Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.


Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on ‘Religion’ and Mystification (4 June 2012).

In the interview regarding ‘religion, non-religion and mystification’ Timothy Fitzgerald is quite correct to chide many for failing to critically reflect on the terms they employ. Like all of the core concepts of the Social Sciences: culture, society, politics, ethnicity and ritual are concepts which have been handed down to us from the West and were greatly transformed in the modern era, though ideology is the only one to be specifically coined in this period. The fact that these concepts have a specific history should hardly surprise us, and they can still pick out underlying currents of human life if they are utilised with critical awareness.

Though etymology and discourse analysis are important parts of the toolkit of the Social Sciences, I find Fitzgerald’s assertion that the field’s primary task is to analyse the usage of words to be a troubling retreat from the analysis of what human beings actually do and think. A focus on words and their protean etymologies can be misleading and be detrimental to the study of the phenomena actually present in the context. Would we confine ‘culture’ only to those who possess the systematic category which emerged in the modern era? Would we do the same for ideology? Surely a person could still recognise that there are ingrained, meaningful differences in lifestyle and worldview among communities and that certain ideas may function to justify these, before a concept is constructed or adapted to analyse this.

The compartmentalisation of categories is deeply problematic but because they only show their value when they work in tandem. Religions would not be especially interesting or valuable if ‘religious’ beliefs and practices did not affect politics and society, if they were purely individual or speculative. If it is easier for us to conceive of the workings of society as ‘politics’ influencing ‘religion’ and ‘religion’ influencing ‘politics’ then so be it.  I would not maintain however that a scholar is bound to use common terminology if they find them unhelpful but others may find them perfectly helpful. The concept of culture can cause problems if it creates the notion of a specific set, identifiable number of hermetically sealed ‘cultures’ or the notion that community must have a set number of traditions or folklore to be a viable community. Religions are hardly the only types of community which can be reified and essentialised, but to simply identify groups is not to reify them.

In attempting to set out my own approach I will draw on a theoretical model used by Fitzgerald in his 2000 book Ideology of Religious Studies, because I have found it useful for my own research. He argued that definitions and theories of ‘religion’ have a tendency to be either theological or vague. The two poles being theories which defined religion as some kind of universal essence, specific responses to ‘the Divine’ on the one hand and those which defined religion in a way that picks out nothing distinctive, identifying it with anything meaningful or important to human beings. To his credit however he did not leave it at that which would have served his purposes well enough, but admitted that there were many theories which lay somewhere in the middle. Religion could be defined clearly and scientifically and it is this course that I have sought to trace back to one of its key ancestors, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his 1871 Primitive Culture.

Tylor defined religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’ rooted in the notion that human beings had a soul which gave them life and which could survive the death of the body. This was extended to include soul-like beings in the cosmos, either disembodied or embodied in natural phenomena (animism), personal beings in the cosmos which were causal agents with whom human beings needed to establish relationships. The notion of the soul, naturally enough gave rise to the idea of afterlives and spirit worlds.

Fitzgerald has rightly queried the often uncritical usage of the concepts like ‘god’ (or ‘spirit’), but comparison is based as much on difference as it is similarity. What is most amazing is simply the fact that these beings are postulated at all and throughout the world. This demands Social Scientific analysis. The term ‘supernatural’ has been quite understandably referred to as a ‘peek-a-boo’ term because it is a vague concept, which the vague concept of religion can hide behind; it is also a peek-a-boo concept because it appears to be very difficult to exorcise. Religion appears to be haunted by ‘the supernatural’ and even theories which attempt to define it in a different way are forced to address this. I would argue that it is time to acknowledge that this is the heartland of religion.

The concept of religion that we have is undeniably linked to the scientific worldview: but it could exist without it. Sharpe wrote that the first comparative religionist was the person to recognise that people in other places worshipped different gods. Comparison can be and routinely is, mounted from a non-scientific, faith based perspective, however even that would not quite be the same without the history of modern science. Certainly terms like the ‘supernatural’ can only emerge with the scientific view of nature. I do not believe that this is a problem; as Thomas Tweed has argued, it is impossible for the scholar to be truly un-situated, and we are attempting to pursue a Science of Religion after all. I am not certain that religious pluralism and secular government are as closely linked as Fitzgerald argues: the history of the Roman Empire, China, India or even the early secularising West would appear to be pluralist but not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. Even Medieval Catholicism spread its sacred canopy over much diversity and division.

Religion for me refers to the institutionalised belief in and practices based around ‘extra-natural’ phenomena or the ‘socialised supernatural’, however the phenomena is not necessarily considered to be ‘above’ nature. This includes gods, spirits, souls, other realms, afterlives and forces like the Dao or Karma. It is an etic perspective because for religious believers these are inherently part of the order of the cosmos, but they are additions to that shared core of human experience mediated through individual and cultural factors: the senses, the mind, culture etc. It is important to stress that human beings do inhabit largely the same cognitive universe and that is the (phenomenal) world of experience as opposed to the world as it really is which is unknowable (the noumenal), to borrow a distinction from Immanuel Kant. Religions for their believers provide the key to the complete picture, “the really real” as Clifford Geertz put it. Science also provides extensions to this shared core of human experience, including a variety of hidden phenomena like atoms and other dimensions but the difference is that these are revealed through the application of reason and empiricism, as opposed to tradition.

These phenomena may not be conceived as non-corporeal, even spiritual let alone metaphysical, as Stewart Guthrie is keen to argue, but they are ‘hidden’, so that those not inculcated with belief in them may seriously doubt their existence. One process that Tylor claimed to uncover that I think has enough grain of truth to repeat, is that these phenomena tend to become more mysterious and further removed as scientific knowledge expands. Tylor argued that the spirits were initially conceived as ethereal yet material beings, the gods were located in a physical Heaven above the firmament or on a mountaintop, the sun really was driven across the sky and the land of the dead was found in the West, on a mysterious island or a gloomy cavern. Increasing knowledge drove these phenomena into another realm and drove the spirits out of matter. This meant that such phenomena became more and more based around faith but also simply cannot be truly falsified empirically because their properties are outside of empirical analysis.

Despite this, religious people really do have experiences attributed to such phenomena and in many cases do attempt to instigate this in some way. Felicitas Goodman argued that religion was based around belief in an ‘alternate reality’ which was unique to each culture and was experienced through ritual and trance states provoking altered states of consciousness. These experiences provide all the ‘proof’ many religious people need and is possibly the reason that Ninian Smart put so much stock in ‘the experiential dimension’.

As Fitzgerald asks in the interview, what becomes of the phenomena defined as non-religious? This is a deeply pertinent question and it should give scholars serious pause for reflection because our role is neither to denigrate nor promote religions, including over non-religion. Religion could potentially have different positions in relation to wider society and the state; it is part of its utility as an analytical category that we can make such distinctions. Religion is often claimed to be ‘bound up with’ or ‘inseparable’ from life but in what ways? In Medieval Christianity or classical Islam all aspects of life were considered to be subservient to religion and could never be outside its purview. Indigenous Religions are often claimed to be subservient to the needs of everyday life, personal and social welfare or certain systems of values. Fitzgerald himself has argued convincingly that relationships with the Kami in Shinto are governed by and subservient to the same system of values which govern relationships with human beings. Even the beings or forces postulated by believers are not necessarily conceived of as much higher either in power or virtue than human beings, they are not necessarily the Summum Bonum, the highest good or value.

The exact border between religion and non-religion is difficult to pinpoint, as with the border between other key concepts, however as long as a conceptual heartland and borderland are acknowledged I believe it can still be of use. Nonetheless I will attempt to chart as much of these marches as I can. I would probably consider belief in cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster to be just shy of the dividing line, partially because they are purported to be biological but far more importantly that other than perhaps a hesitation to swim in the waters or a propensity to drag expensive scanning equipment across them, belief does not affect behaviour and is not especially institutionalised among even a loose community. Maintaining a distinction may appear to be pointless but it allows us to understand the processes by which such phenomena could transform into a religion and can allow us to recognise new religions when they emerge.

Religion would become an impossibly wide concept if it included all beliefs or convictions held without empirical evidence. I would adapt the philosophical maxim that we must separate ‘is’ systems, accounts of reality from ‘ought’ systems of how they should be, at least ideal-typically. I can also appreciate Fitzgerald’s reasons for equating belief in God with belief in self-regulating markets which certainly does appear to be nothing short of a modern myth. However the primary difference is the fact that such a belief is dependent on the (much softer than it will frequently admit) science of economics based on analysis of the production and exchange of resources and on mathematics and to an extent is subject to it: what authority it has is dependent upon it and can simply be described as bad economics.

What is the difference between belief in an abstract notion like a Nation or Democracy and a religious belief? Well there certainly is an underlying similarity, they are not physical but do have great social power. These ideas can be classed as ‘Durkheimian gods’ in that they have a hold over a group of people, affect the way they act and relate to one another and are greater than the sum of their parts, acting within and without the individual and can never truly be false in this sense. However I feel I can say as a ‘believer’ or ‘adherent’ of a Nation myself that, for example, the Scottish Nation is still conceived to be nothing more than a body of people, their institutions, traditions, sense of collective self and history. Belief in an actual divine being fits all of these criteria and can be described perfectly as a ‘Durkheimian god’ but is also additionally a ‘Tylorian god’, which is really conceived to exist ontologically, to act as a causal agent which can play an explanatory role. No honest engagement with these beliefs as found among human communities can truly deny this.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Liam Sutherland is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree in 2009. His dissertation was subsequently published in Literature & Aesthetics (2011), entitled “The Survival of Indigenous Australian Spirituality in Contemporary Australia”. Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project. Recently, Liam has failed to defy RS stereotypes and ended up working part time for a Church.


Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1990) Anchor

Cox, J.L. From Primitive to Indigenous in the Academic Study of Religion (2007) Ashgate

Durkheim, É. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001) OUP

Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) OUP

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books

Goodman, F. Ecstasy, Ritual and the Alternate Reality (1988) Indiana University Press

Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) OUP

Kant, I. “Critique of Practical Reason” in (1888) K. Abbot (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Ethics 4th edition Longmans Green & co.

Sharpe, E.J Comparative Religion: A History (1986) Duckworth

Smart, N. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989) CUP

Tweed, T. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2008) Harvard University Press 

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1871) Volumes 1 & 2: John Murray

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Graham Harvey on Animism (13 February 2012).

The interview with Graham Harvey on Animism was of particular interest to me because my Masters thesis concerns the theoretical relevance of the work of E.B Tylor, credited with introducing the concept of Animism to scholarship. Harvey related Animism back to the work of Tylor but when offered a definition of Animism by the interviewer (David Robertson), as “the attribution of a soul of some kind to non-human beings” Harvey contrasted this and more traditional Tylorian approaches to Animism with more recent discussions of Animism based around personhood.

He characterised the understanding of Animism in Tylor’s 1871 work Primitive Culture as ‘belief in souls and spirits’, and as the application of something human like to non-human phenomena: this is a fair description of Tylor’s Animism. Harvey also correctly emphasised the fact that for Tylor, Animism is characteristic of all religions generally, it is the core of religion; his theory is applicable by design to all religions, to Indigenous Peoples and High Anglicans. Harvey displayed a rich and refreshing appreciation for Tylor’s work with a nuanced understanding of his theories, the historical context in which he wrote and a deep knowledge of Primitive Culture (an often misunderstood text which is rarely read carefully).

I commend Harvey for more fully grounding the theory of Animism in the performance of ritual, on behaviour and for showing Animism to be a set of values and not just a cosmology, without ignoring the latter. However, it must be stressed that while rituals can be prescribed as obligatory without heed to the intent or belief of the practitioner, such rituals do have a clear connection to the belief system because certain inanimate objects are persons and thus they must be treated accordingly. The conceptions of a culture must be understood in order to account for behaviour: in short, believers really believe in their beliefs and it affects the mental world in which they move

I find the dichotomy he drew between the old and the new approaches to Animism a little stark. It must not be thought that Tylor’s understanding of Animism was of abstract, purely metaphysical spirits; Tylor argued forcefully that spirits are often considered to be ethereal, material beings. Though he did not emphasise personhood nearly as strongly as Harvey, he argued that the extension of Animism (the doctrine of the soul) to natural phenomena in which they are considered to be firmly embodied: animals, plants and objects, is based on personalisation. Furthermore the earliest rituals of religion are theorised to have been based on the notion that spirits, including those embodied in natural phenomena, can be related to as though they were present persons; it is only later that religious rituals became more formulaic mysteries. Other than perhaps Hallowell, it is not clear which authors make up the new approaches to Animism; at times Harvey seems to quite intelligibly and astutely describe the views of Indigenous Animists themselves, which hardly represents a ‘new Animism.’

He is correct to emphasise the non-systematic nature of much human thought – a perennial difficulty for ethnographers. I would, however, question Harvey’s implied dichotomisation of ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ thought, particularly his assumption that other cultures do not have ‘grand narratives’ while westerners are clinical, rigid and doctrinal in their view of the world. Arguably even an assumption “that life is pervasive” or a differentiation between persons and inanimate objects entailing a host of obligations is a somewhat systematic ‘grand narrative.’ The differences between cultures should not be overemphasised when the difference between life and death, say, may involve different rituals and beliefs but is never an absent or radically different distinction. Nor are most people in the west concerned with clinical dichotomies anymore than Ojibwa and Amazonian tribespeople; only in some situations and sometimes only for some specialists do strict definitions of categories matter. People largely think and act pragmatically, but for some people and in some situations systematic thought is required.  As Martin Stringer showed in his Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, many ‘nominal’ Christians who also believe in science and astrology do not reflect on their beliefs (especially those that may be contradictory) much outside of the situations where they are contextually significant. They hold ‘situational beliefs’.

Similarly, Harvey laudably reinforced the fact that Animists inhabit basically the same cognitive world as materialists, that animals and inanimate objects are largely treated the same by both – a stone is mostly a stone. It is only certain stones on certain occasions which are treated as animate, possessing personhood and entailing obligations of respect.

One of the most important and novel contributions Harvey has made to the theory of Animism is his insistence that Animism is neither, as Tylor argued, innate nor an inevitable assumption made by the earliest humans, but is always taught. Animism or Animisms are systems of belief which entail and are cemented by ritual. The status of certain objects as other than human persons is underscored by being shown respect by the same ritual gestures as a human being. How certain objects are recognised as persons or when they need to be shown respect has to be taught, often to particular religious specialists such as Shamans or Medicine Men.

Surprisingly given this, Harvey also does link religious Animism, albeit tentatively, with the ingrained human tendency to treat animals and objects as personal even in non-Animistic cultures, to name ships and shout at slow computers to go faster etc. These two were linked by Tylor and more recently Stewart Guthrie in his Faces in the Clouds, who argued that religious conceptions are based on the evolutionary cognitive reflex to ‘bet’ that an ambiguous object is animate or even to anthropomorphise to avoid predators. Nonetheless, Harvey’s approach does not imply that religious Animism is determined by some mental category mistake, and is arguably more in line with the modus operandi of Religious Studies; methodological agnosticism to the beliefs of the people under study. The tendency to anthropomorphise is simply a means of appreciating Animist conceptions.

It could be objected that the focus on the relationship between persons in religion or even in Indigenous Religions is too narrow and that forces, qualities, laws and realms are also an important part of the collective worldview which may affect and prescribe certain actions. Nonetheless, this is not especially important because relationships with personal beings characterises much of the bread and butter of religious life, and theories which downplay this risk being unwieldy and aloof. One of the great hurdles in attempting to critically theorise religion and to move away from Abrahmocentric conceptions, is to understand that many of the beings which are the subject of religious rituals are not necessarily conceived of as much greater in power or status than human beings. Ancestor or larger Nature Spirits may be conceived of as primus inter pares in relation to their worshippers but may not necessarily represent the ‘summum bonum’ or highest good or value for a culture to which all other things are subordinate: instead this may which may well be something like respect. Religious communities are in many contexts well characterised as a community of persons – only some of whom are human – bound in reciprocal respectful relations.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

I am a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, my topic is the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. I am a native of Edinburgh where I also completed my undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though I began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, I quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! I enjoy Alternative Rock, Metal and other peculiar forms of music, sci-fi and fantasy literature, real ale and ranting. I hope to pursue an academic career as opposed to the bank for whom I currently work part-time (doing nothing evil!).


Guthrie, S. Faces in the Clouds (1995) OUP: Oxford

Harvey, G. Animism: Respecting the Living World (2005) Hurst & Co: London

Platvoet, J. “To Define or Not To Define” in Platvoet, J.G and Molendijk, A.L The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests (1999) Leiden: Brill

Stringer, M. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum: London

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture (1871) London: John Murray