Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Njàngaan: The Daily Regime of Qur'ânic Students in Twentieth-Century Senegal*

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Njàngaan: The Daily Regime of Qur'ânic Students in Twentieth-Century Senegal*

Article excerpt

In an essay on his life as a qur'ânic school student written in the early 1940s, a young Senegalese man named Abdou Rahmane Diop voiced an educational ideal common in many Islamic cultures. "According to a commandment of the Qur'ân," he wrote, "the teaching of the Holy Book should not be monopolized. No sum should be asked of one who leaves family, money, and pleasures to come learn about God and his Prophet."1 Thus, in principle, learning the Qur'ân should be free; but if it were, who would choose to teach? If qur'ânic education has ever truly been dispensed as an unpaid act of charity, this was not the case in twentieth-century Senegal. There were many ways of remunerating a sëriñ (teacher or cleric) for his educational services. One of the most important ways was to consign a child to his care, thus giving him full authority over the child's time and labor. In his essay, Diop called this process "binding" the child to the serin. Describing the other live-in students in his large qur'ânic school, he wrote, "often they come in 'lakhaskat' -that is to say, as people who have left their village or their region to go to another country and attend the classes of an influential 'serigne'."2 In Wolof, laxas means to wrap, tie, or bind.3 This article explores the changing perceptions and realities,of the time and labor regimes of students who were "bound" to their sëriñs during the twentieth century.

Another qur'ânic school student, Abdel Qader Fall, described such students as:

the real "talibés" [students, disciples]; they live with the serigne.... Their parents, usually poor, confided them to the holy man, the marabout, ... convinced that their education would thereafter be in good hands. The serigne requires from them no remuneration. But they must cultivate his fields, procure wood for him, and do all the domestic chores necessary to the functioning of the household. A painful existence, that of the "talibé." They are called "N'Dianguanes" [njàngaan4}, which more or less means student.5

The sources used here to establish the time and labor regimes of live-in qur'ânic students in the early twentieth century are mainly Cahiers William Ponty like the one written by Abdou Rahmane Diop quoted on the previous page. The Cahiers William Ponty are take-home examinations on various topics written by advanced students from all over French West Africa who studied at the École Normale William Ponty. There are 791 Cahiers in all conserved at the Institut Français d'Afrique Noire in Dakar. Nine of the Cahiers were written by Senegalese authors on the subject of their experiences in qur'ânic schools. Some are undated; but all were written between 1940 and 1948 by students around the age of twenty.6 They record practices and ideals that obtained in the 1920s and 1930s and were written only a few years removed from the experiences in question. These nine Cahiers on qur'ânic schooling comprise more than five hundred pages of manuscript with intimate details of qur'ânic study as it was lived in the twenties and thirties.

I also employ interviews executed by a research team from the Organisation pour Ia Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer (ORSTOM) between 1967 and 1969 in Bawol, central Senegal. Jean Copans, Phillipe Couty, and Jean Roch conducted social science research centered on agriculture, religion, and social order near Tuubaa (capital of the Muridiyya Sufi order) in the late 1960s. They left translated and lightly edited texts from their interviews at the ORSTOM office in Dakar; these were later moved to IFAN for conservation. The extant texts record interviews with approximately fifty individuals, many of whom recounted and analyzed their experiences in qur'ânic schools at length. The experiences of the daara (Wolof, qur'ânic school7) presented in these interviews sometimes reach back before 1900.8

I supplement these sources with interviews I conducted with former taalibes in the cities and immediate hinterlands of Tiwaawan and Tuubaa in 2001-2002. …

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