Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa

Rudolph T. Ware III published "The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa" in 2014, with the University of North Carolina Press. Am arriving at the text late, after having it in my "too read" pile for too long. A few notes:

"We must see beyond race and put Africans back at the center of Islamic Studies. To be fair, West African Muslims have drawn their fair share of attention, but the inner working of Islam as a system of religious meaning in their lives has not. Redressing this oversight is imperative, in part because of the huge (and growing) demographic weight of Islamic Africa. Reckoning with role of religious meaning in the past, present, and future of hundreds of millions of African Muslims requires that we pay attention for their engagements with Islamic knowledge." (p. 30)

"In ways both obvious and subtle, the French school was the leading edge in that colonial assault on African Muslim ways of knowing. Until the 1920s, a direct competition for students existed, and the French were losing. An early report on Qur'an schooling by the head of Muslim Affairs Office, Paul Marty, acknowledged, "It is painful to watch certain of the rural [French] schools stagnating with only a dozen students, while taken together the little marabout schools flourishing nearby reach a hundred." For decades, the colonial state crafted legislation designed to move African children out of Qur'an schools and into French schools." (p. 165)

"… the école française posed a more fundamental problem to the basis of Qur'an schooling. From the outset of colonial expansion, the colonial state promoted French schools in direct opposition to Qur'an schools. Louis Léon César Faidherbe, the chief architect of French military expansion, saw the colonial school as a crucial tool for naturalizing and legitimating French rule. In a March 1857 letter to the minister of the marine, he wrote, "the affairs of the schools... I regard as the most important of all those with which I am charged." The statement was only a minor hyperbole. This was heyday of assimilation discourse in the French Empire, and Faidherbe took the idea more seriously than most. Michael Crowder has defined the notion of assimilation in French imperial discourse as the belief that "there were no racial and cultural differences that education could not eliminate. Thus the French, when confronted with people whom they believed to be barbarians, believed it their mission to convert them to Frenchmen." Perhaps Faidherbe did not wish to convert Africans into Frenchmen, but he certainly hoped to use French schools to assimilate them to the colonial enterprise." (p. 191-192)

"Colonial racism and Francophone education have certainly produced plenty cultural estrangement, but more is at work here than just alienation… In African society, Islamic society, and in many societies that are both African and Islamic, educating children was not left to the nuclear family. Schooling is a community responsibility. This idea is explicit among Mālikī scholars in West Africa, who usually characterize learning and teaching and Qur'an as a fard kifāya (collective obligation) of the community. If some people diligently are attending to it, it is not incumbent upon each and every individual who knows something of the Qur'an to teach it. But if it is neglected or endangered, it becomes an individual obligation a fard 'ayn, mandatory for every capable person, male or female." (p. 241) 

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Classifications of Knowledge

Looking to explore different epistemic and ontological vantage points? One option is Osman Bakar's "Classification of Knowledge in Islam - A Study in Islamic Philosophies of Science" published by the Islamic Texts Society in 1998 (first published by the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1992). The book examines classifications (different types; of knowledge, of knowledge seekers, of methodologies) based on the works of three classical scholars in the Islamic tradition.

In the Forward, by Seyyed Nasr, the hierarchical classification of knowledge is focal to Islamic ontology, asking: "How can an Islamic education system accept a situation in which there is no hierarchy between the knowledge of the angels and of molluscs or between the method of knowledge based upon reason wed to the external senses and knowledge which derives from the certitude (yaqin) derived from heart-knowledge?" (p. xiv) 

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