- Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion by David Chidester, and: Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850–1950 by Jamie Gilham
During the late Victorian era, a noteworthy minority of British men and women engaged in forms of religious experimentation, exploring non-Christian religions and alternative forms of spirituality, and, in some cases, embracing new religious identities. The two [End Page 169] books under review are important additions to the growing body of scholarship examining these phenomena. In that sense, these works are complementary, but they approach these issues from very different perspectives and both range far beyond the Victorian period. In Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion, David Chidester seeks to produce a new historical narrative of the origin and growth of his discipline which focuses on its relationship to the history of European imperialism, especially British rule in South Africa. In Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850–1950, Jamie Gilham tells the story of the first British converts to Islam in the century before large-scale immigration from former colonies led to the emergence of a large Muslim minority in Britain. Both studies are grounded in wide-ranging and creative research, and readers interested in current religious conflicts and controversies will find them illuminating, while those with a special interest in Victorian matters will discover fascinating examples of and insights into the culture of religious eclecticism that emerged in the later nineteenth century.
Chidester contends that throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, “knowledge about religion and religions was entangled with imperialism,” and he further argues for the unique importance of South Africa in the intellectual history of comparative religion (xvii). South Africa was central because much of the empirical evidence used to support the theorizing of metropolitan scholars such as Friedrich Max Müller, E. B. Tylor, and Andrew Lang was taken from the writings of missionaries and other European observers living there and because the great divide between “savage” and “civilized,” on which scholars of so-called primitive religion and culture relied, was constantly built up and maintained by the racist assumptions most apparent in European discourse about Africa and Africans. Thus, “comparative religion emerged in Great Britain as an important imperial enterprise” (3). The story Chidester tells, however, is much more interesting and complex than a simple description of knowledge and scholarship as tools of colonial domination. Instead, he traces what he calls the “triple mediation” of imperial, colonial, and indigenous agents, sources, and voices in the creation of knowledge about religion (5). So, for example, Tylor’s famous theory of animism relied heavily on evidence about the place of dreaming and dream interpretation among the Zulu that was drawn from the investigations and writings of the English missionary Henry Callaway (whose work was also cited by J. G. Frazer and Müller). But despite the belief of Tylor and others that Callaway had opened a window into a pure authentic version of indigenous religion, his African informants, including the Zulu diviner whose story provided crucial details for the theory of animism, were caught up in a colonial reality of exploitation, dispossession, and cultural destruction, facts not taken into account in Tylor’s exposition of his theory.
As part of his task, Chidester promises to introduce “new actors into the history of the study of religion” (xiii). This he does, with surprising and intriguing results. One example would be his analysis and discussion of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. While acknowledging that Du Bois’s interest in African religious history was subsidiary to his larger pan-African project, Chidester nevertheless claims that he posed critical questions for the study of religion. Du Bois sought to undermine the traditional equation between African fetish worship and cultural degeneration that was imbedded in Victorian evolutionary models, arguing that the fetish was not a sign of African cultural...