Religion and Colonialism

Religion and Colonialism

Religion, as well as the study of religion, can be located in colonial contexts. Colonialism is the use of military and political power to create and maintain a situation in which colonizers gain economic benefits from the raw materials and cheap labor of the colonized. More than merely a matter of military coercion and political economy, however, colonialism represents a complex intercultural encounter between alien intruders and indigenous people in what Mary Louise Pratt calls "contact zones." In analyzing colonial encounters, scholars need to consider both their material and cultural terms and conditions. In the political economy of colonialism, cultural forms of knowledge and power, discourse and practice, techniques and strategies, played an integral role in the formation of colonial situations.

European explorers, traders, conquerors, and colonial administrators operated with an ideology of territorial expansion and intercultural negation that became thoroughly integrated into European modes of thinking about and engaging the larger world. According to the early nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, for example, all great nations "press onward to the sea" because "the sea affords the means for the colonizing activity—sporadic or systematic—to which the mature civil society is driven" (Hegel, 1974, pp. 282–283). By taking to the sea, Hegel argued, colonizers solved certain internal problems, such as poverty, overpopulation, and limited markets, that blocked the development of a mature civil society. But they also encountered "barbarians" in strange lands who were allegedly incapable of developing the maturity of civilization. In relation to such permanent children, Hegel insisted, "the civilized nation is conscious that the rights of the barbarians are unequal to its own and treats their autonomy as only a formality" (Hegel, 1967/1821, p. 219). In this formulation, with its thematics of distance and difference, denial and domination, the philosopher only recapitulated the basic ingredients of a European culture of colonialism.

On colonized peripheries, however, indigenous people deployed a range of strategies for engaging these European territorial claims and cultural representations. On the one hand, reversing the alien terms of European religious signification was an option. During the era of sixteenth-century Spanish conquests in the Americas, for example, the conquistadors were armed with a theological formula, the Requirement, that was designed to be read before a gathering of natives to enact a ceremony of possession that certified Spanish claims on new land. In a carefully constructed chain of references, the Requirement announced to Native Americans that the Spanish conqueror who stood before them represented the authority of the king of Spain in Castile, who represented the authority of the pope in Rome, who represented the authority of the apostle Peter in Jerusalem, who represented the ultimate authority of the supreme God who had created heaven and earth. Although the Requirement invited the natives to freely convert to Christianity, the text concluded that those who refused would experience the force of total warfare and that the deaths and damages that resulted would be their fault (Seed, 1995, p. 69).

In response to this colonial ultimatum, indigenous people could submit or resist. But people also found ways to reappropriate and reverse the chain of references that spanned the Atlantic Ocean to link the New World with the Old. For example, the Andean nobleman Guaman Poma, who had lived through the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire, the subjugation of the Andean people, and the dispossession of native lands, published a book in 1621 that reversed the terms of the Requirement. Drawing upon the new Christian resources, Guaman Poma argued that under colonial conditions the world was "upside-down." To restore the proper order of the world, he proposed, the chain of references established by Spanish colonization had to be reversed. According to Guaman Poma, the restoration of Inca political sovereignty would reveal the order of a world in which the mineral wealth of Peru supported the Spanish king in Castile, who supported the Catholic pope in Rome, who supported the religion of the God of heaven and earth. In reversing these alien religious terms, therefore, Guaman Poma tried to intervene in a world that had been turned upside down by Spanish colonization (Adorno, 2000).

On the other hand, reworking the familiar terms of indigenous religious signification was also an option. In Africa, for example, indigenous myths of sea and land were recast to make sense out of the strange encounters and violent oppositions of colonial contact. During the seventeenth century, many Africans concluded that white people who came from the sea actually lived under the ocean. Drawing on earlier mythic themes, this identification of Europeans with the sea became a symbolic template for interpreting the colonial encounter. Using this symbolic framework, Africans could reconfigure the encounter in terms of the mythic opposition between sea and land.

Under the impact of British colonization in nineteenth-century southern Africa, myths of the sea were reworked to make sense of the military incursions, dispossession of land, and new relations of power. As the Xhosa chief Ngqika observed, since the Europeans were people of the sea—the "natives of the water"—they had no business on the land and should have stayed in the sea. The Xhosa religious visionary and war-leader Nxele developed this political observation about sea and land into an indigenous theology that identified two gods, Thixo, the god of the white people, who had punished white people for killing his son by casting them into the sea, and Mdalidiphu, the god of the deeps, who dwelled under the ground but had ultimate dominion over the sea. Similarly, during the first half of the nineteenth century, a Zulu emergence myth was reworked in terms of this colonial opposition between land and sea. In the beginning, uNkulunkulu created human beings, male and female, but also black and white. Whereas black human beings were created to be naked, carry spears, and live on the land, white human beings were created to wear clothing, carry guns, and live in the sea.

For these African religious thinkers, therefore, the mythic origin—the primordium—was clearly located in the new era that opened with the colonial opposition between people of the sea and people of the land. By appropriating foreign religious resources and recasting local religious resources, indigenous people all over the world struggled to make sense out of colonial situations.

An important facet of the European colonial project, however, was the assertion of control over not only material but also symbolic, cultural, and religious resources. In nineteenth-century southern India, for example, British colonial interventions in religion on the Malabar coast succeeded in reifying religious differences and separating religious communities of Hindus and Christians that had lived in harmony for centuries. Tracing their traditional origin to the first-century apostle of Jesus and their spiritual power to ongoing connections with Christian holy men of West Asia, the Saint Thomas Christians of the Malabar coast had maintained close relations with the Hindu rulers of the region. Sharing the same military disciplines and upper-class status with the Hindu rajas, the Saint Thomas Christians received patronage, financial support, and royal protection for their churches, shrines, and festivals. In exchange, the Christians supported the shrines and participated in the festivals of the Hindu ruling class.

This interreligious cooperation changed dramatically, however, after the British East India Company established its domination of the region in 1795. Between 1810 and 1819, under the authority of the British resident Colonel John Monro, the network of economic, social, and religious exchange between Christians and Hindus was broken. Directing state funds for the construction and repair of their churches, Monro exempted Saint Thomas Christians from paying taxes and tributes to Hindu officials. Since these funds were also used to support Hindu temples, shrines, and festivals, Saint Thomas Christians were thereby removed from the system of mutual exchange by which high-caste Hindus and Christians had cooperated in supporting religion. Increasingly, Saint Thomas Christians became targets for the animosity of high-caste Hindus. By the 1880s, riots frequently broke out between them, and annual religious festivals, which had been events of interreligious celebration, became occasions for interreligious provocation. During these festivals, Hindus and Saint Thomas Christians marched past each other's shrines, as one observer reported, "howling, screaming, and crying out obscene words" (Bayly, 1989, p. 294).

British colonial interventions, therefore, had succeeded in reifying the boundaries between two religions—Hindu and Christian—that had been part of the same network of social class, martial culture, and religious worship in southern India. As many analysts have observed, the British colonial reification of religious boundaries not only reinforced a certain kind of European Christianity in India but also produced the modern religious classification "Hinduism." Under colonial conditions, the primary categories of the study of religion—"religion" and "religions"—emerged as potent signs of identity and difference.

Colonial Comparative Religion

As a sustained reflection on religious difference, the study of religion has its historical roots not only in the European Enlightenment but also in this long history of colonialism. On the frontiers of colonial encounter, European explorers, travelers, missionaries, settlers, and colonial administrators recorded their findings on indigenous religions all over the world. With remarkable consistency over a period of five hundred years, these European observers reported that they had found people in the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific Islands who lacked any trace of religion. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the explorer Amerigo Vespucci observed that the indigenous people of the Caribbean had no religion. In the seventeenth century, the traveler Jacques le Maire insisted that among the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands there was "not the least spark of religion." In the context of expanding trading relations in eighteenth-century West Africa, the trader William Smith reported that Africans "trouble themselves about no religion at all." Well into the nineteenth century, European observers persisted in claiming that the aboriginal people of Australia had "nothing whatever of the character of religion, or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish" (Chidester, 1996, pp. 12–13).

As this global litany of denial accumulated, it developed multiple layers of strategic significance in European colonial encounters with indigenous people. Because they supposedly lacked such a defining human characteristic as religion, indigenous people had no human rights to life, land, livestock, or control over their own labor that had to be respected by European colonizers. In this regard, the denial of the existence of any indigenous religion—this discovery of an absence—reinforced colonial projects of conquest, domination, and dispossession.

Obviously, the discovery of an absence of religion implied that European commentators in colonial situations were operating with an implicit definition of religion, a definition that was certainly informed by Christian assumptions about what counted as religion. More significantly, however, these denials indicated that the term religion was used as an oppositional term on colonial frontiers. In its ancient genealogy, of course, religio was always a term that derived its meaning in relation to its opposite, superstitio. On contested colonial frontiers, however, the conceptual opposition between religion and superstition was often deployed as a strategic denial of indigenous rights to land, livestock, or labor. In the eastern Cape of southern Africa, for example, the beliefs and practices of indigenous Xhosa people were explicitly denied the designation "religion" during the first half of the nineteenth century by European travelers, missionaries, settlers, and colonial magistrates who were trying to establish British military control over the region. Supposedly lacking any trace of religion, the Xhosa allegedly were immersed in superstition. Invoking the defining opposite of religion in this particular colonial situation, the traveler Henry Lichtenstein, for example, reported that the Xhosa's "superstition, their belief in magic or enchantment, and in omens and prognostics, is in proportion to their want of religious feelings" (Lichtenstein, 1928, pp. 301, 311–313). As a recurring motif in European reflections on religious difference in open frontier zones, this opposition between religion and superstition served the colonial project by representing indigenous people as living in a different world.

How did European observers move from the denial to the discovery of indigenous religions in colonial situations? Although that question has to be investigated through detailed attention to historical conditions in specific regions, a general answer can be suggested by the experience of the Xhosa in the eastern Cape of southern Africa. According to the reports of every European commentator, the Xhosa lacked any trace of religion until 1858, when they were placed under a colonial administrative system—the magisterial system—that had been designed by the Cape governor, Sir George Grey, for the military containment, surveillance, and taxation of indigenous people in the eastern Cape. Following his researches on indigenous traditions in Australia and New Zealand, Grey was both a professional colonial administrator and an amateur scholar of religion. It was the new context of colonial containment, however, that inspired the magistrate J. C. Warner to be the first to use the term religion for Xhosa beliefs and practices. Insisting that the Xhosa had a religious system, Warner worked out a kind of proto-functionalist analysis by determining that Xhosa religion was a religion because it fulfilled the functional "purposes" of providing psychological security and social stability. Although Warner hoped that the Xhosa religion would ultimately be destroyed by military conquest and Christian conversion, he concluded that in the meantime their indigenous religious system could function to keep them in their place just like the colonial magisterial system.

Throughout southern Africa, the European "discovery" of indigenous religions can be correlated with the colonial containment of indigenous people. While the discovery of a Zulu religious system followed the imposition of the colonial location system in Natal in the 1840s, the recognition of a Sotho-Tswana religious system was delayed until the colonial reserve system was imposed after the destruction of their last independent African polity in the 1890s. By that point, however, when colonial administrators assumed that every African in the region was contained with the urban location system or the rural reserve system, European commentators found that every African in southern Africa had been born into the same "Bantu" religion.

The southern African evidence suggests, therefore, that the "discovery" of indigenous religions under colonial conditions was not necessarily a breakthrough in human recognition. As a corollary of the imposition of a colonial administrative system, the discovery of an indigenous religious system was entangled in the colonial containment of indigenous populations.

Ironically, the colonial project of containment that sought to keep people in place at the same time generated theoretical terms for the displacement of indigenous people. Throughout the colonized world, European observers developed theories of history, genealogy, and descent that traced indigenous people back to cultural centers in the ancient Near East. In the Americas, for example, European travelers, missionaries, and colonizers during the seventeenth century argued that Native Americans were descended from ancient Israel, a claim that was stated succinctly in 1650 in the title of Thomas Thorowgood's book, Jews in America, or Probabilities That the Americans Are of That Race. By implication, if they were actually Jews from ancient Israel, then Native Americans did not actually belong in America.

In southern Africa, European commentators also traced the genealogy of indigenous people back to the ancient Near East. Anticipated by the early eighteenth-century findings of the German visitor Peter Kolb, who traced the Khoikhoi or "Hottentot" religious system of the subjugated indigenous people of the Cape back to the Judaism of ancient Israel, nineteenth-century European commentators argued that all Africans in southern Africa came from the north. The Xhosa had been ancient Arabs, the Zulu had been ancient Jews, and the Sotho-Tswana had been ancient Egyptians. Besides transposing the religious differences of the ancient Near East onto the southern African landscape, thereby reifying the ethnic, cultural, and religious differences that had been shaped by colonialism, this fanciful genealogy also implied that indigenous Africans were not actually indigenous to southern Africa because they originally belonged in the Near East. Similarly, a British colonial comparative religion that traced Hinduism back to ancient Indo-European migrations that originated in Siberia or Persia could work not merely as a historical reconstruction but also as a strategy of displacement. Pursuing this contradictory dual mandate of structural containment and historical displacement, colonial comparative religion operated throughout the world to deny, discover, locate, and displace the beliefs and practices of the colonized.

Imperial Comparative Religion

In his inaugural lectures on the science of religion in 1870, F. Max Müller, who has often been regarded as the "founder" of the modern study of religion, demonstrated that the culture of British colonialism and imperialism permeated his understanding of the academic study of religion. First, the study of religion was a science of distance and difference. The distance between the metropolitan center and the colonized periphery was conflated with the difference between the civilized and the barbarian, the savage, or the primitive. In developing a comparative method for the study of religion, Müller and other metropolitan theorists played on this theme of distance and difference in order to infer characteristics of the "primitive" ancestors of humanity from reports about contemporary "savages" living on the colonized periphery of empire. "Though the belief of African and Melanesian savages is more recent in point of time," as Müller observed in his 1870 lectures, "it represents an earlier and far more primitive phase in point of growth" (Müller, 1873, p. 25). In similar terms, E. B. Tylor, the "father of anthropology," asserted that the "hypothetical primitive condition corresponds in a considerable degree to modern savage tribes, who, in spite of their difference and distance…seem remains of an early state of the human race at large" (Tylor, 1871, vol. 1, p. 16). Whatever their differences, nineteenth-century metropolitan theorists of religion, such as Müller, Tylor, John Lubbock, Herbert Spencer, Andrew Lang, W. Robertson Smith, and James Frazer, employed a comparative method, which came to be known as the comparative method, that used reports about the different, the exotic, and the savage from distant colonized peripheries to draw conclusions about the evolutionary origins of religion.

Second, the study of religion was a science of denial and domination. "Let us take the old saying, Divide et impera," Müller proposed, "and translate it somewhat freely by 'Classify and conquer'" (Müller, 1873, pp. 122–123). More than merely a rhetorical flourish, this "old saying" provided legitimation for an imperial comparative religion that aspired to global knowledge over the empire of religion. Classification according to language gave Müller a measure of conceptual control over the library of the sacred texts of the world. But imperial conquest enabled him to develop theories of religion that were anchored in British India and British South Africa. In his last work to be published before his death, the pamphlet The Question of Right between England and the Transvaal (1900), which was printed and widely distributed by the Imperial South African Association, Müller asserted that the British Empire "can retire from South Africa as little as from India" (p. 11). These two imperial possessions, he suggested, were essential for maintaining the global power and authority of the British Empire.

But they were also essential for Müller's imperial comparative religion that mediated between "civilized" Great Britain and the "exotic" and "savage" peripheries of empire. While his edition of the Rig Veda and his expertise on the religious heritage of India were made possible by the financial support of the East India Company, Müller's imperial comparative religion rested on comparative observations that depended heavily on the British possession of South Africa. Although he observed that in the empire of religion there was "no lack of materials for the student of the Science of Religion" (Müller, 1873, p. 101), Müller knew that those raw materials had to be extracted from the colonies, transported to the metropolitan centers of theory production, and transformed into the manufactured goods of theory that could be used by an imperial comparative religion.

In his relations with South Africa, for example, Müller was engaged in a complex process of intercultural mediation in order to transform raw religious materials into theory. First, Africans on the colonized periphery were drawn into this process as informants—often as collaborators, sometimes as authors—as they reported on religious innovations, arguments, and contradictions in colonial contexts. The Zulu informant Mpengula Mbande, for example, reported arguments about uNkulunkulu, tracking African disagreements about whether he was the first ancestor of a particular political grouping, the first ancestor of all people, or the supreme god who created all human beings.

Second, local European "experts" on the colonized periphery synthesized these religious conflicts and contradictions into a "religious system." Relying heavily on Mbande's local fieldwork, the Anglican missionary Henry Callaway became the leading authority in the world on Zulu religion, and, by extension, on "savage" religion in general, by publishing his classic text, The Religious System of the Amazulu (1868–1870). Like other "men on the spot" in colonized peripheries, Callaway corresponded with the metropolitan theorists in London.

However, his exposition of the Zulu "religious system" was dissected by those metropolitan theorists in the service of a third mediation, the mediation between the "primitive" ancestors of humanity, who could supposedly be viewed in the mirror of the Zulu and other "savages" on the colonized peripheries of empire, and the "civilized" European. What was construed as a religious system in the colony, therefore, was taken apart and reassembled in London as religious data that could be used in support of an evolutionary progression from the primitive to the civilized.

The colonial situation, as Jean Paul Sartre observed, "manufactures colonizers as it manufactures colonies" (Sartre, 1965, pp. xxv–xxvi). On colonial peripheries and at imperial centers, nineteenth-century comparative religion played a role in manufacturing European colonial discourse, especially through its representations of "others" in colonized regions such as "exotic" India and "savage" South Africa. As Nicholas Dirks has proposed, these efforts contributed to manufacturing colonizers as "agents of Western reason" (Dirks, 1992, p. 6). In the twenty-first century, we must still wonder about the colonial and imperial legacies that have been inherited by the academic study of religion. In our attention to structure and history, morphology and genealogy, psychological and social functions, and other analytical concerns, do we reproduce the containments and displacements of "others" that were so important to European colonial and imperial projects? However this question might be answered, it is clear that a critical academic study of religion must be self-reflexive and self-critical of the political implications of its theory and practice.

Postcolonial Prospects

As we find in postcolonial studies generally, postcolonial prospects for the academic study of religion are largely a matter of location. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said used the analytical term strategic location to capture the subject position of European authors in relation to the broad discursive formations of European colonialism and imperialism. In more recent developments within postcolonial theory, however, attention has shifted away from the critique of European colonial representations of "others" to a recovery of the subjectivity and agency of the colonized. At the risk of oversimplifying the complex theoretical controversies that have raged in this emergent field, we can identify two extreme positions in postcolonial studies—indigeneity and hybridity—that are relevant to the future of the academic study of religion.

First, indigeneity represents a range of analytical strategies based on the recovery of place, the authenticity of tradition, and the assertion of self-determination in a project to forge postcolonial meaning and power on indigenous terms. Privileging the self-representation of indigenous people who have passed through the experience of colonization, indigeneity generates analytical terms for recovering the purity of local traditions from the defiling effects of global imperialism. Drawing inspiration from political struggles against colonialism, indigeneity engages the precolonial not merely through a romantic politics of nostalgia but also through the liberation movements of the colonized world.

In this respect, the work of the radical psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who actively identified with the liberation struggles of colonial Africa, has informed an understanding of indigenous tradition that is both postcolonial and postromantic. "Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content," Fanon observed. "By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it" (Fanon, 1963, p. 170). While the recovery of a "pure" tradition from colonial distortions and disfigurements was therefore part of his postcolonial project, Fanon linked that recovery of the past with a present of struggle—armed, violent struggle—against colonialism. Although Fanon's position has been characterized as a type of "nativism," it was an indigeneity that sought to forge a new humanity in the modern world by means of a militant anticolonialism.

Certainly, many examples could be cited of postcolonial religious indigeneity in which religious "traditionalists" have deployed "modern" means to assert their power, place, purity, and authenticity. Insisting that the only indigenous religion of India is Hinduism, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has actively engaged in electoral politics on the platform of "Hinduness" (Hindutva) in ways that have not just recovered but have actually redefined what it means to be a Hindu in contemporary Indian society. Rejecting colonial constructions of African mentality, a variety of African movements have nevertheless promoted visions of African humanity and personality, communalism and socialism, in the interests of a postcolonial African renaissance. Arguing that indigenous land should be regarded as sacred and communal rather than alienable property, Native Americans continue to press cases for the recovery of traditional sacred land in the modern courts of law in the United States. The failure of almost all of these land claims has suggested to many scholars of Native American religion that the long history of colonial occupation, with its denial, containment, and displacement of indigenous religion, has not ended in America.

While some scholars of religion have embraced indigeneity as their own strategic location, they have had to contend with trends in postmodern, post-structural, and other postcolonial analysis that have generally undermined any confidence in the continuity or uniformity of tradition. With respect to historical continuity, influential research on the "invention of tradition" has shown how supposedly timeless traditions—even the primitive, the archaic, or the exotic traditions that fascinated colonial and imperial comparative religion—can turn out to have been recent productions. For example, the Indian caste system, which has supposedly been a perennial feature of Hinduism from time immemorial, has been investigated in recent research as a complex product of indigenous interests and colonial order. In defense of indigeneity, however, as Rosalind O'Hanlon has argued, it is possible to reject the British colonial "notion of an ageless caste-bound social order" while not attributing the entire historical process to a "colonial conjuring" that produces a picture of Indians "who are helpless to do anything but reproduce the structures of their own subordination" (O'Hanlon, 1989, pp. 98, 104, 100). In this respect, indigeneity has made an important contribution by stressing the agency of the colonized as historical actors in the formation of religious, social, and political structures.

The "invention of structures," however, has also been called into question, most effectively in the work of Benedict Anderson on "imagined communities," which analyzed colonial instruments—the census, the archive, the administrative system, and so on—for the production of an imaginary sense of social uniformity, but also in the general distrust of any "essentialism" that has been the result of postmodern theory. However, even anti-essentialist critics can propose that in some situations a "strategic essentialism" might be necessary to intervene on behalf of the marginal, oppressed, or "subaltern" in struggles over representation in colonial relations. For advocates of indigeneity in the academic study of religion, some form of "strategic essentialism" seems to be necessary in order to pursue an authentic recovery of traditions that however much they might be "invented" or "imagined" nevertheless produce real effects in the real world.

Second, hybridity captures a range of analytical strategies that follow a logic not of place but of displacement. As a strategic location, hybridity is dislocated in migration and diaspora, contact and contingency, margins and mixtures. As a theoretical intervention in both colonial situations and the postcolonial horizon, attention to hybridity rejects the binary distinction between the colonist and the colonized. According to the most vigorous proponent of colonial hybridity, the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, the analysis of colonial situations should focus on neither "the hegemonic command of colonial authority" nor "the silent repression of native traditions." Rather, analysis should be directed toward the cultural space in between, the intercultural space of contacts, relations, and exchanges. According to Bhabha, intercultural relations in colonial situations are based, "not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity." In the colonial contact zone of intercultural relations, Bhabha insists, "it is the 'inter'—the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space—that carries the burden of the meaning of culture" (Bhabha, 1994, pp. 38–39).

As Bhabha and other postcolonial theorists have developed this analysis of cultural hybridity, emphasis has shifted from the self-representation of indigenous people in their traditional places to the translations, negotiations, and improvisations of the displaced. Migrants, exiles, and diaspora communities have received special attention. For example, cultural theorist Stuart Hall has adapted the notion of hybridity as a strategic location for analyzing a dispersed Afro-Caribbean identity that was formed out of the New World that was "the beginning of diaspora, of diversity, of hybridity and difference" (Hall, 1990, p. 235). In clarifying the New World origin of this diaspora identity, Hall has insisted that it does not entail a politics of nostalgia that evokes myths of "scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, the imperializing, the hegemonizing, form of 'ethnicity'" (Hall, 1990, p. 235). By contrast to such an ethnic, dominating, imperializing, or even indigenous sense of place, purity, and essence, which Hall identifies with the hegemonic constructions of colonialism and imperialism, the diaspora identity that he is interested in exploring "is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of 'identity' which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity" (Hall, 1990, p. 235).

In the study of religion, this postcolonial notion of hybridity has been anticipated by the term syncretism. Although the term has borne the burden of suggesting impure or illicit mixtures of religion, it has more recently been recovered as a medium of religious innovation. For religious studies, as Ella Shohat has noted in postcolonial studies, "'Hybridity' and 'syncretism' allow negotiation of the multiplicity of identities and subject positionings which result from displacements, immigrations and exiles without policing the borders of identity along essentialist and originary lines" (Shohat, 1992, p. 108). Liberated from the "policing of borders" inherent in colonial constructions of genealogical origins and systemic essences, a postcolonial study of religion can engage the complex and contested negotiations over person, place, and power that inevitably arise in intercultural relations.


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David Chidester (2005)

Colonialism and Buddhism

If colonialism is defined specifically as the enforced occupation of a region or control of a population, subsequently maintained through either direct coercion or cultural and ideological hegemony, then Buddhist societies and cultures have been both subject to, and agents of, colonialism throughout the centuries. A good example of the association of Buddhism with colonial expansionism can be found, for instance, in the development of certain forms of Buddhist nationalism in Japan in the modern era. During the period of the Meiji Restoration in Japan (1868–1912), Japan became an increasingly powerful presence in East Asia as a result of its victories in the Sino-Japanese (1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904–1905) wars and its emergence on the world stage as a modern nation-state. As an imperial power Japan also annexed Korea (1910) and invaded Manchuria (1931), eventually losing control of these regions after its defeat in World War II.

Buddhism as a Justification for Colonialism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Buddhist figures, such as Kimura Shigeyuki and Mitsui Koshi, upheld the Japanese nation not only as the culmination of Buddhist cultural development, but also as a legitimating factor in Japanese imperial policies. In this context Buddhist nationalist movements and key figures such as the Zen teacher Sōen Shaku (1859–1919) often justified Japanese military expansionism in terms of the missionary spread of Buddhist teachings and the "upholding of humanity and civilization" (Soen). According to Tanaka Chigaku (1861–1939), a lay Buddhist follower inspired by NICHIREN, the Buddhist teaching reached its fulfillment in the particular form of the Japanese nation. This, he argued, created a duty on the part of Japan to spread its own (MAHĀYĀNA) form of the Buddha's teachings to the rest of the world, with the explicit aim of transforming the world into a "vast Buddhist country." In 1914 Chigaku founded the "National Pillar Society," a nationalist movement concerned with a spiritual and moral regeneration of Japan, and attracted a number of followers, including Ishihara Kanji (1893–1981), the military mastermind behind the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

Modern Japanese examples of the commingling of Buddhist tradition and culture with ultranationalist and colonialist motivations are striking but not unique in Buddhist history, especially when the line between national or ethnic allegiance and Buddhist affiliation becomes blurred. In the Mahāvaṃsa (Great Chronicle), a Sinhalese Buddhist chronicle emerging from the Mahāvihāra Buddhist sect of Anurādhapura, the story of King Duṭṭhagāmaṇī's conquests in Sri Lanka, the slaughter of his opponents, and the colonization of the entire island are all justified on the grounds that the non-Buddhists are in fact "not human." This justification and account of the island's history is, of course, all but impossible to reconcile with the Buddha's own emphasis upon compassion and nonviolence. The Mahāvaṃsa, however, has played a significant role in underpinning the modern historical consciousness of the Sinhalese people and the rise of some of the more aggressive forms of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism (Sinhalatva) in the twentieth century.

The Colonization of Buddhist Societies

On a broader historical scale, however, Buddhist societies have generally been subject to, rather than an explicit motivating force behind, colonial expansionism. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, for instance, has resulted in an aggressively pursued policy designed to suppress Tibetan Buddhist culture and institutions in line with the antireligious stance of the Chinese Communist regime. One consequence of this, of course, has been the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora to India and the West in the late twentieth century, most notably that of the DALAI LAMA, often referred to as "the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people," and currently living in exile in Dharamsala in northern India. From the point of view of the ruling Communist Party of China the colonization of Tibet is little more than a reoccupation of Chinese lands that has afforded the liberation of the Tibetan people "from serfdom." It is clear, however, that the history of Tibet, partly for reasons of geographical isolation, but also because of its long Buddhist history, represents a highly distinctive culture and polity and has many affinities with South Asian culture and traditions.

The sixteenth to twentieth centuries witnessed the colonization of large parts of the globe by Europeans on a scale that was historically unprecedented. European colonialism has left an indelible mark upon the ways in which Asian Buddhists experience "modernity" and their own sense of cultural, national, and religious identity.

On May 27, 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the southwest coast of India. This was a turning point in the history of Asia and Europe. There had, of course, been interaction between Asia and Europe since long before the common era (e.g., along the SILK ROAD), but not to the extent that was precipitated by da Gama's arrival. Portugal, sanctioned by the Vatican to expand the Christian empire to the East, established an early monopoly in the exploration of Asian territories and the plundering of Asian resources. Gradually, however, there was wider European involvement in the exploration and colonization of the Asian world. The spread of the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe allowed for a challenge to the Portuguese monopoly, based as it was upon papal sanction. In the 1590s, for instance, the Dutch took control of much of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Indonesia. The British were excluded from Indonesia and so concentrated on consolidating their interests on the Indian mainland and in Ceylon and Burma. The French established a few bases on the subcontinent (such as in Pondicherry on the southeast coast of India) but turned the main focus of their attention to Indochina (mainly Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

In broad terms, there were two main waves of Western influence upon Asian Buddhism during the colonial period. First, the effect of widespread Christian missionary activity by Europeans, and then later the impact of Western secular models of nationalism and scientific rationalist philosophies. Both waves precipitated a complex series of responses, leading to the rise of Buddhist nationalism and what some scholars have called "Protestant Buddhism" (Gombrich and Obeyesekere) or "Buddhist modernism" (Bechert) and the development of a variety of syntheses between traditional Buddhist values and contemporary ideologies such as Marxism, free-market capitalism, and scientific empiricism.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the independence gained by many former colonies in South and Southeast Asia left a political vacuum into which stepped a variety of indigenous interest groups and political movements. Some of these movements involve implicit (and sometimes explicit) appeal to Buddhist traditions and values in the formulation of their stances. One feature of this has been the rise of Buddhist forms of nationalist politics of varying ideological shades. "Buddhist socialism," for instance, developed as a political force in states such as Cambodia and Burma. Despite some misgivings by the sizable ethnic minority groups, Burma, under the leadership of U Nu, recognized Buddhism as the country's official state religion in 1961. A military coup under General Ne Win quickly ensued in 1962, however, leading to the establishment of a more radical left-wing military regime and the disestablishment of Buddhism. Burma (renamed Myanmar) remains under military rule, although this has not prevented the development of pro-democracy movements, focused mainly upon the inspirational figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for peace and herself inspired by Buddhist principles in her campaign for democratic elections. Similarly, in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Buddhist nationalist movements have played a significant role in postindependence politics. The Sri Lankan example serves as an illustration of the impact of European colonialism upon indigenous Buddhist traditions and institutions.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Dutch controlled much of Ceylon and Indonesia. Economic inducements were offered to local "heathens" to convert to Christianity, and this effort was combined with vigorous missionary polemics against the "idolatrous" and superstitious practices of the Buddhists. In 1711 the Dutch issued a proclamation in Ceylon that explicitly forbade Christian involvement in "the ceremonies of heathenism," with the penalty of a public flogging and a year's imprisonment for those found engaging in such practices. In 1795 the British first appeared on the coast and by 1815 they had annexed the whole island.

Three factors have been crucial in the colonial transformation of indigenous Asian subjectivities: the reconfiguration of politics and civil society under colonial rule, the transformation of modes of educating the population, and the role of the printing press in the dissemination of ideas among the indigenous population. In the case of Ceylon, the key factor was the introduction of the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of the 1830s, which sought to unify the political economy of the island, promote laissez-faire capitalism, and establish a national educational framework to be delivered through the medium of the English language. These changes led to the development of a new middle class within Sinhalese society that was educated in English and empowered by the new social, economic, and political reforms. This was to have a profound effect upon the Sinhalese population's appreciation of its Buddhist heritage (Scott; Gombrich and Obeyesekere). Similar processes were underway throughout the colonized regions of southeast Asia at this time.

The first printing press was introduced to Ceylon by the Dutch in 1736 and was immediately put to use in the printing of local vernacular translations of Christian texts and, later, classical European literature. In a speech to the Methodist Missionary Society Committee, on October 3, 1831, D. J. Gogerly outlined the importance of the printing press as a vehicle for undermining the authority of indigenous Buddhist traditions. Gogerly stated that "at present, it is by means of the Press [that] our principal attacks must be made upon this wretched system…. Wemust direct our efforts to pull down the stronghold of Satan." Gogerly was a missionary in Ceylon for forty-four years and also worked as a translator of the Pali Buddhist scriptures into English. It was not until 1862, however, that, as a result of a gift from the king of Siam (now Thailand), Sinhalese Buddhists themselves gained access to a printing press and were thus able to disseminate their own materials and literature to the native population.

The establishment of a uniform educational system by the European colonizers tended to promote European Christian forms of education and literacy, either through the direct medium of European languages or by the study of European and Christian literature in vernacular translations. The curriculum and agenda in this context usually involved the teaching of Euro-Christian values alongside mathematics, science, and a Eurocentric version of history. The overall effect of taking the burden of educating the population away from the Buddhist monastic communities, where it constituted one of the traditional roles of the bhikkhus, was to undermine the status of the SAṄGHA within society. Later the number of Christian missionary schools declined and secular government schools increased in number. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, a reformist spirit developed within Buddhist circles, partly in response to the criticisms of Christian missionary groups, which sought to reform the sanṅgha. In Ceylon, with the help of the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and his Buddhist Theosophical Society (founded in 1880), three higher education institutes and some two hundred Buddhist high schools were set up to protect and preserve the study of the Buddhist tradition.

Orientalism and The Rise of "Protestant Buddhism"

Many of the westernized middle-class groups that emerged in Southeast Asia as a result of European colonial reforms first encountered their own Buddhist traditions through the mediating lenses of European textbooks, literature, and translations of Buddhist sacred texts. This reflects an important factor in under-standing the way in which Buddhism develops and is presented in the modern era, namely the role of "BUDDHIST STUDIES" as a Western academic enterprise and the enormous authority accorded to Western scholars and texts in representing Buddhism during the colonial era (King; Lopez). Western interest in under-standing Asian civilizations precipitated a "discovery" and translation of Buddhist sacred texts into modern European languages. Western scholars, however, generally replicated a series of basic Christian assumptions in their approach to Buddhism (Almond; King). There was a strong tendency to emphasize Buddhist sacred texts as the key feature in determining the nature of Buddhism as a religious tradition. This approach tended to ignore Buddhist traditions as changing historical phenomena and also underplayed the role of ritual practices and local networks and beliefs in the preservation and renewal of Buddhist forms of life. Buddhist sacred literature has traditionally been revered in Asian societies, but this reverence rarely led to a depreciation of local practices and beliefs that were not found in the ancient canonical literature. Buddhism as a living tradition tended to be either ignored or denigrated by Orientalist scholars as a corruption of the original teachings.

This attitude had a profound effect upon the emerging middle-class elites of Asian societies in the nineteenth century. This was the case even for nations that were not subject to European colonization such as Japan (Sharf) and Thailand, illustrating perhaps that modernist reformism is not simply a by-product of European colonialism. In a Southeast Asian context, "Protestant" influence can be seen most clearly in the views of reformist leaders such as ANAGĀRIKA DHARMAPĀLA (born David Hewavitarane, 1864–1933) in Sri Lanka and Sayadaw U Ottama (d. 1921) in Burma. Both emphasized the need for a "Buddhist Reformation" in order to overcome what they saw as the decadence of the "superstitious ritualism" of folk or "village" Buddhism. This also involved a call for the saṅgha to become more socially reformist and service-oriented with regard to the needs of lay society. The trends can be seen to involve a number of "Protestant" elements. First, there is the desire to return to the purity of the Buddha's original teachings, bereft of popular superstitions. Second, there is an emphasis on bringing an understanding of Buddhist sacred literature directly to the people as the basis for understanding the Buddha's message. Finally, there is also an emphasis upon "this-worldly asceticism" to be manifested through acts of social service and in some cases political activism by the monks.

Although Western influence is evident in all of these trends one should be careful not to read such reformist projects merely as mirrored responses to a European Christian agenda. This would be to erase the indigenous aspects of such responses. "Protestant Buddhism," if one can call it that, not only reflected the impact of European ideas upon Asian Buddhists, but also represented indigenous protestations against European colonialism and the claim that Western civilization was morally and spiritually superior to Buddhism. The promotion of a socially oriented ethic, while clearly a response to centuries of Christian missionary criticism of Buddhism as a world-denying tradition, was firmly grounded in Buddhist notions of compassionate service to all. A key shift that began during this period (and which provided the intellectual foundation for what has since become known as "ENGAGED BUDDHISM") was the rearticulation of traditional Buddhist goals, such as NIRVĀṆA, in sociopolitical and often explicitly anticolonial terms. In Burma, for instance, the monk and political activist U Ottama explicitly linked the attainment of liberation to freedom from social, economic, and colonial oppression. In the 1940s this link was rearticulated by Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) in the notion of a "mundane liberation" (lokanibbāṇa) of the Burmese people from British colonial rule (Houtman). The latter half of the twentieth century saw the end of European imperialism and the establishment of independent states in the former Asian colonies. In this context the process of understanding the effects that centuries of European colonial influence had upon Buddhist civilization and its significance has only just begun.


Almond, Philip. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Bechert, Heinz. "The Buddhist Revival in East and West." In The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, ed. Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Gombrich, Richard, and Obeyesekere, Gananath. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1999.

King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and "the Mystic East." London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Ling, Trevor. Buddhism, Imperialism, and War: Burma and Thailand in Modern History. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995.

Scott, David. Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Sharf, Robert. "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism." In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995.

Sōen (Soyen), Shaku. Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot: Addresses on Religious Subjects, tr. D. T. Suzuki. New York: Weiser, 1971 (originally published 1906).

Tambiah, Stanley. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Richard King

Colonialism and Islam

Modern colonialism goes back to the era of European discovery in the fifteenth century, connecting exploitation of raw materials with missionary ideas. Since then colonialism has taken several and different forms, and various colonial powers (such as the Portuguese and French in Africa, French and British in the Middle East and South Asia, the Dutch in Southeast Asia, the Spanish in South America) tried to support their own hegemonies in Europe as well as competing and contesting materially and politically in order to control the new world economy.

The independence of the United States ushered in another phenomenon: White colonial regions became independent as they became semi-sovereign vis-à-vis their colonial motherlands. At the same time European industrial countries contested for the safeguarding of raw materials, markets, and possibilities of emigration in what they considered to be unexploited and virgin regions.

Colonial Expanison

Modern colonial expansion and colonization (when few European settlers appeared in the Muslim world) started in the wake of the breakdown of Muslim empires, from within the boundaries of the territorial European states established in the eighteenth century into the borders of national markets. Hence, colonialism did not expand beyond traditional and primitive societies but into closed political entities, such as the territorial princely states or successor states, which had replaced the great empires. By the eighteenth century the world economy was already reorganized, and European expansion had gradually changed the terms of trade for Muslim countries. A tremendous societal upheaval occurred as parts of the traditional society were increasingly integrated into world market relations. This complex process came about primarily through technical innovation (e.g., perennial irrigation systems), investment of capital, and privatization of landed property (e.g., the 1793 permanent settlement in India). Next to the traditional urban and agrarian sectors, colonial urban and agrarian sectors were established, using a colonial infrastructure. The previously important nomadic sector was noticeably marginalized. A colonial administrative and military force was set up, visualized in new settlements, such as civil lines and cantonments. The education system was replaced or paralleled by a new European one suiting colonial interests.

In doing so two broad patterns were followed: direct rule, virtually excluding indigenous political structures, as favored by the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, and by the French in Africa (especially after the French Revolution); and indirect rule, which by contrast, incorporated traditional indigenous political structures and was favored by the British in South Asia, the Dutch in Southeast Asia, and by the Germans and Belgians in Africa. The reasons for these differences were pragmatic—the cost-effectiveness through the involvement of few Europeans—as well as ethnocentric, wherein non-whites and whites were considered fundamentally different, and therefore were controllable only by their own leaders and systems. Often corporate bodies of merchants initiated a system of indirect rule, such as the various East Indian Companies. In this way vast colonies could be ruled remotely through the "resident," the agent of indirect rule.

The colonial restructuring was accompanied by profound changes in the socio-psychological sphere of Muslim societies as well. Traditional systems of society, values, and relations were gradually replaced by abstract, anonymous state agents—whether through direct or indirect rule. This process ushered in new societal formations, especially in the political sphere, since with the increasing expansion of the colonial sector, traditional forces came to break down or looked for alternative structures. But not all sectors and areas were seized by the politically dominant colonial sector, as their integration was not always profitable, such as in parts of traditional and tribal areas. They were consequently ignored, and they still are socioeconomically neglected areas.

The colonialization of the Islamic world in the nineteenth century occurred over several decades. The process can be divided into three phases: from 1820, when colonial power was already firmly established, to 1856, when Muslim countries struggled for recognition in the changing geopolitical reality; and, from 1856 to 1880 nearly all Muslim countries lost their economic and financial independence and became dependent on the Europeans. During the period from 1880 to 1910 most of these countries—apart from those Muslim countries controlled by the Ottoman caliphate—were subject to direct colonial military and political control: economic colonialism had become political colonialism. In this situation of political subservience, the traditional urban divines, particularly theologians, were responsible for the traditional legitimization of the ruler. At the same time, in the colonial urban sector, Islamic repertory was gradually used as an ideology and a mobilizing force by those societal formations that had become partly integrated into this colonial sector. In contrast to this, in the traditional agrarian sector Islam prevailed in the form of egalitarian peasant culture, as can be seen from a number of Sufi and Mahdi movements.

The idea of universal caliphate, which had been used by the Ottomans since the middle of the eighteenth century, particularly for reasons of foreign policy, became a vehicle for pan-Islamic propaganda, notably by Sultan ˓Abd al-Hamid II. Though this propaganda was politically unsuccessful and led to the demise of the caliphate in 1924, the propaganda triggered a hefty discussion of the idea of a universal caliphate outside of Turkey: On the one hand the validity of the idea was questioned (˓Abd al-Raziq); on the other, Indian Muslims staged a khilafat movement. A colonial crackdown, however, put this movement down.

The Second World War accelerated the process of decolonialization but left the former colonies with basic structural problems that were a result of colonialism, such as insufficient societal integration, artificial boundaries, and narrowly based economies.

Beside these socio-historical and political developments, one needs to consider the normative aspect underlying the colonial process: A colonial collective image of Islam was created, going as far back as the Crusades and revived at a time when Europeans had started to project their own imaginations onto Muslim societies—a phenomenon that historian Edward Said has called "Orientalism." In this view, the heterogeneous Islamic world was reduced to a monolithic, antimodern, and anti-intellectual world excluded from world history.

Nineteenth-century colonial politics was legitimized as evolutionary and modern, while the "Orient" was constructed as a cultural space, diametrically opposed to the values and norms of the West, which were considered to be inherently universal. This unidimensional social evolutionism proclaimed Europe as embodying hegemonic power. In doing so, various discourses about the Orient promulgated the societal decline, dogmatism, despotism, and irrationality of the region. Eventually this hegemonic claim produced new "Orientalist" sciences.

Against the backdrop of a postulated universal evolutionary history, the Orientalist sciences analyzed the object "Orient" in its historical development, making use of the Hegelian categories of alienation and reconciliation. In this way, colonial administrations were provided with a "scientifically proven" image about the stage of development attained by the Orient, which was seen to be alienated from its classical high culture. Cultural theories provided the colonial administration with this Orientalist image, which ran counter to the historical one of classical high culture. On the basis of this construction, colonial measures to "reconcile" the Orient with its alienated tradition were to be implemented as an export of progress. Thus terms like "modern" and "traditional" or "primitive" became scientific categories, establishing an epistemological supremacy of Europe that was firmly established politically.

In this way authority was created on the object "Orient" not only for the Europeans but also gradually, through reciprocal perceptions, for the "Orientals" themselves. Subsequently, authority was derived from the instrumentalization of the Weberian demand for "value-free" social sciences, that became "objective" insofar as they were considered to be not ideologically biased, but unquestionably "true."

While the power relations cannot be ignored, it is important to note the cultural hybridization of the colonial process, for example, the reciprocity of colonializer and colonialized. Indeed, the colonialized peoples had a function in the colonial process, for the establishment of European dominance was essentially based on the cooperation of local informants, colonial traders, and rulers. Therefore, contemporary debates became the starting point for the colonial reception of Oriental society. Naturally, the oscillating processes between Europeans and non-Europeans openly and latently shaped both societies. If projection is considered to be a cultural technique for self-affirmation and demarcation, then assigning a collective (negative) identity to the (colonialized) "other" implied the colonialists' generating their own identity in a specific colonial context. Indeed, some European enlightenment figures even had gone as far as to use the "Orient" as a didactic background to criticize their own urban societies, thereby setting out the frame of reference for their own identities.

The intrinsic impact of reciprocity and mutuality of the colonial process may have found one political manifestation in indirect rule, which was, however, not implemented in its totality, because the British administration got involved in internal affairs of these societies very quickly, at times resembling the French system of direct colonial administration. In India one manifestation of British indirect rule was the establishment of an honors system and the issuing of titles. The residency system provided for the cultural success of imperialism, a success that found its climax in the "invention of tradition" as it represented colonial authority in Victorian India through different devices, such as highly ritualistic events to mark Queen Victoria's accession in 1876 to the title "Kaisar-e Hind" (Empress of India, combining the imperial titles of Roman "Caesar," German "Kaiser," and Russian "Czar.")

The nineteenth-century Orientalist image and action not only cemented the dominant image of the Orient in the West but also affected the self-statement of the Orient. Consequently this image changed non-Western practices concretely—from blind imitation of modernization to a total rejection of Western society, thereby forming a "strange alliance" between western Orientalism and Muslim fundamentalism, whence one side satisfied the essentializing fantasies of the other.

Colonialism and The Emergence of Islamic Movements

The deep traces of colonialism that changed the whole landscape of the Muslim world brought about new social formations, and new Islamic movements:

Reform Islam was prominent among pastoral and tribal societies, based on Wahhabiyyan and other ideas.

Reform Sufism started off in urban, pastoral, and tribal areas, first against feudal rule and later opposing European intrusion. In doing so, the figure of prophet Muhammad became even more pivotal, hence the establishment of "Muhammadan Paths" (turuq Muhammadiyya) in the colonialized regions.

This kind of mystical approach found its climax in the movement of the Mahdi of Sudan.

A third trend was Islamic modernism, represented primarily by intellectuals, bureaucrats, and the military, and manifested in creations of the colonial system, like the Aligarh Movement in India, the Young Ottomans, and the so-called pan-Islamic movement.

These movements adjusted to the new conditions and opted for the integration of the colonial system with Islamic theology. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Sayyid Ahmad Khan were two exponents of the modernizing trend, however different their motivations may have been. Precondition for the ideologization of Islam was a renewed call for the reintroduction of independent reasoning (ijtihad) at the cost of adherence to one's school of law (taqlid). Timeless categories developed in the course of Western civilization were now regarded as immanently Islamic. The use of media in exile—mostly in the metropolises of their colonial motherlands—was part of that strategy.

As a result of colonialism a three-layered structure emerged: secularized urban (post-colonial) state regimes, traditional urban nonpolitical Muslim religious associations, and urban middle-class opposition movements that stood for some kind of a reconstruction of a Muslim state.

Subsequently, after political independence following the Second World War, the new Muslim states were mostly centralized and secularized, based on military or bureaucratic elites with state capitalism or socialism favoring the ruling elites. Islamic modernism was replaced by secular nationalism, co-opting Muslim leaders who would legitimize this centralism. To be sure, the identity-giving Islamic symbolism was used for the mobilization of wider strata of society.

The nonpolitical Muslim religious associations mostly stayed quietistic, while new movements among parts of the ulema played on their Islamicity. Some of them referred to concepts tuned to colonial society, basically so as not to fall behind completely in terms of political influence. The opposition movements stood for the reconstruction of a Muslim state and reorganized Islam in different ways, for example, the theory of the caliphate providing an extended interpretation to legitimize power, rendering Islam into a comprehensive system that was to counter Western ideologies.

One branch of this Muslim cultural manifestation is of quite some importance. For example, religious fundamentalism, which has to be seen as a reaction to colonial encroachment as well as a demarcation against folk-religious traditions, reevaluating Islam in terms of political ideology, was elaborated upon only during the 1930s.

Its carriers were integrated into the post-colonial system, due to which they adopted and adapted its major terms, giving them an Islamic garb. This normative replacement enabled these Islamic classicists to transcend traditional boundaries and legitimize modern developments within the Islamic semiotics. In this process of reinvention of tradition, code- or identity-switching is most important, providing this political Islam with its particular dynamics.

The latest development in the wake of colonialism is the emigration of large Muslim communities to Europe and North America. The migration pattern follows colonial and historical traditions, that is, Maghrebian Muslims in France, Southeast Asian Muslims in the Netherlands, South Asian Muslims in Britain, and Turkish Muslims in Germany.


Al-Azmeh, Aziz. Islam and Modernities. London: Verso, 1993.

Malik, Jamal, ed. Perspectives of Mutual Encounters in South Asian History: 1760–1860. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000.

Said, Edward. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Schulze, Reinhard. Geschichte der islamischen Welt im 20. Jahrhundert. Munich: Beck, 1994.

Jamal Malik

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