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  • Introduction:Religion, Secularity, and African Writing
  • Jeanne-Marie Jackson and Nathan Suhr-Sytsma

Edward Said's apologia for "secular criticism," now more than three decades old, is at once an obvious and yet inescapable starting point from which to approach the question of the secular in postcolonial and area studies (Said 1–30). By "secular," Said meant that "texts are worldly, … a part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted" (4). By "criticism," he meant a distancing from the cultural status quo in order to be "oppositional" (29). At the same time, Said in many ways called for criticism to be less distant from the world, breaking bonds of national and even cultural affiliation to work toward more cosmopolitan forms of political engagement. This regionally attuned transnationalism was an outlier within literary studies during the heyday of the "linguistic turn," yet quickly came to be a seminal stance for the field now known alternately as postcolonial and global literature. To the extent that African literary studies is institutionally situated within this rubric, Said remains unavoidable.

Said pitched his "secular criticism," of course, against the "religious criticism" of Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, and René Girard, among others, whose writings Said rejected as both too committed to systems of belief and not committed enough to political action (290–94). Since then, however, this opposition between "secular" and "religious" has come to seem misleading.1 Is "religious discourse" necessarily what Said calls "an agent of closure" (290)? Does "the religious," glossed by Said as the "secure protection of beliefs," really operate as the antithesis to "critical activity or consciousness" (292)? This question becomes especially pressing as we reckon with a recent broadening of interest in the Africanist humanities in the universities of the Global North. While Europe's status as Christian hegemon has waned, for example, since the early twentieth century, sub-Saharan Africa has played an increasingly dominant role in Christianity's diffusion (Pew). From the wealth of interactions between Arabic and local languages in the Horn of Africa to the much-discussed role of social media in the Arab Spring across North Africa, the continent is also fertile ground for timely scholarship on writing in Muslim-majority countries.2

It is not surprising then that in recent years, as the Global North academy has grown more internationalist in its aims, the secular in "secular criticism" has come under pressure from several directions. Even an avowedly secular literary critic like Simon During has acknowledged that "[o]ur methods of analysis and critique [End Page VII] falter when it comes to religion" (876), and one might add that they falter especially when contemplating religion beyond the historic forms of Western European Christianity. Even as religious studies has become increasingly self-reflexive about what is embedded in the term "religion," this interdisciplinary movement has raised key questions about the historicity and politics of the secular across several disciplines (Masuzawa; Asad; Taylor; Neuman 14–16). In literary studies, for instance, Michael Kaufmann argued a decade ago that the discipline has tended to narrate its history as one of "secularization," thereby staking its professional definition on a distinction from "religious" ways of reading texts ("The Religious"). Kaufmann's argument draws heavily on Talal Asad's 2003 monograph, Formations of the Secular, particularly Asad's claim that the "religious" and the "secular" are neither essentially stable nor essentially opposed (Asad 25). For Kaufmann, "a reconfigured history of the profession would take the dynamic and recursive relationship between the secular and the religious as an object of inquiry rather than the stable grounds upon which that inquiry is based" ("The Religious" 615). From this perspective, literary scholars need to revisit "the Arnoldian replacement theory" at the heart of our discipline (Ibid. 616), in which literature replaces religion as privileged bearer of spiritual values, as well as privileged site of exegesis.

The best-known book by a literary scholar that meets Kaufmann's criteria is likely Vincent Pecora's Secularization and Cultural Criticism (2006). Pecora takes Said's notion of "secular criticism" as his point of departure, arguing that Said, like cultural criticism broadly, misses the "complicated...


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