Is it possible to speak of the secular prior to the modern age? Most scholars would answer with a resounding no, pointing to the case of Islam as the paradigmatic example of a civilization completely devoid of a distinction between matters religious and secular. In this lecture, I will demonstrate that contrary to the current orthodoxy, medieval Muslim thinkers extending from South Asia to Andalusia developed a sophisticated conceptual language for distinguishing between the religious and the secular in their efforts to resolve a variety of practical and theoretical questions pertaining to the domains of theology, epistemology, law, and even politics. I will subsequently outline the major similarities and differences between the modern and premodern Islamic secular and in turn reflect on the important theoretical implications of this history for our understanding of secularization and secularism more broadly.
Rushain Abbasi is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. He received his PhD from the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at Harvard University in 2021, where his dissertation was awarded the prestigious Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies. He formerly served as an Associate Research Scholar at the Abdullah S. Kamel Center for Islamic Law and Civilization at Yale Law School. In general, Professor Abbasis scholarly work seeks to bring the premodern Islamic intellectual and cultural heritage to bear on contemporary debates in religious studies and social theory. His articles have been published in the Journal of Islamic Studies and Studia Islamica. He is also a contributing member of the Balzan Seminar based in Princeton University: a five-year research project dedicated to analyzing the nuances of premodern Islamic statehood within a comparative framework.