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Overlook Seminar

Fall 2018

Tracy Miller
"Geometry, Cosmology, and the Blossoming of Buddhist Space in the Songyuesi Pagoda"
09 November 2018
4:10pm in Cohen Memorial Hall Room 308

The famous pagoda at Songyuesi  (ca. 523 CE), located  on Mount Song,  near the former Northern Wei capital at Luoyang, is not only the earliest full-size pagoda extant in China, it is the only with a dodecagonal plan.  This paper explores how a particular design strategy, traces of which can be found in divinatory devices, reliquaries, and the plans towering Indic temples, may have been used create the plan of the Songyuesi pagoda in an effort to imbue the structure with an inherent generative power. The technique may have been seen as a type of geometric “proof” of the Buddhist cosmological system, providing evidence that ritual objects could be designed by humans to transmit natural, life-giving, energy to those who used them.

The presentation will begin with a short happy hour. Savories and drinks will be provided. 

Please RSVP to Annie Everett ( to receive a copy of the paper. 

Spring 2018

Ashkan Bahrani
"Decolonizing Persufilia: Acadmic Violence in the Study of Iranian Sufism in North America: A Geneaology"
26 March 2018

This paper aims to examine the genealogy of the study of Persianate Sufism in North America (the 1970s- present). The paper argues that through different trends, stemming from various categorizations and polythetic taxonomies, Neo-Eurocentrism has been perpetually preserved and reloaded under the guises of Persophilia, Eastoxication, and Perennialism. The boundaries of three major trends discernible in the study of Sufism in North America in the last fifty years will be mapped out. These trends, that are not the species of the same genus, are essentialist-textualist approach, historical-textualist approach, and historical- anthropological approach. Through a modified postcolonial approach, the study addresses the confrontation of two manifestations of non-corporeal violence in the American Academy, or to put it more simply, academic violence, i.e. neo-colonial violence – predominantly propagated by politically conservative academic institutions – vs. reactionary, tribalistic, and regionalistic, and again politically motivated violence – orchestrated by some of the ‘representatives’ of postcolonial/ anti-colonial studies.

Alexis S. Wells-Oghoghomeh
"Sex, Body, and Soul: The Ethics and Common Sense of Sexual Re/membrance"
12 February 2018

Through an examination of three dimensions of enslaved women's sexual relationships, this book chapter explores the effects of sexual trauma upon the ethical reasoning and performances of enslaved women. In response to sexual trauma and circumscription, enslaved women adopted ways of narrating trauma, defining relationships, and understanding pleasure aimed at countering the social, psychological, and emotional effects of enslavement. Men and children followed suit. Thus the chapter makes a broader argument about how women's experiences shaped religious values within enslaved communities.


Daniel Birchok
"Ridwan's Conversion: Religious Giving, Interreligious Reciprocity, and Social Boundaries in Indonesia"
01 March 2016

The ritualized sharing of meals and other forms of exchange are prominent features of a widespread Sufi ethic of hospitality.  In recent ethnographic literature, this ethic has been associated with liminal qualities deemphasizing social difference and hierarchy, and thus become the conceptual ground for re-envisioning social boundaries and other forms of relationality.  This paper similarly examines an instance in which the evoking of such an ethic opens a space for rethinking social relations, namely, the conversion narrative of Ridwan, a Chinese-Indonesian Muslim convert from Buddhism.  Ridwan’s narrative emphasizes relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims through its attention to religious giving and hospitality, yet does so in a way that intensifies the salience of religious boundaries, rather than diminishing them.  The paper thus asks, with Ridwan what are the possibilities and limits of a reimagining of interreligious sociality without resort to liminal moments in which religious difference ceases to matter.

David Wasserstein
“Is the Islamic State an Islamic state?”
01 February 2016

 First, some questions of definition: what do we mean here by “state”, by “Islamic”?  What is an “Islamic state”? And what about dawla, in Arabic, as distinct from “state”?  The Islamic State itself has apocalyptic ambitions, as shown by its concern with Dabiq – the place and what is to happen there.  IS has set up a state, with territory; and with that it has recreated a caliphal institution, with caliphal ambitions and caliphal claims.  And onto these it superimposes the apocalyptic messianism of Dabiq.  For now, it looks very successful and for good reason.  IS has a lot going for it: rejection of man-made law in favour of radical acceptance, interpretation and application of God’s law; outstanding propaganda (as distinct from ideological depth) which has great appeal not least because the forms of the message and much of the content too look exactly like the standard message of (Sunni) Islam.  The counter-argument, whether from Muslims or from non-Muslims, is pitiful.  IS will presumably fail in the end, like other movements of apocalyptic messianism, if only because the end doesn’t arrive or the messiah doesn’t perform his role, but complete failure may take some time.

Tony K. Stewart
“Popular Sufi Narratives and the Parameters of the Bengali Imaginaire
05 November 2015

A number of Bangla tales dedicated to the fictional or mythic holy men (pirs) and women (bibis) in the Muslim community have circulated widely over the last five centuries alongside the tales of their historical counterparts. They are still printed and told today, and performed regularly in public, especially in the Sunderbans, the mangrove swamps in the southern reaches of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Among them are figures such as the itinerant veterinarian Manik Pir, the tamer of tigers Badakhan Gaji and his female counterpart Bonbibi, and the matron of cholera Olabibi. Because of the way they defy the strictly demarcated categories that have come to define Hindu and Muslim in the last two centuries, Orientalist scholars, conservative Muslim factions, linguists, and literary historians have until recently rejected or ignored altogether this group of stories as as purely entertaining with no religious, linguistic, or literary merit. I argue that not only are these fictions religious, they create an important space within the limiting strictures of Islamic theology, history, and law that allows people to exercise their imagination to investigate alternative worlds. These texts simultaneously offer a critique of religion and society through their parodies, rather than articulating doctrine or theology. Because they are fictions, any approach to their religiosity must use hermeneutic strategies suited to the literary world in which they operate. But the imagination exercised in these tales is not unlimited, rather the parameters of the discursive arena in which they operate—the imaginaire—can be defined by two types of presuppositions and two types of intertextuality, which in turn allows us more clearly to understand the work of these important texts. The example of the tale of Bonbibī will be used to illustrate.

 Alexis S. Wells
“’She come lak a nightmeah tuh duh folks wile dey sleeping:’ Enslaved Women, Hags, and Creative Power in the African-American Sacred Imagination”
12 October 2015

In the historiography of slave culture, scholars have generally traced enslaved people’s witchcraft beliefs through Western European lineages and failed to take seriously the distinctiveness of enslaved, Black southerners’ accounts of witches and witchcraft. Using the cultures of the Windward Coast as an interpretive context, this article argues that witch beliefs, particularly those surrounding the “hag,” evinced understandings of female-embodied creative power—originating from West African cosmological frameworks and indigenous to enslaved communities in the United States South. Moreover, beliefs regarding the hag-witch did not function as a sanction against women as in West African and European American contexts, but rather attested to the sociological importance of women in enslavedS communities in the Lower South.

David Michelson
Mixed Up By Time and Chance? Using Digital Methods to “Re-Orient” the Syriac Religious Literature of Late Antiquity
24 September 2015

The British Library’s collection of approximately 1000 Syriac manuscripts is one of the world’s richest collections of materials for the study of Syriac Christianity. These manuscripts were catalogued in the nineteenth century shortly after a large collection of nearly 500 manuscripts were acquired by the British from the monastery of Dayr al-Sury?n in Egypt. This article examines the Orientalist intellectual assumptions that guided the nineteenth-century cataloguing efforts and offers a methodological proposal for how a new digital catalogue of the manuscripts could and should differ. New methods of digital representation can permit users to engage the Dayr al-Sury?n manuscripts and the whole of the British Library Syriac collection from multiple, varied, and even conflicting perspectives. Several such digital approaches are being implemented in’s digital catalogue of the British Library Syriac manuscripts. The diversity of such digital approaches promises to open new insights into the history of Christianity in late antiquity and beyond.



Laurel Schneider
More Than A Feeling: A Queer Notion of Survivance
21 April 2015

Anand Taneja
Saintly Visions: The Ethics of Elsewhen
11 March 2015

Jennifer Alexander 

"Matthew's Eunuchs in utero: Engendered by Design"
19 February 2015  

Volney Gay
"Does Religious Studies Need a Metatheory? Yes. Is Information Theory a Good Candidate? Maybe." 
27 January 2015

Aydogan Kars
“Apophasis Triumphant:” a Genealogy of Negative Speech in the Study of Religion
17 November 2014

Sophie Bjork-James
Desiring Communities and Incommensurate Identities: Evangelical Christianity, Homosexuality, and the Ethics of Desire 
29 October 2014

Bryan D. Lowe 
An Introduction to “Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan.” 
29 September 2014



Arthur Francis Carter
Diaspora(x) = mx + a Jewish Paradigm or Diaspora, Root, and Definition as Diaspora Studies’ Linear Deduction
7 May 2014

Nicholas Schaser
The Sacrifice of the Red Heifer and the Ritualization of Israel’s Sacred History in Pesiqta de Rav Kahana
31 March 2014

Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman
The Permeability of Intercommunal Boundaries in Early ʿAbbāsid Iraq
27 February 2014

Anand V. Taneja
"Of Stones, Birds, and Other Muslim Saints: The Shifting Moral and Ecological Landscapes of Urban North India"
 27 January 2014

Robert Ford Campany
"Recovering and Interpreting a Lost 4th Century Daoist Method for Cheating Death"
14 November 2013

Dianna Bell
"Understanding a 'Broken World': Islam, Ritual, and Climate Change in Mali, West Africa"
15 October 2013

Richard McGregor
"The Relic and Its Witness: Gaze and Display as Islam Practice"
11 September 2013



Tiffany Hodge
"On the Margins of the 'Legal': Islamic Law and Legal Anthropology in Rural Bangladesh"
25 April 2013

Nancy G. Lin
"Complex Agency and the Formation of the Fifth Dalai Lama's Court"
27 March 2013

Daniel Patte
"Ethics of Biblical Interpretation"
28 February 2013

Tony K. Stewart
"Instruction in Fiction: The Conundrums of the 19th c. Bengali Text Iblichnāmā or Muhammad's Colloquy with Śāytān"
23 January 2013

Ira Helderman
"'Disguising the Dharma,' 'Spreading the Dharma': A Typology of the Buddhist/Psychotherapist Relationship"
29 November 2012

Jenny Dyer
"The Politics of Evangelicals: How the Issue of HIV/AIDS in Africa Shaped a 'Centrist' Constituency"
25 October 2012

Bryan Lowe
"Haunted by Demons, Watched by Kings"
01 October 2012