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The walking Quran

The walking Qurʼan : Islamic education, embodied knowledge, and history in West Africa

  • Book Title:
 The Walking Quran
  • Book Author:
Rudolph T. Ware
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Emulate the blacks, for among them are three lords of the people of Paradise: Luqmān the Sage, the Negus, and Bilāl the Muezzin.

—Saying attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad

The Qurʾan School

Believing Muslims hold that more than fourteen hundred years ago, a chain of recitation was initiated in a cave on Mt. Ḥirāʾ, just outside of Mecca. The Angel Gabriel (Jibrīl) began reciting the Word of God to a man who had been chosen to bear the burden of prophethood. Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdullah heard the command to recite and obeyed. He listened intently to the words that followed and repeated them faithfully as he had heard them.

He taught this recitation (Qurʾān) fi rst to his wife, Khadīja, and then to a close circle of people whose hearts were touched by the reading and submitted (islām) themselves to the service of the One God. Central to that service was the ritual prayer (ṣalāt), which soon became the principal way of giving the faith concrete form. This act engaged not only the tongue, the heart, and the intel-lect but the limbs as well. Muḥammad learned the movements by copying Ji-brīl, who sometimes appeared to him in human form.1 He passed this prayer on to those who had submitted to God (Muslims) by reenacting the motions and reciting the words.

Nearly a millennium and a half later, small children in West Africa are forged into new living links in this chain of recitation every day. Many suff er hunger, thirst, and corporal punishment to make their fragile young bodies into worthy vessels for God’s verbatim speech. They then mimic their teachers, bending and prostrating those bodies to re-produce the movements of the angel who Muslims believe taught humanity the Word of God and the most perfect form of worship.

This book explores one of the institutions most responsible for the trans-mission of the Qurʾan and its embodiment in lived practice—the Qurʾan school. In Qurʾan schools, children memorize and recite the Holy Book of Islam and learn to read and write the Arabic script.

They are also introduced to the basic precepts and practices of the religion. Formal schools of this kind may date to the time of Islam’s second caliph, ʿUmar b. al- Khaṭṭāb (r. 634–44), who is sometimes credited with instituting the school’s traditional weekend, which begins on Wednesday aft er the noon prayer and ends aft er the noon congregational prayer on Friday.

 Other reports suggest that chil-dren (like adults) memorized verses of the Qurʾan during the lifetime of the Prophet himself (570–632) perhaps with the aid of inscriptions on wooden tablets (alw  āḥ) and the wide flat shoulder blades of camels and cattle.2 It is not clear when the Qurʾan school fi rst came to sub- Saharan West Africa, though it likely arrived with the early Muslims who crossed the Sahara in the eighth century.

 Qurʾan schooling has played a foundational role in building the Muslim societies of the African West for at least a thousand years. Never-theless, it has been little studied and is oft en fundamentally misunderstood.    When they have drawn attention at all, West African Qurʾan schools have oft en been maligned. In the past century and a half Muslims and non- Muslims alike have increasingly found fault with them. Qurʾan teachers rarely explain the meaning of verses to children, focusing instead on recita-tion and memorization, and leading many observers to conclude that such schools are pedagogically backward.

 In most of these schools, however, in-struction has extended beyond the rote memorization of Qurʾan. Practical  instruction in prayer, ablution, and the other daily elements of the faith has fi gured prominently. And though reading comprehension was almost never emphasized, developing literacy skills was. Students learn to read and write the Arabic script, even though the vocabulary of Qurʾanic Arabic is foreign to them (as it is even for native speakers of Arabic).

 Some discursive teaching also takes place in Qurʾan schools, though usually outside of formal hours of study. The Book has long been the sole object of formal study, with other kinds of teaching inscribed in the margins, so to speak.

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 Qurʾan. Secular education and new kinds of Islamic schools have come to promi-nence. Many—both within and without Islam—have come to look at Qurʾan schools across a vast epistemological divide. They are separated less by what they think than by how they think. Seen from that distance they oft en ap-pear strange, controversial, even nonsensical.

 A seemingly narrow focus on memorization is only the beginning; one fi nds in the schools of the African West a whole range of practices that depart from the modern educational ethos: Qurʾan verses are absorbed into the body through osmosis; personal service, gift s, and veneration are lavished on teachers. Children are oft en subject to corporal punishment, and some work or beg for alms to contrib-ute to their maintenance. These practices have led many to conclude that the schools are at best retrograde and at worst sites of child endangerment and abuse.

The way that they “know” seems not to be “knowing” at all, and the way they teach seems literally to make no sense. This book seeks to make sense of Qurʾan schooling and the philosophy of knowledge it represents and reproduces.

Understanding traditional Qurʾan schooling on its own terms should hold inherent value. There are, aft er all, few more fundamental questions in reli-gious studies than how the core scripture of a religion is learned and taught.3 But this book is more than an institutional history of Qurʾan schools in a par-ticular time and place. One of its major premises is that Qurʾan schooling can also serve as a window onto an Islamic way of knowing. Aft er all, much can be learned about what people believe knowledge is by paying close attention to how they attempt to transmit it to one another.

Bodies of Islamic Scholarship

The major argument of this book is that classical Qurʾan schooling and its contemporary manifestations in West Africa are based on what were once broadly held Islamic ideals about educating the whole of a human being rather than the narrow transmission of discursive knowledge. Islamic knowl-edge is embodied knowledge.

In these pages, I focus on the human body and the ways Muslims have used it to archive, transmit, decode, and actualize religious knowledge. Islamic studies has always been interested in bodies of knowledge, but the ones under consideration here are not only texts, libraries, and archives but also the physical forms of human beings.

Anthropologists and some historians have recently written much about “the body,” but little of this literature thinks with—or thinks through—Islamic conceptions of it. In scholarly studies of Islam, the text still hangs over the body like a veil, hiding its role in shaping Islam. This is beginning to change; a recent special edition of a prominent French Islamic studies journal focused on the “the body and the sacred” in the Near East and fea-tured a number of valuable contributions, not least a pathbreaking concep-tual essay by Catherine Mayeur- Jaouen.4

 But even in this volume, none of the essays uses embodiment as a paradigm to understand Islamic scholarship in Africa or elsewhere. I use “scholarship” here to refer to the closely related phenomena of schooling and scholarly production. There are notable ex-ceptions to this pattern of inattention: anthropologist Corrine Fortier has written a handful of extraordinary articles on knowledge transmission and the body in Mauritania.5 Louis Brenner alluded to embodiment in captivat-ing early works but moved toward the concept of an “esoteric episteme” to characterize knowledge in precolonial Islamic Africa.6 And fi nally, Michael Lambek’s work on the Comoros off ered stunning explorations of Islamic knowledge and corporeality but tended to compare “the objectifi ed textual knowledge characteristic of Islam . . . with the embodied knowledge of spirit possession.”7


A number of recent studies have expanded such discussions of the body in Muslim societies by employing a gendered analysis of spirit possession cults (zār, bori, holey).8 There is much to commend in such studies. They have opened up predominantly female spheres of social and ritual authority, given voice to women, and recovered precious histories of female resistance.

What is problematic, however, is that they, too, construct a conceptual divide between textual Islam and corporeal spiritism. More troubling still is that most of these works carry powerful subtexts of African resistance to sup-posedly alien Islamic cultural intrusions, resulting in an inordinate focus on syncretism.9 Robert Launay has cogently traced this focus on syncretism to Africanist anthropology’s unspoken discomfort with Islam as breaching the “authenticity” of its subjects.10 The fi eld has been constructed as though one cannot be authentically African and authentically Muslim at the same time.

This viewpoint is a problem, especially in overwhelmingly Muslim Afri-can societies where such cults are oft en largely derived from practices of jinn propitiation in the broader Islamic tradition.11 The existence and character-istics of jinn are, aft er all, discussed quite prominently in the Qurʾan. Practi-tioners and anthropologists alike are oft en unaware of the deep Islamic roots and classical textual precedents for some kinds of interactions with jinn.

 They usually have become part of recent struggles over authority, gender, and authenticity and come to be marked as “African” even when they came from Arabia centuries ago. Some things that look (to insiders and outsiders alike) like feminine forms of African animist beliefs were described in detail in texts written by medieval Arab men.12 In other cases, specifi c spirits—or, less commonly, whole systems of ordering interactions with them—can be clearly identifi ed with pre- Islamic African ritual practices but no longer be-long to any coherent religious system. In this context, formal syncretism, which presupposes two distinct religions in interaction, is unhelpful.13

 More-over, glossing such practices as “religion” in the fi rst place does not quite fi t. They are frequently better understood as forms of healing or practical reason.14

All of this has profound implications for how we understand embodiment in African Muslim societies. The composite picture looks like this:

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