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The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa

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Spanning a thousand years of history--and bringing the story to the present through ethnographic fieldwork in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania--Rudolph Ware documents the profound significance of Qur'an schools for West African Muslim communities. Such schools peacefully brought Islam to much of the region, becoming striking symbols of Muslim identity. Ware shows how in Sen Spanning a thousand years of history--and bringing the story to the present through ethnographic fieldwork in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania--Rudolph Ware documents the profound significance of Qur'an schools for West African Muslim communities. Such schools peacefully brought Islam to much of the region, becoming striking symbols of Muslim identity. Ware shows how in Senegambia the schools became powerful channels for African resistance during the eras of the slave trade and colonization. While illuminating the past, Ware also makes signal contributions to understanding contemporary Islam by demonstrating how the schools' epistemology of embodiment gives expression to classical Islamic frameworks of learning and knowledge. Today, many Muslims and non-Muslims find West African methods of Qur'an schooling puzzling and controversial. In fascinating detail, Ware introduces these practices from the viewpoint of the practitioners, explicating their emphasis on educating the whole human being as if to remake it as a living replica of the Qur'an. From this perspective, the transference of knowledge in core texts and rituals is literally embodied in people, helping shape them--like the Prophet of Islam--into vital bearers of the word of God.


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Spanning a thousand years of history--and bringing the story to the present through ethnographic fieldwork in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania--Rudolph Ware documents the profound significance of Qur'an schools for West African Muslim communities. Such schools peacefully brought Islam to much of the region, becoming striking symbols of Muslim identity. Ware shows how in Sen Spanning a thousand years of history--and bringing the story to the present through ethnographic fieldwork in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania--Rudolph Ware documents the profound significance of Qur'an schools for West African Muslim communities. Such schools peacefully brought Islam to much of the region, becoming striking symbols of Muslim identity. Ware shows how in Senegambia the schools became powerful channels for African resistance during the eras of the slave trade and colonization. While illuminating the past, Ware also makes signal contributions to understanding contemporary Islam by demonstrating how the schools' epistemology of embodiment gives expression to classical Islamic frameworks of learning and knowledge. Today, many Muslims and non-Muslims find West African methods of Qur'an schooling puzzling and controversial. In fascinating detail, Ware introduces these practices from the viewpoint of the practitioners, explicating their emphasis on educating the whole human being as if to remake it as a living replica of the Qur'an. From this perspective, the transference of knowledge in core texts and rituals is literally embodied in people, helping shape them--like the Prophet of Islam--into vital bearers of the word of God.

30 review for The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa

  1. 5 out of 5

    Zainab Bint Younus

    I would give this a negative review if I could. 1) Academically piss-poor: no citations given for alleged "ahadith"; no clear definition of terms like "Islamist" or "Salafi" (obviously expecting readers to conjure the most negative, pejorative ideas of those terms possible); blatantly inaccurate lumping together of wildly different groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat, Salafiyyah, Qutbists, al-Qaeda, and more. Glaring exclusion of Nana Asma'u and the Yan Taru movement, despite this book's purpose a I would give this a negative review if I could. 1) Academically piss-poor: no citations given for alleged "ahadith"; no clear definition of terms like "Islamist" or "Salafi" (obviously expecting readers to conjure the most negative, pejorative ideas of those terms possible); blatantly inaccurate lumping together of wildly different groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat, Salafiyyah, Qutbists, al-Qaeda, and more. Glaring exclusion of Nana Asma'u and the Yan Taru movement, despite this book's purpose allegedly being about the history of West African Islamic education. 2) Bizarre obsession with jinn and "spirit possession" and trying to insist that it has a place in the Prophetic tradition (spoiler alert: it is explicitly forbidden and considered a form of shirk). 3) Horrific and repeated justification of violent abuse against children in the name of "traditional Quran schooling" and "taming of the ego." Also insisting that forcing children to wear rags and beg in the streets all day is a good thing. Spends a great deal of time trying to justify these things and claiming that anyone who objects to it is somehow a colonizer who doesn't understand ~ traditional methods of learning ~. Note: the physical scarring of these children is repeatedly described as "inscribing the Word (I.e. the Quran) onto their bodies" - romanticizing clear violence and abuse. 4) Disgusting praise for Sufi "disciples" who drank their shaykh's blood. Yes, you read that correctly. It really is that disgusting. 5) Literally says that anyone who doesn't lick the Quran or looks down on that practice doesn't love the Quran enough. Yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds. 6) So many theologically problematic issues that there isn't space for it in this review and needs its own academic rebuttal. The historic bits describing the slave trade, West African scholarship vs polity etc would have been interesting except that I cannot trust a single word the author says and therefore would need to ensure fact-checking of literally everything he says. This book reveals what an absolute crackpot nutjob the author is. Don't waste your time, money, or brain cells on this flaming pile of horror.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mehwish Mughal

    "When I began researching Qur'an schools a dozen years ago, I shared Human Rights Watch's view that the daara was an exploitative and backward institution. I pitied the taalibes because they were suffering awful exploitation, and I too wondered whether they were actually learning anything." The author, through an ethnographic approach, reaches the bottom of what it means to be studying in Qur'an schools in West Africa and how these taalibes were an embodiment of Islamic knowledge and were prope "When I began researching Qur'an schools a dozen years ago, I shared Human Rights Watch's view that the daara was an exploitative and backward institution. I pitied the taalibes because they were suffering awful exploitation, and I too wondered whether they were actually learning anything." The author, through an ethnographic approach, reaches the bottom of what it means to be studying in Qur'an schools in West Africa and how these taalibes were an embodiment of Islamic knowledge and were propelled into becoming Walking Qur'an. An extremely important and scholarly account of the historical and political context of Islam in West Africa.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Amanda J

    Well, this was certainly a different book than I expected it to be but I'm highly pleased with it! Ware walks through the history of Qur'an schooling in West Africa in great detail, and really hits home on points covering historical fact, imperialism, spirituality, the Arab/Islam reform movement in the latter half of the 1900s, and the cultural shifts in how the community in West Africa viewed the importance of religion, spirituality, and the communal obligation to these. I really appreciated War Well, this was certainly a different book than I expected it to be but I'm highly pleased with it! Ware walks through the history of Qur'an schooling in West Africa in great detail, and really hits home on points covering historical fact, imperialism, spirituality, the Arab/Islam reform movement in the latter half of the 1900s, and the cultural shifts in how the community in West Africa viewed the importance of religion, spirituality, and the communal obligation to these. I really appreciated Ware's recognition that his expectations upon starting this research were not met, and his opinion on Qur'an schooling was drastically altered during this extended period of first hand research. The entirety of the book was well written, well cited, and well worth it. Highly recommend for anyone interested in the culture of West Africa and/or Islam.

  4. 5 out of 5

    _immareadyou

    Dr. Bilal Ware eloquently takes us through the inception, cultivation, and fruition of Islam in West Africa, on a timeline as far back as the early 9th century to present day. Navigating historical events and figures, Dr. Ware undoubtedly exposes the brilliance of West African Islamic scholarship that was, and still is, entrenched in the region. He illustrates the systems of education, which could be anywhere from a communal size to transnational. People from all over the world sojourn to parts Dr. Bilal Ware eloquently takes us through the inception, cultivation, and fruition of Islam in West Africa, on a timeline as far back as the early 9th century to present day. Navigating historical events and figures, Dr. Ware undoubtedly exposes the brilliance of West African Islamic scholarship that was, and still is, entrenched in the region. He illustrates the systems of education, which could be anywhere from a communal size to transnational. People from all over the world sojourn to parts of Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, and Nigeria, and in many cases stay for the invaluable knowledge. One major parallel I had noticed was the beautiful resemblance of the similarities between West African Islamic and Traditional Afro-American pedagogy, where both methods emphasized the elevation of spiritual status through obtaining knowledge. In a book I recently read "Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students", one of the authors, Theresa Perry, discusses the timeless value of Traditional Afro-American pedagogy. During slavery seeking higher education, despite the risk of mutilation or even death, was the only thing that would elevate you in your rank. The motto "Freedom through Literacy, Literacy through Freedom" showcases the transcendence of this absolute truth from the West African coasts all the way to the American South, Alhamdulilah! We see brave figures embody this absolute truth and live by it in the book. We see European slavers/colonizers bewitched at their core by the devotion of African Muslims to expel the filth of the dunya (world) and their nafs (egos). So much so, that all measures of intricate, intentional, and lethal actions are taken to ensure the Transatlantic Slave Enterprise and the colonization that would follow after. Dr. Ware flawlessly demonstrates the lengths these same slavers/colonizers would go to devalue and disenfranchise the Islamic history of West Africa. One tactic is infantilizing West African Muslims and their actions by strictly attributing Islam to their Arab ("baydan") counterparts because of their lighter skin. At the same pace, the Europeans would employ any means necessary to stop West African clerics and students from pulling their "dunya-infested" kings and brethren back into the oxygen of taqwa (God-consciousness). This books holds a mirror up to the current state of affairs for many Black/African Muslims today, where they are not given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their place in Islam. Dr. Ware did the Ummah a serious justice by exposing the timeless framework that has enriched, and continues to do so, our communities; Muslim and Non-Muslim.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ayah

    This is a valuable read that filled lots of gaps in my knowledge about the Islamic history of West Africa (and even some info on the present situation there) especially in regard to Islamic epistemology. I love learning about the teaching method of the Quran, a centuries-long tradition still practiced in some West African Quran schools today. The aim is for students to embody the Quran in two ways: by personality, through humility, respect, hard work, and generosity; and also physical embodiment, This is a valuable read that filled lots of gaps in my knowledge about the Islamic history of West Africa (and even some info on the present situation there) especially in regard to Islamic epistemology. I love learning about the teaching method of the Quran, a centuries-long tradition still practiced in some West African Quran schools today. The aim is for students to embody the Quran in two ways: by personality, through humility, respect, hard work, and generosity; and also physical embodiment, for example by ingesting the water used to clean the ink that wrote Quranic verses on wooden boards. There was great discussion on how different social classes accessed Islamic education, and the schooling methods/expectations for each. I appreciated the specific attention given to women/girls here. Western schooling introduced by French colonialism attempted to hinder traditional Quranic teaching, and the book discusses how this changed educational norms. I especially appreciated the historical dimension, from how Islam was initially spread through scholarship, to the impact of French colonialism on educational norms, to the ways “Walking Qurans” (huffath/teachers/scholars of Quran) heavily influenced the fight against the Atlantic slave trade. I was very inspired by descriptions of such scholars, some of whom were also warriors, and all of whom I didn’t know as much about before. That being said, there were a few points I wasn’t convinced by (e.g., the general and completely negative remarks on Salafism and directly linking it to terrorism, questioning whether non-West-African Muslims truly loved the Quran if certain practices like licking the ink didn’t appeal to them, etc.). A more specific list of things I found questionable: - Ware seems completely opposed to Salafism, and only mentions it as a negative influence without considering any potential benefits that came from their educational funding in the region. I don't know much about this topic, but "Beyond Timbuktu" by Ousmane Kane discusses the positive aspects of Salafi funding. Of course it was not all positive, but I take issue with how Ware made it seem as completely opposed to traditional Islamic schooling and completely undermined any benefit from scholars like Sayyid Qutb and Rashid Rida by accusing them of narrowly promoting violence and paving the way to terrorism. - Ware emphasizes that sticking to tradition does not require being rigid or unchanging, but then proceeds to attack the reforms in West Africa that were Salafi-based. Perhaps I don't understand much of the history here, but I felt that these reforms could be seen as a way of upholding traditional Islamic studies in the face of modern/western educational systems--so wouldn't that be considered a way of carrying tradition but through change? In fact, in Rediscovering the Islamic Classics, Ahmed El Shamsy sheds light on Egyptian reformers who saw going back to the classical Islamic texts as a means of sticking to tradition *and* improving the current state of the ummah. But for scholars like Ware (as well as several Sufi scholars who opposed the Egyptian 19th century reformers as discussed in Shamsy’s work), “disembodied” knowledge—knowledge based on text—is problematic so instead they rely on transmitted/revealed knowledge. This causes a disregard for centuries of Islamic scholarship that has been preserved through text and can be quite problematic itself. - There were some negative remarks on Muslims (that even went so far as to question their love for the Quran) who do not find it appealing to partake in the cultural practices of traditional West African Quran schools (like licking the Quran slates clean or drinking the water used to wash the ink that wrote the Quran). As someone who never heard of these practices, I am obviously not so willing to accept or implement them myself--but I can still recognize it as a significant part of West African Muslim culture that shows their love of the Quran and embodying it. It's fine of course if one culture chooses to do this, but then why judge the level of love of the Quran that other cultures who do not partake in these practices have? Moreover, one need not prove their love of the Quran by doing a practice that even the Prophet peace be upon him and the sahaba did not do. - There was a tendency to defend all types of indigenous West African practices regardless of whether they conflicted with Islamic teachings based on the Quran and sunnah or not. Ingesting ink from a mus’haf is one, but another extremely problematic example of this is his defense of Quran teachers who physically disciplined their students (children). When attempting to defend west Africa against the villanizing claims against madrasa teachers, instead of examining the potential problems of physically disciplining Quran students, Ware defends this practice by quoting a hadith that is not even cited, and argues that physical discipline is good and traditional. I disagree with his romanticization of physical discipline as a “purification” and indigenous, traditional teaching method. While it may be indigenous and traditional, it is still wrong. We can accuse the colonialists/orientalists/Eurocentric NGO’s of wrongful villainizing/victimizing, but when indigenous people themselves have been cited to complain against this tactic, it makes no sense to write off their claims as anti-traditional—when in this case, being anti-traditional is a protective measure for children, whom Islamic teachings see as pure anyway. It is one thing to defend indigenous practices against unfair colonial accusations. It is another to defend ALL such practices simply because they are the tradition or culture of the area, and especially when natives themselves have been recorded to complain of the harmful effects of such practices. - He consistently quotes sayings of the prophet without any hadith/narrator reference/authenticity grade. - He speaks favorably of “quranic numerology” and writing “talismans” and “spirit possessions” which are clearly wrong and closely linked with magic (shirk) practices. To sum, there are some really interesting points made in this book and I learned about several West African Muslims and cultural/intellectual practices that helped preserve the Islamic tradition. It’s very informative, and despite some points that I wasn’t convinced by, I learned so much from it. That being said, those points need to be carefully examined as they can be harmful. Also, this is not a light read, so while I’d recommend reading it if you’re interested in the topic, know that the wording was really academic at times.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Polanski

    If God's Word is epistemologically understood not as a text or a book but as something capable of being embodied in holy people, how did West African Muslims reckon with the Word of God being enslaved? That's the question the third chapter answers, and it might be the best thing to date I've read on the topic of slavery. If God's Word is epistemologically understood not as a text or a book but as something capable of being embodied in holy people, how did West African Muslims reckon with the Word of God being enslaved? That's the question the third chapter answers, and it might be the best thing to date I've read on the topic of slavery.

  7. 4 out of 5

    a

    "In the Qurʾan’s view, bodies can be low and foul and dirty, but they can also be ennobled by knowledge. This lowly flesh can be raised to a status higher than that of the angels, who are told to bow to Adam, a creature made of mud, because he possessed knowledge of the names of all things." —p256 "In the Qurʾan’s view, bodies can be low and foul and dirty, but they can also be ennobled by knowledge. This lowly flesh can be raised to a status higher than that of the angels, who are told to bow to Adam, a creature made of mud, because he possessed knowledge of the names of all things." —p256

  8. 4 out of 5

    Basil

    Fantastic, crucial reading about premodern Islamic epistemology. I’m gonna think about the most standout chapters, which focused on embodied knowledge and resistance to slavery, for a long time.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mountaga Tall

    Walking Quran Full of wisdom from an intellectual, historical and religious perspective. Beautiful attempt at explaining the religion and it's roots and differences. Walking Quran Full of wisdom from an intellectual, historical and religious perspective. Beautiful attempt at explaining the religion and it's roots and differences.

  10. 4 out of 5

    David Walko

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mouhamadou Diagne

  12. 5 out of 5

    Toni Morgan

  13. 4 out of 5

    Aaliyah

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lawana Holland-Moore

  15. 5 out of 5

    Merrick Richardson

  16. 5 out of 5

    Abeer

  17. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Bediako

  18. 5 out of 5

    Enkidu_

  19. 5 out of 5

    Khansa Khalisha

  20. 5 out of 5

    Safa

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nimat Shaheed-Jacks

  22. 5 out of 5

    Naira M

  23. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  24. 4 out of 5

    Muhammed A Thwahir

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bilal Ali

  26. 5 out of 5

    Azadeh Sobout

  27. 4 out of 5

    Latiffah Salima

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ayaz

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ayaz

  30. 4 out of 5

    Shama Farag

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