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Chapter 5 describes a phenomenon only found in the Sahara known as sell, or bloodsucking and the extraction of essential life forces, arguing that accusations of sell and their related events thus offer an opportunity to view local conceptions of social identity and related fears about shifts in hierarchy, old hostilities between lineages, as well as understandings of the nature of health and illness. While Arabic sources document the existence of bloodsucking at least as early as the fifteenth-century, the colonial archive provides the most concentrated number of records that demonstrate how bloodsucking was a lived and feared reality for desert communities during the colonial period. From these Saharan sources, a fuller understanding emerges of how desert communities envisioned the political and spiritual forces of their social worlds during periods of famine, economic stagnation, and domestic tension. Both the accusation of sell and the l’ḥjāb used to counter it signal the contestation of a society’s status quo.
This chapter takes as its premise that, by the end of the seventh century, the Islamic esoteric sciences were largely controlled by the zwāya, a group defined by its scholarly and racial pretentions. It shows that contestation of the role of the Islamic esoteric sciences reaches back well before the seventeenth century. Customs and practices of the Islamic esoteric sciences can be firmly documented in local practices and were recognized as a source of both political and religious power in the region and when early reform movements coalesced around the function of the Islamic esoteric sciences in managing the invisible. This chapter argues that traditional intellectual history has focused on key figures of Arab origin instead of understanding this process of the elaboration of the Islamic esoteric sciences as more organic and produced via many points of contact, with practices appropriated in the region via merchants and scholars of non-Arab origin. The chapter focuses on the Gebla, a region that occupies a central position in the formation of political and social structures in Mauritania, and will thus be at the geographic heart of the chapters that follow.
The Introduction acquaints the reader with key terms – such as the Islamic esoteric sciences, l’ḥjāb, and lettrism – as well as the cultural and social context of the Sahara while also situating the major arguments of the book within the disciplines of history and anthropology and the fields of African Studies, Islamic Studies, and the Middle East. The chapter makes an argument for including spirits, miracles, and divine forces in historical narratives and for studying the marginal, the liminal, and the in-between ⎯ not only when it comes to geographic spaces such as the Sahara which is often imagined as an empty barrier between two more significant regions on the African continent, but also when it comes to the politically peripheral, the culturally hybrid, and socially heterogenous postcolonial country of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
This chapter argues that people in what became the French colonial territory of Mauritania marshalled l’ḥjāb in their opposition to colonization and how French perceptions of l’ḥjāb shaped their response to that opposition. It covers the first half of the colonial period from c.1900 when the French formally declared Mauritania a colonial military territory into the 1930s when France considered itself in military and administrative control of the colony. The chapter focuses on this period when colonizers first deployed a strategy of collaboration with certain religious leaders and then rapidly shifted to a strategy that restricted the physical movements of the men they called marabouts. These new restrictions on the movement and activity of purveyors of Islamic learning and its sciences targeted l’ḥjāb as a Mauritania-specific factor in broader colonial anxiety over Islam. It is during this period from 1900–1935 that the French established the policies that would directly shape their engagement with l’ḥjāb and, via socioeconomic changes that resulted from those policies, indirectly shape how people of Mauritania relied on l’ḥjāb and its practitioners.
Chapter 2 uses a colloquial expression from contemporary Mauritania – “al-ḥikma kuntiyya aw fūtiyya” – to examine Mauritanian narratives that place the consolidation and localization of the Islamic esoteric sciences in the Sahara in the eighteenth century. The expression shows how Mauritanians today associate these sciences with the powerful scholarly and commercial network of the Kunta, a confederation known for its Islamic learning, and the Fulbe torodbe scholars who established theocratic states in West Africa. Both communities continue to associate these sciences as solely embedded in networks linked genealogically to Arab identity. This colloquial expression shows how Mauritanians today conceive of this esoteric religious wisdom as deployed at the very local level, spread through two regionally important religious communities, yet simultaneously connected to the longer history of Islam in the Muslim world, and circulating at the global level of Sufi networks. By the end of the nineteenth century, differences in interpretation and practice of the Islamic esoteric sciences had amplified: questions regarding which esoteric and medical techniques were permitted within Islam and which were not were intensely debated, as scholars from the Saharan West elaborated their own intellectual positions and political objectives in the ways they classified these sciences.
This chapter addresses the history of the Ahl Guennar, a confederation of families known for their mastery of l’ḥjāb, whose members are dispersed among several villages just north of the Senegal River. The Ahl Guennar’s ambiguous racial identity, their shifting religious and occupational affiliations, their secrecy and enigmatic reputation, and their long history in the region make them a compelling case study for the role of Islamic esoteric knowledge in Mauritania’s mercurial political and cultural environment. Claiming descent from a well-known religious figure and a miraculous origin story for their principal village, the Ahl Guennar established themselves by the seventeenth-century learning and teaching the Qur’ān and its sciences and carving out an exclusive space for themselves in the political dynamics of the Gebla, or southwestern region of Mauritania. This chapter deals with the long-term history of the family to better understand how they deploy these stories to claim religious and social roles in the region and to illustrate how Islamic knowledge is transmitted and the ways these Muslim mediators of the spiritual and material worlds depended upon this knowledge to thrive.
This short epilogue seeks to summarize the major claims of the book and to provide examples of events and changes close in time to the publication of the book of how the Islamic esoteric sciences continue to be tied closely to political and religious authority in postcolonial twenty-first century Mauritania.
In the early years of the 2010s, new television and radio stations in a postcolonial Islamic Republic of Mauritania struggled to fill airtime with something other than the nightly news, recorded music performances, and images of Mauritania’s countryside set to traditional music. Talk shows, commercials, and sketch comedies were some of the new productions broadcast on private television and radio programs. Short situational or sketch comedy television programs sometimes used l’ḥjāb as a narrative hook for an episode relying on specific gendered tropes and stereotypes about its experts to elicit laughs from viewers. This chapter examines such television programs as well as the ways Islamist preachers also began using social media to their advantage to reflect on contemporary social issues in this period to examine how a larger Mauritanian public understands, criticizes, makes use of, and ignores l’ḥjāb, its experts, and its detractors. While the representations of l’ḥjāb in the media in the late 2010s show Mauritanians challenging the legitimacy of its bases, its experts and its efficacy, these images nonetheless provide evidence of its persistent relevance to the challenges of daily life and its capacity to adapt and respond to questions of modernity.
While participating in the discourse of world religions, Japanese biographers published accounts of Muhammad’s life in many genres of academic and popular books during the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868–1926). This article unravels how these biographical accounts played a crucial role in facilitating a geographical imaginary of Asia/the East which incorporated both Japan and West Asia. Situated in a radically different context from the Victorian biographers who inspired them, Japanese biographers constantly compared Muhammad to historical figures familiar to them, most notably Buddha and Nichiren, and reinterpreted the life of Muhammad, relying exclusively on European-language sources. In particular, in contrast to another strand of pan-Asianism that stressed peacefulness as an inherent quality of the East, the biographers identified Muhammad’s perceived militancy and the miracles he performed as signs of the values shared by Japan and Islamic civilization. Using the person of Muhammad as a concrete piece of evidence, Japanese biographers reimagined an Eastern civilizational space that could stretch from Tokyo to Mecca.
“Religious authority” remains a ubiquitous but controversial term of comparative analysis. In Islamic studies, authority is generally personified in the form of the ulama and most often viewed through Weber’s lens of charismatic, legal-rational, and traditional types of legitimate domination. Our particular interest, Twelver Shi‘i Islam, seems a paradigmatic case, where the relationship between “the Ayatollahs” and state power has dominated academic discussion since Khomeini. Through ethnography of a Shi‘i diaspora community in the UK, we argue for a radical shift in perspective: away from forms of clerical power and towards non-specialist uses of clerical authority as expert opinion. Far from such “epistemic” authority being opposed to ordinary agency, here they are inextricably linked. Inspirational work in the anthropology of Islam has understood ordinary Muslim experiences of authority in non-liberal ways, as (Foucauldian) ethical discipline and self-care. We maintain the need to transcend not only domination but discipline too, refocusing the comparison between (Shi‘i) Islamic legal and liberal thought, in the form of Raz’s classic “service conception” of authority. Both stress the rationality of following authoritative opinion and its role as reason and justification for individual action. Our ethnography of ordinary practice then shows the sheer diversity of ways that such epistemic authority can be taken up, including, but not limited to, projects of personal piety and adversarial community politics. In our context, as surely also in others, domination and discipline should thus be seen as potential uses of “religious” epistemic authority, rather than as its privileged form.
From the Georgia Sea Islands to Jamaica to Brazil, enslaved African Muslims precariously re-established textual traditions and networks by writing letters in Arabic and transcribing sacred texts from memory. Bearing witness to their rich and cosmopolitan educational backgrounds, African Muslims in the New World used Arabic literacy to subjectively and objectively overthrow the chains of slavery. They narrated as well as propelled their itinerant diasporic histories through literary and epistolary models, from Scheherazade to al-Hariri, studied in the markets and madrasas of Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Edward Wilmot Blyden, born in the West Indies but resident for the majority of his life in Liberia, engaged deeply with the Islamic culture of the Sahel. He provided extensive documentation about Islam in West Africa, attuned to the ways it was woven together with the Islamic world of the Ottoman Empire and Indian Ocean world. His research and travels frame how future researchers, scholars, and activists would perceive the cosmopolitanism of African Muslims such as Job ben Solomon, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, and Nicholas Said among many others, and how they sought to re-member their narrative, familial, and sacred ties to Arabic and Islam.
This chapter connects the study of Islam and constitutional law with the nascent material on Buddhism. First, it notes the surprisingly long delay in commencing a study of the relationship between Islam and constitutional law, and upon the political and academic developments that eventually inspired the academy to focus its energies productively onto studies in this area. Second, it discusses some of the central findings produced by scholars of this field over the past twenty-five years, focusing on the Sunni world. Third, this chapter will very cautiously draw upon the contributions in this volume to highlight some ways in which patterns found in the Sunni Muslim world seem to be absent in a number of Buddhist countries. The overlaps and contrasts between these two religious traditions and their approaches to constitutional law provide many opportunities for deeper engagement.
The port-city of Adulis in modern Eritrea was a key node on the Red Sea linking the Kingdom of Aksum to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Recent excavations at Adulis have reinvestigated two early Christian churches. New radiocarbon analysis dates both structures to the sixth and early seventh centuries AD, with multiple phases of architectural development reflecting changing use and liturgy. The author uses evidence for both continuity and change in architectural materials, construction styles and sacred practices to assess religious transition at Adulis, and across the Aksumite Kingdom more broadly. Moving beyond an archaeology of conversion, the article reinforces recent work on cosmopolitanism in the Horn of Africa.
Seventeenth-century France was not a place of religious tolerance or inclusion. Jewish people were permitted to settle, under certain restrictions, in parts of the country, and France enjoyed trading and diplomatic relations with, notably, the Ottoman Turks. But both Judaism and Islam were regarded with great suspicion in a country that claimed to base its unity on having one faith, one law and one king. For this reason, the French Protestant (or Huguenot) community came under increasing levels of persecution in Molière’s lifetime. Even within the Catholic Church, there was considerable tension. Louis XIV’s authority was threatened by that of the Pope in Rome and, in France, by the Jansenists, who did not recognize the King’s right to pronounce on matters of individual conscience. More generally, France was steeped in a wider conflict between those who believed that religion should guide all areas of daily life (the dévots) and those who adopted a more relaxed view (the mondains). Although there is no reason to think that Louis XIV objected to Molière’s portrayal of religion and religious hypocrisy in his famous comedy Tartuffe (1664–9), the play thus became caught up in a much broader struggle for religious and political authority.
The Romans adaptation of Greek philosophy was illustrated by the Stoics and Epicureans. The Stoics held that humanity is determined by the fates of nature, while the Epicureans believed that happiness came from seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Plato was revived by Plotinus and dominated Roman philosophy during the early years of Christianity. Both the missionary zeal of early Christians and the tranquility of Roman administration rapidly spread Christianity. The teachings of Jesus were bolstered by defenders, who gave Christianity form and content. St. Augustine successfully reinterpreted Platonic thought within Christian theology, and the consequent influence on psychology continued well beyond. With the fall of the Western empire, intellectual life came to a virtual halt, and only the monastic movement preserved remnants of Greek and Roman civilization. The papacy assumed a leading role in spiritual direction and civil administration. The power shift to the East saw the Byzantine Empire assume a distinctive Greek character. The rise of Islam threatened the survival of Christianity in the Middle East and in North Africa. But, at the same time, much of the Greek heritage of scholarship was preserved and extended in the great academic centers of medieval Islam.
Although most accounts of Christian encounters with Muslims in the period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries pay particular attention to conflict and violence, a body of hagiographical texts emanating from monastic circles points to a different kind of approach. In this article I foreground three examples of Italo-Greek saints’ lives from the tenth and early eleventh centuries in which the saints in question treat Muslims whom they encounter as potential converts, and explain to them the tenets of Christian theology. These texts are examined as precursors of the Cluniac ‘dossier’ compiled about Abbot Maiolus's encounter with Muslims in the 990s. Two of the three saints’ lives were translated from Greek into Latin, one in the late eleventh, the other in the late twelfth century. The motives for and circumstances of these translations are discussed in light of growing hostility towards the Islamic world during the period of the crusades.
Sectarian divisions within the Islamic world have long been misunderstood and misconstrued by the media and the general public. In this book, Adam R. Gaiser offers an accessible introduction to the main Muslim sects and schools, returning to the roots of the sectarian divide in the Medieval period. Beginning with the death of Muhammed and the ensuing debate over who would succeed him, Gaiser outlines how the umma (Muslim community) came to be divided. He traces the history of the main Muslim sects and schools – the Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kharijites, Mu'tazila and Murji'a – and shows how they emerged, developed, and diverged from one another. Exploring how medieval Muslims understood the idea of 'sect', Gaiser challenges readers to consider the usefulness and scope of the concept of 'sectarianism' in this historical context. Providing an overview of the main Muslim sects while problematising the assumptions of previous scholarship, this is a valuable resource for both new and experienced readers of Islamic history.