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African and African Diaspora Religions


This program supports the study of a wide array of religions in Africa and the African Diaspora. Students may focus on African indigenous religions, African Christian or Islamic traditions and cultures, or Afro-creole religions such as Santeria, Candomblé or Vodou. Students receive interdisciplinary training, with an emphasis on historical and ethnographic methods, in preparation for nine months of dissertation research in Africa, the Caribbean or Latin America. Students must demonstrate facility in the lingua franca of the region where they intend to conduct fieldwork, in addition to whatever other languages may be required to execute their project. Faculty in this program bring expertise in independent churches, prophetic movements in East Africa, Sufism in West and North Africa, Ifa and Orisa traditions, African philosophy, Black studies and theology, the history of African American religious movements, as well as Afro-Caribbean religions, ritual studies, Catholicism and Cuban Spiritism.

Program Overview

The graduate program in African and African Diaspora Religions provides training in the study of religion as a category of human thought and practice, and in the study of the religious traditions of Africa and its diaspora. The program includes courses designed to introduce students to the general field of religious studies, as well as advanced courses in which the student pursues specialized work in the practices, rituals, literatures, philosophies, and social and cultural histories of specific African and/or African Diasporic traditions.

The program is interdisciplinary and draws upon related courses in other departments and programs of the University such as Anthropology, History, Sociology, and African American and African Studies. Master's candidates are expected to concentrate on a single African or Diaspora religious tradition. Doctoral students will concentrate on one religious tradition and also develop competence in a second, complementary tradition.

Admission Requirements

To apply to any graduate program, it is necessary to have a BA or its equivalent prior to matriculation. College graduates who apply to our PhD program and show promise will likely be offered a spot in the terminal MA (“MA-only”) program.  It is possible, but rare, for students holding only a BA to gain admission to the doctoral program. Such individuals typically have experience in the region of the world where they intend to conduct their dissertation fieldwork, and they may already have some familiarity with the language(s) needed for their research.  Please note that admission to the PhD program usually includes funding, while admission to the MA program generally does not.  However, MA applicants should consult the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) website for information about The Bridge-to-the-Doctorate Fellowship and Students Financial Services (SFS) for information on financial aid.  For the PhD in African and African Diaspora Religions, preference is given to applicants who hold an MA in religious studies or a related discipline, as well as relevant cultural and linguistic preparation for conducting research, as mentioned above.  Students applying for the PhD should describe their research interests clearly, and develop a tentative dissertation topic, even though it is understood that research objectives may change as one progresses through the program.

The Master’s Degree in African and African Diaspora Religions

The MA program is flexible and can be tailored to students’ interests.  It consists of 30 credits, typically completed in four semesters, but in no less than three semesters.  All MA students spend one full year in residence.

Course Requirements

  • The thesis option:
    This option involves writing a 40-60-page thesis that exhibits solid engagement with the scholarship on the student’s chosen topic, skill in a given method of study, and an ability to employ relevant sources in support of cogent arguments.  Students complete 24 graded graduate credits and 6 ungraded credits.  Coursework must include RELG 5801, “Crafting a Research Project in Religious Studies” (3 credits), as well as 9 credits in seminars dealing with the same religious tradition, and 6 credits in courses with a strong emphasis on theory and/or method.  Students selecting this option should use their 6 ungraded credits, e.g., RELS 8999, to write the thesis under the guidance of a Religious Studies faculty member.
  • The examination option:
    Alternatively, the student may forego the thesis and complete 30 credits of graded graduate coursework, followed by an MA comprehensive examination.  Students take 9 credits in seminars dealing with the same religious tradition, and 6 credits in courses with a strong emphasis on theory and/or method.  The MA comprehensive exam will be based upon the AADR reading list and adapted to the student’s interests in consultation with advisors.   

Language Requirement
All MA candidates must demonstrate competency in a research language other than English that is relevant for their scholarly work (e.g., Arabic, Swahili, Yoruba, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.).  To do so, students may take a reading competency exam offered by one of the language departments.  Alternatively, they may complete two courses (6-8 credits) in a language related to their area of specialization.  Please note that while graduate students may enroll in language courses offered at the undergraduate level to fulfill the AADR language requirement, such courses will not count toward the 30 graduate credits required for the Master’s degree.

The PhD in African and African Diaspora Religions

Course Requirements
PhD students must take at least 13 “content” seminars or graduate tutorials (39 graded credits) that comprise the AADR curriculum. Students must also take at least 6 additional credits of graduate coursework to reach the 45-graded-credit minimum required by the Department.  Those who enter the PhD program with an appropriate graduate degree in hand (e.g., MA, MTS, MDiv) should petition for “advanced standing” at the end of the first semester in residence.  By seeking approval for graduate coursework completed elsewhere, students can obtain up to 15 transfer credits toward their UVA degree.

  • Primary requirement: Six seminars in African or African Diaspora religious traditions (18 credits).  Examples include African indigenous ritual traditions, African philosophical or epistemological systems, Christian or Islamic movements in Africa or the Diaspora, the Black Church, African American Islam, contemporary Orisa traditions, and Afro-Caribbean traditions, among others.
  • Additional requirement: Three seminars in a complementary religious tradition (9 credits).  Examples include Islam, Christianity, or African diasporic traditions (for those concentrating on religions of the African continent).  Scholars focusing on an African diasporic religion may select one of the afore-mentioned traditions, or any religion whose study augments and/or deepens the student’s primary focus.  All doctoral students should seek guidance from their advisors about this requirement.
  • Two seminars in theory and method (6 credits).  One of these courses will be “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion” (RELG 7360), which all PhD students take in their first semester.  Options for the second seminar include those that deal with specific themes such as ritual, gender, embodiment, etc., but do so with a focus on broader theoretical issues and approaches (e.g., “Ritual and Remembrance” [RELA 5620]).  One may also choose a course that surveys methods in the history or anthropology of religions, without a thematic focus.  Students may select seminars offered in other areas within the department such as Religion, Literature and Culture, American Religions, or Islamic Studies, to fulfill this requirement.  Alternatively, with their advisor’s approval, the student may select a course offered in another department.
  • Two elective seminars (6 credits). Electives may be directly related to the student’s area of expertise, or they may be chosen with an eye toward expanding the scope of the candidate’s learning, enhancing their ability to contribute to interdisciplinary discussions. Students are strongly encouraged to take at least one of these courses outside the department. Language courses do not fulfill this requirement.  Both electives should be approved by the student’s advisor.

Language Requirements
All PhD students in Religious Studies are expected to obtain competency in at least two non-English languages necessary for advanced research in their area of specialization and specified in their language plan.

  • Primary LanguageAADR students concentrating on religious traditions of Africa or the Afro-Caribbean are required to complete 6 courses (~ 3 years, up to an advanced level) or the equivalent in a language other than English that is relevant for their specialization.  For example, three years of Swahili, Arabic, Spanish, French or Portuguese are recommended for students working in parts of Africa or the African Diaspora where these are the linguae francae.  If the appropriate language is not offered at UVA, then it is the student’s responsibility to identify summer language institutes that offer intensive courses in the desired language—whether in the United States or abroad.  Students with advanced standing may be able to obtain credit for language coursework as part of a Master’s program.
  • Secondary Language.  All students should develop facility in the language needed for fieldwork.  Languages that past AADR students have studied in preparation for field research include Wolof, Ewe, Malagasy, and Twi.  FLAS fellowships are available through several universities for summer study in certain African languages, and students are expected to pursue such possibilities. GSAS offers summer language grants that students can use to travel to Africa or the Caribbean for intensive language study, while assessing potential field sites for future dissertation research. During the academic year, students should strive to improve their skills through utilizing recordings and manuals or locating native speakers and arranging tutorials.
  • AADR students focusing on African American religious traditions are not required to take any language courses, but they must demonstrate reading competency in two non-English languages.  Students with advanced standing can utilize language certifications from their previous institutions; a number of language departments at UVA also offer competency tests.  Students should meet with their advisors during the first semester to develop a language plan.  

Comprehensive Exams
Comprehensive exams are timed, closed-book examinations to be written by PhD students in their fifth or sixth semester.  They are designed to confirm two things: first, that students possess the necessary grasp of theoretical and methodological thought within AADR and religious studies more broadly, and second, that students have the requisite knowledge for teaching undergraduate courses in their area of specialization.  Everyone will take a comprehensive exam in (1) African and African Diaspora theory and methods.  Individuals concentrating on African or Afro-Caribbean religions will also take exams in their (2) primary religious tradition of study and (3) complementary tradition. Exam reading lists will be based on department reading lists and tailored to fit student research interests in consultation with their advisors. Students may also opt to take a methods exam in a related discipline (e.g. anthropology, sociology, literature) with the approval of their advisor.  AADR candidates concentrating on African American religious traditions and approaches (e.g., Black theology, Womanist theology, African American religious history, theory in Black Studies) will take three exams developed in consultation with their advisor.  For more details on the exam format, students should consult their advisors.

Dissertation Proposal, Fieldwork and completion of the Dissertation
Within approximately three months of completing comprehensive examinations, all candidates will present and defend the dissertation proposal. After the proposal defense, students researching religions of Africa or the Caribbean will carry out at least nine months of continuous fieldwork in a country of central significance for the project. Candidates conducting U.S.-based projects should consult their advisor on appropriate methods and research timetables for any ethnographic or archival research. In all cases, a thorough plan should be developed in consultation with one’s advisor and included in the dissertation proposal. Students should write the bulk of their dissertation during their fifth year. Those who hope to graduate in May of their sixth year should defend their dissertation no later than February of that year. This should allow them sufficient time to make revisions prior to the thesis upload deadline in late April. See the GSAS web page for thesis submission deadlines for the Fall and Summer. 

Course Load and Timetable
PhD students will typically enroll in no more than 12 graded graduate credit hours per semester.  In addition to the 13 “content” seminars and/or tutorials (39 graded credits) that comprise the AADR curriculum, students must take 6 additional credits of graded coursework to reach the 45-graded-credit minimum required by the Department.  Graduate-level language coursework may supply these credits.  As indicated above, students with advanced standing typically receive up to 15 credits for prior work, which leaves them 30 graded credits to complete for the PhD degree.  TAs are encouraged to design 3-credit special topics courses (RELS 8500) in consultation with the professor they are assisting that expand upon the undergraduate lecture material and include additional assignments per the rigors of a graduate-level work.  Finally, students are reminded to register for however many “non-topical research” credits (RELS 8998-9999) are needed to raise the total number of credit hours to 72, as the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences mandates for all doctoral degrees.

Sample Timetable for AADR doctoral students with advanced standing. *
*Non-topical research credits are not included in this table. Language courses taken at the undergraduate level do not garner credits for the PhD but may be necessary to fulfill the AADR language requirements (see above). Students are encouraged to apply for research grants and dissertation fellowships, but the plan below could be executed with the standard UVA funding package.

AADR Table