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The "Secular" as a Tragic Category: On Talal Asad, Religion and Representation

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Among current efforts to deconstruct the category "religion" is a tendency to problematize the secular/sacred distinction with the argument that it is simply the product of the distinctive history of post-Reformation Western Europe. The "secular," it is claimed, is a category employed to legitimize the modern state by establishing a boundary between the authority of the public sphere, in opposition to the privatized sphere of the individual religious practitioner. This paper analyses this argument as it is developed by Talal Asad and contrasts his "genealogy" of the secular with Dominique Colas' genealogy of the concept of "civil society". This comparison raises pragmatic and political concerns about Asad's perspective, and problematizes his description of Islamic subjectivity. The paper concludes by furthering Asad's reading of Walter Benjamin's understanding of allegory, in order to argue for the secular as a tragic category that continues to represent a vital theoretical and political concept.


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