2021 AAR Book Awards

The American Academy of Religion is pleased to announce the 2021 recipients of the Awards for Excellence in the Study of Religion, the Best First Book in the History of Religions, and the Religion and the Arts Book Award.

This annual competition recognizes new scholarly publications that make significant contributions to the study of religion. The awards honor books of distinctive originality, intelligence, and creativity, and these titles affect decisively how religion is examined, understood, and interpreted. Congratulations to the winners!

Religion and the Arts Book Award

Yuhang Li

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China (Columbia University Press)

From the jury:

Yuhang Li's book provides anglophone readers with an unparalleled and badly needed authoritative study on one of the most important figures in Chinese myth and religious practice, particularly with respect to women's experience in late imperial China. The myriad illustrations that support the written texts explain her thesis and walk the reader through the socio-historical development of the mythical gendered materialization of Guanyin, via dance, painting, embroidery with hair, the mimesis with hairpins, and a thoughtful conclusion. Li's treatment of gender, class, and the power of representation is superb. Particularly intriguing are the discussion and artistic representations of the feminization of Guanyin, the impact of material culture, and the self-mutilation practices of virtuous women that include them flesh cutting and plucking out their own hair to use to embroider an image of the deity—all depicted with elegance, clarity, and an appreciation for the complexities of belief and practice.

Best First Book in the History of Religions

Maria E. Doerfler

Yale University

Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son: The Death of Children in Late Antiquity (University of California Press)

From the jury:

In this lucidly and lyrically written book, Maria E. Doerfler plumbs the fragmentary historical record for evidence of how members of Christian communities in Late Antiquity responded to the deaths of children. In examining a variety of textual genres, including commentary, homilies, hymns, prayers, and letters, Doerfler deftly illuminates the variegated ways in which Christians were urged to understand and experience their grief. The result is, among other things, a vivid contribution to the history of emotion and a powerful case study of religious communities’ attempts to shape the lived experience of their members.


Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Analytical-Descriptive Studies

Sam Gill

University of Colorado, Boulder

The Proper Study of Religion: Building on Jonathan Z. Smith (Oxford University Press)

From the jury:
In The Proper Study of Religion: Building on Jonathan Z. Smith, Sam Gill offers an engaging and accessible book that invites the reader to peer deeper into some of the most pivotal and yet often overlooked aspects of Smith’s work. This is not, however, merely a recuperation of Smith, for Gill explores the possibilities of where new readings of Smith might lead us. As the subtitle aptly suggests, Gill invites the reader to build on Smith’s work by consider the significance of Smith’s tendency towards jest and play, the centrality of incongruity to Smith’s theories of religion, and how to academically evaluate the category of “experience.” Gill writes that Smith shocked him into becoming a better academic and this thorough engagement with Smith's work inspires us become better academics, too. Part homage, part theoretical treatise, what Gill has offered to the scholarly community is a work of enduring value.

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Constructive-Reflective Studies

Niloofar Haeri

Johns Hopkins University

Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran (Stanford University Press)

From the jury:

Niloofar Haeri’s deeply researched and elegantly written book brings readers into the most intimate and exigent spaces of a religious world. Haeri examines the everyday prayer practices of Iranian women as the basis for reflecting on the relationship between prayer and poetry and on how ideas about religiosity debated in classical Persian poetry inform the world of prayer. Haeri’s ethnographic study of Muslim women at prayer, a practice that is at once deeply personal and utterly social, underscores the diversity of Muslim religious practices and challenges conceptions of what constitutes “authentic” religion, complicating the distinction between ritual and non-ritual forms of worship. This beautiful book is a signal contribution to the study of women and Islam, with implications for the study of religion itself.

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Historical Studies

Theodore J. Lewis

Johns Hopkins University

The Origin and Character of God: Ancient Israelite Religion through the Lens of Divinity (Oxford University Press)

From the jury:

Theodore J. Lewis’s magnum opus reflects his scholarly commitment to the study of the religion of ancient Israel through the centrality of the definition, agency, history, and meaning of God. A masterful presentation of interdisciplinary scholarship incorporating archaeology, art, culture, literature, politics, and the lived experiences and realities of religious faith with scripture, this encyclopedic survey will become a classic reference work as well as a classic must read for scholars of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Expanding the tradition boundaries within which we talk about God, the author’s nuanced language both permits us to question our pre-existing preconceptions and come to our own conclusions about this primordial topic. Beyond its methodological rigor and critical evaluation of research data, Lewis’ volume is written in a style that will prove accessible to a wider audience beyond the academy including religious practitioners of the Abrahamic faiths.

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Textual Studies

Michael Pregill

The Golden Calf between Bible and Qur'an: Scripture, Polemic, and Exegesis from Late Antiquity to Islam (Oxford University Press)

From the jury:

Though the comparative enterprise has come under fire on account of its essentialism, Pregill’s work provides an outstanding example of the uses to which comparison can be put when done seriously and on a small-scale. While based on careful scholarship and responsible philological practice, his comfort with the material and the novelty of the analysis leads him to venture forth and make much bolder claims about the nature of the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. The result is a textually rich and theoretically sophisticated work that, while closely focused on one base text, that of the Golden Calf, subsequently moves out into much larger issues that deal with textuality, politics, and the nature of scholarship.

Award Finalists

In addition to the award winners, the award juries would like to share their 2021 shortlisted finalists in recognition of their exceptional scholarship:

Religion and the Arts Book Award

  •  Vaughn A. Booker, Lift Every Voice and Swing: Black Musicians and Religious Culture in the Jazz Century (New York University Press)
  • Jodi Eichler-Levine, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community (University of North Carolina Press)
  • Richard J. A. McGregor, Islam and the Devotional Object: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria (Cambridge University Press)
  • Kevin Lewis O'Neill and Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela, Art of Captivity / Arte del Cautiverio (University of Toronto Press)
  • Jerome Tharaud, Apocalyptic Geographies: Religion, Media, and the American Landscape (Princeton University Press)

Best First Book in the History of Religions

  •  Paul Glen Grant, Healing and Power in Ghana: Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity (Baylor University Press)
  • Yuhang Li, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China (Columbia University Press)
  • Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (Princeton University Press)
  • Natalia K. Suit, Qur'anic Matters: Material Mediations and Religious Practice in Egypt (Bloomsbury Academic)

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Analytical-Descriptive Studies

  • Brian A. Hatcher, Hinduism Before Reform (Harvard University Press)
  • Ayesha A. Irani, The Muhammad Avatāra: Salvation History, Translation, and the Making of Bengali Islam (Oxford University Press)
  • Michael D. McNally, Defend the Sacred: Native American Religious Freedom beyond the First Amendment (Princeton University Press)
  • Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Church State Corporation: Construing Religion in US Law (University of Chicago Press)
  • SherAli Tareen, Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press)
  • Mayfair Yang, Re-Enchanting Modernity: Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China (Duke University Press

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Constructive-Reflective Studies

  • Justin M. Anderson, Virtue and Grace in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Cambridge University Press)
  • David G. Horrell, Ethnicity and Inclusion: Religion, Race, and Whiteness in Constructions of Jewish and Christian Identities (Eerdmans)
  • Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans)
  • Özgür Koca, Islam, Causality, and Freedom: From the Medieval to the Modern Era (Cambridge University Press)
  • Barbara U. Meyer, Jesus the Jew in Christian Memory: Theological and Philosophical Explorations (Cambridge University Press)
  • Willemien Otten, Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson (Stanford University Press)
  • Catherine Pickstock, Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press)

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Historical Studies

  • Sean W. Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith The Making of the Prophet of Islam (University of California Press)
  • Roland Betancourt, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press)
  • Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos, Constantinople: Ritual, Violence, and Memory in the Making of a Christian Imperial Capital (University of California Press)
  • Shahla Haeri, The Unforgettable Queens of Islam: Succession, Authority, Gender (Cambridge University Press)
  • Chin-shing Huang, Confucianism and Sacred Space: The Confucius Temple from Imperial China to Today (Columbia University Press)
  • Matthew Martin, Tantra, Ritual Performance, and Politics in Nepal and Kerala (Brill)

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Textual Studies

  •  William L. Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (University of North Carolina Press)
  • Carlo Ginzburg and Bruce Lincoln, Old Thiess, a Livonian Werewolf: A Classic Case in Comparative Perspective (University of Chicago Press)
  • Lara Harb, Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature (Cambridge University Press)
  • Steven Heine, Readings of Dōgen's “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye” (Columbia University Press)
  • James Bryant Reeves, Godless Fictions in the Eighteenth Century: A Literary History of Atheism (Cambridge University Press)
  • Caroline T. Schroeder, Children and Family in Late Antique Egyptian Monasticism (Cambridge University Press)