This volume traces the forces in nineteenth-century European thought that resulted in the establishment of the idea of world religious traditions; for over a century, this idea has determined the fundamental framework for the teaching and analysis of non-Christian religions in West European and American universities. Tomoko Masuzawa primarily pursues the early history of religious studies, but in the process she also seeks to provide another somewhat predictable example of cultural criticism. The result is more successful in the former than the latter.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries European commentators on religion saw the world divided into four broad religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and a collection of pagan or idolatrous religions. By the early twentieth century scholars of religious studies in Europe and the United States had expanded their understanding of the great world religious traditions to eleven: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Sikhism. To most observers, and to many scholars who opened the way for the expansion of this list, the process appeared to be a movement from exclusion to inclusion, or toward religious pluralism. Masuzawa persuasively argues that there was nothing inevitable in the expansion of the list of world religions and that despite the appearance of pluralism Western values determined the outcome.
In one of the strongest chapters of the book, Masuzawa explores mid-nineteenth-century English comparative theology. Her chief protagonists are F. D. Maurice, James Freeman Clarke, and Charles Hardwick. Both Maurice and Clarke were willing to expand the number of religions that the scholar should consider, sought to find an essence of true religion, and then presented non-Christian religions as in one way or another incomplete renditions of an essentially true religion. Hardwick was the Christian Advocate at Cambridge; paradoxically, Masuzawa finds Hardwick better informed than either Maurice or Clarke but largely ignored by later scholars because of his outright advocacy of Christianity. Hardwick was but one of many scholarly Victorian authors who studied in detail non-Christian religions in order to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. Masuzawa quite importantly contends that such writers, despite their supposedly non-scientific advocacy of Christianity, actually advanced the agenda of establishing knowledge of non-Christian religions. This sharp analysis is part of her larger goal to unmask what she clearly believes to be the questionable assertion that the scientific or objective study of religion must be separated from religious commitment on the part of the scholar. In this respect, she directly challenges any triumphalism or whiggism on the part of those who would write the history of modern academic religious studies.
The two most interesting case studies that Masuzawa addresses are the rapid [End Page 519] inclusion of Buddhism in the canon of world religion and the deep resistance to a similar inclusion of Islam. The assimilation of Buddhism became possible through the rise of analysis of Indo-European languages, from the Romantic age onward. The linguists who championed an Indo-European family of languages—originating in India and then spreading over Asia and eventually to Europe, particularly to Greece—contended that inflected languages were capable of intellectual subtleties not available to non-inflected languages. This same analysis linked Greek, and hence European, civilization to India, the home of Buddhism. Thus Buddhism was a precursor to Western civilization and informed that civilization. On these and other grounds Buddhism found many scholars who came to see it as a great world religious tradition. Europeans had always been hostile to Islam, but that hostility changed during the nineteenth century. Islam came to be seen as a Semitic religion. Arabic, like Hebrew, was a non-inflected language; neither was deemed capable of the same kind of intellectual power as the Indo-European languages. By the end of the century, Islam, despite the actual demographics (then as now) of its followers, came to be seen as an Arabic religion—a national religion rather...