Visions of Community. Comparative Approaches to Ethnicity, Region and Empire in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (400-1600 CE) VISCOM

VISCOM ( focuses on the question how particular communities and identities are constructed in the Middle ages and the early modern period. The project proposes a comparative approach focusing on Christian, Islamic and Buddhist examples in order to explore the interaction between religious and political 'visions of community'. All three religions were used to legitimize imperial rule, but they also encouraged other forms of community, be they local, regional, civic or ethnic. Here, interesting differences become visible: for instance, ethnicity played a different role in the three cultural zones. Was that due to the respective impact of religion, or, in some cases, rather to their lack of impact? How did concepts, perceptions or cultural memories frame the emergence of new communities, and how were they in turn influenced by religious discourses? How did different forms of community (for instance, regional or ethnic groups and empires) interact? These questions are situated between the fields of history and social anthropology, of European and Asian studies, between religious and political history, between research on discourse and on practice, and therefore have not been addressed sufficiently so far.

This project is carried by the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, under the direction of Walter Pohl. Comparative research will be undertaken through a cooperation of Social Anthropologists (Institute for Social Anthropology – Andre Gingrich), Tibetologists (Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia – Vincent Eltschinger [formerly Helmut Krasser(✝)]) and specialists in the field of Austrian and Eastern European History (University of Vienna - Christina Lutter, Oliver Schmitt).

South Arabia between Late Antiquity and Early Modernity: International connections and the entanglement of histories

This project part focuses on the formation and development of communities in South Arabian history including the transitional phases of Late Antiquity and the early Islamic period (5th-8th centuries AD) as well as the medieval period (9th -15th centuries AD). Key sources are examined that primarily relate to social interactions within South Arabia and beyond. These include unedited manuscripts and documents as well as published sources, which contain potential for further analysis and inquiry through the means and concepts of historical anthropology. In this way, this project views these historical sources as containing frequent and explicit references to the regional diversities of South Arabia as well as the communities’ encounters with external groups. The communities mentioned in these sources vary as to their religion, language, and other social dimensions such as tribal identity.
The main research contexts are the Islamization of South Arabia and its role as a haven for marginalized Islamic denominations, the tribalization of South Arabia’s vast rural areas and the memory of its former political glory, and the network of interregional commerce between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The changing role of tribes and their relationship to more centralized political entities represent a special feature of South Arabian history that provides an extremely fertile scale of comparison with similar communities in medieval Europe and Tibet. Similarly, regional and local belief communities throughout South Arabian history demonstrate the region’s enduring capacity to absorb and integrate minorities of all kinds.
Overall, these research foci in the framework of the VISCOM project will provide original and fresh perspectives on the interplay between the formation and maintenance of communities and their subjective understanding of these social processes.