James W. Laine
James W. Laine

Most world religions textbooks follow a structure and conceptual framework that mirrors the modern discourse of world religions as distinct entities reducible to certain defining characteristics. In his provocative and brilliant new book Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History (University of California Press, 2015), James Laine, Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College challenges this dominant paradigm of world religions textbooks by showcasing an approach that instead focuses on the interaction of religion and power across time and space.

51DJ88vQeOL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At once ambitious and lucid, Meta-Religion narrates the story of the complex intersection of religion and politics in multiple moments, places, and traditions. A hallmark of this book is the way it engages the religious and political history of Islam and Muslim societies in conversation with other religious traditions. What emerges from this exercise is a rich and fascinating picture of the complicated and at times conflicting ways in which religiously diverse and plural societies have been managed through particular political arrangements and ideologies in different historical moments.

In our conversation we talked about the idea of meta-religion, different varieties of meta-religion in India, Rome, and China, the marginalization of Islam and Muslim history in Euro-American world historical periodizations, Meta-Religion in Muslim history, Akbar and his experimentation with meta-religion, and meta-religion in the modern and contemporary context. This book will be of great interest to specialists in Islamic Studies and other scholars of religion and religious history; it will also make an excellent text for courses on Islam and world history, Introduction to Religion, and on theories and methods in Religious Studies.


In September 2014 the Duke Islamic Studies Center (which manages the Transcultural Islam Project of which TIRN is a part), announced its official institutional affiliation with New Books in Islamic Studies — a bi-weekly audio podcast featuring hour long conversations with authors of exciting new research. For an archive see HERE.

“The overall consensus seems to be that the assimilationist policies of the tsarist state in late imperial Russia lay at the foundation of the bitterness that characterized the tsarist central state establishment’s relations with the Volga-Ural Muslims, and especially their elites… Hasty attempts to forge a nation-state out of a multiconfessional, multilingual, and multiethnic empire cost Russia its existing and functional imperial model.” – Mustafa Tuna, speaking on the theme of his manuscript “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire and European Modernity, 1788-1914” (Cambridge University Press, June 2015) at a Mellon-grant supported workshop on Muslim and Jewish diasporas, held at Duke University.


UnknownWith the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I last year and the 100th anniversary of the hashing out and signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement beginning this Fall, historians have been getting a lot of attention. They are being asked to explain, for example, how the conditions of that period — including the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the re-drawing of borders, and the displacement of people — shaped the modern Middle East with all its current challenges and conflicts.

The treatment and “management” of minorities during that period is instructive and essential to understanding the geopolitics of a very wide region today.

In his new book “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Empire, Islam, and European Modernity 1788-1914” (Cambridge University Press, June 2015), Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and Central Eurasian History and Culture at Duke Mustafa Tuna explores how another empire, tsarist Russia, sought to “manage” its minorities — specifically the Muslim communities of the Volga-Ural region. Looking at the period from the late 18th century through to the outbreak of World War I — a slightly earlier period — he “reveals how the Russian state sought to manage Muslim communities, the ways in which the state and Muslim society were transformed by European modernity, and the extent to which the long nineteenth century either fused Russia’s Muslims and the tsarist state or drew them apart.”

His book “ raises questions about imperial governance, diversity, minorities, and Islamic reform and in doing so proposes a new theoretical model for the study of imperial situations.”

In this interview, Tuna carries his insights about the opportunity costs of Islamophobia for imperial Russia to a broader and contemporary context. Continue reading


90605-2_Khosronejad_Bd1.inddNEW BOOK: Women‘s Rituals and Ceremonies in Shiite Iran and Muslim Communities: Methodological and theoretical challenges (Dec.2014). Pedram Khosronejad (ed.) (LIT. Bd. 1, 144 S., 29.90 EUR, br., ISBN 978-3-643-90605-2. Reihe: Iranian Studies (Vol. 1))  Continue reading

In January 2014, Mr Muhammad Alagil of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, endowed a Chair in Arabia-Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, NUS. In June 2014, the first Arabia-Asia conference held under the auspices of the Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Chair in Arabia-Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore(NUS), was convened. Engseng Ho, the Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor as of January 2014 (and Professor of Cultural Anthropology and History at Duke University) was the convener.  Mr Alagil and President Tan Chorh Chuan of NUS participating in the opening panel, along with ARI Director Prasenjit Duara and Alagil Chair Engseng Ho.


Engseng Ho
Engseng Ho

Prof Tan stressed the importance of Arabia-Asia relations, noting the existence of a new generation of scholars working in the field, and among them welcomed home NUS alumni who had continued their work in leading universities abroad. In doing so, he also alerted them to the founding of a new PhD programme in comparative and connective Asian studies at NUS.

Prof Duara emphasised the thematic and strategic importance of Asian connections to ARI and to Singapore, and welcomed the addition of Arabia-Asia to this nexus.

Mr Alagil observed that while relations between the Middle East and the West have been full of conflicts and wars, relations between Arabia and Asia were much more peaceful and historically deep; and they were resurgent today. Yet the former has been widely studied, while the latter neglected. Mr Alagil explained that the naming of the chair—Arabia-Asia— was meant to make clear this contrast. Here was a historic opportunity for scholars to study Arabia-Asia, as has been done for relations between the Middle East and the West.

Indeed, Arabia-Asia relations cover a broad canvas, encompassing trade, diplomacy, labour, religion, language, literature, kinship and culture. This breadth of engagement was represented in the audience, who filled the ARI seminar room to capacity, and included prominent leaders in diplomacy, government, finance and the Singapore Arab community. The theme of the conference, that Arabia-Asia relations were like Slender But Supple Threads, not always thick or visible, but nevertheless strong and enduring, resonated with the audience. At the opening panel, a number of them were moved to recount their family histories, with ancestors coming from elsewhere, intermarrying with various ethnic groups, and cultivating businesses and friendships with one another. While relations between Arabia and Asia have existed continuously for centuries, modern scholarship has been divided by countries and regions, rendering those relations opaque. The conference was designed to overcome these divides by bringing together scholars working along a number of Arabia-Asia axes: to compare notes, complement each other, make mutual discoveries, and identify common areas of interest and ignorance. In that respect, the meeting was stimulating, and sparked lively discussions that we hope will bear fruit in developing research agendas.

Panelists came from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Korea and the USA.

Panels were focused on topics such as Arabia-Asia trading ports, Arabians in Asian cities, intellectual and organisational journeys, publishing, pilgrimage, and diaspora-state relations. It was striking that in many of these arenas of Arabia-Asia interaction, contemporary developments resonated strongly with historical precedents. The opening paper by Ho Wai-Yip introduced a maximal spatial and temporal stage, linking two cities at the limits of Arabia-Asia—Aden and Canton—in the thirteenth century and the present.

Arabian trading diasporas, which had been active in Rasulid and Sung times, were again active in Canton today, even as China has been rebuilding roads and ports in Yemen. While Aden’s traffic slowed during the socialist period, Dubai took up its role in Indian Ocean trade, developing primacy in global logistics, as did its counterpart Singapore, as discussed by Engseng Ho, while profiting from and benefiting nearer regions such as Kerala in India, in an intertwined traffic of gold and labour, as demonstrated by Nisha Mathew.



Engseng Ho is Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor, ARI, NUS and Professor of Anthropology and History, Duke University, and core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His research covers a range of issues, including long-distance and long-term cross-Asian mobility, maritime connections, Islam in Asia and ethnic diasporas. His research cross-cuts traditional regional studies and deals with large topics in current social science. Originally from Malaysia, Ho delved into interdisciplinary scholarship when he went in search of a more comprehensive narrative of Muslim societies to better understand his own.


ISLAMiCommentary/TIRN editor’s note: There seems to be no end to controversies and misunderstandings surrounding veiling. Here is a Q & A with Islamic studies professor Sahar Amer on her new book “What is Veiling” followed by an op-ed she wrote for the online journal “The Conversation” on debates on veiling in Australia. Amer also did an interview with NPR’s “Here and Now” which you can listen to below as well. 


Sahar Amer, author of What is Veiling? (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2014), talks with Caroline Rudolph about one of Islam’s most misunderstood and controversial practices.

Caroline Rudolph: What is Veiling? is the first in a series of books from UNC Press that will explain key aspects of Islam. Why might the topic of veiling be an appropriate starting point for such a series?

Sahar Amer
Sahar Amer

Sahar Amer: Veiling is one of the most visible signs of Islam as a religion and likely its most controversial and least understood tradition among non-Muslims, and perhaps surprisingly, among Muslims as well. Many non-Muslim and Muslim readers are often unfamiliar with the religious interpretations and debates over the Islamic prescription to wear the veil, the historical and political background to current anxieties surrounding the veil, or the range of meanings the veil continues to have for Muslim women around the world. In many ways, understanding the complex and often contradictory meanings of veiling is also understanding how Islam has come to mean so many different things to different peoples.

Continue reading