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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated February 8, 1996


Saba Mahmood and Nancy Reynolds

Debates on political inclusion and tolerance in Western liberal democracies have recently acknowledged that racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual differences must be accommodated at the level of political systems and cannot be closeted within the realm of the private. This recognition has largely been the result of the struggles of a variety of groups including feminists, people of color, and gays and lesbians, to name only some of the broadest manifestations of these coalitions. Nevertheless, extending this public recognition of difference to include religious affiliations often makes those who argue for multiple public identities uncomfortable. Part of this discomfort resides in a genuine fear arising from an awareness that a number of recently instituted theocracies have been oppressive of historically subordinate groups. Another part of the discomfort with making religion a public issue, however, lies in the way principles of liberal-humanism have become hegemonic and naturalized in discussions on modern politics. Although the critique that contemporary theocracies are intolerant of difference may be valid, it must be addressed empirically in its historical specificity. Our aim in this issue of Stanford Humanities Review has been to focus on the theoretical concepts and assumptions that often inform contemporary discussions of the mixing of religion and politics.

While the contributors to this volume address a range of issues, they challenge in particular three assumptions central to liberal-humanist discussions of religious politics: that religion in modern society is about personal belief mainly practiced in private; that secular political structures are necessarily superior to religious forms of governance in their tolerance of difference; and that religion and modern liberal political structures generally stand in an antagonistic relationship to each other. These assumptions may describe particular political and social arrangements in Western liberal democracies, but are inadequate in apprehending histories rooted in traditions other than, and in addition to, Western liberal humanism. As such, the authors, in their examinations of South Asian and Middle Eastern politics, critique the categories of analysis usually drawn upon to describe non-Western religious histories and traditions and posit alternative means of understanding the developments in these societies. This is not an argument for cultural particularism, but rather an effort to parochialize Western histories and concepts that have become globalized due to the power the West has commanded. The authors in this volume trace the histories of some of the struggles less powerful traditions have waged when faced with this universalistic ambition.

religion as personal belief

In his interview in this volume, talal asad raises the problem of conceptualizing religion as a set of comparable belief-statements reflecting a believer's private state of mind. He argues that religious doctrines and practices, like other social practices and institutions, have been historically transformed by relations of power so that it is impossible to grant religion an essence shared across temporal and cultural differences. Asad contends that the idea that religion is and/or should be about personal privatized belief, detached from everyday practices, is a particular development in the history of Western European Christianity, which has become globalized through the institutionalization of modern forms of governance (in its separation of religious and secular institutions). Asad's argument raises two separate questions, one historical and the other cultural. If, indeed, religion is a modern category itself which gains relevance at a particular point in history, then to what extent is this category useful for understanding social developments in the past before the religious and the "non-religious" became polarized and gained valency as descriptive categories? Secondly, if the privatization of religious belief does not necessarily apprehend other cultural practices, then how does one understand social movements and aspirations that seek to cultivate and institutionalize moral communities ruled by transcendental, rather than human, will? Whether one agrees with the politics of such movements or not, their development cannot be understood only in terms of the negation of secular principles. Rather, one must engage their premises and arguments, which motivate the involvement of large sectors of populations in religio-politics.

These questions are further complicated because any discussion of contemporary religious movements must account for the character of modern power--in its will to institutionalize, categorize, and rule--that has also transformed religious ambitions. Gauri Viswanathan, in her article "Ethnographic Politics and the Discourse of Origins," shows how the practice of the census, introduced by the British in India in the nineteenth century, effaced the ambiguity of religious (re)conversions and crystallized Muslim and Hindu identity. Census-taking, as a correlate of the larger project of nation-making, constructed a Muslim identity that represented the majority of Muslims as Hindu converts, on the one hand, and Muslims as outsiders and invaders on the other. The conceptualization of the Hindu-Muslim relationship as one of native to foreigner, she argues, has resonated with nationalism's desire to establish and affirm origins. It has fed into the contemporary narrative of Hindu revivalism, which claims that the originary inhabitants of India were Hindus, reminding Muslims of a lost past to which they must return. Rejecting any simple continuity between the colonial and nationalist narratives, Viswanathan focuses on the effects acts of classification--especially in their occlusion of Hindu-Muslim self-perceptions of belonging--produce in the memory of the colonized. Barbara Metcalf's article, "Islam and Women: The Case of Tablighi Jama`at," presents an ethnographic study of the Tablighi movement in South Asia, whose members regard the cultivation of religious virtues and correct practices as the goal of organizing social and communal life. The Tablighi Jama`at provides an illustration of religious systems that actually affect the way people live, an orientation that Asad distinguishes from those religious practices that are based on private beliefs with no practical consequences in the way daily life is conducted. Metcalf is careful to draw out the kinds of questions entailed in a lifestyle committed to arranging daily life around prosletyzation and pursuing moral virtues. Her focus on gender relations among the Tablighis illustrates how the cultivation of personal and social piety--devoid of any involvement in state politics--remains deeply implicated in relations of power. Metcalf elucidates the inversion of gender roles that the process of da`wa work [prosletyzation] among the Tablighis entails, thereby disrupting dominant social models of feminine and masculine behavior. Avoiding popular stereotypes about proselytizing ideologies, Metcalf shows that the relationship between religious and gender discursive practices is far more complicated and critically depends on the broader ideals religious men and women hold for themselves and the society they seek to transform.

religion and tolerance

Perhaps the most familiar and oft-repeated argument against the mixing of politics with religion is the liberal-humanist fear that religion, especially in its claim to absolute knowledge of "the truth," tends to be intolerant of difference. Even if we set aside the observation that the most intolerant and genocidal operations in the last two centuries have been instituted by secular modern states rather than theocracies, it still remains unclear what exactly is entailed in the concept of tolerance and its political and intellectual genealogy. It is difficult to talk about tolerance today without evoking the concepts of majority and minority populations, whose rights are assured by a nation-state. That this may reflect the reality of our present political system should not imply that these relationships necessarily represent the best historical solution to the problem of intolerance. As the contributors to this volume show, such an assumption is far too simplistic to account for the ways in which modern power has transformed social identity. Similarly, the authors challenge the tendency to project into the past analytical categories that are derived from the present political reality, but which remain inadequate in capturing social arrangements that preceded contemporary relations of power. This is not simply a temporal issue, but also one of imagining the world in terms that are intrinsic to the system described.

In his discussion of ethnic and religious difference under Ottoman rule in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, Aron Rodrigue questions the equation often made between the social acceptance of difference and a lack of discrimination. Under the Ottoman system, for example, there was an acceptance of radical difference/otherness that allowed disparate communities to exist side by side, although not under the rubric of majority/minority relations. While vertically integrated into a hierarchical ruling structure, non-Muslim communities also had independent systems of internal and legal governance. Although this did not render them social equals in the overall system, it did grant them a certain autonomy to practice and develop their traditions in ways that are impossible under the present system of modern nation-states. Rodrigue argues that it is the ideology of the nation-state, in its aim to create a homogenous citizenry represented by a single government, that attempts to eradicate difference and construct the minority as a problem requiring resolution. In explicating Ottoman rule, Rodrigue makes clear that the acceptance of difference is not a value unique to modern liberalism and, contrary to popular assumptions, pre-modern religious rule has also been "tolerant" of differences-- albeit in ways distinct from liberal formulations.

Joel Beinin's tracing of the transformations in Egyptian Jewish self- identities through modern history raises questions about the ability of state- centered discourses to accommodate ethnic and religious pluralism. In the pre- nationalist period, Beinin argues, there was no single, homogenous Egyptian Jewish identity but rather an interweaving of multiple and cross-cutting loyalties and senses of belonging, which varied across the different sectors of the community. For example, in Ottoman Egypt Jews lived as a religious community governed by legal institutions autonomous of Muslim courts. Some Egyptian Jews attained important political and economic positions in the late Ottoman and monarchical period. This, however, changed radically with the formation of the Egyptian and Israeli nation-states and the escalation of animosities between the two countries, which peaked after the Suez/Sinai war. The closure that the nationalist narratives of the Israeli and Egyptian states demanded from its citizenry could not accommodate the multiple identities to which Egyptian Jews were heir. Forced to decide between an Egyptian or Israeli identity, most members of the diverse Egyptian Jewish community, Beinin argues, chose neither. Given the kind of pluralism that existed in what he calls the "communitarian Middle East" under Ottoman rule, Beinin invites the reader to reconsider the normative association often made between ethnic and religious pluralism and the liberal conception of the nation-state composed of loyal, individual, and equal citizens.

Viswanathan, in her article "Beyond Orientalism: Syncretism and the Politics of Knowledge," interrogates the way nostalgia for a syncretic and tolerant past functions as a wishful solution to problems of incommensurable doctrinal differences. Through a reading of Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land, Viswanathan asks whether syncretism is a resolution of sectarian, nationalist, and religious intolerance, or merely another term for the assimilation of minority cultures into the culture of the majority. She locates the development of the concept of syncretism in the process of secularization in nineteenth- century England, which privatized religious belief and leveled all religious differences to a substratum of a generic religious essence shorn of doctrinal exigencies and variations. This specific history has since been universalized through the institutionalization of the secular-liberal nation-state system which, under the rubric of universal brotherhood and syncretic tolerance, effaces the majority's domination of religious minorities. Viswanathan's challenge to syncretism's claimed innocence disrupts any comforting notions of a distant (or impending) syncretic moment by showing how difference is sometimes amalgamated into a homogenous dominant "culture" under the liberal political system.

The inability of nationalist and liberal discourse to account for conceptions of community other than that of the nation also frames Suad Joseph's autobiographical discussion of the conflicting ways in which the state and society can structure family and personal identity. The need to classify, simplify, and categorize social communities for administrative purposes contradicts the fluidity of personal relations she encounters in her journey to settle her father's estate in Lebanon. Moreover, Joseph finds that the importance of relationships in claiming social rights as an individual exists not only in Lebanon but also in the United States, perhaps considered to be the heart of individual liberalism. Her work points to the critical ways in which personal experience may inform social analysis.

religion in modern political systems

Finally, the authors in this volume displace the normative assumption that religion and modern politics are necessarily antagonistic. They show that the validity of such an assertion is not axiomatic, but rather depends upon the kind of religious tradition seeking expression in public politics. The influence that Evangelical and Puritanical Christianity has exerted, for example, in shaping the political ethos of the United States has been well documented by historians and literary scholars.[1] But since certain strands of Protestant Christianity have become normative in American and Western European societies, it is mostly when non-Protestant traditions exert a public presence that the mixing of religion and politics is seen as a departure from norms. In his analysis of the American Christian roots of Zionism, Hilton Obenzinger makes visible one such instance of religious influence, which helped shape the United States government's position toward the establishment of the state of Israel. He traces the continual influence of the idea of "Jewish Restoration" in Anglo-American evangelical theology, out of which support for modern, political Zionism emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century. His examination of the historical imbrication of seemingly contradictory narratives--of Zionism as a nationalist ideology and of Premillienial Christianity--reveals the ways in which religion and politics have been allowed to commingle (albeit in particular forms) when it has suited the ambitions of imperial powers.

Charles Hirschkind's essay, on the other hand, relativizes two sets of assumptions about reason and history that informed the recent political debate between the Islamists and liberal Muslims around the writings of the intellectual Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in Egypt. Hirschkind contrasts the structural and logical imperatives of a liberal position, which privileges empirical knowledge and sociological interpretation of sacred texts, with a tradition that grounds its reasoning in the divinity of the Quran. Hirschkind is careful to point out that while it is acceptable to assume that empirical knowledge has a logic and reasoning, religious reasoning is seldom engaged on its own premises and often dismissed as ill-informed ideology. Yet his close examination of the two sets of discourses reveals parallel and contrastive forms of reasoning, each committed to key structural principles that grant them their coherence. If the central premises of any one of the two discourses are not engaged, then any interlocution with them remains no more than an outsider's critique of that tradition. In parochializing secular-liberal and Islamic assumptions, Hirschkind demonstrates the limits of each tradition's tolerance to the challenges posed to its fundamental principles.


The creative tension for us, as editors, in this project of the Stanford Humanities Review has been to address the specificity of religious traditions and histories of identity while remaining aware of the global and universalizing framework of modernity that has informed each historical context. We hope this issue has succeeded in challenging assumptions that remain normative in analyses of religious politics, but which fail to comprehend realities that are bleeding out of the categories designed to contain them. In rejecting an approach that analyzes entire developments in vast parts of the world as deviations from presumed trajectories, the contributors have tried to describe the processes through which genealogies of struggles and traditions have emerged. This has entailed describing social histories for which our present conceptual and analytical tools remain inadequate, relativizing normative secular assumptions whose superior knowledge is taken for granted, and questioning the universalism of projects whose power--rather than performance--grants them the status of model behavior.

The title of this issue, "Contested Polities," is in part an acknowledgment of the diverse challenges contemporary religious movements pose to modern politics. For example, while the Hindutva movement in India is fiercely nationalist, there are variants of the Islamist movement that deny the boundaries of nation-states and seek to lead the entire Muslim community (the 'umma). Any simple categorization of such movements as non-secular, fundamentalist, or conservative is reductive and denies their complexity and particularity. However, in using the word contested, we mean to recognize also the ambivalence such histories, practices, and movements evoke in many scholars and activists whose political compass has long been grounded in the politics of the left and the right and for whom religion has occupied a definitive paradigmatic status (either representing conservative politics or correct morality). The subtitle "religious disciplines and structures of modernity" indicates our belief that religion and modernity are imbricated in complex ways, so that any separation of the two is historically impossible--even though the nature of this relationship has varied in different parts of the world. The Stanford Humanities Review, as a forum for interdisciplinary dialogue, provides an unusually useful framework for a discussion that can effectively challenge the inadequacies of entrenched categories of analysis. We hope that in this issue, such an interdisciplinarity--on the level of both individual articles and the collection as a whole--will open the complex cultural and historical relations of religious arguments and modernity to increased discussion.

a note on transliteration

We have based transliteration of Arabic and Hebrew words on the system outlined in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, although for simplicity we have omitted diacritical marks. We have used the ` mark to represent the letter `ayn and the ' to indicate the letter hamza in Arabic. Some names and words commonly used in English (e.g., Gamal Abdel Nasser) have been included in their most common forms. For Urdu, we have used the author's transliteration since no single authoritative standard exists. We have also retained the spelling of the names of authors as they appear in their publications.

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1. See Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1978), Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975), and Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson, The Puritans (New York: NY American Book, 1938).