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I N T R O D U C T I O N The essays brought together in this volume deal with historical topics that vary in time and place, ranging from the rites ofmedieval European monks to the sermons of contemporary Arab theologians. What links them all together is the assumption that Western history has had an overriding importance—for good or ill—in the making of the modern world, and that explorations of that history should be a major anthropological concern. It has sometimes been noted that peoples from non-Western countries feel obliged to read the history of the West (but not each other's histories) and that Westerners in turn do not feel the same need to study non-Western histories. The history of modern Western thought, for example, can be (and is) written on its own, but not so the history of contemporary Arab thought. One opposition between the West and the non-West (and so a mode of connection between them) isconstructed historically bytheseasymmetrical desires and indifferences. My anthropological explorations into Christian and post-Christian history are therefore motivated by the conviction that its conceptual geology has profound implications for the ways in which non-Western traditions are now able to grow and change. More particularly, I hold that anthropologists who would study, say, Muslim beliefs and practices will need some understanding of how "religion" has come to be formed asconcept and practicein the modern West. For while religion is integral to modern Western history, there are dangers in employing it asa normalizing concept when translating Islamic traditions. The genealogy of religion is a central theme in my essays. Thus, chapters i and 2sketch the emergenceof religion asamodern historical I 2 Introduction object. In the next two chapters I approach the problem obliquely, by discussing in turn two elements in medieval Christianity that are no longer generally accepted by modern religion: the productive role of physical pain and the virtue of self-abasement. From the point ofview of theological modernism, aswell as of secular morality, they are both archaic ("uncivilized") conditions. Chapters 5and 6 address aspects of the asymmetry between Western and non-Western histories: the former deals with problems of anthropological translation, the latter with the limitations of a non-Christian religious tradition when juxtaposed with the Enlightenment doctrine of critical reason. They deal with translation in a double sense: interpreting from one language into another, and conveying sacred relics from one shrine to another. The two final chapters (7and 8)were written at the height of the so-called Rushdie affair in response to the angry positions then taken up in the name of liberalism about religious intolerance. All the chapters thus deal with fragments of the West's religious history, because I assume that the West's definition of itself—and therefore its engagement with non-Western cultures—includes that history. Among anthropologists, "history" is a notion that few would now dare to despise. On the contrary, all of us solemnly acknowledge it. But what kind of history? More often than not, it is history in the active voice: everywhere, local people are "making their own history," "contesting" it, "borrowing" meanings from Western dominators, and "reconstructing" their own cultural existence.1 This notion of history emphasizes not only the unceasing work of human creators but also the unstable and hybrid character of their creation. In some versions, therefore, the determining character of "world system" and "dependent structure" is rejected; in others, what is repudiated are claims about "authenticity," "a different people," "a unitary culture," "tradition," and so on. Intelligent and influential people writing today are committed to this view of history making. Nevertheless, I i. As J. and J. Comaroff (1991, 18) put it in the introduction to their fascinating account of missionaries and colonialism in nineteenth-century South Africa: "Here, then, was a process in which signifiers were set afloat, fought over, and recaptured on both sides of the colonial encounter. What is more, this encounter led to the objectification of'the' culture of the colonized in opposition to that of whites. . . . While signs, social relations, and material practices are constantly open to transformation— and while meaning may indeed become unfixed, resisted, and reconstructed—history everywhere isactivelymade in a dialecticof order and disorder, consensus and contest" (emphasis in original). Introduction 3 remain skeptical. So I shall begin by rehearsing briefly what I find to be unconvincing about it, and at the same time sketch—through a process of resistance—alternative conceptions...


Subject Headings

  • Religion.
  • Christian civilization.
  • Islamic civilization.
  • Rushdie, Salman.
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