Menue phone
all directors

Prof. Dr. Monika Wohlrab-Sahr


+49-341-97 37 721

Areas of interest

  • Islam in the Western society
  • Secularization
  • Qualitative methods

Secularity as a contested issue in the field of research on Islam

Research on secularity in non-Western regions where the predominant religions are not Christianity is often confronted with severe objections, making comparisons problematic. It is frequently argued that Islam and Hinduism are all-embracing ways of life (rather than compartmentalised “religions” in the Christian sense of the word), to which the distinction between “religion” and “the secular”, and related differentiations, do not apply. It is further argued that the history of Islam and its institutional structure is so different from the history of Christianity, that secularity and secularism are inadequate terms. It is sometimes even argued that “the religious-secular divide” has been imposed on non-Western regions, and thus it is the genealogy of this imposition and its consequences that need to be researched. It is clear that researching secularity with regard to Islam is a complex issue. Such research not only deals with the characteristics and developments of Islam as a “religion” in its immediate context, but also has to take into account diverse types of global encounter and entanglement, of imperialism, nation-state formation, missionary activities and colonial rule, including diverse forms of resistance. Some of the latter, opposing Western domination, have referred to Islam as an identitarian concept.

All this resonates in the present research on Islam, especially, but not only, in strands of research influenced by post-colonial and post-modern streams of thought. As secularity – conceptually and factually – is entrenched in the history of global encounters and Western domination, it is perceived by many as an utterly problematic concept for research on Islam. Other scholars focus on the ambiguous concurrence of religious and mundane practices and perspectives in Islam before the ‘purifying’ influences of Western colonialism and Islamist stringency. Even there, the question of distinctions and differentiation does not really fit the texture of early Islam, and only comes in with modernising projects.

In addition to these approaches, however, there is also research that points out distinctions that are inherent in Islamic theology (e.g. different types of law) as well as differentiations (e.g. between religion and politics) within the history of Islam. These include processes of secularisation and modernisation. Some have tried to narrate the history of Islam and the Islamicate world in parallel with the history of Christianity and the Western world, including the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Furthermore, debates among intellectuals in Iran as well as in Arab countries, often against a background  of authoritarian religious regimes or the strong influence of clerics on political decisions and social life, raise the issue of secular-religious differentiation, of the separation between religion and politics, or between private life and piety on the one hand and religious doctrine on the other. They are, however, heavily attacked by others, who see secularism as being close to atheism and consider “comprehensive secularism” a destructive concept that needs to be rejected.

Taking Bourdieu’s Theory of Social Fields as the basis, this project aims to reconstruct the basic positions in the field of the study of Islam, their theoretical and social backgrounds, and their interrelatedness. The basic research question is how does research on Islam tread the path between political positions and reflections on the one hand, and classical scholarly interests on the other, and how is research on secularity in Islam affected by both.

The project focuses on 3 areas of research:

(1) The international debate, which is heavily influenced by American scholars, with  further significant impact from migrant scholars living in the US;

(2) The German situation with its long tradition of classical “Islamic Studies” or “Arab Studies”;

(3) Iran with a strong influence from political Islam, but also more recent debates arguing for the limitation of the role of religion.

In terms of methodology, the project involves (a) the analysis of scholarly texts and discussions in order to reconstruct the discursive structures of the intellectual debate; and (b) interviews with scholars who represent central positions in the field.

Relevant Publications

  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika and Christoph Kleine. “Historicizing Secularity: A Proposal for Comparative Research from a Global Perspective.” Comparative Sociology 20, no. 3 (2021): 287–316.
  • Kleine, Christoph, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. “Comparative Secularities: Tracing Social and Epistemic Structures Beyond the Modern West.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 32, no. 4 (2020): 1–30.
  • Burchardt, Marian, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, and Matthias Middell, eds. Multiple Secularities Beyond the West: Religion and Modernity in the Global Age. Boston: de Gruyter, 2015.
  • Schenk, Susanne, Marian Burchardt, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. “Religious diversity in the neoliberal welfare state: Secularity and the ethos of egalitarianism in Sweden.” International Sociology, 30/1 (2015): 3–20.
  • Burchardt, Marian and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, eds. Multiple Secularities: Religion and Modernity in the Global Age. Special issue of International Sociology, 28/6 (2013).
  • Burchardt, Marian and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. “Von Multiple Modernities zu Multiple Secularities: kulturelle Diversität, Säkularismus und Toleranz als Leitidee in Indien.” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 38/4 (2013): 355–74.
  • Burchardt, Marian, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, and Ute Wegert. “’Multiple Secularities‘: Post-colonial variations and guiding ideas in India and South Africa.” International Sociology, 28/6 (2013): 612–28.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and T. Kaden. “Struktur und Identität des Nicht-Religiösen: Relationen und soziale Normierungen.” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 53 (2013): 183–209.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and Thomas Schmidt-Lux. “Science versus Religion: The Process of Secularization in the GDR as a Specific Response to the Challenges of Modernity,” in Religion and politics in Europe and the United States: Transnational historical approaches. Edited by Volker Depkat and Jürgen Martschukat, 187–218. Washington/Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center/John Hopkins University Press, 2013.
  • Schuh, Cora, Marian Burchardt, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. “Contested Secularities: Religious Minorities and Secular Progressivism in the Netherlands.” Journal of Religion in Europe, 5 (2012): 349–83.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and Marian Burchardt. “Multiple Secularities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Secular Modernities.” Comparative Sociology, 11 (2012): 875–909.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “'Forced' Secularity? On the Appropriation of Repressive Secularization.” Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe, 4/1 (2011): 63–77.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “Multiple secularities and their normativity as an empirical subject: The Immanent Frame.” Accessed March 3, 2015.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and Marian Burchardt. “Vielfältige Säkularitäten: Vorschlag zu einer vergleichenden Analyse religiös-säkularer Grenzziehungen.” Denkströme. Journal der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, no. 7 (2011): 53–71.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “Atheist convictions, Christian beliefs or ‚keeping things open’? Patterns of World Views among three generations in East German families,” in Valuing older people: A humanist approach to ageing. Edited by Ricca Edmondson and Hans-Joachim v. Kondratowitz, 73–90. Bristol, Portland (OR): Policy Press, 2009.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “The Stable Third: Non-religiosity in Germany,” in What the World Believes: Analyses and Commentary on the Religion Monitor 2008. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung, 149–66. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2009.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, Uta Karstein, and Thomas Schmidt-Lux. “Forcierte Säkularität: Die Dauerhaftigkeit des erzwungenen Eigenen im Osten Deutschlands.” Vorgänge. Zeitschrift für Bürgerrechte und Gesellschaftspolitik, 48/3 (2009): 109–17.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, Uta Karstein, und Thomas Schmidt-Lux. Forcierte Säkularität: Religiöser Wandel und Generationendynamik im Osten Deutschlands. Frankfurt/Main, New York: Campus, 2009.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “Religion and Science or Religion versus Science? About the Social Construction of the Science-Religion-Antagonism in the German Democratic Republic and its Lasting Consequences,” in The role of religion in modern societies. Edited by Detlef Pollack and Daniel V. A. Olson, 224–47. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, Thomas Schmidt-Lux, and Uta Karstein. “Secularization as Conflict.” Social Compass, 55/2 (2008): 127–39.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and Levent Tezcan, eds. Konfliktfeld Islam in Europa. Special issue of Soziale Welt, 17 (2007).
  • Karstein, Uta, Thomas Schmidt-Lux, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, and M. Punken. “Säkularisierung als Konflikt? Zur subjektiven Plausibilität des ostdeutschen Säkularisierungsprozesses.” Berliner Journal für Soziologie, 4 (2006): 441–61.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, Uta Karstein, and Ch. Schaumburg. “‘Ich würd’ mir das offen lassen‘: Agnostische Spiritualität als Annäherung an die ‚große Transzendenz‘ eines Lebens nach dem Tode.” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, 13 (2005): 153–74.
  • Gärtner, Christel, Detlef Pollack, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, eds. Atheismus und religiöse Indifferenz. Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 2003.
  • Schmidt, Thomas, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. “Still the Most Areligious Part of the World: Developments in the Religious Field in Eastern Germany since 1990.” International Journal of Practical Theology, 7 (2003): 86–100.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “Säkularisierungsprozesse und kulturelle Generationen: Ähnlichkeiten und Unterschiede zwischen Westdeutschen, Ostdeutschen und den Niederlanden,” in Lebenszeiten: Erkundungen zur Soziologie der Generationen. Edited by Günter Burkart and Jürgen Wolf, 209–28. Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 2002.
  • Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika. “Säkularisierte Gesellschaft,” in Soziologische Gesellschaftsbegriffe II: Klassische Zeitdiagnosen. Edited by G. Kneer, Armin Nassehi and Markus Schroer, 308–32. München, 2001.