Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Traditional Islam and Pedagogical Change in West Africa: The Majlis and the Madrasa in Medina-Baye, Senegal

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Traditional Islam and Pedagogical Change in West Africa: The Majlis and the Madrasa in Medina-Baye, Senegal

Article excerpt

Epistemological differences between traditional and reformist trends in West African Islam are often accounted for in the uneven implementation of pedagogical changes since colonial times.1 Reformist versions of Islam have formed madrasas, characterized by rationalized curricula similar to the modern Western classroom. Here, knowledge is taken from texts, and teachers emphasize Arabic literacy.2 Traditionalists, mostly adherents to Sufi orders pxruq) and the classical schools of jurisprudence (madhähib), assert the continued importance of person-to-person knowledge transmission that takes place in the learning circle (majlis al-'ilm). Here, the student's disposition or character is primarily emphasized, and the teacher embodies Islamic religiosity.3

Research among the community of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse in Medina-Baye Kaolack, Senegal, has both confirmed and problematized the pedagogical divide among West African Muslims. This community of Tijânï Sufis - perhaps the largest Muslim movement in twentiethcentury West Africa - adopted a modernized madrasa curriculum similar to the one being implemented by various groups of "reformist" Muslims who have been emerging in Senegal since the 1950s. Scholars of Medina-Baye maintain the importance of person-to-person knowledge transmission, a process that connects students to an authoritative chain (sanad) of learning back to Prophet Muhammad or other luminaries of the Islamic intellectual tradition. However, Shaykh Ibrahim's emphasis on the transmission of gnosis (ma' rifa), together with an expanded access to Islamic learning in the twentieth century, occasioned significant changes in the educational strategies of the community. The result was a more pronounced emphasis on the formation of a student's religious disposition, or Islamic epistemology, rather than the external form of the learning circle that had previously sustained the sanad-paradigm. The community thus attempted to re-inscribe an enduring epistemology of "embodied" knowledge - whereby Islamic disposition is internalized in the student through the physical presence of the teacher - even as it adapted pedagogical techniques to suit new historical contexts.

The story of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse's community of followers has begun to emerge in academic literature.4 The Jama at al-fayda, or "Community of the Divine Flood," established its own "holy town" called Medina-Baye a few kilometers outside Kaolack, Senegal, in 1929. It overcame ethnic and caste marginality within Senegal, gradually reconciled internal dissentions within the clerical family of al-Häjj 'Abd-Alläh Niasse (d. 1922), and increasingly asserted demands on the French colonial state following World War II. By independence it had emerged as one of three major maraboutic communities in Senegal behind the followers of Malik Sy (d. 1922) based in Tivaouane and Amadou Bamba (d. 1927) in Touba. Shaykh Ibrahim's community was based on the teaching of the classical Islamic knowledge disciplines Çulum) together with a formalized training system (tarbiya) for the transmission of Sufi gnosis (ma' rifa) on an unprecedented scale. Claiming to be the supreme saint of the age (qutb) and to be endowed with a special overflowing grace (fayda) permitting him to teach gnosis to all Muslims, Shaykh Ibrahim distinguished himself from rival Senegalese marabouts by his increasingly international following. Previous academic scholarship has justifiably accentuated the articulation and contestation of key Sufi doctrines (Seesemann, 2011), the utilization of mostly Sufi knowledge as a distinctive identity marker in the context of Wolof society (Hill, 2007), or the outlines of Shaykh Ibrahim's international profile (Kane, 1997).

This article attempts to answer the more mundane question of how students in the community learn. The author discusses the structure and adaptation of broader Islamic learning techniques in an era of intense pedagogical change and contestation. Obviously, Sufilearning and identity remain fundamental to understanding Islamic education in Medina-Baye, but the system of Sufi training (tarbiya) mostly takes place in private and has not rendered the more public and exoteric Islamic learning irrelevant. …

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