Is Japan a Religiously Divided Country? Fabian Drixler on Japan’s East/West Divide


Japan Religion MapI was surprised by the depiction of Japan in Scolbert08’s map of world religion. The map depicts the main island of Honshu as essentially bifurcated into a more Buddhist west and a more Shinto east and northeast*; Shinto is also shown as more prevalent on the island of Shikoku and to a lesser extent in southern Kyushu, whereas Hokkaido in the far north is also shown as slightly more Buddhist. Okinawa in the far south, in contrast, is mapped as “other,” which in this case evidently refers to the semi-animistic, indigenous Ryukyuan religion. Significantly, no portion of Japan is shown as having a majority or even plurality of people with no religious affiliation, quite in contrast to neighboring South Korea.

Japan Religion ChartIt has long been my impression that Japan is a largely secular society—certainly less religious than South Korea, where Christianity is strong and Buddhism well established. Such an impression is partially justified by figures on membership in organized religious bodies, which indicate that over 50 percent of South Koreans belong to a religious organization, whereas in Japan only around 40 percent supposedly do, although most Japanese are buried with Buddhist rites. The religious situation in Japan is further complicated by the presence of so-called folk Shinto, which refers to beliefs and practices that are not affiliated with any formal religious group. As folk Shinto is present over most of Japan (although levels of belief and devotion vary considerably from person to person and region to region), South Korea Religion Chartareas in which relatively few people belong to a specific Buddhist sect might correspondingly be mapped as “Shinto.” Only a few percent of the Japanese population, however, actually belong to formal Shinto organizations.

Mapping religion in Japan is further complicated by the fact that both Mahayana Buddhism and Shinto are non-exclusive faiths, allowing adherents to simultaneously profess other belief systems. According to many sources, a clear majority of the Japanese people are simultaneously Buddhists and followers of (folk) Shinto, although most are not particularly religious in their daily lives. (Interest in Buddhism often grows in old age.) For about 1,300 years, moreover, Buddhism and Shinto had been deeply intertwined, and despite the state-imposed separation of the two faiths in 1868, elements of syncretism persist. Mapping separate Buddhist and Shinto regions in Japan is thus intrinsically problematic. Some evidence suggests that many areas with a high degree of adherence to Buddhism also have a high degree of adherence to Shinto. The paired maps posted to the left certainly indicate as Japan Shinto Buddhism Mapmuch, although I have doubts about their accuracy. (The second map, for example, shows Kochi prefecture in southern Shikoku as more than 85 percent Buddhist, whereas the data table in the Wikipedia article on religion in Japan claims that Kochi has Japan’s second-lowest rate of adherence to Buddhism, at 17.6 percent. The same table gives Kochi the highest level of membership in formal Shinto organizations, at 5.5 percent. Kochi also has the largest number of Shinto shrines in Japan.)


Japan Shinto Shrines Map

My current understanding is that while Japan does show a modest degree of religious regionalism, it is one that separates a more religious west from a more secular east, rather than Buddhist from Shinto regions. In trying to determine why this would be the case, I turned to Fabian Drixler, a historian of Japan at Yale University who also happens to be a superb cartographer. As Drixler notes in regard to Scolbert08’s depiction of Japan:


This map is quite unexpected. There is no prominent discourse in Japan today of a Buddhist West and a Shinto East, and in every part of Japan, most people participate in at least some of the rites of both traditions. But the map does not seem random either. For one, cultural differences between Eastern and Western Japan have a long history. Some medieval historians treat the Eastlands and Westlands as effectively separate countries. And in 1868, many of the protagonists in the war that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate believed that Japan’s fragmentation into an Eastern and a Western state was the most likely outcome, and made astonishing sacrifices to avert that outcome. This included the move of the imperial capital from Kyoto to the heart of the defeated Eastlands, the city now called Tokyo.

Japan’s religious geography according to Scolbert08 has other historical resonances. In most prefectures that are portrayed as having a plurality of Buddhists, Shin Buddhism (aka True Pure Land, Jōdo Shinshū) is the leading Buddhist denomination. In the 16th century, parts of central Japan were ruled by Shin Buddhist Japan Shin Buddhism Maptheocratic states with fearsome armies and impregnable fortresses. Although samurai warlords broke the power of armed Buddhism in the 1570s and 1580s, Shin Buddhists have continued to take their faith especially seriously. During the early modern period, Shin Buddhism dominated the religious landscape in Hokuriku, western Honshu, and parts of Kyushu. After 1870, Shin Buddhists were also numerous among the settlers that transformed Hokkaido from a thinly settled frontier into an integral part of Japan. (See my map posted here, created from a 1922 survey of religious affiliations.)

I am amused that on Scolbert08’s map, Buddhism appears so weak in Eastern Japan, because this echoes a prejudice voiced by Shin Buddhist priests in Hokuriku more than two centuries ago. To cite one of these clerics (Enkiin of Honseiji): “In the Kantō [= Eastern Japan], the spirit of people is strong and brave, but they do not understand Buddhism. They delight in the taking of life and turn their backs on official prohibitions. The folly of parents killing their own children happens frequently there. Moreover, they do not understand the paths of good and bad karma, and in their prayers only ask for advantages in this present life. Or so I hear.”

Infanticide Japan MapScolbert08’s map also reminded Drixler of the historical geography of infanticide in Japan, a topic that he has studied extensively (see his award-winning book, Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950). As he puts it, “Most areas once infamous for infanticide appear in mid-to-dark pink [the color for Shinto on Scolbert08’s map]”


Drixler also comments insightfully on the one part of western Honshu, Okayama Prefecture, that is mapped as more Shinto than Buddhist on Scolbert08’s map. As he notes, “Areas in which Buddhism suffered destructive attacks between the mid-17th century and 1880 are generally pink [indicating Shinto dominance]. Okayama domain, for example, tried to reduce the number of Buddhist temples and priests in the 1660s.”

Had it not been for such anti-Buddhist activities, Japan would perhaps be a more devoutly Buddhist country than it is at present. The main clampdown came with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but previous incidents were often severe, as powerful Buddhist monasteries threatened political power-holders and offered tempting treasures. According to the Wikipedia:

Haibutsu kishaku [literally “Ditch the Buddha and destroy Shākyamuni”] is a term that indicates a current of thought continuous in Japan’s history which advocates the expulsion of Buddhism from Japan. More narrowly, it also indicates a particular historic movement and specific historic events based on that ideology which, during the Meiji Restoration, produced the destruction of Buddhist temples, images and texts, and the forced return to secular life of Buddhist monks.

Another example is the policies of temple closure and monk defrocking of the Okayama, Aizu, and Mito Domains, also adopted for political and economic, rather than religious, reasons during the early modern period. These domainal policies were in general based on Confucian anti-Buddhist thought. The Meiji period form of haibutsu kishaku, based on kokugaku and Shinto-centrism, was instead dictated by a desire to distinguish between foreign Buddhism and a purely Japanese Shinto.

Drixler, however, objects to this Wikipedia description, noting that the term “haibutsu kishaku” is usually limited to the events of the 1860s. As he notes, “In Japan’s version of the OED, the earliest mention of the term listed is 1868. I don’t believe this phrase was applied to the policies of Okayama or Mito or Aizu in the 1660s, for example, nor even for Mito’s confiscation of temple bells (to make guns) in the Tenpō period (1830-1844).”

Japanese Buddhism always made at least partial recoveries after such setbacks. Currently, however, it is facing a crisis of a different kind: lack of interest, especially among the younger generation. A recent article in The Guardian claims that, “Over the next 25 years, 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 temples are expected to close, in one of the biggest existential crises facing Japanese Buddhism since it was introduced from Korea in the sixth century.”

Drixler’s take on the future of Buddhism in Japan is more optimistic:

I don’t think a reduction in the number of temples by one third is an existential crisis, even if it should come to pass. Presumably, it will be the smallest temples that will close first, and their functions will be taken over by neighboring institutions. Even after these closures, there would be one temple for every 2000 Japanese citizens or so. That sounds like sufficient coverage for me.

And even the pessimistic Guardian article quoted above ends on a note of hope for the faith:

“Japanese Buddhism has gone in a strange direction,” said Shibata, a retired businessman who traces his interest in Zen Buddhism to early-morning meditation sessions as a child. “These days most people associate it with funerals, but there is much more to it than that.”

Some priests are attempting to reverse the decline and challenge the “funeral Buddhism” image by opening temple cafes, supporting volunteer activities, and hosting music and theatre productions. In Tokyo, priests at Vowz Bar dispense spiritual guidance along with alcohol, to their young clientele.

* This region might be deemed by outsiders as the northeast, but the Japanese generally view their country in east-west terms, with the Tokyo area forming the core of the east. “Northeast Japan” conventionally denotes a well-defined region within the East of Japan, that of Northern Honshu, or Tōhoku.


Is Japan a Religiously Divided Country? Fabian Drixler on Japan’s East/West Divide Read More »

Most Moravians Live In Tanzania: The Global Spread of the Moravian and Mennonite Faiths

The Moravian Church has a good claim to being the oldest Protestant denomination, tracing its origin back to the Bohemian Reformation of the early 15th century, closely associated with Jan Huss. “Hussites” were persecuted at the time and eventually defeated in battle, and during the Counter-Reformation, Bohemia and Moravia were brought back into the Roman Catholic fold. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia today, however, some 100,000 to 180,000 people belong to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, which follows the traditions of the Bohemian Reformation, although it did not break away (again) from the Roman Catholic Church until after World War I. The much larger Moravian Church, with an estimated 750,000 adherents, traces its history more directly to the Bohemian reformers of the early 1400s. In 1722, an underground group of believers, the Bohemian Brethren or “Hidden Seed,” who had been living in northern Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic, accepted an invitation to resettle in upper Saxony, a Protestant stronghold. As they began to proselytize, their sect expanded. One of their acts was to set up a watch of 24-hour-a-day prayer, which supposedly lasted for 100 years.


At roughly the same time as their relocation to Saxony, the Moravians began to send missionaries abroad, first to Scandinavia and then to Greenland, the Caribbean, and indigenous communities in North America. Some of their early converts were eventually transferred to the Lutheran or Presbyterian churches, but elsewhere the Moravian Church established a permanent presence. In 1847 missionary activities commenced among the Miskitu Indians of eastern Nicaragua, who at the time maintained their own kingdom in alliance with Great Britain. Most Miskitus today adhere to the faith, as do members of the neighboring Sumu and Rana indigenous groups. Some 83,000 people in Nicaragua currently belong to the Moravian Church.

Moravian Church GeographyMoravian proselytizers came later to Tanzania, establishing their first mission in 1891. They were quite successful; current figures put the Moravian population in the country at 500,000 (out of a global total of approximately 750,00). I was not able to find the data that would have allowed me to make a world map of Moravian membership, but the Wikipedia chart of the church’s organization, posted here, gives a good indication of the centrality of Tanzania in the faith today.



The Mennonite Faith

The Mennonite Christian tradition traces its origins to the so-called Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists in 16th-Century Europe. Pacifistic beliefs led to resistance against military conscription, which in turn led to persecution and hence migration. A particularly large resettlement movement to the Americas occurred after the Russian Revolution, as Mennonites were targeted by Bolsheviks as “kulaks,” or well-to-do peasants. By the mid 20th century, most Mennonites lived in the Western Hemisphere. Over time, numerous schisms occurred, resulting in a profusion of sects. Many Mennonite groups remain somewhat separated from societies in which they live, and some of them resist various forms of modern technology. As a whole, however, the Mennonite tradition is diverse and decentralized. As noted in the Wikipedia:

For the most part, there is a host of independent Mennonite churches along with a myriad of separate conferences with no particular responsibility to any other group. Independent churches can contain as few as fifty members or as many as 20,000 members. Similar size differences occur among separate conferences. Worship, church discipline and lifestyles vary widely between progressive, moderate, conservative, Old Order and orthodox Mennonites in a vast panoply of distinct, independent, and widely dispersed classifications. For these reasons, no single group of Mennonites anywhere can credibly claim to represent, speak for, or lead all Mennonites worldwide.

Despite this centralization, a number of Mennonite groups have joined together to form the Mennonite World Conference, described by the Wikipedia as “a voluntary community of faith whose decisions are not binding on member churches.” Out of a total global Mennonite population of some 1.7 to 2.1 million, approximately 400,000 belong to churches affiliated with the Mennonite World Conference.

Mennonite World MapAccording to some sources, the largest affiliate of the Mennonite World Conference—and the largest single Mennonite organization—is the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia, which counts “255,462 baptized members and a worship community of over 471,070 persons as of November 2014.” This particular denomination has grown explosively in recent decades; as a result, a current map of global Mennonite membership would depict Ethiopia in a darker shade of blue than that found on the map that I have posted here, derived from 2003 data. As noted in the Wikipedia:

The [Ethiopian Mennonite] church has over 756 congregations and 875 church planting centers scattered in all 18 Administrative Regions of Ethiopia. The denomination’s growth rate in the last decade stands at 37%. … Meserete Kristos grew out of the work of Ethiopian Mennonite Missions in the 1950s. Mennonite missions set up hospitals and schools, eventually starting a church as a result of demand. Growth in early years was rather slow, until 1974, when the Derg took power. At the time, 5,000 Meserete Kristos members went into hiding. Small groups started, and meetings and baptisms were held at night. During this time many Mulu Wongel [an evangelical Pentecostal group] members joined the church, and growth was astronomical.

Mennonites in Congo MapEthiopia is by no means the only African country with a substantial Mennonite presence. In DR Congo, the faith dates back to 1912, when Mennonite missionaries arrived in the West Kasai region. The Mennonite faith seems to have expanded dramatically in the mid and late 1900s. As explained in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online:

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) first became involved in Congo in the 1950s, when a few North American conscientious objectors were sent as alternative service volunteers. In the aftermath of political independence (1960), MCC teamed with the Congo Protestant Council to form the Congo Protestant Relief Association (CPRA), which became a channel for relief supplies for various areas where local populations were displaced by political unrest. Known as ZPRA, this cooperative project with Zaire (Congo) mission and church communities continues.

It was also in the 1960s that Congo became one of the areas selected by MCC administrators for service for Pax and Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) personnel. During that decade a steady stream of young people came to Congo, where they served in a wide variety of roles with Mennonite and other missions. MCC eventually moved beyond construction sites and schoolrooms to cooperative efforts with Congo Mennonite churches in various rural development projects.

By the 1980s, MCC collaborated with the three Zaire (Congo) churches in helping to sponsor seminars for pastors on a variety of topics including issues of peace, justice, and development. French-speaking Mennonites from Europe and North America were resource people for these much appreciated sessions.

Mennonites in India mapMennonite missionaries have also been active in India, realizing a degree of success in Hindu-majority regions in which most Christian proselytizing efforts have failed. In recent years, tensions have flared in some of these areas. In 2008, Mennonite and other Christian communities in the Indian state of Odisha (then spelled Orissa) were attacked by Hindu extremists, forcing some 30,000 to 70,000 people to flee their homes. Relations between Mennonites and their Hindu neighbors have more often been relatively good. Mohandas Gandhi reportedly held the pacifistic Mennonite tradition in high repute, writing in 1947 to a Mennonite missionary, “Why worry? I am in the same boat with you.”

The Mennonite community today is roughly divided between “Euro-Mennonites” in Europe and the Americas and Mennonite converts in Africa and Asia. In Latin America, Mennonites are sometimes criticized for their high birth rates and agricultural expansion. As a writer with The Guardian argued in 2010:

What is it with Mennonites? Two weeks ago I wrote a piece from Paraguay on how the vast dry forest known as the Gran Chaco was being felled at an alarming rate mainly by people from this Christian fundamentalist sect.

Having fled from persecution in eastern Europe 80 years ago, they went to one of the most inhospitable places on earth and by the sweat of their brow – and a lot of help from the indigenous peoples on whom they depended – they have survived in the wilderness. But now, it seems they have moved from Biblical exhortations for stewardship of the Earth to outright exploitation and dominion. They have bought up nearly 2m hectares, worth, these days, in the region of $600m (£382m), made themselves fabulously wealthy from a $100m-a-year meat and dairy business, and are now in danger of totally destroying an unique ecosystem, indigenous peoples and all.

The Mennonite response was rather measured. As reported in the Mennonite Creation Care Network:

MCCN exists to support the Church in its green discipleship. We encourage collaboration and networking, and our web site is designed to showcase positive change taking place among Mennonite institutions and families. We typically post hopeful stories about people putting up solar panels, biking to work and planning inspiring events.

On October 4, an article that did not quite fit our categories appeared in The Guardian, a major British newspaper. “Chaco deforestation by Christian sect puts Paraguayan land under threat,” the headline read. The author, John Vidal, is the paper’s environmental editor.

Vidal asserts that Mennonite farmers in the Chaco are “expanding aggressively,” using a style of farming “totally unsuited to the fragile soils of the Chaco” and causing desertification and erosion in one of the world’s most fragile and diverse environments. Within days, a number of other environmental sites had picked up the story. A follow-up, detailing some responses from Paraguay appeared in The Guardian October 22.

The Paraguayan article prompted vigorous discussion among MCCN’s Creation Care Council and raised a number of issues for us at MCCN. Among them:

  • If we are committed to fostering healthy communication around environmental topics in a world given to polarization, how do we handle news that isn’t good?

  • Is it appropriate for a North American organization to report on environmental problems in other countries when most of us know little or nothing about the context?

  • How can we model thoughtful and reflective approaches to conflict?


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The Global Spread of Heterodox Christianity

Other Religion Map 1As noted in an earlier post, I regard Scolbert08’s map of world religions as a cartographic masterpiece. I do, however, have some qualms about the categories that it employs. I am particularly dissatisfied with the “other” grouping, which is composed, according to the key, of indigenous/animist Other Religion Map 2faiths, non-Trinitarian Christianity, and Sikhism. These religions, or groups of religions, hardly belong together. The map’s general classification scheme, moreover, reserves three and a third of its nine categories of faith for Christianity, which also hardly seems fair.

As far as the map itself is concerned, the non-Trinitarian Christian component of the “other” category is, as far as I can tell, limited to Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), which encompasses the majority (or plurality) of the population of a sizable portion of the western United States (centered on the state of Utah) as well as that of a few Tongan islands in the Pacific. But although Mormonism is the world’s largest non-Trinitarian Christian List of Non-Trinitarian Christian Sectssect, most non-Trinitarian Christians are not Mormons, as can be seen in the Wikipedia breakdown posted to the left. Only Mormonism shows up on the map—again, as far as I can tell—because only it is spatially concentrated enough to generate local majorities or pluralities.

Separating non-Trinitarian from Trinitarian Christianity does make sense from a historical perspective, as the doctrine of the Trinity has been central to the Christian tradition. In its early centuries, Christianity was convulsed by disputes about the exact nature of the Trinity, with adherents of different sects bitterly opposing each other over minor distinctions, as recounted recently in Charles Freeman’s AD 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. Such disputes, however, have long since receded away. As a result, I am not sure that the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity by a number of modern groups makes that much difference today. The United Pentecostal Church International is non-Trinitarian, for example, but it still seems much closer to Pentecostal Trinitarianism than to other non-Trinitarian Christian denominations, such Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christian Science.

Mormons World MapMormonism, to be sure, is rejected as non-Christian by many evangelical Protestants, but that has more to do with its unique cosmology than its rejection of Trinitarian orthodoxy.* Certain Trinitarian denominations, moreover, veer equally far away from Christian orthodoxy on other essential issues, and thus fit poorly into a unified “Protestant” category. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, accept the Trinity, but they also deny the immortality of the soul, which seems to me a rather more theologically significant deviation.**

Jehovah's Witnesses World MapConsidering such issues, I think that it is fair to say that three major Christian sects—those with adherents numbering in the millions—diverge so strongly from orthodox theology that they can accurately be described as heterodox. These are as follows: Seventh-Day Adventism, with some 18 million members, Mormonism, with some 15 million members, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with some 8 million members. Other heterodox sects, such as Christian Science, may be important but simply do not have enough members to make the list. Christian Science, for example, counts fewer than half a million adherents.

Seventh-Day Adventists World MapIntriguingly, all three of these major heterodox faiths originated in the United States but are now are highly international. To illustrate their global spread, I have constructed maps of their membership across the world. Unfortunately, some of the information used to make these maps is out-of-date, as I did not have time to track down more recent data.

The most international of these groups is Seventh-Day Adventism, which in 2004 had more adherents in Brazil than in the United States. This faith is well established across Latin America, and has many followers in both sub-Saharan Africa and the eastern half of Asia (particularly in India and the Philippines). The success of the Seventh-Day Adventist church in gaining adherents is perhaps related to its educational program. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Globally, the Adventist Church operates 7,598 schools, colleges and universities, with a total enrollment of more than 1,545,000 and a total teaching staff of approximately 80,000. It claims to operate “one of the largest church-supported educational systems in the world”. In the United States it operates the largest Protestant educational system, second overall only to that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Adventist educational program strives to be comprehensive, encompassing “mental, physical, social and above all, spiritual health” with “intellectual growth and service to humanity” as its goal.

In the United States, Seventh-Day Adventism has gained considerable attention in recent months owing to the fact that it is the faith of Ben Carson, the current front-runner in the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential contest. Although Carson polls very well among evangelical Christians, who actually form his main base of support, some Protestant pastors have expressed serious misgivings about his heterodox faith.

Religious Diversity ChartThe fact that Ben Carson is both African-American and Seventh-Day Adventist is not unusual. According to a recent Pew survey, Seventh-Day Adventism is the most racially diverse religious sect in the United States, as can be seen in the table posted to the left. It is also interesting, and rather ironic, that the more politically conservative denominations in the United States tend to be more racially diverse that the more liberal denominations. “Mainline” Protestant groups, such as the Episcopalians, Methodists, and Evangelical Lutherans, score particularly low on the racial diversity index.

In terms of racial diversity, Mormonism ranks slightly below average, and thus much lower than either Seventh-Day Adventism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. By the same token, Mormonism’s global reach is somewhat more restricted than those of the other two main heterodox faiths. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular has many fewer Mormons than Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses (the Pacific Islands, on the other hand, have more Mormons).

Mormonism’s efforts in Africa were formerly restricted by the fact that the church long retained racist policies, disallowing, for example, ordination into its lay priesthood for men of African background. These policies, however, were abandoned in 1978, due—according to church leaders—to a new revelation from God. Mormon missionaries are now active in a number of sub-Saharan African countries, as parodied in the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.” But break-away Mormon sects do not necessarily accept the change; as noted in the Wikipedia, “Some Mormon fundamentalist sects that split from the LDS Church in the early 1900s continue to teach that the priesthood should be withheld from black people because of their cursed state, and that the LDS Church’s reversal is a sign of its apostasy.” Mormon Fundamentalists, however, count only around 20,000 members; they tend to receive more attention than such numbers would seemingly justify primarily because of their on-going practice of polygamy.

Jehovah's Witnesses Banned MapThe main spatial pattern found in these heterodox Christian denominations is their substantial membership across the Americas. The majority-Catholic countries of Latin America, along with the Philippines, all figure prominently on these maps. These three faiths have all also failed to spread in the Muslim stronghold of North Africa and the Middle East, as would be expected (most of the countries in this region ban the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.) It is also notable that Seventh-Day Adventism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have gained considerable success across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Intriguingly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been more successful than the others in gaining converts in Europe.

*As explained in the Wikipedia: “Mormon cosmology presents a unique view of God and the universe, and places a high importance on human agency. In Mormonism, life on earth is just a short part of an eternal existence. Mormons believe that in the beginning all people existed as spirits or “intelligences,” in the presence of God. In this state, God proposed a plan of salvation whereby they could progress and “have a privilege to advance like himself.” The spirits were free to accept or reject this plan, and a “third” of them, led by Satan rejected it. The rest accepted the plan, coming to earth and receiving bodies with an understanding that they would experience sin and suffering.”


** As explained in the Wikipedia, Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs include: “ Wholistic human nature (fundamental beliefs 7, 26)—Humans are an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit. They do not possess an immortal soul and there is no consciousness after death (commonly referred to as “soul sleep”).) Conditional immortality (fundamental belief 27)—The wicked will not suffer eternal torment in hell, but instead will be permanently destroyed.)”


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Intriguing Patterns in Scolbert08’s Map of Religion in Insular Southeast Asia

Insular Southeast Asia Religion MapScolbert08 does an excellent job of mapping the religious complexity of Insular Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. I have therefore posted a detail of his or her map of world religion that focuses on this region, both with and without my own annotations. Many interesting and important spatial patterns of religious affiliation are revealed on the map.

Scolbert08’s map does not show the presence of animism (mapped as “other”), which is widespread across the eastern portion of the region. That is to be expected, however, because animism is essentially illegal in Indonesia, as the government recognizes only six official faiths: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Religion Insular Southeast Asia MapBuddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Missionaries, moreover, are active in most areas of traditional animism, resulting in widespread conversion, which can be rather superficial. The Wikipedia article on a specific variant of animism found on the island of Sumba nicely frames the situation:

The Marapu religion (also known as Marafu in Sumba) is a form of ancestral religion that is practiced mainly in the island of Sumba in Indonesia. Marapu is also practiced in many more remote areas of Sumba and Flores. Both the Christians and Muslims on these islands tend to combine their faiths with Marapu. Since Marapu, like Kaharingan of the Dayaks [Iban], is not an official religion of Indonesia, and all Indonesian citizens are required to identify as of one of a member of the sanctioned religions by law, members have chosen either Christianity or Islam to self identify.

The island of New Guinea, which is politically divided between Indonesia in the west and the independent state of Papua New Guinea on the east, has an interestingly symmetrical appearance on Scolbert08’s map, with Catholicism widespread in the northeast and southwest and Protestant Christianity prevalent in the southeast and northwest. This pattern reflects, of course, the efforts of different groups of Christian missionaries. One might be surprised that Catholic missions were so widespread and successful in eastern Indonesia, which had been colonized by the Dutch, as the Netherlands is usually considered to be an historically Protestant (Calvinist) country. But the southern Netherlands is traditionally Catholic, and as recently as 1970 some 40 percent of the Dutch professed Roman Catholicism (today the country is most irreligious, as reflected in Scolbert08’s map). Dutch and Flemish Jesuit missionaries played an important role in converting animists in many remote areas of Southeast Asia. This was the case in the highlands of northern Luzon in the Philippines, where I encountered Flemish priests in the 1980s. The Muslim majority and plurality areas in western New Guinea seen on Scolbert08’s map largely reflect recent migration from Java, a phenomenon that has generated pronounced ethnic and religious tensions. I am a bit surprised that Papua New Guinea is shown as so heavily Christian, as animism there is very widespread. Many Papuan Christians, however, are recent converts who have by no means entirely abandoned the beliefs of their ancestors.

In peninsular Malaysia, Scolbert08’s map shows a Muslim majority in the east and a Muslim plurality in the west. This pattern is to be expected, as most Malaysian of Chinese and Indian descent, the vast majority of whom are non-Muslim, live in the western half of the peninsula. But only the area around the city of Ipoh, which is 41 percent Chinese and 14 percent Indian, stands out for having a Buddhist plurality, reflecting the local Chinese imprint. Although it is barely visible on the map, the northern part of Penang, also heavily Chinese, is also colored yellow for Buddhism. The same pattern holds in the Chinese-majority city-state of Singapore.


In many parts of insular Southeast Asia, large numbers of people of Chinese background have been converting to Christianity. The sizable Roman Catholic area seen on the map in western Borneo reflects the conversion of both the indigenous Iban (Dyak) people and local Chinese residents. Pontianak, the capital of the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, has a Chinese majority, although the province of West Kalimantan as a whole has a slight Muslim Malay majority. The Malaysian state of Sarawak in northern Borneo, on the other had, has a clear Protestant plurality, which largely reflects the conversion of the indigenous Iban people. (This Protestant zone on the map extends across the border into Indonesia, where the almost entirely Christian Kenyah people are located). Although Sarawak as a whole has historically experienced relatively little religious tension, that situation may be changing. As analyzed in a 2014 article in The Malaysian Insider:

Such changes in attitude reflect a creeping extremism that is infecting Sarawak’s Muslim community – one that is often held up as an example of tolerance and inclusivity that their brethren in the Malay peninsula should learn from. There is now a growing worry that such attitude – imported from across the South China Sea – threatens to rupture the social glue that has bound Sarawak’s diverse community. This is even while Sarawak’s Muslim leaders continue to insist that their minority community is still moderate and able to embrace its more populous non-Muslim neighbours.

Tensions between Muslims and Christian have been much more pronounced in eastern Indonesia, particularly in central Sulawesi and in the Maluku Islands, although the situation is much calmer now than it had been at the turn of the millennium. I had expected the map to show more religious mixing in these areas, but instead most areas are indicated as having either a clear Muslim or a clear Christian majority. Note, however, that the Poso region of central Sulawesi, where some of the most extreme violence occurred, is depicted as having a relatively thin Christian majority, which means that it has a substantial Muslim minority. The opposite pattern is found on the island of Seram (Ceram, formerly), which is another site of pronounced religious tension. As explained in the Wikipedia:


Seram has been traditionally associated with the animism of the indigenous Alfur (or Nuaulu), a West Melanesian people who reputedly retained a custom of headhunting until the 1940s. Today, however, most of the population of Seram today is either Muslim or Christian due to both conversion and immigration. Seram was affected by the violent inter-religious conflict that swept Maluku province starting in late 1998, resulting in tens of thousands of displaced persons across the province but after the Malino II Accord agreement tempers cooled. Seram has been peaceful for many years but towns like Masohi remain informally divided into de facto Christian and Muslim sections. Around 7,000 people belonging to the Manusela tribe follow Hinduism.*


Bangsamoro Territory MapThe Muslim majority area of the southwestern Philippines is accurately shown as relatively small on Scolbert08’s map. What is more significant, however, is the sizable area of Catholic plurality in the areas to the south and east, which indicates substantial Muslim (and animist) minorities. The province of Sultan Kudarat, as its name indicates, formerly had a Muslim majority, but it is now roughly 56 percent Catholic and 10 percent Protestant, a change that has occurred mostly because of immigration from Christian areas of the Philippines. Such changing patterns of religious affiliation help explain the religious/political violence that plagues the region. I am Basilan Religion Ethnicity Mapsurprised, however, that the map does not show a Christian zone in the north-central portion of Basilan, the northernmost island of the largely Muslim Sulu Archipelago. This area has been an issue of contention between the Philippine government and Islamist insurgents in the stalled-out negotiations over the creation of a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in country’s Muslim-majority districts.

The largest Protestant group in Indonesia is the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP), or Batak Christian Protestant Church, which is centered in the land of the Batak people in northern Sumatra around Lake Toba. Conversion began here in the mid 1800s, owing largely to the efforts of the German Rhenish Missionary Society, which was formed from a union of Lutheran and Indonesia Sharia MapReformed (Calvinist) churches. Tensions have recently been mounting between the Christians of North Sumatra and the Muslims of Aceh (to the north), which is an autonomous region of Indonesia under strict Sharia law. As reported in a recent Tempo article:

The attack [on] Deleng Lagan Batak Protestant Church (HKBP) in Gunung Meriah, Aceh Singkil, on Tuesday (13/10) has to be condemned.

The incident once again shows that in a country with the motto ‘Bhineka Tunggal Ika’ (unity in diversity), intolerance is still fast growing.

Yet, this is not the first incident that happened in Singkil, Aceh, which share a border with North Sumatera province.

In September 2005, a church in Siompin Village, Surou Sub-District was also burned down. The attack was triggered by the same reason: local residents objected to a private house made as a place of worship.

The conflict should not have happened if the regional government and the police could take a firm and strong action.

Regency governments have indeed arranged a meeting between religious figures and the people. The meeting eventually agreed to demolish a number of ‘troubled’ churches on October 18. However, the tension was already heated up. Provocation has also been spread.

Members of the HKBP and of other Christian demonization as well have been increasingly complaining of discrimination across much of Indonesia. They have been particularly galled by the fact that the government has been shutting down existing churches and preventing the construction of new ones in Muslim majority areas, particularly in metropolitan Jakarta. According to a May, 2015 article in GlobalPost:

Although more than 85 percent of Indonesians identify as Muslim, Protestantism and Catholicism are two of the nation’s approved faiths, helping give Indonesia its reputation as a pluralistic democracy. Even so, many local governments are shutting down churches as politicians crumble under pressure from their Muslim constituents.

“They want to stop the increasing number of churches, and if possible, reduce it,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “That’s why, in the last 10 years, 1,000 were closed.”


*The assertion that a small tribe on this remote island follows Hinduism is quite surprising, but unfortunately I have not been able to find much information on this matter. Here is what the Wikipedia tells us:

The Manusela [of Seram] follows the syncretic faith of Naurus, which might have come from the Aluk’ To Dolo faith. The Naurus faith is a combination of Hinduism and Animism, but in recent years they also have adopted certain Protestant principles. A few Manusela have also adopted Protestanism as well. Not much is known about their religion about them, but their religion may include worshipping of Hindu and Animist gods, with this influence coming from the Mindanao during the early periods, and presence of Hinduism is evidenced from the fact that archaeologists have found several statues of Hindu gods in Mindanao.

Intriguing Patterns in Scolbert08’s Map of Religion in Insular Southeast Asia Read More »

Religious Complexity in Northeastern South Asia

Northeastern South Asia Religion MapNortheastern South Asia has one of the world’s most complex religious environments, and such complexity is captured nicely in Scolbert08’s amazing map of world religions. To illustrate this, I have posted a detail from this map of this region, both in annotated and non-annotated form, along with a smaller version of the same map juxtaposed with other maps of the same general area.

The strongly Christian areas of far eastern India stand out clearly on Scolbert08’s map. Protestantism, represented mostly by the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, dominates here, but the state of Meghalaya also has an area of Roman Catholic plurality. Most of India’s northeastern Northeastern South Asia Religion Map AnnotatedChristians are of tribal background, and hence were never incorporated into the Hindu world. Manipur, which has a Hindu plurality, forms a religious exception in this part of India. In the early modern period, Manipur was a strong Hindu kingdom, supported by a powerful cavalry. But Hinduism is prevalent only in the state’s central plain, which also has a small zone of Islam, whereas the uplands of Manipur are dominated by Protestant Christians. The state as a whole is 46 percent Hindu, 34 percent Christian, and 9 percent Muslim.


Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast, which China claims as “South Tibet,” is strikingly heterogeneous in terms of religion, as it is in regard to language, with some 30 to 50 separate ethnolinguistic groups. Some of the people of Arunachal Pradesh have converted Northeast India Mapsto Protestant Christianity, whereas others remain animists. Buddhism, of both the Theravada and Tibetan Mahayana branches, are also well represented in the state, as is Hinduism. The 2010 India census gives the following breakdown for Arunachal Pradesh: Christian: 418,732 (30.26%); Hindu: 401,876 (29.04%); Others (mostly Donyi-Polo): 362,553 (26.2%); Buddhist: 162,815 (11.76%); Muslim: 27,045 (1.9%); Sikh: 1,865 (0.1%); Jain: 216 (<0.1%). The Donyi-Polo category is particularly interesting, as it represents an effort to retain traditional beliefs and practices by transforming them into an organized religion. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Donyi-Polo (also Donyi-Poloism) is the designation given to the indigenous religions, of animistic and shamanic type, of the Tani and other Tibeto-Burman peoples of Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India. The name “Donyi-Polo” means “Sun-Moon”, and was chosen for the religion in the process of its revitalisation and institutionalisation started in the 1970s in response to the coercive proselytization of Christianity and the possibility of absorption into Hinduism.

The religion has developed a congregational system, hymns to be sung composed in the Tani ritual language of shamans, a formalised philosophy-theology and iconography of the gods and temples.


A similar movement is underway in the tribal belt of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in the Indian state of Jharkhand, where the new/old faith of Sarnaism is gaining strength. As explained in a different Wikipedia article:

Sarnaism or Sarna (local languages: Sarna Dhorom, meaning “Religion of the Holy Woods”) defines the indigenous religions of the Adivasi populations of the states of Central-East India, such as the Munda, the Ho, the Santali, the Khuruk, and others. During, colonial rule it was subsumed as a folk form of Hinduism, in recent decades followers have started to develop an identity, and more recently even an organisation, distinct from Hinduism, similarly to other tribal religious movements such as Donyi-Polo or Sanamahism. …

Sarnaist followers have been organising protests and petitions to have their religion recognised by the government of India in census forms.[ In 2013 Sarnaist followers have organised a protest against use of indigenous imagery by Christians in order to attract converts.

Evidently, Christians in the Chota Nagpur region have been attracting converts in recent years. As the map shows, some parts of this region have clear Roman Catholic majorities. Catholicism has a long history in this area, dating back to the actions of Flemish Jesuit missionaries in the late 1800s. According to a recent article in ACN-USA News, “Catholic beliefs and practices have been important factors in drawing tribal peoples to the Catholic Church in north-east India, where Christianity has grown phenomenally.” I would, however, like to see more solid data on this phenomenon.


Other interesting and important features are also evident on Scolbert08’s map. One example is the fairly solid belt of Buddhism (Theravada) in the Chittagong Hills of southeastern Bangladesh. Although Buddhism is rarely associated with Bangladesh, up to a million Bangladeshis adhere to this faith. At one time, Buddhism was common if not prevalent over the area that now constitutes Bangladesh, but the religion survived only in the more remote upland tracks of the southeast. (Throughout northeastern South Asia, upland areas correlate with religious minorities.) Bangladesh also has some Hindu majority districts in the southwest, a pattern that generates political complications. As explained in a Wikipedia article:

Despite their dwindling numbers, Hindus [in Bangladesh] still yield considerable influence because of their geographical concentration in certain regions. They form a majority of the electorate in at least two parliamentary constituencies (Khulna-1 and Gopalganj-3) and account for more than 25% in at least another twenty. For this reason, they are often the deciding factor in parliamentary elections where victory margins can be extremely narrow. It is also frequently alleged that this is a prime reason for many Hindus being prevented from voting in elections, either through intimidating actual voters, or through exclusion in voter list revisions (e.g., see Daily Star, 4 January 2006).


As a final point, it is noteworthy that the Rohingya Muslim area of Burma (Myanmar) along the border with Bangladesh is not evident on the map. As most Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Burma, they are evidently not counted in enumerations of religious belief.

Religious Complexity in Northeastern South Asia Read More »

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.


Scolbert08’s Magnificent Map of World Religion, Part 1 Read More »

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.


Innovative Wikipedia Maps of World Religion Read More »

The Pitfalls and Promises of Mapping World Religion

I have long been dissatisfied with world religion maps, especially those that are available on the internet. To be sure, mapping religion is an inherently difficult task. Many areas contain multiple faiths, just as different places often vary tremendously in regard religiosity itself. Changes in the religious landscape, moreover, are often difficult to capture. Most of Europe, for example, is appropriately mapped as Christian when it comes to its religious heritage, but in the 21st century such a depiction is no longer completely accurate. Over much of Europe, nonbelievers now greatly outnumber believers, and in quite a few places practicing Muslims outstrip practicing Christians. Some reports go so far as to claim that in terms of actual practice, France is now more Muslim than Christian,* although this assertion is probably exaggerated.

Religious “mixture,” moreover, can characterize not just regions but also individuals. An anthropologist friend of mine once characterized the West African country of Guinea as “90 percent Muslim and 90 percent animist,” which could well be true. But animism and so-called tribal religions more generally usually get short shrift in world religion maps. The same is true for syncretic faiths such as Candomblé, which might be the dominant faith in parts of northeastern Brazil, although only around five percent of Brazilians overall report themselves to be adherents. But such numbers are themselves suspect, as it is often difficult to enumerate religious adherents. Polling and census data are partial or non-existent over much of the world, and people often fail to be forthcoming about matters of faith when asked. As a GodWeb post argues, “To put it bluntly, when asked about religious belief and practice, ordinary citizens lie. And they lie about their faith to a greater degree then they lie about their sex life, or political activity.”

World Religion Map 1Another common problem in the mapping of religions is the inconsistent division of major faiths into their constituent branches. If Christianity is divided into its Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox branches, as it often is (see the map posted to the left), then by the same token Buddhism should be broken down into its Mahayana and Theravada forms, just as Islam should be divided into its Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi branches. Making such divisions, moreover, should be done in a rigorous manner. The so-called Oriental Orthodox Christian churches, such as the World Religion Map 3Armenian Apostolic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, for example, should not be mapped with the Eastern Orthodox branch, as they often are (see, for example, “World Religions Map 2006” posted here) for the simple reason that they do not belong. As the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church reject Branches of Christianitythe Creed of Chalcedon that was adopted by the Christian mainstream in A.D. 451, they stand apart from Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But as the diagram posted here shows, this situation is complicated by a number of subsequent unions of theologically disparate Christian branches.

But if the mapping of religion is inherently problematic, that does not mean that all maps of world religions are of equal value—or lack of value. Some basic maps are, of course, much better than others. Recently, moreover, a number of highly innovative and extremely detailed world maps of religion have appeared on the internet. Several GeoCurrents posts next week will examine these maps in some detail. Before doing so, however, I cannot resist pointing out how amusingly bad World Religion Map 2maps of religion can be. I would be tempted to nominate the one posted to the left for the booby prize of the worst world map on the internet.

To begin with, the map deeply distorts basic patterns of both physical and political geography. Note the seaway between North and South America, the misplacement of New Zealand, the division of North Korea into two World Religion Map detailcountries, and so on. A detail of the map’s depiction of central southeastern Europe reveals how laughable it is. But more to the point, consider its portrayal of religion: Guatemala and Costa Rica are non-Christian; Jordan is Jewish: Armenia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Lake Victoria are Muslim, as is Taiwan; Japan is Christian; both North Koreas are “Chinese”; and Sri Lanka is Hindu. Interestingly, the site on which it is posted, which includes some fine maps of religion, merely notes that it “is a much more generalized map of world religions.” In actuality, this map verges on intellectual malpractice.

*According to a 2012 report by the Gatestone Institute:

Although 64% of the French population (or 41.6 million of France’s 65 million inhabitants) identifies itself as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% (or 1.9 million) of those actually are practicing Catholics, according to the French Institute of Public Opinion (or Ifop, as it is usually called).

By way of comparison, 75% (or 4.5 million) of the estimated 6 million mostly ethnic North African and sub-Saharan Muslims in France identify themselves as “believers” and 41% (or 2.5 million) say they are “practicing” Muslims, according to an in-depth research report on Islam in France published by Ifop.

Taken together, the research data provides empirical evidence that Islam is well on its way to overtaking Roman Catholicism as the dominant religion in France.

In Britain, Islam has overtaken Anglicanism as the dominant religion as more people attend mosques than the Church of England. According to one survey, 930,000 Muslims attend a place of worship at least once a week, whereas only 916,000 Anglicans do the same.


The Pitfalls and Promises of Mapping World Religion Read More »

The Ahl-e Haqq Minority Faith Fights for Its Homeland in Northern Iraq

Daquq Google EarthEarlier this week, Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched an offensive against ISIS in the Daquq district of Iraq, some 40 kilometers south of Kirkuk. Aided by airstrikes from US-led coalition warplanes, Kurdish forces took over a number of villages. As reported in the news service Rudaw:

Hismadin said Kurdish reinforcements streamed in once the Peshmerga’s heavy fighting began. He added that members of the Kurdistan regional parliament and many volunteers were also on hand. “We will not stop until we push out ISIS,” Jaafar Mustafa, commander of the 70th Peshmerga Forces, told Rudaw.

Kirkuk area religion mapAlso participating in the offensive was the 630-strong First Kakai Battalion of the Peshmerga, whose members have been fighting “to protect their ancestral lands along the Daquq frontline” despite being woefully underequipped, as noted in another Rudaw article. The Kakai (or Kaka’i) belong to a little know-known but significant religious minority, roughly one million strong, that is concentrated in the Kurdish region of western Iran. This faith is more commonly called Ahl-e Haqq, although the term Yarsan is often encountered as well. It is sometimes more loosely grouped with the Yezidi faith and other local religions under a “Gnosticism” label. Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iraq shows a sizable area of this faith just to the south and east of Kirkuk. It does not, however, include the city of Daquq in the Kakai/Yarsan/Ahl-e Haqq area. The Wikipedia article on the town, however, claims that, “The majority of the 50,000 inhabitants are Kurds from the Kakai faith.”


The exact nature of the Kaka’i/Ahl-e Haqq/Yarsan sect is hotly debated. Some scholars view it as an offshoot of Shia Islam, whereas others consider it a fundamentally non-Muslim faith with a mere Islamic veneer. The latter view is found in the Wikipedia article on the group:

Among other important pillars of their belief system are that the Divine Essence has successive manifestations in human form (mazhariyyat) and the belief in transmigration of the soul (dunaduni in Kurdish). For these reasons, the members of Ahl-e Haqq faith cannot be considered as part of the religion of Islam. The Yarsani faith has no common belief with Islam other than the ghulat Shia Islamic assertion of the divinity or godhead/godhood of Ali, although it can be identified as Kurdish esoterism which emerged under the intense influence of Bātinī-Sufism during the last two centuries. ….

The Yarsani faith’s unique features include millenarism, nativism, egalitarianism, metempsychosis, angelology, divine manifestation and dualism. Many of these features are found in Yazidism, another Kurdish faith, in the faith of Zoroastrians and in Shī‘ah extremist groups; certainly, the names and religious terminology of the Yarsani are often explicitly of Muslim origin. Unlike other indigenous Persianate faiths, the Yarsani explicitly reject class, caste and rank, which sets them apart from the Yezidis and Zoroastrians.

Yet according to the scholar Jean During, “Ahl-e Haqqism” is firmly rooted in mystical Islam, and is best seen as “an offshoot of a kind of Sufism which adapted itself to Kurdish customs.”* But During’s article also makes it clear that the faith deviates strongly from all orthodox interpretations of Islam. In its theology, the “divine manifestations” encountered in world history include not only Jesus, Abraham, and a number of Muslim figures, but also Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Plato. Equally intriguing, as During explains, is the fact that:

Elitism is part of the Ahl-e Haqq culture: they have a conviction that they stand above standard Islam, and belong to a kind of avant-garde. They possess the key of understanding of historical events, which permits them to interpret all contemporary events in a sometimes paradoxical way. …. This leads them to subversion. They never fear the law nor the blame… . They often like to show themselves as provocative, professing shocking beliefs or non-conformist practices” (During p. 124).

Kurdish Languages Map 1According to most sources, most adherents of Ahl-e Haqq speak Gorani, which is also the main language of their religious writings. Although Gorani is often considered to be a Kurdish dialect, it is not interintelligible with the main Kurdish tongues, Kurmanji and Sorani. But then again, Kurmanji and Sorani are not interintelligible with each other, meaning that Kurdish is best viewed as a language group rather than a distinct language in its own right. But this expanded definition of “Kurdish” does not necessarily include Gorani, even though its speakers are counted as ethnic Kurds. As noted in the Wikipedia, “A separate group of languages, Zaza-Gorani, is also spoken by several million Kurds, but is linguistically not Kurdish.” As this quotation makes clear, Gorani is most closely related to Zaza (or Zazaki) of central-eastern Turkey, another “Kurdish” language that is closely associated with a highly heterodox Muslim sect (Alevism, in this case). As can be seen in Izady’s map of Kurdish dialects, Gorani is spoken in the Ahl-e Haqq area of Iraq just to the south of Kirkuk.

Kurdish languages map 2A relative new (posted 2014) Wikipedia map of the Kurdish languages, however greatly restricts the extent of Gorani. Instead, it maps most of the area usually depicted as Gorani-speaking under the category of “Pehlewani,” or “southern Kurdish.” The Wikipedia article on Southern Kurdish also claims, contrary to most sources, that it, rather than Gorani, is the main language of the Ahl-e Haqq: “It [Pehlewani] is also the language of the populous Kurdish Kakayî-Kakavand tribe near Kerkuk [Kirkuk] and most Yarsani Kurds in Kermanshah province [in Iran].”


This situation is confusing, and I can only conclude that more research is needed. Minority faiths and languages in this part of the word deserve much more attention than they have received. The Yezidis, owing to the atrocities that they have suffered, have at long last been noticed by the global media. Other groups deserve the same consideration. For those interested in the topic, I cannot recommend Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms highly enough. I only wish that Russell could have included a chapter on the Ahl-e Haqq.

*. The quotation is from page 114 of: Jean During, 1998, “A Critical Survey on Ahl-e Haqq Studies in Europe and Iran.” In Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Ozdalga, and Catharina Raudvere, eds. Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious, and Social Perspectives. Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul Transactions, Vol. 8.


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Dhofar: Religion, Rebellion, and Reconstruction

Darbat Waterfalls Dhofar OmanAs mentioned in the previous post, Oman’s Dhofar region is highly distinctive in terms of both language and climate. It is also differentiated from the rest of Oman in regard to religion. Most Omanis follow Ibadi Islam, a branch that is said to predate the Sunni/Shia split, whereas most Dhofaris are Sunni Muslims. Dhofar also has a distinctive political history, and was essentially an imperial possession of Oman until 1970. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s, a major although largely forgotten Marxist revolution in Dhofar shook the foundations of the Omani state, forcing the country at long last to enter the modern world. Today Dhofar, like the rest of Oman, is generally quiet and peaceful – quite in contrast to the situation in neighboring Yemen. Yet it remains in many ways a land apart; as the Dhofari feminist blogger Nadia recently put it, “Our society in Dhofar is dismissive of outsiders, be it someone from another part of Oman or someone from another country…” (Nadia’s website, Dhofari Gucci, also has the best photo that I have seen of the region’s wet conditions during the monsoon season, reproduced here.)

Islamic Sects and Madhhabs MapMost sources claim that roughly 75 percent of the people of Oman follow Ibadi Islam, the faith of the country’s ruling establishment, although some state that the figure could be as low as 50 percent. Historically, Ibadis have often tended to stand apart from other Muslims, as those of Algeria’s M’zab oasis still do, but that is not the case in Oman. Most observers stress modern Ibadism’s unusual combination of strict orthodoxy and tolerance: as the Wikipedia article puts is, “Ibadis have been referred to as tolerant puritans or as political quietists due to their preference to solve differences through dignity and reason rather than with confrontation, as well as their tolerance for practicing Christians and Jews sharing their communities.” Dhofar at one Middle East Religion Maptime evidently had a significant Ibadi presence, but the region has long been dominated by Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (madhhab), which extends across most of the Indian Ocean realm. The Wikipedia map of Muslim sects and school of jurisprudences posted here, although excellent overall, overlooks the non-Ibadi nature of Dhofar. Mike Izady’s map, on the other hand, does capture it, although it misses the substantial rural population of the humid upland belt located to the north of Salalah.


Over the course of the past few centuries, Dhofar has sometimes been Omani Empire 1856 Mapindependent and sometimes under the rule of neighboring powers, particularly those based in the Hadhrahmaut (to the west) or in northern Oman. In the ancient and medieval periods it often enjoyed marked prosperity based on the trade in aromatic resins, as it was, and is, the core area of frankincense production. Dhofar definitely came under Omani rule after 1750, when that sultanate created a remarkably powerful maritime empire. (The map of the Omani Empire posted here, however, exaggerates the extent of this realm in many areas, although it perhaps downplays the reach of Omani power in the Great Lakes region of central Africa). The website British Empire provides a useful overview:

Between the 1750s and the 1850s, Oman re-established its authority over the islands of the Strait of Hormuz, leasing them from the Persians, secured more than 100 miles of the Makran coast of Baluchistan, reasserted its claims to Dhofar and to the ports of East Africa, and even attempted to take Bahrain. The Mazrui rulers of Mombasa were repeatedly attacked and finally submitted in 1837. The Omani fleet once again became the most powerful local force in the Indian Ocean, if not throughout the East. The architect of this remarkable Omani expansion in the early nineteenth century was the Sultan Seyyid Said, who reigned from 1804 to 1856. He ordered vessels from Indian shipyards, including, for example, the 74-gun Liverpool, launched in 1826, which from 1836 became the Royal Navy Imaum. He possessed in all fifteen western-style warships, as well as a vast fleet of Arab vessels, which could be used for both commercial and military purposes. He could probably embark as many as 20,000 troops. When the Sultan arrived at Zanzibar in East Africa in 1828, his fleet consisted of one 64-gun ship, three frigates of 36 guns, two brigs of 14 guns, and 100 armed transport dhows with about 6,000 soldiers. [Emphasis added regarding Dhofar.]

By the time the Sultan moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840 he had established a highly successful economic system there: an Omani emigrant plantocracy was cultivating cloves, successfully introduced into Zanzibar in 1828, and Indian agents and capitalists, for centuries familiar in Oman and on the East African coast, were capitalising the ivory and slaving caravans which tapped the animal and human resources of the far interior of East Africa.


After the mid-1800s, however, Omani power withered in the face of British expansion, and Oman itself eventually became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. It did maintain a few odd corners of its empire, however, not relinquishing the port of Gwadar in what is now Pakistan until 1958. It also held firmly on to Dhofar; Said bin Taimur, sultan from 1923 to 1970, even based his court in Salalah, the main city of Dhofar. But, as noted in the Wikipedia, “Dhofar itself was a dependency of Oman and it was subjected to severe economic exploitation. Moreover, the population of Dhofar …were subjected to even greater restrictions than other Omanis.”

The restrictions faced by Dhofaris and other residents of Oman were at the time exceptionally harsh, and the country had one of the world’s lowest levels of socio-economic development. As Chris Kutschera, writing in the Washington Post in 1970, described Oman of the 1960s:

Everything, it seemed was forbidden. The inhabitants of the coast were forbidden to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast, or even from one valley to another. No one was allowed to go to Dhofar, in the extreme southwest.

There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.

No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.

No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours.

Dissatisfaction in Dhofar with the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur steadily mounted, especially among the Shehri-speaking (or Jibbali-speaking) indigenous population of the mountains. In 1962, an open rebellion broke out, aided initially by Saudi Arabia. Within a few years the sultan retreated to his palace, ordering his troops to burn villages and destroy wells in rebel-held areas. The rebellion gradually took a more leftist direction, receiving support from Nasser in Egypt and after 1967 from both the People’s Republic of China and the communist-run People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (or South Yemen, which was actually eastern Yemen in strictly geographical terms). By the end of the decade, Omani forces in Dhofar controlled little more than the city of Salalah, with the entire upland region having fallen into rebel hands.

Dhofar Rebellion1970 saw the deposition of the Sultan by his son Qaboos bin Said Al Said in a British-orchestrated palace coup. With substantial British aid, the new government immediately changed tactics, embarking on a “hearts and minds” campaign to win the support of the Dhofari people. Dhofar itself was transformed into a regular province of Oman, and appeals were made to both Islam and traditional tribal values in order to counter communist ideology. Rebels who surrendered were give cash bonuses, and some were reorganized into counter-insurgency squadrons. Oman’s newly upgraded air force was also effectively used against rebel positions. Military assistance was provided by Jordan as well as the UK, and in 1974 Iran sent a contingent of some 4000 troops. Oman also recruited troops from Baluchistan in Pakistan. The rebellion was officially defeated in 1976, although skirmishes persisted until 1979.

Operation Oman Dhofar RebellionAlthough the Dhofar Rebellion was largely forgotten in the West, memory of the struggle is now being revived through film, memoirs, and blogging. As noted in the blogsite MySecretWarDhofar :

“Only those who have been to Dhofar can fully appreciate the severity of the conditions in which the polyglot force fought and flew; at times extreme heat; at others cold, wet, permanent cloud and rugged terrain, the equal of which it would be hard to find anywhere…Those who fought there, including those who were wounded or died, did not fight in vain.”

Michael Carver – Field Marshal


Sultan Qaboos did far more than merely defeat the Dhofar rebellion. Using oil money he launched Oman on a crash-course modernization drive, which proved extraordinarily successful. Some Omanis no doubt chafe at their lack of freedom and worry about corruption and absolutist rule, and numerous protests broke out during the Arab Spring of 2011 and subsequently – although most were apparently focused on wages and the cost of living. But Qaboos is widely revered, and great concern surrounds the issue of succession. The sultan is ailing, allegedly from cancer, and he has not named an heir. He has no children and is widely believed to be homosexual. The future of Oman is thus quite uncertain, as is that of the country’s monarchy.


The mood of the country is perhaps best captured by the blogger Nadia, mentioned above, who writes at Dhofari Gucci. As she wrote on November 11, 2014:

But you must understand one thing if you are not Omani. You must understand what this man [Sultan Qaboos] means to us. He resembles the only form of true leadership we know. He is the only person we feel our country is safe with. He is the one person Omani trust. Did Oman promote diverse leadership over the past four decades? Not really. We have been dedicated to him as a leader and only him.

I’ll tell you why. People like my family will tell you why. My father was born in a cave. He lived a primitive and difficult life until he was an adult. No electricity, no running water, no warmth, living in the mountains of Dhofar sharing his shelter with animals. At times he was very hungry. There was never enough food.

Today, he has a career, a big car, several houses, children, and a very comfortable life. No matter how happy he is now, he will never forget where he came from. People will never forget what Sultan Qaboos did for them and how he led this country from the darkness to where we are today. You need to understand that. …

For 44 years this man has paved the way for our future. He had a vision. He still has a vision. The past few months have been so difficult for Omanis. We have been walking around with heavy hearts. There are no other visible leaders in Oman. There is no clear successor. We don’t want a successor. Not now. Not yet. None of us, young and old, can imagine Oman without him. None of us can even begin to comprehend our reality without this great human being in our lives.


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Forgotten Modern Kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Part 1

Stanford University’s history department recently took its old collection of instructional maps out of storage to hang on permanent display in the hallways. This was an inspired decision, as some of these maps are gems and even the more ordinary ones have some interesting and unusual features.

1923 Arabia MapA 1923 map of Asia by Denoyer Geppert Co. of Chicago, for example, is unexceptional, but its depiction of the Arabian Peninsula is intriguing (see the detail posted to the left). It shows, for example, the small, independent state of Asir in the southwest, rarely seen on maps of this sort, as well as the short-lived (1916-1925) Kingdom of Hejaz. It oddly portrays Oman as if it were a sovereign state rather than a British protectorate, and more oddly still classifies both Qatar (somewhat distorted on the map) and what is now the UAE (then the “Trucial States,” another British protectorate) as parts of the Omani polity. The most unusual feature is the pink strip of land—color-coded as British territory—just to the southwest of Qatar, in an area that now belongs to Saudi Arabia. The mapping makes it seem as if this slice of land had been a northern extension of the British colonial sphere in southwestern Arabia (Aden and the Hadhrahmaut).


Arabian Neutral Zones MapDespite such odd and incorrect portrayals, I rather like this map of the Arabian Peninsular, as it reminds me of the recent establishment of the region’s geopolitical framework. When I was a child, I was intrigued by the undefined boundaries in the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali; “Dahna Desert” on the map here), and even more so by the existence of the stateless Saudi-Iraqi and Saudi-Kuwaiti “neutral zones.” Later on, I was slightly disappointed to see the boundaries fixed and the neutral zones partitioned into nonexistence.


Rashidi Emirate MapOn the map in question, Saudi Arabia does not appear, and for good reason, as it did not exist in 1925. Nedj (“Nedjed”), however, does figure prominently, and Nedj was the nucleus of a state that would be proclaimed as “Saudi Arabia” in 1932. But even the Saudi conquest of Central Arabia was an early 20th century undertaking. Up to 1921, this area had been contested with the more liberal and cosmopolitan Rashīdis of Haʾil, whose state had long overshadowed that of the Saudis. The Saudi state, based on an alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabi religious establishment, followed up its conquest of the Rashīdi Emirate with the annexation of the Kingdom of Hejaz in 1925 and then with mopping up operations against such small states as coastal Asir (technically the Idrisid Emirate of Asir). According to some sources, Hejaz has never been fully incorporated into the Saudi state at the cultural level. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Hejaz is the most cosmopolitan region in the Arabian Peninsula. People of Hejaz have the most strongly articulated identity of any regional grouping in Saudi Arabia. Their place of origin alienates them from the Saudi state, which invokes different narratives of the history of the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, Hejazis experienced tensions with people of Najd.


Izady Middle East religion mapSaudi Arabia is actually the world’s last great conquest empires, one formed in the unsettled environment that emerged with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. It is such a recent entity that it net even fully figured out the problem of royal succession, and it still faces an unsustainable dynamic in the ever-increasing size of the House of Saud. In political terms, it is something of an anachronism, a pre-modern, absolute monarchy whose very name denotes the possession of territory by a family. (This would be like the UK styling itself “Windsorian Britannia.”). Given such conditions, “Saudi” national unity remains insecure, and the country faces the possibility of unraveling along regional lines in the event of a profound political or economic crisis. As Mike Izady’s map of religion in the Middle East shows, the Wahhabi sect on which Saudi Arabia rests is deeply rooted only in the central portion of the country, and is largely foreign to the economically vital Gulf and Hejaz regions.

The recent and imperial nature of the Saudi state is rarely discussed, just as the country’s diversity of Islamic sects is generally ignored. Articles on Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Zaidi Shia (Houthi) rebels in Yemen, for example, almost never mention the significant fact that most of the people in the neighboring highland region of southwestern Saudi Arabia are also Zaidi Shias (Those of neighboring Najran Region, on the other hand, are mostly Ismaili Shias.) Such historical amnesia is found the very title of the Wikipedia article on the creation of the Saudi state, “The Unification of Saudi Arabia,” which implies that the various conquered regions had some kind of preexisting and widely recognized unity that gives coherence to the current-day country.

If the Rashīdis of Haʾil or the Hashemites of Hejaz had prevailed over the House of Saud, world history would probably have taken a markedly different course from the one that led to the world of today. Speculating on how things might have developed, however, is futile exercise. But the main point remains: there was nothing inevitable about the 20th-century emergence of a state encompassing the area that now forms Saudi Arabia, much less of a state that has the religious-political complexion of the current Saudi polity.

DK Atlas Arabia 1925 MapThe same argument can be made in regard to the other contemporary countries of the Arabian Peninsula, most of which have shallow roots, at least in their current territorial configurations. Conventional historical maps of the early 20th century that depict a just a few British protectorates conceal the intricacy of the preexisting geopolitical order, one that could have yielded very different modern geopolitical formations. Compare for example, the standard map of Arabia in 1925 found in my favorite world historical atlas, the DK Atlas of World History, with the extraordinarily Arabia 1905-1923 Mapdetailed map of Arabia 1905-1923 made by Joaquín de Salas Vara de Rey. The latter map may seem to be overly elaborate, but as Yemen continues to implode, it may end up having more relevance for the future than we might imagine.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine two fascinating south Arabian political entities that did not make it onto the modern map: Mahra and Dhofar.



Forgotten Modern Kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Part 1 Read More »

The Uncertain Role of Religion in Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election

Indonesia 2014 Election Wikipedia mapThe on-line maps that I have found of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election are not very helpful. That of the Wikipedia is particularly poor. To begin with, it merely shows which candidate received a majority of votes in each province, with no information provided on the margin of victory. But the returns actually varied quite significantly across the country, with the winning candidate Joko Widodo receiving more than 73 percent of the votes cast in Papua and fewer than 24 percent of those cast in West Sumatra. The color scheme used in the Wikipedia map is also poorly conceived. Crimson?Provincial victories for both candidates are marked in shades of red, although, as the caption notes, a more standard red is used for Joko Widodo, whereas “crimson” is used for Prabowo Subianto. But according to the Wikipedia’s own article on “crimson,” the shade used on the map is actually something different. To be sure, the Wikipedia does differentiate a number of shades of crimson, many of which are associated with college sports teams, but none approximates the color used on the map.

Indonesia 2014 Presidential Election MapDue to such quibbles, I have made my own map of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, posted here. The map shows relatively weak regional patterning overall, with both candidates taking provinces in most parts of the country. But it also shows reasonable strong voting differentiation by province, as noted above. I have tried, although perhaps not hard enough*, to find explanations for such electoral behavior, albeit without much luck. The patterns on the election map certainly do not Indonesia 2014 Election GDP Mapscorrelate well with those found on the map of GDP per capita, as can be seen in the paired maps (compare, for example, the showings of East Kalimantan and East Nusa Tenggara on the two maps.)

Indonesia 2014 election religion mapsA better, although far from perfect, correlation is found in regard to religion. As can be seen in the second set of juxtaposed maps, Muslim-minority provinces all supported Joko Widodo (Jokowi), several of them quite strongly. But then again, a number of strongly Muslim provinces also cast a high proportion of their votes for Jokowi. It is also noteworthy that Aceh in far northern Sumatra, which is the most resolutely Islamic part of Indonesia, supported the losing candidate Prabowo Subianto by a relatively thin margin.

Unfortunately, the map of religion does not indicate either degrees of religiosity or the prevalence of orthodox interpretations, both of which may also play a role. This issue is particularly significant in regard to Java, the demographic core of the country (of Indonesia’s 252 million inhabitants, 143 million live on Java). Central and Western Java have long been noted for their heterodox interpretations of the faith; until recently, a majority of people here have adhered to a form of worship sometimes called Kebatinan, which is defined by the Wikipedia as a “Javanese religious tradition, consisting of an amalgam of animistic, Buddhist, and Islamic, especially Sufi, beliefs and practices … [that is] rooted in the Javanese history and religiosity, syncretizing aspects of different Java Language Mapreligions.” Although mainstream Islam is spreading in eastern and central Java—the Javanese-speaking portions of the island—this area still remains much less conventionally devout than the Sundanese-speaking area of western Java. In the 2014 election, perhaps not coincidentally, western Java supported Prabowo, whereas the east and especially the center opted instead for Jokowi.

The best report what I have found on the role of religion in the 2014 Indonesian presidential election is found in an Al Jazeera article entitled “Religion the Dark Horse in Indonesia Election.” Published before the election was held, it argued that:

[P]rior to Jokowi’s emergence as a political figure in 2012, when he was elected governor of Jakarta, members of religious minorities tended to support a Prabowo presidency – viewing him as a forceful figure able to crack down on impunity, and noting that his brother and mother are both Christian. Now, he says, Jokowi is the favourite among religious minorities.

“In general, Prabowo has been pandering to Islamist sentiment and Jokowi has been more pluralist in his outlook,” said Gregory Fealy, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University. Accordingly, three of the four Islamist parties that won seats in parliament have joined Prabowo’s coalition; the fourth, the moderate PKB, supports Jokowi.

Prabowo has also been endorsed by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group whose members have been involved in attacks against religious minorities, bars and nightclubs.

Minangkabau MapThis explanation, however, leaves me with two perplexities. First, why would hyper-devout Aceh have given Prabowo such lukewarm support? Could it be that many Acehnese people are chafing under the region’s harsh imposition of Sharia law? More surprising still is the extremely high level of support for Prabowo in West Sumatra. West Sumatra is certainly a Muslim-dominated province, but, like central and eastern Java, it has long been characterized by a rather lax form of their faith, one that historically prioritized customary law (adat) over Sharia. Indeed, the dominant ethno-linguistic group in the province, the Minangkabau, are noted for their matrilineal system of reckoning decent and familial property, a system so engrained that the Minangkabau have been characterized (incorrectly, in my view**) as forming a “modern matriarchy.” As a result, the extremely strong showing of Prabowo in the province seems odd. If any readers have any insights into this issue, I would love to hear them.

*It is currently exam- and paper-grading season, which is taking up most of my time.

** The Wikipedia describes Minangkabau culture as “matrilineal and patriarchal, with property and land passing down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men.” I do not, however, think that either “matriarchy” or “patriarchy” are appropriate terms in this context.

The Uncertain Role of Religion in Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election Read More »

Sexualized Dangdut Performances in Indonesia and Resulting Controversies

As the most recent GeoCurrents post explained, heavy-metal music has been of some political importance in Indonesia, with the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, being a major fan. Although cultural tension between “metalheads” and conservative Muslim organization is an on-going issue, overt clashes have been relatively rare and restrained. Religious groups in Indonesia have, however succeeded in shutting down musical performances that they judge threatening to public morals. In 2012, for example, international news outlets widely reported the cancellation of a Lady Gaga show scheduled to be held in Jakarta. The performer reported feeling “devastated” by the news, but her Indonesian critics were highly pleased. As the BBC reported:

The Islamist FPI had threatened violence if the concert went ahead, calling Lady Gaga a “devil’s messenger” who wears only a “bra and panties”. Habib Salim Alatas, the group’s FPI Jakarta chairman, said the cancellation was “good news” for Indonesia’s Muslims. “FPI is grateful that she has decided not to come. Indonesians will be protected from sin brought about by this Mother Monster, the destroyer of morals,” he told AFP news agency. He added: “Lady Gaga fans, stop complaining. Repent and stop worshipping the devil. Do you want your lives taken away by God as infidels?”

Dangdut Jupe PhotoWith this Lady Gaga commotion in mind, many observers might conclude that overt displays of female sexuality are not allowed, or are at least are highly frowned upon, in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But in actuality, this is not the case. For several decades, the most popular form of music across the Indonesia archipelago has been dangdut, described by the Wikipedia as a “genre of Indonesian folk and traditional popular music that is partly derived from Hindustani, Malay, and Arabic musics.” My own knowledge of popular music of obviously quite limited, as the dangdut performance that I have watched on YouTube strike me as more “techno” than folk in style. But regardless of the various influences that dangdut incorporates, the stage dancing that often accompanies the music can be extremely sexualized. Jupe, the genre’s star performer, has certainly not been shy about issue of sexuality. As reported first in the International New York Times and then in the Jakarta Post:

Julia Perez, 30, better known as Jupe (pronounced jew-peh), has quickly become one of this nation’s most sought-after celebrities and a mainstay of television gossip shows. In a society increasingly polarized between supporters of political Islam and Western-style openness, Ms. Perez has led the charge one way with her sexy shows and music videos, her celebration of female sexuality and frank talk about sex. Her best-selling album, “Kamasutra,” included a free condom, which drew the ire of Islamic organizations and got her banned from performing in several cities outside Jakarta, the capital.

Actress and dangdut singer Julia “Jupe” Perez did a pole dance at the Kuningan intersection, South Jakarta on Tuesday night, in order to fulfill a promise. In her Twitter account, Jupe had promised to do the dance if she got 1 million followers “Jupe promises to dance at a red light if [she] gets a million followers! Allah, please make it happen during this fasting month, so I can dance with my clothes on”…. Within a week, her wish came true. Donning a tight suit and a black leather jacket, Jupe moved sensually around the pole of a traffic light at the intersection.

Indonesia Religion MapAs these reports indicate, dangdut is widely disparaged by the more conservative portions of the Indonesian public, and some provinces have banned several songs for being “pornographic.” But overall, it remains the most beloved form of music in at least western Indonesia, by far the most populous and powerful half of the country. A 2012 article in the Jakarta Post reports that the popularity of dangdut has declined in eastern Indonesia (apart from Maluku), although it does not specify what is meant by the term “eastern Indonesia,” nor does it give any reasons for the drop in popularity in that region. (The terms “eastern Indonesia” and “western Indonesia” are often used, but have no formal boundaries to my knowledge; the division that I have inscribed on the map here is a mere estimation.) It is notable, however, that eastern Indonesia in general has a lower percentage of Muslims than western Indonesia, as can be seen in the map posted here.

The Jakarta Post article in question almost seems to imply that the decline of dangdut in the east is a possible threat to national unity. As the author contends:


When the media began promoting the music in the 1980s — and the government did the same in the 1990s — dangdut helped to provide a national narrative popular with most Indonesians. Government officials strategically used the genre to promote political messages on a national stage, often singing and dancing alongside dangdut artists, while cultural institutions used the music to create national unity. In March, an Indonesian official said the government was in the process of having dangdut promoted to the heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


One problem with the use of dangdut, or of any other form of “traditional” music, to enhance national unity in Indonesia is the fact that most of these traditions extend across the border to include Malaysia (and, to some extent, Brunei, far southern Thailand, and other adjacent areas). In 2007, a minor diplomatic scuffle emerged over Malaysia’s use of the popular folk song Rasa Sayang in a tourism promotion campaign. As reported by The Star On-Line:


The call by Indonesian lawmakers for action against Malaysia for using the Rasa Sayang folk song – which Indonesia claims to be its traditional song – in its Truly Asia tourism campaign is unrealistic, said Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. The Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister said the issue should not have arisen as the song, like other folk songs such as Jauh Di Mata, Burung Pungguk and Terang Bulan, were songs of the Malay archipelago inherited by the people from their ancestors.  “I think Indonesia or other parties will not be able to prove who the composer of the song (the Indonesian version being Rasa Sayange) was,” he told reporters at the breaking of fast organised by his ministry here on Tuesday. He was commenting on Indonesia’s House of Representatives member Hakam Naja, from the National Mandate Party, calling on his government to sue Malaysia over the use of Rasa Sayang in its tourism campaign.


In response, one Malaysia blogger re-wrote the song’s lyrics (in English) to showcase Malaysia. My favorite verse runs as follows:


Though it’s great to be Malaysian,

Not everything is perfect, you see,

Rasa Sayang is claimed to be Indonesian,

And it’s cause for controversy.


Malaysia’s world stance is on the rise,

We keep our image looking bright,

Our government is pretty wise,

And our people are super tight.


As a first take-home message from all of these controversies, I can only conclude that public values in Indonesia remain quite distinctive and far more open to displays of female sexuality than those of the Muslim areas of South Asia, or of the Middle East. I cannot imagine a Pakistani equivalent of Jupe performing a pole dance at a major intersection in Karachi while praising Allah for giving her enough Twitter fans so that she could remain clad while doing so. The second message concerns the generally successful efforts to create a strong sense of national identity across the sprawling archipelagic country of Indonesia. Here the pronounced degree of cultural commonality with Malaysia remains an obstacle, and will likely generate new controversies in the years to come.

Sexualized Dangdut Performances in Indonesia and Resulting Controversies Read More »

Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians)

Syria Simple Ethnicity MapMost maps that show the distribution of ethnic groups within particular countries are relatively simple, depicting a few discrete populations within large, contiguous blocks of territory. The distinguishing characteristics of such groups are rarely specified. A good example of such a useful yet overly simplified map is the Washington Post’s portrayal of Syria posted here. This map reduces the complex mosaic of Syria to three groups, two based on religion (Sunni and Alawite) and the other primarily on language (Kurd). But as most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the portrayal is somewhat misleading. A better key would have labeled the tan color as indicating the distribution of Sunni Arabs, although in actuality many non-Arab (as well as non-Muslim) communities are scattered across this large swath of Syrian territory.

Syria Ethnicity Summary MapBut an internet image search of “Syria ethnicity map” returns a sizable number of far better maps that depict vastly more intricate patterns. As it turns out, most of these maps were either made by, or based on the work of, Michael Izady, the word’s most accomplished cartographer of cultural matters. On the Gulf 2000 website that features Izady’s work, one can find several superb maps of ethnicity in Syria Large Ethnicity MapSyria (and in many other countries as well). A small-format summary map shows the basic patterns, breaking down the population of Syria into thirteen groups, with demographic data provided in an accompanying chart and table. Izady’s large map of Syria’s ethnic composition provides far more information. Although impossible to tell from my reproduction here, the map is gargantuan. As a result, one can focus in on particular areas without losing resolution, as can be seen in the map details posted here. The map’s key, moreover, points to the complex blending of language and religion that form the foundation of ethnic identity in this part of the world. On the actual map itself, a brief essay on ethnicity provides a sophisticated conceptual framework as well as a bit of historical background.

Syria Ethnicity Map Detail 1A close inspection of the map shows that much of western and northern Syria are characterized by staggering ethnic complexity. That Izady has been able to accurately depict such intricacy is Syria Ethncity Map Detail 2remarkable. Small but non-negligible groups that are almost always ignored, such as Syria’s Ismailis and Twelver Shias, are mapped with precision. Separate groups that are habitually conflated, such as the Alawites and the Nusairis, are distinguished and mapped accordingly.

At first glance, Izady’s separation of the Alawites and the Nusairis left me puzzled. I had been under the impression that “Nusairi” was merely a pejorative term used by Sunni Muslims to disparage the highly heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam that is more properly known as the Alawite sect, which also happens to be the faith of the ruling core of the Syrian government. But the Nusairi group proper is indeed distinct from the Alawites, although the faiths of both groups, as Izady indicates, are partly rooted in ancient Gnosticism. The limited amount of research that I was able to conduct did not allow me to determine what specific features differentiate these two groups. Unfortunately, most of the readily accessible internet sources come from hostile Sunni Islamist website that disparage both groups and tend to lump them together. Intriguingly, the Nusairis are shown in Izady’s map as inhabiting the higher reaches of the Coastal, or Nusayriyah, Mountains, whereas the Alawites proper are concentrated in lower-elevation areas. (The term “Nusayriyah Mountains,” derives, according to the Wikipedia, from “an antiquated label for the [Alawite] community that is now considered insulting,” again conflating the two groups. )

Syria Ethnity Map Detail 4As Izady’s maps show, Armenian communities are scattered through several parts of Syria. One of the largest Armenian communities is found in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zur (alternatively Deir ez-Zor, Deir Ezzor, Deir Al-Zor, Dayr Al-Zawr, Der Ezzor), a settlement of more than 200,000 inhabitants that is noted for its oil-refineries and other industries. Deir al-Zur is particularly important in Armenian history, as it was one of the main destinations of Armenians expelled by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, a deadly process regarded by most historians of the issue as genocidal in nature. Deir al-Zur is also located near the core power-base of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS). As a result, the Armenian communities of the region are highly threatened.

ISIS Control mapOver the past two months, I have been periodically trying to determine the situation of the Armenians of Syria and especially eastern Syria, but with little luck. Some sources indicate that half of the Armenian population has fled the country. Many maps that show the current military situation depict the key city of Deir al-Zur as an island of Syrian governmental control in an ISIS sea (such a pattern is even found on maps that maximize the ISIS zone, such as the Wikipedia map posted here, which inaccurately portrays Kobane was having fallen to Islamic State forces). Other sources indicate that intensive fighting has recently occurred in the vicinity, and that much or perhaps all of the city has been taken by Islamic State fighters, but information remains thin. The most recent information that I have found dates from October 21 and comes from a Columbian newspaper. If my translation is correct, the paper reports that, “The group Islamic State today took part of the industrial area of ​​the city of Deir al-Zur in eastern Syria, after facing the forces of Bashar al-Assad regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” The sardonic humorist Ambrose Bierce once quipped that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” But if so, help by the media is still needed in this educational initiative, and I am not convinced that they are doing an adequate job.

The city of Deir al-Zur did gain brief attention in late September after ISIS militants destroyed a prominent Armenian Church as well as an Armenian Memorial to the ethnic expulsions of the early twentieth century, prompting widespread international condemnation. Armenian sources, however, expressed disappointment that the official response from the United States “failed to either mention the very reason for this holy site’s existence, the Armenian Genocide…”

Gathering information on Deir al-Zur is complicated by the fact that its name also denotes the Syrian governorate (province) in which the city is located. Most news searches for Deir al-Zur (regardless of which spelling is used) thus return information that pertains to the larger province, not the city per se. One of the more unusual and intriguing recent articles on the province examines, “rules for journalists” that have been put forward by ISIS in the regions that it controls. As can be seen from this excerpt of an official ISIS proclamation, the groups does not hold the Qatari media giant Al Jazeera in high regard:

3 – Journalists can work directly with international news agencies (such as Reuters, AFP and AP), but they are to avoid all international and local satellite TV channels. They are forbidden to provide any exclusive material or have any contact (sound or image) with them in any capacity.

4 – Journalists are forbidden to work in any way with the TV channels placed on the blacklist of channels that fight against Islamic countries (such as Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Orient). Violators will be held accountable.


Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians) Read More »

The Extraordinary Cultural Cartography of Michael Izady, Part I

Middle East Oil Religion MapTo understand the political situation of the Middle East today, it is necessary to examine the geographical relationships pertaining to political borders, the distributions of religious and linguistic groups, and the patterning of oil and gas deposits. Of particular significance is the fact that many of the largest fossil fuel deposits are found in areas that are not primarily inhabited by Sunni Arabs. Many of the major oil and gas fields are rather found in Shia (and to a lesser extent, Ibadi) regions, and in Kurdish territory. This pattern is especially significant in regard to the oilfields of eastern Saudi Arabia, which are located in a mostly Shia region of a state noted for its hostility to Shia Islam. Just last week, Saudi Arabia sentenced a prominent Shia cleric to death for supporting non-violent protests.

Several years ago, I made my own amateurish map of this issue, focused on Saudi Arabia. I later discovered an extraordinarily detailed and accurate map of the same issue covering a much larger swath of territory. This map made was made by Dr. Michael Izady, a scholar of the Middle East and a cartographer extraordinaire. Izady’s maps can be found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, a site that I cannot recommend highly enough. To my mind, Izady is the world’s best cultural/historical cartographer. He has brought cultural mapmaking to a level never before seen, far surpassing all rivals. His map collection is substantial, he continues to produce new maps on new topics, and he continually revises his old maps. Many of his maps simultaneously show cultural and demographic patterns, mapping densely populated areas in darker shades from sparsely settled areas and leaving virtually uninhabited zones blank. Such a cartographic strategy is highly useful—and very difficult to pull off.

For the next week or so, GeoCurrents will be showcasing Izady’s maps. Today’s post is brief, but more detailed essays will follow.

Religion Arabian Peninsula MapWhenever I study one of Izady’s maps, I find patterns that I had not previously been aware of, making me want to learn more. I also use his maps extensively in preparation for teaching. This afternoon, for example, my undergraduate seminar on the history and geography of current global events will be examining the position of Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia (among other topics), and here Izady’s maps prove crucial. Most important, they show that Shi’ism in the country is by no means limited to the oil-region along the Gulf, although that is the way that the situation is generally portrayed in the media. Note, for example, the large Shia area in southwestern Saudi Arabia adjacent to the Shia portion of Yemen, which in turn has been at the core of the recent turmoil in that country. But despite the obvious importance of this issue in Yemen, the situation of the followers of Zaidi Shi’ism in adjacent areas of Saudi Arabia is almost never mentioned in the media.

Southwest Arabia Religion MapBut it gets much more complicated than that. The detail of Izady’s global map of Shia Islam posted to the left shows that the Zaidi sect is not the only branch of the Shia faith found in southwestern Saudi Arabia, as the Ismaili sect is represented as well. Izady’s map of Yemen Religion Mapreligion in Yemen shows the Ismaili areas of that country in extraordinary detail. Ismaili Islam is itself a complex branch of the faith, with numerous divisions of its own and a fascinating history (and one in which Yemen plays a major role.) If I had the time, I would now be delving into the persecuted Ismaili faith in Saudi Arabia’s Najran province. As Wikipedia notes, “In Najran city, the Khushaiwa compound, with its Mansura mosque complex, is the spiritual capital of the Sulaymani branch of the Ismaili sect…” But as it is, I must turn away from such matters and prepare for class! More later…





The Extraordinary Cultural Cartography of Michael Izady, Part I Read More »