Formations of the Secular By Talal Asad (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 269 pages.)

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Amr G. E. Sabet

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Abstract

This most interesting and ground-breaking study presents a Foucauldian and
Nietzschean genealogical tracing of the concept of the secular, working
back from the present to the contingencies that have coalesced to produce
current certainties. It asks what an “anthropology of secularism” might look
like and examines the connection between the “secular” as an epistemic category
and “secularism” as a political doctrine. Asad attempts to avoid the
trap of making pronouncements about secularism’s virtues and vices, irrespective
of its origin, and to proffer instead an anthropological formulation
of its doctrine and practice.
According to the author, secularism is more than a mere separation of
religious from secular institutions of government, for it presupposes new
concepts of religion, ethics, and politics; as well as the new imperatives
associated with them, and is closely linked to the emergence of the modern
nation-state (pp. 1-2). In contrast to pre-modern mediations of nontranscended
local identities, secularism is a redefining, transcending, and
differentiating political medium (representation of citizenship) of the self,
articulated through class, gender, and religion (p. 5).
Concomitantly, he questions the secular’s self-evident character even
when admitting the reality of its “presence” (p. 16). His main premise is that
“the secular” is conceptually prior to the political doctrine of secularism, the
secular being that formation caused by a variety of concepts, practices, and
sensibilities that have come together over time (p. 16). He concludes that the
“secular” cannot be viewed as the “rational” successor to “religion,” but
rather as a multilayered historical category related to the major premises of
modernity, democracy, and human rights.
Within the above introductory framework, the book’s seven chapters are
divided into three parts. The first part, comprising three chapters, explores the
epistemic category of the secular. The following three chapters of part 2 ...

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