At The Drawing Board, we are not only professional writers, researchers and bloggers, we are also historians and religious studies scholars. Over the weekend, Nakita Valerio and Liz Hill had the privilege of presenting some of their research at the University of Alberta’s Annual HCGSA Conference. Conferencing comes with its own unique atmosphere and experience. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people from around the country, many of whom are also presenting their research. For some, this is the first time they get to talk to someone other than their supervisor about their work. And being crammed into a room listening to lecture upon lecture, conversing over coffee-breaks and provided meals, there is a great deal of camaraderie that comes from conferencing.

Liz presented on her research regarding Leprosy and Madness in the late Medieval period in Europe and had the following to say about the conference experience:

Although we all come from our own little, often esoteric, areas of study, we are able to engage with each others’ work and make connections between our own knowledge and others. Sometimes it’s a stretch, but often it’s illuminating! Another benefit of presenting to a group with diverse expertise, is that it makes you re-evaluate your own work from the perspective of a non-specialist. Day to day we tend to discuss our work and interact with others who have similar backgrounds and topics, so it is easy to assume knowledge about strange things. Presenting outside of that group forces you to refine your ideas and how you present them so that they are accessible. Of course in this case we were still presenting to people who mostly shared similar disciplinary backgrounds, but the field of history is very large! I also learned that answering questions is actually the best part of presenting!

Nakita presented a paper she wrote on the de-sacralization of Auschwitz and issued a call for urgent conservation efforts to be made to the camp if there is any hope of some kind of sufficient memorial to remain there. Her thoughts on the experience of conferencing are as follows:

My favourite part was hearing what everyone is working on. Too often, academics are isolated in their work. Sure, we socialize and hang out, but we rarely get to talk about our work with our peers unless they happen to be in the same research area as us. The general theme of the “Sacred” meant that a lot of the subjects spanned completely different temporal-spatial zones of study and were only  loosely connected by the theme. I loved this aspect. I not only had the opportunity to learn a lot about areas of history that I hadn’t really touched before, but I found them all deeply interesting because they dealt with a lot of the theoretical paradigms that I use to do my own work. I would say I also learned a lot about what goes into making a successful conference. Watching two colleagues of ours in particular running around and taking care of all the details was really illuminating. Lastly, this might surprise some people given how much of my personal and social justice time is devoted to women’s advocacy and education initiatives about the status of women in Islam, but I found it to be really refreshing to be able to talk about something I have devoted a lot of time to researching…something that wasn’t about my hijab or life as a minority in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff too, but as one of the conference organizers put it, “you get to talk about what you do and think about, not just how you dress in the morning!” It was a unique chance to vocalize something I am passionate about for the sake of the subject itself, not just it’s relevance to me or what others would like to hear from me based on my particular skill set.




In 478-9AH (1086CE), armies of the Almoravid Amazigh dynasty in North Africa arrived in the land that had once been al-Andalus and was now a fragmented composite of competing ta’ifas (city-states). These fighters had been solicited by the Andalusians to aid them in the struggle against the growing territorial acquisition and political power of Alfonso VI of Castile-Leon who had sacked Toledo the year before and showed no signs of slowing his expansion across the peninsula. Historians like Maria Rosa Menocal have ruminated on the reasons for the calling of the Almoravids. She concluded with the argument that there was a religious dimension to this solicitation that made it of urgent importance. It was not enough that Alfonso was growing evermore politically and economically strong (which would threaten to snowball and might result in his taking of Iberia) but when this very real possibility was combined with the fact that he was Christian, the prospect of his ruling over Muslim subjects caused the panic that led to the Almoravid arrival. In this paper, I will examine the various factors (ethnic, economic, political and religious) that could have gone into the decision to call the Almoravids by the Andalusians, weighing each factor in terms of its importance according to representations of Alfonso and Christian rule in the primary source materials that are available. In the end, it will become clear that Menocal’s argument does not entirely hold. Religion does not stand alone as an impetus for the intrusion but might have been mobilized as a means for political-economic (and potentially ethnic) ends. Looking at the coalescence of factors will help to nuance our understanding of the peninsula-changing event that was the arrival of the Almoravids.

At this point in the Iberian narrative, the day-to-day interactions between Muslims and Christians in the city-states would have largely been affected by issues of demographics, first and foremost. According to Richard Fletcher’s analysis of Bulliet’s conversion rates for al-Andalus two centuries prior, the acculturation of Christians into Islam (as Muslims) or into Muslim culture (as Arabized Christians) at this point would have been almost totalizing.[1]For the small minority of Christians who had not converted or emigrated from Muslim polities, intermingling with Muslims was inevitable but still mediated by the politics of separation. Prohibitions on employment, trade and gendered interactions continued to prescribe boundaries between the groups which were (likely in practice) fluid and porous.[2] Further, geographical separation with Christian princes in the northern territories would also have been physical markers of the Christian-Muslim divide on a political, if not a mundane cultural level. At this point, it is clear that despite the lack of total clarity on whether or not religious and cultural factors represented a gulf between Muslim and Christian subjects in the ta’ifas, their division was still of primary importance to political and religious elites taking measures to prescribe it.

In speaking of demographics, one also has to ask the question of ethnicity and if it played a role in aligning the Amazigh Almoravids with the Amazigh Ta’ifa leaders against the Christians of largely non-Amazigh and non-Arab descent. Was this an alliance against their influence, but not in favour of an Arab political resurrection? To what degree was the decision to call the Almoravids mediated by Amazigh ta’ifa leaders, to the exclusion of Arabs? These are questions which require a great depth of research that cannot be done here but it is worth putting forth as an added dimension to the overall historical question at hand. We can, however, speculate on economic-political impetuses for employing the Almoravids.

Economically-speaking, the takeover and continuing expansion of Alfonso would mean the gobbling up of valuable resources, manpower and land that would have a cumulative effect on his power. The more resources one acquired, the more one had to continue expansions and, more importantly, finance such expansions (particularly as it regards the payment of military forces). In the Primera Cronica General de Espana dating from two centuries later, there is evidence of Alfonso’s mobilization of “crops, the vineyard and the other fruits from all the surrounding areas of Toledo” to feed a starving urban population that would, in turn, support him.[3] While this is not objectionable in and of itself, for ta’ifa leaders elsewhere, a prosperous and complacent population governed by Alfonso would ensure his economic supremacy over that area and would be alarming. That this practice was applied to surrounding towns and involved the filling of Extremadura (which was allegedly “uninhabited” despite actual towns existing there) with presumably loyal populations would further raise the alarm for other ta’ifas as it represented a level of permanency in non-urban environs before unseen in the destabilization of their period.

Promises to allow “Moors” to “retain their houses and estates as they had before”[4] and protection of the Mosque in Toledo would make Alfonso’s takeover seem rather innocuous at first, and similar in method to Muslim ta’ifas when conquering and reconquering one another. However, political moves carried out by Alfonso that went against these promises showed that something far more calculated was taking place. In a charter from twenty-five years after the conquest of Toledo and after the arrival of the Almoravids, Alfonso privileged Mozarab Christians under his rule in matters of lands and holdings, testimonies, and the manipulation of land.[5] It is possible that this retroactively confirms suspicions that were likely present at the time of his initial takeover. For these, we have to look at an event contemporary to his takeover: the conversion of the Mosque of Toledo. The Primera Cronica alleges that Alfonso guaranteed that the mosque would remain as it was, and yet within a month of the city falling to him, the building was consecrated as a Church. While the text that accounts for what happened[6] was written at least a century after the fact (making it more likely to be representative of its own era rather than the one it is describing) and even though the blame for the consecration was placed on Archbishop Bernard de Sedirac and Alfonso’s wife Constanza, while Alfonso was allegedly “outraged and deeply grieved…with the Saracens concerning the mosque”, this account is highly suspect.[7] To have the Moors of Toledo gain his audience and absolve him of his bond of protection the mosque is too convenient to be realistic. In reality, the takeover of the mosque would be of huge symbolic value for Alfonso when establishing a Christian polity over Muslim subjects from whom he could now exact tribute. Herein lies the rub and the crossover between political and so-called religious anxieties held by ta’ifa leaders witnessing what happened in Toledo and its surrounding areas: how could they, as Muslim leaders, pay tribute to a Christian who was converting mosques into churches in Toledo while threatening to overtake them? It is important to dissect this question for it contains two parts that are not mutually inclusive. It is just as easy to ask the question of how leaders could pay tribute to another leader that would conquer them, thereby contributing to their own downfall. But when you add the religious dimension and a reversal of the master-subordinate form between Christians and Muslims to the mix, one can see that this is doubly intolerable.

The perfect example of this impossible dilemma can be read the memoir Tibyan by AbdAllah ibn Buluggin of Granada while in exile in Morocco in from 487-8AH (1095CE). Attempting to defend himself against the “double-dealing” accusations lobbed at him by al-Mu’tamid of Seville, ‘AbdAllah noted that if he did not pay tribute to Alfonso to keep his land, he “would be unable to provide for the annual campaigns…launched against the Christians and for hospitality extended to the Almoravids” on their arrival.[8] It is critical to note, that nowhere is there mention of religious sanctioning or prohibiting of paying tribute to Christians as the reason for his anxiety about paying it. Rather, tribute was seen (by ‘AbdAllah at least) as a placation of the “enemy” and a way of protecting one’s own interests.[9]

Menocal’s portrayal that the solicitation of military aid from the Almoravids was a religious imperative against the infidels finds little bearing in the primary source documents examined thus far. At most, it might have been rhetorical tactic employed to achieve a political-economic end, rather than a religious end-in-itself. That this might have been pitched to the Almoravids (who were much more fundamentally religiously oriented) as a Jihad, is possible and even likely, but that it was perceived as a jihad for the ta’ifa rulers who called them remains to be seen.

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992: p 94

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Description of the Conquest of Toledo from the Primerq Cronica General de Espana” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p. 133

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Privilege Given by Alfonso VI to the Mozarabs of Toledo” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 137

[6] Jimenez de Rada, Rodrigo. “Conversion of the Mosque of Toledo” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 134-5

[7] Ibid. p 135

[8] Ibn Buluggin, ‘AbdAllah. Tibyan in in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 143.

[9] Ibid.

This past summer, a lot of music festivals chose to ban the wearing of Native American and First Nations headdresses because of their use by people who were neither qualified to wear them, nor were they aware of the cultural meaning of that particular article of clothing. Most recently, Miley Cyrus’ wearing of dreadlocks at the VMAs, sparked outrage online at her poor practice of taking from cultures without giving credit where it is due– something Cyrus is not unfamiliar with. According to one source, “cultural appropriation is when white media [or people] trivialize and adopt aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.” As one of the latest buzzwords in the current deluge of social media advocacy, netizens everywhere are calling out cultural appropriation as they see it. However, there are a few points about cultural appropriation that are worth talking about and make this well-meaning category more problematic then it would first seem.

hijab artFirstly, cultural appropriation is disproportionately applied to white women. While cultural micro-aggressions by way of adopted cultural practices without reference to their source are never appropriate, regardless of the gender propagating them, it seems that these days, accusations of cultural appropriation not-so-subtlely act as a front for patriarchal tendencies. It seems like almost every cultural appropriation story from headdresses to cornrows and twerking is focused on the women that appropriate these practices inappropriately. However, with only the occasional mention of a horribly stereotypical tribal tattoo, men rarely make the cut as those criticized by cultural appropriation watchdogs. If you’re going to call people out for these acts, you better make your call-out gender-neutral and fluid.

Secondly, how can people display the correct level of cultural recognition and respect to certain practices while still enjoying their aesthetic and practical appeal? This is an honest question. Is Miley supposed to have a billboard on her head that says “Dreadlocks have long been associated with rasta culture and while I recognize that, I also recognize that for many people –white or otherwise – dreads have become a legitimate hairstyle and I just like the way it looks right now so I hope that is alright with everyone”? I should probably stay away from the Cyrus issue but this point is important for something I want to discuss below: is abstinence from cultural appreciation the best option, lest you be accused of appropriation? How can one be respectful without pissing anyone off?

street art hijab

Thirdly, the notion of cultural appropriation marginalizes people who embody liminal positions between cultures. This is directly related to point number two. For people who straddle cultures socially (and especially those who do not appear to physically), the wearing of cultural garments or doing cultural practices to which one does not appear to belong can lead to harsh, external criticism that leads to social isolation and self-esteem issues.

One such group that I want to discuss with regards to this point are white converts to Islam who choose to adopt the hijab. In these cases, I am not distinguishing among typical –cis genders of male and female, as both men and women have specific parameters for maintaining modesty in Islam. These things can include the wearing of a head veil, the wearing of loose clothing, the wearing of a beard and other such stipulations. Historically, the various manifestations of hijab have evolved to mean different things in different cultures across the world. Even within the same society, one version of hijab (such as a longer veil) carries social currency that varies from other versions of it. In the case of a longer hijab in most Arab countries, the implication is that the wearer of that veil is more pious and engages in the practice of the rituals of Islam more rigorously. Further, the showing of hair and provocative clothing sends a message that is the opposite (an excuse to perpetuate rape culture, in my opinion). Ultimately, however, these definitions are part of intracultural communication – the nuances of which can be lost on outsiders. If we are to continue with the example of the head veil, there is really only one binding stipulation scripturally speaking, which is that the hair, neck and bosom must be covered. However that is achieved is usually acceptable, and given the widespread nature of Islam, cultural variations were/are bound to arise.

So what happens when you convert to Islam, accepting the tenets of a religious faith, but having little to no knowledge of the various cultural morphologies and historical evolutions of the practice of those tenets?* You tend to be accused of cultural appropriation from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.


Non-Muslims often question your adoption of visible religious practices like the head scarf or even prayer rituals as mere “interest in Arab culture” or “likely because you married a born-Muslim”. These microaggressions tell the convert two things: you couldn’t possibly believe in Islam (demonstrating a pervasive xenophobia evident in much of Western society) and you only make aesthetic decisions based on the whims of your spouse (demonstrating a lack of faith in your intelligence and level of feminism). This is not even to mention the poor conflation of Islamic practices with Arabness – which, to be honest, might be understandable if the non-Muslim lacks adequate knowledge of the Islamic world and its history.

Perhaps more surprising are accusations of cultural appropriation that emerge from within the Muslim community and are directed towards converts. One area this happens is with language. Whether converts translate common Islamic terms from Arabic into their mother tongue, or they opt to use the Arabic instead, there is always an aunty or an uncle waiting to criticize you for using or not using the appropriate terminology. Perhaps more often converts are the subject of seemingly endless scrutiny from their Muslim brothers and sisters mainly with regard to dress. If a new sister chooses to wear abaya one day, and jeans with ballerina slippers and a boyfriend sweater the next, her modesty is called into question and she is accused of giving “mixed signals”. If I had to count amount of times I have been told that if I wear abaya or a long hijab, I have to wear it for forever, I’d be counting for awhile. Same goes for the length and tightness of skirts, the colour of headscarves and the age-old question of whether or not to wear make-up. Even further, the same goes for brothers who adopt the Sunnah beard and waffle between various styles and lengths, not realizing the various cultural signals they are giving off in the meantime. I am not even going to get into the amount of times that so-called Muslim progressive-reformist “feminists” have accused me of being culturally backward without realizing I’m not Arab, or culturally appropriative (see: lack of faith in my intelligence above). Finally, if we do create inventive hijab styles, we are accused of cultural contamination, or worse, biddah (innovation), even though it is likely that at some point, most hijab fashions were inventive in the first place – riffing off each other like battling saxophones at a jazz improv session. The point is this: are converts culturally appropriating because they lack the understanding of what their interpretation of Islamic practices mean to other cultures in which they might be found? Or are they forging their own traditions based on a shared religious past? Where is the line between appropriation and adoption or adaptation?

I don’t have exact answers to those questions but I will say this. The consequences of appearing to appropriate Islamic culture in the eyes of non-Muslims and born-Muslims alike are highly disturbing. Converts are the most likely to feel alienated and isolated in every community they inhabit – whether amongst their pre-conversion friends and family, or heavily-criticized by the Muslim groups they find themselves in now. Unsure of where they fit in, if at all, converts tend to have a heightened sense of “feeling strange” which (positively) can contribute to awareness of the temporary nature of this life but, (negatively) can lead to poor lifestyle choices in order to fit in (including comprising their interpretations of Islamic texts, seeking solace in forbidden activities and, at the very worst, leaving Islam completely).


This article raises more questions than it answers but what remains to be said is this: cultural appropriation, while a noble cause, threatens to contrast the nuances of society too heavily, and in doing so, leaves the grey areas silenced for fear of harsh criticism and isolation. Far more appropriate would be to communicate with a person who appears to be appropriating cultural practices “not their own” to discover their reasons for doing so, rather than making rash, misogynistic and even xenophobic assumptions.


*Please note that I am not referring to religious tenets as anything more than cultural manifestations in the end anyway; however, for lay purposes only, I have made a distinction here between superficial, “anthropologically-visible” culture and religion.

One of the most important aspects of being a good writer is also being a good reader. Both characteristics require consistency and practice as one continues to evolve their craft. Both Nakita and Michele of The Drawing Board are avid readers that have a perpetually evolving reading list. It’s often hard to nail down just what we are reading at any given time because it changes daily, but here is a list of current books, open to varying degrees, on Nakita’s desk. Let’s hope they inspire and feel free to share your reading list too!

patterns-culture-ruth-benedict-paperback-cover-artPatterns of Culture: Ruth Benedict – In Patterns of Culture, Benedict presents sketches of three cultures, the Zuni, the Dobu, and the Kwakiutl, and uses these cultures to elaborate her theory of ‘culture as personality-writ-large.’ Before introducing the ethnographies, Benedict includes two theoretical chapters and introduces the term ‘pattern,’ which she interchanges with similar phrases in the rest of the text.

9780300085242Introduction to Metaphysics: Martin Heidegger – This is the published version of a lecture course he gave in the Summer of 1935 at the University of Freiburg. The book is famous for its powerful reinterpretation of Greek thought. The content of these lectures was not published in Germany until 1953.

maaloufIn the Name of Identity: Amin Maalouf – In this work, Maalouf discusses the identity crisis which Arabs have experienced since the establishment of continuous relationships with the west, adding his personal dimension as a Christian Arab. The book is intended for both Arabs and Westerners (as well as for people with mixed heritage). This work is divided into five major chapters, “Identity and Belonging”, “When Modernity Comes From the Other”, “The Era of Cosmic Tribals”, “Taming the Shrew” and a glossary. He begins with universal values of identity, which he dissects, describes the extremes, then applies them to the Levant. He tries to describe how the average modern Arab feels, along a wide spectrum of ideologies in practice throughout the Arab world…from religious beliefs and traditional practices to total secularism. The book also sheds light on recent events in the Arab world, from civil wars to relations with the west.

0226285111Islam Observed: Clifford Geertz – “In four brief chapters,” writes Clifford Geertz in his preface, “I have attempted both to lay out a general framework for the comparative analysis of religion and to apply it to a study of the development of a supposedly single creed, Islam, in two quite contrasting civilizations, the Indonesian and the Moroccan.”

Genealogie_der_Moral_coverOn the Genealogy of Morals: Friedrich Nietzsche – An1887 book by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It consists of a preface and three interrelated essays that expand and follow through on doctrines Nietzsche sketched out in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The three Abhandlungen trace episodes in the evolution of moral concepts with a view to undermining “moral prejudices”, specifically those of Christianity and Judaism.Some Nietzsche scholars consider Genealogy to be a work of sustained brilliance and power as well as his masterpiece. Since its publication, it has influenced many authors and philosophers.

816RGvGUV0LThe Yacoubian Building: Alaa-Al-Aswany – Published in Arabic in 2002 and in an English translation in 2004, the book, ostensibly set in 1990 at about the time of the first Gulf War, is a roman à clef and scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society since the Revolution of 1952. The locale of the novel is downtown Cairo, with the titular apartment building (which actually exists) serving as both a metaphor for contemporary Egypt and a unifying location in which most of the primary characters either live or work and in which much of the novel’s action takes place. The author, a dentist by profession, had his first office in the Yacoubian Building in Cairo.The Yacoubian Building was the best-selling Arabic novel for 2002 and 2003, and was voted Best Novel for 2003 by listeners to Egypt’s Middle East Broadcasting Service. It has been translated into 23 languages worldwide.

41JlIxpjNuLArchaeology of Knowledge: Michel Foucault – The premise of the book is that systems of thought and knowledge (“epistemes” or “discursive formations”) are governed by rules (beyond those of grammar and logic) which operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought and language use in a given domain and period. Most prominently in its Introduction and Conclusion, the book also becomes a philosophical treatment and critique of phenomenological and dogmatic structural readings of history and philosophy, portraying continuous narratives as naïve ways of projecting our own consciousness onto the past, thus being exclusive and excluding. Characteristically, Foucault demonstrates his political motivations, personal projects and preoccupations, and, explicitly and implicitly, the many influences that inform the discourse of the time.

world-religionsIn the Guide to the Study of Religion, the fourth chapter entitled “Comparison” by Luther H. Martin emphasizes the theoretical problems that surround the issue of comparison in the study of religions, how these problems have been dealt with by various scholars in multiple disciplinary approaches, and concludes by offering his suggestions for the future of scholarship in the field. While giving the guise of being a mere survey of the evolution of the study of religions in academia through time, the seasoned reader is, by no means, persuaded of his very directed, very rigorous attempt to resuscitate positivism into a methodology of study. In fact, with a few variations based on past mistakes, Martin puts forth a pseudo neo-positivism that claims that a scientific comparison of religion is not only possible, but the only way to study religion(s). The issues with Martin’s reform rests in his misunderstanding of post-modernism which he is quick to dismiss as being apologetic or overprotective of particularism and so descends into a kind of relativism from which no knowledge of value for the scholar can be gleaned (50). In this short analysis, I will show where Martin’s inadequate understanding and generalizations of the postmodern method take hold, particularly illuminating through a meditation on translation from Jonathan Z. Smith. Finally, I will borrow lessons from the study of Social Memory in order to offer the death knell for positivism with an order to not resuscitate (for once and for all) by engaging with the poor assumptions of Martin’s final proposals. What is missing from this text is a clear and concise postmodern-inspired methodology that functions for the scholar of religions as a replacement. While I see this as fundamentally necessary, the space constraints of this paper prevent me from formulating it here and I will have to be satisfied with arguing that point elsewhere. It should also be noted that any passing reference to post-modernity will be offered on a scholar-by-scholar basis as a comprehensive synthesis is not possible in this size of a paper.

Post Modernism Does Not Equal Pandering Relativism

An elementary observation by scholars who have only done cursory readings of postmodernist literature tend to assert that the final outcome of their theoretical understanding is relativism. This is because many postmodernists, especially Foucault, focus on the power of discourses to shape our “realities” (which do not ontologically exist or at least can never be accessed), including our ethical systems, and theoretical and scientific generalizations. However, it might be construed that “such well-meant attempts to preserve the integrity of “others”…has often result[ed] in a reiteration by paraphrase of what others say of themselves…” (50) In other words, Martin claims that by recognizing the differences in how people construct generalizations and categories for comparison, the analysis will be null and descriptive studies will be the result. This could not be further from the truth.

Jonathan Z. Smith is also quoted by Martin and is even cited as being the only scholar of religion to give sustained attention to the issue of comparison (45). Interestingly, Smith himself puts forth a criteria for comparative study that closely resembles what is proposed by postmodernism in general. While I do not claim to apply that label of “postmodernist” to him (something that might horrify), particularly after reading his book Imagining Religion in which he equates the act of comparison to that of conducting “magic” (in the derogatory sense of the term), it should be said, that some of what he argues for fits the methodology employed by some scholars in the postmodernist school of religious studies. A few examples of these scholars will be explored later.

In a lecture entitled “Why Compare Religions?” given at Princeton University in October 2003, Smith states that “the value of comparison [is] as an intrusive activity, one of methodical manipulation” (4). This is not something that can wished away by positivists – it is how things are: scholars manipulate. This is an action consciously built into the so-called scientific method itself. Like the postmodernists, Smith too argues that comparison “requires assuming responsibility for your work and… to make your workings so explicit that they can subsequently be undone”(5)[1]. In this assertion is the assumption that our scholarly analysis is necessarily subjective, personal, and temporal-spatial-culturally contextual which will shift over time among scholars to yield new mental frameworks that offer other methods or scopes of analysis and, subsequently, yield different results and values of results. Smith further goes on to argue that while comparison “entails difference if it is to be at all interesting [ie. of value in the pursuit of knowledge]” (7) and that “comparison requires difference and aims at difference” (9), he is not so quick to destroy the possibility of similarity. The idea is that for there to be difference, there must be some perceived form of similarity, even if on the most general, superficial level. While asserting ontological sameness for postmodernists is inherently problematic, this is not what Smith is doing here. Instead, Smith aptly recognize that there must be some degree of sameness to initiate comparison and that taking responsibility for your work lays in the recognition that “there is nothing ‘given’ or ‘natural’ in those elements selected for comparison, [that] they are the result of the scholar’s mental operations” (11-12). Does this mean that comparisons will be inherently descriptive and devoid of meaning? Absolutely not. As Smith said in this lecture and elsewhere, “religion’ and ‘religions’ [are] conceptual categories created for the scholar’s analytic purposes” (17) and when we compare them, we are necessarily engaging in an act of interpretation from our viewpoint.

Translation: The Only Essentialism is Difference

Smith channels Hans Penner and Donald Davidson in his lecture when he states that “to interpret means to translate,” (14) further noting that “translation recognizes, at the very heart of its enterprise, that nothing is ever quite the same” (Ibid). While this echoes the postmodernist assertions about an inherent incomparability of all things, I want to quote the sentences that followed because they are crucial to understanding how, then, interpretation can still take place. Rather than cower in the prehistoric corner of “the scientific method”, as Martin does, grabbing at his grossly inadequate security blanket of empiricism in the face of what can be overwhelming biological and philosophical plurality, Smith embraces this wholeheartedly and plunges forth into the diverse unknown. He claims, “translation can be congruent, its adequacy can be evaluated, it can be criticized, negotiated, and improved – but it cannot be identical, it cannot be complete, the relative difference cannot (finally) be overcome”(15). This is the centerpiece of postmodernism, which Martin was so quick to dismiss: difference will always be maintained but methodology is what changes and can be studied as elucidating some form of knowledge about either of the units compared, in light of the scholar comparing. Perhaps a quotation from the Preface of Patton and Ray’s anthology A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in Postmodernism would be most helpful in illustrating this point. The authours “reclaim the term ‘magic’ [from Smith] to endorse and extend his claim that comparison is an indeterminate scholarly procedure that is best undertaken as an intellectually creative enterprise, not as a science but as an art – an imaginative and critical act of mediation and redescription in the service of knowledge” (4). It is in the manipulation of difference, “ a playing across the “gap” of differences, for the purpose of gaining intellectual insight” (Ibid). Most provocative are the attempts in this volume to reimagine comparison as a form of “imaginative and ironical juxtaposition…as a way of stripping away illusions of ‘uniqueness’ for each religious situation” (Ibid). This stripping of uniqueness is not in the sense of removing particularism, which cannot be done, but rather some metaphysical understanding of uniqueness that qualifies one religion valuationally in comparison to another. For a succinct understanding of this idea, I will briefly turn to Theodore Adorno whose method of “constellating” (handed down from Benjamin and Giedion) is particularly provocative here, as defined by Martin Jay in meditations on Adorno’s work: “a juxtaposed, rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core or generative first principle” (14-15). The argument that these are the only ways to derive meaning is absurd and begs the question of why people see the unifying or generalizing narrative as being more meaningful in the first place.

Lessons from Social Memory

Adorno is particularly well-loved in the emerging and evolving field of Social Memory – a field practically founded by postmodernists and engaging in historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological and other forms of analysis quite prominently in the Academy. In fact, many of the basic theoretical foundations in the field of social memory will help us to understand how their application in comparative religious studies might be of benefit in the pursuit of ethical knowledge – the last concept something I will explore briefly in the conclusion but which must be left for future debate elsewhere. For these purposes, I want to look at a text by Mario Liverani, Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts which echoes some of the sentiments of Smith. After establishing an understanding of a text (which could just as easily be applied to other items of analysis that are non-textual) “not as a ‘source of information’ but as information in itself; not as an opening on a reality laying beyond, but as an element which makes up that reality” (179). In this method, the importance is not placed on understanding events or elements that can be said to comprise a religion, “but on how they are narrated” (Ibid). This is further qualified by showing how the type of research that involves the examination of how peoples’ existential feelings and historical events correspond is all but impossible. It should be noted that ‘historical events’ can easily be replaced with ritual, religious belief or some other piece of ‘observable’ data. As Liverani succinctly puts it:

We are not in possession of the historical event, only of some interpretation of it: the views taken by the different actors and witnesses, and the opinions of the historians [or scholars of religion] who reconstruct [them] through those views… the concept of “historical event”, which in all cases implies a choice in interpretation, a way of understanding and presenting (185).[2]

Smith himself affirms this sentiment in his lecture, stating “we cannot compare ‘religions’ as if they were concrete objects. (After all, there are no existent genera)” (17) and despite violence that might be done as a result of comparison, it is definitively a human enterprise and must be carried out – “reflexively refined and critically deployed as a disciplinary tool, it can reveal as much about our practices as scholars as it may about the activities of other folk” (17-18).

The point about violence or harm is important for understanding, something that may have been misunderstood by Martin as well. In terms of radical postmodernist thought, there can be no discourse without potential violence or harm done to the terms studied as it will always necessitate some form of definition foreign to the object. I would argue that if harm can be done in such an instance, this is also the point where resistance can be found.[3]

Conclusions: The Final Death of Positivism?

If postmodern methodology is neither relativistic nor deluded by the idea that you could study anything in religion except an individual’s or group’s memory of its phenomena, and if postmodernism is not so hubristic as to claim an overcoming of inherent, insoluble difference between things compared, then what of positivism? What of Martin’s final prospects for the future of the act of comparison in religious studies? Near the end of his chapter, Martin claims that” formal, theoretically constructed generalizations about religion can finally be filled in or amplified with the data of particular religious traditions” and that such generalizations would also define the data (53). Though he concedes that this data makes a religion inherently unique for its participants, his framework is backwards. A close analysis of the data and its self-definitions juxtaposed against alternate data can yield the highly contextual generalizations, not the other way around. He claims that naturalistic theories “raise once again the Enlightenment proposal of human universals but without the metaphysical/theological assumptions” (55) – a point inherently problematic for postmodernists who, again, beg the question of what benefit there is in resurrecting universals if they have shown time and time again (whether metaphysical in their assumptions or not) to contain the seeds of oppression and misinformation. Far more interesting, is why we, as scholars, continuously feel the need to do so.


Sources Referenced and Cited

Coleman, Simon and John Eade, eds. Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Routledge: London. 2004.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Blackwell Publishers: India. 1992.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.

Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24

Liverani, Mario. “Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts” in Orientalia, Vol 42, 1973, p. 178-94.

Martin, Jay. Adorno. Harvard University Press. 1984.

Martin, Luther H. “Comparison” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Patton, Kimberley and Benjamin Ray, Eds. A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. University of Chicago Press. 1982.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Why Compare Religions?” Princeton University, October 2003. Conference in Honor of John F. Wilson.

[1] Note that the notion of ethical responsibility is considered a fundamental point of Derrida’s deconstructive methodology. For more meditations on this, I recommend Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction:Derrida and Levinas.

[2] An excellent example of the application of these ideas onto the actual study of some religious phenomena while still deriving legitimate meaning can be found in the Introduction of Coleman and Eade’s Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. For an analysis that employs some of these ideas, also see “On Social Memory and Identity Formation in Late Persian Yehud” by Ben Zvi.

[3] For an excellent, very recent analysis of this, please see Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24. Hirst argues that resistance in the Neo-Gramscian and Foucauldian traditions “suffer from a common problem in that the forms of resistance they conceptualise are highly susceptible to appropriation by, or reinscription within, prevailing forms of global ordering…[however] inasmuch as deconstruction attempts to interrupt forms of thinking and knowing right up to and including processes of conscious and unconscious subjectification, it can provide valuable means by which the micro-gestures of onto-politics can be resisted at the (fundamentally interrelated) levels of political thought and concrete praxis.” While this is aimed at political activism, a similar argument can be made for activism through scholarship.