Categories of Religion and the Secular in Islam (CRSI)

Contact: Dr Alex Henley

"Categories of Religion and the Secular in Islam" (CRSI) is an interdisciplinary network of scholars interested in critical approaches to 'religion' and 'the secular/non-religious' as discursive categories in Islamic contexts. We have created a community email list for discussion of these themes and circulation of academic notices, calls, publications, etc – see info further down this page.

The network is coordinated by Dr Alex Henley, Marie Curie Fellow in Theology & Religion at the University of Oxford.

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Rationale:  A critical school has emerged in the Study of Religion that identifies the category of ‘religion’ as a modern concept inseparable from its post-Enlightenment twin, ‘the secular’ (Asad 1993; Fitzgerald 2000; for more information on this school, see the Critical Religion Association website). Pioneering work has been done on the invention of ‘religion’ in various colonial contexts (Chidester 1996; King 1999; Masuzawa 2005; Josephson 2012; Horii 2018), but few sustained studies have been undertaken for Islam. An early study by WC Smith (1964) identified a modern shift toward using ‘Islam’ as a category, but nevertheless concluded it to be a special case. Certainly we see classical formulas such as ‘din wa dunya’ that seem to suggest an existing, perhaps even original, distinction between religion and non-religion. Whether or not ‘religion’ has been invented wholesale in Islam as in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, initial studies of such discourse among Muslim intellectuals by Smith and Tayob (2009) have highlighted significant modern innovation.

Key research questions:  The network provides a forum for discussion of questions including: To what extent, if any, is ‘religion’ a useful category of analysis in Islamic Studies? Was there an Islam ‘before religion’ (Nongbri 2013)? In what changing or varied ways do we see ‘religion’ as a bounded category of practice articulated, operationalised and institutionalised by or for Muslims in recent centuries? What distinctive characteristics and functions (e.g. rights, freedoms, authority, privatisation) does ‘religion’ have as a reified subject in Islamic discourse, that distinguish it from ‘non-religious’ or ‘secular’ domains? Does a ‘religion-secular’ dichotomy operate also in contexts where ideological secularism is rejected as un-Islamic? What role have colonial and post-colonial states played in Muslim (re)formulations of ‘religion’ and its others? Do such trends in Islamic contexts compare to the invention of ‘religion’ in other colonial contexts, or should we see Islam as exceptional in some way? What new methodologies may shed light on these dynamics? What implications may the critical study of ‘religion’ have for the way Islam is taught in schools and universities?


Aims:  The CRSI network aims to create a space to foster an emerging sub-field at the intersection of critical theory in Religion and Islamic Studies, encouraging cross-regional and inter-disciplinary discussions in order to rethink the way we talk about Islam and Muslims. It includes anthropologists, historians, philologists, political scientists and others working on Muslim discourses and practices around the world. As well as creating a forum for discussion and dissemination among these scholars, the network will develop an online presence designed to offer a public resource for promoting this sub-field beyond its specialist membership: (a) introducing its critical methodologies as significant to others working on Muslim societies; and (b) presenting its findings to wider audiences including educators in Islam or religion, and non-specialist scholars seeking comparative data.

Membership of the CRSI discussion list is free and open to all scholars and graduate students working on any period or region. To join, email Alex Henley ( with your university affiliation and a very brief statement of your interest in the network's themes.

Privacy: The list operates as a private group, so messages and message archives can only be viewed by subscribed members. This is intended to promote free discussion and debate; please do not quote list messages anywhere else without the individual's permission.


To post to the list, simply email CRSI@JISCMAIL.AC.UK or reply to an existing thread. There is no moderation process, so your message will send directly to the whole list. If you want list members to be able to email you off-list, you should include your own email address in your message. Note that you can only send messages from the same address with which you subscribed to the list.


Archives of past messages are accessible to subscribed members at You will need to create a login for the JiscMail website by clicking on "Get Password".


Subscription settings can be changed (e.g. to switch to a daily digest if you feel you are receiving too many emails) through the list webpage at Once logged in (you can create a login by clicking on "Get Password"), go to "Subscriber's Corner" in the top banner and then click on "Settings" next to the CRSI list name. If you have any problems or questions, you can contact Alex Henley ( or the JiscMail helpline for technical issues (


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