Skip to main content

Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State?

  • Hussein Ali Agrama (a1)

In this essay I offer a thesis about secularism as a modern historical phenomenon, through a consideration of state politics, law, and religion in contemporary Egypt. Egypt seems hardly a place for theorizing about modern secularity. For it is a state where politics and religion seem to constantly blur together, giving rise to continual conflict, and it thus seems, at best, only precariously secular. These facts, however, go to the heart of my thesis: that secularism itself incessantly blurs together religion and politics, and that its power relies crucially upon the precariousness of the categories it establishes. Egypt's religious-political ambiguities, I argue, are expressions of deeper indeterminacies at the very foundation of secular power. In what follows, I elaborate my thesis, how it differs from other, similar sounding arguments, and the shift in perspective on secularism that it entails. I begin with a famous Egyptian apostasy case.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Abd el-Tawwab M‘aud. 2000. The Commentary on Law #1 for the Year 2000. El-Entesar Press.
Agamben Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Attel Kevin, trans. University of Chicago Press.
Agrama Hussein Ali. 2005. Law Courts and Fatwa Councils in Modern Egypt: An Ethnography of Islamic Legal Practice. Ph.D. diss., Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University.
Agrama Hussein Ali. 2006. Asking the Right Question: Two Engagements with Islam and Modernity. Political Theory 35, 4: 647–56.
Agrama Hussein Ali. 2010. Ethics, Tradition, Authority: Toward an Anthropology of the Fatwa. American Ethnologist 37, 1: 218.
Asad Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press.
Asad Talal. 2006a. Trying to Understand French Secularism. In de Vries Hent and Sullivan Lawrence E., eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. Fordham University Press, 494526.
Asad Talal. 2006b. Response to Casanova. In Scott David and Hirschkind Charles, eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford University Press, 207–10.
al-‘Awwa Muhammad Salim. 1998. Al-haq fi al-ta‘bīr (The right to free speech). Dar al-Sharuq.
Azer Adel and Zaalouk Malak. 1972. “Tatliq” Divorce through Court Action. MS.
Balz Killian. 1997. Submitting Faith to Judicial Scrutiny through the Family Trial: The “Abu Zayd Case.” Die Welt des Islams 37, 2: 135–55.
Balz Killian. 1999. The Secular Reconstruction of Islamic Law: The Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court and the “Battle over the Veil” in State-Run Schools. In Dupret B. and Al-Zwaini L., eds., Legal Pluralism in the Arab World. Kluwer Law International.
Berger Maurits. 1999. Is an Islamic Polygamous Marriage Allowed for a Christian Egyptian? (The Court of Cassation on Public Policy and the Status of Non-Muslims). MS.
Berger Maurits. 2001. Public Policy and Islamic Law: The Modern Dhimmi in Contemporary Egyptian Islamic Law. Islamic Law and Society 8, 1: 88136.
Berger Maurits. 2003. Apostasy and Public Policy in Contemporary Egypt: An Evaluation of Recent Cases from Egypt's Highest Courts. Human Rights Quarterly 25: 720–40.
Berger Maurits. 2004. Regulating Tolerance: Protecting Egypt's Minorities. In Dupret Baudouin, ed., Standing Trial: Law and the Person in the Middle East. I. B. Taurus, 345–71.
Berger Maurits. 2005. Secularizing Interreligious Law in Egypt. Islamic Law and Society 12, 3: 394418.
Bernier , Maitre J. B. 1929. Droit Public and Ordre Public. Transactions of the Grotius Society: Problems of War and Peace: Papers Read before the Society in the Year 1929, 15: 8391.
Bilgrami Akeel, ed. 2006. The Crisis of Secularism in India. Duke University Press.
Bowen John R. 2001. Shariˋa, State and Social Norms in France and Indonesia. ISIM Leiden.
Brown Nathan. 1997. The Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts in Egypt and the Arab States of the Gulf. Cambridge University Press.
Cannon Byron. 1988. Politics of Law and the Courts in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. University of Utah Press.
Chatterjee Partha. 2006. Fasting for Ben Ladin. In Scott David and Hirschkind Charles, eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Stanford University Press, 5774.
Compendium of High Decrees and Ordinances Issued for the Year 1897. 1898. Bulaq.
Connolly William E. 1999. Why I Am Not a Secularist. University of Minnesota Press.
Davis Derek H. 2005. Is Atheism a Religion? Recent Judicial Perspectives on the Constitutional Meaning of “Religion.” Journal of Church and State 43, 4: 707–23.
Dupret Baudouin and Ferrie Jean-Noel. 2001. The Inner Self and Public Order. In Salvatore Armando, ed., Muslim Traditions and Modern Techniques of Power. Munster: LIT, 141–62.
Fish Stanley. 2007. The Religion Clause Divided against Itself. New York Times, 18 Mar.
Forde M. 1980. The “Ordre Public” Exception and Adjudicative Jurisdiction Conventions. International and Comparative Law Quarterly 29: 259–73.
Glendon Mary Ann. 1996. The Transformation of Family Law: State, Law and Family in the United States and Western Europe. University of Chicago Press.
Glenn Patrick. 1980. When Heavens Meet: The Compelling of Religious Divorces. American Journal of Comparative Law 28, 1: 138.
Gordon Sarah B. 2001. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. University of North Carolina Press.
Hibicht Max. 1927. The Application of Soviet Laws and the Exception of Public Order. American Journal of International Law 21, 2: 238–56.
Husserl Gerhart. 1938. Public Policy and Ordre Public. Virginia Law Review 25, 1: 3767.
Johansen Baber. 2003. Apostasy as Objective and Depersonalized Fact: Two Recent Egyptian Court Judgments. Social Research 70, 3: 687710.
Kholoussy Hanan. 2003. Talking about a Revolution: Gender and the Politics of Marriage in Early Twentieth-Century Egypt. Journal for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology 1, 2: 2534.
Kim Keechang. 2000. Aliens in Medieval Law: The Origins of Modern Citizenship. Cambridge University Press.
Lloyd Dennis. 1953. Public Policy: A Comparative Study in English and French Law. The Athlone Press.
Meyler Bernadette. 2007. The Limits of Group Rights: Religious Institutions and Religious Minorities in International Law. St. John's Journal of Legal Commentary 22, 2: 535–58.
Mills Alex. 2007. The Private History of International Law. International and Comparative Law Quarterly 55, 1: 150.
Moustafa Tamir. 2007. The Struggle for Constitutional Power: Law, Politics and Economic Development in Egypt. Cambridge University Press.
Pollard Lisa. 2005. Nurturing the Nation: The Family Politics of Modernizing, Colonizing, and Liberating Egypt. University of California Press.
Rivers Julian. 2000. From Toleration to Pluralism: Religious Liberty and Religious Establishment under the United Kingdom's Human Rights Act. In Ahdar Rex J., ed., Law and Religion. Ashgate Publishing Company.
Rueschemeyer D. and Skocpol T., eds. 1995. States, Social Knowledge and the Origins of Modern Social Policies. Princeton University Press.
Scott David. 2004. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Duke University Press.
Silverstein Brian. 2008. Disciplines of Presence in Modern Turkey. Cultural Anthropology 23, 1: 118–53.
Skovgaard-Petersen Jakob. 1997. Defining Islam for the Egyptian State. Brill.
Stahnke Tad. 1999. Proselytism and the Freedom to Change Religion in International Human Rights Law. Brigham Young University Law Review 1999, 1: 251349.
Sullivan Winnifred Fallers. 2005. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton University Press.
Taylor Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Belknap Harvard University Press.
Vogel Ursula. 2000. Private Contract and Public Institution: The Peculiar Institution of Marriage. In D'Entreves Mario and Vogel Ursula, eds., Public and Private: Legal, Political and Philosophical Perspectives. Routledge.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 14
Total number of PDF views: 204 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 954 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 16th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.