Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Locating the Secular in Sayyid Qutb

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Locating the Secular in Sayyid Qutb

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to examine the views of Sayyid Qutb (1906- 1966) on Islam and the "secular" by drawing upon and interrogating Talal Asad's provocative engagements with the secular, both broadly and in his case study of Egypt. The paper's main argument centers on Qutb's subsuming of the secular under the rubric of jahiliyya.+Qutb's quasi-historical diagnosis of+the "rule of jahiliyya," a concept he derives directly from the Qur'an (5:50) and associates with secular, humanly devised systems of governance has lent his work popular appeal despite, and perhaps even because of, its radicalism.1+But Qutb's thesis, in which he dismisses man as an inadequate homo politicus who needs divine guidance for a better life on earth socially, politically, and culturally, interests us less than the interplay of three concepts: the secular, religion, and ideology. As this study reveals, understandings of the secular have been made more complex by recent studies of its ramifications and imbrications. As Asad and Wilfred Cantwell Smith before him have shown, religion is no less difficult to assess and define, since such a definition would be inextricably linked to social contexts and dominant ideologies.2 In this article, we draw on an Althusserian concept of ideology as an imaginary relationship to the real conditions of existence.3+We rely on the interaction among those three concepts to better locate the "secular" in Qutb and investigate whether this location may disrupt current understandings of the secular.

Studies of the secular have undergone major developments in recent years. From the 1980s onward, scholarship viewed secularism as being propelled by certain major changes in configurations of technology, politics, and social life. In the past decade, studies of the secular, for instance, the writings of Asad, Tariq Ramadan, and Abdullahi al-Na'im, have moved beyond Europe to include Islam. Meanwhile, Islam has more generally become an important focus of research on newly established frames of reference, including imperialism and the proliferation of modernity, triggering efforts along the lines of delineating the relationships and connections between (European) modernity, secularism, and Islam. Increasingly, anthropologists and scholars of Islam are locating what is being termed the secular within a broader frame of inquiry, which has fueled interest in the possible links between diverse modern discourses and the secular. A serious approach to the secular and Islam in connection to modernity cannot dissociate itself from wider political, social, and cultural contexts embedded in the fabric of such anthropological traditions. Equally important to such discussions is a colonial past that has leftindelible marks on the Arab-Islamic world, where conflicted attitudes toward material, intellectual, and bureaucratic imports from the Western world have had a ripple effect in all realms of life.

Western imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought a perceived threat to the dominance of the Islamic worldview within dar al-islam. New paradigms of thought actuated a range of responses that eventually led, in the postcolonial era, to ideological alignments such as Muslim acculturationism,4 which stood in contrast to, for example, reactionary currents of thought that insisted on prioritizing the role of Islam. In the West, as in the Arab-Islamic world, any attempts to define the role of religion within governance and society were contingent upon the rise of the concept of "religion" and its dialectical other, "the secular," which allowed for the development of the doctrine of secularism. These terms and their implications structure debate on the appropriate (and limited) space for religion in the public sphere.

In his Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Asad employs an anthropological approach to trace the rise of the concept of the secular and the related doctrine of secularism in dialectical opposition to the formation of the idea of religion. …

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