Conceptualization of Islam as a ‘Religion’ and the Possibility of the Secularist/Islamist Binary


The history of the modern Middle East is often narrated as a story of power struggles between competing ideologies. [1] One such set of competing ideologies is Islamism and secularism. The aim of this paper is not to explore these ideologies in the light of Middle Eastern history and argue in favor of either one of the two; instead, this essay will attempt to explore one of the factors that enables this dichotomization in the first place. The conceptualization of Islam as a “religion” creates the possibility of characterizing actors as “Islamists” in opposition to those characterized as secularists. I argue that this “religion-making” is intricately linked to the workings of the modern state which makes “religion” essential to its existence as secular.


Professors Arvind-Pal S. Mandair and Markus Dressler define the notion of “religion-making” as,

the reification and institutionalization of certain ideas, social formations, and practices as ‘religious’ in the conventional Western meaning of the term, thereby subordinating them to a particular knowledge regime of religion and its political, cultural, philosophical, and historical interventions. [2]

Similarly, Pakistani-American scholar Shahab Ahmad, argues that the usage of the category “religion” does two things simultaneously: a) it constitutes objects as “religions” constructed on the basis of the “Christian-European historical experience”; and b) it assumes the validity of the ‘secular” as a “necessary accompanying binary.” [3] According to Talal Asad, the conceptualization of God in Christianity as being situated in a far off supernatural world “signals the construction of a secular space that begins to emerge in the early modernity.” [4] This construction of the categories of “religion/religious” and “secular,” in the words of Jose Casanova, is a ‘“dual historical paradox,” insofar as “the secular” first emerged as “a particular Western Christian theological category.” Consequently, Western Enlightenment thought and secular modernity produced the modern antonym for secular, the universal and universalizing category of “religious” through secular political and scientific discourse. [5]

What is at stake here then is not merely the argument that religion and secular are historically and conceptually intertwined, but the very compartmentalization of life into a religious/secular discourse, where the legitimate sphere of action for religion is the private whereas all else is the legitimate domain of the secular. This delimitation of human life into a private world of beliefs assigned to “religion” and the remainder into the “liberated thought-territory” of the secular public world is emblematic of post-Enlightenment European Christianity. [6] This understanding of religion was at the core of the secularization thesis — now highly contested.[7] Thus, when Islam refused to be relegated to the private sphere, it became a problem that necessitated explanation — a problem precisely because one of the obvious conceptualizations of Islam within scholarly as well as popular traditions is that of Islam as a religion.

Islam, Revolutions and Religion

Middle Eastern history, particularly that of the revolutions that took place, “are motivated by ideological commitments to a universal history that renders the entire history of the twentieth-century Middle East as a struggle between progressive, democratic, secular forces against reactionary, autocratic Islamists.” [8] We can take the historiography of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as an example. In this form of scholarship Islamic is defined “in ways that excludes the socialist, secularist, and Third Worldist strands of the post-colonial world that gave birth to the revolution itself.” [9] However, this categorization of actors of the revolution as either Islamic or as anything else (never both) is complicated by figures such as Ali Shari’ati on one hand and the employment of Shi’ite mourning rituals as modes of resistance on the other hand.

But it is the conceptualization of Islam as a religion that makes this characterization possible in the first place. It is also one of the many factors that posit these revolutions on a teleological schema determined by Western historical experiences. The construction of Islamist movements as “reactionary” does not only assume Western modernity as the standard against which all contemporary developments must be judged but also assumes that it is “the only authentic trajectory for every tradition.” [10] Implicit here is that the rest of the world is either in the process of becoming the West or is still lacking the essential ingredients to embark on the journey. Whichever the case, the ongoing march of history is the march of the rest towards becoming the West. The West in this imagination is constructed in terms of secularism, reason, democracy, freedom and so on and the Muslim world — the West’s other — is constructed in terms of religion, belief, tyranny and authoritarianism. [11] Fitting Islam into the universal category of religion facilitates both: the teleological schema of the Enlightenment project associated with revolutions in the Middle East, and the perpetual availability of the other.

Forcing the history of the Middle East into a dichotomous binary of religion/secular is only possible if Islam is made a “religion” in the sense discussed in the previous section. Once this is done, the result is an inability to come to terms with Islam being a part of movements that have other elements — for example, thoughts coming from labour movements, leftist movements and third world decolonial movements. The reduction of movements, such as the one in Iran, into either a failure of the left and hijack of the Islamists or as a resurgence of religion further stems out from this religion-making.

State, Religion and Secularism

Although Mandair and Dressler identify three methods of “religion-making,” in this article I focus on only one of these: “religion-making from above.” This refers to “authoritative discourses and practices that define and confine things as “religious” and “secular” through the disciplining means of the modern state and its institutions.” [12] In other words, far from being an always already existing category that can just be identified as “religion,” it falls upon the modern nation state to define what religion is and is not, along with its legitimate and illegitimate manifestations and spheres of influence. This has led scholars such as Hussein Ali Agrama and Saba Mahmood to study secularism not in terms of its normative claims but instead in terms of what secularism as a discursive operation of power does. Secularism is therefore defined as the sovereign power of the modern state which defines what religion is and what its substantive features should be. [13]

Thus, the process of religion-making is not an event of the past but it continually takes place through power invested in the modern state. So it follows that the construction of the binary of “religion/secular” too is a continuing process where objects are continuously defined and redefined as one or the other. Talal Asad argues in a similar vein that there is “nothing essentially religious”. What the insistence on the emplotment of human experience in the religious/secular binary does is that it reduces or completely eliminates “the possibilities of conceiving of alternative local or universal arrangements of rights and meaning proceeding from paradigms that do not make the binary religious-secular distinction” wherein secular and religious are discourses defined in terms of their antagonistic epistemologies, i.e., objects are religious because they are not secular and vice versa. [14]


Conventional historiography of the Middle East takes categories such as “religion” and “secular” as natural and universal. Here, I show that far from being the case, both these categories are constitutive of modernity and are deeply rooted in the Western Christian historical experience. I further argue that “religion” as a category was modelled on Post-Enlightenment Christianity. Thus, I question the easy usage of the terms “secular” and “religious” when we speak of Islam, both in general as well as while concerning ourselves with the Middle East history.

The focus of this essay was to delve into how the conceptualization of Islam as a “religion” creates the possibility of characterizing actors as Islamists in opposition to those characterized as secularists. I answer this question by examining how the construction of Islam as a religion puts it in a discourse where the legitimate sphere of operation for it remains the private sphere of faith and belief. Its involvement in the public sphere (that modernity assigns to the secular) thus becomes an aberration. The insistence of Islamists of such an involvement, therefore, makes them reactionary forces impeding the ongoing march of history. Although all the revolutions in the Middle East are part of this march, the only legitimate outcomes of these revolutions are those that can be justified through the rationale of the Enlightenment tradition. Thus when, for example, the Iranian Revolution does not produce results that could be charted on the teleological map imposed on these revolutions and Middle Eastern history, scholars respond by searching for “what went wrong?” Finally, I argue that the modern state continues to define and redefine religion, therefore perpetuating the concomitant politics of the binary religious/secular and as a result any responses to such compartmentalization are assigned into categories such as that of Islamists and secularists.

Works Cited:

[1] Behrooz Ghamari-Tabarizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution After the Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 4.
[2] Arvind-Pal S. Mandair and Markus Dressler, “Introduction: Modernity, Religion-Making, and the Postsecular,” in Secularism and Religion-Making, ed. Arvind Mandair and Markus Dressler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3.
[3] Shahab Ahamed, What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 178.
[4] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 27.
[5] José Casanova, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms.” in Rethinking Secularism, ed. Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 61.
[6] Ahmed, What is Islam?, 180
[7] Mandair and Dressler, “Introduction,” 4. Simply put, the secularization thesis refers to the academic assumption that modernity will continue to push religion into the private sphere until it becomes irrelevant to public life (the realm of the secular). 
[8] Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran, 4.
[9] Naghmeh Sohrabi, “The “problem space” of the historiography of the 1979 Iranian Revolution,” History Compass 16 (2018), 1.
[10] Talal Asad, “Modern Power and the Reconfiguration of Religious Traditions,” interview by Saba Mahmood, Stanford Electronic Humanities Review 5, no. 1. (1996),
[11] Talal Asad, “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism,” in Is Critique Secular, ed, Wendy Brown (Berkeley, Calif.: Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California : Distributed by University of California Press, 2009), 21.
[12] Mandair and Dressler, “Introduction,” 21.
[13] See Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular age: A Minority Report, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 3. And Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and Rule of Law in Modern Egypt, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 26.
[14] Ahmed, What is Islam?, 180

Photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash

About the Author: Mudabir Hassan Wani is doing a Master’s in Religion in Global Politics at SOAS, University of London and has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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