Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions


A beautifully designed volume that provides in-depth information about religions of the world. Features over 3,500 entries and 32 pages of color art and maps. Developed in cooperation with Encyclopædia Britannica.

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A beautifully designed volume that provides in-depth information about religions of the world. Features over 3,500 entries and 32 pages of color art and maps. Developed in cooperation with Encyclopædia Britannica.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Merriam-Webster has put together a marvelous one-volume, easy-to-lift-with-one-hand, desktop encyclopedia on world religions. As with many Webster's publications (e.g., The Encyclopedia of Literature and The Biographical Dictionary) the editors here have emphasized comprehensiveness (over 3500 articles) and clarity of writing--and added to these a dispassionate, nonjudgmental, and nonproselytizing reporting of religious concepts, movements, figures, divinities, and sacred sites. Edited and written by eminent scholars, this is a portable, authoritative source. Heavily cross referenced, it also includes a handy pronunciation guide, useful for pronouncing non-English words. But editorial restrictions and space limitations have led to some absurdly abbreviated entries, creating uneven or inadequate coverage. The late Reverend Jim Jones has a bigger write-up than Cain; Aum Shinrikyo is discussed more completely than the Essenes; the Tibetan Book of the Dead is explained in two sentences. In the battle between space and content, space has scored many victories; a little of everything wins out over more of fewer things. But for immediate access to authoritative definitions, this book is impeccable. Recommended for all libraries.--Glenn Norio Masuchika, Chaminade Univ. Lib., Honolulu Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This reference offers an introductory look into a broad range of topics on living and ancient religions, including what we now call myth and mythology. It includes 3,500 entries listed alphabetically, with 29 longer articles on major religions such as Judaism and Hinduism, and issues such as the study of religion or symbolism and iconography. Several plates of color photographs and hundreds of b&w illustrations provide fascinating visual images. This volume may be a welcome addition to a family library; however, it may not prove as useful to professionals due to its lack of depth and breadth (e.g. it does not include any mention of some major topics of religious importance, such as evangelism or conversion). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780877790440
  • Publisher: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 1200
  • Product dimensions: 8.34 (w) x 10.33 (h) x 2.14 (d)

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Chapter One

(phonetics omitted)

AARON (fl. c. 14th century BCE), the founder and head of the Jewish PRIESTHOOD, who, with his brother MOSES and sister Miriam, led the Israelites out of Egypt. The figure of Aaron as found in the PENTATEUCH is built up from several different sources of religious tradition. He has appeared in varying roles in the thought and traditions of Christianity.

    Aaron is described in the OLD TESTAMENT book of EXODUS as a son of Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20; Numbers 26:59) of the tribe of Levi (Exodus 4:14), three years older than his brother Moses. He acted together with his brother in the desperate situation of the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 5; 6:26; 7-12) and took an active part in the Exodus (Exodus 16; 17:10; 19:24). Although Moses was the actual leader, Aaron acted as his "mouth" (Exodus 4:16). The two brothers went to the pharaoh together, and it was Aaron who told him to let the people of Israel go, using his magic rod in order to show the might of YAHWEH. When the pharaoh finally decided to release the people, Yahweh gave the important ordinance of the PASSOVER, the annual remembrance of the Exodus, to Aaron and Moses (Exodus 12). But Moses alone went up on MOUNT SINAI (Exodus 19:20), and he alone was allowed to come near to Yahweh. Moses later was ordered to "bring near" Aaron and his sons, and they were anointed and consecrated to be priests by a perpetual statute (Exodus 27:21). Aaron's sons were to take over the priestly garments after him. Aaron is not represented as an entirely holy and blamelessperson, however. It was he who, when Moses was delayed on Mount Sinai, made the GOLDEN CALF that was idolatrously worshiped by the people (Exodus 32).

    Once a year, on YOM KIPPUR (the Day of Atonement), Aaron was allowed to come into the HOLY OF HOLIES, the most sacred part of the TABERNACLE, or SANCTUARY, in which the Hebrew tribes worshiped, bringing his offering (Leviticus 16). Together with his sister Miriam, Aaron spoke against Moses because he had married a foreigner (a Cushite woman, Numbers 12:1); but, in the rebellion of Korah the LEVITE, Aaron stood firmly at the side of Moses (Numbers 16). According to Numbers 20, Aaron died on the top of Mount Hor at the age of 123; in Deuteronomy 10, which represents another tradition, he is said to have died in Moserah and was buried there.

    Aaron in Jewish and Christian thought. Aaron is a central figure in the traditions about the Exodus, though his role varies in importance. At the beginning he seems to be coequal with Moses, but after the march out of Egypt he is only a shadow at Moses' side. Moses is obviously the leading figure in the tradition, but it is also clear that he is pictured as delegating his authority in all priestly and cultic matters to Aaron and "his sons."

    Aaron continued to live as a symbol in Jewish religion and traditions. In the QUMRAN sect, a Jewish community that flourished just before and contemporary with the birth of CHRISTIANITY, Aaron was a symbol for a strong priesthood. At the end of time, men of the community should be set apart, as a select group in the service of Aaron. Only the sons of Aaron should "administer judgment and wealth," and, according to the MANUAL OF DISCIPLINE, two MESSIAHS were expected, a priestly one of Aaron, and one of Israel. According to a fragment found near Qumran, the priest would have the first seat in the banquets in the last days and bless the bread before the messiah of Israel; here "the sons of Aaron" have the highest position.

    In the TALMUD and MIDRASH (Jewish commentative writings), Aaron is seen less as a symbol than as the leading personality at the side of Moses. The relationship between the two brothers is painted as prototypical in the Haggadah (the nonlegal parts of the Talmud and Midrash; see HALAKHAH AND HAGGADAH). In the Mishnaic treatise Avot (Avot 1:121 Rabbi HILLEL praised Aaron as a man of goodwill who wanted to teach his fellowmen the Law.

    Many attempts have been made to explain Aaron's participation in the episode of the golden calf (SIFRA to Deuteronomy 307). According to some exegetes, Aaron had to make the calf in order to avoid being killed. In the 11th century, the French commentator RASHI contended that the calf was a symbol of the leader, Moses, who was at that time on the mountain. The relationship between Moses and Aaron is also discussed in the Talmud. Some traditionists have wondered why Aaron, and not Moses, was appointed HIGH PRIEST. The answer has been found in an indication that Moses was rejected because of his original unwillingness when he was called by Yahweh. It also seems to have been hard for some traditionists to accept that Aaron was described as older than Moses.

    The first Christian communities accepted Aaron, "the sons of Aaron," or "the order of Aaron" as symbols of the highest priesthood. But in the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is described as a high priest according to the order of MELCHIZEDEK, which was set against "the order of Aaron" (Hebrews 5:2-5; 7:11-12). Of the CHURCH FATHERS, Cyril of Alexandria says that Aaron was divinely called to a priesthood and that he was a type of Christ. Gregory the Great translates the name Aaron as "mountain of strength" and sees in him a redeemer who mediated between God and man.

AARONIC PRIESTHOOD, in JUDAISM, hereditary priesthood descended from AARON. See KOHEN.

AARONIC PRIESTHOOD, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (MORMON) priests whose primary concern is church finances and administration.

ABBESS, the superior of certain communities of nuns. The first historical record of the title is on a Roman inscription dated c. 514.

    Current CANON LAW stipulates that to be elected, an abbess must be at least 40 years old and a professed nun for at least 10 years. She is solemnly blessed by the diocesan bishop in a rite similar to that of the blessing of ABBOTS. Her blessing gives her the right to certain pontifical insignia: the ring and sometimes the CROSIER. In medieval times abbesses occasionally ruled double monasteries of monks and nuns and enjoyed various privileges and honors.

ABBOT, Late Latin and Greek abbas, the superior of a monastic community of certain orders—e.g., BENEDICTINES, CISTERCIANS, and TRAPPISTS. The word derives from the Aramaic ab ("father"), or aba ("my father"), which in the SEPTUAGINT (the Greek translation of the OLD TESTAMENT) and in NEW TESTAMENT Greek was written abbas. Early Christian Egyptian monks renowned for age and sanctity were called abbas by their disciples, but, when MONASTICISM became more organized, superiors were called proestos ("he who rules") or hegoumenos in the East and the Latin equivalent, praepositus, in the West. ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA (c. 480-c. 547) restored the word abbas in his rule, and to this early concept of spiritual fatherhood through teaching he added authority over temporal matters as well.

    An abbot is elected by the chapter of the monastery by secret ballot. He must be at least 30 years old, professed at least 10 years, and an ordained priest. He is elected for life except in the English congregation, where he is elected for a term of 8-12 years. The election must be confirmed by the Holy See or by some other designated authority. The bishop of the DIOCESE in which the monastery is situated confers the abbatial blessing, assisted by two abbots. Chief among the privileges of an abbot are the rights to celebrate the liturgy, to give many blessings normally reserved to a bishop, and to use the pontifical insignia.

    In Eastern monasticism, self-governing monasteries are ruled by several elder monks, whose leader is called abbot.

`ABD AL-GHANI, in full `Abd al-Ghani ibn Ismail al-Nabulusi (b. March 19, 1641, Damascus—d. March 5, 1731), Syrian mystic writer.

    Orphaned at an early age, `Abd al-Ghani joined the Islamic mystical orders of the QADIRIYA and the NAQSHBANDIYA. He then spent seven years in isolation, studying mystic expressions of divine experiences. His written works include discourses on SUFISM, travel accounts, poetry, eulogies, correspondence, PROPHECY, and dream interpretation. A key element in his Sufi writing is the concept of wahdat al-wujud ("divine existential unity" of God and the universe and, hence, of man). His travel accounts are considered by many to be the most important of his writings; the descriptions of his journeys in Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz in Arabia, provide vital information on the customs, beliefs, and practices of the peoples and places he visited.

`ABD ALLAH IBN AL-`ABBAS, also called Ibn `Abbas (b. c. 619—d. 687/688, at-Ta'if, Arabia), a Companion of the Prophet MUHAMMAD, one of the greatest Islamic scholars and the first exegete of the QUR'AN.

    Ibn `Abbas is renowned for his knowledge of both sacred and profane tradition and for his critical interpretations of the Qur'an. From his youth he gathered information concerning the words and deeds of Muhammad from other Companions and gave classes on the interpretation of the Qur'an. His commentaries on the Qur'an were later collected into a book (TAFSIR) and incorporated into the commentaries of AL-BUKHARI and AL-TABARI.

`ABD AL-QADIR AL-JILANI (b. 1077/78, Nif, Persia—d. 1166, Baghdad), traditional founder of the QADIRIYA order of SUFISM, a mystical branch of ISLAM.

    Al-Jilani studied Islamic law in Baghdad and first appeared as a preacher in 1127. His reputation as a teacher attracted numerous disciples, and he is said to have converted many Jews and Christians. He reconciled the mystical nature of the Sufi calling with the sober demands of Islamic law. His concept of Sufism was as of a JIHAD waged against egotism and worldliness in order to submit to God's will. He retains a popular following from Senegal to India and Indonesia among those who consider him a divine mediator and miracle worker. His tomb in Baghdad is visited by Muslims from many lands.

`ABDUH, MUHAMMAD (b. 1849, Egypt—d. July 11, 1905, near Alexandria), religious scholar, jurist, and liberal reformer who led the late 19th-century movement in Egypt and other Muslim countries to revitalize Islamic teachings and institutions.

    `Abduh attended the mosque school in Tanta and subsequently AL-AZHAR UNIVERSITY in Cairo, receiving the degree of `alim (scholar) in 1877. In 1872 he fell under the influence of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, the revolutionary pan-Islamic Persian preacher, who stimulated `Abduh's interest in theology, philosophy, and politics. Afghani was expelled for political reasons from Egypt in 1879 and `Abduh was exiled to his village, but the next year he became editor of the government's official gazette, which he used to preach resistance to Anglo-French political encroachment and the need for social and religious reform. He was implicated in `Urabi Pasha's rebellion against foreign control in 1882 and was again exiled. Rejoining Afghani in Paris for several months in 1884, `Abduh helped publish the revolutionary journal Al-`Urwa al-wuthqa ("The Firmest Bond"). He then taught for three years in an Islamic college in Beirut.

    In 1888 `Abduh was permitted to return to Egypt, where he was appointed a judge in the National Courts of First Instance; in 1891 he became a judge at the Court of Appeal. In 1899, with British help, he became MUFTI of Egypt. He effected reforms in the administration of Islamic law (see SHARI`A) and of religious endowments and issued advisory opinions on such controversial matters as the permissibility of eating meat slaughtered by Christian and Jewish butchers and of accepting interest paid on loans. `Abduh also lectured at al-Azhar and, against conservative opposition, induced reforms in the administration and curriculum there. He established a benevolent society that operated schools for poor children. On the Legislative Council he supported political cooperation with Britain and legal and educational reform in Egypt; these views earned him the approval of the British, but the hostility of the khedive (ruling prince) `Abbas Hilmi and of the nationalist leader Mustafa Kamil.

    In addition to his articles in the official gazette and Al-`Urwa al-wuthqa, `Abduh's most important writings included Risalat al-tawhid ("Treatise on the Oneness of God"); a polemic on the superiority of Islam to Christianity in Islam's greater receptivity to science and civilization; and a commentary on the Qur'an, completed after his death by a disciple. In theology `Abduh sought to establish the harmony of reason and revelation, the freedom of the will, and the primacy of the ethical implications of religious faith over ritual and dogma. He asserted that a return to the pristine faith of the earliest age of Islam would both restore the Muslims' spiritual vitality and provide an enlightened criterion for the assimilation of modern scientific culture.

    In matters of Islamic law regarding family relationships, ritual duties, and personal conduct, `Abduh promoted considerations of equity, welfare, and common sense, even when this meant disregarding the literal texts of the Qur'an. `Abduh has been widely revered as the chief architect of the modern reformation of Islam.

ABEL, second son of ADAM AND EVE, who was slain by his older brother, CAIN (GENESIS 4:1-16). Abel, a shepherd, offered the Lord the firstborn of his flock. God respected Abel's sacrifice but did not respect that offered by Cain. In a rage, Cain murdered Abel, then became a fugitive because of the curse placed upon the ground (a curse of infertility) onto which Abel's blood had spilled.

    Genesis makes the point that divine authority backs self-control and brotherhood but punishes jealousy and violence. In the NEW TESTAMENT the blood of Abel is cited as an example of the vengeance of violated innocence (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:51).

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Table of Contents

Advisors and Authors v
Editor's Preface viii
Introduction by Wendy Doniger ix
Explanatory Notes xi
Guide to Pronunciation xiii
Pronunciation Symbols xvii
An Encyclopedia of World Religions from Aaron to Zwingli 1
Color Plates: Sacred Places, following page 238
Sacred Rituals, following page 430
Sacred Images, following page 686
Sacred Costumes, following page 910
Bibliography 1168
Major Articles
African Religions 16
Anatolian Religions 48
Confucianism 250
Egyptian Religion 316
Germanic Religion 370
Judaism 584
Mesopotamian Religions 714
Millennialism 726
Pre-Columbian Meso-American Religions 868
Pre-Columbian South AmericanReligions 876
Religious Experience 920
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