Theory & Religion Series: Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular


by Eoin O’Mahony

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

I came to geography late through sociology. I always felt that there was a crucial element of knowledge missing in my sociological understanding of the world. It turned out that this missing piece was space. Sociologists talk about space but only geography provides a rigorous theoretical unpacking of space and all things spatial. Strange then maybe that I found the best exposition of the spatial and the religious in an anthropology book. Asad’s Formations of the Secular provides one of the most powerful and compelling cases for a relational geography of the religious and the secular. Written as a series of essays, it introduces several important ideas about the social expression about the religious and the secular. I found his approach vital to my own doctoral research. From an Irish perspective in particular, Asad provides a way out of the analytical dead end within which a normative European model of secularisation revolves.

To understand secularisation, says this analysis, we must accept the increasing distance between private life and public behaviour. Religious social expression, if thought of as a public performance, is given its own space, an allowance to perform as one institution among many. This institutional differentiation allows for clear distinctions to be made between what is public and what constitutes private behaviour. This is reflected back to us as declining religious significance. Survey after survey shows smaller numbers of people attending church services. In this frame, beliefs are central: a belief in god, in the church, in some form of life after death. What replaces these beliefs is something called ‘the secular’. Asad’s Formations turns this understanding around. It does so by asking some ordinary questions about who the public is, who defines what and where the private can be found. Most importantly, he asks what is public in the first place about the public sphere? For Asad, the public sphere is soaked with pre-existing configurations of power:

The investment people have in particular arguments is not simply a matter of abstract, timeless logic. It relates to the kind of person one has become, and wants to continue to be. In other words, there is no public sphere of free speech at an instant. (p.184)

This way of looking at the public sphere means that it is not merely the background of the people engaging that matters but the very notion of what gets counted as ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ as political principles. To me, this means that many academic understandings of the public sphere rely on an idealised subject. This way of thinking about secularisation involves a conception of the human as a free individual. In short, orthodox theoretical contributions which centre on the distinction between the private and the public are founded on an individualism particular to certain strands of European thought. The public sphere is not an empty space.

The public sphere is a space necessarily (not just contingently) articulated by power. And everyone who enters it must address power’s disposition of people and things, the dependence of some on the goodwill of others. (p.184)

Those thought of as religious, at least in many European contexts, may have to threaten existing power structures in order to be heard. In formal geographic terms, the public sphere is a series of contestations. The performances, practices and events of the secular and the religious are contested in various places, often in relation to each other. This has vital political consequences. In Ireland, where the Catholic church and the state allied for much of the twentieth century, clear distinctions between private and public space are barely discernable. More generally, religion is criticised for interfering in the proper business of politics and in the private life of individuals. However, Asad he argues,

… secularists accept that in modern society the political increasingly penetrates the personal. At any rate, they accept that politics, through the law, has profound consequences for life in the private sphere. So why the fear of religious intrusion into private life? This partiality may be explained by the doctrine that while secular law permits the essential self to make and defend itself (“our rights constitute us as modern subjects”), religious prescriptions only confine and dominate it. (p.186)

The individual in society, constrained already by law in their private conduct, conceives of himself as constrained by the religious. In this framing, both politics and religion are interrogated critically but jointly. Beyond this though, Asad’s excavation of the secular provides the basis for a decolonisation of the secular. This is done by placing European conceptions of secular legality in a relationship with the development of Islamic legal thought. In the final chapter of the book, Asad discusses how law has changed over time in Egypt. In particular, he is concerned with two questions:

How did Muslims think about secularism prior to modernity? What do Muslims today make of the idea of the secular? (p.205)

In doing this, he ably demonstrates the ways in which legal systems and their governance develop in relation to legal developments elsewhere. In Egypt, the developing relationship between religion, law and morality is influenced by its history as a colony of Britain. He decentres the study of the relationship between the religious and the secular, taking the focus away from European trajectories of the secular. Instead, the secular is denaturalised to become a conjunction of historical and geographical circumstances. In the Irish context, where Catholic identity is intimately connected with being Irish, Asad’s approach allows a more profound analysis. This analysis is not based on a story of constant decline and privatisation. It locates religion in some places and not others, always in dialogue, not replacement.

Eoin O’Mahony holds a PhD. from the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.

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2 Responses to Theory & Religion Series: Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular

  1. etseq says:

    Good grief – is this what passes as scholarship these days? Redefine, I mean, “deconstruct” the concepts of secular and religion so that they become meaningless and then lapse into ideological musings about the evils of colonialism, capitalism, and western religions but valorize Islam as some sort of neo-marxist teleological historical force to replace the old proletariat. Since you probably eschew quantitative work anyway, I’m sure you’ll have no problem shoehorning Irish Catholicism into Asad’s post-colonial gibberish but don’t expect anyone outside of Religious Studies to take you seriously. Who would have thought that ostensible secular leftists would abandon the Enlightenment critique of religion for some addled brained, new age mysticism in the guise of “critical theory”

    • Eoin says:

      This blogpost is not scholarship, it is a blogpost. My ideological musings are my own and are not meant to represent any particular ‘neo-Marxist teleological historical force’. I was asked to write about a book that has been influential in my thought.

      As for shoehorning something called Irish Catholicism, that was assessed in November as being appropriately scholarly by a panel of peers. In geography.

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