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Food and Religious Traditions: The place of diet and food-related practices in religions of the world


Deze informatie is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Admission requirements

This course is an Honours Class and therefore in principle only available to students of the Honours College. There are a few places available for regular students.

Please note: We would discourage students of Religious Studies and Anthropology from taking the course, on the basis that they could cover some or much of this material within their major courses.


Why do some monks fast? Why do Jews and Muslims abstain from pork? Why do Buddhist monks beg for their food and eat only once a day, before noon? What is the religious significance of drinking tea?

To exist is to eat. But eating can be more than a process of obtaining fuel; it can be made a meaningful, even a profound structured activity, one conducive to promoting positive goals such as community cohesion, spiritual progress and the like. One of the ways in which humans structure their activities is through religious traditions. Since actions take on significance only through an imposition of meaning, fasting (absention from food), for example, does not in itself have a certain meaning; this meaning comes only from a context. In this regard, the fast of a Jew on the holy day of Yom Kippur and that of the Christian ascetic may not have the same significance at all.

This course will examine a select range of food (and drink) related ideas and practices in a variety of religious traditions, and seek to understand their respective places within these traditions—the importance and significance of the acts within their contexts. The focus will be on trying to understand the role that food plays both within the internal logic of semantics of the given tradition, and typologically to compare phenomena across traditions. Such examinations will lead to a richer understanding of the variety of meanings humans impose upon their existence in the world, as individuals and as communities.

Course objectives

Students will be introduced to a number of key theories in anthropology and religious studies, centering around cultural diversity, the contingency of meaning of actions, and the importance of context. They will learn relevant facts about a variety of religious traditions, and develop the ability to compare and contrast in meaningful and non-normative ways. The course goals thus include the acquisition of factual knowledge (historical, sociological and so on), development of theoretical sophistication in dealing with the organization and interpretation of factual knowledge, and an awareness of and sensitivity to its contingency, and finally the cultivation of an awareness of and sensitivity to the variety of human interpretations of life in the world as a meaningful reality.


All classes in the evening, ideally 19.00-21.00


Lipsius building, room 002.


4 October
I: General Introduction to Issues.

11 October
II: Christianity: Presenter Prof dr Jürgen Zangenberg, Leiden, Institute of History.
Foci: Fasting, fish on friday, the place of wine

18 October
III: Ancient Iran: Presenter Prof dr. A. F. de Jong (Leiden, Religious Studies Foci: Manichaeism and light

25 October
IV: Judaism: Presenter Prof dr Judith Frishman (Leiden, Religious Studies) Foci: Kosher, Communal Feasting

8 November
V: Islam: Presenter Prof dr Christian Lange, Utrecht University. Foci: halal, Ramadan

15 November
VI: The Ancient World: Presenter Dr Kim Beerden (Leiden, History) Foci: Animal sacrifice and communal feast

22 November
VII: Jainism: Presenter Dr Peter Flügel (SOAS, London) Foci: Self-starvation unto death

29 November
VIII: Hinduism: Presenter Sir James Mallinson (SOAS, London) Foci: caste, vegetarianism, asceticism Reading from:

6 December
IX: Buddhism I: Presenter Prof dr Jonathan Silk (Leiden, LIAS) Foci: Begging, vegetarianism, alcohol and tea

13 December
X: Summing Up and evaluation of what we have learnt: JA Silk

Course Load

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Seminars: 10 seminars of 2 hours: 20 hours

  • Presentation preparation and actual presentation: 18 hours

  • Literature reading: 7 hours p/week x 10 weeks: 70 hours

  • Drafts & final essay: 32 hours

Assessment method

  • 20% Participation assessed continually through participation in seminar and structured activities

  • 20% (10% each) reaction papers to a session’s reading(s) of 500 words.

  • 20% Presentation during a symposium

  • 40% A final paper of ±3000 words
    All portions of the grading scheme must be completed in order to receive a final grade.

Each class will be led by one faculty member. This scholar will present for the first half of the session, based on readings distributed in advance (to be determined in consultation between the presenter and course coordinator). Three students will present in the second half of the class for ±5 minutes each, followed by discussion, led by the students with guidance from that class’s presenter. The presentation will be based on materials selected in consultation with the faculty member presenting that session (such consultation for outside presenters to take place via email). Each student will then write his or her final paper on the general topic of the presentation, on a theme again decided in consultation with the relevant specialist and based upon materials discussed with him or her. The course coordinator will grade the papers, in consultation with the specialist (who will act as ‘second reader’). The reaction papers will be assigned for readings conceptually related to each student’s presentation but for a different religious tradition (e.g., a student who presents on the fasting of Christian desert fathers may read about fasting in Hinduism).

Blackboard and uSis

Blackboard will not be used in this course.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Reading list

A list will be prepared for each session, to be finalized with each presenter


Enrolling in this course is possible from August 21st until September 6th 23:59 through the Honours Academy, via this link

Please note: We would discourage students of Religious Studies and Anthropology from taking the course, on the basis that they could cover some or much of this material within their major courses.


Dhr. Prof.dr. J.A. Silk