Notes on Christianity, Empire and Provincialising Secularism in the Study of Islam


This article is part of the TRAFO Series “Provincializing Epistemologies”.

by Ruth Mas 

What does it mean to “provincialise”? In his introduction to the 2007 edition of Provincialising Europe, toward which this discussion is orientated, Dipesh Chakrabarty tells us that “To ‘provincialise’ Europe was precisely to find out how and in what sense European ideas that were universal were also, at one and the same time, drawn from very particular intellectual and historical traditions that could not claim any universal validity. It was to ask a question about how thought was related to place. (xiii)” To provincialise Europe, he continues, is “to know how universalistic thought was always and already modified by particular histories, whether or not we could excavate such pasts fully. (xiv)” Chakrabarty’s plea for the provincialisation of European thought recognises how essential its legacy is to all of us whether we like it or not, and how inadequately it represents the experiences of political modernity that exist at its margins, that is, in “non-Western nations”. (16) To provincialise European thought is thus to restate it from the particularity of those margins. After all, “Europe appears different when seen from within the experiences of colonisation or inferiorisation in specific parts of the world. (16) ”The question of imperialism quickly rears its ugly head. Provincialising European thought exposes the currents of force running through it and enforcing its universality especially on its colonised exteriority.

If to provincialise Europe is to trace the itineraries of its thought so that we can no longer take their universality for granted, then it befits us to begin with the word “provincialise” itself. Predictably, given its syntactic form, the term refers to the act of rendering something provincial in character. Grammatically, it requires an object that history has been only too eager to provide. While the term “province” connotes the physical, geographical and political boundaries of a province, country, territory, district, or region we still need to know the whys and wherefores of how they came to be. Scratch the surface of “province” and you immediately detect its kinship to empire and colonisation. The 12th-century family tree of province in Old French and Middle English was sowed by the Latin provincialis-of a province=prōvincia, and is rooted in the history of the conquest of countries and territories by the Roman Empire. The prōvincia lay outside of Italy and was brought under the dominion/domination of Rome who sent its governors to administer it. Not wanting to be outdone, the English word came to signify the “historically administrative areas” of British India, or, much less politely, its colonies. Its imperial remnants are still visible in the major subdivisions of Great Britain and strewn here and there throughout the rest of the world. Thenceforward, “province” has denoted an official charge, a duty, or a public office that was held. Connotations such as one’s expertise or branch of learning, sphere of authority or influence, or of one’s office, activity, or function, have continued to cast the term’s sovereign glow since the 1620s.

For all its imperial bluster, what is most telling is the residue of Christianity in the political project of Rome still present in the current signification of “province”. It lingers on in the Old French of the 13th century in which province signalled the administration of a region by friars and provincial referred to a member of that province. The British don’t take long, before the end of the 14th century, to solidify the substantive of the meaning of provincial, i.e., a provincial—into the ecclesiastical head of a province who presides over a district, or province, that is to say, the major territorial subdivision of a religious order. Put differently, “province” (or “provincial”) hasn’t fully secularised and its sense continues to sustain the equation of territory, administration and religious organisation despite the loud-mouthed objections of current secularising politics. Much to the surprise of some of us, the term province still denotes an ecclesiastical territorial division made up of assorted dioceses complete with archbishop and jurisdiction. The Church of England stands as the ruling example. It is not clear whether Chakrabarty is aware of the paraphernalia with which the term has travelled, but it seems to be imbued with the very imperialism that he wants us to dethrone. Given his careful examination of the demise of the gods of Hinduism at the hands of the secular time of Pax Britannica ff., he would surely appreciate the irony.

No wonder Chakrabarty wants to take European thought down a couple of notches. And for that he also finds good fodder in the term, especially in its adjectival form—the attribute of province—namely, that of being provincial, that is of or connected to and/or characteristic of a province. What starts out in English throughout the early 1600s as denoting the provincials—those natives, denizens, inhabitants of, or those hailing from, a province—by the early 1700s comes to mean a country person. In this sense, the reflection of Roman entitlement present in its Latin form lowers its imperial gaze from the capital and urban centre to the small towns and countryside. A clipped vista of synonyms appears: parochial, narrow, limited, and lacking in broadmindedness. And, lest we forget ourselves, the English and French have also put a touch of class on the term: having or showing the manners and viewpoints considered characteristic of unsophisticated inhabitants of a province; narrow, petty, rude or illiberal. The trick will lie in the critical and methodological move that turns all this back onto the expansion and contraction of European empire, the stockpile of terminology and politics that support it and the exercise of which still governs our ideas.

The truth of the matter, or, as some would say, God’s honest truth, is that Europe’s continued imperial project is still not rid of its Christian finery. The quick genealogy of “province/provincial” presented here both exposes the fault lines of the ontologies of European governance and the hazards of critiquing “the secular” when its claims, foundations and operations of power are so ineluctably bound to Christianity in all its glory. Leave it to the study of Islam with its penchant for exposing the limits and overreach of secular governance to track down this aspect of European tenacity… After all, critique is proudly secular and often detonates a conceptual arsenal whose sweep and impact is profoundly secularising. How do we critique the force driving secular thought and governance when critique itself is secular? I hope it is obvious that my suggestion in tracing the structural rhizome of “provincialise” is clearly not to render thought ecclesiastical. It is to point instead to the secular overlapping of a history of power that is dependent on Christianity at the same time as it picks up where the latter leaves off.

Evidence of the Christian texture of Europe’s imperial project continues to be found in Germany today. Addressing its impact on Islamic Studies as I do here is to attempt to free a historical knot in which the development of the field has been mangled with the establishment of Germany as a nation state and with its enduring Christian self-consciousness. Perhaps nobody has picked away at the two as effectively as Baber Johansen has. This has meant tracing how Oriental Studies emerges out of Arabistik, the philological study of Arabic, which in turn emerges from its use in Old Testament studies before it is deployed for the understanding of the Islamic world and Arabic culture. It has also meant, of course, tracing the many adventures of Oriental Studies through historiography and the critical-historical method of examining primary text sources, and through its mediation by and flirtation with Protestant theology and all the perils that such enlightened travels entail. Not all of them are obvious. For example, who knew that Orientalism was seen as the anti-confessionalist path for those critically trained in theology and wanting to escape the conformist pressures of Protestantism? There is no claim of objectivity being made here however, no discovery of a critical slate wiped clean. Certainly not with “religious” rationales still seeping into discussions about the development of the state, capitalism etc. Churches would be granted the legal stature of corporations and governments would openly distinguish between the secularised form of their laws and their moral Christian content. This is a process that Johansen describes as Germany’s “hesitant secularisation”, but which reveals the almost infinite regress of this nomenclature. While the question that inserts itself here is very much about Christianity, it is even more about how to account for Germany’s drive for sovereignty—for the continuity of its imperial force—with and without the former. For indeed, Protestant or Catholic or not, the reasons behind this hesitancy may very well just be the same.

And, what would any discussion of this drive and its history of Islamic Studies in Germany be without raising the spectre of Carl Heinrich Becker…How he held the first chair of Islamic Studies, how this chair was founded at the Kolonialinstitut in Hamburg, how he explicitly supported the foreign policy and colonialist efforts of Germany, how he thought it his “patriotic duty to keep colonial administration informed so as to enable them to smoothly govern the colonised peoples” and how he shaped institutions that trained future colonial administrators and members of the diplomatic corps. To state this has become almost as predictable as it is banal. What exactly does it mean and how exactly does it matter? To be sure, Germany was an eager competitor in the colonisation process that saw Europe expand its geographical boundaries at the end of the 19th century. It is unlikely that appealing to the state and its financiers in their academic study of the Middle East was too difficult even after they had cottoned onto the fact that the study of Arabic philology did little to further their colonialist ambitions. Thus was born the study of the tradition of Islam, Islamwissenschaft, the potential depository of vital political information that thrived and expanded under the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. But what Germany gained in the physical and economic domination of lands in Africa pales in comparison to the political and economic influence that its industrial and financial divisions aspired to in the Near and Middle East, India, Iran, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. There is a breadth of a difference that presents itself to us, even if sometimes only a hair’s, and it is situated in the space between what we mean by “imperialism” and what we mean by “colonialism” and knowing the ways in which the two concepts are enfolded, and when and how they are not the same. Their imbrication has a unique place and trajectory in Germany, one that has amassed a particular vocabulary, a particular grammar and a particular sensibility all guided by an unquenchable striving for coherence.

This may be something to keep in mind before we trip over ourselves to “apply” postcolonial studies to our current examinations of the social and political conditions of Muslims. In our rush to find the post-colonial in Germany, we may very well be missing the point. The “post” is not clear, and there is some colonial, but the imperial politics that sustains these…Now those, they live on. You would think that the policies activated and reactivated by regimes of the past, and that almost completely decimated entire peoples, including a generation of scholars (and to risk putting too fine a point on it, Islamwissenschaft, the field in which they specialised), would make it absolutely clear that a post-colonial studies approach to the study of Islam in Germany that sidesteps the history of how the force of empire has been and continues to be secured can only yield so much. This discussion has to be had because however much Islamic Studies was resurrected from the dead in the 1970s, it didn’t begin from scratch. History was not erased, though some of it was denied, ignored or repurposed. This also means that Islamic Studies cannot simply shrug off the history of alliances that determined the shape that on-going interests in the Islamic world would take alongside the development of German gubernatorial, bureaucratic and legislative aspirations. And, “Pray tell,” you may ask, “where is secularisation and Christianity in all of this?” Not to worry. All paths lead to Rome. Or perhaps a little closer to Heimat, despite the zeal of German missionaries traipsing off to the farthest lands of Africa.

Directly put: a huge historical and political hole can be blown into any “theory” of “post-colonialism” in Germany that ignores the fact that the question of Islam does not arise with the accrual of distant lands or with a “secular” response to the import of foreign labour. Nor does it arise in the granting of asylum to refugees. As a matter of fact, this “question of Islam” existed before and had everything to do with the formation of Germany as a republic, in other words, with its foundations. What do we make of the fact that Oriental Studies emerged prior to the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany, when the country was made up of a fragmented system of kingdoms, monarchies and principalities? This tells us a lot about the impetus behind Germany’s attempt to unify, does it not? The Ottoman Empire was more than a bit player in this historical scene. And simply pointing to the fact that the Prussian court was commissioning scholars to become experts in Ottoman history and to write “memorandums on the solution to the Turkish crisis” or that during World War I when the Deutsches Reich backed the Ottoman Empire, scholars (yes, Becker again) were calling for a “jihad” against the French and the British, is analytically quite thin. But, when the notion of the colonial is expanded to address the imperial, it shouts out the stakes in the trajectory of German governance: Holy Alliances are made, the divine rights of kings are sustained, the fervour of secular republicanism is resisted, Roman law is integrated, Christianity is shaped and then dissimulated, the Ottoman Empire disintegrates – a secular state is risen! – Bismarck defies the Papal states and so on.

Surely much can be made of Ottoman alliances formed and dissolved, resistances to secularism, Christian governance in secularist clothing and more, in the ever abiding rationalities that circulate in German politics, especially for the purpose of examining the (Christian) foundations of Germany’s governance of Muslims. How have the terms, concepts and discourses that support Germany’s sovereignty obtained institutionally, legally, culturally and in the public sphere? How have they been mobilised, reactivated and projected from their sedimented states and contexts? What do we make of this for the study of Islam and Muslims in Germany? And what happened to the Ottoman Empire in Germany’s political imaginary? Aren’t we curious about how and when and why these notions got dropped or picked up, especially given our concern for the more than three generations of Muslims (Turkish or “of Turkish extraction”) living in Germany? These imaginaries didn’t simply disappear into thin air, did they? And also, what role, if any, did Germany’s relationship to the Ottoman Empire play in ensuring that the former did not follow in the laicist steps of its competitor on the world stage (while Turkey somehow did)? Does it not make us wonder how glibly we resort to the term “secularism” with respect to Germany? Some thoughts, lots of questions.

If Baber Johansen’s remarkable job in tracing the intellectual and political risks of philological positivism and historicism has done anything, it is to have made it quite obvious that the ideological commitments of intellectual inquiry are not dissolved once one field of study is dropped for another. These did not go away in the flight from Arabistik to Oriental Studies, or thence to Islamic Studies, and they will not vanish in our turn to the “neutrality” of the social sciences. The sudden convenience of sociology to German business, commerce and enterprise interested in funding institutions to produce important information about Arab and Islamic societies does not undo the fact that, until shortly before, sociology had “smacked” of the theoretical materialism of Marxism and was hence deemed “quite inconceivable as [a] legitimate[] tool for scholarly work” (Johansen 1990: 88). And here we can peek at another dimension of Germany’s push to consolidate itself, where once walls came down, world views, politics and values were decided once again, once and for all, and for everybody. [Actually, we aren’t expected to peek. We are expected to stare. Who couldn’t help but gape at the slow and methodical demolition of the Palast der Republik and the equally deliberate reconstruction in its place of the royal and imperial palace, the Berliner Stadtschloss—soon to house the Humboldt Forum’s “Focus of World Culture”, hoping to generate a “public debate appropriate to the multi-layered relationships between Germany and the rest of the world… designed to do justice to the diversity and values of world cultures”—a performance if there ever was one of the political resetting of the symbol of one empire over the vestiges of another. And just in time too, some would say, to welcome the scores of Syrian refugees imaginably spellbound by a coalitional past with Russia]. And so, between methods and intellectual narratives lies the question of state sovereignty, its force and our obligations to it. This does not translate as much into the methods that we use as it does into the grounds on which they are founded. After all, we are all a moving target for empire, whatever its form. We have all chosen it in one way or another. And we do not find neutral ground in fields from afar, or in the languages we “internationalise”, no matter how many “z”s we add or “u”s we drop.

This discussion is being held in English. What would be brought into focus if these questions were asked in German? In other words, the question most definitely begged here is one of the trajectory of the word “province” in the German language. What does it disinter and unmask, what syntax of power does it track, what morphologies does it yield? What is it if not the epistemological texture of the trail left behind by Germany’s on-again-off-again, often devastating, internal and external processes of sovereignty? —One that provokes us to ask what it means, or if it is even appropriate, to invoke “empire” in a nation state that has (twice already) “superseded” its “Reich”. Can we speak of German “lower-case-empire”? Here we come face to face with the nomenclature of the shorter-lived “Empire” relative to its longer lasting “not-quite-empire” in the historical ontology of Germany’s state sovereignty and its continuities. Germany happens to be a very topical place from which to pose the question of the continuity of the structures of power for the simple reason that the title of “Empire” has already been bequeathed to the United States. Germany has been demoted to second in command on a good day. As irritating as this may be to Germany’s own ambitions, it allows us to finesse our notions of imperialism to describe what it means to ride the coattails of the U.S. in the gallop towards the new finish lines of global politics. Germany may no longer be the “Empire,” but what do we call its mad dash for it? Is it a formation of “empire”? A world can hinge on the difference between an upper and a lower case…

The ample debate and disagreement over what constitutes the formation of “Empire”, “empire”, and “imperialism” should make us cautious about randomly attributing these labels, especially now that their shape has changed with the political economy of world capitalism and globalisation. More recent discussions have addressed the ways in which newer economics of capitalism that sustain and accelerate the perpetual frontiers of globalisation have provoked transformations and networks of hegemony and control. So, for all the talk of the U.S. as Empire, i.e. as the true locus of expansionist rule, the Pandora’s box of global capitalism has nevertheless been opened. And everybody’s scrambling, including the U.S., which continues to secure its position by now trading in the weaponised surveillance of its military power. Germany’s ranking in that contest is but a reminder that the question of imperialism is not just about who got, or gets to be at, the top, but about how that top was and is sustained. To provincialise European thought is thus to trace that race—the desire and striving—for universality regardless of how and when it makes its way up and down the ladder of escalated sovereignty: to or from state formations, imperial structures, imperialism, empire or Empire.

Moreover, if as Chakrabarty tells us, provincialising European thought is to ask how thought is related to place, then the geographical is put into question too. It is true that sovereign rule in the form of economic expansion is now unleashed from the geographical boundaries of the nation state. And yet, this de-territorialisation is a decentring of itself that has to double down then to re-territorialise itself into the more singular logic of statecraft. The challenge here is to provincialise thought from the non-place of de-territorialisation where “Europe’s margins” (or better put, marginals or marginalised) have been dispersed. Provincialising thought thus requires some deliberation on what qualifies as Germany’s margins, especially given that these are not simply and no longer defined by its colonised territories. This would entail moving analytically between how the term “imperial” characterises the rule or authority of a sovereign state over its dependencies, on the one hand, and what we understand those to have been and to be for Germany, on the other. Germany’s creation and bankrolling of capitalist economies increasingly mark this point.

The particular formation that Germany takes in this trajectory is still, as I have suggested, indebted to a history of Christian imperialism. Our methodologies and conceptual commitments in the study of Islam should be on red alert for this on-going configuration of Christianity, the secular to which it is countered and the imperial to which it continues to be allied. At stake is how to account for the tenacity, force and staying power of governing violence that has made its way through and from Christian monarchies to incite the high-handedness of Empire, and to maintain Germany’s state formations. Asking how clear the imperial sovereignty of the Christian secular is in Germany is to ask, too, what has become of the Christian boundlessness of empire. After all, the process of decolonisation in the 1960s that witnessed the end of formal colonial rule immediately saw the formation of the European Union (with Germany at its helm), which continues to produce a discursive cannonade claiming Christianity as the lifeblood of Europe.

But globalised interests always come home to roost where it appears there is much escalation and little rest.  The CDU—the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s ruling centre-right political party that forms a “Union” with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal constitutional and legislative body is now being given a Christian run for its money by The Alternative for Germany (AfD). The recent rise of the right-wing populist party, ranking third during the March 2016 elections in three of its states, has had Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirming the Christian character of Germany’s democratic values almost daily. The AfD’s continued attacks on the Syrian asylum seekers and adoption of an anti-Islam platform have upped the ante on claims to the governing largesse and sufficiency of Christianity. Merkel’s insistence that “Islam is part of Germany” is being repeatedly countered with the AfD’s own declaration of Christian values and sloganising of “Islam is not part of Germany”. Where Christian pasts meet the messianic futures of Syrian refugees, there emerges a confirmation of the rationality of crisis that manages politics at the same time as it provokes them so as to then reaffirm the essential values of Christendom.

Where does this leave us? In the only place that provincialising European thought can, and that is in the position of critique. Specifically, it is to critique power in all its persistence. This involves, as Foucault would have it, tracing its circuitous routes by way of its differences, points of departure and shifts, and its continuing lags and accelerations. It also requires not drawing straight arrows towards Christian liberal progress, or even from the secularist causes meant to ward off Islamic effect. But it also means accounting for the continuity of power. While this accounting happens relative to the place and trajectory of power, it nevertheless has to address the relentless drive, striving, obduracy and force that join the past to a continuous present. Addressing the vocabulary and grammar of power that sediments, sustains and reactivates politics, and how these obtain politically, is the analytic and conceptual path to the strategies of incitation and mobilisation marshalled and consolidated for the purposes of state sovereignty.  In these terms, the trajectory of Christianity, i.e. the history of power rationalised on Christian grounds, has and continues to dynamically involucrate secularism, and vice versa. To approach this through an etymological chronicling of “province” and the lexicon of empire that it yields requires nothing short of overhauling our conceptual vocabulary and the political history within which our concepts are encased and to which they must be addressed.

The crux of the matter cannot be brought home more clearly than it has been by the journalist Michael Jaeger, who asks in the German weekly Der Freitag, “How should the Union respond to the fact that the AfD relies on the ‘religious transmission of Christendom’ and the renewal of the ‘ancient roots’ of humanism in ‘the Renaissance and the Enlightenment’?” Obviously, any attempt to bring the AfD in line with the CDU is deeply misguided; not even Christianity could forcibly convert them into the same thing. The point is to say that the fact that Christianity even appears within these political discussions is the latest iteration of the problematic of a historically aphasic secular(ism). And ruling out the “Christian” in political rationalities will not rid us of the opportunistic shapeshifting and adaptability of power either. In other words, force also makes its way through our critical concepts, ones that we assume neutral by dint of their claims to secular objectivity and whose reliance on “religion”/the secular’s opposite for its own coming into being is never very honest. The epistemological and political solution thus cannot lie in barefaced secularity or secularism, but in our unceasing critical appraisal of the dependency and enabling of their apparatus.



Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2007.

Humboldt-Forum: A Focus of World Culture at the Berlin Palace: [Accessed 2nd of  May, 2016.]

Jaeger, Michael. “Ihr müsst Farbe bekennen: AfD. Warum es den Parteien so schwerfällt, sich mit den Rechtspopulisten inhaltlich stärker auseinanderzusetzen.” Der Freitag, Politik No. 19. 12 May 2016, p. 5.

Johansen, Baber. “Islamic Studies. The Intellectual and Political Conditions of a Discipline.” In: Youssef Courbage and Manfred Kropp (eds.) Penser  L’Orient: Traditions et actualité des orientalismes français et allemand. Beirut: Presses de L’IFPO.  2004: 65-93.

—-. “Politics, Paradigms and the Progress of Oriental Studies: The German Oriental Society (Deutsche Morgenlaendische Gesellschaft) 1845-1989.” M.A.R.S. 4: Hiver (1995) 79-94.

—-. “Politics and Scholarship: The Development of Islamic Studies in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In: Tareq Y. Ismael (ed.) Middle East Studies: International Perspectives on the State of the Art. New York: Praeger. 1990:  71-130.

Mas, Ruth. “The Red Thread of Christianity.” ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2015) 51-60. [Accessed 2 May 2016].


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Ruth Streicher/Schirin Amir-Moazami (2016), Reflections on Hegemonies of Knowledge Production and the Politics of Disciplinary Divisions. Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ruth Streicher/Schirin Amir-Moazami (2015), New Discussion Series on TRAFO: Provincializing Epistemologies. Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Schirin Amir-Moazami (2016), Secular Power and the Predicaments of Knowledge Production on Muslims in Europe, Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ruth Streicher (2016), Imperialism, Buddhism, and the Secular in 19th-Century Siam – Notes on Provincializing Secularism, Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ulrike Schaper (2016), Universalizing the Province Europe in Early German Legal AnthropologyTrafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Omar Kasmani (2016), Fakir Her-stories. Women’s Spiritual Careers and the Limits of the Masculine in PakistanTrafo—Blog for Transregional Research.


RUTH MAS is currently a visiting research fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (2015-2016). Her research commitments emphasize the intellectual and political dimensions of contemporary Islam. She is specifically interested in the secularization of the Islamic discursive tradition and the implications for thinking about power, secularism, Muslim subjectivity and technologies of Islamic selfhood. These issues are addressed in a book project entitled, On Secular Islam; Time, Power and Tradition in Contemporary Islamic Thought.


Citation: Ruth Mas, Notes on Christianity, Empire and Provincialising Secularism in the Study of Islam, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.07.2016


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