The Islamic Secular

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Sherman A Jackson

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Abstract

It is common to assume an inherent conflict between the substance of the category “religion” and the category “secular.” Given its putative rejection of the separation between the sacred and the profane, this conflict is presumed to be all the more solid in Islam. But even assuming Islam’s rejection of the sacred/profane dichotomy, there may be other ways of defining the secular in Islam and of thinking about its relationship with the religion. This is what the present essay sets out to do. By taking Sharia as its point of departure, it looks at the latter’s self-imposed limits as the boundary between a mode of assessing human acts that is grounded in concrete revelational sources (and/or their extension) and modes of assessing human acts that are independent of such sources, yet not necessarily outside God’s adjudicative gaze. This non-shar‘ī realm, it is argued, is the realm of the “Islamic secular.” It is “secular” inasmuch
as it is differentiated from Sharia as the basis for assessing human acts. It remains “Islamic,” however, and thus “religious,” in its rejection of the notion of proceeding “as if God did not exist.” As I will show, this distinction between the shar‘ī and the nonshar‘ ī has a long pedigree in the Islamic legal (and theological) tradition. As such, the notion of the Islamic secular is more of an excavation than an innovation.

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