy, possession, and taboo. Together, these familiar themes suggest that "religion," whose object is the sacred, stands in the domain of the nonrational. The secular, where modern politics and science are sited, makes no appearance in the collection. Nor is it treated in any of the well-known introductory texts. And yet it is common knowledge that religion and the secular are closely linked, both in our thought and in the way they have emerged historically. Any discipline that seeks to understand "religion" must also try to understand its other. Anthropology in particular—the discipline that has sought to understand the strangeness of the non-European world—also needs to grasp more fully what is implied in its being at once modern and secular.

A number of anthropologists have begun to address secularism with the intention of demystifying contemporary political institutions. Where previous theorists saw worldly reason linked to tolerance, these unmaskers find myth and violence. Thus Michael Taussig complains that the Weberian notion of the rational-legal state's monopoly of violence fails to address "the intrinsically mysterious, mystifying, convoluting, plain scary, mythical, and arcane cultural properties and power of violence to the point where violence is very much an end in itself—a sign, as Benjamin put it, of the existence of the gods." In Taussig's opinion the "institutional interpenetration of reason by violence not only diminishes the claims of reason, casting it into ideology, mask, and effect of power, but [it is] also ... precisely the coming together of reason-and-violence in the State that creates, in a secular and modern world, the bigness of the big S—not merely its apparent unity and the fictions of will and mind thus inspired, but the auratic and quasi-sacred quality of that very inspiration ... that now stands as ground to our being as citizens of the world." Once its rational-legal mask is removed, so it is suggested, the modern state will reveal itself to be far from secular. For such critics the essential point at issue is whether our belief in the secular character of the state—or society—is justified or not. The category of the secular itself remains unexamined.

Anthropologists who identify the sacred character of the modern state often resort to a rationalist notion of myth to sharpen their attack. They take myth to be "sacred discourse," and agree with nineteenth-century anthropologists who theorized myths as expressions of beliefs about the supernatural world, about sacred times, beings, and places, beliefs that were therefore opposed to reason. In general the word "myth" has been used as a synonym for the irrational or the nonrational, for attachment to tradition in a modern world, for political fantasy and dangerous ideology. Myth in this way of thinking stands in contrast to the secular, even for those who invoke it positively.

I will refer often to myth in what follows, but I am not interested in theorizing about it. There are several books available that do that. What I want to do here is to trace practical consequences of its uses in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in order to investigate some of the ways the secular was constituted. For the word "myth" that moderns have inherited from antiquity feeds into a number of familiar oppositions—belief and knowledge, reason and imagination, history and fiction, symbol and allegory, natural and supernatural, sacred and profane—binaries that pervade modern secular discourse, especially in its polemical mode. As I am concerned with the shifting web of concepts making up the secular, I discuss several of these binaries.

The terms "secularism" and "secularist" were introduced into English by freethinkers in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to avoid the charge of their being "atheists" and "infidels," terms that carried suggestions of immorality in a still largely Christian society. These epithets mattered not because the freethinkers were concerned about their personal safety, but because they sought to direct an emerging mass politics of social reform in a rapidly industrializing society. Long-standing habits of indifference, disbelief, or hostility among individuals toward Christian rituals and authorities were now becoming entangled with projects of total social reconstruction by means of legislation. A critical rearticulation was being negotiated between state law and personal morality. This shift presupposed the new idea of society as a total population of individuals enjoying not only subjective rights and immunities, and endowed with moral agency, but also possessing the capacity to elect their political representatives—a shift that occurred all at once in Revolutionary France (excluding women and domestics), and gradually in nineteenth-century England. The extension of universal suffrage was in turn linked—as Foucault has pointed out—to new methods of government based on new styles of classification and calculation, and new forms of subjecthood. These principles of government are secular in the sense that they deal solely with a worldly disposition, an arrangement that is quite different from the medieval conception of a social body of Christian souls each of whom is endowed with equal dignity—members at once of the City of God and of divinely created human society. The discursive move in the nineteenth century from thinking of a fixed "human nature" to regarding humans in terms of a constituted "normality" facilitated the secular idea of moral progress defined and directed by autonomous human agency. In short, secularism as a political and governmental doctrine that has its origin in nineteenth-century liberal society seems easier to grasp than the secular. And yet the two are interdependent.

What follows is not a social history of secularization, nor even a history of it as an idea. It is an exploration of epistemological assumptions of the secular that might help us be a little clearer about what is involved in the anthropology of secularism. The secular, I argue, is neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred). I take the secular to be a concept that brings together certain behaviors, knowledges, and sensibilities in modern life. To appreciate this it is not enough to show that what appears to be necessary is really contingent—that in certain respects "the secular" obviously overlaps with "the religious." It is a matter of showing how contingencies relate to changes in the grammar of concepts—that is, how the changes in concepts articulate changes in practices. My purpose in this initial chapter, therefore, is not to provide the outline of a historical narrative but to conduct a series of inquiries into aspects of what we have come to call the secular. So although I follow some connections at the expense of others, this should not be taken to imply that I think there was a single line of filiation in the formation of "the secular." 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.

I draw my material almost entirely from West European history because that history has had profound consequences for the ways that the doctrine of secularism has been conceived and implemented in the rest of the modernizing world. I try to understand the secular, the way it has been constituted, made real, connected to, and detached from particular historical conditions.

The analyses that I offer here are intended as a counter to the triumphalist history of the secular. I take the view, as others have done, that the "religious" and the "secular" are not essentially fixed categories. However, I do not claim that if one stripped appearances one would see that some apparently secular institutions were really religious. I assume, on the contrary, that there is nothing essentially religious, nor any universal essence that defines "sacred language" or "sacred experience." But I also assume that there were breaks between Christian and secular life in which words and practices were rearranged, and new discursive grammars replaced previous ones. I suggest that the fuller implications of those shifts need to be explored. So I take up fragments of the history of a discourse that is often asserted to be an essential part of "religion"—or at any rate, to have a close affinity with it—to show how the sacred and the secular depend on each other. I dwell briefly on how religious myth contributed to the formation of modern historical knowledge and modern poetic sensibility (touching on the way they have been adopted by some contemporary Arab poets), but I argue that this did not make history or poetry essentially "religious."

That, too, is the case with recent statements by liberal thinkers for whom liberalism is a kind of redemptive myth. I point to the violence intrinsic to it but caution that liberalism's secular myth should not be confused with the redemptive myth of Christianity, despite a resemblance between them. Needless to say, my purpose is neither to criticize nor to endorse that myth. And more generally, I am not concerned to attack liberalism whether as a political system or as an ethical doctrine. Here, as in the other cases I deal with, I simply want to get away from the idea that the secular is a mask for religion, that secular political practices often simulate religious ones. I therefore end with a brief outline of two conceptions of "the secular" that I see as available to anthropology today, and I do this through a discussion of texts by Paul de Man and Walter Benjamin, respectively.

A reading of origins: myth, truth, and power

West European languages acquire the word "myth" from the Greek, and stories about Greek gods were paradigmatic objects of critical reflection when mythology became a discipline in early modernity. So a brief early history of the word and concept is in order.

In his book Theorizing Myth, Bruce Lincoln opens with a fascinating early history of the Greek terms mythos and logos. Thus we are told that Hesiod's Works and Days associates the speech of mythos with truth (alethea) and the speech of logos with lies and dissimulation. Mythos is powerful speech, the speech of heroes accustomed to prevail. In Homer, Lincoln points out, logos refers to speech that is usually designed to placate someone and aimed at dissuading warriors from combat.

In the context of political assemblies mythoi are of two kinds—"straight" and "crooked." Mythoi function in the context of law much as logoi do in the context of war. Muthos in Homer, "is a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a full attention to every detail." It never means a symbolic story that has to be deciphered—or for that matter, a false one. In the Odyssey, Odysseus praises poetry—asserting that it is truthful, that it affects the emotions of its audience, that it is able to reconcile differences—and he concludes his poetic narration by declaring that he has "recounted a mythos."

At first, poets tended to authorize their speech by calling it mythos—an inspiration from the gods (what moderns call, in a new accent, the supernatural world); later, the Sophists taught that all speech originated with humans (who lived in this world). "Whereas the Christian worldview increasingly separates God from this world," writes Jan Bremmer, "the gods of the Greeks were not transcendent but directly involved in natural and social processes.... It is for such connections as between the human and divine spheres that a recent study has called the Greek world-view 'interconnected' against our own 'separative' cosmology." But there is more at stake here than the immanence or transcendence of divinity in relation to the natural world. The idea of "nature" is itself internally transformed. For the representation of the Christian God as being sited quite apart in "the supernatural" world signals the construction of a secular space that begins to emerge in early modernity. Such a space permits "nature" to be reconceived as manipulatable material, determinate, homogeneous, and subject to mechanical laws. Anything beyond that space is therefore "supernatural"—a place that, for many, was a fanciful extension of the real world, peopled by irrational events and imagined beings. This transformation had a significant effect on the meaning of "myth."

The mythoi of poets, so the Sophists said, are not only emotionally affecting, they are also lies in so far as they speak of the gods—although even as lies they may have a morally improving effect on an audience. This line is taken up and given a new twist by Plato who argued that philosophers and not poets were primarily responsible for moral improvement. In the course of his attack against poetry, Plato changed the sense of myth: it now comes to signify a socially useful lie.

Enlightenment founders of mythology, such as Fontenelle, took this view of the beliefs of antiquity about its gods. Like many other cultivated men of his time, he regarded the study of myth as an occasion for reflecting on human error. "Although we are incomparably more enlightened than those whose crude minds invented Fables in good faith," he wrote, "we easily reacquire the same turn of mind that made those Fables so attractive to them. They devoured them because they believed in them, and we devour them with just as much pleasure yet without believing in them. There is no better proof that the imagination and reason have little commerce with each other, and that things with which reason has first become disillusioned lose none of their attractiveness to the imagination." Fontenelle was a great naturalizer of "supernatural" events in the period when "nature" emerges as a distinctive domain of experience and study.

But in the Enlightenment epoch as a whole myths were never only objects of "belief" and of "rational investigation." As elements of high culture in early modern Europe they were integral to its characteristic sensibility: a cultivated capacity for delicate feeling—especially for sympathy—and an ability to be moved by the pathetic in art and literature. Poems, paintings, the theater, public monuments, and private decoration in the homes of the rich depicted or alluded to the qualities and quests of Greek gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes. Knowledge of such stories and figures was a necessary part of an upper-class education. Myths allowed writers and artists to represent contemporary events and feelings in what we moderns call a fictional mode. The distanced idealization of profane love, the exaggerated praise for the sovereign, were equally facilitated by a fabulous style. And this in turn facilitated a form of satire that aimed to unmask or literalize. Ecclesiastical authority could thus be attacked in an indirect fashion, without immediately risking the charge of blasphemy. In general, the literary assault on mythic figures and events demonstrated a preference for a sensible life of happiness as opposed to the heroic ideal that was coming to be regarded as less and less reasonable in a bourgeois society. But, as Jean Starobinski reminds us, myth was more than a decorative language or a satirical one for taking a distance from the heroic as a social ideal. In the great tragedies and operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, myths provided the material through which the psychology of human passions could be explored.

So the question of whether people did or did not believe in these ancient narratives—whether (as Fontenelle suggested) by appealing to the imagination untruths were made attractive—does not quite engage with the terrain that mythic discourse inhabited in this culture. Myth was not merely a (mis)representation of the real. It was material for shaping the possibilities and limits of action. And in general it appears to have done this by feeding the desire to display the actual—a desire that became increasingly difficult to satisfy as the experiential opportunities of modernity multiplied.

Some modern commentators have observed that statements such as Fontenelle's signaled a mutation of the older opposition between sacred and profane into a new opposition between imagination and reason, principles that inaugurate the secular Enlightenment. This change, they suggest, should be seen as the replacement of a religious hegemony by a secular one. But I think what we have here is something more complicated.


Excerpted from FORMATIONS OF THE SECULAR by Talal Asad Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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