Knowledge & Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery & Spirit Possession // Review

Article excerpt

How might anthropologists understand the cultural basis of knowledge? This is Michael Lambek's task in this detailed and often engrossing study from Mayotte, an island of the Comoro archipelago in the Indian Ocean, between East Africa and Madagascar. Based on careful field research spanning approximately 20 years, Lambek argues for an understanding of the interrelatedness of three traditions, each with its own conception of knowledge: Islam, cosmology and spirit possession. These traditions may be viewed, at times, as interlocking or even indistinguishable; at others they compete with or contradict one another. Key issues concern the question of knowledge as power and whether Islam is hegemonic in self-proclaimed Muslim communities. In turn, a unifying theme is: how does one obtain knowledge and who has access to it? Can we speak of a morality of knowledge? Sociologist Alfred Schutz provides a helpful framework: there are varying degrees of knowledge, represented by the expert, the "well-informed citizen" and "the man on the street" (or what Lambek refers to as "the person on the path"). Levels of knowing in Mayotte are best understood in times of crisis (most often sickness), where the "master, scholar, [or] expert" (p. 3) for all three traditions is the fundi, whose clients fall into Schutz's two other categories.

In part 1, "Introductions," Lambek explores the historical roots of knowledge on Mayotte, showing how the three traditions were brought by seafarers of many origins. French colonization further complicates the picture; thus Lambek gives a brief-yet-in-formative recent history of Mayotte, as well as an overview of village social structure. The remainder of the book is divided into three sections, each focussing on one of the traditions. A central theme is whether knowledge is embedded in texts or embodied, and this is reflected in the three respective section headings: "The Social Organization of Textual Knowledge," "Counterpractices: Cosmology and the Ins and Outs of Sorcery" and "Embodied Knowledge and the Practice of Spirit Mediums."

As Lambek explains early in this work, Islamic knowledge is open to all members of Mayotte society, but mastery is another question altogether. Children begin learning to recite the Qur'an at a young age by sounding out Arabic letters (a task that was given to, and frustrated, Lambek early in his field work, when he expressed his desire to learn about local culture). Boys and girls who show promise are sent to other villages to study with fundis who specialize in 'Ilim fakihi, knowledge of Islam's sacred texts and rituals. Learning proves difficult, for the inquisitive student is quickly frustrated by the lack of instructional texts or teachers well-versed in Arabic. Here Lambek reveals an important dimension of Islam: words, when uttered, are sacred; but, when translated, they lose their power. Furthermore, being Muslim in Mayotte is a performative experience: it is through such actions as recitation, prayer and fasting that one asserts Muslim identity.

In contrast, knowledge associated with 'Ilim dunia, the cosmologer's art, hinges on the ability to read (that is, translate) and interpret a host of astrological texts. I found this section to be the most compelling, for the cosmologer is simultaneously a valued healer and a potentially dangerous sorcerer. For example, through this knowledge one can predict auspicious times to hold important rituals, as well as to harm one's adversaries. Thus, cosmology defines a spectrum of healers and sorcerers, whose work may be viewed as good or evil. Much of this knowledge is secretive and is acquired only through apprenticeships with established masters that span decades. …