The anthropology of religion has seen tremendous theoretical development in recent decades regarding such themes as conversion and ritual, ethics and morality, and materiality and mediation. At the same time, it has been characterized by a remarkable lack of comparative work across religious traditions. In the last 15 years or so, the anthropology of religion has branched into separate subfields, including, most notably, the anthropologies of Islam and Christianity. While these specialized subfields have stimulated a profusion of rich ethnographic studies on the dynamics within Muslim, Christian, and other religious collectives, they have also discouraged comparative inquiries across religious boundaries. This lack of comparative work has resulted in a disregard of parallels, overlaps, and situated differences in the dynamics of lived religion (broadly understood here as the contextualized ways in which people experience, express, and enact religion in their everyday lives) among religious communities, especially those co-existing in the same geographical space.
Indeed, in our highly pluralist world, groups with diverse religious backgrounds tend to live side by side in rural, urban, or national spaces. More often than not, these shared socio-political spaces are marked by fervent discourses of cultural and religious difference, often accompanied by widespread notions of alleged religious alterity—especially of Islam in Euro-America, but also of other religions, including Christianity and ‘traditional religion’, in other contexts. By gaining insight into the potentially convergent dynamics of lived religion, comparative ethnographies of religion can offer a critical perspective on received notions of difference and particularity. This special section brings together scholars who are pioneering such comparative ethnographic work in various contexts in Europe and Africa—regions where most of the innovative cross-religious ethnographic work is being done.1 Our focus is on Islam and Christianity, the two largest and most widely studied religions, but our argument about the potential of cross-religious ethnography extends to other religions. The short articles in this collection look at Muslim and Christian communities that co-exist in the same urban spaces, drawing out convergences and contrasts that may remain overlooked in non-comparative accounts of these groups.
The special section builds on an incipient recognition among anthropologists that long-standing boundaries between the study of separate religions need to be overcome. A number of anthropologists working in Africa, in particular, have put this issue on the agenda. In a paper published more than a decade ago, Brian Larkin and Birgit Meyer (2006: 286) made a case for Muslim-Christian comparison, arguing that evangelical Pentecostalism and reformist Islam in West Africa “share a great deal of common ground.” In recent years, several comparative studies of Muslims and Christians in African societies have emerged (Dilger 2013; Ibrahim 2017; Janson and Meyer 2016; Peel 2015). In studies set in Europe and the United States, too, a number of anthropologists and sociologists working ethnographically have taken on Muslim-Christian comparison (Beekers 2014; DeHanas 2016; Guhin 2016).
The comparative work set in Africa often gives much attention to inter-religious encounters in contexts where either Muslims or Christians—or both—constitute dominant social groups. Larkin (2014), for example, examines the use of loudspeakers on mosques and churches in urban Nigeria, pointing out that a practical cultivation of ‘inattention’ among both Muslims and Christians abates the prevalence of inter-religious conflict. The comparative ethnographies in Europe or the United States put more emphasis on the ways in which religious communities respond to a predominantly secular political and cultural realm, addressing, for instance, how actors in evangelical and Sunni high schools in the US engage with evolution theory (Guhin 2016). This comparative literature, however, constitutes only a very small segment of the anthropology of religion, most of which focuses on single religions. The discipline still lacks a well-developed ethnographic field in which multiple religions are studied “within one analytical frame” (Janson and Meyer 2016: 615).
For an important part, this lack of comparative work results from a commonplace guardedness among anthropologists toward cross-cultural comparisons, ever since the discipline abandoned the large-scale comparative ambitions of its early days. Modern anthropology has been more concerned with cultural specificity than with making generalizations (Holy 1987: 8). Its characteristic cultural relativist approach has implied that ‘translation’ across cultures is generally understood to be inherently problematic (Bloch 1977). Recent anthropological concerns with the singularity and irreducibility of cultural and ontological worlds tend to advance notions of particularity—or even incommensurability—even further (cf. van der Veer 2016: 5).
For another part, the dearth of cross-religious comparison in anthropology is an effect of the organization of knowledge production in the study of religion. This area of inquiry has been characterized by historically grown specializations in distinct fields and subfields, such as religious studies and Islamic studies, the sociology of religion and minority studies, and the anthropologies of Islam and Christianity. Because each of these fields comes with its own academic community and theoretical debates, there has been little exchange between them (Beekers 2014: 79–82; DeHanas 2016: 195; Meyer 2016: 629; Peel 2015: 9, 105–112). Given their interdisciplinary nature, area studies may constitute an exception that offers more comparative analyses of religion (see, e.g., Hefner 2010). Yet in this field too, as the case of African studies shows, scholarship on separate religions is often conducted independently from one another (Janson and Meyer 2016).
A crucial development in the anthropology of religion has been the emergence of distinct anthropologies of Islam and Christianity, both of which have called renewed attention to theological traditions, normative frameworks, and the specificities of Islam and Christianity respectively. In the anthropology of Islam, this has given rise to a surge of studies on Islamic piety and discursive tradition in the wake of Talal Asad's (1986, 1993) and Saba Mahmood's (2005) seminal work. In the anthropology of Christianity, scholars like Joel Robbins (2003, 2004) and Webb Keane (2007) have inspired a body of work that gives attention to the culturally constitutive potential of Christianity, focusing particularly on experiences of discontinuity, conversion, and rupture.2 The latter field has been explicitly defined as an ‘intra-religious’ comparative project, geared toward the systematic study of Christians and Christian configurations “in different parts of the world” (Robbins et al. 2014: 559).3
The consolidation of these subfields has not only moved the analytical lens away from inter-religious comparison; it has also, I argue, framed anthropological debates about Islam and Christianity in largely—but not completely—separate directions. Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of approaches within both subfields, it can be observed that anthropologists of Islam have put much emphasis on the notion of religious tradition and the tensions between Islamic piety and ‘liberal-secular’ modernity. Anthropologists of Christianity, by contrast, have examined how Christian conversion effects discontinuities with local cultural practices and ideas, while linking its subjects to “the moral narrative of modernity” (Keane 2007: 47–55). Surely, these distinct analytical frameworks are connected to the divergent social and historical trajectories of the Muslim and Christian movements under study. However, as recent debates within both anthropological fields show, they only tell a part of the story. The focus on Islamic piety and tradition may come at the cost of overlooking the ways in which Muslims tend to participate in—and be co-determined by—multiple social dynamics and moral frameworks in the contemporary world (see, e.g., Schielke 2015), while the emphasis on discontinuity may neglect the ways in which Christian lives often continue to be shaped by long-existing local cultural norms (see, e.g., Chua 2012).
Aside from the comparative studies mentioned above, much of the existing work that examines Muslims and Christians in a single analytical framework focuses on their encounters and interactions (see, e.g., Bowman 2012; Chao 2017; Dulin 2017; Heo 2018; Nolte et al. 2017; Soares 2006).4 While building on this important and recently growing scholarship, this special section aims to push it in new directions by putting the question of comparison center stage. The contributions explore and reveal the distinct analytical potential of ethnographically comparing Muslim and Christian communities that co-exist in the same socio-political spaces but do not necessarily interact on a daily basis. Such work focuses not so much on events of inter-religious encounter; rather, it analyzes the religious lives of Christians and Muslims within one analytical framework, examining the similar or divergent ways in which they respond to shared social conditions.
A key strength of such comparative ethnography is its potential to provide insights and reveal connections that are likely to go unnoticed in non-comparative accounts (cf. Niewöhner and Scheffer 2010: 11). This pertains not only to identifying relations and convergences between the subjects compared but also to pinpointing situated particularities that only their close juxtaposition brings to the fore. This method of juxtaposition offers what Knorr Cetina (1999: 4) calls a “comparative optics,” through which patterns identified in one unit of comparison serve “as a sensor for identifying and mapping (equivalent, analog, conflicting) patterns in the other.” With respect to today's religiously pluralist contexts, such comparative insights can offer critical perspectives on conventional ideas about the differences between religious groups and about the ways in which they relate to each other as well as to wider society.
Thus, in part, the contributions in this section reveal shared ground among the Christian and Muslim communities studied. Omar Kasmani and Dominik Mattes trace “affective continuities” in the Sufi and Pentecostal prayer gatherings in which they conducted fieldwork in Berlin. Their case shows that comparative fieldwork can be embarked upon not only by single fieldworkers but also through close collaboration between researchers, each of whom focuses on a single religious community. They describe deeply sensorial and affective techniques of connecting to the divine that are to a large extent shared in these Muslim and Christian settings. This overlapping affective labor, they argue, is related to the “common immediate environment” and the perceived moral threats emanating from this urban context. In my own contribution, I show that everyday struggles of religious commitment in a predominantly secular Dutch society are not exclusive to actively practicing Muslims, but are shared by their Christian counterparts. Both participate extensively in secular and fast-capitalist worlds that offer little support for the dedicated faith to which they aspire. This convergence between young Dutch Muslims and Christians points to the limitations of frameworks centering on integration or migration that, by treating Muslims as ‘outsiders’ or ‘newcomers’, keep these groups apart.
The articles in this section also help to explain the particularities of the religious communities under study by tracing—sometimes unexpected—differences. This can be illustrated by my contribution's discussion of prevalent discourses that tend to frame (white) Christians as part of the Dutch nation and (post-migrant) Muslims as a migrant minority. In light of these discursive frameworks, it seems remarkable that my Christian interlocutors, as compared to the young Muslims, tend to more explicitly distinguish themselves from mainstream secular Dutch culture. Yet these self-representations can be understood as deliberate acts of dis/identification: whereas these young Christians seek to reaffirm their distinctiveness from secular culture, the young Muslims are more concerned with countering narratives that set them apart as ‘other’.
The social effects of such discourses on alterity illustrate the importance of taking unequal power relations into account in any comparative endeavor (Fox and Gingrich 2002: 19)—a point that is taken up head-on by Hansjörg Dilger in this collection. Dilger discusses how the public presence of Christian and Muslim actors in Tanzania has been co-determined by the efforts of (trans)national bodies to govern religious multiplicity. Muslim and Christian expressions in the public sphere, he shows, are shaped by inequalities and tensions that are connected to post-colonial histories of Christianity and Islam, transnational flows of resources, and limited state neutrality. The comparative study of Muslim and Christian lived religion, Dilger argues, has to address such “processes of power and inequality in an interconnected world.”
Each of the pieces collected here embarks on cross-religious comparison by identifying a common measure, or “mediating category” (Meyer 2016: 629): a particular issue or problem that is explored across religious boundaries (cf. Hann 2007: 406; Meyer 2016: 630). In the contributions to this section, these mediating categories include affect, commitment, and governance. Our focus on how particular Christian and Muslim communities engage with these issues under shared conditions contributes to a well-matched and grounded comparison. The aim is not to compare religious traditions as such (Decosimo 2018), but to compare how everyday religious lives take shape within a shared social space, whether local or national. By looking at multiple religious traditions within a single context, this comparative approach offers a timely counterpoint to the analytical projects—represented in the anthropologies of Christianity and Islam—of studying a single religious tradition across different contexts.
The special section concludes with a reflection by Birgit Meyer, who responds to some of the main themes running through the contributions and highlights future directions for the comparative anthropology of Muslim and Christian lived religion. Taken together, this collection of short articles seeks to open up—and contribute to—a much-needed comparative inquiry into lived religion in today's pluralist world, which has the potential to provide a corrective to the bifurcated anthropological study of religion.
I am grateful to Hansjörg Dilger, David Kloos, and Joel Robbins for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this text. I would also like to thank Daniel Nilsson DeHanas for his contributions in the earlier stages of this project and acknowledge Birgit Meyer and the other team members of the “Religious Matters in an Entangled World” project for stimulating conversations on this subject. Thanks go to Shawn Kendrick for her diligent copyediting. My work on this special section has been supported by a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh.
See Kloos and Beekers (2018) for a more detailed juxtaposition of the anthropologies of Islam and Christianity.
In terms of specialization in the anthropologies of Islam and Christianity, it is worth noting that some of the seminal studies in these fields have been conducted in contexts that are either overwhelmingly Muslim, like Pakistan (Marsden 2005), or overwhelmingly Christian, like Papua New Guinea (Robbins 2004) or Zimbabwe (Engelke 2007). Scholars working in such areas may not want to claim the authority to write about religions other than the one they are familiar with. Moreover, unlike scholars working in more religiously diverse contexts, their ethnographic fields will not necessarily have prompted them to address questions of inter-religious comparison.
See also the ongoing research project “Religious Matters in an Entangled World,” led by Birgit Meyer at Utrecht University (https://www.religiousmatters.nl), and the ERC-funded research project “Multi-Religious Encounters in Urban Settings,” conducted by Leslie Fesenmyer, Giulia Liberatore, and Ammara Maqsood (https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/802226). The latter have edited a forthcoming special issue of Social Anthropology devoted to anthropological research across ‘religious and ethnographic boundaries’ (Fesenmyer et al., forthcoming).
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