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Global Reformations: Religion and the Making of the Modern World

May 6, 2016 @ 8:30 am - May 7, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

Religion is omnipresent in modernity, and in spite of twentieth-century theorists who saw secularization as intrinsic to the process of modernization, shows no signs of disappearing. After discarding secularization as a plausible historical model, how do we understand the changes in religion that made way for the experience of modernity around the globe? From India to Ethiopia to Latin America to Safavid Iran, religion has remained a vital force in shaping the trajectories of non-Western modernities. And yet, no scholarship to date has provided an adequate model to account for changes that take place in religion around the world starting in the early modern period (ca. 1500-1800), which played a crucial role in shaping the varied experience of modernities that arose independently outside of the European Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. In this conference, we aim to rethink global transformations in religion during the early modern centuries by raising the following questions in global perspective: Did religions across regions of the globe experience a synchronic series of reformations integral to their entry into the modern age? Do we witness any changes in the concept of religion or its place in society across continents as a result of these reformations?


Over the past few decades, scholars across disciplines have raised scrutiny to the singularity of the concept of modernity, such that the concept of multiple modernities has gained widespread currency across the humanities at large. As a result, recent scholarship has begun to lift the veneer of universalism once associated with the concept of a singular modernity: namely, the historical transformations experienced in Western Europe. And yet, the decline of religion—and the secularization of public space and discourse—stands out among metanarratives of European modernity that has left the study of religion today with a rather ambiguous legacy. In the contemporary Western world, observers have expressed considerable dismay at the apparent reversal of secularization, previously understood as an intrinsic aim of modernity itself. Many seeming anomalies of religion in the contemporary world—pluralism, communalist conflict, sectarian rivalry, the resurgence of religion in the public sphere—demand a more nuanced contextualization in both historical and global perspective.


We propose, succinctly, to center our inquiry on the following sub-themes of religion in global early modernity: 1) Religion and the Public Sphere, 2) Religion and Philology, 3) Sectarianism and Religious Conflict, and 4) Religion and the Concept of History. We aim to foster interdisciplinary approaches from across the humanities and social sciences and projects that cross geographical boundaries, as a diverse methodological toolbox will serve us well in addressing questions that defy the confines of disciplinarily and Area Studies. Our fifteen total participants examine the global reformations of diverse world regions of the globe and religious traditions, bringing together disciplinary perspectives including History, Religious Studies, Comparative Literature, the History of Science and Medicine, and Archaeology.


All conference presentations will be free and open to the public.



Wendy Laura Belcher is Associate Professor of African literature in Princeton University’s departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies. She is working to bring attention to early African literature and studies how African thought has informed a global traffic of invention. She is the author of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford, 2012), a finalist for the Bethwell A. Ogot Award for best book on East Africa, and the translation with Michael Kleiner of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton, 2015), perhaps the first African biography of an African woman. Her book in progress is The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea.

Alexander Bevilacqua is a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was born in Italy and educated at Harvard College, the University of Cambridge, and Princeton University, from which he received his doctorate in June 2014. Bevilacqua studies the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe, with a focus on the Enlightenment. His first book, entitled The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment, will appear with Harvard University Press in 2017. It explains how and why European understandings of Islam and Islamic civilization transformed from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth. The research for this project was conducted in seven countries and six languages (Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, and Latin). An excerpt from this research, on the translation of the Qur’an, appeared in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in 2013. Another excerpt, on the encyclopedia of Islamic civilization by Barthélemy d’Herbelot, will appear in the same journal in 2016. Bevilacqua’s research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Huntington, the William F. Milton Fund (Harvard University), the Society for French Historical Studies and the Warburg Institute.

Shmuel Feiner, (b. 1955, Tel Aviv, Israel), Professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan University since 1989, and Chairman of the Jerusalem Leo Baeck Institute since 2007. Chairman, The Samuel Braun Chair for the History of the Jews in Prussia, Bar Ilan University. Vice President of the International Leo Baeck Institute. Visiting Professor at Yale University (2011) and Frankfurt University (2012). Author of Haskalah and History, The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness (Hebrew 1995; English, by the Littman Library, 2002),The Jewish Enlightenment (Hebrew, 2002; English, by The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award; German, by Olms, 2007, winner of the Meyer-Struckmann-Preis, Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf), Moses Mendelssohn (Hebrew, 2005; German, by Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht 2009; English, by Yale University Press, 2010; Chinese by Showwe Information Co, Taipei, 2014), The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Hebrew, 2010, winner of the Shazar Prize in Jewish History; English, by The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). Recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award, 2012. Current book project: The Jews in Eighteenth-Century Europe.

Elaine Fisher (PhD Columbia University, 2013) is a historian of South Asian religions and Indian intellectual history. As a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Religious Studies Program at UW-Madison, her research questions the relationship between secularism and modernity across continents, rethinking, in particular, the nature of publicity and the “public sphere” in early modern India. Her first book manuscript, Hindu Pluralism: The Religious Publics of South India, currently under contract with The University of California Press, establishes the rise of sectarianism as the defining feature of Hindu public culture in south India, central to the public embodiment of religious identity to his day. Contrary to Western models of publicity, the public in early modern India did not consist of a common dialogical space free from sectarian interests; rather, the Indian public was, more accurately, publics in the plural: fashioned through encounter between communities, sectarian public spheres cultivated a distinctively non-Western religious pluralism in which religion is openly embodied in public space. Her research has appeared most recently in South Asian History and Culture and The Journal of Hindu Studies.

Pablo Gómez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His work examines the history of corporeality in the early modern African and Iberian Atlantic worlds. Pablo’s first book explores belief making and the creation of evidence around the human body and the natural world in the seventeenth century Caribbean. He holds an MA and Ph.D. in History from Vanderbilt University. Before becoming a historian, Pablo earned his MD at the Universidad CES and did his residency in Orthopaedic Surgery at the Universidad Javeriana. Pablo has been the recipient of, among others, an ACLS-Early Career Fellowship, an ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, three Major Project Grants for archival digitalization in Colombia from the British Library. His book Wondrous Bodies: The Early Modern Caribbean and the Imagination of the World won the first book award from the Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin. One of his articles, “The Circulation of Bodily Knowledge in the Seventeenth-century Black Spanish Caribbean,” was the recipient of the 2014 Best Article Prize by the Association of Caribbean Historians, and the 2015 Vanderwood Prize Honorable mention by the Conference in Latin American History.

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies and Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University. She is a specialist in Buddhist studies with concentration on Tibetan intellectual, cultural and religious history. Her most recent book is Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2015), which focuses upon alternative early modernities and the conjunctions and disjunctures between scientific and religious epistemologies in Tibetan medicine in the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries. Her previous books are Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan VisionaryIn the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism; and Women of Tibet. She is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University and is currently Associate Dean of the Faculty and Academic Affairs at the Divinity School. Gyatso was president of the International Association of Tibetan Studies from 2000 to 2006, and co-chair of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion from 2004 to 2010. She is currently studying animal and interspecies relationships as a resource for sharpening our ethical perceptions.

John Stratton Hawley—informally, Jack—is Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. Two books in which he has long been involved appeared from Harvard University Press in 2015 Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition (with Kenneth E. Bryant), which is one of the initial volumes in the Murty Classical Library of India, and A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement.

J. Michelle Molina (Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2004) studies the Society of Jesus in the early modern period. She explores Jesuit spirituality in an effort to understand how individuals – both elite and commoner — approached and experienced religious transformation. In particular, she has been interested in examining the impact of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises – a meditative retreat geared toward self-reform – on early modern global expansion. Molina’s book, To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and the Spirit of Global Expansion is published with University of California Press. The book examines the impact that this Jesuit program of radical self-reflexivity had on the formation of early modern selves in Europe and New Spain. She offers a novel retelling of the emergence of the Western concept of a “modern self” by demonstrating how the struggle to forge and overcome selves was enmeshed in early modern Catholic missionary expansion.

William (or Billy) Noseworthy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is finishing his dissertation “Remembering the Boundaries: Cham Scholars, Script and Philosophies along the Cambodian-Vietnamese Borderlands, 1651-1969.” In addition to numerous forthcoming works he was revising editor of two bilingual Vietnamese-English monographs published by Tri Thuc Publishing House in Vietnam in 2015, co-author of a 16,000 word Cham-Vietnamese-English Dictionary with Sakaya (Dr. Truong Van Mon) – also published by Tri Thuc in 2014 – authored contributions to edited volumes and a recent article on localized Animist and Hindu blended goddess worship in Vietnam for SUVANNABHUMI: Multi-Disciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015. In the past five years, he has given more than 40 public lectures, invited course lectures, seminars, conference papers and symposiums hosted in Cambodia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, England, Vietnam, and the United States. Mr. Noseworthy’s current research focuses on the historical developments of boundaries and the constructions of belief systems, predominantly in Southeast Asia. He has special research interests that examine Highland-Lowland Relations in Southeast Asia, the History and Politics of Global Networks and the South China Sea, Comparative Borderlands in Southeast Asia, as well as Diaspora History and Literature.

Babak Rahimi is Associate Professor of Communication, Culture, and Religion at the Department of Literature, University of California, San Diego. He earned his Ph.D. from the European University Institute, Florence, Italy, in October 2004. Rahimi has also studied at the University of Nottingham, where he obtained an M.A. in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (1997), and the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Anthropology, 2000-2001. Rahimi’s research examines the relationship between culture, religion, and politics. His book, Theater-State and Formation of the Early Modern Public Sphere in Iran: Studies on Safavid Muharram Rituals, 1590-1641 C.E. (Brill 2011), studies the relationship between ritual, public space and state power in early modern Iranian history. His work has appeared in Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology, International Political Science ReviewThe Communication Review, the Journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies. He is also the co-editor of Wiley-Blackwell History of Islam and Islamic Civilization, 2016.

Dan Sheffield is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Washington. Over the course of his career, he has been interested in the formation, reformation, and transformation of the Persianate world, a supraregional cultural entity demarcated by a shared literary heritage, political language, and discursive practice which united disparate geographic, ethnic, and religious communities. He is particularly interested in the role that ideas about language and translation play in the development of religious and historical thought. This interest has led him to question a number of commonly received narratives in Persian intellectual history and has propelled him to pursue research in the rich, but understudied, manuscript archives of South Asia. His current book project, which grew out of his dissertation research, contributes to an emerging dialogue about the relationship of language, knowledge, and religious thought. Cosmopolitan Zarathustras: Religion, Translation, and Prophethood in Iran and South Asia is a study of the Zoroastrian communities of medieval and early modern Iran and South Asia as they ceased to write religious works in their inherited scholastic language, Pahlavi, and begin to embrace the cosmopolitan languages of Classical Persian and Sanskrit. Drawing on theories of translation, he argues that the decision to write in a new language is accompanied by a host of epistemological consequences, enabling new ways of meaning-making while simultaneously rendering others obsolete.

Darryl Wilkinson is currently an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 2013, and before coming to UW-Madison, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University. His work applies archaeological methods to the study of religion in the Americas, with a particular focus on the Inca Empire and the roles played by mountains, water and coca in ancient Andean forms of statecraft. Darryl is the director of the Amaybamba Archaeological Project, which is based in the cloud forest region of southern Peru, and seeks to understand the various ways in which lowland communities responded to the emergence of new forms of (highly ritualized) political power over the course of Andean prehistory. He also co-directs a field project in northern New Mexico, where he is interested in examining the interactions between indigenous and Catholic conceptions of sacred space during the colonial era, as expressed through the medium of rock art.

Andre Wink (Ph.D. Leiden, 1984) is a professor of history at UW-Madison and co-author of the forthcoming Multiple Medieval Worlds and author of the forthcoming Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Volume IV: The Age of the Great Mughals, 16th-17th Centuries.

Jiang Wu is Professor of Chinese religion and thought in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan/Zen Buddhism and the Chinese Buddhist canon, Sino-Japanese Buddhist exchanges, and the application of GIS tools in the study of Chinese culture and religion. He is the author of Enlightenment in Dispute: The Reinvention of Chan Buddhism in Seventeenth-century China and Leaving for the Rising Sun: Chinese Zen Master Yinyuan and the Authenticity Crisis in Early Modern East Asia.

Ali Yaycioglu is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and a historian of the Ottoman Empire. After studying Ottoman and Islamic history at Bilkent and McGill Universities respectively, Dr. Yaycioglu completed his Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He carried out postdoctoral work at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University. He joined the History Department at Stanford in 2011. Dr. Yaycioglu is interested in topics such as the transformation of political and economic culture; patterns of public and private life; forms of violence and order; movements of ideas, objects and people; and production of space and spatial imaginations in the Ottoman world, namely the Middle East and Southeastern Europe under the Ottoman Empire in early-modern and modern periods. His first book, Partners of the Empire: Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions (Stanford University Press, 2016) is an attempt to rethink the Ottoman experience within the global context of the revolutionary age and examines institutional transformation, political crisis and settlements for reform in the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th and early 19thcenturies. His current book project, which is tentatively entitled Politics of Volatility: Wealth, Power and Death in the Ottoman Empire, examines how insecurity of property rights and risks of political lives shaped the attitudes of Ottoman elite towards life and death from the 15th to the mid-19th centuries. Dr. Yaycioglu is also working on an edited volume with Cemal Kafadar on Ottoman spatial history, entitled Ottoman Topologies: Production of Space in an Early-Modern Empire.


May 6, 2016 @ 8:30 am
May 7, 2016 @ 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States