Texts, Knowledge, Practice: The Meaning of Scholarship in Muslim Africa

Sitting at the intersection of African, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies, Islam in Africa has long suffered from a crisis of disciplinary identity. Neither strictly area nor religious studies, Islam in Africa has only recently received attention within the academy. The shift is long overdue; Africa has influenced scholarship throughout the Islamic World for more than a millennium. With the spread of Arabic literacy, African scholars developed a rich tradition of debate over orthodoxy and meaning in Islam. The rise of such a tradition was hardly disconnected from centers of Islamic learning outside of Africa.  From Mecca to Sind, African scholars have played significant roles in the development of virtually every field of Islamic sciences.

Convened by Ousmane Kane, Alwaleed Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion at Harvard University, and Matthew Steele, Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at Harvard, Harvard’s "Texts, Knowledge, Practice: The Meaning of Scholarship in Muslim Africa," brought together dozen scholars for a three-day series of panels exploring Islamic scholarship in Africa.  

Papers explored the ties binding scholars across Africa and beyond through travel.  The first panel pushed to think beyond the movement of scholars in simply geographic terms, but rather as part of a more complicated way of understanding how scholars build time, space, and memory in their relationships with others, both living and at least physically, dead. The spread of communications technology has reshaped Islamic scholarship still further. New representations of Islamic scholarship have formed across Africa through online teaching sites, digital recorded lectures, and social media apps.  The emergence of these new spaces, both physical and virtual, has the potential to recast notions of class, authority, canon, and orthodoxy common to the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa today.

Presenters also argued for a new understanding of Islamic law in Africa.  The second panel rejected the stereotype of an ossified fiqh or a boundless shariah, but rather saw a more flexible system of values, of relationships, and of local, historical, and political contingency.  In this and others, the panelists pushed back against the idea that texts live separately from the ways in which they are reconstructed by teachers, students, and readers, from their reception.  

The presentations also called for a reassessment of where disciplinary boundaries in Islamic scholarship have been commonly drawn.  In exploring the legal writing of a so called “Fulani revolutionary,” to the reading practices of a Sudanese “Salafi,” the third panel complicated understandings of precisely what the writing of historian, philosopher, a revolutionary is supposed to look like.  The fourth and fifth panels push this even further.  They asked how scholars can better locate not just texts themselves, but discourses about texts and Islam in non-Arabaphone communities.  The use of Kiswahili ajami newspapers in Kenya, to the vernacular poetry of the Brava, pointed to the complex ways that African Muslims have navigated audience, language, politics, and religion.  The sixth and last set of papers reoriented discussion around the last of the conference’s themes: practice.  Their work points how subjects not just experience Islam in Africa, but actively constructed it in their everyday lives suggests that notions of Islamic education in Africa as either rigid or “foreign” are in dire need of being updated.

The conference was made possible by the generous support of Harvard’s Divinity School, the Harvard University Center for African Studies, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center, and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.