Joseph W. Peterson

Mar 14, 2023

Sacred Rivals

Catholic Missions and the Making of Islam in Nineteenth-Century France and Algeria

Oxford University Press 2022

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Upon the French invasion of Algeria in 1830, the territory quickly became a placeholder for French dreams, debates, and experiments in social engineering, economic development and even religious culture. Missionaries and Jesuit priests sent to minister to the new French colonial population there commented favorably on Arab Muslims’ religiosity, seeing in it both the possibility of effective missionization and an example of how religion and civil society might work together. After decades of failed missionary efforts, violent conquest and conflict, and influential international events, liberal Catholics in Algeria like the Bishop Charles Lavigerie—founder of the White Fathers—had abandoned active evangelization and instead embraced a visceral and violent rejection of racialized Islam as the antithesis of French civilization.

These transitionary decades serve as the backdrop to Joseph W. Peterson’s wide-ranging and deeply human book, Sacred Rivals: Catholic Missions and the Making of Islam in Nineteenth-century France and Algeria (Oxford UP, 2022). In it, he tells that stories of French Catholic missionaries and the Algerian men and women with whom they interacted, exploring the gray areas between faith and politics, between colonial ideology and colonized experience. Peterson balances micro-historical approaches with an awareness of global events to tell a new story about the role of religion in the development of the French civilizing mission, colonial ethnography and racial pseudo-science, as well as in the construction of regimes of legal difference. Sacred Rivals is deeply readable book and will be of interest to scholars of French Algeria, colonialism, and all those interested in the long and complex history of Christianity and Islam.

Sarah K. Miles is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who specializes in global francophone history and the history of the French Left. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (

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