Teaching Notes III

For those of us who teach or will be teaching an introductory course of Islamic Studies in the United States, there are a number of pedagogical challenges we uniquely face as instructors. In order to reach a deep and critical engagement with the texts, histories, aesthetics, narratives and politics at play in a course such as “Islamic Civilization,” a form of “de-programming” must take place.

I say “de-programming” because instructors are certainly not engaging with “blank slates.” Many students enter our classes having already developed an idea or opinion of Islam, Muslims and related terminology (such as shari’a, jihad, Islamic state, burka, etc.), and this is reflected in their questions and papers. Here’s a sampling of the questions I received through an exercise I conducted at the end of the last academic term:

“What makes Islam hate Israel?” “What is the burka?” “Do mainstream Muslims read the Qur’an?” “Is there such a thing as Islam without belief in God (Allah)?” “Should Muslims get the blame for human misery?” “Is a democratic and religious state possible?” “When do most Muslims visit Mecca (what part of their life)?” “What is the Muslim position on human nature?”

In general, I have found that some students conflated categories of place such as “the Middle East” and ethno-racial identities such as “Arabs” with Islam and Muslims, which means their study is problematically framed from the beginning. Other times, the term Islam occupies an undifferentiated imagined space (in which “Islam” – like Africa – is a country) and “Muslims” refers to a single, homogenous group of people. This is embedded in students’ language, which locates practices such as veiling “in Islam” or demands the collective to answer with a single authoritative voice when asking what “Islam says” about topics like homosexuality or interfaith marriage.

This leads to a difficult question for our community of scholars and teachers: Do we have an ethical obligation to engage in a form of “de-programming” and acknowledge the impact of public Islamophobia in the privacy of our classrooms? If so, what are effective ways of “de-programming” without taking away from substantial parts of the core syllabus in which we teach new and important material, particularly in an introductory course on Islamic history or Islamic literature?

Do you have students plunge directly into the details of history and/or primary sources with the purpose of having that close encounter be a source of new and better informed conclusions? Do you address big questions of modernity, nation state, culture, false binaries, imperialism, capitalism – and address the students’ questions at the meta level – by providing theory as a tool to reform and develop their questions when they approach primary materials on their own? Do you ever directly address frequently asked (problematic) questions such as “Does Islam promote the subjugation of women?” or define terms that are repeatedly used in a provocative manner, such as jihad or shari’a? If so, how do you avoid privileging the discourse which provokes/enables such questions while also acknowledging them in an academic setting?

As I have described previously, the new spring course syllabus my colleagues used to teach Contemporary Islamic Civilizations shaped by Professor Hamid Dabashi included readings in post-colonial theory, history, politics, literature and cinema. The course was designed to give students tools – “corrective lenses,” as Dabashi would say, through which they could view critically the discourses that arise from civilizational thinking. The pedagogical goal was to get the students to develop better questions, critical thinking skills and media literacy when continuing to learn about Islam and Muslims in their world, particularly as non-specialists.

In keeping with the spirit of this new approach, I finally asked my students towards the end of the semester, “If you could ask one question about Muslim beliefs in relation to what Islam teaches, what would you ask?” As with previous exercises, they could respond anonymously. If we completed the class material early, I offered to try to address some of their questions.

Although the semester ended before I had time to address all the questions they submitted, I have continued to think about them over the last few months. I decided that if I had one more hour, I would not answer the questions but have the students engage in an analysis of their own questions. The students had covered most course materials and acquired shared critical vocabulary, which would enable a productive discussion. I would offer them five categories: “Questions based on a false premise,” “Questions of language and definitions,” “FAQs of religious studies, identity, and interfaith co-existence (i.e. Am I safe? Questions),” “Questions of law and ritual practice,” and “Questions of belief, theology and/or philosophy.” I would ask the students to file the questions under the appropriate category or categories and then encourage them to share their results.

What I found most intriguing was that even after challenged to think critically about civilizational thinking and to consider Islamic civilization as a collection of highly differentiated human communities, many students still submitted polemical questions reflecting anxieties about borders of identity and personal security. For instance, “What does the Qur’an have to say about interactions with non-hostile non-Muslims? Can there be coexistence within a society?” As you can see, many of these questions were asked through the language of interfaith coexistence, and can be productively flipped around to help students identify and explore the anxieties and concerns that are embedded in their own questions.

Of questions directly related to Islam as a religion, I did not find it surprising that questions about legal issues and ritual were of more interest than actual beliefs—let alone theology—because of continued public concerns of shari’a and visibility of Muslim ritual and praxis. In the end, the students had less questions directly related to beliefs and yet these few questions demanded a basic, elementary awareness of Islam as a faith-religion rather than an Islam defined as an ideological impulse that orders politics and civil society the result of which is imagined to be an Islamic state (which itself is a definition that has embedded within it a number of ideas that would need to be unpacked including ideology, nation-state and civil society).

I believe these exercises indicate that it is important for instructors to at least consider their pedagogical role in “deprogramming” the assumptions that students may bring to their Islamic studies courses. In my opinion, one of the most effective ways to do that is to allow the students to articulate their questions including the incredibly problematic; empower them with the tools and critical vocabulary to identify the embedded assumptions, false premises and misuse of terminology within their questions; and then give them an opportunity to discuss and analyze their own questions as a collective community.

Archives and Canons

What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.

The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.

Without strong institutions to support the production, circulation, and preservation of literary texts in Sudan, the literary corpus remains relatively amorphous. Only a few major texts are promoted, reprinted, studied, and curated to the point that they reach canonical status–in the Sudanese literary critical world, the broader Arabic speaking world, or the arena of world literature in English translation. The absence of robust cultural centers, uncensored book markets, extensive libraries, and well-maintained archives is another impediment to the formation of a stable, accessible canon of national literature. I’m not convinced this, in and of itself, is bad; but it is certainly a notable structural difference from the current support that the English canon enjoys.

Economic challenges are aggravated by political circumstances, especially censorship. Inside Sudan, it is difficult to obtain the works of writers critical of the government. The novels of Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, for instance, are ironically much easier–even for Sudanese themselves–to obtain in Cairo than in Khartoum. Similarly, many historical works are much easier to find than contemporary fiction. For instance, the works of the contemporary writer John Oleao Okage are only held in a single library according to Worldcat.org; while the oeuvres of major figures like the poet al-Tijani Yusuf al-Bashir and the poet-critic Hamza al-Malik Tambal are made accessible via government sanctioned reprints.

I often feel like every work of Sudanese literature—with the exception of Tayyib Salih—is “rare” in comparison to the ubiquitous availability of English literature, or even the relatively substantial collection of modern Egyptian literature. The historical marginalia is also less well preserved and less frequently available; and the Arabic scholarship that surrounds and protects literary works (call it a “critical cartilage” if you like) is relatively meager. This critical cartilage is what protects and preserves a literary tradition in the public imagination. Of course, there are other ways in which Sudanese society does preserve public memory, and much short fiction participates in and represents such practices. But think about the type of intellectual poverty that attends to a corpus of fiction isolated from historical materials such as private letters, non-fiction essays, unfinished projects, unpublished drafts, and marginalia of various sorts. Such historical material not only illuminate the published works of a given author, but add historical depth and context to the period in which they were writing.

This institutional and critical neglect becomes part of the writers lived experience. And I suspect that part of the difficulty in translating the significance of the act of writing to an English reader is the wild divergence in the institutional treatment of literary traditions which, in the Anglophonic world, are studied, preserved, and proudly displayed in beautifully rendered museum exhibits and anthologies. Because they are ubiquitous, such affirmations of self and country, culture and history, often go unnoticed–until, that is, one tries to translate texts that were written within one such environment into another.

Sketch of a Literary Scene

The stories in our collection span the roughly four decades since the publication of Tayyib Salih’s much acclaimed Season of Migration to the North in 1969. Some are works of social protest, others of technical mastery or experimental daring. Despite variations in theme and style, we’ve chosen them because they all revolve around Khartoum in one way or another. For that reason, contemporary literary culture in Khartoum is one of the most valuable frames for understanding the literature produced in and about the city. The questions are deceptively simple. Who writes? Who reads? Where do people in Khartoum go to buy books, hear poetry, discuss literature and workshop their own writing? By offering a brief sketch of the literary scene, based on my own short stay in Khartoum last year, I want to start to explore the city as a metaphor for the bundle of expectations, literary conventions, and social mores that shape what Sudanese writers write and why.

I myself have only become acquainted with many of the stories in my growing collection over the past year, culled initially from the dozens of books I carried back from Khartoum to Cairo in a cardboard box. The less controversial ones I bought in the dusty book shops clustered around the University of Khartoum, but the majority were recommended to me by friends and acquired at a monthly open-air book market called Mafroosh, written up not so long ago in the New York Times.

While the bookstores seem to trade predominantly in state sanctioned texts (which would explain the dust), Mafroosh roams the boundaries of the permissible. It is held in Etienne square, under eroded arches that once, I’m told, served as a gateway to the best nightclubs and bars in all of Sudan. This was during the early years of Jafar al-Nimeri’s presidency, who ruled from 1969 until he was deposed in 1985. Now the much-diminished square hosts a loose group of playwrights, poets, novelists and readers who gather to exchange books and thoughts about them. Some are the old guard of the Sudanese Writers Union, but many are younger poets and writers in their late twenties and early thirties. Some of these young men and women live in shared apartments and writers’ kerrets around the city, while others are married with young children, working as journalists and activists and writing fiction on the side.

At Mafroosh, and around the city, banned books are circulated by hand. One young writer said he could get me a copy of an underground literary journal called Iksir, or Elixir. The next day, he literally handed them to me in a paper bag under a table at a cafe. They each have a colorful, chaotic cover and contain dozens of stories, essays, translations, manifestos, and drawings in pencil, oil, and coal. The creative energy that went into producing these two collections is reflected in their titles:  “Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs” and “Torrents of Imagination”. And indeed, both the celestial and diluvian imagery is appropriate. The short fiction contained within trends towards philosophical abstraction, arcane Classical language, and a kaleidoscopic palette of cultural and literary allusions.

Etienne Square is a few blocks from downtown Khartoum, where a large parade ground boasts a dozen overturned dumpsters, their paint stripped away, their wheels exposed. Over the past decade, new flows of oil money allow for the possibility of a multi-billion Dubai style make-over, complete with glass office towers, a White Nile promenade, and a Kempinski hotel (a project that has been put, it seems, on indefinite hold).

Despite these ambitious plans, Khartoum is still the kind of city you can walk straight out of. From the middle class neighborhood of Taif, I would walk down to the Nile in the evenings, passing groups of young men drinking coffee by the light of their smartphone screens, huddled close, sharing earbuds, streaming the latest songs from Egypt and Ethiopia. Out further, near the brick yards, I would pass an old man in a white jalabeya watching TV in his courtyard. One night I raised my hand in greeting, and he his. All was good in the world, his kind greeting seemed to say, even as the television relayed news of the sacking of Umm Rawaba, a town five hundred kilometers to the south, a hard day’s drive from Khartoum. The old man shook his head in the dark and I walked down to the still-warm Nile, through the scent of the cooling brick.

A few days after book shopping at Mafroosh, I had the chance to meet the members of the executive committee of the Sudanese Writers’ Union. The Union itself is housed in a modest concrete building on a quiet side street. Outside, there was a small courtyard with a lemon tree and a brilliant advertisement for the savvy mobile phone company Zain, which sponsors some of the Union’s events. Inside, the director Kamal al-Jizouli gave me a brief tour. I remember the well-swept concrete floors, faded photographs in irregular frames hung on the wall, an old refrigerator humming from a kitchen tucked away beyond a corridor.


Kamal and I sat in his office as the members of the committee shuffled in. They were mostly old Communist party hands, kind, sallow men of an older generation. Many of their colleagues, proteges, and students had left. Even the darling of the Writer’s Union, the enigmatic Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, had left to seek asylum in Austria after publishing his most recent novel, al-Jango, which depicted the grotesque conditions in a women’s prison in the city of Qadaraf in Eastern Sudan.

After the meeting, we moved to the courtyard outside. They smoked Bringi cigarettes under a lemon tree, discussing an upcoming commemoration of the poetry of Mahjoub Sharif and the government’s unsuccessful attempts to take back the town of Umm Rawaba. As they talked, one man, a painter, surreptitiously filled his pockets with lemons. When he caught me watching him, he smiled and mouthed, “For my wife”.

“Good” Stories in Translation

One of the unexpected benefits of preparing an anthology is the chance to read through enough mediocre literature to begin to ask yourself what “mediocre” actually means. This summer, as Raph Cormack and I co-edit a book of Sudanese short stories in English translation, we are finding out that our attempts to distinguish the great stories from the mediocre raises interesting questions about competing literary aesthetics. Figuring out which stories to include and how to justify our selections to the publisher has been a hands-on lesson in how a literary canon, even a marginal canon such as Sudanese Arabic literature in English translation, is formed.

In our work, the basic tension is that some stories generally regarded among Sudanese readers as “good” do not translate into “good” literature by Anglo-American standards. It’s not that Anglo-American standards are superior to the Sudanese, largely because that way of speaking presumes we have some outside standard by which these two literary aesthetics could be properly compared. We don’t. But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers. As translators, we must either conceal or explain that difference to our imagined English readers. These essays are a first attempt to do the latter: to explain those aspects of my encounter with Sudanese Arabic literature that I cannot properly translate. In large part, I’ll be looking at different aspects of the marvelously complex relationship between the two literary critical traditions, call them for the sake of convenience Sudanese and English, brought together by global trade relations, colonial dominance, educational and cultural exchanges, and the emergence of specific technologies and revolutions in literary form that they entail.

Raph and I are constantly shuttling between these two aesthetics as we weigh which stories will faithfully represent the Sudanese literary scene while also appealing to a small, self-selected English readership. On the one hand, our scholarly training helps us to appreciate the Arabic literary context in which these stories were first imagined and now circulated and consumed. We pick up on stylistic nods to Classical Arabic, the use of characters and imagery from modern Sudanese folklore, Qur’anic allusions, political jokes, jabs at other writers and schools of thought, and so forth. We have both spent time in Sudan and the wider Arabic speaking world, and recognize some of the broader societal and historical factors that continue to influence the development of Sudanese literature. The current atmosphere of political repression, for instance, has transformed protest literature from the category of kitsch and sentiment to a powerful act of witnessing, and implicitly objecting to, moral wrong-doing. The writer as social critic and moral voice is a vital element of the Sudanese literary aesthetic, one that helps to explain the preponderance of political satire and critique in the short stories we’re reviewing. If you dig further back, you’ll find that many major literary figures from the late 1920s onwards were writing nationalistic poetry, frequently with an anti-colonial slant. In an ironic post-colonial twist, the very state those earlier poets were demanding is now, two generations later, the object of routine critiques by their literary progeny. This does not change the fact that many Sudanese literary figures and their readership see a deep connection between politics and literature. For us, the question is how to translate such works to an English reader who lives–and reads–in the comfort and safety of a Western life.

In other words, we must keep in mind the expectations of the publisher, a small progressive press in the UK, about what comprises a “good” story. In part, they want the book to adhere to a principle of multiculturalism, both in who they publish and the overarching portrait of Sudanese society that emerges from our anthology. Hence, we want to include female writers and those representative of ethnically and politically marginal voices in Sudan. The ultimate aim of the book project, however, is to give voice, an English voice, to writing that is technically good. It conjures up notions of novelty, of subversion and resistance, perhaps of great beauty and certainly of extraordinary creativity. This is the bar–and I must admit it is one that I admire, in principle at least, insofar as it treats Sudanese writers as equal contenders in the arena of literary excellence. In practice, that arena is–and perhaps should be–an unabashedly English one. Regardless, it is an arena in which creativity trumps the emulation of past forms, individual psychological characterization is valued over ideal types, and images that confirm the deepest liberal biases (biases I should say that I personally share) for individual freedom of expression, human dignity, and the inherent value of subversion.

Shuttling between these two aesthetic sensibilities has helped me appreciate some of the larger questions at the intersection of the study of literature, literary history, and aesthetics. In the essays that follow, I will try to make my musings on mediocrity and translation more concrete by discussing those short stories that made the cut–and why.

Tariq Ramadan’s Burden

Tariq Ramadan faces off claims of Arab colonialism in Africa. Source: Seneweb.com

During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.

Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.

It is then that Ramadan accuses Sambe of having a bit of colonized mind. Sambe then erupts saying “you are the first colonizers, you Arabs.

Perhaps some context is in order. The exchange, I think, reflects an especially charged anti-Arab discourse in Senegal that seems especially prominent as of late. Sambe’s charge of Arab racism and Arab paternalism especially within Islam comes just as Sengalese neo-traditional religious leadership has been threatened by a rising tide of Islamic reformism since the end of the nineties. The threat has been particularly real since the short-lived secession of Northern Mali that claimed many foreign fighters as its combatants. Increasingly, Senegalese intellectuals have been resisting what they see as an increased influence of Arab countries in their affairs, citing the flow of petro-dollars as an unnatural catalyst in the transformation of the Senegal scene.

Sambe appears to be no different. He advocated for French intervention in Northern Mali and a cursory Google search yields a number of indications that, for him, calling out Arab racism is a professional preoccupation. It also seems that Sambe has run into Tariq Ramadan before with result similar to that of the debate.

However, what is telling in this exchange is not the content of the anti-Arab discourse but its function. Sambe was struggling to make a case for an unsupportable position in favor of Israel. As empty and poorly argued as Sambe’s argument was, Ramadan pushed him gently resulting in Sambe having nothing else to say other than call Ramadan and all Arabs colonizers–with the irony being that Sambe was in the midst of making a reactionary argument in support of Israel’s settler-colonialism.

As empty and irrelevant as it seems, we should still consider the accusation of Arab colonialism and the figure of the colonizing Arab. Colonialism is not simply a mode of exploitation. It is a moment of exploitation in a world system. Colonialism was a historical period defined by the exploitation of people and extraction of resources in the periphery for the benefit of the metropolitan center.

The figure of an external Arab influence has been a persistent one that has lingered and been available for African and European actors before, during and after the colonial period. Think of the charge of “Arab-led slavery,” “the expulsion of the Arab” in the Zanzibar revolution, and “the African-Arab divide” in Darfur as ripe and ready examples. The condemnation of the Arab figure, on the other hand, has not been a constant critique but one that is available only when politically convenient.

Nevertheless, we might ask what the Swiss-national with Egyptian roots was doing in Dakar last weekend. On Friday, August 1st, Ramadan tweeted information for a rally to be held in Dakar to end the spirit of victimhood.  He then appeared in a debate the following day with the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors to Senegal along with Sambe and another speaker. Although he has not made an official statement about his activities in Senegal, most of Ramadan’s public appearances have been related to expressions of solidarity and civic engagement. Both the Macky Sall government of Senegal and the Senegalese public have formally and informally called for an end to Israeli aggression, according to the Palestinian Ambassador to West Africa Abdalrahim Alfarra. Accordingly, it follows that a pro-Palestine activist may water in rich soil to bear fruit for his activities.

Ramadan, however, has a history with Senegal prior to the current conflict. In 2012, he spoke in Dakar–switching between French and Arabic–about the role of Muslims in the global economy. He would return to the regional hub in August 2013 for a meeting of the “Colloque international musulman dans l’espace francophone.” A month before, he spoke in Dakar on a panel entitled “Ethics, Governance, and Citizenship.” His comments on homosexuality left a lasting impression in a country where it has been a highly politicized topic in recent years.

Strictly speaking, these activities can’t be called colonial even if we recognize that Ramadan is an external actor with a limited knowledge of internal dynamics who is leveraging an idea within Senegal of the public role of Islam in a liberal democracy. Meanwhile, even though Sambe publicly supports imperialism and its proxies (i.e., Israeli aggression, France’s intervention in Northern Mali, etc.), he nevertheless also appears to be defending his claim to national autonomy.

One can’t help but think that the focus on the “Arab Man’s Burden” in Africa manages to screen off more important social tensions within Senegal while simultaneously doing nothing to actually combat the contemporary dangers of Gulf country land grabs and financial speculation in the guise of a morally sanctioned Islamic banking. While history certainly helps us understand how exploitation happens, playing the who-colonized-who-first game is counterproductive in the current fight against exploitation in our age of neoliberalism.

Full interview here and here.


Teaching Notes II

The infamous Foreign Policy "Sex Issue" cover.
The infamous Foreign Policy “Sex Issue” cover. (Source: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/node/1226781)

When our class arrived to the cluster of assigned readings on Gender and Contemporary Islamic Civilization, as a similar exercise to another that I have described on the blog, I asked my section to write down the first thing they imagine when I say, “Identify a stereotype regarding Muslim women.” This time, I decided to ask directly to identify stereotypes rather than what first comes to mind when I say “Muslim woman.”

Again, I wanted them to be honest so I asked the students to submit their answers anonymously. As I expected, it was a much easier and faster exercise for them than the one about fictional Muslim characters. However erroneous the narratives about Muslim women may be, they are ample and accessible.*

I collected the slips of paper and read them out loud so the class could hear what their colleagues wrote. This is what they wrote, exactly how they wrote it:

First stereotype of Muslim women that comes to mind

  1. Muslim women are oppressed. (6 students)
  2. Submissive (3 students)
  3. Hijab-wearing (2 students)
  4. They are meek. (2 students)
  5. They wear headscarves. (2 students)
  6. Muslim women are made to wear hijab.
  7. Headscarf stigma
  8. Veil
  9. Fierce (under the veil)
  10. Muslim women who wear headscarves are oppressed.
  11. Muslim women stereotypically make themselves oppressed.
  12. Muslim women are obedient.
  13. Harem girls
  14. Muslim women are uneducated.
  15. Quiet
  16. Passive
  17. Weak
  18. Voiceless
  19. Docile, strange, doctrinaire, arcane, conservative
  20. Loyalty to spouse even if spouse does not deserve loyalty

While I read their answers out loud, several students shook their heads laughing (at themselves?) and one said, “Well, that’s embarrassing.” I was aware that the visual performance of a visibly Muslim woman — as their instructor and authority who holds power within the classroom and can affect destinies — reciting stereotypes about Muslim women did much of the work to underscore the irony and error so I did not comment much before proceeding with our discussion on the assigned readings for the week. I did ask them to pay attention to the association of Muslim women with oppression as self-inflicting — because their oppression is seen as tied to Islam and they have chosen Islam as their religion. I noted that this was key to understanding how tropes of Muslim women’s victimization do not necessarily provoke empathy — let alone sympathy or even pity — but an animosity, falsely located in a particular feminist discourse, which feeds the gendered and sexually violent manifestations of Islamophobia.

The following week, the students were assigned to read Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving?  Among the texts they were assigned throughout the semester, this was one of the most-quoted and referred to text in their individual papers. There may be a number of reasons for this, but one was definitely made clear by these students — there is significant and often problematic interest in the matter of understanding Islam and Muslims with regard to gender and a more significant need for scholarship and informed opinion to shape public perceptions.

*A simple google search of images for “Muslim women” gives a good account of the stock visual imagery of Muslim women that is disseminated and accessed frequently.

Review: Muslim Societies in Africa

loimeier coverThe study of Islam in Africa has long been in need of a coherent work of synthesis that bridges specific and substantive knowledge on Islamic contexts in Africa with a broad continental view that places those African experiences of Islam in a larger world history. Many a scholar have tried gallantly, but even more have failed miserably. At last, with Muslim Societies in Africa (IUP), Roman Loimeier has provided us a resource to sit with and digest, a resource that will likely prove to be a foundation for the study of Islam in Africa for years to come.

Few scholars would attempt to produce a work of such scale and scope. Loimeier, uniquely positioned as a scholar who has done research in Senegal, northern Nigeria, and Tanzania, has written a historical anthropology that emphasizes the importance of place. The result is a book organized largely by geographic region with some attention to periodization.

I do not want to suggest that other syntheses of Islam in Africa have not paid attention to geography before, they certainly have, but one of Loimeier’s contributions is a sustained interest in geography. This approach forces us to look at the way in which Islam as a series of discourses have been taken up or rejected in specific times and different places. Importantly, Loimeier’s regions are geographically, even climatically defined, allowing him to get past regions defined strictly by discourses of either Arabic or Europhone texts. In other others words, the sustained interest in geography allows him to put discourse in dialogue with material conditions.

As a result, Loimeier is able to discuss African societies and African persons who have not become Muslim just as much as he does those who have. Perhaps one way of thinking about this work is as a historical anthropology of Islamic encounters in Africa and their entanglements beyond. Accordingly, it should be of interest to the much larger field of African Studies, which has tended to treat Islam as an external force and alien presence in Africa.

Those familiar with the field of Islam in Africa might protest my characterization of the syntheses we have had at our disposal. They would most readily refer to Nehemia Levtzion’s and Randall Pouwels’ edited volume The History of Islam in Africa (2000) and David Robinson’s post-9/11 inflected apologia Muslim Societies in African History (2004). There are other works, mostly by historians, but they are so steeped in orientalist discourse they hardly warrant mention here.

The Levtzion and Pouwels volume was indeed a hallmark and its most valuable contribution is perhaps its insistence on taking a “continental approach” to Islam in Africa. However, its strength is in fact its weakness. It compiles the work of scholars working on Islam in Africa for the preceding thirty years or so.  There is a great deal of variation in approach, topic and region of focus, as well as depth. Quite a few of the essays overlap while some seem not to belong with the others at all.

As for Robinson’s book, it has served its purpose well enough in undergraduate classrooms in communicating the standing literature. However, it has not done much more than that. What seems to be its contribution in focusing on the dialectic process of the Islamization of Africa and the Africanization of Islam had been articulated at least two decades before by Humphrey Fisher. It is just that his presentation of it had a particular resonance after the American academy’s preoccupation with agency. Africans, Robinson says, “make Islam their own.” This, of course, is another way of saying that Africans have made their own Islam, a conclusion long associated with colonial discourse about African and Black Islam’s particularity.

Loimeier succeeds in escaping many of these traps by avoiding the rigid model of Islamization theory that has dominated historical studies and instead looks for patterns and particularities in various distinguishable geographic regions. He does so by first problematizing the idea of African Islam. He then uses the historical experience of Islam in the Bilād al-Maghrib as the source template to understand dynamics in the rest of the continent, going far beyond the “gateway” relationship that has dominated the literature until now. As a result, Loimeier presents the legitimacy of political rule, the role of outsiders in religio-political movements, the relationship between center and periphery in African Muslim empires, and the pervading importance of trade and the struggle for control of long-distance trade routes as important themes throughout Africa.

However, I should be clear in stating that Loimeier goes beyond a statist paradigm of history in arguing that the story of Islam Islam in Africa is not simply the history of Islamiccaly inflected politics. As the expressed faith of some 450 million Africans, Islam must be understood for its transformative impact in terms of land ownership, modes of production, sociability, public institutions, and cultural forms.

With all hope, Roman Loimeier’s Muslim Societies in Africa will leave a lasting impression on the ongoing realignment of the field that is increasingly understanding Islam in Africa not as a phenomenon of a double periphery but as a center unto itself with its own peripheries and histories of engagement with the rest of the world.

Teaching Notes: Sahar Ullah

Source: Walt Disney Books
Source: Walt Disney Books

Teaching Notes

Mid-semester, I asked my Contemporary Islamic Civilizations section* to write down the first thing that pops in their mind when I say, “Name a fictional Muslim character.” I gave the students a minute, collected the names and then read them out loud.This is what they wrote (and how they wrote it):
  1. Aladdin: 4 students (one student also wrote: maybe not Muslim?)
  2. Salah al-Din/Saladin: 3 students (one specified Saladin from Kingdom of Heaven)**
  3. Malcolm X: 2 students**
  4. Scheherazade: 2 students
  5. Can’t think of anyone: 2 students
  6. Jafar (Muslim or just Arab?)
  7. Jasmine (Disney princess)
  8. Marjane Satrapi**
  9. Marji (from the book/movie Persepolis)
  10. Rumi**
  11. Amir Khan in Fanaa (Bollywood film)***
  12. Lead male actor in Kite Runner (not sure if he’s Muslim)
  13. Characters portrayed by the Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri
  14. Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
  15. Abu Nazir in Homeland
  16. Muhammad Ali**

*All the students are Ivy League undergrads majoring in various subjects; most of them were raised and educated in the U.S.

**These are not fictional characters. I definitely expected the Aladdin characters, and I was not surprised that the students listed Saladin. I was surprised, however, to read names of 20th century North American historical figures…especially since the Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading (in addition to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi).  Was it a result of mishearing the question (i.e., the student listed the first name s/he could think of rather than consider whether that figure was fictional)? Was it a reflection of their age? Or was it from ignorance of more recent U.S. history (i.e. post-World War II) and that U.S. high school students often receive a cursory treatment of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cointelpro, Immigration Act 1965, etc. (if they are able to reach that time period at all)?

***Out of all the Bollywood movies with identifiably Muslim characters, a student who watches Hindi films first thought of Fanaa.  It does make depressing sense. The film flattens the local and material context of the Kashmiri struggle with India as a powerful nation-state by crafting a narrative which echoes narratives on U.S. national-security and the War on Terror. In a way, it’s another commercial film giving a Bollywood flavor to a Hollywood story. In this case, violence is de-contexualized and subsequently generalized under the category of “Muslim violence.” Here, Indian nationalism as love of nation (and national security) is made relatable to an American palate which has acquired a taste for the “Islamic terrorist/national-security threat” as a popular character, making Amir Khan’s Kashmiri character as a terrorist easily identifiable (and insidiously memorable) as “Muslim.”