cartography of religion

Scolbert08’s Magnificent Map of World Religion, Part 1

Scolbert08 Religion Map1An astoundingly detailed map of world religion has recently been published by reddit user “scolbert08.” The map is much too large for me to post in its entirely on GeoCurrents, but one can find the full-resolution map both here and at the interesting website Brilliant Maps. The level of precision found on this map is truly remarkable; over much of the world it goes down to the level of third-order administrative divisions. The map certainly has a few problems, which I will address in subsequent posts. But so too do all world religion maps, due in part to the intrinsic complexities of religious affiliation. But overall, the map is a remarkable achievement, and both it and its author deserve far more recognition than they have received. The anonymity of the cartographer, however, does present some challenges here.


Scolbert08 Religion Map2I get excited about maps that teach me interesting things about the word, and by this metric Scolbert08’s production scores high indeed. Let us begin by considering the map’s portrayal of Greece and the Balkan Peninsula. The map detail that I have posted here has some interesting features that I have long been aware of, such as the Roman Catholic zone in northern Albania, the Muslim area in northeastern Bulgaria (Turkish speaking), and the Muslim area in southwestern Bulgaria and some neighboring districts in northern Greece (that of the Pomaks, who speak Bulgarian). But the map also includes three features that were completely new to me.

Scolbert08 Religion Map BalkansThe first of these feature is the presence of a Roman Catholic plurality on the Greek island of Tinos, as well as a strong Catholic presence on some other islands in the Cyclades archipelago (some of these islands, such as Syros, are colored light purple on the map, indicating that Eastern Orthodoxy is the main faith but is embraced by only around half or less of the local population). As the Wikipedia describes the island of Syros:

As in the rest of Greece, Syros has Eastern Orthodox churches. There is also an equal number of Roman Catholic churches on the island and some entirely Catholic villages; thus, it is one of the most significant places for Roman Catholicism in Greece. Syros is one of a few places where Catholics and Orthodox share a common date for Easter, which in Syros’ case, is the Orthodox date.


Another Wikipedia article, that on Roman Catholicism in Greece, explains the situation, which dates back to the period of Venetian and Genoese rule:

Indigenous Roman Catholic Greeks number about 50,000 and are a religious and not an ethnic minority. Most of them are either descendants of the Venetians and Genoese that ruled many Greek islands (in both the Aegean and Ionian seas) from the early 13th until the late 18th century, or descendants of the thousands of Bavarians that came to Greece in the 1830s as soldiers and civil administrators, accompanying King Otto. One very old but still common term to refer to them is Φράγκοι, or “Franks”, dating to the times of the Byzantine Empire, when medieval Greeks would use that term to describe all Catholics.

Another surprise for me is the Muslim plurality in Komotini in northeastern Greece. Most of the Muslims here are Turkish speakers. I had been under the impression that virtually all Turks were expelled from Greece in the 1920s. But as it turns out, Komotini was largely exempt. As explained by the Wikipedia:

The population [of Komotini] is quite multilingual for a city of its size and it is made up of local Greeks, Greek refugees from Asia Minor and East Thrace, Muslims of Turkish, Pomak and Romani origins, descendants of refugees who survived the Armenian Genocide, and recent refugees, including Pontic Greeks from north-eastern Anatolia and the regions of the former Soviet Union (mainly Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Kazakhstan).

The Muslim population of East Macedonia and Thrace dates to the Ottoman period, and unlike the Muslims of Macedonia and Epirus, was exempted from the 1922-23 Greek-Turkish population exchange following the Treaty of Lausanne

The most interesting surprise on the map, however, is the presence of a Roman Catholic population in the Bulgarian city and environs of Rakovski. This community was evidently composed of followers of the heterodox (or heretical, depending on one’s perspective), dualistic Paulician creed that once flourished in parts of the Byzantine Empire. The members of the final Paulician community eventually converted to Roman Catholicism rather than Eastern Orthodoxy, and in such a manner remained religiously distinctive from their neighbors. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Bulgarian Catholics live predominantly in the regions of Svishtov and Plovdiv and are mostly descendants of the heretical Christian sect of the Paulicians, which converted to Roman Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries. The largest Roman Catholic Bulgarian town is Rakovski in Plovdiv Province. ….

Nonetheless, Catholic missionaries renewed their interest in Bulgaria during the 16th century, after the Council of Trent, when they were aided by merchants from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic. In the next century, Vatican missionaries converted most of the Paulicians, the remainder of a once-numerous heretical Christian sect, to Catholicism. Many believed that conversion would bring aid from Western Europe in liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.


Innovative Wikipedia Maps of World Religion

As mentioned in the previous post, a number of innovative world maps of religion have recently appeared on the internet. Several of these are posted at the bottom of the Wikipedia article on “Major Religious Groups” in a section labeled “Maps of self-reported adherence.” Today’s post will focus on three of the maps found here.

Christianity and Islam World MapThe first map reproduced here shows only two religions, Christianity and Islam. It does so, however, in an unusual manner, mapping not merely adherents of these two faiths but also those who are neither Muslim nor Christian (whether they follow other religions or are irreligious). Unfortunately, the map has little in the way of a key and lacks explanatory notes, but it is easy to understand how it works, at least in theory. A county that is nearly 100 percent Muslim is thus depicted in bright green, a country that is nearly 100 Christian is depicted in bright red, a country that has almost no adherents of either faith is depicted in white, and a country of mixed faith is accorded a mixed color. Countries and dependencies that are not measured are portrayed in black, as is French Guiana, which should be the same color as the rest of France.

Although the idea behind this map is powerful, I am not sure that it works out as well in practice. To begin with, the color scheme does not make intuitive sense. At first glance—to me at any rate—darker green countries such as Syria, Egypt, and especially Lebanon would appear to have a higher percentage of Muslims than lighter green countries such as Algeria and Afghanistan, but the opposite is true. Countries that are fairly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, such as Nigeria, would logically be depicted in brown, but here Nigeria looks much more green, and hence much more Muslim than Christian. The same is true for Eritrea, which according to some sources is evenly split between the two faiths, although the Pew Research Center claims that it is actually about two-thirds Christian. Only Ethiopia looks truly brown to me, but it has a clear Christian majority according to almost all sources. Bosnia, mapped in a pale green shade looks like it is divided between Muslims and people who follow neither Christianity nor Islam, but according to most sources the country is almost half Christian.

Abrahamic and Indian Religions World MapIn the end, I commend the author for making such an innovative map, but I do think that it could benefit from some major adjustments. I am more positively inclined toward another map made by the same author, that comparing the prevalence of “Abrahamic” and “Indian” religions. Most world religions can be grouped together in such a manner, although they rarely are. The most striking feature of this map is the global prevalence of the Abrahamic faiths, with those of Indian derivation mostly confined to East, South, and Mainland Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is a striking exception to this pattern. The only “orange” countries, heavily mixed between these two traditions, are the Guyanas, Malaysia, South Korea, and Mauritius, although Fiji and Trinidad & Tobago should be placed in this category as well, while French Guiana should be mapped along with the rest of France. South Korea is appropriately depicted in a light orange, as almost half of its residents profess no religious faith.

Religions of the World MapThe final map, by Arseny Khakhalin, makes a three-fold division between Islam, Christianity, and an odd and unjustifiable category of Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, and indigenous religions. It also maps Judaism separately with an equal mixture of cyan and magenta, colors that are used map Islam and Christianity respectively. I find this maneuver confusing, as it would seem that a country evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, such as Nigeria, should be mapped in the same manner. The most striking feature of this map is its division of a number of large countries into their constituent units. This strategy reveals a number of important and interesting features, such as the prevalence of Islam in Kashmir and Xinjiang, and the unusual religious nature of Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia (which is heavily Buddhist). The small Christian states of eastern India also stand out, although I suspect that they should be mapped in a deeper shade of magenta, as Nagaland is reportedly 90 percent Baptist. It also seems that some countries (such as those of Scandinavia) and some regions (such as the provinces of Argentina) are depicted as too Christian, as they have high percentages of non-believers.  This  issue, however, concerns the data sources, not the cartography.

Several other world religions maps have recently been posted on-line that break many other countries down into their constituent units. I hope to put up a post about these maps later this week, although writing and grading mid-term examinations may force me to delay this until next week.


Mapping Islam: Bad and Good Efforts

Mapping the distribution of religious groups is often a frustrating exercise. Good data on the numbers of adherents of any particular faith or sect, let alone the intensity of their beliefs, are often lacking, while the spatial intermingling of different religions presents formidable cartographic challenges. As a result, even the best maps of religion at the global scale are deeply flawed. Britain, for example, is almost always mapped as solidly “Protestant Christian,” even though by 2005 it was estimated that more Britons were attending weekly services in Muslim mosques than in Anglican churches. As British Muslim populations are highly concentrated in urban areas, and as many non-church-goers still think of themselves as vaguely Christian, depicting Britain as a Christian land may be roughly acceptable. But more accurate cartography would portray Britain, like most of Europe, as largely secular and partly Muslim.

If mapping religion is always challenging, some cartographers meet the challenge far more adeptly than others. Some poor maps of religion may simply be a product of misinformation, but others clearly champion certain faiths or sects while disparaging others by exaggerating or minimizing their geographical extents. On the internet, such misleading maps can spread virally from one site to another, and are often viewed uncritically as straightforward depictions of religious realities. In contrast, some of the best maps of religious distribution languish on obscure web sites.

Exhibit A in my case against deceptive religious cartography is the first map reproduced above, entitled “World Muslim Distribution (Sunni and Shia) 1995,” archived in the Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. This map is commonly deployed as an objective depiction of the distribution of Islam; I have seen it used on dozens of websites without critical commentary. The map admittedly has a few positive features; it is aesthetically pleasing, it is constructed at a high level of resolution, and it is readily available at the Perry-Castañeda website, an indispensible source of public-access cartography. Its content, however, is intellectually hazardous.

The map has two main problems: it exaggerates the geographical expanse of Islam overall, and it minimizes the extent of Shiism in the Muslim world. As the cartographer does not specify the threshold that must be passed for an area to be mapped with the green shades of Islam, most viewers would probably assume that a majority Muslim population is required. In actuality, vast areas in India, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa that are colored light green for Sunni Islam are overwhelmingly non-Muslim. In India, the cut-off point seems to be around five percent; only areas with Muslim populations below that figure are left unmarked. In Indonesia, Christian, Hindu, and animist areas are uniformly depicted as adhering to Islam. Such portrayals would not be a problem if the map specified its inclusion of Muslim-minority areas, but it does not.

The minimization of Shia Islam here is equally problematic. To be sure, the cartographer captures the main Shiite areas: Central Iran, southern Iraq, Azerbaijan, north Yemen, south Lebanon, western Syria, and the Hazara region of central Afghanistan. Many other Shia zones, however, are either left unmarked or unduly diminished. Such errors are readily apparent in the depiction of the Middle East, posted in expanded format in the second map above. Here oil-rich Khūzestān in southwestern Iran is incorrectly depicted as Sunni, the Shiite areas in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Gulf region has been reduced almost to the vanishing point, the majority Shiite population of Bahrain is invisible, the Zaidi Shi’ite zone of northern Yemen is incorrectly depicted as terminating at the Saudi border, and the Alevi (highly heterodox Shiite) area of eastern and central Turkey is reduced to a few splotches. Minimizing the Shiite presence in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Gulf area is especially problematic, as it is the focus of much international and internal tension. In mid-September of this year, for example, violence erupted in Bahrain after its Sunni government cracked down on Shiite dissidents. One cannot understand Saudi Arabia’s fears of Iran and of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, moreover, without grasping the extent of its own deeply marginalized Shiite population living in its main oil-producing area.

Vastly better mapping of religion in the Middle East is easily accessible. See, for example, the third map posted above, produced by Mehrdad Izady as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project. Izady’s map is intricate. It simultaneously depicts religion and demography; virtually unpopulated areas are left white, while sparsely settled areas are shaded more lightly than densely settled areas. It also shows zones of religious mixture. Izady’s differentiation of Wahhabism from Sunni Islam on the map may be controversial, but note that he acknowledges such controversies on the map itself rather than trying to paper them over.

To my knowledge, Izady’s cartographic works for the Gulf 2000 project are not simply the best available portrayals of the geography of religion in the Middle East, but are actually the finest examples of cultural cartography, at this scale of analysis, ever produced. Yet this body of work is little known, even in academia. Even Izady’s Wikipedia article focuses on the controversial nature of his work on Kurdish history and religion, ignoring his outstanding cartographic contributions. I suspect that it is because we demand simplicity in maps, feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the world. But for those who have the patience, there is a tremendous amount to be learned from Izady’s gorgeous maps.