Book Review: Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood

Source: Princeton Press

By Saba Mahmood, who is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton) and the coauthor of Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech.

Read introduction online

The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region.Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.


“In crisp prose, Mahmood convincingly shows that secularism’s promise for equal protection under the law for all religious believers has deeply shaped the modern world, despite the ways in which secularism itself thwarts this hope. This book challenges Western perceptions of the Middle East while deeply questioning the ability of secularism to live up to its promises.”Publishers Weekly


“Saba Mahmood is a premier scholar of the constitutive powers of secular governance. This extraordinary work is at once a fascinating ethnography of two religious minorities in Egypt and a compelling formulation of how secularism generates strife it claims only to modulate.”–Wendy Brown, University of California, Berkeley

“Mahmood delivers an expectedly insightful scholarly performance about the ways secularism, purported to be a solution to interreligious conflict, has in fact not only contributed to that conflict but also exacerbated it by producing new forms of religious polarization. This book is both an indispensable and intellectually delightful read.”–Wael B. Hallaq, author of The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament

“In this stunning book, Mahmood calls into question a good deal of the received wisdom about secularism and the divisions between East and West. Religious Difference in a Secular Age is original, pathbreaking, and important.”–Joan Wallach Scott, author of The Politics of the Veil

“Written by one of the most prominent anthropologists of her generation, Religious Difference in a Secular Age is a significant contribution to political theory and the study of religion in the contemporary world.”–Webb Keane, author ofChristian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter

Table of Contents:

Introduction 1
Part I
Chapter 1. Minority Rights and Religious Liberty: Itineraries of Conversion 31
Chapter 2. To Be or Not to Be a Minority? 66
Part II
Chapter 3. Secularism, Family Law, and Gender Inequality 111
Chapter 4. Religious and Civil Inequality 149
Chapter 5. Secularity, History, Literature 181
Epilogue 208

Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Saba Mahmood:

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Categories: Book Review, Free speach

2 replies

  1. I Like to read more about your books . I know all three religions and why we can’t get along . I carried the signs that make things clear. Despite one title or education, I deeply humble my self to say If any one writing book about those three religions’ I should be interview for authentic knowledge and wisdom clarification. I’m writing a book my self but I’m trying so hard not to diminish the meaning of how God revealed to me by standing in front of the light. Please don’t mismatch me with some people that says they were called by God and have no signs to show for it. I will not waste your time if am not your choosing one. Let the U.S. Government be my witness. I have overcome the spiritual ordeal that need to be known by others. You have my email. I fear no one but the one that engraved the signs in me.Thank for allowing me to share my words with you. I feel relieved. Again I humble my self to the whole world of humanity.

  2. Another ‘prophet’ or modern day ‘promised messiah’. Well, tell us what you have to say or what has been ‘revealed’ to you.

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