Sovereignty and Secularism in Modern Islam: A Response

SherAli Tareen Responds to Forum Contributors

I want to begin by registering my profound gratitude to Ali Altaf Mian for his generous time and efforts in organizing this book forum, and for penning a very thoughtful and generative commentary. The patience and labor required for such a task would place any author in significant debt even in the best of times, not least during a trying and exhausting pandemic. My extensive thanks also to all other contributors to this forum—Kecia Ali, Megan Robb, Mashal Saif, and Noah Salomon—for their brilliant and productive readings and critiques of Defending Muhammad in Modernity. It is a special privilege and pleasure to return to some key aspects of the book two years since its publication in the intellectual company of such outstanding scholars. Space will not allow me to address and engage all the excellent questions and critiques raised by each author. I will instead focus on some of the major intersecting themes that emerge collectively from the essays on this forum, especially in regards to larger conceptual issues and challenges that might interest scholars beyond the study of Islam and South Asia.

The Core Argument

At its core, Defending Muhammad in Modernity is an exercise in rethinking the political by interrogating and taking seriously the political imaginaries and stakes at work in theaters of moral contest that might otherwise be seen as irrelevant or insignificant to conditions of modernity. The book’s underlying goal and purpose is to convince the reader that seemingly arcane questions of theology and everyday practice are often invested and implicated in political theories and projects of immense significance and sophistication. Questions such as: Can one stand up during the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebration?; Is it permissible to raise hands while praying over food distributed on the occasion of someone’s death?; Can God lie?, or Can God produce another Prophet Muhammad? are treated with respect and concern. It is this underlying push to expand the sphere of politics beyond a territorially bound notion of modern state sovereignty that informed the central argument of the book. That argument is this: the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic reflected “competing political theologies” that articulated rival understandings of the relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic authority, and everyday ritual practice during a moment marked by the loss of Muslim political sovereignty in South Asia.

Theorizing Sovereignty

It is not surprising thus that one of the central questions raised in different ways by almost all contributors to this forum relates to my use and mobilization of the entwined categories of sovereignty and political theology. For instance, some of these questions include: Why insist on the category of sovereignty and not simply use the terms divine omnipotence or power? How do Islamic and British colonial notions of sovereignty differ and contrast? At what precise historical moment does the category of political sovereignty become applicable to South Asia? What alternate problem spaces are foreclosed by my framing of the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic as “competing political theologies”? How do scholarly debates on sovereignty in the theological realm inflect and inform the economy of human relations in sites of everyday life like the household?  These questions, in turn, relate to the broader methodological problem of the politics and analytical risks involved in employing concepts like sovereignty, rooted in distinct Western histories and intellectual debates, as tools of elucidation in markedly different contexts.

Three guiding principles (or criteria) have informed my invocation and utilization of categories like sovereignty and political theology (among others) grounded in a Western politico-conceptual terrain. First, these categories help clarify, deepen, and add novel perspectives to the analysis of a given set of Islamic texts and corresponding contexts. Second, they enable a fruitful and productive, even if at times fractious, encounter between the Western and Muslim Humanities. Finally, the moment of engagement with Muslim actors and texts also highlights and makes visible the limitations and provinciality of Euro-American theoretical discourses. In other words, I tried to stage and execute a model of inquiry that approaches Muslim actors and texts as not just objects of theorization but as properly theoretical in their own right. 

The Ambiguities of Sovereignty

In addressing the set of questions raised by the forum contributors, it is useful to begin with the reminder that even within Western/Christian theological and philosophical traditions, the category of sovereignty has been subject to considerable contest and transformation. It is hardly a predictable category. The late political theorist and philosopher Jean Elshtain, in her magisterial intellectual history of sovereignty in Christian thought, summed up this transformation with the useful phrase “from logos to will.” By this she meant the profound shift in Christian theology from a view of God as representing “the fullness of reason and goodness,” as seen in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and the Thomistic School that it inspired to a vision of God as primarily a “site of sovereign will,” as articulated and cemented by influential nominalist philosophers and theologians like the famous William of Ockham (d. 1347) (Elshtain). According to Elshtain, “this latter vision [that premised God’s sovereignty on the will to enact the exception] came to dominate sovereignty talk and helped to lay the basis for the juristic conception of the state when man decided that he, too, could be sovereign in this way” (Elshtain). Sovereignty thus today has come to be associated mainly with the exercise of the sovereign will to enact an exception to the norm, which equates to the suspension of laws by a state in modern politics, and to the miracle in theology. This notion of sovereignty was of course best popularized and formalized by the German lawyer and theorist Carl Schmitt in his pithy and profoundly influential 1922 text Political Theology, that I engage at some length in Defending Muhammad in Modernity

I point to the shifting meanings attached to the category of sovereignty in Western/Christian thought to make a broader point: among the most fascinating and indeed productive ambiguities surrounding the idea of sovereignty is that as much as it indexes and relies on the instance and capacity of decision, its precise definition is marked by considerable indecision. Notice that sovereignty is a concept at once capacious yet confusing, elastic yet elusive, ambitious yet ambiguous, seemingly universal and yet precariously unstable. It is a concept not so easily historicized, identified, or measured; it is often known only though its traces. I return to this point in a moment. 

Sovereignty Beyond the State

My framing of the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic as “competing political theologies” was informed by the discursive logics of the central actors who populate the book. Reading scholars like Shah Muhammad Isma‘il (d. 1831), Fazl-i Haq Khayrabadi (d. 1861), and the pioneers of the Barelvi and Deobandi orientations alongside the works of Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Michel de Certeau, among others from the Western philosophical canon, alerted me to some striking parallels in their conceptualization of sovereignty as an object of aspiration and contestation. For instance, such parallels shine through most clearly in regards to theological debates and discussions on questions like prophetic intercession on behalf of sinners on the Day of Judgment and God’s capacity to produce another Prophet Muhammad. At stake in these debates were precisely the implications for the exceptionality of Prophet Muhammad’s charisma of a conception of divine sovereignty that hinged on the capacity to enact the exception. As for the important question of terminology [raised by Ali Altaf Mian in an earlier draft of his essay], over the course of the book, other than tawhid, the categories of Islamic thought referring to sovereignty include qudra or qudrat-i ilahi (divine capacity), ikhtiyar (divine will), ghalba (divine supremacy), shawka (divine majesty), and iqtidar (divine might), among others. But my invocation of sovereignty and sovereign power does not correspond to any one particular concept in Arabic, Persian, or Urdu. Rather, it gestures towards a family of concepts mobilized or debated by primary protagonists of the book that individually and collectively articulate a notion of sovereignty that includes but yet exceeds the capacity to announce the exception. Through this conceptualization, I had sought to explore possibilities of locating sovereignty in unexpected places, beyond the commonplace notion of the modern state’s exercise of power and decision to establish and maintain its rule.

The Problem Space of Political Theology

Moreover, as I elaborate more fully in the book (see chapter 1), I was interested in inverting the dominant problem space of political theology in the Western academy by shifting the conversation from the theological underpinnings of secular sovereignty to the political projects and aspirations reflected in ostensibly theological debates. But, as Noah Salomon in his shining essay on this forum puts it, far more eloquently than I could have, the primary aim of my analysis was indeed to show and argue that “politics and theology are so deeply entangled as to be inseparable, not simply in the sense that the two realms are deeply indebted to one another, as is usually assumed, but in that they each pose and answer one another’s questions.” I approach political theology thus less as a stringently defined category of analysis than as an exploratory question-and-answer space, or problem space (in the famous terminology of anthropologist David Scott), through which to unlock the intimate interlocking of theology and politics in moments of political transition marked by the uncertainty of sovereignty.

History without Historicism

This point is important because it connects with another key aspect of my invocation of political theology: While my analysis includes historical inquiry and contains historical elements (with ample help from prominent historians of South Asia), it is not historicist in orientation. Obviously, every text or normative argument (theological or otherwise) is informed by a particular set of material and institutional conditions. However, I am not interested in, and also find conceptually untenable, the labor of reducing normative theological arguments to identifiable political conditions and structures such as the state. The assumption that theological aspirations and projects are ultimately derived from and can be reduced to material forces and structures participates in a deterministic secular theology that occludes more than it clarifies. My focus throughout the book was on capturing and describing the synchronicity and syncopation of theology and politics in a manner that established their ineluctable entwinement, rather than on positing a cause-and-effect relationship between Mughal or later British political structures and Muslim theological discourses and debates.

This is where I find rather misplaced Mashal Saif’s critique that I do not offer a historicist resolution to the precise moment of the emergence of political sovereignty in South Asia. The question is not whether South Asian Muslims ever possessed a form of power corresponding to political sovereignty or whether that is a colonial invention or imposition. Rather, the point is that in 19th-century South Asia, the very meaning and conceptual economy of sovereignty underwent a subtle yet dramatic shift from embodied to more materialist and transactional notions of sovereign power, as best argued by the preeminent historian and anthropologist Bernard Cohn, on whose work I base much of my analysis. Moreover, political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj’s now well-known argument about the shift from subsidiarity to sovereignty in modern South Asia, which is also pivotal to the contextual stage I set early in the book, is a lot more nuanced than the statement that “political sovereignty only comes about with the birth of the nation-state,” as Saif describes it. 

Kaviraj’s larger point has less to do with determining when political sovereignty came about. Rather, he is interested in highlighting the profound and profoundly consequential transformation in the grammar of sovereignty in South Asia’s passage to colonial modernity, that saw the transition from a loosely bound to an avidly regulated and regimented arrangement of the relationship between the sovereign state and society. My main interest, in turn, was in interrogating the competing imaginaries of the encounter between the divine sovereign, the Prophet, and the community made possible by and centrally visible during this moment of flux marked by the loss and crisis of Muslim sovereignty. The word “loss” in this context, I should thus clarify, refers not only to losing the capacity to rule and govern over a people (though that is certainly one part of it) but rather to the indelible and irreversible fracture in the very politico-conceptual grammar of how sovereignty was henceforth to be imagined, exercised, and defended. Clearly, the apparent and unprecedented intensification of intra-Muslim scholarly debates over the course of the 19th century on questions of divine sovereignty, Prophet Muhammad’s persona and role in society, and the practice of everyday life are centrally located in the transformation, transition, and uncertainty in the sociology of sovereignty in South Asia. So, it is not as if my examination of Muslim normative texts is not contextualized or historicized; in fact, tracing the concurrent encrustation of colonial power during the 19th century and the intensification of intra-Muslim scholarly disagreements into group-oriented identities (masalik) is central to the narrative and purpose of the book.

My broader aim in Defending Muhammad in Modernity, though, was to conduct a genealogical exploration of the contingent interactions between shifting conditions (political, institutional, and material) and new modes and forms of discourse on moral questions of authoritative debate and contestation. These interactions, I argued, are neither available for predetermined binary framings nor follow predictable patterns. But providing an empirically conclusive answer to the question of why these intra-Muslim debates occur, or offering a historicist resolution to the precise political causes, structures (such as the state), and motives that engender and determine them were not among my concerns. The pursuit of such concerns is conceptually perilous, not profitable.

The Analytical Constraints of Political Theology

The critiques presented by Kecia Ali, Ali Altaf Mian, and Noah Salomon, which can be productively folded together, do identify an important tension and limitation of the book. Salomon astutely observes that my framing of “competing political theologies” and investment in showing the synchronicity of theology and politics perhaps has the effect of sidelining or de-emphasizing other possible problem spaces in which to situate the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic. Ali Altaf Mian suggests one possible avenue of inquiry to redress this shortcoming by pointing out that the aesthetic register in which traditionalist scholars or the ‘ulama’ operate depends intimately on their genre of writing; my analysis thus, limited primarily to legal and theological thought, does not bring to light other possible genres and connected aesthetics of moral argument, especially as reflected in poetry and mystical writings.

Kecia Ali, in her brilliant set of reflections, asks the crucial question of how political theology intersects with household economy, especially in terms of the gendered perspectives and pressures at work in the everyday unfolding of stridently contested religious disputes like the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic. Certainly, extensive attention to the choreography of everyday life, powered by explicitly gendered visions of social reform, is a feature that was among the strongest points of convergence between the otherwise bitterly opposed pioneers of the Barelvi and Deobandi schools, as I argue in chapter 10. But answering Ali’s excellent question satisfactorily requires combining philological analysis, intellectual history, and extensive ethnographic investigation. I hope that future scholarship on the Barelvi-Deobandi controversy and other such traditions of intra-Muslim and inter-religious contest will do precisely that to address some of these lacunas and limits of Defending Muhammad in Modernity.

Careers of Secularism

For the remainder of these reflections, let me take up another frequently raised theme on this forum: the question of secularism and secular power. In her profitable set of comments, Megan Robb asks the interesting question of how the contemporary US imperial politics of religious moderation that informs the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binary (that I discuss in the Introduction) overlaps with and differs from 19th-century British colonial regimes of secularism that sought to evacuate and separate the sphere of religious passion and debate from that of law and governance. In response, I would argue that while one finds both continuities and departures between these two modalities of liberal secular power, the continuities are more significant and preponderant. Despite obvious differences of context and the scales of power involved, an underlying assumption that sustains both these instantiations of secularism is that religion represents an object of life that must be managed, moderated, and regulated lest it spill into violence and fanaticism.

The specific rationalities and precise mechanisms of exercising and manifesting secular power are distinct in each context. But the underlying push to render religion (in this case, Islam) palatable to a particular template of “good religion,” one corresponding to dominant modern Protestant notions of authentic religion and conducive to liberal political rule and governance, represents a shared feature. The strongest manifestation of this continuity is seen in the striking resemblance and correspondence between colonial Orientalist depictions of Sufism as “soft” and “peaceful” Islam and the more recent valorization of Sufism as the antidote to the alleged puritanism of shari‘a in the discourses of powerful abettors of US imperial power like the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Corporation, as I explain in detail in the Introduction of the book.

Is there an Islamic Secular?

Though I disagree with Mashal Saif’s analysis and her reading of my book, I am nonetheless thankful to her for asking probing questions that will allow me to elaborate some aspects of my engagement with the category of the secular. Saif raises the question of what is one to do when the expression of what I term “liberal secular binaries” like religious/secular, public/private, or Islamic law/Sufism are also found in the thought and discourses of Muslim scholars and actors. By giving some examples of the invocation of these distinctions by Muslim scholars in the past and present, Saif contends that I am at fault for calling these binaries “liberal secular” since they are also available in Islam and Muslim thought. There are two major problems and faults with Saif’s framing and objection, both connected to a conceptually unsound understanding of the relationship between power and discourse. Clearly, secularism and secular power are not homogenous or monolithic concepts; they follow distinct trajectories in varied contexts. But the sustenance of modern secular power derives from the assumption that religion, if left untamed and unregulated, will spill into violence and fanaticism. This underlying assumption, that also nourishes the desire to compartmentalize otherwise complex religious discourses and actors into predetermined binaries, is thoroughly modern and Western in origin, even if it is at times embraced and mobilized in non-Western contexts. Sure, the word secular or saeculum in the sense of worldly (or, pertaining to a particular age or time) has premodern beginnings. But what makes secularism a resoundingly modern phenomenon is this: the inextricable entanglement of the assemblage and maintenance of modern state sovereignty with the secular regulation of religion as a category of life, as elaborated best by Saba Mahmood in her last book.   

Moreover, the force and exercise of secular power is made possible through the operation and cooperation of political secularism, namely the proverbial separation of religion and politics that paradoxically only further implicates the state in the management of religious difference, and secularity or those assumptions, attitudes, and sensibilities (like privileging the interior as the locus of religious authenticity or valorizing science over faith as a source of knowledge) that anchor and nourish the normative primacy of a secular life. Secular power, a form of power at once ineffable yet intransigent, owes precisely to the coalescence of political secularism and secularity. Admittedly, yes, the specific texture and trajectory of such power certainly varies across contexts. But the ineluctable entwinement of secularism, secularity, and modern state sovereignty is a hallmark of Western modernity. Modern Muslims may call themselves secular, employ the language of secularism, or even celebrate its ideals, but there is no such thing as an “Islamic secular.” Unless by that one meant something radically different from the conception of modern secular power I have just described. Now with these general conceptual notes in place, let me address Saif’s specific critiques more directly. The crux of my response is as follows:  the mere presence of a distinction between two categories like law and Sufism or public and private in the discourse of particular Muslim scholars does not mean that it is doing similar ideological work or is implicated in comparable operations of power that sustain Western liberal secular projects of religious moderation.  Certainly, caricatured representations of major Sufi masters like Jalaludin Rumi (d. 1273) or Muhyi al-din Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) as inclusive or tolerant mystics form an important part of the nefarious global politics and discourse of religious moderation whereby binaries like law/Sufism work to bifurcate Muslims into moderates and extremists. 

But as religion scholar Gregory Lipton, in his splendid recent book Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi, has argued, such representations are at once anachronistic and based on a malevolently selective misreading of the textual corpus of towering Muslim scholars like Ibn ‘Arabi. Similarly, to cite one of Saif’s examples, when the famous eighteenth-century Panjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s (d. 1757) lampoons Muslim jurists in his poetry, the internal logic of critique at work in this context hardly corresponds to a liberal secular logic invested in dividing Islam into legal and mystical epistemologies that in turn service the moderating discourse of the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. The point is this: rhetorical similitude aside, the logics, politics, and power dynamics of these two sets of discourses are too dissonant to be available for substantive comparison and correspondence. This is precisely the problem with Saif’s related claim that since “the distinction between the private and non-private has long been present in Islamic law and ethics,” it cannot be framed as exclusively modern or liberal secular. This assertion harkens the argument, recently in much vogue, that since even the Prophet differentiated between religious and non-religious or worldly matters, the concept of the secular is not exclusively Western but is also Islamic. Again, what this line of argument ignores is not only the stark dissonance in the normative work these categories perform in different contexts. Moreover, distinctions like din/dunya or shari‘a/tariqa when invoked in premodern (and in many instances even modern) Muslim intellectual traditions are hardly translatable into the oppositional valence of binaries like religious/secular and law/Sufism, as I have labored to explain in the preceding discussion. 

The Encounter of Islam and Secular Power

Second, and very briefly, Saif’s argument and critique does not consider that power is not only oppressive but also productive. So, to engage the examples of figures Saif mobilizes, if a contemporary Muslim scholar like the Iranian American reformer Mohsen Kadivar (b. 1959) is keen to posit the idea of private religion or the Pakistani Canadian scholar Tahir ul Qadiri (b. 1951) valorizes Sufism and inner piety as a bulwark against the threat of extremism and violence; such discursive moves are surely informed in some measure by global pressures of secularity on what counts as “good religion” in the modern world. My point is not that these scholars are unwitting pawns of secularism or unmoored from the depth and complexities of Muslim scholarly traditions; they are obviously notably erudite thinkers who interpret the tradition in ways that are both creative and irreducible to secular power and regimes of knowledge. Rather, my point is different, one I also make at length towards the end of chapter 5 in Defending Muhammad in Modernity: in examining the encounter between the conditions of colonial secular modernity (as well as more recent instantiations of secular power) and Muslim intellectual discourses and normative aspirations, it is perhaps best to think beyond the assimilation/agency binary. Doing so requires that one simultaneously highlight and explain the specific rationalities of tradition made visible during conjunctures of intra-Muslim and inter-religious contest, while also keeping in view the politico-conceptual terrain that informs but also limits the textures and trajectories of those rationalities.

Full Forum

SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. His research focuses on Muslim intellectual traditions and debates in early modern and modern South Asia. He has also written extensively on the interaction of Islam and secularism. His book Defending Muhammad in Modernity (2020) received the American Institute of Pakistan Studies 2020 Book Prize and was selected as a finalist for the 2021 American Academy of Religion Book Award. He is currently completing his second book called “Perilous Intimacies: Debating Hindu- Muslim Friendship after Empire.” His various articles have appeared in the Journal of Law and Religion, Muslim World, Political Theology, Islamic Studies, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, ReOrient, among many other journals. His academic publications and talks are available here.