The Walking Qu’ran
“Embodied Knowledge” the subject of this fall’s Rethinking Islam in West Africa talk
Thursday, October 10, 2013
In 2010, the West African Research Association (WARA) teamed up with the Boston University African Studies Center (ASC) to establish a new speaker series entitled “Rethinking Islam in West Africa: Legal, Political, and Artistic Perspectives.” Now approaching its fourth year, the series has welcomed a number of top scholars who have significantly broadened our understandings of the depth and range of Islamic practice across the region. Topics have included religious diversity in Sierra Leone, women’s roles in the promotion of education, the challenges presented by shari’a courts, the Muride arts of Senegal, youth engagement with Islam, the perception and threat of terrorism in the Islamic Sahel, Boko Haram, and the transatlantic transmission of models for piety and education.
We were pleased last week to welcome Rudolph ‘Butch’ Ware of the University of Michigan to talk about his forthcoming book, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Dr. Ware led us through the chapters and arguments of his book, focusing on Qur’anic schooling and what it can tell us about Islamic epistemology. Emblematic of the West African Sufi traditions of education is the alluwah or wooden writing board. The use of this board for learning to write Qur’anic verses is not nearly as prevalent in Islamic communities outside of Africa. Yet it continues an older tradition dating back to the early days of Islam, a tradition, argues Ware, that is grounded in a theory of knowledge that is not only discursive but embodied. Through memorization, practice, discipline, and even ‘drinking’ verses washed off the alluwah, one comes to hold sacred texts and knowledge in one’s very body.
While Ware noted that this tradition of embodied knowledge is often (though not always) at odds with educational approaches of Salafist movements that have arrived on the scene more recently, he underscored the profound tenacity, resilience, and adaptability of these older ways of knowing and being within Senegambia.