On the Uses and Abuses of History
Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a virtual cottage industry in all things ''Abrahamic.'' Directly proportionate to the rise of religious exclusivism, perhaps best epitomized by the attacks of 9/11 and the problems now plaguing the Middle East and Afghanistan, there has been a real desire both to find and map a set of commonalities between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is often done, however, for the sake of interfaith dialogue, rather than scholarship. Recently, however, the term "Abrahamic religions" has been used with exceeding frequency in the academy. We now regularly encounter academic books, conferences, and even positions (including endowed chairs) devoted to the so-called "Abrahamic religions." But what exactly are "Abrahamic religions"? Although many perceive him as the common denominator of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Abraham remains deceptively out of reach. An ahistorical figure, some contend he holds the seeds for historical reconciliation. Touted as symbol of ecumenicism, Abraham can just as easily function as one of division and exclusivity. Like our understanding of Abraham, the category "Abrahamic religions" is vague and nebulous. Usually lost in contemporary discussions is a set of crucial questions: Whence does the term "Abrahamic religions" derive? Who created it and for what purposes? What sort of intellectual work is it perceived to perform? In order to answer these and related questions, Aaron Hughes examines the creation and dissemination of this category in Abrahamic Religions. Part genealogical and part analytical, his study seeks to raise and answer questions about the appropriateness and usefulness of employing "Abrahamic religions" as a vehicle for understanding and classifying data. In so doing, this monograph can be taken as a case study that examines the construction of categories within the academic study of religion, showing how the categories we employ can become more an impediment than an expedient to understanding.
Aaron W. Hughes is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Rochester.
"With his customary clarity and force, Aaron Hughes shows how the term 'Abrahamic religions' does not pick out any naturally shared element in monotheistic religions, but is a term of art that monotheists have used (and still use) to negotiate the significant differences between themselves and their near neighbors--other monotheists. Readers who heed Hughes's cautionary words will return to their scenes of interreligious dialogue and trialogue with a historically and philosophically more sophisticated self-consciousness, and as a result, those scenes will have better and longer-lasting effects."--Martin Kavka, Associate Professor of Religion, Florida State University
"Although quaint and outdated, the 19th century's division between national and ethnic religions was driven by interests little different from those determining how we today group and divide people-making the now popular 'Abrahamic faiths' as tactical a designator as any that came before. Aaron Hughes makes sure that we don't forget this and challenges scholars to keep their eyes on the historical details rather than succumb to the mythology of unity."--Russell T. McCutcheon, author of Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia
"Hughes's main concern in this volume is to present a case study in the construction of categories in the academic study of religion. Even though the notion of 'Abrahamic religions' has no historical referent, and is largely intertwined with religious and political agendas, it has nevertheless also been adopted as a category of analytical value to the student of religion. The lesson to be learned from the creation of such an 'Abrahamic discourse' for students of religion, he rightly points out, is that they must be highly critical and self-conscious about the categories they deploy in their work."--Donald Wiebe, Distinguished Fellow and Professor of Religion, Trinity College, University of Toronto
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