The significance of West African institutions is often overlooked when studying Islam, said Rudolph Ware, assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, Thursday evening.
Ware gave the keynote and opening address of a workshop titled “Islamic Institutions of Higher Learning in Africa.” Twenty experts in the fields of Islamic and Quranic studies in Africa came from all over the world for the closed workshop. The lecture—which was sponsored by an array of departments including Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Center for Muslim Life—was open to the public.
“Islamic institutions in Bangladesh and Pakistan receive undue notoriety, while Islamic institutions south of the Sahara are largely neglected,” said Ebrahim Moosa, professor of religion and Islamic studies.
Moosa introduced Ware to the audience, noting that Ware’s upcoming book—“The Walking Qur’an; Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge and History in West Africa”— explores Islamic institutions in West Africa.
Ware echoed Moosa, saying that there is “dearth” of studies about institutions in West Africa. He said these institutions are marginalized within the mainstream African and Islamic Studies for colonial reasons.
“[People] have trouble seeing West African Muslims as authentically Muslim and authentically African at the same time,” Ware said.
In researching for his book, Ware, a social historian, said he was looking to answer what people do when transferring religious knowledge to others.
“Islamic education in West Africa focuses on the body and its senses as a vehicle for knowledge,” he said.
Ware said he used a diverse body of primary sources to gather the history of Qu’ran schools in West Africa—which still exist today.
“These schools have a profoundly conservative approach as compared to the rest of the world,” Ware said. “They still use wooden tablets and corporal punishment.”
Ware said that in many interviews he did with Senegalese people who had attended Quran schools, interviewees showed him lashes from their teachers.
“The lash had written the Quran on them,” Ware said.
As part of his research, he spoke to teachers from Quran schools about their educational philosophies. Ware said that education in Qur’an schools mostly centers on disciplining and correcting students.
One teacher told Ware to imagine his favorite food and then to imagine serving it in a dirty bowl. The teacher considered this a metaphor for children studying the Quran.
“You need to clean out the vessel before giving children of Adam the word of God,” Ware said, citing the teacher’s philosophy.
Many in the world consider Qur’an schools—often criticized as violent and singularly focused on rote memorization—to be effective and religiously significant. In the question and answer session after Ware’s lecture, workshop attendee Abdulmageed Ahmed, a university registrar from Sudan, commented that there is something to be learned from the emphasis on discipline at Quran schools.
“We are weak now because we left that kind of teaching,” Ahmed said.