Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies


Cross-Fertilization: The Pastor, The Woman and the Unholy Matrimony of Belief

by Abimbola Adelkun, University of Texas at Austin

This study interrogates the image of the male preacher figure in Nigerian Pentecostalism. My study takes off from W.E.B DuBois’ characterization of the black preacher in African American church as “most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, a politician, an orator, a “boss,” an intriguer, an idealist…”1 According to DuBois, this figure is an evolution of the witchdoctor from paganistic African societies. I argue a similar cultural retention in the male preacher in Nigerian contemporary Pentecostal religion. 

This study will study the embodied performances of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, the founder of Christ Embassy Church, Nigeria; the branches in various parts of the world and satellite broadcasting, to trace the process of cultural continuity that led from the witchdoctor personality to that of pastor. Pentecostalism enacts much of the elements of indigenous religions while at the same time disowns any relationship with the latter. Several scholarships have described this with various terms such as “blending” or “fusion.” 

These concepts suggest the merging of two worlds - that of indigenous religious practices and which signifies “traditional” with Pentecostalism that signifies “modernity.” This assumes a union of two discrete parts to form a coherent whole. In the place of a either blending or fusion, I propose transmutation. Transmutation extends the idea of the repertoire as conceived by Diana Taylor. She argues that performance constitutes a form of knowing because it is "vital acts of transfer" that transmit social knowledge, cultural memory, and identities2. This essay will interrogate how the performances in Pentecostal church enhance the process of transmutation; and how this alters the underlying identity of indigenous religions, enough to extricate its identity from the genealogical past.


The Spiritual but not Religious Subject at Play in the Metamodernist West

by Linda Ceriello, Rice University

The Spiritual but not Religious (SbnR) movement is situated in a post-secular milieu, in that it combines religious traditions of “The East” with specific secular “Western” perspectives. But more than just reflecting pluralism, this paper will argue, the current SbnR emerges as a force significant for the study of contemporary western forms of religion as a direct consequence of its hybridity. It reflects a post-postmodern epistemic shift being theorized of late with the moniker: metamodernism

Vermeulen (2011) writes that metamodernism “negotiates between a yearning for universal truths and relativism, between a desire for sense and a doubt about the sense of it all.”[i] Metamodernism names the full reflexive awareness of the human desire to seek an “answer” and the simultaneous contemporary understanding that history will continually belie that effort. By eschewing neither the human penchant toward grand, all-encompassing meanings and theories nor the postmodern informed contemporary human experience of the meaninglessness of any such unified reality, I assert, a way is paved for a cultural narrative of a different sort. I will introduce theorization of this nascent turn, whose hallmark is not only its combinatory reconciliation of modern and postmodern cultural readings but the creation of something consequently uniquely responsive to contemporary secular concerns in its offering of an affective reclamation.

The metamodern concedes the conundrum that has confronted scholarly comparativism--namely that there is no neutral language with which to compare. And at the same time, the emotional logic of metamodernism gives address to the scholarly project of not reducing the understanding of one religion to the terms of the other while it portends a mode of comparing that also manages not to devalue the “subjective mélange” that ultimately results.

This essay will track the trajectory of historical development of the controlling narratives of the SbnR, especially through the appropriation of specific concepts native to Indian philosophic schools such as Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism as absorbed by the West, and the fascination for Eastern religious traditions’ use of transgression, to show that the inclusion of full, and hence fully flawed, affective human experience satisfies the multiple identity formulations that are the calling card of the SbnR while also creating an opening for the secular subject to reemerge after the Derridian death knell. 

Codifying a Japanese State Religion:  B­­­ateren Zuiho no Fumi  as Constructive Synthesis

by Robert Greenlee, University of Chicago Divinity School

In Japan at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, the categorization of religion remained an open, but pressing, political question.  The state-building efforts of the prior century destabilized the Buddhist institutions that had previously dominated, and new articulations of Shinto, Confucianism and Christianity were arising to challenge Buddhist ideology.  The Japanese shogunate effectively reframed this debate by issuing Bateren Zuiho no Fumi (1614).  This regulation, drafted by the monk-bureaucrat Ishin Suden, articulated a synthetic vision of Buddhism, Shinto and Confucian doctrines to the end of prohibiting Catholicism. 

The paper evaluates Bateren Zuiho no Fumi as a persuasive legal work of comparative religion.  Close reading of the regulation suggests that by promulgating this regulation, the shogunate intended two results:  eliminating the social risk posed by the Jesuits and Franciscans most active during the period, and rearticulating the conditions of possibility for religious practice in the emergent Tokugawa state.  Read in conjunction with laws issued to Buddhist temples (jiin hatto) during the same period, a normative model for religious conduct emerges.  This model is deceptively open to syncretic doctrine—promoting collaboration of Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucian ideas—within narrow bounds of acceptable conduct. 

Although the paper addresses themes about the construction of religion in a particular moment, the methods this paper analyzes generalize readily.   Beyond the obvious point that the state inevitably uses law to define religion, this paper explores a moment in which the legal medium establishes the acceptable parameters of religious syncretism.  Such moments reflect the destabilizing possibilities of syncretism—the state intercedes to ensure that the category does not exceed the bounds of its control.  Simultaneously, syncretism constitutes the state—where a state lacks a mandate to regulate religious practice, the performance of synthesis provides a justification for the state’s authority to exclude. 

Borrowing from Three Crates: 16th Century Morisco Religiosity and the Art of Religious Sampling

by E. J. Hernandez, Temple University

Sampling in music has a long history that pre-dates the use of modern electronic devices perhaps by centuries. Historically, sampling can be envisioned as a form of borrowing and reshaping of popular antecedents. Authenticity and authorship aside, sampling includes the repackaging of the popular past and the remaking of that past into what then becomes the genres of the present, but it can also be viewed as a form of backward projection that lays claim to the authority of the past and makes the new and innovative seem familiar to the listener. This familiarity lends authenticity to the new and different, by making it not seem so different after all. The effectiveness of sampling as an aid to the acceptance and reception of  Hip-Hop at its inception during the late 1970s and early 1980s has been linked to the familiarity of the samples being deployed. Young adults at those early parties, when Hip-Hop was still embryonic, danced to familiar rhythms that reminded them directly of the music their parents' listened too. Sampling in religion does a bit of the same.

After the fall of the Muslim Sultanate of Granada at the very beginnings of the 16th century, the Muslims of Granada found themselves being faced with the choices of either death, expulsion or forced conversion to Catholicism. The majority who converted were then policed for the greater part of the 16th century through legislation enacted to curtail any vestigial forms of Islam among the newly dubbed Moriscos, or little Moors. Moriscos, who lived under state surveillance, we're able though to create religiosities on the ground that defied state and ecclesiastical regulation and borrowed from the Judaic, Christian and Islamic corpus of Iberian religion and made something new. This paper argues that what was created was something more than a mere hybrid or syncretic religiosity and that the Moriscos were participating in what could be conceptualized as a form of religious sampling.

Bovine Peace Sacrifice in South Sudan: Employing Conceptual Mixture to Interpret Religious Mixture

by Ross Kane, University of Virginia

The ritual of bovine peace sacrifice, practiced in South Sudan during the 1990s and 2000s to address ongoing conflict between Dinka and Nuer, intentionally blended elements from Dinka and Nuer indigenous spiritualities as well as Christian spiritualities. In a single ritual space, Christian priests and bishops read from Christian scriptures and offered Christian prayers, while Dinka and Nuer spear masters prayed to the dead and said the bull's death would seal peace between the two peoples. The paper offers various ritual interpretations by participants and discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of terminologies of synthesis and syncretism. Synthesis adequately describes interpretations offered by many ritual participants who did not employ categories like "indigenous religion"; yet syncretism--despite its dependence upon binaries--portrays the contested nature of this religious mixture, as interpreted by other ritual participants, in a way synthesis does not. The paper argues that, if new insights in academia often come in response to past inadequacies through a dialectical process, scholars should appreciate the virtues of previous terminologies in order to move beyond them to fuller explanatory approaches. The path to adequate terminology passes through, not around, terms like syncretism. Thus the paper is itself a performance of the search for conceptual resources to adequately describe religious mixture--a search that, in this case, involves conceptual mixture, because synthesis and syncretism each carry explanatory power that the other lacks. It concludes that employing plural approaches offers a compelling means of interpreting religious mixture, at least until scholars discover additional terms that adequately capture such complex phenomena.

Separate but Equal: Legal Impediments to Religious Mixing

by Lauren R. Kerby, Boston University

While religious mixing has always been a feature of religiously diverse societies, such mixing is not always socially sanctioned. Frequently, religious authorities erect barriers that keep religious groups within the boundaries of their discrete communities by prohibiting practices ranging from interfaith marriage to interfaith meals. However, impediments to religious mixing may also arise from non-religious sources. Modern secular law in the United States and elsewhere is often hostile to religious mixing, and laws purporting to defend religious freedom can work to discourage any blurring of the boundaries between religious communities. This paper examines the historical concerns that have led to modern secular law’s agenda of keeping religions separate, in order to demonstrate that such law poses a substantial but often unrecognized challenge to religious mixing. 

This paper will focus on the American context, where laws concerning religion are centered on the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment and are thus designed specifically to safeguard religious liberty. Yet, as scholars have frequently recognized, such laws protect certain types of religion while proscribing others; and in doing so, I argue, they also shape interreligious interactions in a way that discourages religious mixing. Drawing on the work of Winnifred Sullivan, Benjamin Berger, Silvio Ferrari, and other scholars of law and religion, this paper identifies three aims of laws that have contributed to the development of its current hostility toward religious mixing. These aims are 1) preventing outright religious violence; 2) protecting minorities from oppressive majorities; and 3) creating communities that overcome the barriers of religious differences. Through understanding how these concerns have shaped the law into its current form, we are better able to understand the ways in which religious mixing is constrained by the legal context in which it occurs.

Devotees and Detractors of Shirdi Sai Baba, a “Syncretistic Saint” in Modern India

by Jonathan Loar, Emory University

In the mid-nineteenth century, Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918) appeared in Shirdi village in what is today the state of Maharashtra in western India. As religious identities were rigidifying under colonial rule, this miracle-working fakir combined Hindu and Islamic traditions such that the earliest hagiographers described him as “neither Hindu nor Muslim.” After Indian Independence, the next generation of hagiography elevated Shirdi Sai Baba from a fakir inhabiting the indeterminable space between identities to a saint-cum-spokesman for national integration who was, in the words of one hagiographer, an “emblem of Hindu-Muslim unity” and the “fusion of Hinduism with Islam.” Thus, syncretism functions in the Shirdi Sai Baba hagiographic tradition as a discursive strategy to offset the divisiveness of communalism and Partition.

My presentation examines the discourses of devotees and detractors who see Shirdi Sai Baba as an embodiment of religious syncretism. First, I discuss the saint’s appearance in the 1977 blockbuster Amar, Akbar, Anthony in which he participates in the film’s subtext that portrays India’s religious communities as brothers from the same mother (India). However, this fraternity also establishes an anti-syncretistic hierarchy between the Hindu elder brother and the Muslim and Christian siblings. Second, I review the activity on the Hindi Facebook page – “Shirdi Sai Baba: The Biggest Hypocrite in Indian History” – as it polemically frames the saint as “a form of jihad” (jihad ka ek roop) that has infiltrated Hinduism and led Hindus astray. I conclude by arguing for the retention of “syncretism” not as a first-order term of scholarly interpretation but as a second-order discourse invoked by devotees and detractors to describe “syncretistic saints,” like Shirdi Sai Baba. I suggest that the term provides analytical insight inasmuch as syncretism and anti-syncretism factor into the inclusivist and exclusivist agendas of identity politics in modern India.  

Rethinking Religious Synthesis through a Tibetan Conceptualization of Buddhism and Polity

by Ian MacCormack, Harvard University 

The polity crystallizing around the fifth Dalai Lama in the mid-17th century fixed the terms for thinking about religion and politics in Tibet. Their self-representation employed the concept of chos srid zung 'brel (the “combination" of chos,dharma,” and srid, “polity/rule”) – thus quite literally affirming a certain synthesis. Scholars have largely treated this synthesis as that between “religion” or “Buddhism” on one hand and “the state” or “politics” on the other. The fourteenth Dalai Lama has also interpreted this legacy in attempts to disentangle his own authority from that of the Tibetan state according to the terms of modern secular geopolitics.

Buddhism is no stranger to critiques of “synthesis.” Accounts of its “Tibetanization” or “Sinification” have been challenged for their implicit essentialization of what counts for “Buddhism.” Further, critics of secularity have shown us how susceptible the boundaries of “religion” and its others are to a circularity whereby the very categories whose distinction must be explained also double as the terms by which that history is evaluated. Scholars of religion may be familiar with problems thus raised by the purportedly synthetic case of “political Islam;” Tibet similarly merits attention.

Granted these objections I will argue for the continuing relevance of a notion of “synthesis” for thinking here about religion, albeit one that must be complicated. A synthetic concept like chos srid zung 'brel simultaneously affirms distinctions even as it subordinates them in itself. What real differences condition these understandings, and how do we study religion through them? My close examination of this particular example will think with Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher of difference whose idea of passive and active synthesis may suggest one way to contextualize these past negotiations of identity and difference so that they may speak meaningfully, but not reductively, to our own concerns for “religious mixing.”

Waiting for the Espiritista: Toward an Ethnography of the Ultra-Mundane

by Alyssa Maldonado, Princeton University 

Based on an ethnographic study of a visit to a Puerto Rican espiritista, a medium who works with and serves the spirits and saints, this paper calls for different approach to the study of Caribbean religions in New York City. During my visit, I found myself in the espiritista’s dining room, which had become an impromptu waiting room for her clients. As I sat with other women I found the waiting space to be a site of social mixing, a place where mostly women can gather and talk about their lives and problems. This was a rich site of the aesthetics of accumulation: social and religious networks were proudly displayed in the stuff that crowded the room. Many studies of Caribbean religions focus on the spectacular site of the altar as the epitome of syncretic space, as the locus of iconic hybridity. I want to investigate the wider domestic space to see how social and spiritual networks intertwine and permeate the home in a descriptive and performative display.

By constructing a spatial inventory of the waiting room and a social inventory of the conversations and social interactions that took place there, I focus on the ultra-mundane, the everyday-ness of Caribbean religion in New York City. The literature of Caribbean traditions focuses on the expert who is blessed with spiritual power; these studies focus on trance, healing, and celebration: the spectacular aspects of Caribbean religion. Another mode of studying these Caribbean religions has been from a medical or psychoanalytic point of view; these studies focus on individual pathology. I want to focus less on the special ritual moments and gifted or healing bodies and more on the theme of gathering: what happens when people wait for the espiritista, how do they interact with each other? How does domestic space represent the espiritista herself? This approach will give a fuller picture of the lived, mundane experience of Caribbean religion, a synthetic approach for thinking about its overlapping spaces, lives, and voices that will promote consideration of the theme of mixing in its spatial, material, and social contexts.

 A Cultural Transmission of a God: The Case of Mithra in Nemrut Dagi 

by Nina Mazhjoo, Erfurt University 

The main subject of this research is the cultural interaction between the Greek and “Oriental” world during the Hellenistic age. It concentrates on the ruler cult of Antiochus I of Commagene (63-36 BC) and especially on the monuments of Nimrut Dagi. The publication of Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae (1960) written by M.Vermaseren turned scholars’ attention to the discussion concerning the origin of Mithraism, a mystery cult which appeared in the Roman Empire during Antiquity epoch. The similarities (?) among the Persian god Mithra and the Roman deity Mithras caused some hypothesis concerning a religious transmission of the God Mithra from the Persian to the Greco-Roman culture in Asia Minor. The main problem in here has always been to obtain convincing evidence over this transmission and its way.It seems that the extant monuments from the Commagene kingdom at Nemrut Dagi, today in Turkey, provide credible evidence for this transmission during Hellenistic epoch. Undoubtedly, Nemrut Dagi consists of strong witnesses of the cultural hybridity in the Hellenistic Orient; a cultural hybridity among Persian and Greek cultures. The first part of the thesis involves a descriptive research on the extant materials and draws on mostly archeological data and primary sources. In the second part follows an analysis of all archeological informations concerning the example of Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes as a hybrid god, and then a discussion of the cultural-religious hybridity at Nemrut Dagi under the rule of Antiochus I. The main concentration lies on a comparative study between Mithra as a Persian god and his Greek counterpart deities, Apollo, Helios and Hermes, and the religious-political concept/role of this hybrid god in the whole structure of Antiochus’ ruler cult will be discussed. 

This research tries to provide a proper response to the enigma of Mithra’s transmission to the West as an example for cultural interactions during the Hellenistic age. 

The Spirit of the Scene: American Camping Music Festivals

by Scott Muir

Contemporary pluralistic spaces where religious mixing is not only prevalent but normative provide excellent opportunities for embodied, interactive investigation of the complex dynamics of religious synthesis. Drawing on survey, interview and observational data gathered at nine neo-hippie music festivals, I will illustrate how these spaces foster individualistic syncretism and nourish a diverse array of hybrid identities. Ethnographic observation of these dynamic environments yielded analysis of a plethora of religious symbols in the ubiquitous art surrounding “the scene.” Participation in this exceptionally open and interactive social world revealed how cardinal virtues of tolerance, openness to experience, and individual liberty problematize commitment to a single religious tradition while simultaneously promoting exploration of the full spectrum of religious beliefs and practices. The administration of over five hundred pencil-and-paper surveys facilitated the nuancing of the diverse majority who identify as “spiritual-but-not-religious,” a label vague enough to encompass the diversity of personal religious mosaics conditioned by the apparent tension between open-minded affirmation of transcultural metaphysical meaning-making and pervasive critique of identifying labels and institutions perceived to divide and limit individuals. These tensions and ambiguities challenge the scholar to develop an analytic vocabulary elastic enough to capture both the diversity and fluidity of the religious identities neo-hippies construct and the varied ways that such individualistic syncretism is ironically reinforced through collective norms, values and practices. Of course, these challenges are more pervasive in our field than particular to this subculture. As a participant, I hope to offer up the terminology and theory employed in this project to help others wrestle with these perennial problems of representing unity and diversity in complex, dynamic environments, sharpen my analysis with the aid of my colleagues’ constructive critiques, and incorporate new tools and insights through engagement with their work.

Competition and Transcendence in the Jain Philosophy of Synthesis

by Anil Mundra, University of Chicago

It is a little-known fact that the Indian Jains built syncretism into their religion at its historical and conceptual outset. Their philosophy of anekāntavāda, or “many-sided-ness” – attested in some of their very early scriptures – has sometimes been interpreted as epistemological indeterminacy, relativism, or toleration; but I argue that it is best understood as a critical philosophy of perspectival synthesis. As such, it is a rare pre-modern example of a constitutively, explicitly, and self-consciously synthetic religion. In its rigor and formalism, it displays a striking model of religious synthesis, and brings into relief some of the central conceptual tensions inherent in attempts to mix diverse faiths.

The Jains maintain that there is some way in which each of its religious neighbors and rivals is true; and that the true religion is the one that includes and combines the true aspects of each. This mixing requires some sophisticated analytical and synthetic maneuvers; and it raises questions about the extent to which such attempts at synthesis include and marginalize their religious others. Indeed, the Jain approach points to fundamental issues about the boundaries and relationships between traditions, and the possibilities for a religion to be within or above the fray of interreligious diversity and competition. As an example emerging from a pre-modern group that was itself marginalized, though, the Jain case abstracts these features from the usual imperial power dynamics. It therefore furnishes a model both new and very old of the possibilities and limitations of religious synthesis.

Henna’s a Jewish Thing?: Jewish Henna Ceremonies and Religious Creativity

by Noam Sienna, University of Toronto

At a henna party hosted by a Hindu student group at an American college, one participant said to the author (upon learning of the author’s research on Jewish henna traditions) with surprise: “henna’s a Jewish thing?” A year later, in Jerusalem, at a henna ceremony for a Moroccan-Israeli couple, an elderly participant remarked to the author (in response to a question about the similarities to non-Jewish henna ceremonies): “Do non-Jews do henna? No, no, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Henna is only a Jewish thing.” This contrast illustrates both the power with which communities claim ownership regarding particular rituals and practices, as well as the invisibility of the cultural symbiosis embedded in the genealogy of those practices. This paper investigates instances where Jewish communities in the Diaspora developed henna ceremonies — a practice shared with their non-Jewish neighbours — expressing unique Jewish meanings and applications, thus challenging simplistic binaries of defining ‘Jewish’ or ‘non-Jewish’ ritual.

Jewish henna ceremonies are often described using the language of ‘borrowing’ or ‘adoption,’ but this model does not do justice to the ways in which Jewish practices come in being at the boundaries between communities. Rejecting a static and essentialized model of culture, where a homogeneous Jewish community absorbs pre-existing forms from its homogeneous surroundings, this paper explores how both Jewish and non-Jewish henna ceremonies represent unique innovations formed out of the continual intermingling of diverse populations. Using examples drawn from fieldwork and historical records of henna traditions among Jewish communities in North Africa, Yemen, Persia, and India, this presentation pushes towards a consideration of the pluralism and dynamism of religious communities and their ritual creativity.

Folk-tronica and Evangelical Mysticism: The Recombinatory Music of David*Crowder Band

by Courtney Tepera, Temple University

David Crowder*Band was one of the top bands of the Christian contemporary music scene from 1999 – 2012, despite breaking genre boundaries by combining pop worship with rock, bluegrass, techno, hymns, and liturgical recordings. Analysis of their work demonstrates that while grounded in evangelical culture, David Crowder*Band also operated in the traditions of Western Christian mysticism. Their songs are invested with these themes: the ineffability of God, direct felt presence of the divine, and lover/beloved intimacy with God. Placed alongside scholarship on postmodern spirituality, it becomes clear that David Crowder*Band's mysticism appeals to specific elements of postmodern religiosity. The musical genre recombinations speak to the detraditionalization of religion and the fragmentation of symbols and narratives. Meanwhile, direct experience of the sacred corresponds to postmodern concepts of language and individual authority. This band is an example of mysticism forming a natural bridge between the postmodern self and the theology of evangelicalism. In their work, “remixing” is not just a musical technique. It is an ethos by which they combine several seemingly divergent theological forms to create a new form which has both the vitality of the new and the cultural capital of the old.


Hesiod's Father: Religious Synthesis Finds its Level

by Andrew Tobolowsky, Brown University 

Most models of interchange in the ancient Mediterranean have a tendency to treat cultures like walled cities and to ask the question: how do we get notions and narratives over the walls?  Consequently, interchange models have focused on travelers: artisans, musicians, and religious entrepreneurs, whose business it was to peddle cultural forms in new places. Though there is merit to this idea, it creates models of synthesis that are exclusively focused on mechanisms which can bring external forces within.

It is more than probable that many of the forces that form syntheses are, in fact, internal. This is both because treating visitors as ambassadors of one culture to another defies the work of modern thinkers such as Brubaker regarding the role of groups (or rather, the lack of a role) in historical processes, and because much  of this interchange is presumably of the nature of what Lopez-Ruiz calls “intimate exchange”, through spouses and friends, teachers and neighbors. Perhaps much religious synthesis did not seem like synthesis at all.

 I will take as a case study an old problem, that of “Hurro-Hittite” influence in Hesiod‘sTheogony. As both the Hurrians and the Hittite Empire had vanished by 1190 BCE, and as Hesiod tell us that his father was an Anatolian Greek, this example provides an opportunity to query what it would mean if Hesiod’s famous “influences” came to him quite naturally, in Boeotia, from his own father. Did Hesiod have any idea that his story had “non-Greek” elements, and did his audiences? Would it depend upon the audience? If synthesis is a highly organic process of day to day life rather than an external process of groups and travelers, it makes a great deal of difference. If Hesiod learned this myth at his father's knee, what does it mean for him, for the myth, and for us?

Reassembling Religious: A New Materialist Method for Studying People and Things in Religious Studies

by Sonia Hazard, Duke University

The study of religion remains largely delimited by its anthropocentric methods. That is, scholars tend to ask only certain questions of religion—questions whose contours are the thinking, practicing, and feeling human being. This privileging of the human remains an undisputed orthodoxy even in religious material culture studies, which continue to be dominated by either symbolic or phenomenological methods: the first mines material things for religious meanings (for humans), while the second limits its inquiries to material things as they register on the human body in the forms of sensation and practice. Nonhuman material things struggle to come into sharp focus.

This paper makes an argument for a new model of understanding religion as comprised of intermixed hybrids, or “assemblages” of both human and nonhuman actors. Drawing on philosophical work by Deleuze, Latour, Bennett, and others, it shows how humans and nonhumans can never be separated cleanly, despite our entrenched habits of thought that presuppose their binary segregation. Instead, humans and nonhumans are fundamentally entangled and co-constitutive, such that boundaries between them become blurred or even collapse altogether. Nonhuman material things, then, are revealed to be religious agents, as humans are. Things do not merely work as constraints on human religious imagination and practice, but are actually generative of religion. They possess religious powers and propensities of their own. 

These theoretical claims are advanced on the basis of a case study from the author’s subfield of American religious history. As Protestant publishing giants like the American Tract Society became dominant forces in American society in the 1820s, the success of their evangelization through print must be seen as largely attributable to myriad nonhuman material agents such as the printing press, stereotyped plates, boxwood blocks, and canals. These various materialities assembled with Protestant bodies and imaginations in novel and unpredictable ways that are irreducible to human intention, use, or meaning. Antebellum American Protestantism, then, must be seen as an intermixed, hybrid formation of both humans and nonhumans. 

Landscapes of Religious Encounter: Region and Identity in Pre-Modern Bengal

by Bennett DiDente Comerford, Harvard University 

Although the border dividing West Bengal, India from Bangladesh was established with “religious” ends in mind, namely the goal of separating a Hindu-majority geographical area from a Muslim-majority one, such borders have hardly inhibited the continued “mixing” of these now separated communities. My paper will consider the particularities of such mixing on two fronts. I will look to the case of the Bauls of Bengal on the one hand and some of the most prominent figures from Bengali literature on the other. While this may sound like an odd combination, a study of the Bauls in conjunction with a few of the most celebrated Bengali Hindu and Muslim writers directs us toward a “mixing” that is layered, multifaceted, experiential and sophisticated. Baul communities, often described as syncretic sects of wandering minstrel mystics, are generally comprised of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. A consideration of these communities as religiously “mixed” provides us with a concrete starting point for understanding the religiously wide-reaching and tolerant sensibilities of Bengalis on both sides of the border. A turn to modern Bengali literature, and particularly the reception history of such literature up to present, will deepen this scope of inquiry. I will consider, for example, how Bengali Muslims revere Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu, while Bengali Hindus adore Kazi Nazrul Islam, a Muslim. This will segue into a broader consideration of the relationship between religion, literature and performance traditions within the purview of religious “mixing.” My analytic framework, concerned with the relationship between elite and self-conscious literary work and non-elite religio-moral performance, will not only highlight a dynamic of religious "mixing" that is particular to Bengal, but will also lead to speculations regarding the innumerable parallels of this dynamic throughout South Asia and beyond. 


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