Category Archives: contemporary religion in historical perspective

Changing Religion in the 2021 Census

It’s now official – the United Kingdom is no longer a Christian majority country. This is the headline from the 2021 census data on religion in England and Wales (not Scotland, more on that later), although the more conservative papers may go for “Christianity still the largest religion in Britain”. Which is also true, but it is the first headline that will garner the most attention because the idea of secularisation – basically the idea that religion is in decline in modernity – is so entrenched in how we think about religion in the modern world.

But for those of us who have been geeking out about this data since the question was first asked in the 2001 census, the immediate takeaway is how little there was here that was a surprise. Almost everything in the 2021 census was predictable from comparison of the 2001 and 2011 censuses.

72% of the population of England and Wales (37.3 million) identified as Christian in the 2001 census. This fell 13% in the next decade, when 59% (33.2 million) ticked that box. In the last decade, it fell by exactly the same amount – 13%, to 46.2% (27.5 million people). So while it is less than half for the first time, the trajectory was entirely predictable, and importantly, steady. It all suggests that “no religion” will overtake Christianity to become the largest religious identification by the next census.

It is important to note that this question is focused on religion as identity. There is no question about what one does, or indeed what one believes. None of these three things is “really” religion any more than any of the others, but it certainly complicates things. A person might identify as Christian who doesn’t believe in God or go to church, and equally someone with “no religion” might pray or regard themselves as spiritual. The video below discusses why this is important for interpreting census data.

So is this a decline of institutional religion? Well, yes and no. There were slight increases to the percentage of the population identifying as Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist, and “Other”. The largest of these was for Islam, which rose from 4.9% to 6.5%, or around 800,000 people. Not only is that a far smaller percentage of the population than most people realise (encouraged by the right-wing press), but it in no way explains the nearly 6 million who no longer identify as Christian, the vast majority of whom now ticked “no religion” (37.2% in England, but 46.5% in Wales). Scotland has yet to publish its results, but it is likely to be higher still, as already in 2011 Christianity stood at 51%, and no religion at 37% (source).

But on the other hand, in the UK context, Christianity is the epitome of “institutional religion” – the monarch is the head of the Church of England, and its functionaries are in the House of Lords and other parts of the legislature. So identifying as Christian hits differently than identifying as a minority religion – one marks one as a member of an oppressed or marginalised community, the other as a member of the British Empire. Which is to say, when looked at in that way, it is understandable that a rejection of institutional religion really only affects certain religious institutions.

Perhaps the most likely factor, however, is simply that the default option has changed. Whereas only two decades ago, three-quarters of English people were content to tick the box for Christianity, now fewer than half are. But it’s hard to see evidence that our lifestyles have changed all that much. Maybe the thing that has changed the most is that people, especially younger people, are no longer inclined to say Christianity when really they don’t particularly care.

So, does the census result show that religion in the UK is changing? Probably, though how much depends on what we mean by “religion”.

Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Cultural Citizenship

By Dayal Paleri (Indian Institute of Technology Madras/University of Edinburgh)

Violent confrontations between the Hindus and Muslims in Leicester since late August have opened up new questions about the future of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. This also underlines the global implications of the rise of religious and cultural nationalist ideologies in South Asia. In this respect, two points are noteworthy. First, one may observe a stark resemblance between the sequence of incidents in Leicester and instances of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, or what is frequently referred to as the phenomenon of “communalism”.[1] Like many typical communal incidents in India, the tensions in Leicester started over an India- Pakistan cricket match that led to organised marches, provocative sloganeering, burning of religious flags and desecration of worship sites. More strikingly, as is quite prevalent in contemporary India, the Leicester row led to the emergence of a new discourse around the term “Hinduphobia”.[2] Shockingly, it was the opposition leader from Labour, Keir Starmer, who made a public appeal to “resist Hinduphobia”—a statement that not only echoed but legitimised the Hindu nationalist version of the events in Leicester as a one-sided attack on the Hindus.

This idea of “Hinduphobia” that implies the existence of systematic hatred against Hindus and thereby evokes perpetual victimhood of Hindus is central to the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or what is commonly known as Hindutva (Hinduness). Despite being an overwhelming majority in India, this is often used to legitimise anti-Muslim violence in contempoary India. Does the Labour leader’s invocation of “Hinduphobia” indicate growing acceptance of the ideas and vocabulary of Hindu nationalism in the diasporic and global contexts? This may still be an open question but it surely prompts us to think of the Leicester incident, not as isolated and/or spontaneous, but a consequence of the global rise of Hindu nationalism and its umbilical relationship with violence. Inevitably, we need to understand the fundamental tenets of Hindu nationalism in order to make sense of the intricacies of the recent events in Leicester.

A man rides his bicycle past volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) taking part in the “Path-Sanchalan”, or Route March during celebrations to mark the Vijaya Dashmi or Dussehra in Mumbai, India October 11, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

Hindu Nationalism: The Politics of the “Other” and the “Self”

Like other similar supremacist ideologies, Hindu nationalism is rather one-dimensional and does not provide much room for complexity. To put it simply, it is a cultural nationalist ideology that perceives India as a civilisation that has existed since time immemorial but has undergone frequent colonisation over the years. An individual is accorded citizenship of this imagined Hindu nation not through conventional criterion such as their place of birth but based on the origins of their religion, or in other words, what they consider as their “holy land”. Obviously, this idea, therefore, places  the citizenship of religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians, under perpetual doubt as their holy lands are outside India. In this framework, equal citizenship and coexistence between Hindus and non-Hindus is impossible. In Hindu nationalist terms, the religious minorities are advised to keep their religious practices within the private sphere and to constantly proclaim their affinity to the perceived cultural whole of Hindutva. The idea of Hindu nationalism found its most coherent expression in the writings of V D Savarkar and took its organisational form through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that was formed in 1925.[3]

The independence movement of India grappled with the politics of Hindu nationalism and its assertion of cultural citizenship but it remained a marginal force throughout this period. In the decades after independence, India emerged as a democratic republic based on the idea of secular citizenship. However, the politics of Hindutva found its initial success during the 1980s and 1990s, often characterised as the era of Mandir (temple), Mandal and Market.[4] The year 2014 marked the rise to dominance of the ideology of Hindu nationalism, not just in politics but even within the civil society, and socio-cultural life in general. Since then, India has witnessed the phenomenon of everyday violence against minorities in the name of cow vigilantism, and “Love Jihad”.[5] One of the fundamental ideas of Hindu nationalism, that of unequal citizenship, was operationalised through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA Act), 2019 that introduced a new, religious criterion for citizenship and excluded only Muslim refugees from the neighbouring countries in South Asia from acquiring the citizenship of India.[6] The post-CAA period has perhaps inaugurated a new era of “legitimate violence” against minorities through successive legislative interventions such as the ban on Hijab, prohibition of religious conversion and bulldozing of “illegal” Muslim settlements. The mobs that perpetrate such instances of everyday violence now seem to enjoy sheer legal impunity. In sum, the ascendance of Hindu nationalists to power in India has systematically resulted in the use of violence as a form of enacting its idea of cultural citizenship, which inherently establishes an unequal form of citizenship between the “Hindus” and “non-Hindus”.

Scholars of Hindu nationalism have documented the long history of its involvement in anti-minority, particularly anti-Muslim, violence in India. That the Hindu nationalist vision of India, at its very core, is against peaceful coexistence with the “other” is part of the academic commonsense on Hindu nationalism. Many scholars have also pointed out the historical non-existence and contemporary impossibility of the Hindu nationalist idea of India as cultural/civilisational whole, due to its essentially diverse, plural and multiethnic nature[7]. The argument was that the Hindus have always been strictly divided on the basis of sectarian, linguistic, regional, and, most significantly, caste identities. With growing appeal of Hindu nationalist politics across regional and linguistic barriers, it appears that this faith in the innate diversity of Indian society acting as an antidote to Hindutva was perhaps inflated. A fuller understanding of Hindu nationalism demands an understanding not just of its “other” but also of its relationship with itself—the “Hindu nationalist self”. Hindutva is often defined in the Hindutva discourse as “a way of life”, then the question to ask is “whose way of life”?

If there is no pre-existing cultural unity, how does Hindu nationalist politics become so appealing across geographical terrains of India? One of the social thinkers who grappled with the question of cultural unity is Dr BR Ambedkar, and his writings provide us essential cues to understand the intricacies of Hindu nationalist perception of cultural unity. Ambedkar, in one of his early writings, points out the indubitable cultural unity that India possesses, which is bound by the system of caste[8]. For Ambedkar, “caste is a parcelling into bits of this larger cultural unit”, and any attempt to understand the cultural unity requires an understanding of the system of caste that binds it.[9] Ambedkar explained caste as a system of graded inequality in which all “Hindus” are necessarily divided into different caste communities that are placed in vertical series, one above the other, based on the principle of gradation and rank. This aspect of graded inequality is a feature of all spheres of life in India—social, political, religious and economic. Therefore, in Ambedkar’s conception, the internal structure of the “cultural unity” of India is the system of caste, in which different castes are placed in a hierarchical system based on the principle of graded inequality. Given this, how is the Hindu nationalist engaged in the making of a “Hindu nationalist self”?

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Religious Toleration and Peace: Reflections on the RETOPEA project

By John Maiden

Earlier this month members of the OU’s RS department, John Wolffe, Stefanie Sinclair and John Maiden attended the ‘final’ (I use inverted commas, because we hope it is just the start!), of the EU-funded Religious Toleration and Peace (RETOPEA) project. The conference was held in Ohrid, North Macedonia, a country which has a unique recent history of religious toleration and State-building – although its context of two major populations of Orthodox and Muslim citizens, a fairly recent, albeit brief, violent conflict, and sustained grassroots and State efforts to negotiate ethnic and religious differences, means some parallels can be drawn with the religious and political situation in Northern Ireland. The purpose of RETOPEA has been to promote religious and convictional toleration amongst European young people – including North Macedonia youth – and to work with them, as well as policy makers, religious leaders, and civil society actors to propose approaches of ‘learning with history’ to address present-day issues of lived religious diversity.

A 4th century Christian basilica in Ohrid

Ohrid’s long history of religious diversity: a 4th century Christian basilica

The OU team was in Ohrid primarily to reflect on the experience of using filmmaking to enable young people to think about religious diversity in history and the present. In the past four years we have engaged with schools and other educational contexts in the UK, Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Spain, North Macedonia, and Poland. The films, which we call Docutubes, are made by young people, based on their own experiences and inspired also by over 400 texts, pictures, and films about religious diversity available on the RETOPEA website. Some of the amazing films the young people have made are now online.

What are some of the main reflections we had on our experiences of working with young people? I select here a few:

A photo of the RETOPEA conference

Preparing for the RETOPEA conference – G20 style…

– That young people and teachers need to be given the opportunity to engage with historic counter-narratives of religious toleration – of examples in history of religious tolerance and coexistence. Too often, young people, through the influence of educational textbooks, the classroom, and in the popular media they encounter, think of the past only in terms of prejudice and intolerance.

– That ‘safe spaces’, like the contexts we created in order to make Docutubes, can allow young people to have very constructive discussions about potentially controversial issues. The young people with which we worked were more than able to engage with each other about these matters.

– That creative ‘deep learning’ approaches, like Docutubes, can help bridge the gap between past and present for young people – and, furthermore, prompt them to think ‘outside the box’ about issues of religious diversity now.

Teachers and youth workers who would like to run workshops themselves can also now take a FREE Badged Open Course through The Open University, ‘Young people and religion: creative learning with history’. If you want to find out more about Docutubes you can also contact the OU’s RETOPEA team directly at retopea@open.ac.uk.

Royal Funerals: Tradition and Innovation

By John Wolffe

The stately progress of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin from Balmoral Castle to her eventual resting place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, evokes an aura of timeless continuity. There are indeed significant recurrent features of royal funerals – especially those of the monarch – that span the generations. There is heraldic symbolism, a procession of some kind and a funeral service in church. Nevertheless, many features of present-day royal funerals are in reality of relatively recent origin, while as in a funeral of a private individual, circumstances and personalities elaborate and modify the details.

The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a period of elaborate royal funerals reaching their apogee in the funeral of James VI and I in 1625. Thereafter, however, the discontinuity of the Civil War and interregnum had a lasting impact.  With the single exception of Mary II’s funeral in 1694 which was on a grander scale in apparent response to the tragedy of her premature death, later seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century royal funerals were on a relatively modest scale. This trend was accentuated in the reign of George III when funerals retreated almost entirely within the walls of Windsor Castle. George III in 1820, George IV (1830), William IV (1837) and Prince Albert (1861) all died in the castle and were buried there without their coffins ever leaving the precincts.

Only with Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 was there a return to a large-scale public event. Her death at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1901 necessitated transporting her coffin to the mainland and then on by train to Windsor. The fleet was lined up in review as the royal yacht crossed the Solent and there was then a procession across London from Victoria to Paddington. In accordance with the late Queen’s instructions the coffin was carried on a gun carriage, although the decision to have it pulled by naval ratings was a piece of inspired improvisation when the horses broke their traces at Windsor railway station. One potential innovation was, however, rejected: concern about objections to prayer for the dead meant that the King had to be dissuaded from including the Russian Kontakion in the funeral service.

The Queen's children surround her coffin during her lying-in-state

The Queen’s children surround her coffin during her lying-in-state. Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/content/dam/royal-family/2022/09/12/TELEMMGLPICT000309057604_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqRo0U4xU-30oDveS4pXV-Vv4Xpit_DMGvdp2n7FDd82k.jpeg?imwidth=680

The main innovation for Edward VII in 1910 (see top of post) was the introduction of a public lying in state in Westminster Hall, intended to symbolise close democratic ties between monarchy and parliament in the context of the constitutional crisis arising from the Asquith government’s endeavours to curtail the powers of the House of Lords. The advent of broadcast media further enhanced a sense of wider public participation at the funerals of George V in 1936 and George VI in 1952. Religious services began to acquire an ecumenical dimension.

Events following Elizabeth II’s death are building further on these funerals of twentieth-century monarchs but also on the more recent experience of the funerals of Princess Diana in 1997 and the Queen Mother in 2002, notably in locating the main funeral service in Westminster Abbey rather than the much smaller St George’s Chapel. The late Queen was the first monarch to die in Scotland since the union of the Crowns in 1603, which has provided the opportunity for substantial unprecedented ceremonial in Edinburgh. The vigil of the Queen’s four children around the coffin in St Giles Cathedral is now described in the media as ‘traditional’, although there have in fact only been two previous instances, of George V’s four sons in 1936 and of the Queen Mother’s four grandsons in 2002. Broadcast media coverage is all-pervasive to an extent that would have been deemed obtrusive as well as technically impossible in 1952. The paradoxical appeal of such events is their capacity to appeal to a sense of historic continuity while also responding in innovative ways to present-day circumstances.

This post was published in collaboration with the Ecclesiastical History Society, of which John Wolffe was President between 2013-14. Their version is here: https://eccleshistsoc.wordpress.com/2022/09/16/royal-funerals-tradition-and-innovation/

Decolonising Religious Studies and Promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Preliminary Findings  

 By Suzanne Newcombe 

Scholars have increasingly come to recognise that Religious Studies as a discipline is based on the legacies of a colonial worldview, i.e. that what we have classified as religious beliefs and practices have used criteria drawn from white Anglo-European Protestantism. Several members of our department have been leaders in forwarding this discussion within the discipline (e.g. Cotter and Robertson 2016). So, when it came time to design our new second year module here at the Open University, we chose to take a novel approach to Exploring Religions: Places, Practices, Texts and Experiences (A227), first presented in September 2017. Instead of introducing religions from the ‘top down’ – with an emphasis on institutional authority, official beliefs, and structures – we decided as a department to explore religion from be ‘bottom up’ – with an emphasis on what people do, practice and experience as religion (or non-religion) in different specific contexts. In this way, we hoped to challenge what is known as the ‘World Religion Paradigm’ which presents the most popular religious traditions in the world in ‘neat packages’ of the major beliefs, festivals and historical trajectories of institutionalised forms of religion. (A short introduction to our approach to Religious Studies as a subject area is here).  

But we also very much wanted our exploration of religion to be enjoyable, accessible, and relatable to our diverse student demographic. So many of our students are facing multiple challenges and demands on their attention while on their study journey. Many are working full-time – and some are studying at full-time intensity as well as having caring responsibilities at home. We also know that a higher-than-average percentage of students on A227 (38% this year) have declared one or more disabilities. 

Taken together, these issues raised two key questions for the department:  

  1. What challenges to students and staff may have been created in attempting to create a paradigm shift in understandings of ‘religion’ as a concept (in moving away from ‘World Religions’ towards ‘lived religion’)?  How can these challenges be better addressed?  
  2. (2) How can equality, diversity and inclusion be more effectively promoted in the curriculum? What challenges could this potentially pose for staff and students? How can these challenges be better addressed? 

To address these questions, we set up a research project, Decolonising Religious Studies. We first interviewed the Associate Lecturers teaching on A227: Exploring Religion, focusing on their impressions of the curriculum and the difficulties that their students reported. Next, we carried out a survey of all students of A227 (17J-20J) in June/July 2021 and held three focus group interviews with nine students in total. We asked them for their impressions of the module, including what we did well, and what we could do better. Finally, we talked with nine colleagues teaching Religious Studies in other UK-based institutions. We asked them, how do you understand Religious Studies as a subject area? What are the subject area’s biggest challenges? What is best practice for teaching and promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within the subject area?  

We are just now starting to analyse the data from this project and will be publishing a full peer-reviewed article exploring the findings in more depth. However, we can give you some initial results of the research and some of the interventions we have already begun to try to improve our students’ experience.  

Our Associate Lecturers, many of whom taught on the previous module (A217: Introducing Religions) which was framed more within the World Religions Paradigm, had preferences for familiar ways of teaching and presenting the material. However, they were also coping with adaptation to new technologies with the disruption of all face-to-face teaching during the pandemic. All were working on trying to teach basic essay-writing skills and deal sympathetically with students’ personal challenges as well as teaching the course content. In response, team members Hugh Beattie and Paul-François Tremlett have set up regular online meetings between the Associate Lecturers and Central Academic colleagues to share best practice and new developments in Religious Studies as a field of study.   

We had a respectable 16% response rate from past and present students who we surveyed about their experience on A227. While most students found that the way the material was structured met their expectations, a significant minority of students didn’t feel that they were taught the content they expected to learn.  

To address expectations on A227, the A227 Module Team set up an expectation setting activity in the student forum in advance of the official module start date. In this activity we explained the World Religion Paradigm and why we are taking a different approach. This has significantly increased engagement in the early weeks of the module. Our focus groups also highlighted that there is no discussion of how religions understand disability – or visibility of people with disability – within the A227 material, an oversight that we will take into consideration in drafting new module material.  

Our interviews with nine external Religious Studies colleagues highlighted that Religious Studies as a subject is intimately bound up with decolonisation and EDI issues. All colleagues saw a need to explain and justify to colleagues and those outside the university environment why a critical study of religion was important. This was often understood in the context of a more general devaluing of the social sciences and humanities in the policy and media environments.  

There was a universal concern with best practice in teaching. Many colleagues were doing novel experiments in both teaching and assessment; applying these ideas in the unique environment of the OU will take some thought but is well worth considering. There was also a near-universal acknowledgement that undergraduate students underwent an important period of adjustment in which many aspects of their world are critically examined in a new way. This is a challenging experience that students need to be supported in. The dominant approach was usually a more explicit deconstruction of the world religious paradigm, while teaching within it to begin with at the same time as explaining how the concepts originated in specific historical contexts and have important political implications in the present day. The lived religion or a variety of thematic focuses usually followed this introduction on a structured three-year course specifically in Religious Studies.    

We hope that these insights, as well as our further analysis, will help ‘feed forward’ to making both A227 and new material currently being written for the Open University more effective and accessible for all students. Our human beliefs and practices have profound impacts on how we interact with shared global challenges such the climate crisis, the recent pandemic and our positions on war and peace. We want our students to leave our courses feeling more prepared to meet these challenges with confidence in their ability to approach new information and articulate their views in a critical and evidence-based manner.  

We wish to thank FASSTESTthe Open University’s Centre for Scholarship and Innovation(@OU_FASSTEST) for their help and support for projects No. 51 and 61 | Project Team: Hugh Beattie, John Maiden, Suzanne Newcombe, Maria Nita and Paul-François Tremlett. 

References  

Bryan, A. (2016). The sociology classroom as a pedagogical site of discomfort: Difficult knowledge and the emotional dynamics of teaching and learning. Irish Journal of Sociology, 24(1), 7–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/0791603516629463 

Decoloniality at Contending Modernities @ Notre Dame 

Barrett, J (2020) Critical Theory in World Religions: An experiment in Course (re)Design. Implicit Religion 23.3, 218-232. https://doi.org/10.1558/imre.43226  

Cotter, Christopher and Robertson, David, eds. (2016). After world religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. Religion in Culture: Studies in Social Contest and Construction. London: Routledge.  

Day, Lee, et al. (eds) (2022) Diversity, Inclusion, and Decolonization: Practical Tools for Improving Teaching, Research, and Scholarship. Bristol University Press.  

van Klinken, A. (2020) ‘Studying Religion in the Pluriversity: Decolonial Perspectives’ Religion, 50:1, 148-155, DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2019.1681108 

Lewin, D (2020) Reduction without Reductionism: Re-Imagining Religious Studies and Religious Education. Implicit Religion 23.3, 193–217. https://doi.org/10.1558/imre.43225  

Nye, M. (2019) Race and religion: postcolonial formations of power and whiteness. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 31(3), pp. 210-237. (doi: 10.1163/15700682-12341444) 

Nye, M. (2017) Some thoughts on the Decolonization of Religious Studies: postcolonialism, decoloniality, and the cultural study of religion.  

Pride in our past, Faith in our future: Fulneck and Fairfield

By James Rollo, PhD Candidate

The origins of the Moravians date back to the foundation of the Unity of Brethren in 1457 by Gregory, the Patriarch of the Moravian city of Kunwald. After years of persecution, the church re-emerged in 1722 with the establishment of the settlement (a planned community) at Herrnhut in Saxony on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Moravians from the Herrnhut community visited England in 1734, seeking permission to settle in the American colonies. There was, however, great interest in the Moravian Church in England, and the first English congregation was established at Fetter Lane London in 1742. The settlement at Fulneck was the first in England – the land was acquired in 1743 and the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1746 – while Fairfield was the last with the foundation stone laid in 1784.

These two sites are integral to my fieldwork for my PhD thesis on Contemporary Moravian identity in historical perspective. Combining archival research and contemporary fieldwork at these two Moravian settlements in England, my thesis examines contemporary notions of Moravian identity and tradition from a historical perspective. I investigate how members of these settlements view the history of their church and its relevance to them now. Open Days were cancelled during the pandemic in 2020, but they are now back on track, and I have finally been able to visit the settlements again. They are of a similar size: Fulneck has ninety-eight residents and Fairfield one hundred and six. Fulneck is built on a hill, its orientation is linear. It consists of a single one-way road running parallel to the buildings and a lower-level cobbled walkway. Rather than a single road, the settlement at Fairfield contains three in the form of a capital F, rotated ninety degrees.

Fulneck – The Terrace South Side (Jim Rollo 18/09/2021)

Fulneck Church and The Terrace North Side (Jim Rollo 31/07/2021)

Heritage Days were held in Fairfield on 12th September (though more toned-down than pre-Covid) and in Fulneck on the 18th of September 2021. These Open Days gave the residents of the two settlements the chance to present to the public the importance of their history and heritage, the things that matter to them, their public facing identity. Both settlements offered similar programs with guided tours of the settlements, and opened their doors to both their museums and churches. Fulneck church had an exhibition on the theme of food and the self-sufficiency of the settlement, while at Fairfield, there were presentations about the history of the Moravian Church and the development of the settlement.

Plan of Fairfield (Historic England, 1966)

Fairfield Square East Side (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

What then do these Open Days tell the visitor about the way contemporary Moravians present themselves to the public? Common themes of the settlement tours and of the exhibits included the importance placed on a sense of community and heritage, and residents’ pride in and identification with the settlements and their history. However, the onsite museums also reflect differences between the two settlements in their approach to history. The museum at Fulneck is the older of the two. Opened in July 1969, it is titled a ‘museum of local history’ and is very much focused on the history of life in the settlement. Fairfield, on the other hand, juxtaposes 18th century Moravian practices of worship with 21st Century worship, showing continuity and development, rather than dwelling on past traditions.  The comparison between ‘then and now’ is a theme that runs throughout all of the Fairfield museums’ exhibits. The ‘now’ stands out most with the display of how Fairfield is used in television and film the most recent being the TV series Peaky Blinders and the film Mrs Lowry and Her Son.

Stills from Mrs Lowry and her son (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

Of course, the desire to use Fairfield in period film is also due to the settlement being unspoilt and grade two listed, without satellite dishes and other modern-day clutter. However, it also says something about the community’s pride in the picturesque location of their settlement that they want to share. Furthermore, this represents an interesting contrast: on the one hand, the fact that the Fairfield community allows TV / film crews to use their settlement as a backdrop reflects a willingness to embrace modern technology, while on the other, it maintains the old-world image of the settlement itself.

While their history and heritage form a part of their identity, it is important to remember that these are active living religious communities today. As both the guides to the tours pointed out, there is so much happening in the settlements, both secular and religious, it is very difficult for the residents to not become actively involved in community life.

Sinking House, Bath, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Materialising Climate Concern and Activism

By Marion Bowman

Below the iconic Pulteney Bridge in the centre of Bath there is currently a striking installation, Sinking House by artist Anna Gillespie. As nearby signs explain, ‘Sinking House is a message of warning, and hope, to communities across the world – including leaders gathering at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – to address the issues, reach for lifelines and act now against the intensifying threat of climate change’. This is just one example of a flurry of contemporary COP26 related creativity I’ve been following in recent weeks.

There will be lots of material culture on display both during and after COP26. I am fascinated by material culture, and what lies behind and goes into the construction of artefacts, for as folklorist Henry Glassie points out, ‘we live in material culture, depend upon it, take it for granted, and realise through it our grandest aspirations’. We make, use, gift, look at and interact with objects to express relationality with other humans (living, dead and future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us. This is highly relevant as we contemplate what we’ve done to the planet and what needs to be done now.

In relation to environmental crises generally, and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) to be held in Glasgow 31 October–12 November 2021 specifically, numerous artists and other creative practitioners have been ‘materialising’ the global concerns raised by climate change and the need for urgent action. Here I’m drawing attention to just a few of the ways in which increasing numbers of people have become involved in acts of material creative activity of various types, as through material culture they seek to express their concerns, demand change and raise awareness of the pressing issues facing the world. From individual creations to nationwide and international collaborative projects, people are finding ways to provoke thought, and to give expression to their anger, fears and determination.  As one crafter put it, it’s about making something to make a difference.

Stormy Seas

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine.

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine. Photograph courtesy of Scottish Maritime Museum.

Environmental concerns and climate awareness are of course triggered and expressed through a variety of media. The broadcast of the BBC programme Blue Planet II in 2017, highlighting the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, is credited with an extraordinary rise in environmental awareness and practical responses in relation to the plastic problem; the proprietor of an open-air fruit and vegetable stall in Bath, for example, very directly dates the upsurge in popularity of his business and people’s desire not to have pre-packaged produce to that programme. Such triggers have significant outcomes if they can help move people beyond the despair of what is happening to thinking about practical means through which they can address issues.

A deliberately striking, creative response to the problem of pollution and climate change was the creation of STORM, a ten-metre tall ‘goddess of the sea’ made from recycled materials, the creation of Symon Macintyre/ Vision Mechanics. STORM first appeared for the launch of Scotland’s official year of Coasts and Waters 2020/2021, and after Covid restrictions STORM has been out and about again throughout Scotland, being the focal point in October of a ‘Storm Walk’ from Irvine Beach Park to the Scottish Maritime Museum there, after a ‘Community Clean Up’. Works of art such as this raise awareness and create temporary ‘ambient activism’ in a variety of locations, arresting the attention of both participants and bystanders. The Scottish Maritime Museum is also hosting Climate Change Activism: Protest Posters Workshop for both the 12-15 and 16+ age groups at the end of COP26, to encourage ongoing grass roots creativity and involvement.

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021.  Photograph Marion Bowman. 

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Among many other artistic responses to the plastics problems are artworks by artist Kurt Jackson, who in 2016 produced Mermaids’ Tears, the title referring to an alternative name for nurdles, the tiny plastic pellets which wash up on shores in their billions. Although the original painting was sold as a fundraiser for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), in 2021 ahead of COP26 Jackson approached the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh to suggest working with the famous tapestry studio to create a textile rendition of Mermaids’ Tears. This artwork was executed in collaboration with Dovecot weaver Louise Trotter, and forms the focal point of an exhibition running from October 2021 to February 2022 at Dovecote, alongside other awareness raising collage works by Jackson which feature painted sea and beachscapes, with washed up debris incorporated.

However, in addition to the responses of professional artists and craftspersons, the environmental crisis and COP26 have inspired many others to make something to make a difference.

‘Mass-craftivism’ and Crafting Quakers

One undoubted side effect of the Covid 19 lockdowns has been the huge increase in people participating in, rediscovering or taking up craft activities like knitting, sewing, crochet and quilting, as for many the lockdowns opened up time for such pursuits. The Stiches for Survival initiative, for example, describes itself as ‘Mass-craftivism to put the Earth centre-stage at COP26’, a mass participation project whereby assorted crafters are knitting, crocheting, stitching, and crafting in assorted ways panels to make up a 1.5 mile-long ‘scarf’ (representing the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement) of climate messages addressed to the COP26 negotiators. After being displayed at Glasgow Green during COP26, the plan is for the scarf to be creatively repurposed into blankets for refugees and other communities who need them, though with some sections being kept for an exhibition and further use in campaigning.

Ballot Paper, textile panel on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Ballot Paper, textile panel. The Loving Earth Project, Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, have long been involved in campaigns and practical activism in relation to peace and social justice issues.  The Quaker Arts Network’s Loving Earth Project is centred around asking people to address three big questions:

  • How does the climate crisis threaten places, people and other things you love?
  • What action is needed to reduce the risk of harm?
  • How are you helping to make this happen?
Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

 

As the project’s website explains, the idea is to help people engage creatively with these questions, without being overwhelmed, using a range of creative, contemplative and sharing activities. Inviting people to create a 30cm x 30cm textile panel illustrating their responses to these questions, and writing a short account of the panel theme and what actions people are taking personally, has produced enthusiastic, imaginative and visually stimulating responses. Over 400 panels have been sent in already, and many with accompanying texts are displayed on the project website gallery. During COP26 there will be six displays of Loving Earth panels in and around Glasgow, with textile workshops at the larger venues. Over 20 displays of groups of panels have been held already, and more will appear in venues around the UK following COP26 (for information on exhibition venues, see here).

Linda Murgatroyd of the Quaker Arts Network told me:

‘It’s been so exciting and touching to see how the project has been helping people take positive and joyful steps towards greater sustainability. Our online conversations have sometimes been very powerful, especially as we make connections with people in different parts of the world and hear what’s happening there. There are huge issues we all have to face, and so far most of our politicians are reluctant to take the actions recommended by scientists.  But everyone can do something if we choose to, though we may need help to work out what.‘

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

I visited the Loving Earth Project Exhibition which will run until January 2022 at The Scottish Maritime Museum, Dumbarton branch. Explaining her enthusiasm for the project, Nicola Scott, Exhibition and Events Officer, Scottish Maritime Museum, said

‘I was really happy to host the exhibition as I liked that it was a community project. The nature of community projects, although the panels are made individually, is the idea of collaboration and coming together for one purpose. I think this sentiment is very important in terms of climate change and improving the conditions of the environment. The exhibition encourages people to get involved and the additional funding we got from Museum Galleries Scotland allowed us run workshops for people to make their own Loving Earth Project Panel. I know these sessions were important to the Loving Earth Project organisers as the purpose is to let people meditate over the issues of climate change without it overwhelming them and also discuss positive change that can be made with others who attend the sessions. It was a great atmosphere that fostered creativity, discussion and a sense of community.’

Like Stitches for Survival, the Loving Earth Project has encouraged and enabled people to ‘materialise’ a range of emotions and experiences, and in doing so to reflect and discuss with others the major issues to be addressed at COP26 and beyond.

Getting the Message

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

A final example of material culture to look out for at COP26 – and one that will be very evident in the next couple of weeks – is the banner. Materially expressing allegiances and protest through banners is a well-established tradition, from religious and trades union processions to Ban the Bomb demonstrations, the Greenham Common Peace Camp and Extinction Rebellion events. My neighbour in Bath, Lin Patterson, is a Quaker and veteran climate activist. She attended the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, for which she made a banner. Intending to be in Glasgow for COP26, and realising that one side was blank, Lin decided to ‘populate’ it further for COP26. Lin made an appeal for messages through the Quaker publication The Friend:

‘This is an invitation to all UK Friends to send brief messages from the heart to be written onto a large, (8 1/2′), Quaker banner going to COP26. This banner was carried in the streets of Copenhagen during the Climate Summit of 2009, with letters infilled with messages from all over the UK. The reverse of the banner shows the same outline letters, but with empty space, awaiting your message for COP26 addressed to leaders, negotiators, and the world.’

Initially concerned that she might not have enough messages to fill the letters, responses came from all over the UK and messages overspilled from the outlines of the letters.  The banner was sent off ahead of COP26 to the Quakers in Glasgow, who will be able to use and display it ahead of Lin’s arrival in time for the march on 6 November.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

As Lin engaged with contributors, she realised that the opportunity to have their message displayed on the banner in Glasgow was both significant and moving.  Through their messages, by means of the banner, people were going to be vicariously present at the demonstrations around COP26 – just as the many contributors to Stitches for Survival and the Loving Earth Project will be materially contributing to this momentous event. While banners will be used primarily to protest, send direct messages and express identities at COP26, banners like Lin’s and many of the textile pieces are also using material culture to express relationality with other humans (particularly future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us.

From ‘citizen crafters’ to professional creatives, the material culture of climate protest, activism and consciousness raising will play an important part in COP26 – and their creators hope they will continue to make a difference in the months and years to come.

Marion Bowman will be in conversation with Lin about her banner and experiences at COP26 during our online conference on 19 November, Eco-creativity 2021: Art, Music, Ritual and Global Climate Politics | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (open.ac.uk)

Promoting Better Public Understanding of Religion and Worldviews

By Suzanne Newcombe

Religion is an area of great contention. Media – both ‘social’ or traditional – seeks to gain attention by tantalising lines which inflame our passions and tug on our heartstrings. What better for the media to grab our attention, than by drawing attention some of the most deeply felt aspects of our identity and sense of connection with others. Yet identification with traditional, institutionalised religion is fading from public declarations of identity in Britain (see our new OpenLearn course Census Stories for more on this).

As we grapple with how we fit together as a society – what are our shared values and connective rituals? – beliefs continue to grab headlines, drive our behaviour and spark our anxieties.  On a global scale, religious identity continues to be an important element of facing shared global challenges of climate change, migration, and the growing inequalities in health and wealth.  The scale of these challenges means that accurate and sensitive discussions of religion – the beliefs and practices which shape our values and sense of identity – is as important and relevant as ever.

The vision for this project came from the realisation that there is a lot of excellent, but largely under-coordinated and under-resourced work seeking to improve the public discussions around a critical religious literacy. Improving public understanding about the nature of religion and belief, as well as ensuring information about these human practices is accurately conveyed in public discourse, needs a multi-pronged approach. Transforming public understandings requires greater coordination between school-level teachers of Religious Education, university-level educators in the Study of Religion, the media, civil servants and policy makers.

In the summer of 2020, the Open University’s Religious Studies Department and Inform held a virtual roundtable to solidify networks between the many passionate and committed actors trying to improve public understandings about religion and how it needs to be considered in communications for facing many social challenges involving health, security and education.  The Faith and Belief Form shared its specific expertise in promoting community cohesion and promoting strong, productive and positive relations between people of different faiths and no-faith. Also in attendance was the CEO of Culham St Gabriel’s charity; Culham was in the process of strengthening its strategic commitment to promoting the Religious Education Council’s report on Religion and Worldviews (2018). Together with Inform’s commitment to promoting accurate information about minority religions and agile social scientific research team, and the Open University’s commitment to educating wider publics through its unique nationwide, online platforms – the Religion and Worldviews project was collaboratively initiated.

We are almost half-way into this project now. The first output was a ‘Baseline Report’ which provides an overview of the existing reports relative to both Religious Education (RE) and to the perception of religion in public life more generally.  This report has raised a number of key questions about public perceptions of the Study of Religion as a subject. Meanwhile primary research by Inform on perceptions of religious education at British schools by current University Students as well as an independent general population survey commissioned by Culham’s in the summer of 2021, provides valuable evidence that many people find much of value in school-level Religious Education.

We are in the middle of the project and are currently seeking to better understand to what extent Religion and Worldviews proposal might be able to provide a coherent way forward for religious education at school level in England – and what the barriers are toward finding consensus around a more shared vision of the study of religion in schools. This autumn, led by the Faith and Belief Forum, the project is holding a number of focus groups with community groups, SACRES, educational leaders, parents and those who have influence on educational policy to try to determine the barriers to implementing a more vibrant and coherent approach to religious education that is fit for purpose in our contemporary world. The eventual outputs of the project will be a series of resources to help school leaders, civil servants, parents and others ‘outside the classroom’ better articulate a coherent vision of Religion and Worldviews as a way forward for best addressing the variety of competing needs around religious education at this time.  Our Resources Packs should be ready in the summer of 2022.

With the diverse competing interests of religious and secular beliefs and practices, it is hard to achieve consensus on a shared coherent vision for religious education. Yet the need is great. Religious and non-religious beliefs will continue to inform the frameworks of public debate as we move to face the shared global challenges of coping with inequalities of wealth and health as well as the effects of climate change.

It is hoped that this project will help coalesce a better consensus around Religion and Worldviews as being a container which can move largely shared agendas forward. Religious actors as well as university and school-level educators passionately believe in the importance of accurate and sensitive understandings of religious and secular worldviews being presented in public discourse. Alongside other partners, this project hopes to drive this broadly shared agenda forward.

Returning to Earth | Climate Change, COP26 and Indigenous Voices

 By Graham Harvey 

We are now less than a month away from the UK’s hosting of 26th UN Climate Change “Conference of the Parties” (COP26). The OU’s OpenLearn site is presenting free learning resources about climate change from different disciplinary perspectives and how that knowledge and experience may explain and inform the outcomes of COP26. Those outcomes are impossible to predict. Some people remain hopeful that global transformative action will be agreed on – and actually implemented this time. Others remain doubtful that COP26 will result in their ideal future of ecological and social justice and wellbeing.  

The magnitude of the challenges and threats facing Earth’s life are impossible to exaggerate. The latest scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sets matters out clearly – and is refreshingly forthright in its insistence that urgent action is needed from governments and others. It is also refreshing in not putting the burden of “saving the planet” on individuals alone.  

There are myriad religious voices addressing the issues. Too many to note here. And too varied to summarise. But there is certainly plenty for a student of religion to research, consider and discuss.  

My interest in Indigenous ceremonies, festivals and performance cultures has led me to collaborate with the Border Crossings intercultural theatre company. In particular, I’m intrigued by the ORIGINS Festival of First Nations which they organise and host every two years in London. They usually bring Indigenous artists, performers, speakers, films and even chefs to London to engage audiences in venues across the city. The COVID pandemic has made the 2021 Festival different: it involves more online events and will continue throughout the year and into 2022.  

However, the 2021 ORIGINS Festival is not all online. Right now, an impressive “totem” (a carved and decorated presentation of the kinship between humans and other species) is travelling across the UK. (You can follow the totem’s journey here.) The totem is called “Latamat” (“Life”) and was carved in Mexico by Jun Tiburcio – a Totonac multi-media artist – specifically to take a message to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. A succinct version of the message is that because all life is related we have responsibilities to live respectfully, to the benefit of all our kin, of whatever species. Jun Tiburcio’s eloquence about totem Latamat expands on that theme and emphasises the urgency of the message. After COP26, totem Latamat will be ceremonially returned to earth at the Crichton near Dumfries. Here, Tiburcio describes the totem’s elements:

 

Totem Latamat is one intervention into discussions about climate and environmental concerns. It is distinctive because it comes from an Indigenous artist and his community. It is not only that people like Jun Tiburcio and his Totonac community have interesting ideas about the world and life. They are also among those most immediately and devastatingly being affected by climate change. One example of this is the damage done to Totonac homes and homeland by a hurricane made extreme as a result of climate change.  

My contribution to the OU’s OpenLearn COP26 Hub says more about Totem Latamat. It ends with the thought that the totem is an encouragement to celebrate life. This encouragement is not unique to Indigenous people – although it is a core theme in Indigenous conversations and ceremonies. It is something that many religious and non-religious people can share. What makes it important now is that it stands in stark contrast to the depressing news of disasters and of the magnitude of the threats facing life. These tend to demotivate people. Encouragement to celebrate our relations and our place in the living community might inspire the urgent actions that will be discussed at COP26.   

Traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Taliban

By Hugh Beattie

Commentators sometimes give the impression that the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001 and have recently taken over the country again, represent traditional Afghan Islam. Of course there are continuities with the past, but the Taliban are a modern phenomenon. Among the main reasons for their emergence are British rule in India followed by its partition and the creation of Pakistan, as well as the cold war, and the support from the West and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states for the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s. The idea that their aim is to return the country to a medieval past is an oversimplification for a number of reasons. Here we look at two in particular, their interpretation of Islam and their political role.

Just a little background first. Afghans are almost entirely Muslim, though Hindus and Sikhs still live in the cities. There were once small Jewish and Armenian communities too, and Ahmadiyyas, inspired by the controversial Muslim modernist and reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), also made some converts. The Muslims are mostly Sunni, but there are some significant Shi‘a communities, both Imami (the dominant strand in Iran) and Nizari Ismaili (who follow the Aga Khan). There are other Shi‘a communities in Afghanistan, but the majority of those practising Imami Shi‘ism are Hazaras, belonging to an ethnic group whose homeland is in central Afghanistan (though many now live in Kabul and in Quetta across the border in Pakistan). Afghan Ismailis mostly live in Badakhshan in the north-east. As in other parts of the Muslim-majority world, there have often been tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘as, particularly the Hazaras. Recently the Taliban destroyed a statue in Bamiyan, a valley in central Afghanistan with a largely Hazara population, to commemorate a Hazara Shi‘a political leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the Taliban in 1995. Bamiyan was known for its two huge statues of the Buddha carved into a cliff face, which were largely destroyed by the Taliban in 2000. A Hazara boy is also the ‘kite-runner’ of the novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini.

Traditional Afghan Islam was very different from the Islam of today’s Taliban – let along ISIS-K, which has gained a foothold in eastern Afghanistan since 2014 (K for Khorasan, a province of the ancient Iranian Sassanian empire which comprised eastern Iran and much of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). In particular traditional Afghan Islam combined law and ethics (shari‘a) with Sufi teaching and practice. This Afghan Islam, the scholar Bashir Ahmad Ansari, argues, ‘encouraged peaceful life with justice, compassion, and tolerance among the largely illiterate peoples of the region before the 1970s’ (Ansari 2018, p.37).

Tiles from the shrine of the Khorasani Sufi poet and scholar Abdullah Ansari (d.1089 CE) in Herat in western Afghanistan | https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/context-culture/a-sufi-lodge-a-leaning-minaret-and-a-polymaths-shrine-a-look-at-recent-efforts-to-preserve-and-appreciate-historical-herat/

An important feature of this Afghan Islam, as with popular Islam throughout most of the Muslim-majority world, was the way that Sufi masters were believed to possess miraculous powers and their tombs became places of pilgrimage, shrines (ziyarats) that were visited, particularly by women, in the hope that this would bring healing, good fortune in general, and ultimately salvation. These shrines have played a very important role for hundreds of years; some were located at important pre-Islamic religious locations, and sometimes the practices associated with them incorporated extra-Islamic elements.

A good example of this is the annual ritual of raising a 75 foot high iron pole wrapped in green silk, with colourful scarves attached around the top (known as janda bala kardan), at the supposed tomb of the fourth caliph, Ali, in the Blue Mosque in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. This still takes place on Nowruz, New Year’s Day according to the solar Hijri calendar (March 21), and is always a joyful occasion, a kind of spring festival. Similar rituals on a smaller scale used to take place at a number of other shrines in northern Afghanistan, and in Kabul itself. In the image at the beginning of this article, taken in 2012, we see the standard about to be raised.

The ritual is attended by both Sunni and Shi’a pilgrims. Ansari’s characterisation of traditional Afghan Islam may be a somewhat idealised one, but there is no doubt that it was very different from the Islam of the Taliban and ISIS-K. Both are opposed to the practices associated with shrines (known as ziyarats) because they see them as non-Muslim in origin, and argue that prayers to Sufi ‘saints’ (pirs) for healing and intercession are sinful because they implicitly deny the oneness of God. During the earlier period of Taliban rule it seems that they often banned Sufi meetings (see e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12539409).

A second difference between traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Islam of the Taliban and ISIS-K is the extent to which the latter groups have taken a political role. In the past, Sufi saints were sometimes able to use the authority that belief in their spiritual power (karamat) gave them to acquire political influence, and their descendants sometimes inherited this. An important example in Afghanistan has been the Mujaddidi family (linked with the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition). Mujaddidis moved to Afghanistan from India during the 18th century and became very influential, even claiming the hereditary right to crown Afghan rulers at their coronations. The Gailanis, linked with the Qadiriyya Sufi order, are another influential family with inherited religious charisma. But figures like these rarely if ever actually ruled the country.

Since the late 1970s, however, the political importance of religion and men with a religious training has grown. The Taliban themselves mostly belong to the revivalist Deobandi tradition, which developed from an influential seminary (madrasah) found in northern India in 1867. Its founders were determined to resist the modernizing and secularizing pressures that accompanied British rule in India. This was to be achieved by working to ensure that Muslims would continue to live as far as possible according to Islamic principles and Islamic law. After the British withdrawal from India in 1947, Deobandis began to set up seminaries in the new state of Pakistan. During the Afghan jihad in the 1980s they set up many more along the frontier with Afghanistan which were attended by young Afghan male refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation that had begun in 1979. It was and remains these men, led by graduates of seminaries (mullahs), mostly lacking Sufi connections, who are the core of the Taliban.

Taliban rule, therefore, was not and is not simply a return to traditional Islam in Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan became predominantly Muslim, rulers have always proclaimed their support for Islam, but government by men claiming that their religious training and mission entitle them to take control of the country is something new.