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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Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam

Adam Sabra's historical work "Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam: Mamluk Egypt, 1250-1517" (2000) is a unique contribution of historical studies (shifting the gaze to everyday life). The book covers ideas regarding poverty (in contrast with forms of asceticism), an assessment of poverty of the era, forms of charitable giving (and the jurisprudence thereof), and a chapter on endowments (Ch 4). I was most interested in the content on endowments, although this aspect was relatively brief in the context of the book. A few notes:

"The establishment of hospitals to provide free medical care to the public required the endowment of huge amounts of property, perhaps due to the fact that these hospitals were surprisingly few in number and were expected to provide care to a large number of patients. Indeed, the waqfs established to benefit hospitals, invariably established by rulers, constituted some of the largest endowments made in medieval Cairo. The best example of this phenomenon was the hospital established by Sultan al-Manşūr Qalāwūn in 1284, as part of a larger waqf complex. This hospital was not only one of the largest endowments, it was also one of the most long lasting. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was in considerable disrepair, but was put to new use by Mehmed 'Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century. After several attempts at reconstruction, it was finally demolished in the early twentieth century." (p. 73)

"Much has been written about the importance of waqfs in funding Islamic education in Mamluk Egypt, and in the Islamic Middle Period in general. For the most part, this literature has focused on the madrasa and the khanqah. While many of the students who studied in these institutions of higher learning were no doubt dependent on their stipends for the continuance of their study, the madrasa was not primarily intended to serve the poor. The endowment deeds of these madrasas did not stipulate that the student be poor... In the case of Qur'an school, however, orphaned and poor boys were specifically targeted by founders to receive a free education. While many children received home schooling, and others attended private Qur'an schools (maktab, pl. makatib), at least forty-six waqfs were established between 1300 and 1517 in Cairo to provide a basic education to boys whose families could not be expected to pay for it themselves. Many of these waqfs stipulated that these lessons should be given at an existing or newly created institution such as a mosque, but by the late ninth/fifteenth century maktabs were being built independent of other wafq institutions. Typically, they took the form of a maktab build over a cistern (sabil) which provided water to the public." (p. 80-81) 

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Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an

Continuing with a series of posts on democratizing knowledge about ethics (see posts on dignity, justice, and equity), this post covers ethical concepts in the Qur'an, in a book written by Toshihiko Izutsu (1914-1993), a remarkable person (one example: he spoke more than 30 languages). This book being originally written in 1959 and published by Keio University in Japan, which was titled "The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran" the author revised and republished with MQUP as "Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an" in 1966. A few notes:

"I should like to begin by laying a special emphasis on what may appear at first glance almost a truism, the importance of not placing any reliance at all on the indirect evidence furnished by translated texts. Translated words and sentences are partial equivalents at the very most. They may serve as rough-and-ready guides to our fumbling first steps but in many cases they are quite inadequate and even misleading. And in any case they can never afford a reliable basis for discussion of the structure of the ethical world-view of people." (p. 4)

"The common-sense simply and naively assumes the existence of a direct relationship between words and reality. Objects are there in the first place, then different names are attached to them as labels. In this view the word table means directly this concrete thing which exists before our eyes. But the example of the word 'weed' [the unwanted plant] clearly shows that this is not the case; it shows that between the word and the thing there intervenes a peculiar process of subjective elaboration of reality." (p. 7)

"This world is transitory and vain, Islam teaches, and so you must never count upon it; if you really desire to obtain immortality and enjoy eternal bliss you should make the principal of other worldliness the very basis of your life. All is vain in this world, Jahiliyah [ignorance] preaches, and nothing is to be found beyond it, so you must enjoy your ephemeral life to the utmost limit of its capacity. Hedonism is the only possible conclusion for the worldly minded people of Jahiliyah." (p. 50)

"Just as kufr [disbelief] constitutes, as we have seen, the pivotal point round which turn all the qualities belonging to the sphere of reprehensible properties, so iman, 'belief' or 'faith', is the very center of the sphere of positive moral properties. 'Belief' is the real fountainhead of all Islamic virtues; it creates them all, and no virtue is thinkable in Islam, which is not based on sincere faith in God and His revelations." (p. 184)

" the Qur'an, religion is the source and ultimate ground of all things. In this sense, the ethico-religious concepts are the most important and most basic of all that have to do with morality. Moreover, Islamic thought at it's Qur'anic stage, makes no real distinction between the religious and the ethical. The ethical language of the Qur'an, however, has another important field, composed of key concepts relating to social ethics. This field too is essentially of a religious nature, since all rules of conduct are ultimately dependent on divine commands and prohibitions. But it's concepts concern horizontal relations between human beings living in the same religious community, while the ethico-religious concepts concern vertical relations between human beings and God." (p. 252)

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Dignity & Rights: An Islamic Perspective

In seeking to democratize thinking about ethics, recent posts have covered Islamic perspectives on justice and equity, this book covers the Islamic perspective of dignity, from the book "The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective" (1999) by Mohammed Hashim Kamali. A few notes:

"Islam's perception of human rights is not premised on the individual verses nation-state framework. The nation-state itself represents a superimposition which has little claim to authenticity in the authoritative sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah. The Qur'an and Sunnah lend support to the creation of a political order and leadership that takes charge of community affairs and administers justice. But the main actor and audience in all this is the individual, not the state." (p. xii)

"World cultures and traditions tend to differ not only in the value-content of human rights but in regard to many other variables that influence the place and priority that is given to those rights. The western tradition posits freedom in order mainly to avoid the outcome of a despotic of government, while Islam emphases virtue as a goal for both the individual and society. The west emphases individual rights and interests, while Islam gives priority to collective good in the event which the latter conflicts with the interest of the individual." (p. xv)

"Dignity in other words is not earned by meritorious conduct; it is an expression of God's favour and grace. Mustafa al-Sibai and Hasan al-Ili have similarly remarked that dignity is a proven right of every human being regardless of color, race or religion. Ahmad Yusri has drawn the conclusion that 'dignity is established for every human being at the moment of birth'. Sayyid Qutb has similarly stated that dignity is the natural light of every individual. The children of Adam have been honored not only for their personal attributes or status in society, but for the fact that they are human beings." (p. 1-2)

"It is a basic right of all human beings to live a life of dignity, complemented by peace and comfort and the freedom to pursue what brings them happiness and perfection through all lawful means. A Muslim only worships God as his sole creator and sovereign and humbles himself to no one else. The creation and enjoyment of beauty, good health and a clean environment are seen as complementary to the defined lifestyle of Islam." (p. 8)

"Another manifestation of the dignity of man in Islam is its insistence on the essential equality of every member of the human race. All are equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color and religion. No man has a claim to superiority over another, and there is no recognition in Islam of a class or caste system, a superior race, or a chosen people or any related concept. Man's inherent dignity is sacrosanct and the only ground of superiority is recognized in the Qur'an is God-consciousness [taqwa]" (p. 45)

"Islam's perception of human dignity is predicated on the unity of the origin of mankind, and its basic quality in regard to the essence of humanity, rights and obligations." (p. 102)

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