Academic Books

The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa

How the Modern European Identity is perpetuated through the discourse of World Religions

The idea of “world religion” expresses a commitment to multiculturalism (i.e. it evinces the multicultural, empathetic spirit of contemporary scholars), presupposing that there are many world religions, and Buddhism and Islam are amongst them. This concept embodies a pluralist ideology, a logic of classification, which has shaped the academic study of religion and, consequently, infiltrated ordinary language. In the past, European scholars of religious studies categorised people of the world into four, well-marked and unevenly portioned, domains: Christians, Jews, Mohammedans, and the rest (heathens, pagans, idolaters, or polytheists). This fourfold schema, which long held sway in early modern compendia and dictionaries, began to crumble in the first half of the nineteenth century, and in the early decades of the twentieth, scholars expanded their understanding of great world religions to eleven: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Sikhism. This list became the new unchallenged and taken-for-granted schema. It ran along by force of habit, by force of conventional opinion. With the lapse of time, it became stronger and stronger––must eventually be a fact, a reality not easily destroyed.

To most scholars, the expansion of the list is free of any commitment to exclusivism and actuated not by greed, but by an insatiable love for diversity. It embodies a movement from exclusion to inclusion, or toward religious pluralism, a movement made possible by the increasingly more accurate and specific state of empirical knowledge. Such a train of thought celebrating the achievements of modern knowledge may also lead the presumption that the stability of world religions list today––accompanied by a standard description of each religion––is simply a consequence of better science. If there is a convention to list numerous world religions, may it not be because there are many major religions in the world, together with countless other minor traditions that may be called “others”?

For Tomoko Masuzawa, Western values determined the outcome of the schema, despite the appearance of pluralism. She therefore tries to demonstrate how European universalism perpetuates itself through the discourse of “world religions”. Her aim is not to understand how the field of religious studies emerged in the nineteenth century, but how the discourse on “religions” played a role in the discursive formation of the “West”. She argues that despite the tolerance seemingly epitomised by “world religions”, this concept ironically operates to preserve the uniqueness and superiority of Christianity. This novel discourse is instrumental in the collapse of the old-four ordering system, and also in the eventual rise of the new system, which appears as no more than a pluralism of “world religions”. Thus, she firmly denies that the “advent” of world religions marks “a turn away from the Eurocentric and Eurohegemonic conception of the world, toward a more egalitarian and lateral delineation” (Masuzawa, 2005, p. 13).

This book studies what took place to produce this change, looking into ideas, contentions, and spiritual turmoil disguised beneath the placid pluralism of world-religion discourse. It tries to uncover the origin and function of the idea of “world religions”. For over a century, this idea has had major implications on the fundamental teaching and analysis framework of non-Christian religions in the West. Thus, the book focuses on a particular aspect of the formation of modern European identity, i.e. how Europe came to self-consciousness: Europe as the harbinger of universal history. 

With a particular focus on the relation between the comparative study of language and the nascent science of religion, this book shows how in the nineteenth century new classifications of language and race gave special significance to Buddhism and Islam, placing them in opposing categories, the former as Aryan and the latter as Semitic. Christianity, a European faith of Semitic origin, was cast as the “uniquely universal” religion of freedom, while Islam was represented as the outcome of a rigidly ethnic religion of the Arabs imposed upon nations on a semi-global scale. The grouping together of “great religions” was, therefore, intended to highlight the uniqueness of Christianity, which alone achieved universality and transcendence. It was intended to show differences, not similarities: “comparative theology would not compromise the unique and exclusive authority of Christianity” (Masuzawa, 2005, p. 81). The retention of such given superiority faced one critical obstacle: the emergence of the linguistic divide between Indo-European and Semitic languages. Linguistic families were racial categories, as the synonym for Indo-European––Aryan––attests, but since Christianity evolved out of Judaism, and Hebrew is a Semitic language, was Christianity not thereby a Semitic rather than an Indo-European religion, culture, and race? Masuzawa shows that Christianity was detached from Judaism and regrouped with Hellenism.

Masuzawa questions the assertion that the scientific or objective study of religion must be separated from the religious commitment of scholars. In this respect, she directly challenges those who write on the history of modern religious studies. For example, she addresses the rapid inclusion of Buddhism in the canon of world religions and the deep resistance to Islam. The inclusion of Buddhism was made possible by the rise of analysis of Indo-European languages, since the Romantic age. The idea of Indo-European family of languages originated in India. It spread over to Asia and eventually to Europe, particularly to Greece, where a similar analysis emerged and linked Greek civilisation, and hence the European, to India, the home of Buddhism. Thus, Buddhism was a precursor to European civilisation and informed that civilisation, and on these and other grounds, many scholars came to see Buddhism as a great world religion. 

Although European scholars had always been hostile to Islam, this image changed during the nineteenth century, and, as a result, Islam was categorised as a Semitic religion. Arabic, like Hebrew, was a non-infected language (unlike Indo-European), and neither was deemed capable of intellectual subtleties as the Indo-European languages. By the end of the nineteenth century, Islam came to be seen as a national religion (Arabic religion, or the religion of the Arabs) rather than a world religion. 

Masuzawa suggests that the actual historical process that gave rise to the current epistemic regime was different from the “just-so” claimed story. The process of reshuffling the old schema was, in fact, part of a much broader and fundamental transformation of European identity. The influential new science of comparative philology, a disciple whose significance transcended the technical examination of language, facilitated this change. The discovery of language families or language groups opened “new possibilities for European scholars to reconstruct their ancestral roots, realigning their present more directly with pre-Christian antiquity” (Masuzawa, 2005, p. xii). They precisely located the genealogical origin of European ancestry in the imagined glory, allegedly “timeless” modernity, of ancient Greece, but also found a root of even greater antiquity, the hitherto unknown past of the so-called proto-European progenitors. 

An implication of this new mode of thought, supposed by the philological scholarship, was that among the spiritual and cultural legacy of Europe (reconstructed as the “West”), Christianity alone is of Semitic origin. This idea rendered Christianity at odds with Islam and Judaism unless it could be shown to be more Hellenic than Biblical. The idea of Aryan Christianity excited numerous scholars, so much that there appeared several successful treatises in the latter half of the nineteenth century that the supposedly true origin of Christianity, a religion qua Europe, should not be sought in the Hebrew Bible but in some late Hellenic, possibly Indo-Persian or even Buddhist traditions. Concomitant with this urge to Hellenize and Aryanize Christianity was a desire to Semitize Islam. Thenceforward, Islam was rigidly stereotyped as the religion of the Arabs, a bigoted religion rooted in Arab’s national, ethnic, and racial particularities. Scholars insisted on such semitization, despite a fact well known to Europe, namely, that the vast majority of Muslims, then as now, were not Arabs. Thus, Islam cam to stand as the epitome of the racially and ethnically constrained, nonuniversal religion.

With the idea of the possibly “mixed” heritage of Europe, there comes an assessment of collateral effects, an intriguing question hitherto unimaginable: Should monotheism––the doctrine of a single universal god––remain the basic assumption of universality? The answer is also hitherto unimaginable: monotheism is something rather mellifluously philosophical and abstract, one which embodies the principle of unity and universality, but not an absolute authority of a creator. After all, was it not reason––a faculty fully and initially realised purportedly by the Greeks––that allowed the ancients to discern the true unity of this phenomenon? Was it not this discernment, as some hellenzing enthusiasts suggested, that became the foundation of science, the best system of governance, and art, the bona fide universals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful? In contrast, monotheism, cast as a Semitic tendency, was linked with exclusivity––the rejection of multiplicity––rather than universality––the orderly embrace of a multitudinous totality. It is therefore not surprising the old classification scheme, which saw the old alliance of Abrahamic religions, began to break down under the mounting pressure of these new thoughts, and out of the ruins of this ancient system soared a new conception of Christian Europe––or of European modernity with or without Christianity––with the rest of the world reshuffled eventually to settle into a new map.


Masuzawa’s book gives rise to several questions: Why did the concept of “world religion” prevail if the aim was to preserve the uniqueness of Christianity? Would the retention of the term indicate retention of its original use? Does the use of the term in academia evince the thinking of scholars? Why not employ the term, if it is the case that some religions, more than others, do transcend national and regional boundaries? Does Masuzawa then attach in general too much importance to terms? Is she under the illusion that words effect great results? However, and as a matter of fact, terms are, as a rule, the shallowest portion of all the arguments. They but dimly represent the tremendous surging desires that lie behind.

The book’s master thesis is complicated by many interesting sub-theses, such as (1) the initial reluctance on the part of European scholars to assign “world religion” status to Islam; (2) the presentation of Islam as “Arab-oriented” and the attempt to desemitize or to Aryanize Christianity; (3) the suggestion that Buddhism first propelled the notion of “world religion” into a pluralistic context; (4) the links between philological discussions of “inflected languages” and geopolitical evaluation of entire civilisations. All these deserve careful and further examination. Nevertheless, most of these strands are linked with strategies used to maintain the universalist claims of Christianity, and this will lead the reader to emphasise Christianity as a target for critique. The possible variant readings of the book’s thesis are unfortunate, for they undermine the book’s underlying claim, viz. that European exceptionalism is promoted through a sustained and uncritical use of the concept of “world religions” (see a detailed discussion in King, 2008). 

Masuzawa presents her book as distinctly about European identity, or about how the discourse of world religions preserves the hegemony of European universalism in the face of collapsing claims about Christian exclusivism. However, she only focuses on the Anglophone literature, British and American, thereby giving rise to some vexing enquiries about the identity in question. Is the American identity subsumed into the European without discussion of the many ways Americans defined themselves against Europe? Though it clearly states that the discourse of world religions emerged in an American academic context, its empirical date is firmly rooted in a European rather than a more broadly Euro-American account. If the discourse of world religion arrived into North American colleges and universities in the 1920s and 30s, how is it adequately told under the moniker of European identity? If this is “very much an American phenomenon”, then why not engage with scholarship on American religious and cultural pluralism, such as those notable and immediately obvious sources as David Hollinger and William Hutchison? The lack of discussion on Americans not only undermines the force of the master thesis but may also convey the impression that this is a peculiarly European rather than a Euro-American issue.

Still, the book prompts further questions: Why is the concept only now under careful examination in the Academy? What sort of market forces has made it less of a taboo to explore? What conditions have led to the unveiling of the “world religions” paradigm to take place now at the beginning of the 21st century? Does not the slow demise of the “world religions” approach reflect a shift of emphasis away from the study of cultural meta-narratives and universalist ideologies, and towards greater recognition of the internal pluralities within such traditions? Indeed, there is a growing interest in eclectic forms of “spirituality” (see Carrette & King, 2005) in certain parts of the Northern Europe and North American academy, thereby a shift away from an emphasis on “traditions” and “religions”. This shift may also reflect an institutional movement in the Academy towards increasing specialisation of knowledge. As such, it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to claim specialisation in an entire “world religion”, let alone in all world religions, despite many still to do so where specialisation is limited.


Carrette, J., & King, R. (2005). Selling spirituality: The silent takeover of religion. Routledge.

King, R. (2008). Taking on the Guild: Tomoko Masuzawa and The Invention of World Religions. MTSR Method & Theory in the Study of Religion20(2), 125–133.

Masuzawa, T. (2005). The invention of world religions or, How European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism. University of Chicago Press.

[Friday 16th October 2020, Durham]

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