New Religious Movements in Africa, Asia and the Middle East

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

The course will explore new currents and emerging trends in global religion. By means of conceptual questions and ethnographic case studies from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, it will emerge that globalization processes have not only contributed to the expansion of religion, but that religious forces have been crucial in the development of globalization itself. Indeed, questions about religion have been integral to the development of a significant amount of anthropological thinking about globalization. Nevertheless, many social scientists writing on globalization still overlook or neglect religion in their preoccupation with the political or economic dimensions of the phenomenon. This course will restore the balance by highlighting the association between new religious movements (NRMs) and globalization. Instead of taking a bi-directional approach to religious flows from the north to the south, by focusing on “reverse mission” by southern missionaries trying to reawaken religion as it is practised in the north and south, this course seeks to bring developments in multiple religious traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, indigenous religious traditions and a synthesis of several traditions, into conversation with each other.

NRMs challenge most of what we traditionally take for granted about religion, including the ingrained north-south divide in missionization and our understanding of faith itself. We will begin with an explanation of the concept of NRMs in relation to the established world religions as well as cults or sects. We will proceed with a discussion of current debates in anthropology on transnationalism, religious pluralism and syncretism, followed by methodological issues concerning the study of NRMs. Other topics that will be addressed are the global processes that led to the emergence and expansion of NRMs; migration and diasporic religious communities; conversion processes; NRMs’ membership and leadership; the role of new religious agents in bringing about socio-religious transformation; society’s responses to NRMs; and the dissemination of NMRs’ ideologies through the use of new media. We will conclude with a discussion about what NRMs tell us about the future of religion. To explore these topics the course will draw on case studies ranging from Independent Churches in South Africa, vernacular Christianity in South Asia, Pentecostal and other Christian Charismatic Movements in West Africa, Islamic revivalist movements in the Middle East, the new “Spiritual Sciences” in Africa, New Age movements in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, to diasporic religious communities in Britain.

A core component of this course will involve a site visit to a religious or ritual setting in London, as appropriate to the topic. Students will be expected to engage as a participant observer, take field notes about what they see and do, and (if permitted) take photographs. Interviews should be conducted with at least three different practitioners (one leader and two lay). As needed, the course convenor will help students identify potential settings and will provide an introduction to ethnographic methods. Literature research should also be conducted in order to contextualize the fieldwork component.

The first assignment, essay 1, will assess the student’s engagement with and understanding of the key themes and regions in the course. The second assignment, the Fieldwork Report, will evaluate students’ ability to conduct independent fieldwork on the issues raised in the course.

In addition to Anthropology students, the course will also be of interest to other Faculty students. The course will map the global context within which to place contemporary developments in religion within the world today. It will also provide a comparative framework within which to place the students’ own fieldwork.


  • Students enrol via the on-line Module Sign-Up system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, a student should be able to …

  • Demonstrate a good understanding of what New Religious Movements (NRMs) are and how to distinguish them from mainstream religions and demonstrate insight into the ways in which NRMs can be understood in the context of debates about globalization;
  • Have become acquainted with the current debates in anthropology on religious pluralism and syncretism, and of relevant approaches to them;
  • Critically evaluate and synthesize relevant primary sources and secondary material;
  • Contribute effectively to debate and discussion;
  • Conduct fieldwork independently;
  • Effectively convey ideas by way of written submission


One 1 hour lecture and one 1 hour seminar per week.

Method of assessment

There is no exam for this course. All assessed coursework is designed to contribute to student learning.

Suggested reading

Sample Readings:

  • Adogame, Afe and Shobana Shankar. 2013. Religion on the Move! New Dynamics of Religious Expansion in a Globalizing World. Leiden: Brill.
  • Dawson, Lorne L. and Jenna Hennebry. 2003. ‘New Religions and the Internet: Recruiting in a
    New Public Space’. In Cults and New Religious Movements, ed. Lorne L. Dawson, 271–291.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Geertz, Armin and Margit Warburg, eds. 2008. New Religions and Globalization: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
  • Hecker, Pierre. 2010. ‘Heavy Metal in the Middle East: New Urban Spaces in a Translocal Underground. In Being Young and Muslim. New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North, eds. Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, 325–339. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark, ed. 2003. Global Religions: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, Anthony A. 2011. The Bahaʻi Faith in Africa: Establishing a New Religious Movement, 1952-1962. Leiden: Brill.
  • Mosse, David. 2012. The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Reuter, Thomas A. and Alexander Horstmann, eds. 2012. Faith in the Future: Understanding the Revitalization of Religions and Cultural traditions in Asia. Leiden: Brill.
  • Richardson, James T. 2003. ‘A Critique of “Brainwashing” Claims About New Religious Movements’. In Cults and New Religious Movements, ed. Lorne L. Dawson, 160–166. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Stewart, Charles and Rosalind Shaw, eds. 1994. Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism. The Politics of Religious Synthesis. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Veer, Peter van der, ed. 1996. Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity. London and New York: Routledge.


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