Locating Religions

Contact, Diversity, and Translocality

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Reinhold F. Glei, Nikolas Jaspert
Dynamics in the History of Religions
  • Boston, MA: 
    , December
     373 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One-dimensional histories of religious traditions would have us believe that they have well-delineated boundaries. They propose that religions arose from unique origins, which canonized their identities, beliefs, and practices. Taking “contact,” “diversity,” and “translocality” as three theoretical aspects in the history of religions, Locating Religions is an edited volume that promises to revisit the myth that religions take shape and evolve in isolation. This book debuts as part of the series, “Dynamics in the History of Religions,” published by Brill Press. The series offers scholars in the field an opportunity to see the crucial role of diverse encounters in the origins, development, and differentiations of the major religious traditions

One of the main obstacles with theoretical projects, such as this one, is knowing how best to explain disciplinary vocabulary. With that in mind, Locating Religions is a book of great ambition and originality. The eleven chapters that make up this volume aim to engage the three aspects of location—with the model of translocality at the center. Translocality, here, means a few things. Not only is it the historical processes of moving a belief and practice across geographical boundaries as well as the act of creating mental conceptions of those spaces, it is also the lived functions of those diffusions (6). This major undertaking brings a nuanced perspective that seeks to make precise historical claims about religious traditions across the globe.

After the introduction by Reinhold Glei and Nikolas Jaspert, the book opens with an essay from Anna Akasoy on the legacy of Alexander-the-Great in the Islamic world. Akasoy shows the relationship between presumably fixed narratives and flexible ones. As a malleable figure, the legends of Alexander-the-Great served as convoys for the imaginary geography that expanded along with the Islamic religious community (18). Stephen Berkwits then follows with a piece on the intellectual debates between Portuguese missionaries and Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, Japan, China, and Tibet during the early modern period. Berkwits argues that, although Portuguese missionaries acknowledge commonalities with Buddhist priestly hierarchies and religious practices, they nevertheless located them outside their own boundaries (60).

In chapter 3, Alexandra Cuffel offers a remarkable essay on geographical transmigration and spirit possessions among Jews in early modern Safed. By highlighting three literary compositions during the period, Cuffel shows how Jews reacted to these translocations by forming new polemical discourses that made distinctions between true and false believers, particularly related to incarnation and spirit possession (86). On a more topographical spectrum, Ana Echeverría sets out to revisit the existence of Christian monastic communities during the Muslim domination on the Iberian Peninsula. Echeverría not only contends that monastic communities thrived during this period, but that links with Eastern Christian monasticism continued to influence practices in Islamic Spain (117).

Georgios Halkias continues the pace of the volume with an essay on Buddhist kingship in imperial Tibet. Through Buddhist assimilation of Tibetan beliefs and practices, Halkias reveals the problematic classifications between facts and fiction. Halkias asserts that Tibetan historiography showed little interest in simply retelling facts and was much more concerned with projects of narrating a distinct way of life (145). Adam Knobler follows with a rich essay on the phenomenon of myth, power, and geographical distances in three historical case studies. These cases from different social contexts and religious traditions remarkably demonstrated a keen affection for a far-off coreligionist savior. Although based on legendary material, these saviors became tropes for legitimate political activity in multi-cultural contact zones (166).

In chapter 7, Zaroui Pogossian illustrates the translocation of religion through the repossession of monastic complexes in Vaspurakan during the ninth-century—a period in which the Abbasid court allowed local lords to assert some sort of autonomous power. The Arcruni rulers of the area revived religious traditions in specific sites and also emphasized the idea of a re-conquest from Muslim control (222). In the next essay, Henrik Sørensen takes the reader to East Asia, where he explores the intellectual formation of the netherworld within the Buddhist encounter of Chinese culture. Sørensen argues that something other than a clean merger between Buddhism and Daoism created the shared understanding of the netherworld. Instead of a synthesis, the translocality of death and dying between these two systems are best described as not only a shared culture, but also as a shared sense of culture (276).

In the next two pieces, Knut Martin Stünkel and Dorothea Weltecke propose new ways of reading Christian philosophy and historiographies. Stünkel arrives at the model of translocality by way of logic in the works of three medieval dialogues. In this approach, religious diversity is a question of topology, which is a way of engaging religions other through a theoretical paradigm of philosophical language (294). Weltecke sets out to decentralize the Eurocentric history of Christianity by offering three historiographical models that capture the multiple expressions of the Christian religion. Weltecke contends that Christianity is a transcultural religion with no center (335).

In the closing chapter of the volume Michael Willis and Tsering Gonkatsang turn their attention to several Tibetan prints and wood blocks with dhāraṇī-texts, currently housed at the British Museum. Willis and Gonkatsang manage to show how these prints and wood blocks are more than just the byproduct of material culture and may actually contain the histories and cosmological maps of old Tibet (360).

The eclectic breath of Locating Religions will draw scholars from all time periods and geographical locations. The powerful spectrum of this edited volume demands a lot from its readers. Although the essays are accessible to anyone interested in phenomenology and the history of religions, the reader must prepare to engage religious history at the microcosmic level. In the end, the contributing authors do not forget the goals of this series, and they quite fondly embrace the liberty to imagine the tangled and complex genealogies of religious traditions—as it should be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Josefrayn Sánchez-Perry is a doctoral student in religions of the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Reinhold Glei is Professor for classical philology at University of Bochum. He has published on ancient literature and philosophy, medieval and early modern reception of Islam in Europe, and on translation theory and techniques, esp. from Arabic into Latin and Greek.

Nikolas Jaspert is Professor for medieval history at University of Heidelberg. He has published on the history of the Iberian Peninsula, Mediterranean History, the crusades, medieval religious orders and urban history.


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