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Migration and Religion


MIGRATION AND RELIGION . Migration almost always affects religion. This is so because when people migrate to a new place they alter routines of daily life, and new experience inevitably acts upon even the most tenaciously held religious tradition. Conversely, religion often inspires migration.

Religious Motives

Organized religious groups may decide to move to a place where their pursuit of holiness will face fewer obstacles. Some successful colonies of this kind played important historic roles by defining patterns of conduct for larger, less religiously incandescent communities that succeeded them.

Among Christians and Muslims, though rarely for other religions, armed migration also played an important part in spreading and defending the faith. Crusade and jihād, between them, defined the frontier between Dār al-Islām and Christendom for more than a millennium, from the first Muslim conquests of the seventh century until the secularized statecraft of the eighteenth pushed religious antipathy to the margins of military enterprise. The Muslim conquest of India (eleventh to seventeenth century) was likewise sustained by a flow of fighting men who came to Hindustan in order to combat infidelity, and, perchance, to acquire fame and wealth in the process.

Personal and private pursuit of holiness has also inspired innumerable pilgrims to visit shrines that are usually located where their religion originated or had its earliest efflorescence. A contrary flow of holy men beyond the frontiers of the society of their birth has often led to the conversion of strangers, even across linguistic and cultural barriers. Overall and in general we may therefore say that religiously inspired migration, whether peaceable or warlike, had a great deal to do with the definition of civilizational and cultural frontiers in historic times.

Pilgrimage affirmed and helped to homogenize religious and secular culture within each civilization. It became especially important for Islam. Long after the caliphate collapsed, the thousands of pilgrims who traveled to Mecca each year from all over the Muslim world maintained a loose but effective unity among the community of the faithful. Holy war and peaceable conversion on the other hand, enhanced heterogeneity by bringing new populations within the circle of one or another religion from time to time. Diversity did not bother Hindus and Buddhists very much, but new frictions arose among Jews, Christians, and Muslims with every missionary success, since converts inevitably retained some remnants of older "pagan" outlooks and habits. For these faiths, therefore, local and sectarian diversity remained in perpetual conflict with the ideal of uniform and punctilious obedience to God's will as authoritatively defined by religious experts and administrators.

Second only to crusade and counter-crusade, religiously inspired collective migrations offer the most dramatic manifestations of how human motility and religiosity interact. The migrants' goal, of course, is to find a place where the will of God can be more perfectly obeyed. Undoubtedly, most sectarian enterprises of this sort do not last very long. The mass suicide of Jim Jones's followers in the jungles of Guyana in 1978 was a reminder of how such ventures may collapse in grisly failure. At the other extreme, the Puritans of Massachusetts and the Mormons of Utah dominated their chosen localities for generations and still influence the mainstream of American life. In Russia, communities of Old Believers played almost as prominent a part, for they, too, throve on the frontiers and influenced the wider community around them by pioneering privately managed trade and industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the deeper past, monastic communities offered the most important examples of collective migration undertaken for religious reasons. Buddhist, Daoist, Shintō, and Christian monasteries were often set up in remote rural localities where the monks' devotion and learning propagated and sustained the faith among surrounding populations while also providing a focus for economic exchange and (at least sometimes) for political activity as well. Such monastic centers were especially important in times and places where towns were absent or poorly developed, and tended to become marginal in proportion to the rise of secular urban centers.

The initial establishment of such monasteries was achieved by deliberate, collective migration of bodies of monks or nuns. Subsequent recruitment came from far and wide, since the inhabitants did not reproduce themselves. Monastic establishments thus depended on and could only thrive by retaining connection with the currents of personal migration in search of holiness that flowed within (and sometimes between) each of the Eurasian civilizations.

Private, personal migration for religious reasons is difficult to document since itinerant holy men, living on alms, seldom recorded their experience in writing. The forest retreats of ancient India where the Upaniads were generated constitute the oldest attested examples of personal, private migration away from the toils of ordinary society in order to pursue religious enlightenment and truth. They were, perhaps, archetypical. At any rate, India's warm climate was propitious since it allowed seekers after holiness to survive on little food and with little clothing. The ascetic way of life, in turn, encouraged and sustained mystic visions of transcendental realityvisions that validated the holy way of life and confirmed the aspiration of escaping from the ills of this world by entering into contact with suprasensory reality.

Transient and personal master-disciple relationships among Indian holy men took a new and enduring form among the followers of Gautama, the Buddha. For, on the occasion of his death (484 bce), the Buddha's followers defined a holy way of life that combined itinerant mendicancy with periods of rest and recuperation in specially constructed monasteries. Following this regimen, Buddhist monks soon penetrated far beyond the borders of India, traveling along the caravan routes of Asia to the Far East and boarding merchant vessels bound for Southeast Asia as well. In ensuing centuries, holy men of other faiths (Manichaeans and Nestorian Christians especially) adopted similar modes of life. Later still, Daoists and adherents of Shintō established monastic communities modeled more or less closely on the Buddhist prototype.

Wandering holy men, whether of the Buddhist or some other persuasion, had much in common with the merchant-peddlers who frequented the same trade routes. Indeed, these itinerant holy men were a kind of merchant whose stock-in-trade consisted of esoteric knowledge and personal experience of the transcendental world. They lived, in effect, by exchanging their special access to the supernatural for the alms that sustained their bodily wants.

Mainstream Christianity and Islam went in opposite directions in developing the Buddhist pattern of religiously motivated migration. Early in the history of Christian asceticism, monastic rules inhibited the private pursuit of holiness by itinerant almstakers. Yet this did not prevent the systematic establishment of new monasteries at distant frontier locations. Rather, monasteries played a leading role in spreading Christian civilization beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, both in the west among Germanic peoples and in the east among the Slavs. Then, after the voyages of discovery by Europeans during the sixteenth century, missionary orders met with enormous success in converting Amerindians to Roman Catholicism, but failed to win many Asians or Africans to their faith. Protestant missions flourished mainly in the nineteenth century, and probably converted more Asians and Africans to the secular aspects of Western civilization than to their various versions of Christianity.

Within the realm of Islam, on the other hand, the initial effort to make the entire community perfectly obedient to God left no room for monks or any other kind of specially holy personages. The Qurʾān accordingly forbade monastic vows. As a result, when the first burst of conquest came to a halt, pious Muslim merchants took over the missionary role that had been exercised for other faiths by monks and other religious specialists. Thus with the advent of Islam the convergence between missionary and merchant, already apparent in Buddhist practice, became complete.

To be sure, from the twelfth century onward, dervish communities, somewhat analogous to the monastic orders of other religions, arose within Islam. They flourished most in the frontier lands where the expanding Turkish power encountered the Christian populations of Asia Minor and the Balkans. Dervish forms of piety had an important role in converting Christians to Islam along that frontier, but the dervishes never escaped the taint of heterodoxy.

There is profound irony in the upshot of all these various religiously motivated patterns of migration. Puritans of New England as much as Old Believers in Russia, along with all the variegated company of monks and holy men who propagated Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other faiths along remote frontiers, all sought to escape from the corruptions of civilized society as exemplified in their initial homelands. Yet the net effect of their efforts at withdrawal and pursuit of a more perfect obedience to the precepts of their religion was to spread civilized skills and knowledge among previously simpler societies. Institutional success in the form of flourishing monastic or civil communities, dedicated to holiness though they might be, perversely propagated the very corruptions of civilization which the founders had so earnestly wished to escape from. Of course, discrepancy between intentions and accomplishments is normal in human affairs, but the gap is seldom so patent as in these instances.

Secular Motives

Migration undertaken for other than religious reasons also had the overall effect of spreading civilized complexity. Its immediate impact on religion was usually to provoke some sort of blending of old and new traditions as immigrants encountered new peoples and new conditions of life along with alien faiths and religious practices. But religious interactions exhibited many variations, depending on conditions of the encounters and on choices individual leaders and teachers made in coping with unprecedented novelties.

If one seeks to make sense of such diversity it is useful to distinguish between migrations that carry a particular population up a cultural gradient and migrations that carry people in an opposite direction toward frontiers where civilized institutions weaken or disappear.

A people that moves up a cultural gradient may do so as conqueror or captive. Peaceable infiltration of individuals or small family groups is also theoretically possible but remained statistically unimportant until the nineteenth century, when the advent of superior public peace, efficient communications, and mechanically powered transport made that kind of migration feasible on a mass scale for the first time. It follows that the Israelites' conquest of Canaan on the one hand and the African slave trade on the other are the appropriate models for most historical migration, unlike the sort of individual and family migration that did so much to populate the United States between the 1840s and 1920s.

In matters of religion, conquerors and captives alike have three options when arriving in lands whose skills are superior to their own. The newcomers may accept the established religion of the land to which they have come, retaining only a few telltale traces of their own older practices. The Akkadian invaders of ancient Sumer seem to have accepted this option at the very beginning of civilized history; Turks coming into the realm of Islam either as slaves or as conquerors did the same. So did the African slaves imported to North America to work on plantations.

Slaves had little choice as a rule. Forcibly separated from the social context that had nurtured them, they could not, as more or less isolated individuals, carry very much of their native religion with them. Conquerors, however, were in a position to choose. Nevertheless, simple maintenance of accustomed rites and ideas was seldom possible. New experiences, ideas, and circumstances crowded in on successful conquerors. To resist their subjects' religions took a special effort, all the more difficult in view of the fact that the established rituals of the land were already adapted to the circumstances of civilized and agricultural life.

The Bible record shows how hard it was for the Israelites to maintain their desert faith in the land of Canaan after settling down to an agricultural existence. Energetic, violent means were needed to repress Baal worship. This was the work of kings and prophets, who in reaffirming the old religion in fact transformed it. That transformation is what made Judaism so enormously influential in the world at large, but its influence also attests the exceptional character of the prophetic response to the conditions of agricultural civilization.

Other invaders who rejected the religion of the land they had conquered were nonetheless affected by contact with people of a different faith. This happened even when the subjected population accepted the faith of their conquerors en masse. The contamination of Turkish Islam with Christian elements was a pronounced feature of Ottoman life, for example, while the Mughals in India alternated between a policy of permitting and resisting the parallel contamination of their faith with Hindu practices and ideas. A similar situation prevailed in the crusading states of the Levant, and when the Mongol Empire was at its height, Khubilai Khan's policy of patronizing all available religions, so as not to foreclose any avenue of access to the supernatural, shocked and puzzled Christians and Muslims alike.

A third policy that attracted many "barbarian" conquerors was to try for the best of both worlds by espousing a heretical form of civilized religion. This marked the conquerors off from their subjects and helped to maintain a collective esprit de corps among the invaders, while also allowing the new rulers to benefit from advantages of civilized religionfor example, literacy, an authoritative scripture, and a hierarchical priesthood. The German tribesmen who adhered to Arian Christianity when invading the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries followed such a policy. The Uighurs, who became Manichaeans, and the Khazars, who became Jews, illustrate a variation on the same theme, for the religions of their choice served to mark them off from neighbors and subjects while at the same time offering rulers the support of a fully civilized faith.

Nevertheless, such barbarian polities were transitory and so were the heresies they found attractive. The reactions that mattered were assimilation to civilized forms of religion on the one hand and inventive rejection on the other that has been so central in the history of Judaism, of Shintō, and, since the mid-nineteenth century, to the evolution of Hinduism and Islam as well.

Migrations undertaken for economic or political reasons that carry a people to lands less developed than those they leave behind ordinarily have less impact on traditional religious practices. The Chinese migration from north to south that created the imposing mass of contemporary China, for example, had no very obvious effect on Chinese religion. The same may be said of Japanese expansion northward through their islands and of the German Drang nach Osten.

Only in modern times did it become possible for family groups and isolated individuals to migrate safely toward an open frontier. In such circumstances, of course, pioneers left organized religion behind. This prepared the ground for itinerant revivalists. Emotionally vibrant forms of established religion fared best in such circumstances, with conspicuous individual conversion the goal.

Proletarian migrants into cities faced circumstances similar in some important respects to the deculturation and individual isolation of the rural frontier. It is not really surprising therefore that the Methodists who first addressed themselves to unchurched urban populations of Great Britain were also among the most successful on the American frontier.

Other varieties of religious revivalism are currently flourishing among urban immigrants, both in the United States and beyond its borders. Islamic revivalism is the most politically prominent of such movements, but sectarian forms of Christianity also have a vigorous life in American cities and in many developing nations, while offshoots of Buddhism can also be observed making headway in urban contexts, both Eastern and Western. Marxism, too, is no more than a secular heresy competing in this environment for human commitment to its materialist doctrines.

Concluding Remark

In the world at large, as populations increase and migratory flows swell to unexampled proportions, religious interminglings and interactionsboth hostile and pacificare sure to intensify. The future history of humankind will in all likelihood be written around the clash of religions and cultures that is taking place around us, for secular thought and abstract reasoning are weak reeds by comparison with the tidal flows of faith and feeling that govern human conduct today as much as at any time in the past.

See Also

Crusades; Jihād; Mendicancy; Missions; Monasticism; Pilgrimage; Zionism.


Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge and New York, 1984. An in-depth discussion of trade between people of different cultures and of the complex cultural exchanges between diverse human societies that were brought about by trade.

Diesner, Hans-Joachim. The Great Migration: The Movement of Peoples across Europe, ad 300700. London, 1978. A splendidly illustrated, thoroughly researched study on the main groups of migratory (barbarian) peoples that crisscrossed Europe during the Middle Ages and on the emergence of new societies and civilizations as a result of this diaspora.

Folz, Robert, et al. De l'antiquité au monde médiéval. Paris, 1972. A minute and erudite discussion of the period of the most spectacular migrations, invasions, and conquests in both western European and Islamic worlds.

French, Allen. Charles I and the Puritan Upheaval. London, 1955. A background of the Puritan exodus, the "Great Migration."

Goblet d'Alviella, Eugène. The Migration of Symbols. London, 1894. Groundbreaking work on the circulation of religious symbols as a result of movements of peoples.

Kirsten, Ernst, et al., eds. Raum und Bevölkerung in der Weltge-schichte: Bevölkerungs-Ploetz. 3d ed. 4 vols. Würzburg, 19651966. A collection of demographical data from the beginnings of recorded history until late 1950s, from every part of the inhabited world.

Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. New York, 1969. A learned and concise history of monasticism. Monks' religious fervor, mobility, and political influence made them ideal for the spread of religion in the remotest corners of the world.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. Oxford, 1972. Succinct work on the history of the Crusades and on all the territorial and population changes connected with these holy wars.

McNeill, William H., and Ruth S. Adams, eds. Human Migration: Patterns and Policies. Bloomington, Ind., 1978. A collection of essays by scholars in the field that stands as a standard reference source for the complex topic of population movements.

Noth, Albrecht. Heiliger Krieg und Heiliger Kampf im Islam und Christentum. Bonn, 1966. A comparative study on the ideology and practice of holy war in Islam and Christianity, reviewing aspects of population displacements and territorial changes in the western Mediteranean region.

Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance. London, 1963. Probably the best study on the history of European colonization between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Price, A. Grenfell. The Western Invasions of the Pacific and Its Continents: A Study of Moving Frontiers and Changing Landscapes, 15131958. Oxford, 1963. An investigation into the physical and cultural changes suffered by the Pacific territories as a result of the white peoples' invasions.

Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York, 1981. A comprehensive analysis of the African diaspora as a result of the slave trade during European and American colonial history.

Simon, Marcel, et al., eds. Les pèlerinages de l'antiquité biblique et classique à l'occident médiéval. Paris, 1973. This volume focuses on the pilgrimage traditions of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the Mediteranean basin and of ancient Greece. It also provides an important theoretical treatment of the notion of pilgrimage.

Strobel, August. Der spätbronzezeitliche Seevölkerstum: Ein Forschungsüberblick mit Folgerungen zur biblischen Exodusthematic. Berlin, 1976. A remarkable contribution to the controversial study of the "sea people" and the great migration that turned around the history of the ancient Near East.

Yeivin, Samuel. The Israelite Conquest of Canaan. Istanbul, 1971. An exemplary investigation, based on literary and archaeological evidence, of the Israelite invasion.

New Sources

Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori. Muslim Travelers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. London, 1990.

Fisk, William L. The Scottish High Church Tradition in America: An Essay in Scotch Irish Ethnoreligious History. Lanham, Md., 1995.

Geaves, Ron. "Religion and Ethnicity: Community Formation in the British Alevi Community." Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 50 (2003): 5271.

Gregg, Robert. Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia's African Methodists and the Southern Migrants, 18801940. Philadelphia, 1993.

Landman, Christina. "Telling Sacred Stories: Eersterust and the Forced Removals of the 1860s." Religion and Theology, 6 (1990): 415428.

Péres y Mena, Andrés Isidora. Speaking with the Dead: Development of Afro-Latin Religion among Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Study into the Interpenetration of Civilizations in the New World. New York, 1991.

Sennet, Milton C. Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration. Durham, N.C., 1997.

William H. McNeill (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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