Global Religious History and Religious Comparison: a Programmatic Outline

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Julian Strube Assistant Professor, Institut für Religionswissenschaft, Universität Wien Vienna Austria

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This introduction outlines the contributions of Global Religious History, or Global History of Religion, to the issue of religious comparison. First, it argues for religious comparison as an integral part of religious studies that should not be abandoned but revised. Second, it addresses the larger framework of debates in religious studies and global history, arguing for the value of Global Religious History in avoiding Eurocentrism, but also tendencies within the postcolonial spectrum that mirror Eurocentric shortcomings. What is often perceived as a crisis in religious studies is understood here as an ongoing process of reflection and refinement that allows us to contextualize both the object of study and its researcher. Finally, this outline presents concrete elements that can inform revised approaches to religious comparison, including a genealogical method, entanglement and decentered historiography, and translingual practice. This allows us to expand our scope not only geographically, but also temporally.

1 Comparison as an Integral Part of Religious Studies

Recent years have seen constructive discussions about the usefulness of global historical perspectives in religious studies. While the contributors to this special issue have been in conversation about this subject for several years, it is only recently that our efforts have been systematically focused. Decisive earlier impulses for what in German is called globale Religionsgeschichte, but which is variously translated as either Global Religious History or Global History of Religion, go back more than 10 years.1 After a conference at the University of Heidelberg in 2018 and several panels at the meetings of the German Association for Religious Studies (DVRW) starting the following year, a first special issue on “Global Religious History” was published in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion in 2021,2 followed by the founding conference of a new DVRW working group at the University of Vienna in July 2022. This issue is its direct outcome.

It is important to note that what I prefer to call Global Religious History – struggling with the translation of the inconspicuous German prefix Religions- in a certainly imperfect way – is not a homogeneous approach. Rather, our forum thrives on a diversity of perspectives and specializations that revolve around a shared set of challenges. Before sketching how we might envision the contributions of Global Religious History (GRH) to the issue of religious comparison, it is necessary to provide a broader framework for this publication, which allows me to first present a number of convictions shared by all the interlocutors.3

Perhaps most fundamentally, GRH offers critical perspectives on the assumption that there has been “a Western/European/Christian concept of religion” that has been unilaterally exported to “the rest” of the world.4 The interlocutors of GRH acknowledge the importance of “modernity” for the meanings of religion, as well as the power asymmetries, exploitation, oppression, and multiple forms of violence inherent in European colonialism and expansionism. Precisely because of this recognition, GRH seeks to take full account of the agency of “non-Western” actors who actively and decisively shaped modernity, and meanings of religion in particular, even under the conditions of colonialism.5 In doing so, GRH seeks to complicate the very binary of “the West and the Rest” through an understanding of globally entangled cultural exchanges rather than Eurocentric diffusionism.6 This requires the study of local contexts, their languages, their people, and their diachronic histories. The latter aspect indicates that our research must extend diachronically beyond the modern period, and it also must aspire to move beyond the predominant focus on British colonialism. In many ways, a central concern of GRH is to combine “old school” philological, historical, and sociological handiwork with the crucial insights of recent decades, while avoiding the trappings of both “classical” Eurocentrism and those perspectives from within the postcolonial spectrum that eclipse “non-Western” historical actors by focusing exclusively on the power structures of colonialism and Western knowledge, and by assuming cultural incommensurability.7

It is clear that this ambitious agenda would sooner or later have to address one of the most contentious issues in religious studies, a focal point, so to speak, of its controversies, problems, and challenges: religious comparison. By the very nature of GRH, responses to this issue are diverse, but there is consensus on several key points:

  • (1) Religious comparison is a unique feature of religious studies and must be regarded as constitutive and indispensable for the discipline.8

  • (2) This is not least due to the fact that religious comparison is historically integral to the emergence and development of the discipline.

  • (3) The bundle of historical strands called comparative religion, Religionswissenschaft, or religious studies, among others, did not emerge and develop as a unilateral projection or imagination of Westerners, but through cultural exchanges that were significantly shaped by people all over the world.

The simple reason for why we should approach religion as a global subject that requires comparative approaches is this: people across the globe today use notions of “religion” (whether approvingly or disapprovingly), and historical actors have for centuries compared what they themselves called “religions” or what later came to be called such. Without attempting to discover a universal, essential meaning of religion, and without neglecting the vast differences in temporal and regional contexts, we can study how these significations came to be, through careful contextualization and historicization.

This is easier said than done. Beyond the subject of religion and the disciplines devoted to its study, comparison has been identified as complicit in Western hegemony and exploitation.9 While many acknowledge that comparison happens all the time and everywhere throughout our lives, “religion” poses a particularly demanding challenge.10 Precisely because religious comparison is an integral part of the history of the discipline, it has been and is seen by many as something to be overcome. Comparison has quite rightly fallen into disrepute, given the willingness of earlier comparativists to decontextualize, essentialize, and universalize.11 In the words of Bruce Lincoln, scholars have tended to “treat the complex products of another society’s imaginative labors as the raw materials from which they confect their theories.”12 This dynamic is clearly observable from the nineteenth century well towards the end of the twentieth, when mounting criticism led to a status quo in which, as Oliver Freiberger put it, most colleagues abstain from doing comparative work altogether, while others relegate methodological discussions of comparison “to a short section in the introduction, never to be returned to again.”13

2 Global Religious History as a Proposal to Move Forward

From my perspective, religious studies has an odd relationship with this development of its theories and methods, and I would like to offer a more positive note that points to a way out of a now widespread sense of crisis. Surely most colleagues would agree that the discipline has improved its approaches over the past half-century, yet there remains a discomfort with what is often assembled under a variety of post-prefixes, most notably postcolonialism, poststructuralism, and the especially dazzling term postmodernism. These discussions are not new, as already about a decade ago colleagues have voiced concern that, to quote Volkhard Krech, “research on religion, whether from a historical or present-day perspective, has lost sight of its subject due to epistemological and postcolonial considerations.”14 Similarly, Oliver Freiberger, Christoph Kleine, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr all identify, in different ways, postmodernist and postcolonial critiques among the main reasons for an ongoing “identity crisis” in religious studies.15 To be sure, hardly anyone would make a revisionist case for a return to the days of Eliade or even Frazer. There is broad agreement that our post-x state marks progress of some sort, only that we are still struggling to come to terms with it.

Lately, Mattias Brand has highlighted that “recent interpretations of postmodern and postcolonial criticism embraced a specific type of historical analysis to deconstruct the lingering presuppositions, global inequalities, and normativities of our academic narratives.” This fundamentally positive development, however, led to an “appreciation of historicised particulars instead of comparative transhistorical explorations of religion\s and religious themes.” What is more, Brand identifies “a climate of diminishing appreciation of historical research,” which further aggravates the problem.16 I agree with this analysis and appreciate the positive impetus that recent initiatives have given to taking it from there and think about ways to combine these relatively recent insights with new approaches to religious comparison. At the same time, Brand also addresses the tendency, among both advocates and critics, to reduce the hodgepodge of post-varieties we encounter in so many discussions to relativism, anti-realism, and postmodern arbitrariness.17 A recurring problem in many discussions of these issues is the construction of sweeping categories rather than discernible first-hand engagement with the literature and precise criticism.18 Even comparativist critics of “postmodernism” admit that “much of the postmodern critique […] has long resonated within the discipline of the history of religions and led to a revisioned comparativism.”19 Moreover, Jason Josephson-Storm has recently pointed out that “postmodern critique” predates “postmodernism” in crucial ways and is shared by many “non-postmodernists.”20 This demonstrates the need to think critically about the history of our and related disciplines in precise and nuanced ways.

This is not to say that there are no challenges for religious studies, and for comparison in particular. However, I am convinced that we are in the process of working out good solutions, precisely because of the theoretical and methodological developments in question. Several colleagues discussing global historical approaches in religious studies have employed postcolonial and related perspectives without arriving at the conclusions often associated with them. Bergunder, for instance, perceived of “the crisis of comparative religion” as one “of the epistemological foundation of religious studies in general and of its concepts in particular.”21 This was mainly due to the issue of the tertium comparationis, which in Bergunder’s line of argumentation was based on a European prototype that is more often than not reinforced rather than tested in acts of comparison.22 Bergunder argued that the issue was of even more fundamental importance: “Comparativists should not be singled out while historians and philologists are let off the hook as if they were not affected. If religious studies wants to overcome this crisis, it has to look for a better theoretical justification of its basic concepts.”23 Instead of abandoning “religion” as a general term, however, it was “important to emphasize that we are ‘stuck’ with ‘religion’ globally and on all levels. All over the world today, outside Europe and in all non-European languages, an equivalent to ‘religion’ has been well established. The comparative discourse on religion left the perimeters of scholarly comparison early on, and itself became part of religious identity formations.”24 This in itself should be the starting point for discussions of improved comparative approaches, as we must “learn to accept that our comparative concepts have a history that needs to be disclosed as a prerequisite for any further use.”25

It bears emphasizing that the conclusion of this critical discussion of the tertium comparationis was decidedly not to abandon religious comparison or the very term religion.26 Contrary to some colleagues, for example from the Critical Religion sphere that has made valuable contributions to the overall debate about the direction of religious studies, no participant in the discussions that led to the GRH forum came to the conclusion that “religion” should be dissolved into a general concept of culture, or that it is an act of epistemic violence and thus the intellectual perpetuation of Western imperialism to use it in “non-Western” contexts.27 This underscores the importance of precise critique, since the adoption of perspectives that may be ascribed to poststructuralism and postcolonialism – in themselves highly heterogeneous realms – does by no means lead to the same results. In fact, the current state of GRH, at least in my view, is a product of the realization of common goals and a productive handling of disagreements about how to achieve them. In a way, this has been noted by Brand when he faulted historians for being “primarily trained in the particularising practices of historicising and contextualising, which aspire to detailed interpretations of singular sources and events.”28 Brand does exempt global historical approaches from this tendency, and in another piece highlights the work of Christoph Kleine and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, on the one hand, and the work of Bergunder, Giovanni Maltese, and myself on the other, as embracing “post-structuralist and postcolonial theorising in their articulation of – and approach to – historical narratives, thereby offering examples of a middle way between radical ontological criticism (aimed at deconstructing and abolishing tainted concepts and categories) and naive realism (which continues to treat modern Western metalanguage as unproblematically reflecting non-Western and premodern cultures as they are).”29 Despite the differences in our approaches, Brand highlights that they demonstrate their value for “projects investigating modern concepts and perspectives in the study of religion\s, especially when these projects do not translate into anti-realism and generalised, blanket historical scepticism.”30

Indeed, Kleine’s and Wohlrab-Sahr’s work challenges a prevailing dichotomy, namely that between approaches emphasizing the historicity and specificity of “religion” as a European concept spread through colonialism, on the one hand, and those emphasizing the legitimacy and necessity of using meta-language concepts for comparative projects, on the other. The authors “see the bridging between these poles as necessary for stimulating new research which is not limited to ‘the West’ and its concepts and yet takes the insights of post-colonial perspectives into account.”31 On this basis, Kleine and Wohlrab-Sahr argue that “genealogy and comparison, historicization and generalisation can mutually fertilise each other.”32 I subscribe to this assessment, and particularly to the criticism of the kind of meta-critique that often dominates theoretical and methodological discussions without a basis in the historical “handiwork” I mentioned above.33 It is certainly important to recognize our scholarly categories as socially constructed and structured by the colonially conditioned hegemony of Western knowledge, but this should not mean the abandoning of these categories.34 By consequence, decolonization should not mean the “purification” of knowledge in order to restore a supposed pristine precolonial or premodern state, as this would lead us down a slippery slope towards essentialist assumptions of cultural authenticity.35 The history of meanings of “religion” is not one of unilateral Western diffusion, but one of entanglement. To abandon the categories it has produced is to erase the crucial contributions of “non-Westerners” and their histories. The solution should be a readjustment of our historiography towards these contributions and the production of counter-histories to explicit or implicit forms of Eurocentrism.36

This is a tall order, but the good news is that we are not alone. Religious studies has much to offer and much to learn from other disciplines and fields of inquiry.37 Recent discussions in global history in particular revolve around remarkably similar issues. Scholars such as Angelika Epple, Walter Erhart, Eleonora Rohland, and Kirsten Kramer focus explicitly on the challenges of comparison, and religious studies scholars will be able to sympathize when Epple and Erhart identify global historical comparison as “a multidisciplinary field of manifold controversies.”38 They note that what “has been called the onset of ‘Western modernity’ not only relies on numerous encounters with non-European cultures and civilizations, but is also intertwined with comparisons or, in other words, with the power, the forces, the causes, the functions, and the effects of comparisons.”39 Postcolonial critique “has convincingly questioned the historical uses of comparison as a quasineutral tool of Western hegemony and domination.”40 Yet, like the religious studies scholars cited above, Epple and Erhart argue that postcolonial approaches have often “repeated the dichotomies of the ‘colonial powers’ and the ‘colonial other’ within their studies.”41

Their suggestion resonates with the discussions among the interlocutors of Global Religious History: “instead of criticizing the methods and the construction of the Other through comparison,” one should focus “on the very practices of comparing.”42 As Rohland and Kramer explain, it might be fruitful to shift our attention “away from conceiving of comparison primarily as a cognitive, analytic, or hermeneutic instrument and towards looking at the process of comparison and what individuals or organizations (actors) actually ‘do’ when they compare.”43 Crucially, historical comparisons presupposed not only difference but also similarity. It is therefore instructive to examine “how, and against the backdrop of what forms of knowledge, compared objects or actors come to be constituted as comparable terms in the first place.”44 This opens up perspectives on “contact zones” as “sites for encounters and negotiations going on between differing social or cultural actors, and when such practices were subverted or appropriated by the colonized or marginalized groups.”45

These discussions show that the challenges many of our colleagues have identified lie not so much in the peculiar nature of religious studies, but in the fact that the ways in which knowledge has been produced have been thoroughly and convincingly challenged by critics who have done precisely what historians should do: unraveling the history of our categories and the academic disciplines that have produced them. It is only at first glance that the anxiety about losing “religion” as an object of study has no counterpart in a discipline like global history. In fact, a parallel very much consist in the question of how to do history, that is, how to come to terms with the arguments of the last few decades of research that rightly make business as usual impossible. We are now at a point where we should focus on using this momentum to make a prominent contribution to these processes of self-reflection and the refinement of scholarly approaches. To be sure, there are more than enough concrete reasons to perceive a crisis in religious studies, in the humanities, and not least the academy as a whole. Yet I would argue that much of what is perceived as a crisis in the theories and methods, in the very object of religious studies, is the manifestation of a continuing improvement of our instruments.

3 Elements of a New Approach to Religious Comparison

After this broader framing, I would like to sketch some key aspects of GRH as one of the instruments that could help us move forward. It is important to keep in mind that GRH is not a monolithic bloc, but rather a diverse forum for thinking about solutions to specific challenges revolving around the applicability of “religion” and the history of the term’s meanings. I hope that this special issue will invite new perspectives that complement and challenge ours. At our meeting in Vienna in July 2022, we crystallized a number of key discussion points that will structure my following outline of GRH, but which have also informed the contributions to this special issue and may serve as a basis for further conversations. I focus here particularly on (3.1) genealogical methods, i.e., the question of how to trace general concepts diachronically, especially prior to European colonial contexts. (3.2) Entanglement and decentered historiography, i.e., how can we best examine how understandings of “religion” were not simply the result of the diffusion of Western, European, or Christian knowledge? (3.3) The issue of translation, i.e., how do we explore the historical conditions that made a translation possible, and how does linguistic comparison relate to cultural and religious comparison? Following these points, I would like to make some suggestions for approaching these elements of thinking about religious comparison from the perspective of GRH, which reflect our joint discussions, but are presented from my subjective perception of them.

3.1 Genealogy

There can be no doubt that the discourse about “religion” today is global.46 I have already addressed the suggestion that this very fact might serve as the starting point for reflecting on our approaches to religious comparison, and a genealogical method is being discussed as a fruitful option that has already produced substantial results. Adopting a genealogical method does not mean that each and every research project must begin in the present and work its way back to whatever period may be in its focus. Rather, we must be mindful of what Bergunder has called the “inevitability of the present,” that is, the fact that we cannot escape our present context, which shapes our approach to the object of study.47 This position is widely taken for granted, and it is of particular importance for a global scope. Considering the debate about the “modern” character of “religion” and the widespread association of “modernization” with “Westernization,” it is crucial to stress, in the words of Adrian Hermann, “that the global transformation towards modernity […] does not simply result in global homogeneity and an unproblematic process of ‘modernization’ in all parts of the world.”48 Western hegemony produced a large variety of inconsistent and disputed local developments. “Modernity as a global frame does not deterministically condition all possible developments, but rather provides the fundamentally ambiguous framework at play everywhere in the modern globalized world.”49 As Giovanni Maltese and I have proposed, a Global Religious History by consequence does not assume unilateral diffusion and homogenization but “asks when and where signifiers like ‘religion’ are used by whom and in engagement with/demarcation from whom.”50 Kleine and Wohlrab-Sahr adopt a similar genealogical approach when they emphasize that, unlike many others, they do not start with definitions:

What we intend to do instead is to look at the trajectories that connect modern notions of religion and the secular with earlier forms of distinction and differentiation. Accordingly, we do not take the search for semantic equivalents of these European terms as our starting point. What we must presuppose, however, is the legitimacy of cross-cultural comparison of epistemic and social structures in general.51

I suppose that the authors would agree with Bergunder that “[r]eligious phenomena are comparable because history has made them so.”52 Yet, they do not only want to ask “how certain socio-cultural formations (e.g. Buddhism) became (or did not become!) religions,” but they additionally ask “why these socio-cultural formations became religions while others (e.g. agriculture) did not.”53 In doing so, they aim at examining premodern, non-Western societies whose social and epistemic structures “may have become relevant as social conditions and conceptual resources in the processes of appropriating and modifying (or rejecting) Western social institutions and knowledge regimes,” thus avoiding anachronistic terminology, essentialism, and universalism, but also “European exceptionalism, scholarly isolationism, and radical incommensurabilism.”54 The question, then, is not “whether religion existed in pre-modern non-European societies, [but] why some socio-cultural formations could become religions […] through contact with ‘the West’ in a process of ‘religionization’ […] since the nineteenth century (e.g. Buddhism in Japan), whereas others could not (e.g. rice growing).”55 I see this combined focus on how and why as a promising way of thinking about our categories. The crucial point is that they must be, as Brand put it independently of our discussions, “dually contextualised,” in the sense that not only the historical context of the object but also the contemporary context of the researcher must be fully considered and made transparent.56

Keeping in mind Freiberger’s impression that an “exclusive focus on the genealogy of categories […] seems to preclude analogical comparison altogether,”57 I argue that a genealogical “ingredient” to one’s methodology is a prerequisite for understanding why we choose certain comparanda in the first place. The crucial word here is perhaps “exclusive,” but I do not see that such an argument for exclusivity has been made. Rather, the emphasis was on the need to explicate the choice and provenance of our comparative categories through an exploration of their genealogy and the situatedness of the researcher. After all, we are confronted with the fact that analogical comparison has been the modus operandi in religious studies for quite a while, and a historical reappraisal of this development is a promising way out of many of the problems this has created. Hence, speaking with Bergunder, the methodological starting point should be “the current state of research in the field under discussion. The interest of genealogy is to critically scrutinize this state of research for its blind spots, i.e. its supposedly secure and unquestioned assumptions.”58

While a commitment to reflecting on positionality and context has become an obligatory exercise in our trade, I want to emphasize that much of the historical work remains to be done. The historiography of religious studies, comparative religion, and the number of related terms is still overwhelmingly Eurocentric.59 We can build on important foundations that revolved around the “discovery of religious history” and the role of orientalist studies in the genealogy of religious studies,60 which in turn laid the foundation for frameworks such as “European History of Religion.”61 If we want to move beyond this scope to grasp a fuller picture, as Hermann proposes,62 it is important, but not sufficient, to explore the “globalization” of religious studies as a discipline.63 More than that, we need to take full account of the global entanglements that led to the emergence and development of the discipline, and which have been significantly shaped by “non-Western” contributions.64 As I have argued elsewhere, comparative religion and the concept of a “science of religion” as expounded and translated by Friedrich Max Müller as vergleichende Religionswissenschaft was very much the product of global exchanges, in this case specifically between Europe, Asia, and North America.65 An important step in establishing a Global Religious History is thus to establish a global historiography of our own discipline, which will certainly further complicate the idea of a “Western concept of religion” exported to the rest of the world.

It is precisely through the genealogical reconstruction of these more recent historical developments that we can readjust our focus to include the agency of non-Western actors and their contexts, and by consequence to examine premodern periods. Contexts have diachronic histories that must be the subject of our inquiry, so the project of a Global Religious History is by no means limited to the last few centuries.66 However, in order to decide which parts of this history to study under the rubric of “religion,” we should be aware of the developments that led to this possibility in the first place. Certainly the nineteenth century has been crucial in identifying a subject, for instance in Chinese history, as “religious.” Yet, a colleague who wants to do research on thirteenth-century China is not expected to continuously work their way back from the present, but rather we need to create a collaborative framework that provides us with the necessary theoretical and methodological tools for contextualizing both the historical object and the approach of its present-day researcher, based on different specializations and perspectives.

3.2 Entanglement and Decentered Historiography

The goal of opening up concrete avenues for research perspectives beyond Eurocentrism requires some further discussion of GRH’s goal of establishing a decentered historiography. Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz has stressed the need to find alternatives to unquestioned dichotomies of the European “self” and its “other,” and instead to draw “new maps that no longer privilege Europe as the beginning and end of the history of religions, to explore new spaces and historical entanglements”:67

Writing history as entanglement entails taking the many interactions of different world regions as a starting point for a transnational historiography that concentrates on the de-centralized character of global entanglements. Intimately connected to, or indeed a special focus of, a Global History perspective, an entangled history approach does not treat the subjects of historical examination as stable, given entities, but as manmade constructions into which specific mechanisms of power are inscribed. This approach no longer allows for a fixed, regional-geographic center or a privileged subject, and opts for a “co-equalness” with regard to epistemic cultures. It stresses the fundamental role that the interactions between different regions of the world have played for the formation of a global modernity.68

Similarly, Bergunder has criticized a “regionalized thinking about origins” that assumes Europe as the origin of “the modern understanding of religion,” but that also projects notions of cultural authenticity to “indigenous” or “vernacular” contexts.69 It cannot be emphasized enough that this way of thinking about origins is fundamentally flawed from its very first assumption, namely, that there has ever been a stable “concept of religion” anywhere. To quote Hermann: “What is globally established on the semantic level as part of the constellation of the Global History of Religion is therefore not a specific ‘Western concept of religion’ with clear-cut boundaries, but a variety of debates about a number of contested distinctions.”70 This is where a genealogical approach opens up a diachronic perspective. As Kleine and Wohlrab-Sahr point out:

The introduction of “religion” as a generic term and cross-cultural category in seventeenth century Europe was […] not just a product of biblical studies. It was a result of inter-cultural comparison that was then framed in accordance with the available Christian episteme. It was a taxonomic unit derived from the observation of intra-cultural social differentiation that did not only occur in European or Christian contexts.71

Josephson-Storm has similarly stressed that “Western concepts were not exclusively Western,” even though they were heavily geared towards a Christian prototype.72 What is more, understandings of “Christianity” and “Hinduism,” as Yan Suarsana has argued, were both concurrent products of the same globally negotiated religious discourse.73 While such points have been convincingly argued and are by now widely established, much work remains to be done to grasp the historical complexities and further test these findings. Not least of these are the early and pre-modern periods that some historians, such as Urs App, have identified as “the birth of Orientalism.”74 It is certainly important to be aware of the radical transformations since the nineteenth century,75 and I would exercise caution in equaling early colonial and missionary encounters with what later became called Orientalism. But there is much material to work through to better understand how these pre-nineteenth-century encounters conditioned and structured later developments. Crucially, we need to broaden our scope beyond the perspectives of European travelers, missionaries, and so forth, to their interlocutors, as the work of Kollmar-Paulenz exemplifies.

This opens up a very broad scope indeed. Considering the ubiquitous talk of “entanglements” and “connections,” it is necessary to specify what can be understood by these ominous objects that should attract our historiographical attention. As Giovanni Maltese and I have argued, an approach focusing on entanglements does not presuppose that connections can be found unaltered, in the same degree, in the same way, and at any time.76 Following historians such as Shalini Randeria and Sebastian Conrad, an entangled history tends to be fragmentary and focused on concrete contexts, rather than postulating world-historical totalities or attempting to write a history of planet Earth.77 Global entanglements should not be conceived as a system that can be investigated in its totality. Rather, we can investigate local contexts and the global connections that shaped them, which requires a combination of micro- and macro-perspectives.78 We can speak of global entanglements if they can show an interaction or relationality between discursive elements or signifiers (verbal and non-verbal) and across entirely different boundaries, but also as a reference to a predominant global discourse that affects what the researchers regard as their studied subject.79

3.3 Translingual Practice

At the heart of the kind of cultural encounters we focus on is the issue of language and translation. Since the scope of this outline does not allow for an extended discussion of this complex subject, I would like to point the reader to one way of thinking about it, namely, Lydia Liu’s approach to what she calls translingual practice.80 According to Liu, translation should not be seen as the production of equivalents in two different languages, but the equivalence of two terms becomes possible and is in fact produced in a specific historical context. This is not simply the result of innovation within an “indigenous tradition” or of foreign influence, nor is it a rupture between tradition and modernity. Rather, we can grasp a product of cross-cultural interpretation. Instead of assuming the incommensurability of languages, but also instead of assuming the complete translatability of concepts, Liu proposes to understand translation as a historical pragmatic practice.81 Consequently, an investigation of translingual practice focuses not on the question of whether a translation is “correct,” but on the conditions for the possibility of translation.82 Despite the power asymmetries of the colonial context, “global circulatory networks of translated knowledge” were shaped by actors across the globe.83

Within these exchanges, different understandings of religion were produced and constantly negotiated. It is crucial to keep in mind that the respective acts of translation did not take place between stable unities. On the contrary, cultural, national, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries are not natural but constituted by what Naoki Sakai has described as “regimes of translation.”84 Sakai understands translation as “a poietic social practice that institutes a relation at the site of incommensurability.”85 By making something representable through translation, a conceptual difference or gap is no longer an incommensurability because it would be unrepresentable. We are thus dealing with concrete practices in specific historical settings that produce co-figurative identifications of identities, concepts, and so forth. Our task, in the words of Sakai, is “to historicize this regime of translation.”86

This shift away from the presumed accuracy of a translation, or even its presumed appropriateness (e.g., because of “epistemic violence”), allows us to take at least two crucial steps that can lead to or serve radically different research projects. First, we can move beyond the search for equivalents that fit a preconceived prototype, and we can sidestep ideological disputes by being less interested in whether dharma or dīn, for instance, is an adequate translation of religion and instead trying to understand why, how, and by whom it was or was not translated as such in a particular context.87 Second, this examination may allow us to identify structural features that can serve as a historically grounded basis for analogical comparisons.

4 Perspectives and Lacunae

This special issue does not provide definitive answers, and it is unlikely to swiftly resolve the challenges discussed above. It does, however, present valuable steps toward new and improved comparative methodologies, as well as some more perennial topics in religious studies. I am convinced that our efforts must take full advantage of the interdisciplinary and diverse nature of religious studies, whose dazzling variety may sometimes be the cause of the occasional headache, but which I consider to be one of the discipline’s greatest and most unique strengths. Since we are presenting the results of conversations about global religious history, historical perspectives are predominant, although sociological perspectives are strongly represented by Florian Zemmin.88 I hope for an influx of approaches from other fields of study that will help us fill some gaps.

This includes other regions and time periods, including the Americas and antiquity, to name just two examples. As I have indicated at the outset, there is a predominant focus on British colonialism (and its Protestant frameworks), not only among our discussants, but within religious studies debates more generally. In our discussions, we also became aware of the need to pay more attention to materiality, especially in relation to people who do not have a large textual production to look back on. This is one of the major challenges identified in recent historiographical debates, including the question of the archive and the construction of canons. While several of the papers in this special issue do discuss some of these aspects, we need more contributions that help us understand corporeality in terms of racialization, marginalization, gender and sex,89 but also physical mobility as in questions of diaspora and migration.90 This often boils down to the question of representation, as we also try to work towards a decentering of our historiography away from the elites who left us sources (that were considered worth preserving). Perhaps this is one of the greatest challenges that may be addressed in the future. I welcome any further discussion of these desiderata.

5 Overview of the Contributions

In his contribution “When Christianity became a Shūshi 宗旨: Cultural Encounters and Comparisons between Europe and Japan and the Origins of a Global History of Religion,” Christoph Kleine focuses on the period since the late sixteenth century, when “religion” was used by European missionaries to make sense of their encounter with the Japanese, leading to the formation of comparative concepts on both sides. Kleine identifies the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a first phase that produced epistemic structures and conceptual resources that, in a second phase during the nineteenth century, became essential for a generalized global discourse on religion. Aiming to counter the “neo-Eurocentrism” within postcolonial scholarship, Kleine explains the formation of Japanese concepts also against the background of the greater Sinosphere since the seventh and eighth centuries. Although he does not want to play down the epistemic and conceptual transformations of the nineteenth century, he rejects the idea of a clearly identifiable “birth date” for the emergence of a globalized concept of religion and thus of a “temporalized thinking of origins” (temporalisiertes Ursprungsdenken). Shedding light on processes of translation, Kleine argues for a strong continuity in the use of comparative concepts since the pre-modern period.

In Michael Bergunder’s article, “Encounters of the Brahmanical Sanskrit Tradition with Persian Scholarship in the Mughal Empire: Genealogical Critique and the Relevance of the Pre-colonial Past in a Global Religious History,” the author challenges a perceived narrow understanding of genealogical critique, emphasizing its applicability beyond the nineteenth century. Bergunder demonstrates the genealogical critique’s potential to reshape perspectives on the supposedly unchanging Sanskrit tradition championed by Hindu nationalists. By examining sixteenth- to eighteenth-century sources, he uncovers a complex interplay between Sanskrit and Persian scholars, challenging the notion of an isolated pre-colonial Sanskrit tradition. Rejecting the idea of supposedly Western concepts passively received by the rest of the world, Bergunder shows how concrete research into colonial and postcolonial religious history has complicated earlier postcolonial accounts. Most fundamentally, he argues that his case study demonstrates that genealogical critique is not limited to the historicization of contemporary general terms, nor to the modern period. Rather, genealogy should take into account that the present is the inescapable reference point of all historiography, even when it focuses on temporally distant subjects.

Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, in “Nga rang gi chos khyod rang gi chos: ‘My religion and your religion’? About some Fundamental Issues in the Global History of Religion,” examines the interactions between Tibetans and Catholic missionaries in eighteenth-century Lhasa, using this case study to argue for a focus on different world regions, with Europe being only one geographical node for micro-historical studies. This approach rejects the fixation on Europe as the center of historical events, leading to an open time horizon that challenges the conventional starting point of the nineteenth century in global religious history. Kollmar-Paulenz highlights the consensus that a global history of religion adopts a theoretical repertoire rooted in postcolonial perspectives and a genealogical historiographical method. However, she argues against a narrow understanding of globality that centers on the nineteenth-century European colonial experience, advocating for a broader examination encompassing the genealogy of non-European knowledge formations before European encounters. In light of her sources, Kollmar-Paulenz emphasizes the necessity for critical examination and contextualization of comparisons, the transformative power of translation practices, and the tracing of taxonomic orders beyond the nineteenth century. Kollmar-Paulenz thus promotes a global conceptual history that considers linguistic diversity, stresses the need for philological expertise to study it, and aims to integrate non-European experiences into a more inclusive understanding of global religious history.

My own contribution on “Religious Comparativism, Esotericism, and the Global Occult” shows that the terms “esoteric” and “occult” have been used comparatively by historical actors in heterogeneous ways over a period of several hundred years, tracing back to encounters between Europeans and Asians since the sixteenth century. This conditioned and structured later identifications with terms such as the Bengali nigūṛh and gūṛha, or the Japanese kengyō and mikkyō. A crucial point, however, is that contemporary scholarship has either been disinterested in the genealogy of their categories, or its approach to the source material has been distorted by specific historiographical paradigms. I demonstrate this through the examples of “Esoteric Buddhism” and “Western Esotericism,” and argue for the need to overcome the isolation of fields devoted to things “esoteric.” To this end, I propose a five-step methodology that begins with a genealogical reconstruction, followed by synchronic contextualization and diachronic tracing, before finally engaging in analysis and reflection. Rather than dismissing the use of esoteric vocabularies as a Western invention or projection, it is crucial to examine their histories, including ruptures and continuities, which reveal an interplay between local and global, synchronic and diachronic developments.

Judith Bachmann’s article, “Materialization through Global Comparisons: The Findings at Ile-Ife from the Late 19th century to the 1960s,” delves into the repatriation debates surrounding stolen artifacts, with an initial focus on the Ori Olokun, a brass head from Nigeria. Bachmann reveals a struggle over the meaning of objects and the complexities of authenticity. She addresses the central question of where the material matters and how, emphasizing the importance of material religion and new materialist approaches, considering Karen Barad’s agential realism and Ernesto Laclau’s theory of comparison. These theoretical frameworks help analyze the intra-actions and political dimensions involved in the co-production of materiality. Bachmann’s central case study traces the desire for repatriation back to findings at the Nigerian Yoruba city Ile-Ife from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. It explores the chain of equivalences that shaped the objects’ interpretations, highlighting the negotiation of categories such as “religion,” “antiquity,” “history,” “myth,” and “art.” The article reveals how different positions and subjectivities emerged intra-actively, with Nigerians emphasizing “history” while Europeans focused on “myth” or “art.” Despite these differences, both perspectives connected through a shared chain of equivalences. Overall, Bachmann shines light on the co-production of materiality and the positions in repatriation discussions, illustrating how objects acquire their weight in this complex dialogue.

In her contribution on “Sita in Cultural Translation: The Use of the Rāmāyana to Educate on Perfect Womanhood by Annie Besant, Marie Musaeus Higgins, and Leelawathy Ramanathan,” Jessica Albrecht employs a cross- disciplinary approach, combining literature studies, feminist translation studies, and religious studies to analyze four late colonial Rāmāyana versions by Theosophists Besant, Higgins, and Ramanathan. These versions, created for girls’ education, depict varying portrayals of Sita as the “perfect wife,” offering a lens to explore translation theories in global religious history. Albrecht argues that these translations, influenced by colonialism and religious reform, exemplify new approaches for global religious history and comparison. Albrecht examines the contextual framing of the four Rāmāyana books, focusing on the pivotal scene of Sita’s decision to be burnt, revealing the interconnectedness of translation, education, gender, and the construction of religious identity. The comparative analysis of Besant’s, Higgins,’ and the Ramanathans’ versions illustrates how their divergent interpretations of Sita reflect the dynamic process of cultural translation. Albrecht contends that the meaning of terms like “Hindu,” “womanhood,” or “culture” is established in translation, challenging claims to authenticity and emphasizing the inseparable link between translation and the creation of meaning. The article proposes a reconsideration of global religious history, literature, and gender by highlighting the transformative nature of translations and questioning the notion of an unambiguous “original” in the study of religious texts.

Giovanni Maltese’s article on “Phallogocentrism, Global Entanglements and Comparison in the Study of Religion: Mysticism and Gender as Category of Knowledge among Muslim Intellectuals (1938–41)” aims to confront phallogocentrism in Global Religious History by identifying the failure to include gender as a category of knowledge and power. Using a case study centered on a tract by the Singhalese judge Maas Thajoon Akbar from 1838–1941, Maltese critically examines the gendered discourse among anglophone South and Southeast Asian Muslim intellectuals, yet without anachronistically reading contemporary notions of gender into the investigated sources. This analysis aims to address Western-centric biases in the study of religion, emphasizing the importance of incorporating gender as a category of knowledge in theorizing global entanglements. Maltese’s arguments challenge the perception of Muslim intellectuals as passive reproducers of Western concepts. Instead, Maltese contends that they actively engaged in debates, appropriating and shaping terms like “mysticism” for contemporary discourses. The article underscores the significance of concrete constructions of gender difference in these debates, proposing that a gender-inclusive theorization of global entanglements offers unique perspectives on the discussions surrounding “religion,” “mysticism,” “Islam,” and “Sufism.” By exploring male discourses with a focus on global entanglements that integrates gender as a category of knowledge, Maltese’s article aims at provincializing “masculinity,” acknowledging non-hegemonic agency, and critiquing marginalizing thought patterns, particularly those underpinning the narrative of Sufi-Islam as inherently Indo-Persian and/or inclusive.

Florian Zemmin contributes a perspective from the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies and postcolonial sociology on “The Potentials and Limits of Going Global: Islam’s Social Contingency and Absolute Truth in Arabic Sociologies of Religion.” Zemmin argues that investigating specific disciplinary perspectives is more productive than generic discussions about the reach of “religion.” He emphasizes the need to distinguish institutional and epistemic aspects when exploring the formation of sociological perspectives in different contexts. The article focuses on sociological works in Arabic explicitly related to Islam, seeking to disrupt the notion that sociological perspectives on religion are absent from Islamic contexts. The discussion delves into the historical formation of sociology in Arab countries. Despite not being a dominant trend, Zemmin identifies propositions of an “Islamic sociology” that elucidate epistemic and normative issues in sociological perspectives on religion. This shows the potentials and limits of a global history of the sociology of religion. Zemmin suggests considering non-institutionalized varieties of sociological perspectives to provide a more inclusive and plural understanding of the discipline’s formation globally. The article advocates for the inclusion of Arabic and Islamic contributions in the history of the sociology of religion, promoting a comparative analysis of sociological perspectives in different regions.

Taken together, these contributions all shed light on the three central elements highlighted above, but they also offer many more far-reaching insights into a wide variety of regional, cultural, linguistic, and temporal contexts. I trust that the reader will recognize common goals and convictions, as well as constructive disagreements, that demonstrate the diversity of the forum that is Global Religious History, or Global History of Religion. We welcome many more perspectives and look forward to future conversations.


I would like to thank the other contributors to this special issue for their valuable feedback on this introduction. The inaugural conference in Vienna in July 2022 was made possible by funding from the Research Center “Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society.”


Julian Strube is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Vienna. He works from a global historical perspective about the relationship between religion and politics since the eighteenth century, focusing on exchanges between India, Europe, and North America. He has published widely on global religious history, religious comparativism, colonialism, esotericism, socialism, and far-right extremism. Recent publications include his third monograph, Global Tantra: Religion, Science, and Nationalism in Colonial Modernity (Oxford University Press 2022); New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (co-edited with Egil Asprem; Brill 2021); a special issue on “Global Religious History” for Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, co-edited with Giovanni Maltese; and Theosophy across Boundaries co-edited with Hans-Martin Krämer (SUNY 2020). His PhD thesis on Socialism, Catholicism, and Occultism in Nineteenth-Century France was published in 2016 with De Gruyter.


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