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Discourses of the Secular

(Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies) – The purpose of the following article is not to cover the full spectrum of secular ideas and realities in the modern age; nor is it to make pronouncements about the virtues or vices of secular societies. Rather, it is an introduction to some perspectives that might help us to understand how the secular, in its various discourses, defines our way of thinking and acting in the modern world. In order to make these perspectives comprehensible and useful, however, we will begin by defining our terms and clarifying the basic concepts.

Secularism and the secular

The classic thesis of secularisation identifies three essential elements: firstly, a structural differentiation of social spheres resulting in separation of religion from politics; secondly, a privatisation of religion; and thirdly, a decreasing social significance of religion. Many aspects of this thesis have been challenged by modern scholarship, but although the debates are interesting, it is not our aim to challenge the secularisation thesis itself. Our purpose is rather to discuss the idea of secularisation, both as a descriptive thesis and as a normative idea or discourse that shapes our lives in modern society.

A leading anthropologist, Talal Asad, suggests that secularism presupposes new concepts and imperatives of religion, ethics, and politics, closely linked to the emergence of the capitalist nation-state. He argues that secularism functions as a political medium that redefines and transcends practices that are articulated through class, gender and religion. Prior to the present-day political doctrine of secularism, however, is the concept of the secular. As Asad shows in his book Formations of the Secular (2003), the secular has been formed by the coming together over time of a variety of concepts, practices and sensibilities, and concludes that it cannot be viewed as a supposedly rational successor to religion. Rather, it must be seen as a historical category related to the major premises of modernity, democracy and equality. We will return later to these key concepts in the formation of the secular which, in fact, have been central to the formation of religion in the modern age.


The term discourse refers to systems of thought composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak. Discourses are representations and producers of social knowledge, thus closely connected to wider social relations of power. In this view, discourses are controlled by (1) objects, what can be spoken of; (2) ritual, where and how one may speak; and (3) privilege, who may speak. Because speech or knowledge is connected to practice, it also impinges on what one might do, where and how one may do it, and who may do it. Therefore, language and law – the core themes of the two presentations to follow – are intimately related. It defines what can be said and what can be done in certain contexts, which in turn defines what can or cannot be, that is, identity.

Religion and the secular

One of the most useful ways to understand secular society is to understand its representation of religion, which is one of the counterpoints by which secular democratic societies define themselves. In that respect, religion is an essential part of the secular, just as the secular is a part of the concept of religion as separate from worldly affairs.

The formation of the secular and its ideas have naturally developed differently depending on the society in question, often containing disparate, overlapping and even conflicting identities. But some agreed-upon assumptions of the secular nevertheless shape practical, political and socio-economic realities. We often find in secular societies that groups which do not fit into the constructed representations of the majority identity are defined and excluded as minorities. Usually religious, these groups are put on the defensive since, “minorities are defined as minorities only in hierarchical structures of power.” These representations that principally function to define the majority identity itself, are then mediated through the discourses of secular societies, be it via the law, media, education, or otherwise.

Because the institutional representations of secular democracies take the secular as a self-evident ideal, these concepts define the public discourses of its minorities. As indicated previously, it regulates (1) what can be spoken of, (2) where and how they can speak, and (3) who may speak. Formation of identity, particularly in the modern world, is not only a matter of creating identifiable sameness in the literal sense of the word, but also about representing identity in relation to others. Therefore, these discursive representations are crucial to the narratives of all individuals and groups in society.

Time and temporality

Formations of secular or religious identities are also closely connected to time. One reason for the difficulties of Muslim representation in the secular discourses of Europe is that the temporality of Islam’s tradition-rooted practices and world views cannot be translated into the homogeneous time (i.e., secular time) of national politics. The narrative life-transaction of Islam naturally escapes the instrumental orientation of modern politics, in the same way that the integrated worldview of Islam – encompassing both spiritual and worldly realities – escapes the secular concept of religion.

The dominant discourses are, however, not deterministic facts. They are constantly in change. Therefore, an understanding of their structures or modes of influence is necessary in order to effectively negotiate our own identity and, indeed, a way of life for this time and place. The question is then how the dominant representations in secular society impact on the world views of Muslims, most of whom are living under its dictates? And more practically, how are Muslims to interact with Muslims and non-Muslims within these secular discourses?

Some examples

In order to answer these questions, we need some examples that can shed light on how secular ideas of religion affect the way modern Muslims view their own traditions. In the dominant secular discourses, Islam is represented as static, irrational and exclusively based on pre-modern convictions that make Muslims inclined to (unregulated) violence, social inequality and so forth. These are core values against which secular society defines itself, thereby, leaving Muslims with only two options: either to adopt ‘modern’ values and become tolerated, ‘moderate’ Muslims; or to confirm the negative representation of Muslims by defending its foundations, defining themselves thereby as ‘extremists’.

The symbolic issue of Muslim women is one example. Moderate Muslims are those who reject the image of inequality by adopting modern European values, while extremist Muslims are those who oppose the modern concept of equality by actually defending what the secularists define as unequal and oppressive. Both responses are, however, closely connected to the discourses of the secular dominion, which forms not only the secular perceptions of Islam, but also determines its actual practices and expectations amongst Muslims.

Another, perhaps surprising, example was occasioned with the publication of the article  Orality, Literacy and the ‘Seven Ahruf’ Ḥadith (2012) by Dr. Yasin Dutton on the various readings of the Qur’an. The article discussed the different recitations and related the views of traditional Muslim scholars to contemporary research about oral traditions. In the past, European orientalists have held that the existence of these variants and the absence of one uniform reading cast doubt on the authenticity of the Qur’anic revelation. What Dutton challenges in his article, is the secular representation of religion as static, uniform and irrational by showing the sophisticated reasoning of traditional Muslim scholars. In line with the orientalists, however, some Muslims (those reflecting the secular paradigm) have also given primacy to the idea of uniformity of reading, and thus, redefined the traditional understanding according to secular concepts of religion. Likewise, the same tendencies are found among those attempting to make Islam a uniform religion (in the secular sense) by only allowing for one way of reciting, praying and behaving. These modern interpretations, which have become standard in many parts of the world, thus confirm the secular concept of religion by word and deed, which in turn reflects a shared discursive foundation.

Another aspect of religion, in the secular definition, is that it only concerns, or at least should only concern, individual morality and theology, that is, static and irrational beliefs. When Islam is represented as a religion, it is inevitably disconnected from its social, political, economic and historical realities. When Muslims adopt the defensive identity of a religious minority, they are allowed to retain their religious identity, while any attempts at representing the other aspects of the teachings of Islam fail to translate into secular politics, economics and so forth. A Muslim being more than religious in the moderate sense is designated within the dominant secular discourse as threatening, or in the worst case is reduced to basic human status, that is, devoid of citizenship and thereby devoid of human rights. As Talal Asad notes, which is worth remembering in relation to the modern politics of terror, war and prison camps, “A secular state does not guarantee toleration; it puts into play different structures of ambition and fear. The law never seeks to eliminate violence since its object is always to regulate violence.”

Again, discourse is more than speech; it determines both worldview and praxis. One only has to reflect, for instance, on the topographical semiotics of the Israeli wall in Palestine, the architectural semiotics of modern schools or financial institutions, the procedural semiotics of electoral democracy, the commercial semiotics of supermarkets, the military semiotics of modern airports, or perhaps the legal semiotics of the right to free-speech and religious freedom. How does the secular discourse impinge on the behaviour and worldviews of people interacting within these societies?

New Muslim discourses

It might have been useful to conclude with some examples of new Muslim discourses within secular societies that have succeeded in going beyond the secular structures to represent Islam for what it is, and traditionally has been, to Muslims themselves. Recent initiatives towards tajdid (renewal) in scholarship, politics, economics, media, social work, agriculture and so forth, certainly deserve exploration. However, these are topics that require separate treatment and, as we have seen, the beginning of all such initiatives is a careful consideration of the crucial questions of Muslim identities, world views and ways of life within, or perhaps, beyond the boundaries of the secular.

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