Islamic Education and the Body

Ousmane Oumar Kane

In Review | Books The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, By Rudolph T. Ware III, University of North Carolina Press, 352 pages, $32.95 paper.

The Walking Qur’an, a 2014 book that looks at the foundational role played by Qur’anic education in building the Muslim societies of West Africa in the last thousand years, is a revised version of Rudolph Ware’s PhD dissertation in history, awarded to him in 2004 by the University of Pennsylvania. Between the defense of his dissertation ten years ago and its publication as a book, Ware conducted further fieldwork in Senegambia. The book’s title is inspired by a hadith attributed to Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who is reported to have said that her husband (the Prophet) was a “Qur’an walking on earth,” meaning that “God has filled his being to the point that he physically embodied the Word.” Among Muslims of West Africa, the phrase “walking Qur’an” designates pious Muslims who endeavor to live their entire lives in conformity with the teachings of the Holy Book. To ensure that their children become walking Qur’ans, Senegambian Muslims have surrendered them to Muslim clerics to teach them and forge their Islamic personality. A variety of historical sources testify to the erudition of West African Muslims prior to colonialism. These include Arabic sources as well as narratives of European travelers, all of which are elegantly and critically discussed by the author.

Ware’s main claim is that the classical Islamic theory of knowledge, largely abandoned today but still existent in West Africa, focused on the body, which “Muslims have used . . . to archive, transmit, decode, and actualize religious knowledge” (4). Ware acknowledges that a few students of Muslim societies have written about the body, but he argues convincingly that they have not explored the body with—or through—Islamic conceptions of it. This is just what he tries to do in this book, which critiques scholarly studies assuming that “the text still hangs over the body like a veil” (4). His treatment of the body and bodily encounters in the transmission of knowledge and construction of authority in Islam is truly pathbreaking.

Ware also pays considerable attention to slavery and its relationship to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jihads in West Africa, claiming that those jihads of nineteenth-century West Africa have been misunderstood. According to him, it was not the concern over ridding African Islam of “syncretic practices” that caused scholars to wage jihad, but the enslavement of Muslims, and particularly those Muslims considered “walking Qur’ans.” He goes on to claim that Almamy Abdulqadir of Fuuta Toro abolished slavery in his domains before British abolitionists succeeded in leading Britain to decree the end of slavery. This claim is not entirely convincing. There is no denying the fact that the enslavement of Muslims might have been one of the causes for jihads in Senegambia and elsewhere, but it is not the only explanation. Ware acknowledges the paradox that heirs of jihads created most of the feudal societies in Northern Senegal. This was indeed the case in the Islamic state of Bundu, but also in Fuuta Toro, where Muslim clerics, the Torodbe, who came from humble origins, organized themselves into landowning feudal castes, excluding all others from Islamic education and social emancipation.

Ware analyzes the transformation of Islamic education during and after colonialism and draws insightful epistemological implications. He explains:

Educational methods throughout the Muslim world have changed much over the past 150 years. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its antiquity, many societies have abandoned this style of learning and teaching the Qur’an. Secular education and new kinds of Islamic schools have come to prominence. Many—both within and without Islam—have come to look at Qur’an schools across a vast epistemological divide. . . . Seen from that distance they often appear strange, controversial, even nonsensical. A seemingly narrow focus on memorization is only the beginning; one finds in the schools of the African West a whole range of practices that depart from the modern educational ethos. (3)

Among these practices, Ware explains, are corporal punishment, seeking alms, child labor, the veneration of teachers, and the internalization of texts through osmosis. As a result, he argues, “The way that they ‘know’ seems not to be ‘knowing’ at all, and the way they teach seems literally to make no sense.” His book, however, “seeks to make sense of Qur’an schooling and the philosophy of knowledge it represents and reproduces”; it adheres to the belief that “[u]nderstanding traditional Qur’an schooling on its own terms . . . hold[s] inherent value” (3).

In a subtle and nuanced analysis of these transformations of Islamic education, Ware refutes previous influential arguments that an epistemic shift from an esoteric to a rational episteme might be occurring in the postcolonial period. Instead, he argues that different discursive repertoires on education coexist, influencing each other to some degree, including the Senegalese conception of education (yar), the advocacy of child welfare NGOs against child abuse, Sufi discourses of master-disciple relations, and Salafi conceptions of disembodied knowledge. All this contributes to create “hybrid epistemologies.” This is another major contribution of the book. Moreover, Ware challenges the perceptions of many Muslim modernists, noting that they

have shared the perception that “traditional” Islam, with its conception of knowledge and its transmission along with its modes of interpretation, were stagnant and unchanging. In other words, these Muslim intellectuals shared in the colonial discourse of modernity. Yet the “traditionalist” mode of knowledge production was never as stagnant and backward-looking as they imagined. The “traditional” understanding was built on perfecting the children of Adam, molding their characters into that of the Qur’an so that they might understand their proper relationship of service to God and fulfill their Qur’anically prescribed role as His vice-regent (khalīfa) on Earth (Q 2:30). Doing so entailed not only the preservation of texts but also, and more important, their internalization—first practically and spiritually, then discursively so that religion could be performed or enacted in any conceivable real-world context by expert practitioners. (69)

Nuanced observations like this are what make this such an important contribution. Overall, this book is outstanding and its analytical depth is impressive. With its publication, Ware has established his reputation as an authority on West African history and Islamic epistemology.

Ousmane Kane is the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His recent books include The Homeland Is the Arena: Religion, Transnationalism and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (forthcoming from Harvard University Press).

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