Tag Archives: History of Religion

Byman, “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement”

In July, Oxford University Press releases “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Daniel Byman (Georgetown University School of Foreign Service). The publisher’s description follows:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the entire world was introduced to Al Qaeda and its enigmatic leader, Osama bin Laden. But the organization that changed the face of terrorism forever and unleashed a whirlwind of counterterrorism activity and two major wars had been on the scene long before that eventful morning. In Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know, Daniel L. Byman, an eminent scholar of Middle East terrorism and international security who served on the 9/11 Commission, provides a sharp and concise overview of Al Qaeda, from its humble origins in the mountains of Afghanistan to the present, explaining its perseverance and adaptation since 9/11 and the limits of U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts.

The organization that would come to be known as Al Qaeda traces its roots to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Founded as the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda achieved a degree of international notoriety with a series of spectacular attacks in the 1990s; however, it was the dramatic assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 that truly launched Al Qaeda onto the global stage. The attacks endowed the organization with world-historical importance and provoked an overwhelming counterattack by the United States and other western countries. Within a year of 9/11, the core of Al Qaeda had been chased out of Afghanistan and into a variety of refuges across the Muslim world. Splinter groups and franchised offshoots were active in the 2000s in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen, but by early 2011, after more than a decade of relentless counterterrorism efforts by the United States and other Western military and intelligence services, most felt that Al Qaeda’s moment had passed. With the death of Osama bin Laden in May of that year, many predicted that Al Qaeda was in its death throes. Shockingly, Al Qaeda has staged a remarkable comeback in the last few years. In almost every conflict in the Muslim world, from portions of the Xanjing region in northwest China to the African subcontinent, Al Qaeda franchises or like-minded groups have played a role. Al Qaeda’s extreme Salafist ideology continues to appeal to radicalized Sunni Muslims throughout the world, and it has successfully altered its organizational structure so that it can both weather America’s enduring full-spectrum assault and tailor its message to specific audiences.

Authoritative and highly readable, Byman’s account offers readers insightful and penetrating answers to the fundamental questions about Al Qaeda: who they are, where they came from, where they’re going-and, perhaps most critically-what we can do about it.

“Voltaire’s Revolution” (Noyer, ed.)

In July, Prometheus Books will release “Voltaire’s Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion,” translated and edited by G.K. Noyer. The publisher’s description follows: 
Voltaire, the pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), was one of the most influential leaders of the Enlightenment. This book presents the first full English translations of selected writings from Voltaire’s legendary pamphlet campaign for tolerance, which forcefully drove the movement to grant freedom of beliefs and end state-imposed religions. Voltaire wrote close to two hundred works advocating for that change. John Adams wrote that Voltaire “did more for religious liberty than Calvin, Luther or even Locke.” 
This collection also contains accounts of Voltaire’s battle as seen by the great mathematician-philosophe Condorcet, King Frederick the Great of Prussia, and others, long unavailable in English―a valuable addition to the library of anyone with an interest in human rights and freedom of thought.

Omar and Duffey, “Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions”

This month, Wiley-Blackwell released “Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions,” by Irfan A. Omar (Marquette University) and Michael K. Duffey (Marquette University). The publisher’s description follows:

Written by top practitioner-scholars who bring a critical yet empathetic eye to the topic, this textbook provides a comprehensive look at peace and violence in seven world religions. 

* Offers a clear and systematic narrative with coverage of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Native American religions

* Introduces a different religion and its sacred texts in each chapter; discusses ideas of peace, war, nonviolence, and permissible violence; recounts historical responses to violence; and highlights individuals within the tradition working toward peace and justice

* Examines concepts within their religious context for a better understanding of the values, motivations, and ethics involved

* Includes student-friendly pedagogical features, such as enriching end-of-chapter critiques by practitioners of other traditions, definitions of key terms, discussion questions, and further reading sections. 

White, “Reforming Sodom”

In August, the University of North Carolina Press will release “Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights,” by Heather R. White (University of Puget Sound). The publisher’s description follows:

With a focus on mainline Protestants and gay rights activists in the twentieth century, Heather R. White challenges the usual picture of perennial adversaries with a new narrative about America’s religious and sexual past. White argues that today’s antigay Christian traditions originated in the 1920s when a group of liberal Protestants began to incorporate psychiatry and psychotherapy into Christian teaching. A new therapeutic orthodoxy, influenced by modern medicine, celebrated heterosexuality as God-given and advocated a compassionate “cure” for homosexuality.

White traces the unanticipated consequences as the therapeutic model, gaining popularity after World War II, spurred mainline church leaders to take a critical stance toward rampant antihomosexual discrimination. By the 1960s, a vanguard of clergy began to advocate for homosexual rights. White highlights the continued importance of this religious support to the consolidating gay and lesbian movement. However, the ultimate irony of the therapeutic orthodoxy’s legacy was its adoption, beginning in the 1970s, by the Christian Right, which embraced it as an age-old tradition to which Americans should return. On a broader level, White challenges the assumed secularization narrative in LGBT progress by recovering the forgotten history of liberal Protestants’ role on both sides of the debates over orthodoxy and sexual identity.

Jütte, “The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400–1800″

In May, Yale University Press released “The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400–1800” by Daniel Jütte (Harvard University). The publisher’s description follows:

The fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries were truly an Age of Secrecy in Europe, when arcane knowledge was widely believed to be positive knowledge that extended into all areas of daily life, from the economic, scientific, and political spheres to the general activities of ordinary people.

So asserts Daniel Jütte in this engrossing, vivid, and award-winning work. He maintains that the widespread acceptance and even reverence for this “economy of secrets” in premodern Europe created a highly complex and sometimes perilous space for mutual contact between Jews and Christians. Surveying the interactions between the two religious groups in a wide array of secret sciences and practices—including alchemy, cryptography, medical arcana, technological and military secrets, and intelligence—the author relates true stories of colorful “professors of secrets” and clandestine encounters. In the process Jütte examines how our current notion of secrecy is radically different in this era of WikiLeaks, Snowden, et al., as opposed to centuries earlier when the truest, most important knowledge was generally considered to be secret by definition.

Saint-Laurent, “Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches”

This month, University of California Press releases “Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches” by Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent (Marquette University). The publisher’s description follows:

Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches analyzes the hagiographic traditions of seven missionary saints in the Syriac heritage during late antiquity: Thomas, Addai, Mari, John of Ephesus, Simeon of Beth Arsham, Jacob Baradaeus, and Ahudemmeh. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent studies a body of legends about the missionaries’ voyages in the Syrian Orient to illustrate their shared symbols and motifs. Revealing how these texts encapsulated the concerns of the communities that produced them, she draws attention to the role of hagiography as a malleable genre that was well-suited for the idealized presentation of the beginnings of Christian communities. Hagiographers, through their reworking of missionary themes, asserted autonomy, orthodoxy, and apostolicity for their individual civic and monastic communities, positioning themselves in relationship to the rulers of their empires and to competing forms of Christianity. Saint-Laurent argues that missionary hagiography is an important and neglected source for understanding the development of the East and West Syriac ecclesiastical bodies: the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East. Given that many of these Syriac-speaking churches remain today in the Middle East and India, with diaspora communities in Europe and North America, this work opens the door for further study of the role of saints and stories as symbolic links between ancient and modern traditions.

Urban-Mead, “The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe”

In July, Ohio University Press will release “The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe” by Wendy Urban-Mead (Bard College). The publisher’s description follows:

The Gender of Piety is an intimate history of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, or BICC, as related through six individual life histories that extend from the early colonial years through the first decade after independence. Taken together, these six lives show how men and women of the BICC experienced and sequenced their piety in different ways. Women usually remained tied to the church throughout their lives, while men often had a more strained relationship with it. Church doctrine was not always flexible enough to accommodate expected masculine gender roles, particularly male membership in political and economic institutions or participation in important male communal practices.

The study is based on more than fifteen years of extensive oral history research supported by archival work in Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The oral accounts make it clear, official versions to the contrary, that the church was led by spiritually powerful women and that maleness and mission-church notions of piety were often incompatible.

The life-history approach illustrates how the tension of gender roles both within and without the church manifested itself in sometimes unexpected ways: for example, how a single family could produce both a legendary woman pastor credited with mediating multiple miracles and a man — her son —  who joined the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union nationalist political party and fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war in the 1970s. Investigating the lives of men and women in equal measure, The Gender of Piety uses a gendered interpretive lens to analyze the complex relationship between the church and broader social change in this region of southern Africa.

Deuchler, “Under the Ancestors’ Eyes”

This September, the Harvard University Press will release “Under the Ancestors’ Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Premodern Korea,” by Martina Deuchler (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). The publisher’s description follows: 

Under the Ancestors’ Eyes presents a new approach to Korean social history by focusing on the origin and development of the indigenous descent group. Martina Deuchler maintains that the surprising continuity of the descent-group model gave the ruling elite cohesion and stability and enabled it to retain power from the early Silla (fifth century) to the late nineteenth century. This argument, underpinned by a fresh interpretation of the late-fourteenth-century Koryŏ-Chosŏn transition, illuminates the role of Neo-Confucianism as an ideological and political device through which the elite regained and maintained dominance during the Chosŏn period. Neo-Confucianism as espoused in Korea did not level the social hierarchy but instead tended to sustain the status system. In the late Chosŏn, it also provided ritual models for the lineage-building with which local elites sustained their preeminence vis-à-vis an intrusive state. Though Neo-Confucianism has often been blamed for the rigidity of late Chosŏn society, it was actually the enduring native kinship ideology that preserved the strict social-status system. By utilizing historical and social anthropological methodology and analyzing a wealth of diverse materials, Deuchler highlights Korea’s distinctive elevation of the social over the political.

“Disagreements of the Jurists” (Stewart, trans. & ed.)

Earlier this year, the New York University Press released “Disagreements of the Jurists: A Manual of Islamic Legal Theory,” by Al-Qadi al-Nuʿman, edited and translated by Devin Stewart (Emory University). The publisher’s description follows:

Al-Qadi al-Nuʿman was the chief legal theorist and ideologue of the North African Fatimid dynasty in the tenth century. This translation makes available in English for the first time his major work on Islamic legal theory, which presents a legal model in support of the Fatimids’ principle of legitimate rule over the Islamic community. Composed as part of a grand project to establish the theoretical bases of the official Fatimid legal school, Disagreements of the Jurists expounds a distinctly Shiʿi system of hermeneutics, which refutes the methods of legal interpretation adopted by Sunni jurists.

The work begins with a discussion of the historical causes of jurisprudential divergence in the first Islamic centuries, and goes on to address, point by point, the specific interpretive methods of Sunni legal theory, arguing that they are both illegitimate and ineffective. While its immediate mission is to pave the foundation of the legal Ismaʿili tradition, the text also preserves several Islamic legal theoretical works no longer extant—including Ibn Dawud’s manual, al-Wusul ila maʿrifat al-usul—and thus throws light on a critical stage in the historical development of Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh) that would otherwise be lost to history.  

Conversations: Christian Sahner

From 2008 to 2010, young scholar Christian Sahner (left) lived in Syria, studying Arabic. He learned a great deal about the country. particularly the relations among the different religious groups that made up Syrian society–including Christians, who accounted for perhaps 10% of the population. Last fall, he published an engaging account of his time in Syria, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford). In the book, Sahner describes life in Syria before the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding a surface calm, he writes, sectarian tensions existed just below the surface.

This week, Sahner–who received a PhD in History this month from Princeton, and who will start a research fellowship at Cambridge in the fall–kindly answers some questions about his work. Our conversation covers topics such as the history of Christians in Syria, their experience under the Assad regime, the failure of the Arab Spring, and prospects for the future.

Christian, let’s start with some background. Your book is a reflection on the years you spent in Syria (2008-2010) and Lebanon (2011-2013). Why did you decide to live in these countries? What were you doing there?

Sahner: I first came to Syria for language study. Before the tumult of the Arab Spring, it was common wisdom among students that Cairo and Damascus were the best places to master Arabic. It was more or less dumb luck that led me to Syria and not to Egypt, and in hindsight, I’m immensely grateful the cards fell the way they did. By the beginning of 2011, Syria was no longer a safe place for an American student. Therefore, it was to Beirut that I relocated to carry on my language work and research. I’ve been returning to Lebanon ever since.

A main theme in your book is the power of sectarianism, which you define as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.” You believe this is a key fact of Syrian and Lebanese societies. What do you think explains it?

Sahner: Among the different countries of the Arab and Muslim world, Syria and Lebanon stand out for the terrific variety of peoples who live there, and always have. This includes not just Sunni Muslims, who form an absolute majority between the two countries, but also smaller Muslim sects, such as Shi‘is, Alawis, Isma‘ilis, and Druze, along with non-Muslims, including numerous Christian denominations, and until recently, large populations of Jews. The existence of religious diversity does not in and of itself entail the existence of sectarianism. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that sectarianism depends on and cannot exist without a sense of religious difference in a society. In the Levant, we face a world in which, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political systems emerged that explicitly assigned power on the basis of sect (as in Lebanon), or which saw informal imbalances of power arise among sects (as in Syria). Because these systems thrust religious identity into the center of political life in this way, they tended to stoke resentments between communities, and under certain circumstances, spark violence.

You have a great interest in the Christian communities of Syria. Many Westerners are very unfamiliar with these communities. Could you give us a brief description of them? Who are they, what are their numbers?

Sahner: We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim-majority country, but for centuries after the rise of Islam, its population was majority Christian. The roots of these Christian communities are very ancient. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, it was in the Syrian city of Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Over the centuries, Syrian Christianity became splintered into different denominations, which were divided over Continue reading