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

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

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

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


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.


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) first 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 intellect but the limbs as well. Muḥammad learned the movements by copying Jibrīl, who sometimes appeared to him in human form. 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 suffer 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 reproduce 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 transmission 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 . . .

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