Research workshop “Theory from the South: Africa as a Site for Understanding Contemporary Religion”

On 25-26 January 2018, the University of Leeds hosts a research workshop on the theme  “Theory from the South: Africa as a Site for Understanding Contemporary Religion”.

The workshop opens on Thursday 25 January with a public research seminar where Birgit Meyer (Utrecht University) will talk about “Studying Religion in and from Africa”. This seminar starts at 5pm and is open to all. For more details, see here.

The workshop continues in a closed setting on Friday 26 February, with six scholars presenting their research:

  • Marloes Janson (SOAS University of London): The Pluriform Religious Field in Lagos (Nigeria): From ‘Researching On’ to ‘Researching With’.
  • Charles Prempeh (University of Cambridge): A Sociological Analysis of Muslim-Christian Marriages in Zongo Communities in Accra, Ghana.
  • Elaine Christian (University of Kent): African Theology as Theory and Action.
  • Eleanor Tiplady Higgs (SOAS University of London): The Marginalisation of African, Gender-Critical, Theological Scholarship in Anglophone/Western Gender Studies.
  • Nathanael J. Homewood (Rice University, Texas): Sexual Expressivity and Creativity in the Church:  The Postcolonial Possibilities of Studying Sex and Religion in Africa.
  • Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds): Queer Theory from the South: Lesbian Sangomas’ Understanding of Religion, Sexuality and Embodiment.

If you are interested in attending the workshop, please contact Dr Adriaan van Klinken, a.vanklinken[@]

About the theme

Western theories and methods have often been uncritically applied in African contexts in order to make sense of African social, cultural and religious ideas and practices. The problematic history of European imperialism in the academic study of religion in Africa has been well-documented and critiqued (Chidester 1996, 2014), and the adequacy of theoretical and methodological tools originating from the West to understand contemporary religion in Africa has been interrogated in a quest for acknowledging ‘African traditions in the study of religion in Africa’ (Adogame, Chitando & Bateye 2012, 2013). Building on these bodies of scholarship, and engaging with more general calls for the decolonisation of knowledge produced about Africa, this research workshop takes up in particular the challenge posed by Jean and John Comaroff (2012) to think about Africa as a site where new knowledge, theories and methods are generated (rather than merely applied). It specifically aims to explore the question how the study of contemporary religion in Africa both requires and enables us to develop innovative theoretical and methodological perspectives that provide critical insight into the nature, manifestations, and effects of “religion” in our contemporary world.


Research seminar with Prof Birgit Meyer

Image result for birgit meyerWorld-leading scholar of religion, Professor Birgit Meyer, is visiting the University of Leeds this January. The Centre for Religion and Public Life is excited to host a research seminar with her on 25 January, co-sponsored by the Leeds University Centre for African Studies. In this seminar, Meyer will talk about “Studying Religion in and from Africa”. The seminar, which is open to all, is the opening session of a research workshop continuing on 26 January, on the theme “Theory from the South: Africa as a Site for Understanding Contemporary Religion”.

Time and venue: 5:00-6:30 pm, Parkinson Building (B.09)

Birgit Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University (the Netherlands) and serves as Vice-Chair of the International African Institute in London. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, she is a distinguished and prolific scholar who worked on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years. She has been a leading voice for some time on topics and in fields as diverse as colonial missions and local appropriations of Christianity, the rise of Pentecostalism in the context of neoliberal capitalism, popular culture and video-films in Ghana, the relations between religion, media and identity, and the study of lived and material religion. Among many influential publications, she is the author of Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana (University of California Press 2015) and of Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana (Edinburgh University Press 1999).

Studying Religion in and from Africa

The study of religion in Africa, as the flagship journal with the same name shows, is a thriving field with researchers from Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. It mainly consists of articles based on grounded historical and ethnographic research on a plethora of themes, with Christianity and indigenous worship being the main religions considered, next to Islam and more recently, religions from Asia. Once one is inside, the focus on religion and the ways of studying it may easily be taken for granted. Taking some distance, it becomes obvious that studying religion in Africa is not simply confined to a conceptual space “within” Africa, but enshrines a long history of African-European economic, social, political and conceptual connections. Seeking to offer a conceptual intervention, this presentation wants to, firstly, unpack the use of the term religion and the associated vocabulary. What kinds of multiple, contested meanings does it conceal, and which new meanings did and does the work of translation, through which disparate terms and the things to which they refer become associated, make possible? In how far does the study of religion in Africa always already presuppose a perspective from Europe? Secondly, it will examine the possibilities arising from studying religion from Africa. Invoking this somewhat unusual phrase, the paper wants to attempt a switch of perspective and ask what can be learned for the study of religion in a more general sense by taking Africa as vantage point.

New book by Prof Mellor: Uncovering Social Life

We are pleased to announce that Philip Mellor, Professor of Religion and Social Theory at the University of Leeds, and member of the CRPL, has just published a new book. Entitled Uncovering Social Life: Critical Perspectives from Sociology, he co-authored the book together with Chris Shilling from the University of Kent.

Uncovering Social Life: Critical Perspectives from Sociology (Paperback) book coverUncovering Social Life engages the classical sociological problem of how peaceful societies can be created and maintained. As a result of rapid social change, the disappearance of traditional communities, the rise of political populism and the threat posed by radical religious movements, this problem has assumed renewed urgency. The book explores how contemporary institutional changes erode existing social relationships and identities but also create space for opposition to, or creative adaptation of, these broader shifts.

Exploring the threats and opportunities associated with the contemporary age, Uncovering Social Life identifies how sociology helps us understand the problems associated with social order and change before focusing on the most important institutional transformations to have occurred in:

  • bodies and health;
  • sex, gender and sexuality;
  • employment;
  • finance;
  • the Internet and new social media;
  • technology and artificial intelligence;
  • religion;
  • governance and terrorism.

After a critical introduction placing these issues in their historical and sociological context, theoretical chapters analysing how sociology views the individual/society relationship, and the volatile processes endemic to the modern era, provide an innovative and comprehensive context for these explorations.

Chris Shilling and Philip A. Mellor, Uncovering Social Life: Critical Perspectives from Sociology. Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2018.

Taking Research into the Community: Empowering Bradford’s Muslim Women through Hadith

In this blog post, our PhD student Sofia Rehman writes about her recent experience of public engagement and impact work with the Muslim Women’s Council in Bradford.

By Sofia Rehman

Shortly after starting my PhD programme, I was invited by the School of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science, to submit an application for the Postgraduate Impact Fellowship scheme. The award provides successful applicants with a bursary of up to £200 to engage in work that takes their research directly into communities outside of academia, and which could potentially allow for new partnerships to form between non-academic groups and PRHS. I swiftly responded and before long received the great news that my application had been selected. Previously I had been in touch with the Muslim Women’s Council, a Bradford based grass-roots women’s organisation. I was involved in the Council’s year-long research project probing the issue of head-coverings, from Muslim, Jewish and Christian perspectives. The project pulled together 5 women from each of the faith traditions to participate in group discussions as well as one-to-one interviews. The project culminated in the publication of the book, Shared Heritage of Daughters of Eve. Headcoverings – Reflections from Women of Faith (2016) The book launch took place in front of a full house at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Having been involved in such a successful project, and seen firsthand the enthusiasm of the MWC to bring new perspectives and empowering narratives of faith to the local community of Muslim women, I was encouraged, and gladly agreed, to setting up a critical reading group for the MWC base in Bradford.  Following a discussion on practical aspects involved with a reading group with MWC Director, Bana Gora, and other Council members, we eventually settled on the idea of running a three-part seminar series on A’isha, which would draw directly from my research and therefore focus on her intellectual contribution to Islam, and also sessions on the lives of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima, and his grand-daughter, Sakeenah. A’isha is well known as the most beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and is a central figure in Sunni Islam, honoured with the title Mother of the Believers, and accepted as a paragon of female Muslim piety, and a source for Islamic knowledge.

webbookThe three sessions were a huge success, with a great deal of positive feedback from those in attendance. There was an impressive turnout of about 50 women per session. The standout session was undoubtedly the one on A’isha, in which I introduced the audience to the work of Imam Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi, whose 12th Century text on A’isha I am busy translating for my PhD and framing as part of a feminist critique of Hadith science. The highlight of the sessions was without doubt the small group discussions where I presented Prophetic traditions that are each problematic for their ostensible misogyny. I asked each group to discuss whether or not they had come across these traditions previously, and if they had, how had they understood them and how had they incorporated them into their own belief system. It was both fascinating and inspiring to see how the women responded. After a tentative start in which some women expressed concerns about being overly critical of statements which were clearly problematic, the group soon found their confidence and voices, especially after I presented them with A’isha’s own views on the same traditions in which she outright rejected that they could have be uttered by the Prophet Muhammad. Using A’isha’s voice, I was able to empower the women to engage confidently and critically with the traditions, and to think about how they may have been mis-transmitted. The whole experience was not only fulfilling and engaging for all involved, it served as a bridge building opportunity between the academy and a grassroots organisation working in the heart of Bradford’s Muslim community; this was in many ways an early fulfilment of what I have always wanted my work to be.

The three sessions led to a full day seminar on Islam and Feminism, run again by the MWC. I was subsequently invited to join their Board of Advisors, and the MWC is now also in touch with staff members in the CRPL. Thus, this has not only been a rewarding experience for me personally and for my research, but has also greatly contributed to the Centre and its impact and engagement activities.

Sofia Rehman is a second year PhD candidate with joint supervision in Theology and Religious Studies (Rachel Muers) and Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (Tajul Islam). She is also currently involved in an upcoming anthology with Unbound entitled, Cut from the Same Cloth.

Postgraduate Study in Religion at the University of Leeds


“What we offer at Leeds is quite unique: the study of religion in relation to contemporary political, ethical, social issues, informed by research from lived religion in various parts of the world.” Dr Stefan Skrimshire

Why do postgraduate study in Religion at Leeds University? This brief introduction video brings together views of students and staff as to the importance, and impact, of their subject. It highlights the different routes people have taken into postgraduate study, as well as the different approaches you can take to your topic with the chance to work and learn in a highly interdisciplinary and intellectually thriving environment.

Interested in postgraduate study in Religion at the University of Leeds? Check out our taught MA programmes Religion & Public Life, Religion & Global Development, and Theology & Religious Studies, as well as information about our postgraduate research programmes (MPhil and PhD).

Report on Same-Sex Marriage and Places of Worship in England and Wales

CRPL member Professor Robert Vanderbeck was involved in a research project on the solemnization of same-sex marriage in places of worship in England and Wales. The report with the research findings was recently released.

The report highlights the disadvantage faced by same-sex couples seeking a religious marriage ceremony. It shows that same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying in approximately 40,000 places of worship that permit different-sex couples to marry, and there are only 182 places of worship registered for same-sex marriage. The majority of places of worship that permit same-sex marriage only carry out a small number of ceremonies, with roughly half having actually married a gay couple.

During debates over the enactment of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, considerable attention was given to the need for protections for individuals who do not want to participate in same-sex weddings — as ministers, or choristers, for example. However, the report shows that very few people refuse to participate and therefore require these legal protections.

Study co-author, Robert Vanderbeck, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leeds and a member of the CRPL, carried out the project together with researchers at the University of York. According to Vanderbeck, “Although many claims have been made about how the introduction of same-sex marriage would affect religious groups that offer it, this study provides the first systematic glimpse of what is actually happening on the ground in churches and other places of worship.”

The report found that many places of worship say that registering for same-sex marriage has produced positive benefits within a congregation. These include strengthening the solidarity of existing members, supporting existing LGBT members, and attracting new members. The research report further shows that among places of worship that have performed a same-sex marriage, three-quarters have provided a religious marriage ceremony to a same-sex couple that has not previously worshipped there, indicating that they welcome couples who are excluded from marrying in their own place of worship.

The report Religious marriage of same-sex couples : A report on places of worship in England and Wales registered for the solemnization of same-sex marriage is available on the White Rose Repository.

Sikh Radicalisation in Britain

CRPL researcher Dr Jasjit Singh writes about the findings of his recently completed research project on Sikh radicalisation in Britain, the report of which was published last week. He found very little evidence of religious radicalisation but did find that Sikh activism in Britain actually contributes positively to integration and social cohesion.

Sikh Radicalisation in Britain

By Dr Jasjit Singh 

In November 2015 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK. According to media reports during this visit he presented a dossier on ‘Sikh radicalisation in Britain’ to his counterpart David Cameron, which included information on Sikh groups in the UK trying to revive the movement for a separate Sikh state (Khalistan), providing training on how to make explosive devices (IEDs) and funding hate-propaganda against India. Despite these Indian media reports, the British government publicly denied ever receiving this dossier when formally asked in Parliament.

Recent years have also seen a number of incidents involving Sikhs in Britain, including mobilisations around mixed faith weddings in gurdwaras (literally ‘house of the Guru’, refers to a Sikh institution where the Guru Granth Sahib Ji is present) campaigns against the serving of alcohol and meat in halls linked to gurdwaras and reports about Sikh/Muslim tensions and links between Sikhs and the far right. To explore these various incidents and reports, I led a CREST funded research project to examine the idea, context, framing and realities of ‘Sikh radicalisation in Britain’. I gathered evidence from historic and contemporary media sources, academic literature, social media, internet discussion forums, ethnographic fieldwork and a series of semi-structured interviews. The report from this project is available to download for free.

Image credits: CREST

I found that two events in 1984 fundamentally changed Sikh activism in Britain: The storming of Harmandir Sahib (often referred to as the Golden Temple) during Operation Bluestar in June 1984 and the violence that took place against Sikhs across India in November 1984, following the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister by her Sikh bodyguards. Before these events, Sikhs in Britain generally supported India and were mainly focused on campaigning for the right to maintain Sikh symbols in Britain. However, anger about Operation Bluestar remains an issue which continues to move Sikhs in Britain to protest. Although 1984 remains the main political driver to activism, there are also a number of religious and cultural narratives which also lead to Sikh activism, including instances of beadbi (disrespect) being shown to the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (regarded by Sikhs as the eternal living Guru, in the form of a book), the need to maintain the izzat (honour) of the Sikh community and the wish to uphold edicts issued from the seat of Sikh temporal authority (the Akal Takht).

Another prevalent narrative is that of Muslim grooming gangs targeting Sikh girls for grooming / conversion and these cases not being sufficiently dealt with by the authorities. This narrative often feeds on existing historical narratives and more contemporary Sikh/Muslim tensions and has led some Sikhs to engage with far right representatives and organisations. Narratives are transmitted in different ways, through families, organised events, lectures, camps, music and Sikh media (newspaper, broadcast, online and social media). As there are few places and spaces within the British education system for Sikhs in Britain to examine their heritage and history, many undertake such engagement and learning on an ad hoc basis, primarily online.

I categorise the different types of publicly visible Sikh activism in Britain as focusing on a) social justice and humanitarian relief (e.g., seeking justice for 1984, providing aid/food relief), b) diasporic nationalism around Khalistan, c) ‘enforcing’ Sikh practices so they are carried out according to established codes of conduct and/or Akal Takht decrees, d) ‘defending/policing’ the Sikh community against a variety of perceived ‘external threats’ and e) personal/factional disputes. I also found that although Sikh women regularly participate in Sikh activist rallies and protests, they are underrepresented in Sikh organisations. A number of female Sikh activists in particular are highlighting the fact that issues including gender inequality, sexual abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse (drugs, alcohol) have not been sufficiently addressed by Sikh organisations and institutions.

In conclusion, I found no threat to the British state or to the wider British public from Sikh activism as there is no conflict with ‘the West’ or with Britain. Indeed, the main threat to community relations in Britain is from individual or group vigilantism resulting from internal Sikh issues/disputes or from the exploitation of local intra- and inter-community tensions. Much Sikh activism in Britain actually contributes positively to the integration agenda, particularly in the form of humanitarian relief provided during natural disasters (e.g., the floods in Somerset and Hebden Bridge) and incidents (e.g., Grenfell) where members of the public require support.

Dr Jasjit Singh is a Research Fellow in Religious and Cultural Transmission at the University of Leeds. This project, Ethno-National, Religio-Cultural or Anti-Muslim? Investigating Sikh Radicalisation in Britain was funded by CREST. The full report and executive summary are available to download for free.

Also read his recent contribution to The Conversation, “Alarm spreads in Sikh diaspora at arrest of British man Jagtar Singh Johal in India“.