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‘According to this view, Medieval religion, pervading or encompassing other categories, is nevertheless analytically identifiable. It is this face that makes it possible to say that religion has the same essence today as it has in the Middle Ages, although it’s social extension and function were different in two epochs. Yet the insistence that religion has an autonomous essence – not to be confused with he essence of science, or of politics, or of common sense – invites us to define religion (like any essence) as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon. It may be a happy accident that this effort of defining religion converges with the liberal demand in our time that it be kept quite separate from politics, law and science – spaces in which it varieties of power and reason articulate our distinctively modern life. This definition is at once part of a strategy (for secular liberals) of the confinement, and (for liberal Christians) of the defence of religion.

Yet this separation of religion from power is a modern Western norm, the product of a unique post-Reformation history. The attempt to understand Muslim traditions by insisting that in them religion and politics (two essences modern society tries to keep conceptually and practically apart) are coupled must, in my view, lead to failure. At its most dubious, such attempts encourage us to take an a priori position in which religious discourse in the political power is seen as disguise for political power.

…. My argument is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specify, but because that definition is itself the historical product of a discursive process.’

Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, p. 28-9 [author’s emphasis].

It’s important to note that in arguing that religion does not possess transhistorical and transcultural ‘essence’ does not mean we are forced to revert to crude nominalism, and in the rest of the book Asad is careful to show that such an apparent dilemma is a false one.

What Asad does illuminate, is the extent to which ‘definitions’ of religion are historicised, and these definitions are products of a larger historical discursive. Furthermore these respective definitions are used to variously justify, defend, placate etc. respectively advocating the view that the proper ‘place’ and ‘role’ of religion is kept out of the Public Square.

Of more contemporary pertinence is the extent to which liberals rely on this foundational premise in its discussions with burgeoning attempts by some groups of Muslims – though they are not alone in this – in renegotiating the boundaries between religion and politics commonly held to be absolute. Such a definition of religion allow secular liberals to validate religion as a sociological concrete reality without having to take a position on it’s/their respective truth claims, whilst simultaneously – to a greater or lesser extent – delegitimise religious voices within politics or the public square in general.

Examples of this are legion. In places as diverse as USA, the UK, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey to Bangladesh, were one to closely examine their respective discussions one finds this ‘essentialised’ definition of religion as an ever present premise. And when examining it’s rhetorical function one can see why; it allows for secular liberals confine religious voices outside boundaries of politics whilst avoiding alienating believer within societies that are generally religious when doing so.

More surprising is how much believers have themselves imbibed and internalised such a definition. Next time you hear, for example, Muslims contending that unlike other religions, ‘Islam has never separated politics and religions’, or say, a Christian claiming that Christianity is very different from Islam because from the very beginning it has, ‘given unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s’, or a liberal declaiming that, ‘religion must move on and confine itself at home’ or a mystic affirming that a ‘religion is an affair for the heart alone’, then it pays to be mindful of the definition of the religion that is assumed.

Asad reveals then, the extent to which contemporary attempts at ‘objective’ definitions of religion are deeply implicated within a wider political discourse, and are often used as justifications for purposes very different from academic studies of religion seemingly ‘innocent’. For one example of how ‘essentialised’ definitions of religion are employed to justify and shape wider political discourse – and a especially masterful account one at that – see William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence – a short and useful review of that book can be found here.