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April 27, 2021

The rise of a Christian elite

Filed under: Ideology,Religion — Razib Khan @ 3:18 pm

The above plot from a Peter Turchin blog post, Easter, Early Christians, and Cliodynamics, illustrates a sigmoid curve in the rise of Christianity among Roman elites (elites are relevant since we have data from them). If this is a topic you are interested in, Michelle Salzman’s The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire and Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD are excellent reads on how this transition happened.

Moving away from the autocatalytic model, and describing what happened verbally, in a given population only a minority is strongly motivated on particular details of religion or ideology. Most seem comfortable aligning themselves with the “spirit of the times.” This is true even in the early modern period, as England was forced into Protestantism, while much of Austria and Hungary were dragged back to Roman Catholicism (see Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe). Only in the 17th century do you start to see populations resisting the demands or preferences of their rulers (e.g., the House of Hohenzollern converted to the Reformed faith but their subjects remained Lutheran, while the Saxons remained Lutheran after the Wettins converted to Catholicism).

What does this imply? The pagans who remained pagan in 450 AD could be more sure about the sincerity and conviction of their fellow dissenters from regnant orthodoxy than pagans from 350 AD. The Christians of 400 AD were less sure about the deep sincerity of the beliefs of their peers than Christians in 300 AD were.

April 22, 2021

Thinking in terms of millennia

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 9:44 pm

Reading Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion has me thinking about the Pantheon. I visited Rome and stood outside (and inside) the Pantheon in 2010. I still remember the feeling of being in such an ancient and pristine building. It’s pretty awesome. That is, literally awe-inspiring.

How did this building persist? In 609 Emperor Phocas donated it to the Roman Church, which transformed it into a church (it is still used for some religious purposes). This did not prevent total despoilation and parts of the Pantheon were removed or destroyed. But, on the whole co-option by Christianity, a persistent institution, allowed for this monument from deep antiquity to come down to the present in relatively intact form.

I think this gets at something deep in terms of how we can preserve artifacts and ideas long after we are gone.

October 17, 2020

God is back! (in Russia)

Filed under: Religion,Religon,Russia — Razib Khan @ 1:31 pm

For over ten years I have been making fun of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2009 book God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that anyone who was looking at the data could see the period between 2000 and 2020 has witnessed a massive secularization in the most powerful nation in the world. Being generous to the metrics for religion, the United States has become twice as secular in a single generation (i.e., 10% “no religion” in 1990 vs.
10% in 2020).

This was a surprise to social scientists. If you read Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge’s The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, written in the mid-1980s, descriptively it seems that the United States went through a cultural change in the 1960s where many marginal Christians ‘defected’ to irreligion, “New Religious Movements”, or nominal adherence (e.g., no church attendance), but that by the 1970s that trend had played itself out and a ‘new normal’ equilibrium had been established.

This is the story you are told in Barry Kosmin’s 1993 One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, based on the 1990 “Religious Identification Survey.” America was an 85:5:10 nation. 85% Christian, 10% “Nones” and 5% “Other religion” (the largest proportion of these being Jews). Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, assumes this as a background condition. But by the time that the book was published, there was already evidence in the data, including from Kosmin’s follow-up surveys, that the old equilibrium was changing.

Rodney Stark, who by the 2000s had become a semi-Christian apologist, who has a “supply-side” religious framework which argues that secularization couldn’t happen anymore, actually came out with research trying to show that actually American’s weren’t getting more irreligious. But these attempts seem to have stopped by 2010 when scholars couldn’t ignore the writing on the wall.

By the end of the 2000s, Robert Putnam assembled the data and presented a causal hypothesis in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam and his coauthor offer a simple story: as American Christianity became politicized in a polarized culture war, many defected. This is the case particularly for those with more liberal or Left ideologies, and younger people. Whether you believe this story is irrelevant to the descriptive reality. And 2016, with the election of Donald J. Trump, illustrates that secularization has even started to work its way into the Republican party.

And it’s not just America, though to be frank, we’re the most important dynamic. Despite the fact that the 2000s were focused on Islamic terrorism, the Arab world is now undergoing mass disillusion with religion. Believe it or not, “New Atheism” is still relevant in the Muslim world! Richard Dawkins is viewed dimly by much of the Western intelligentsia today for his dim view of Islam, but he is still a heroic figure to freethinkers in the Muslim world. It’s still 2006 in places like Bangladesh or Algeria. Religious violence against freethinkers is actually a sign of secularization because freethinkers are getting bold enough to express their views in public.

Then there is China. In 2003 Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China And Changing the Global Balance of Power was published. Written early in the George W. Bush administration this book was catnip for Christian conservatives, presenting the vision of a China which was substantially Christian, and whose conservative Protestant Christianity would result in a pro-Israel orientation!

I’ve tracked the numbers and read some books on the topic of religion in China today, and overall it’s a complicated story. Obviously, China is not undergoing “secularization,” but neither are mainland Chinese becoming devout Christians in the same way that the religion is dominant (if still a minority) in a place like South Korea. Jesus in Beijing suggests that 10% of Chinese were Christian by the year 2000, but the best estimates put the figure close to 5% today (more conservative estimates would put it at 2%…it’s complicated not just because of “high churn” “House Churches”, but because some Christians “Christians” are pretty heterodox). There is a revival of “traditional religion” in China as well. But, I don’t think anyone can assert that China is more religious in a deep sense any more than they were in 2000.

Which brings me to Russia. Recently the World Values Survey came out with its 2017-2020 “wave.” You can find out many interesting things from this website (also, you can pull down the raw data). For example, ~20% of mainland Chinese in the survey believe in God. The figure is 80% for self-identified Protestants and Muslims in China (the sample sizes are ~50 for these two groups), the same proportion as self-identified Buddhists (N~250 for that religion)!

But, what as striking me to is that over the past 30 years Russia has become far more religious, while the USA has gotten less religious. Here are results for selected nations (the exclusion only makes a difference for Japan):

These results pass the qualitative “smell test.” The USA and Spain have both gotten more secular in the last generation. While Russia seems to have embraced religious social conservatism under Vladimir Putin.

We need to be careful about how we interpret these data. For example, if you ask if people “belong” to a church, 90% of Russians say they do not. The figure for Americans is 40%. And 32% of Americans are avowed “active members” as opposed to 3% of Russians. Russians have a strong identity with Orthodox Christianity in 2020, but they are not actively practicing Christians in a way that American Protestants would recognize.

One question you might ask is that is this about age effects? No. If anything, very young Russians seem a bit more secular.  It seems that the generation that came of age under Gorbechev and Yeltsin was raised without religious identity, has proactively embraced it as adults as they have aged.

Is God back? Not necessarily. But the average is definitely over.

September 16, 2020

<em>The WEIRDest People in the World</em>

Filed under: Books,Books, Arts & Manners,Culture,Religion,Western Civilization — Razib Khan @ 2:30 am
The argument put forward by Joe Henrich in his new book is audacious and surprising.

September 13, 2020

The religion of Hindus before Hinduism

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:53 pm

India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 is a good read and I recommend it. But the author, Richard Eaton, is not a guru or a sheikh, and should not be taken as such.

A comment Eaton makes offhand several times is that the conflict between Turks and Indians should not be understood in confessional terms. This is a commonly asserted, and on some level, it reflects elements of the truth. Hindu Rajputs served under Muslims, and Turkic soldiers served under Hindus. You can’t reduce everything to confession.

But, it is clear that confession and civilizational identity did exist, and it was robust. Going from the specific to the general.

  1. A great deal of text given over to Man Singh’s glorification of his conquests as an Indian warrior, and his patronage of Indian religion, in particular Vaishnavism.
  2. Eaton highlights the rapid Indianization of practices and hegemonic motifs present among the Turks and Afghans who were born and raised in India. And yet despite the syncretistic tendencies with erupted, ultimately these ashraf elites remained identified as Muslims and often were pulled back to world-normative Islam over the generations.
  3. Vijayanagara persisted as a Hindu polity for three centuries. The cross-cultural analysis shows that recalcitrant pagan powers always convert to the religion of their enemies eventually. The leader of the pagan resistance in Saxony became a Christian. Pagan resistance to Christianity in Sweden, Lithuania, and ancient Rome were only temporary, as resistant lineages eventually were assimilated into the new order. Resistance to Buddhism in Japan and Tibet was initially violent, but futile.

The only point to posting this is that there is a common assertion that Hinduism as a religion or identity only emerged in the 19th century. I am now convinced that this confuses the name of the phenomenon for the phenomenon. The Indian religion of the Hindus was clearly bundled together in a way that allowed for their elite deployment as a meta-ethnic identity that separated them from the Turks and Afghans who ruled them. Similarly, the Islam of the Turks and Afghans (and variegated Ethiopians, Arabs, and Persians), separated them from the Indians whom they conquered to prevent full assimilation as an Indian elite with popular roots in early modernity.

There is a major issue where our conception of religion qua religion is conditioned on an intellectual revolution rooted in the Second Reformation of the Calvinists. But, I think it is important not to get carried away with this construct, and assert that Calvinist religion is qualitatively different from pre-Calvinist religion. I don’t think it is. Rather, it simply shifts some of the parameter values within the model. Similarly, the identity of a coherent Hindu Rashtra with a post-caste socio-religious identity is an invention of modernity, but its roots are ancient and indigenous, and not postcolonial fictions.

August 22, 2020

How Technology Drives Religious “Fundamentalism”

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:30 pm

Since I’m a book-nerd I probably would put the printing press as one of the top five technologies of the period between 1000 and 2000 A.D. I’ve written before about how I think the printing press drove rapid cultural and social change. But in this post, I want to make explicit something which I’ve long believed: the mass production of very cheap books allowed for the development of “religious fundamentalism” that we see in the modern world.

Martin Luther and his fellow travelers opened up a vast new domain of reading for the lay public by their assertion that reading scripture was essential for any believing Christian and their relationship to their God. This is why Luther and colleagues furiously produced Bibles in the vernacular so that the people could have access to God’s words themselves. This was new, as most people during the Middle Ages were illiterate, and the Church provided Christianity through liturgies. For the literate, the Bible was in Latin in any case, inaccessible to the lay worshipper.

People participated in public Christianity and were guided by their priests. A “personal” relationship with God may have been possible for some mystics, but for most people, the Church was the avenue through which salvation occurred.

The Reformation changed that by opening the door to a radically individualist and demotic Christianity. Protestantism is strongly associated with increased literacy in Europe, just as the density of printing presses is associated with a greater propensity for a region to become Protestant. Though the state Protestant churches attempted to take on a very similar guiding position that the Roman Catholic church explicitly claimed as its role in society, they were subordinate to the nation-state, and Luther and Calvin had opened up an alternative path for lay worshippers in private devotion to the scripture.

This is not limited to Christianity. The Ottomans famously banned printing presses for Muslims for centuries, but the genie could only be kept in the bottle for so long. Korans with the original Arabic on one page and translation on the other are now widely available, as well as books relating to the Hadith. Though Islam is self-consciously a religion of the book, for most of its history most believers were illiterate, and very few had Korans. And even if they had a Koran most Muslims were not Arabic speakers, and the Arabic speakers who were literate may have had difficulty with the archaic Arabic in the Koran. ‘

The words of the Koran are the words of God, therefore they had a magical quality. The meaning was less important than repeating the words of magic, and that was often the purview of the prayer leader, a representative of the ulema. With the exception of some Shia groups, Islam does not have an official clerical class, but operationally the ulema are like rabbis in Judaism, providing advice, guidance, and instruction in affairs of religion.

Just as in Christianity the spread of religious literature to the masses resulted in “reform” movements and changes in behavior and self-identity. In some areas and cases, the power of the traditional ulema was broken. After all, with cheap books, anyone could learn the law of God and master his Word.

The same pattern can be found in other populist reform movements across many religions (e.g., Won Buddhism and Arya Samaj). The “higher religions” tend to have religious scriptures or revelations of various forms, and eventually, these were all put down in the physical form. When the printing press made these sacred books cheap, they spread across much of the population, breaking the information monopoly of religious elites.

With the spread of cheap Bibles and religious pamphlets, along with literacy which allowed many more people to reflect and identify with a particular sect or confession, the strength of an explicit religious identity deepened across the world. One of the facts which I find amazing and interesting is that in the 16th century it was plausible that peasants on the lands of particular rulers were naturally obligated to follow the religion of the ruler, even after the ruler converted to a new religion. Oftentimes this was grudging, as the new Protestant faith often overturned old festivals and the familiar calendar. By the 17th century, this was not feasible. The House of Stuart was overthrown due to its defection from the Protestant religion in England, while in Germany many rulers who changed their religion faced hostility and suspicion from their people. When the rulers of Saxony converted to Catholicism, the people remained Lutheran (in fact, for some time the only Catholic priests in Saxony were those which served the royal household!). Similarly, when the rulers of Prussia embraced Reformed Christianity, their people remained Lutheran.

The religious book transformed the nature of religion, from being guided by religious professionals, to being a coordinated project of elites along with bottom-up enthusiasm from the masses. In the process, it made religion much dumber, as it took on the shape of its guiders, who were a combination of intelligent and stupid. The textual method of Salafists and Protestant Fundamentalists is, to be frank dumb as shit. If you teach dumb people to read Holy Books, it won’t make them smart. Rather, it has turned religion somewhat dumber.

Book-populism can lead to strange directions. Pentecostalism is not very focused on scripture. But it is clearly inspired by democratic populism, which rests on the back of an educated citizenry. It is hard to think that the same religion produced St. Thomas Aquinas and the trussed-up shamans who are Pentecostal preachers, but here we are.

The integration and evolution of religion within civilization has been a matter of scaffolding it with accouterments of functionality and form which made it acceptable and useful to elites and high culture. It is a long march from the fetish idol in the wood, to temples of ancient Egypt, finally to the Sistine Chapel. But the Reformation ended the long march of elite religion, and demotic and populist urges and passions once more came to the fore. The shamans and demons burst out of our deep psyches, that which had been sublimated and suppressed but wrapped now in the lexical garb of higher religion.

Civilization, rational, ingenious, enables the return of the repressed.

August 18, 2020

Getting beyond the nerd understanding of religion

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:52 pm

Since about 2006 I’ve had to write the same post again and again due to the nature of my audience: religion is not the purview of technically oriented nerds, and technically oriented nerds just don’t “get” it intuitively. This is something that is relevant to me personally, because I am myself a technically oriented nerd, and I just don’t “get” religion.

A few years ago I was asking a co-worker whey he believed in ghosts, and he stated: “because I’m human.” This is actually a good response, as all societies have the sorts of supernatural beliefs that we might categorize under beliefs about gods, spirits, and demons. This is the cognitive raw material of religion, which is a universal feature of human cultures.

Do you believe this stuff???

A minority of people lack such intuitions. At least with any strength. I am definitely one of those. My realization that I was an atheist occurred when I was eight, as I thought for a few moments about the idea that God might not exist. At that moment I realized I did not think God existed, and, I also realized I hadn’t really thought about it before because religion was simply something I never really gave much thought to.

When I began to give more thought to religion when I was a teenager in the 1990s it was due to its cultural salience. By this, I mean two things. First, the rise of Islamic terrorism and political violence. Second, the emergence of the Christian Right in the United States. In my personal and private life, I had many conservative Christian friends and would engage them in the discussion from my atheistic vantage point.

Between 1995 and 2005 I went through a “Richard Dawkins” phase. As it happens, I met Dawkins casually in 1995 at a talk and had been reading his biology works. I was not particularly interested in his religious commentary. Rather, I read books such as Atheism: A Philosophical Justification or relevant portions of Summa Theologica. I plumbed the depths of ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments. I engaged with the works of men such as Norman Malcolm and Richard Swinburne.

In the period after 9/11, an understanding of religion seemed very relevant and important due to Islamic radicalism.

But this reading program convinced me ultimately that I had “got it all wrong.” I had recreated religion in my own image, rather than understanding what it was in its own terms. I had turned the beliefs of illiterate and unintellectual masses of people into contingency tables and model logic! Rather than understand religion, I ended up arguing with something I could comprehend on a deep level.

What is religion? It is many things, but let me quote Blaise Pascal, polymath, prodigy, and fanatical religious believer:


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

That fire does not burn in me, but it burns in some.

This sort of mystical fanaticism is not general or widespread, but it’s a more much important modality than quibbling over how Malcolm’s ontological proof is so much superior to St. Anselm’s. Another modality is mass rituals. What some cognitive anthropologists call “imagistic arousal”. I’ve illustrated this with Turkish dervishes. Most humans will recognize what’s going on here on some level. Dance, trance, and music, to honor the divine are pretty universal. Even among Salafis, the chanting of the Koran sells well as a replacement for conventional music.

Why is this relevant? Because mysticism, collective rituals, and the communal identity which emerges out of that, is the raison d’etre of religion, and why religions are universal and share broad family resemblances. What about theology? What about the details of scripture? These are things religious professionals care about, but religious professionals are a function of complex stratified societies that emerged over the last several thousand years. Martin Luther was historically important, but his theological obsessions were really not.

Religious professionals though are the individuals that technically oriented nerds often go to to “understand” religion. This gives us a skewed and misleading view, and it means we misunderstand large aspects of history.

For the context of this readership, this matters when it comes to the interaction between Dharmic religions and Abrahamic ones, and more precisely Hinduism and Islam. From the Muslim perspective, some are wont to say that the message of Islam is what was appealing to benighted Hindus, the egalitarianism, the simplicity of belief, the texture and richness of shariah. The Hindu will respond with the tolerance and multivalent aspects of the Dharmic tradition, which is congenial to many moderns. Some will point out that the historical Muhammad was a barbaric sexual pervert.

This is neither here nor there. Joseph Smith is a far more historical figure than Muhammad and a confirmed sexual pervert of renown and infamy. And yet modern-day Latter-Day Saints are often paragons of monogamous probity. Why? Because what Mormons do has only a weak connection to the historical origins of the religion and its theoretical beliefs (which are literally polytheistic and materialist in metaphysic!). And Mormons are a group that matured in an America of widespread literacy, mass culture, and populism. How much “theoretical Islam” do you think illiterate peasants who never left their village internalized?

To understand the impact of Muslims on the Indian subcontinent one must ignore the message for once. The sophistication of Neoplatonist Ismaili theology in comparison to Advaita is immaterial in a literal sense. What is material is the role that Turkic warriors and Sufi religious orders played in transforming the Indian religious landscape through the services and status provided.

Muslims say that Islam’s egalitarian ethos appealed to Indians, especially downtrodden groups. Some Hindus agree, arguing that most Muslims descend from Dalits, reflecting their caste/jati prejudices to dismiss Muslims not because of their beliefs but their blood lineage. What do the data say?

Historically we know of cases of Dalit and “low caste” communities converting to Islam during the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., the proportion of Muslims in northern Kerala increased partially through the conversion of depressed castes). But on the whole, it seems to be the case that Muslims in any given region reflect the genetics of the “general population.” By this, I mean the skew does not seem to have been incredibly strong in any particular direction.

When I have looked at the paternal lineages of putative “Syeds” (descendants of the Prophet Muhammed’s lineage), a surprisingly large number carry R1a1a, which is not the Y chromosomal haplogroup of the Quraysh (there are exceptions, Ali Rizvi carries the Quraysh haplogroup!). Some of these individuals, who presumed they had ashraf (West Asian) ancestry, seem to be substantially steppe-enriched for the region where they are from. The inference then is that in some cases “high caste” Hindus were conferred false Syed status after their conversion to Islam, so as to maintain their high rank within the new religion.

That being said, the “average Muslim” seems to be a Sudra/OBC. Outside of a few rare exceptions in the far northwest of the subcontinent signatures of West Asian ancestry are exceedingly rare. Contrast this with the Mongolian ancestry in 8 million Afghan Hazaras (about ~10% of Central Asians carry the Borgijin haplogroup).

Muslims argue that the egalitarianism of their message appealed to the depressed castes, but the average Muslim seems sampled out of the whole distribution of Hindus, and some “ashraf” Muslims look suspiciously like Brahmins or are part-Brahmin genetically. Clearly there is the kernel of egalitarianism in the message of Islam, but the chasm between this core ideal and the elaborated practice was enormous.

Another hypothesis Hindus present is mass genocide and terror resulting in massive conversion (or demographic replacement, though the above refutes that). There is genocide, and there is genocide. Frank McLynn’s biography of Genghis Khan gives a good overview of the demographic and ecological footprint of the Mongol conquests. Not only did the mass die-off across much of Eurasia result in “nature healing,” but the genetics of much of the region was re-patterned.

First, I want to note that before the invention of automatic rifles and industrialization genocide was often more a matter of disease and famine than death by the sword. It is simply not physically possible to kill as many people as the Mongols are reputed to have killed with arrows and swords. What really happened is farmers driven off their lands, nomads whose stock was killed, and the city-dwellers driven out of their homes, starved to death in a precarious Malthusian world (burning down cities would be an industrial genocide method available in urban areas dominated by wood-construction).

Second, genocide is often accompanied by rape and later intermarriage. In a pre-modern world genuine “folk migrations” were arduous undertakings, and not conducive to lightning strikes.  Rather, on the Eurasian steppe, the all-male military Warband was a common cultural feature, invented and deployed many times across. many peoples (traditionally, Mongol women tended the home flocks). The genetic data so far suggests that the gene-flow of steppe ancestry was mostly male-mediated. Even non-nomadic migrations, such as that of the Parsis or Bene Israel Jews to India, were male-mediated (Parsis are ~25% Gujurati, with no distinctive Indian Y chromosomes, but ~50% distinctive Indian mtDNA; Bene Israel are 75% Gujurati, and overwhelmingly Indian mtDNA).

The conclusion from this is that the magnitude of the killing of Indians by the Turkic Muslims was not exceptional within India. Unless you presume the Turk were congenitally repulsed at the thought of raping Indian women, or, they were celibates. The main caveat I would offer is that Iranian and Turanian Muslim observers comment that the cities of Afghanistan were “filled with blacks” (Indians) in the late 900s and early 1000s. The genetic impact seems minimal, indicating to me that this follows the pre-modern template of many slave populations not reproducing themselves. The rise of Islamic polities seems to have supercharged the African slave-trade, so I think it is reasonable to posit that the genocidal impact of the Indian slave trade was qualitatively different with the rise of the Islamic empires, who were more efficient and effective at “suctioning” human chattel out of the subcontinent.

So why did 35% of Indian subcontinentals become Muslim? I have written extensively elsewhere on this topic, so I will not explore it in detail. The question is not why some became Muslim, but why most did not become Muslim. In contrast to the primitivism exposited by Salafis and the reduction of the religion to the Koran presumed by some non-Muslims, the religion emerged out of a complex sophisticated civilization. The Ummayyad Caliphate was a post-Roman successor polity. Islam offers up an excellent legitimizing ideology, as is clear in its rapid spread without conquest in much of Africa and in Inner Asia (the northern reach of Islam into Siberia has been obscured by the spread of Russians and Orthodox Christianity after 1600).

Islam’s lack of total success in South Asia is likely telling us that there were legitimating ideologies that were already present, and attractive. Islam’s success in northwest and northeast South Asia may suggest weaker legitimating ideologies in those regions, or, the stronger demographic shock of West Asian Muslims (though East Asian Turkic ancestry is far thinner in Pakistani samples than in places like Iran, it is detectable in a way it is not in India proper or Bangladesh).

Today, with widespread literacy and mass communication, there is a strong communal identity of belief and practice. For Muslims, this is partially a function of “reform” during the early modern period. But really, the reform entailed the spread of elite Muslim practices and beliefs to the masses. Muslim elites always adhered to the shariah, which was focused on the lifestyle of urban elites. In contrast, rural peasant Muslims were by definition often “not good Muslims” because their economic mode of production may not have aligned with shariah (e.g., peasant deployment of female labor does not dovetail with traditional Islamic elite norms of female modesty and isolation). An analogy here to “Sanskritization” seems pretty obvious, or the reform of Christianity after the Reformation, which demoticized many beliefs and practices previously the purview of the elite.

To understand the way the shape of the present came about, one must understand the genealogy of the past. This was a fundamentally different time. But even in the present, the hyper-rational nerd is not the modal human. The hyper-rational nerd is just the modal human on comment boards.

August 11, 2020

Why Hinduism is not inchoate paganism

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 9:46 am

An individual, who I have come to conclude is a troll after further comments (they are banned), mentioned offhand that Hinduism and/or Hindu identity is reactive Islam and the British, and that its origins are in the 19th century. This is a common assertion and presented recently by one of our podcast guests. I myself have entertained it in the past. It’s not prima facie crazy.

But I have come to conclude that this is not the right way to think about it. Or, more precisely, it misleads people on the nature of the dynamic of Indian religious identity and its deep origins. This is why I think Hindus themselves self-labeling ‘polytheists’ or ‘pagan’ can mislead people. Not because these are offensive terms. People can refer to themselves however they want. But these terms have particular relational resonances with other groups, periods, and peoples.

One can point to al-Biruni’s external observations about Indian religion, or Shijavi’s personal opinions in his correspondence, to make a case for Hinduism and Hindu identity (using both terms to avoid troll-semantic ripostes) being older than the 19th century. But this is not the argument that is strongest to me. I have spent many years and books reading about the cross-cultural emergence of religious identity, and its change, in places as diverse as Classical Rome, post-Arab conquest Iran, and 7th century Japan, to name a few places. Many of these places and times had local religious cults and practices. In all of these places, they were assimilated and absorbed into the intrusive “meta-ethnic” religion. In Rome, Tibet, and Japan, the religion had major initial setbacks, but eventually, the meta-ethnic “higher religion” came back and captured the elite.

In the modern world, we see massive Christianization, and to a lesser extent Islamicization, in Sub-Saharan African. The traditional religions persist, in particular in West Africa, but history is clearly against them. Importantly, most of the religious change occurred after the end of colonialization.

The relevance of this is clear. The Indian subcontinent would be an exception for all these above cases if the vast majority of people were unintegrated animists with only local religious cults. The precedent from Europe and the world of Islam is that Brahmins and a few other pan-Indian groups (e.g., Jains) would persist as religious minorities, while the vast majority converted to the newly introduced meta-ethnic religion.

There is another case where there was some resistance to meta-ethnic religions. That is China. Islam, Christianity, and Manichaeanism were present in Tang China by the 8th century at the latest. Manichaeanism was totally absorbed into the Chinese religious milieu by the 14th century, and Christianity disappeared multiple times before its permanent arrival with “Age of Discovery” Europeans (Nestorian Christians disappeared after the 9th century persecution of foreign religions, the Catholics who arrived with the Yuan were not present by the time the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century). Islam seems to be an exception, having transformed into an insulated religious group, but even in this case, there are plenty of cases of people of Muslim religion who seem to have assimilated into becoming Han. European ethnographers even discovered and documented several groups in the midst of such a transition before globalization “standardized” and “internationalized” Chinese-speaking Muslim practice and belief (Islam and Christianity seem to often melt into Pure Land Buddhism).

The exception to Chinese resistance to foreign religion is obviously Buddhism, the original “Western religion.” There are a few things to note about this. First, Buddhism introduced original ideological and institutional concepts into China, which were eventually influential or integrated into both Daoism and Neo-Confucianism to varying extents. Religious Daoism cannot be understood without the existence of Buddhism, and Chan and Zen Buddhism cannot be understood without the existence of religious Daoism.  Similarly, Neo-Confucianism metaphysics is clearly Buddhist influenced.

Second, Buddhism was popularized by barbarian and semi-barbarian dynasties. It was clearly initially a way for non-Chinese elites in the period after the fall of the Han dynasty to legitimize their rule and domination through a sophisticated elite ideology unconnected to Confucianism. In the period between 650 and 850 AD Buddhism occupied a role in Chinese society analogous to what it came to occupy in Japan, Silla Korea, and Tibet: the dominant elite religion and ethos which bound together national identity. But eventually, after 850 it was “driven to the masses” and Neo-Confucianism became the elite ideology at the center of the Chinese state, with Buddhism simply being the most popular religious cult among many.

The key here though is that China had a binding elite religio-philosophical ethos before Buddhism, though it was lacking in some elements (e.g., a fleshed-out metaphysics and an institutional “third estate”).

Looping back to India, the persistence of non-Islamic identity among subalterns is a miracle in a cross-cultural context. Perhaps the Hindu gods exist, and they protected the indigenous religious traditions. But I do not think this is the case. Rather, the religion that came out of popular and elite strands of thought that we came to call Hinduism, which has philosophical schools such as Advaita, and popular local religious cults, did have coherence and self-identity across much of the subcontinent. The elite and the local were threaded together in some level of self-awareness.

This analysis, which is cross-cultural, leaves much unaccounted for. The persistence of non-Islamic identity in the Doab in particular requires an explanation in terms of mechanism. One could argue that the far south of India was not long enough under direct Islamic rule, though one might point out maritime Southeast Asia was never under direct Islamic rule, and the collapse of Majapahit in Java led to rapid nominal Islamicization of the populace after 1500, with a few indigenous Hindu religious minorities.

It also prompts us to ask: were Pakistan and eastern Bengal ever Hindu? Though there are other explanations for why these regions became Muslim while the Doab did not, this cross-cultural analysis does open the opportunity for the idea that the cultural identity which was strong in the middle and upper Gangetic plain was far weaker on the western and eastern periphery. Large Hindu minorities persisted in both regions into the modern era, but vast swaths of the peasantry converted to Islam, just as they did in Kashmir. The fact that Kashmir was obviously Hindu, and occupies an important role in elite Hinduism historically, suggests this may not be the right answer, but the argument above means we need to investigate the probabilities implied by the outcomes we see around us, not abstract ideas of what was.

August 4, 2020

Ram temple

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:06 pm

Thanks to readers of this weblog I know something is going on with Ayodha in India today. Two stories I read.

First, Slate, a liberal American publications, Why a Giant Hindu Deity Is Appearing in Times Square on Wednesday.

Second, Al Jazeera, India: Modi to lay Ayodhya temple foundation to push Hindu agenda.

I don’t know much beyond superficiality on this topic. Curious about other pieces.

July 12, 2020

Umayyad invention of the idea of Islam

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:39 am

A few months ago I wrote The Myth Of Arabian Paganism, And The Jewish-Christian Origins Of The Umayyads. Some readers suggested I look at Sean Anthony’s Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The Making of the Prophet of Islam. After finishing Muhammad and the Empires of Faith there are no major revisions I would make the earlier post. But, there are some changes in the details of my confidence of various aspects of the post.

First, the historical Muhammad existed. This seems to be something I can say with high confidence. Higher than before I read Muhammad and the Empires of Faith. The figure of Muhammad and many banal details of his life seems to be very likely. More likely than the historical Jesus (who I also believe existed as a Jewish reformer and prophet). In addition to Muhammad, something like the Koran in broad form also existed quite early.

Second, I am much more sure than the basis of a crisp and distinct Muslim identity which serves as the core of a universal salvation religion dates to the period in and around the Second Fitna, between 680 and 692. Basically, the texts seem to suggest to me that the Umayyad Caliph who came out of the conflict in victory engaged in fence-mending with the rebel faction, which was based out of the city of Mecca. The last decade of the 690s and early 700s is when we see the proliferation of distinctly Islamic aspects of the Arab Empire, from the phasing out of Greek in administration, to the separation between Muslims and Christians in the church in Damascus where they had earlier worshipped together. This is the period when the formula which we are so familiar with in regards to Muhammad’s prophethood comes to the foreground.

I believe that the middle to late Umayyads formalized and demarcated the sectarian heterodoxies of the Arabs of their Caliphate to create a unified and cohesive ruling elite. But, because the religion emerged out of a Christian matrix within it was the natural opening to conversion by non-Arabs, which had already occurred with assimilated clients of Arab tribes in various forms.

All that being said, I want to distinguish an Islamic identity from the substance and form of what Islam means today. Muhammad and the Empires of Faith makes it clear that the roots of many Islamic traditions and practices do date to the Umayyads (e.g., hadith culture was not created out of thin air). But it is during the Abbassids, after 750, that the flesh was put upon the skeleton of the religion created by the Umayyads. That flesh is a function of the reality that the Abbassid Islam transcended Arab identity through the assimilation of large numbers of Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist, backgrounds. Umayyad already had a potentiality of universality, but when Islam truly became multi-ethnic, with non-Arab Muslims retaining their own independent national identities, a rapid consensus of what Islam was and is emerged.

To recap:

– The basic “furniture” to assemble the House of Islam was present in the early 7th century

– The foundations of the house date to the last quarter of the 7th century

– The house was completed in the last half of the Umayyad period and into the early Abbassid period

– The house was furnished, decorated, and painted, in the period between 750 and 900 AD, so that by 900 AD it looks just like the house we know today

July 11, 2020

Looking to the east: a different secularism than the West

Filed under: History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 5:37 pm

Why Hagia Sophia, Turkey And The Charismatic Figure Of Erdogan Bristle With Resonances For India:

The Hagia Sophia reconversion ultimately points to the failure of the Kemalist project of top-down secularism. Much like the state secularism of nationalist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Iran, Iraq etc had failed to lead to the secularisation of the wider society, it seems Turkey is no longer the exception it was long hoped to be. More fundamentally, the failing secularism of Turkey and India begs the question: is secularism even possible in non-Christian/non-Western societies? Without the Western experiences of Reformation and the Enlightenment, hard-fought victories as they were, can non-Western societies value the principles of freedom and secularism? Why is it that, unlike in the West where democratisation and secularism went hand in hand, greater democratisation has seemed to only bring religious chauvinism in India and Turkey?

Too often non-white intellectuals, in particular those from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, look only to Europe as their historical exemplars.

There is a legitimate argument that secularism in the Westphalian nation-state context, and using the model of the American republic, is the contingent outcome of the Reformation, and in particular Radical Protestant anti-state sentiment as well as Calvinist disenchantment with the world, and the sieve of the Enlightenment. But I don’t think this is what the author meant. Rather, I think the author is highlighting the importance of religious identity across the world.

In India and Islamic societies, your religion defines you in a very deep way. Religion and state have been deeply connected. The American and French models are objects of emulation but from a deeply alien tradition.

But these are not the only models and outcomes. China, Korea, and Japan are all societies where public religious identity is not nearly as important as it is in the Indian subcontinent and the world of Islam. I am not saying that people in East Asia are not religious or do not have supernatural beliefs. On the whole, they are less religious and more atheistic. But looking at religious affiliation numbers overstates this truth.

Rather, these are societies where religion does not dominate public political life because they have a particular history with organized religion which subordinates it to the political life of the society and nation.

Let me give three examples

– In the 9th century, the Tang dynasty expropriated property from Buddhist monasteries and defrocked monks and nuns. This is due to the fact that Buddhism was starting to become as powerful in China as the Catholic Church was to become in Europe.

– In the 15th century, the Joseon dynasty of Korea suppressed Buddhism in cities and drove the religion to the mountains. The percentage of Buddhists in Korea has actually increased in the 20th century for this reason.

– In the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga broke the power of Buddhist monasteries, in part by burning the down.

There is a history out there that is not European. Read some books.

July 5, 2020

On Being Hindu in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:33 am

Most readers of this weblog will already know this story. Far more than I do at least: Construction work at Hindu temple site in Islamabad halted. This part jumped out at me:

The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), an ally of Prime Minister Khan’s ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf recently opposed the construction of the temple by claiming that it was “against the spirit of Islam.”

Let’s be frank: isn’t this correct?

Religions are what people make of them, and there are some latitudinarian Muslims who would object to the assertion that the building of a Hindu temple was “against the spirit of Islam.” But historically this action, the obstruction of the building (and repairing) of religious buildings of minority communities has been normative in many Muslim majority societies. Egyptians Copts, for example, have long had to obtain very high level dispensations to repair their churches.

The basic theory from what I recall from Islamic jurists is that minority communities under the protection of Islamic rulers were tolerated, but they need not be encouraged. Their religious liberties were provided at sufferance, and that was enough.

The issue with Hinduism is even deeper: Hinduism is rather explicit in that it is a form of shirk. Whether you conceive of your Hinduism as fundamentally monotheistic or polytheistic, from a Muslim perceived it is polytheistic, and therefore an abomination. The Pakistani polity is illiberal in its behavior, but it is operating squarely within the orthodox parameters of Islamic accommodation to some level of religious pluralism, which combines subordination with delimiting the purview of minority religious beliefs and practices.

This is not limited to Islam, as some readers will be aware that Late Antique pagan practice slowly reconfigured its outline into a shape less offensive to Christianity as the price of toleration (e.g., public animal sacrifice disappeared). In Indonesia Buddhism and Hinduism are both explicitly monotheistic religions, so as not to offend Islamic sensibilities (though in Indonesia Muslims can also convert to Christianity or Hinduism legally, unlike many Muslim nations).

What’s the solution to this illiberality? In the long term, the only answer is greater secularization. As long as orthodox Islam, looking back to the past remains central to Pakistani identity I can’t see any other reaction to the attempt by Hindus to practice and express their religion in the public domain, as opposed to private practice.

Note: There is a long tradition in Abrahamic religions which believes that the gods of polytheistic faiths are actually devils and demons. This is one reason that Christians in Korea have attacked Buddhist statues, and Muslims in Pakistan are expressing horror at the building of a temple to Krishna, who they believe to be a demon who actually exists.

June 23, 2020

Resilience in the face of religious change

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 3:35 am

Recently my friend Josiah Neely mentioned offhand how in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon argued that one reason paganism couldn’t reverse the tide of Christianity is that once a society or individual became Christian and ceased pagan practice, there wasn’t a good roadmap on how to reembrace the old traditions. In contrast, Christianity’s ideological content meant that even if there was a period of apostasy or public cessation of practice, ideological continuity could be maintained.

To be more explicit and extend the argument, I think the key is that there was a class of religious professionals who were devoted in a deep way to the ideological content of Christianity. If, as occurred in Britain and the Balkans, Christianity collapsed, they would endeavor to reconvert the populace, as they did.

There are other cases of this. Han Yu was a Confucian scholar who denounced Buddhism in the year 800 A.D. during the Tang dynasty. This period, between 600 and 900 A.D. was the “high water” point of public state Buddhism in China. But there always remained an alternative tradition of Chinese scholars and officials who were expositors Confucianism. Eventually, these people “recaptured” China during the Song dynasty for Confucianism, and Buddhism became a religion of the popular people and not the state.

As I said elsewhere, this may explain the persistence of Hinduism. Hinduism, like Greco-Roman paganism, is diverse and variegated. But unlike Greco-Roman paganism, there seems to have been a dynamic and reciprocal tension between philosophy and folk religion, mediated by Brahmins. Greco-Roman paganism was fundamentally an expression of ethnicity and identity. Tradition and custom. Greco-Roman metaphysics was the purview of secular philosophers. Hinduism is arguably more fused, and this may have given it more robustness.

May 6, 2020

A collective religion in an individualistic age

Filed under: Hinduism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:43 am

Recently on Twitter someone asked why people of subcontinental backgrounds who leave Islam don’t refamiliarize themselves with the religion of their ancestors. One response could be “well actually, my ancestors weren’t really Hindu…” I think this is a pedantic dodge. In places like Iraqi Kurdistan and Tajikstan some people from Muslim backgrounds are embracing a Zoroastrian identity.

Iraqi Kurds turn to Zoroastrianism as faith, identity entwine:

In a ceremony at an ancient, ruined temple in northern Iraq, Faiza Fuad joined a growing number of Kurds who are leaving Islam to embrace the faith of their ancestors — Zoroastrianism.

Years of violence by the Islamic State jihadist group have left many disillusioned with Islam, while a much longer history of state oppression has pushed some in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to see the millennia-old religion as a way of reasserting their identity.

“After Kurds witnessed the brutality of IS, many started to rethink their faith,” said Asrawan Qadrok, the faith’s top priest in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

But to be clear, not all the ancestors of the Kurds were Zoroastrian. Some were Christians. Others were probably Jews. The largest numbers on the eve of the Arab conquest were probably a mix of folk mountain pagan, with a patina of Zoroastrianism among the elites. Additionally, modern Mazdaist Zoroastrianism is only a single stream, and one strongly shaped by its Islamic captivity.

And yet on some level, it makes sense that Kurds convert to Zoroastrianism to reconnect with their ancestral Iranian tradition. It is part and parcel of that tradition. Similarly, people of Muslim subcontinental background turning toward Santa Dharma is not crazy, even if their ancestors were Buddhist or pagans of some sort.

But there’s a problem with “converting” to Hinduism: modern Hinduism is organized around jatis, and being Hindu means being part of the community, and membership in that community is a matter of birth, not choice. Someone who was raised a Muslim and converts to Hinduism can’t just join one of the many local jatis. Of course, there are devotional sects such as ISKON, but these are exceptions, not the rule.

Obviously the same problem occurs in Islam and Christianity. I have read of converts to Islam who were single talk about the difficulty of finding a spouse since they have no “connections” within the community, and being single at a Muslim convert can be very isolating. But, Islam has within it more of an acceptance, like Christianity, that conversion of individuals is possible and even meritorious. Hindus are more ambiguous.

April 14, 2020


Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:58 pm

Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao is readable anthropology that explores the resurgence of organized and institutional supernatural beliefs over the last generation in the People’s Republic. Though there is some general historical narrative at the beginning, the core of the book involves chapters on various local informants. Evangelical Protestant pastors, Buddhist lay devotees, and Daoist ritualists.

One of the most interesting and illuminating aspects of The Souls of China is that Johnson has to explain that religion, as it is understood in the West, did not entirely exist in China until the past century or so. Or, more precisely, a broad understanding of religion as it is in the West was not totally understood. By this, I mean the idea of strict and exclusive adherence to a particular institutional religious system with a package of beliefs and practices.

I stipulate broad understanding because the reality is that China has long had exactly these sorts of groups as part of its religious landscape. The first Ming Emperor, in fact, was affiliated originally with a group that had its origins in the White Lotus Society, a cult with Buddhist and Manichaean origins whose members were exclusive and devout adherents. But, these were historically marginalized, and only came to the fore during times of revolution. The first Ming Emperor discarded his radical religious connections upon obtaining power, becoming a patron of Neo-Confucianism.

Rather, typical peasant religion in China was not exclusive, nor was it bound up in a tight system of beliefs. Rather, it was customary, traditional, and part of the organic environment in which people were born, grew up and died. In this way, Chinese popular religion resembled ancient Roman paganism and folk Hinduism today. Buddhist and Daoist priests might perform particular services, but they did not have any particular owner of the identity of a community. Another way of saying this is that villagers in rural China were clients of a religious firm, they weren’t seen as part of the religious firm. This explains why Chinese and other East Asians have been rather liberal about borrowing from and participating in various religious practices (Chinese and Japanese initially assumed Roman Catholicism was a variant of Pure Land Buddhism).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals underwent a crisis of confidence. In an attempt to modernize, they embraced Western science and a Western understanding of religion. They distinguished between religion and superstition. The former was what we consider institutional religions. Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam. The latter, Chinese folk religion. Long before the time of Mao progressive intellectuals and cadres destroyed and tore down the monuments to this folk religion, such as temples and shrines to city gods.

What arose in its place? Though the organic and locally rooted religions of rural China are shown to be coming back in The Souls of China, the explosion of Protestant Christianity, and the attraction of urban Chinese to Tibetan Buddhism, illustrates that urban people have different needs. I think these sorts of religions are very peculiar historically. I’m convinced that the Protestant Reformation, and in particular sectarian forms of Reform and Calvinist Christianity, would not have been possible without the economic and technological changes of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe.

The rise of movements such as fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, Salafist Islam, and “Western Buddhism”* make sense in light of a world of globalization, urbanization, and the detachment of individuals and families from localities. These religions are often the “public face” of religion, but really I think they are religions adapted toward a certain atomized, unmoored, and cosmopolitan world. Evangelical Protestant Christianity is not very thick and can be moved from exurb to exurb rather easily.

What this suggests for the future of religion, I’ll leave as an exercise to readers.

* The highly non-supernatural forms of Buddhism promoted by people of European background.

April 10, 2020

The gods of place

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:42 pm

Two books recently have made me wonder about the insights into the development of religion and culture in the Indian subcontinent. The Final Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity explicitly makes an analogy to local Hindu gods and shrines to allow us to conceptualize what pre-Christian Roman religion was like. The whole city was the purview of the gods, and their presence pervaded the world. The Final Pagan Generation notes that even though the attack on grand public temples such as the Serapion at the end of the 4th century are salient and notable, even 100 years later Christian mobs were able to collect thousands of items of religious significance through Alexandria.

Recently I have been reading The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. The author notes that though the great traditions of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, warrant public notice, the reality is that pre-modern Chinese religion was dominated by local gods, with numerous temples to the gods of a particular city, or a particular profession. Reviled as “superstition” in the early 20th century, these local gods and their shrines were torn down and destroyed first by the Nationalists, and later the Communists. 21st century China has only slowly been allow for the reemergence of this religious substrate.

One could argue that Abrahamic religions lack these organically developed local twists. But this is actually not true, as for Catholic Catholics saints and relics are a critical intermediary layer in their religious institution, and within many forms of Islam, the shrines of saints are critical. Rather, particular forms of Protestant Christianity and Salafist Islam are peculiar in their abstraction and rational decoupling from place.

March 26, 2020

Cultural evolution at work!

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:44 pm

‘God Will Protect Us’: Coronavirus Spreads Through an Already Struggling Pakistan:

And the extremist clerics who often heckle or march against the civilian government, with the tacit approval of the military, are refusing to help. They largely ignored Mr. Khan’s call to limit Friday prayer gatherings. And even after the military deployed to try to enforce a lockdown, several clerics made videos that went viral in recent days, urging Pakistanis to come back to the mosques to worship.

To avoid mosques on Fridays would only invite God’s wrath at a time when people need his mercy, the clerics warned.

“We cannot skip Friday prayers because of fears of coronavirus,” said Shabbir Chand, a trader who attended a packed service in Karachi, the country’s biggest city. “Instead, we should gather in even larger numbers in mosques to pray to God to protect us from this fatal disease.”

One of the major aspects of Islam that some Hindu nationalists are obviously jealous of is its seeming unitary cohesion. A hadith attributed to Muhammad is that “the Ummah shall not agree upon error.” And Muslims famously come together weekly to pray together.

But in a time of coronavirus, the fractured and somewhat antisocial aspect of Hindu religion may have some benefits.

March 25, 2020

Pogrom in Kabul

Filed under: Kabul attack,Religion,Sikhs — Razib Khan @ 3:59 pm

Islamic State Attacks Sikh Temple in Kabul, Killing 25:

An Islamic State militant stormed a Sikh temple in the heart of Kabul, killing 25 worshipers and taking dozens of people hostage in a prolonged siege that once again exposed the ability of insurgents to carry out attacks in the Afghan capital.

Dozens of Sikh worshipers were gathering for morning prayers on Wednesday when a gunman stormed the temple, according to the Interior Ministry. Men, women and children scrambled out of the compound as the attacker moved through the temple. An Afghan security official initially said there were two gunmen, but the investigation later concluded there was only one.

Even in the time of pandemic they still stick to their old script…

February 25, 2020

The Delhi riots

Filed under: Religion,Riots — Razib Khan @ 10:48 am

Please comment on the riots here, and not the “open thread.” I don’t personally know what’s going on for what it’s worth….

(and it’s sorry that for browns in 2020 this is not surprising)

February 19, 2020

The rise of Islam after 1500 in the Indian subcontinent

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:28 am

For me, Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760, is the best analysis of the peculiar spatial distribution of religion in South Asia today. This is not because Eaton’s work is without flaw, or beyond reproach. It is because few have made as concerted an effort to analyze this issue in a dispassionate manner.

The map to the right shows the proportion of Muslims within united Bengal in ~1870 by region. The outlines of Bangladesh and West Bengal are already clear. That being said, one feature that seems clear is that the more marginal areas are curiously mostly Muslim (e.g., the far southeast). Eaton’s broad argument, following upon others, is a consequence of the fact that these areas came under intensive cultivation only during the Mughal period, and therefore under the aegis of Muslim elites. Therefore, the local peasantry took up a nominal Muslim identity as a matter of course. To reinforce the mechanism, Eaton points out that there are noted cases of villages founded by Hindu zamindars in the east where Hindu shrines were built, and the peasants nominally adhered to the sect of Hinduism professed by the zamindar.

The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 is fully available online. I encourage you to read it. One thing that is now clearer to me again after reading it is that Islam as a religious identity of the peasantry of eastern Bengal is a notable feature only after the Mughal conquest of 1576. Visitors to Bengal from other regions before this date mention Muslims only as residents of cities and towns. Additionally, these Muslims often have some foreign connection, whether it be Afghan, Turk, or Persian. As far as the rural people go, none are mentioned as Muslim. Some of them described in eastern Bengal also seem likely to have been Tibeto-Burman in origin. They are described as “beardless”, and Muslim commentators assert they are neither the religion of India nor are they Muslims.

After 1600 visitors began to observe large numbers of Muslims in places such as the lands on either side of the Meghna river. In contrast, observers of the Hooghly basin note that all the inhabitants are Hindus (e.g., a Jesuit declares they are all “idolaters”).

In another paper Eaton analyzes Punjab. While the Islamicization of Bengal was driven by small mosques and shrines in newly founded hamlets, Eaton argues that in western Punjab Islamcization was driven by the transition of pastoralist Jatts to farming, and their settlement around charismatic Sufi shrines. But, he presents data that suggests that this process of Islamization was gradual and somewhat later than the present-day Muslims assert. Siyal Jatts of Jhang in northern Punjab assert they have been Muslim since 1250. But a record of names of notables from this community suggests this is unlikely.

Islamicization began in the period between 1400 and 1500. But the shift from Punjabi names to self-conscious Muslim names did not complete in totality until 400 years had passed.

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