Modernity is inescapable and yet escapes any clear definition. Few concepts and categories have been subjected to as intensive, long-running, multidisciplinary, and contentious exploration, debate, disagreement, and theoretical meditation as modernity. At once ubiquitous and yet ineffable, modernity, like its Siamese twin secularism, can only be examined through its shadows and traces.

On one account, modernity refers to a time period: roughly the late eighteenth century onward (a highly contested temporal marker of course), hence the often and aptly employed construction “colonial modernity.” Modernity also signals a particular normative disposition suffused with some of its signature values like valorizing autonomy over heteronomy, championing scientific rationality over claims of faith, and privileging certainty over ambiguity. Seen from yet another perspective, modernity is marked by new technologies and institutions, especially that most modern of all institutions: the modern state. Modernity, indeed, much like secularism, is indelibly entangled with modern state sovereignty. There is no modernity without the modern state. Modernity is the article of faith, the doctrinal fuel if you will, that authorizes and engines the sovereign power of the modern state, and often justifies its unparalleled and unprecedented violence: militarily and epistemically.

But for all its unseemly sides and operations, what makes modernity such a normatively forceful and attractive idea and ideal? The answer might lie in narrative.

I am often drawn to theorist Fredric Jameson’s enticing suggestion in A Singular Modernity that modernity “is not a concept, philosophical or otherwise, but a narrative category.” This means that the normative thrust of modernity as an allegedly universal category and moral good lies in the self-authorizing and self-congratulatory narrative it tells about itself, as constituting an exceptional break from the rest of history. As Jameson memorably put it, “‘Modernity’ . . . as a trope, is itself a sign of modernity as such. The very concept of modernity is itself modern, and dramatizes its own claims.” To be clear, this self-referential quality of modernity does not mean that modernity is an identifiable agent with a defined name and address that says and claims things. Rather, the narrative persona of modernity represents a product of a confluence of varied yet converging actors, texts, discourses, and institutions that have collectively shaped and sustained the seemingly naturalized ontology and identity of modernity as a decisive break from what it succeeded.

Crucial to making sense of the narrative force of modernity is to think about the following paradox: modernity is at once an event that represents a “break” from the past and also a “period” that is valorized as an unprecedented successor to previous periods. Even as modernity is defined initially as a complete severance from the traditions and continuities of the past, over time that rupture itself emerges as a well-defined and stable period in its own right, what we call “the modern period.” Most importantly, the narrative effect of modernity is to rewrite and reconstitute the past so that its dramatic cleavage from that past might be secured, affirmed, and naturalized.

Here is why this insight is critical to the study of religion. Scholars of religion now widely accept that tradition and modernity cannot be treated as opposites since traditions, including religious traditions, adapt to and creatively engage the political, institutional, and technological conditions of modernity, such as, for instance, in the effective use of print by evangelical and reformist movements in the global North and South. Approaching modernity as a narrative category, however, affords the additional conceptual and political space to highlight a far more important point: the tradition/modernity binary is riddled with problems not only because traditions are dynamic. More crucially, modernity itself represents a tradition sustained and nourished by a powerful, yet entirely contingent and in no way inevitable, frame that narrativizes, moralizes, and hence authorizes modernity’s self-ascribed claims of exceptionalism.

Approaching modernity as a narrative category is not to deny its reality, even as it rests on rather mythical and fantastical promises and assumptions. Thinking through the narratology of modernity instead offers the possibility of disrupting and refusing the neat embrace of a thoroughly local and contingent construct, steeped in the violent history and present of Western colonial power, as a universal and inevitable tenet of [secular] belief.

Although the beginnings and founding logics of modernity are firmly rooted in the local histories of Western colonialism, its appeal, pressures, and tentacles often extend to and permeate the social and religious imaginaries of the colonized. This brings me to a conceptual problem that often haunts scholars of religion writing about non-Christian traditions like Islam (one may include Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism) in global South contexts such as South Asia. How should one conceptualize the encounter of modern colonial conditions and indigenous religious reform movements and discourses? How might one theorize indigenous projects of reform that often mirror modernist critiques of spiritual hierarchies and eagerly compete to secure the purity of religious identity against internal and external others? Do these represent examples of alternate non-Western modernities?

Here I find myself in profound agreement with anthropologist David Scott, who in his now classic Conscripts of Modernity argued that the search for “alternate modernities” represents a conceptually wanting exercise, animated by the well-intentioned though flawed desire of imputing the native her agency from the rubbles of colonial power. To present the gist of a complex argument, the quest for native agency fails to consider the uneven power dynamics and relations of the terms and terrain on which the native allegedly enters into dialogue with the colonizer. On the other hand, however, I am also sympathetic to the view that assimilating or reducing indigenous projects of religious reform as products of a modern colonial episteme, or as instantiations of say a “modern Protestant Islam” is also less than satisfactory.

In my recent book Defending Muḥammad in Modernity, centered on competing visions of the relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic charisma, and the practice of everyday ritual life, what I call “competing political theologies,” in colonial Muslim South Asia, I suggest that especially while examining the reform projects of nonmodernist actors, like the traditionalist Muslim scholars or the ‘ulama’ who populate this book, it might be useful to distinguish between the technological and institutional conditions of modernity, and its knowledge sources and traditions. While enveloped by and indebted to the technologies of colonial modernity, the rival narratives of Islam and Muslim identity proffered by these actors, as they contested the normative place and memory of Prophet Muhammad in modernity, drew on a long-running intellectual heritage of texts, authorities, and citational practices irreducible to the political and conceptual juggernaut of modernity. Just as modern colonial power embodies and articulates shifting rationalities and logics in varied historical conjunctures, so, too, do indigenous traditions of religious reform exhibit a panoply of interpretive styles, objects of discontent, and conceptions of normativity. Some movements and actors, such as the modernist elite in different contexts and religious traditions, tend to be closely entangled with modern colonial educational institutions and knowledge regimes. For others, such as many among the Muslim traditionalist scholars (ulama) in colonial India, that relationship was a lot more tenuous.

Exploring and examining the depth, variety, and layered complexities of such indigenous discursive archives is critical precisely to overcome the very binary between excavating native agency and assimilating all indigenous projects of religious reform to the event of colonial modernity. Finding analytical avenues beyond the agency/assimilation binary nuances our understanding of the interplay of religion and colonial secular modernity. The specific texture of such an exercise will vary from context to context. But as a base ingredient, it must appreciate the exceptional power of colonial modernity—so as not to venture on the analytically sweaty path of agency hunting—and excavate alternate sources and logics of life that undercut modernity’s claims to universal exceptionality. The study of religion and secular power, especially in non-Western non-Christian settings, offers productive potential for launching and executing this decolonial mission of provincializing Western modernity.