Dear Readers, Working on some posts...but mostly working on my dissertation. I'm posting here a video of a panel I appeared on back at the end of October 2015 at the University of Michigan, hosted by my colleague Butch Ware's new initiative, IKHLAS. The panel was part of a conference called, "Mystic Motherland: Africa, the Qur’an, and the Esoteric Sciences." The panel was entitled, "Invisible Blacks, Red Seas and Indian Ocean Worlds." Participants included Hillina Seife, Chair, and panelists Imam Dawud Walid, Muhammad Tayssir Safi, Dr. Ousseina Alidou, and myself. Please do check out the rest of the fascinating panels.
April 19, 2016
March 13, 2016
November 4, 2015
|a Mijikenda sacred grove in East Africa|
The various teachers of precolonial African history I've had the privilege to learn from all emphasize that “public healing” is a useful descriptive to understand how a variety of people in Africa understood the connected realm that Western scholars separate into religion and politics. Public healing in Africa symbolized and symbolizes the collective aspiration for harmony, social reproduction and abundance. Public healing was about healing the political-social body. One of my mentors calls this dynamic discourse of public healing “a moral aspiration for community.” And it is very very old. For instance, if you go back and look at the identity of the earliest dynasty in Great Lakes history, the progenitor to all the subsequent kingdoms, that dynasty is not really a dynasty at all, but a coalition of healers, mystics and wisemen called the Cwezi.
Till today, the Cwezi continue to be venerated, as what some might label as gods, or perhaps more accurately, ancestors or spirits. In some places in the Great Lakes region, the place where this veneration happened was a territorial shrine. In 1996, the Ugandan journalist Geoffrey Kamali described a fleet of seven taxis filled with people who left Kampala in the middle of the night following an “ancestor guide”, someone who had the ability to communicate with these spirits. They sought a shrine on a hilltop outside Kampala, a place with many caves. They brought cash and coffee berries to give to the omusambwa of that place, the territorial spirit. During the fire, some people became possessed by the spirits and the ancestor guide moved through the fire without being burned. Afterwards she took the people to the shores of Lake Victoria, where she tattooed their right arms and asked them to confess their sins to her and swallow several of the coffee berries.
The Great Lakes experience is not unique. Similar kinds of shrines exist at the East African coast. The Giriama are one group among the Mijikenda, a people who have lived near the Swahili coast for many centuries. In the precolonial era, they most often lived in rural areas adjacent to the coastal towns. They had their own forms of sacred enclosures/shrines in the form of groves of trees, called kayas. In 1914, the British, in response to Giriama resistance to British colonial taxation and labor policies, demolished one of these sacred groves. The main trees and gates were blown up, all the dwellings and trees inside the kaya burned, and the entrance dynamited and barricaded. This prompted a rebellion by the Giriama, in which 5000 houses were burnt and 150 men killed. Harming religious-political space touched to the core of Giriama conceptions of the good and the sacred.
Nor where such sacred shrines confined to the continent of Africa. They were also found throughout "Arabia" both before and after the arrival of Islam, and constituted an important part of how people related to the divinity. When we think of the ka'aba, we usually think of a place in Mecca, but a ka'aba could potentially be any sacred place where people would gather to seek intercession. It was a plural religious space, where violence was forbidden. This is not to say that people always respected these boundaries, but there were rules elaborated about coexisting sacred spheres.
For monotheistic visions of divinity, public healing can look a lot like polytheism, paganism or shirk. Where it gets controversial for African and Islamic history is when the Prophet Muhammad is directly implicated in the destruction of such sacred places. Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi, the famous Kufan scholar, in his book Kitaab-ul-asnam, reports the following passage:
"When the Apostle of God captured Mecca and the Arabs embraced Islam, among the delegates who came to pay their homage was Jarir ibn-'Abdullah. He came to the Apostle and embraced Islam before him. Thereupon the Apostle addressed him saying, "O Jarir! Wilt thou not rid me of dhu-al-Khalasah?" Jarir replied, "Yea." So the Apostle dispatched him to destroy it. He set out until he got to the banu-Abmas of the Bajilah [tribe] and with them he proceeded to dhu-al-Khalasah. There he was met by the men… who resisted him and attempted to defend dhu-al-Khalasah. He, therefore, fought them and killed a hundred men of the Bahilah, its custodians, and many of the Khath'am; while of the banu-Qubafah ibn-'Amir ibn-Khath'am, he killed two hundred. Having defeated them and forced them into flight, he demolished the building which stood over dhu-al-Khalasah and set it on fire."This incident is also in Sahih al-Bukhari :
"During the Jahiliya, there was a house called Dhu-l-Khalasa or Al-Ka'ba Al-Yamaniya or Al-Ka'ba Ash-Shamiya. The Prophet said to me, "Won't you relieve me from Dhu-l-Khalasa?" So I set out with one-hundred-and-fifty riders, and we dismantled it and killed whoever was present there. Then I came to the Prophet and informed him, and he invoked good upon us and Al-Ahmas."
Keep in mind here, we are talking about the destruction of a very similar type of shrine to that of the Cwezi shrines or the Giriama sacred groves. In fact, Dhu al-Khalasa was simply a carved piece of white quartz, resting in a place called the ka’aba by the local people who tended it. People used to come to this shrine when faced with difficult decisions and seek advice. It was sacred to those people, as showed by their determination to defend it.
The above incident raises several uncomfortable questions for the Islamic tradition and, beyond that for all monotheistic traditions. What is the difference between ancestor veneration and idolatry, and who gets to decide what that difference is? What are the limitations of the concept of toleration in dealing with the religious other? How does monotheism construct its other? I wonder if we regard the Prophet Muhammad’s need to destroy other people’s holy objects as a form of necessary evil on the way to monotheism. Were the tribes and the men a form of collateral damage in the march of the progress of the deen?
Forms of ancestor veneration and spirit possession have been a nearly universal part of all cultures and civilizations. The ancient Egyptians venerated ancestors, through a panoply of shrines, gods, idols, statues, figurines. One wonders however, if the ancient Egyptians worshipped their gods as a community in Mecca under the Prophet, would they have been regarded as rank idolators? I don't know the answer, but the above incident made me think about the likelihood that their buildings and shrines would have been burnt down and destroyed under those circumstances.
I would suggest that we need to interrogate the epistemological assumptions at the root of 1) the categorical move to create people whose beliefs place them beyond the sacred law, and thus in natural rebellion 2) the logic that makes it necessary to kill hundreds of men, simply to destroy an idol, and the moral calculus that makes figuring that possible. More is at work here than mere “Arab ethnocentrism” or “Arab racism” versus “African” religion. In fact what is at work is a profound devaluation of other forms of epistemology, cosmology and meaning making about the sacred in Africa.
For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is understandably the moral exemplar of a virtuous life. This is not an attack on the Prophet. As a human, he was truly great, a man who rose above the times he lived in. As a prophet, he was no doubt inspired. As a political leader he often dealt with difficult situations with the greatest sensitivity to human personality. But on the coexistence of monotheism with what we understand as “polytheism”, paganism, shirk, or iconoclasm, I believe the overwhelming historical evidence doesn’t support the way he linked polytheism to disobedience to the one God.
The great scholar of religion Talal Asad has done much work denaturalizing the secular, as something that the West created to help it imagine itself as civilized, and those still stuck in religious orthodoxy as barbarous. In fact, Asad and his many students have said and have demonstrated that secularism created religion, as a category with which to consign forms of non-rational belief. But Asad and his students have not gone far enough. Just as Euro-Americans have had difficulty recognizing that their experience of the Enlightenment was particular to their cultural and historical trajectory and its categories, so the Abrahamic traditions have had incredible difficulties recognizing the particularity of their own experience of universal religion. It would be interesting to get Asad's thoughts on how the Abrahamic faiths have created a category of shirk or polytheism, filled it with a host of negative, immoral meanings which do not correspond to what we actually find in the historical record, and then constructed themselves in distinction to it. This process of meaning making has had profoundly tragic consequences for non-monotheistic aspirations for moral community and divinity.
I do not think these anecodetes exhaust the possible entailments of Islam, Muslims or Islamic epistemologies. But they do highlight the degree to which force, conquest and a deliberate violence, both epistemological and literal are part of attempts to secure a particular tradition as sacrosanct. How do we avoid linking the sacred with a concept of governing exclusion? In reforming society a prophet has to participate in public life, in the affairs and concerns of the many, rather than in the cultivation of the one. The prophetic has to combine the ethical with the political. As the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal describes it, the Prophet returns: ‘to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history, and thereby create a fresh world of ideals.’ To make a "fresh world of ideals" is a political act; the creation of a world is inherently political. But such a world cannot be sustained, if it continues to instantiate such a profound disregard for epistemologies that do not share in the logocentric assumptions of the dominant Abrahamic religions.
Finally, I want to suggest that we not be so quick to justify the Prophet’s actions above as necessary or divinely inspired. By apologizing for them, we create a direct connection to imagining and modeling the type of world we want to create, support and live in. If we as scholars of Islam want to challenge the rhetoric of ISIS and Salafism, if we want to imagine a world where we create enough room for “other ways of knowing”, for traditions which challenge the narrow technocratic ways of knowing of the modern world, and its attendant domination over nature, then we cannot afford to ignore some acts of profound violence and disrespect of other ways of knowing, at the root of ‘our’ tradition. In reckoning with these acts, I think we will be led into new definitions of tawhid, in which we are not so quick to think that we know the difference between tawhid and shirk. Inshallah, that will lead us into a profound humility and care in our encounter with the religious other.
October 14, 2015
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
The Art of Hubbing: The Role of Small Islands in Indian Ocean Connectivity
Organiser: Burkhard Schnepel
Thursday, 15th October 2015
15.00 – 16.00 Registration at the MPI
16.00 – 16.15 Welcome Address by Chris Hann, Director of the MPI for Social Anthropology
16.15 – 17.00 Welcome and Thematic Introduction to the Conference by Burkhard Schnepel
17.00 – 18.15 Keynote Lecture
Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna
Smallness and Insular Hubs: Some working hypotheses from historical anthropology
19.00 – 20.00 Dinner at ‘Prager Bierstuben’
20.00 – 21.30 Wrap-up and discussion
Friday, 16th October 2015
Chair: Mareike Pampus
9.15 – 10.00 Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
Ambon, a Spicy Hub
10.00 – 10.45 Jürgen G. Nagel, Fernuniversität Hagen
Commodities and Creeds: Changing connectivity of Makassar (South Sulawesi), 16th to 20th century
10.45 – 11.15 Coffee break
Chair: Gita Dharampal-Frick
11.15 – 12.00 Ajay Gandhi, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen
Specks that Speak Loudly: The view from Mumbai and Ilha de Moçambique
12.00 – 12.45 Beatrice Nicolini, Catholic University of Milan
Global Indian Ocean Ports: Sailing from Arabia, to Zanzibar, and to New York
13.00 – 14.00 Lunch break
Chair: Hermann Kulke
14.15 – 15.00 Burkhard Schnepel, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
Port Louis (Mauritius) and the Making of a ‘Hub-Society’
15.00 – 15.45 Tansen Sen, City University of New York
Small? Big? Island?: The perceptions of Sri Lanka in Chinese sources
15.45 – 16.15 Coffee break
Chair: Burkhard Schnepel
16.15 – 17.00 Edward A. Alpers, University of California Los Angeles
Islands Connect: People, things and ideas among the small islands of the Western Indian Ocean
17.00 – 17.45 Godfrey Baldacchino, University of Malta
Displaced Passengers: States, movements and disappearances in the Indian Ocean
19.00 – 20.00 Dinner at ‘Wildschütz’
20.00 – 21.30 Wrap-up and discussion
Saturday, 17th October 2015
Chair: Himanshu Prabha Ray
9.15 – 10.00 Iain Walker, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
Zanzibar: A Hub in Comorian diasporic networks in the Western Indian Ocean
10.00 – 10.45 Kjersti Larsen, University of Oslo
Multifaceted Identities, Multiple Dwellings: Connectivity and flexible household-configurations in Zanzibar Town
10.45 – 11.15 Coffee break
Chair: Eva-Maria Knoll
11.15 – 12.00 Gwyn Campbell, McGill University Montreal
Kilwa Island and the Western Indian Ocean World
12.00 – 12.45 Martin Ramstedt, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
Bali and Indian-Indonesian Connectivity: Why a small island has mattered
13.00 – 14.00 Lunch break
Chair: Boris Wille
14.15 – 15.00 Vijaya Teelock, University of Mauritius
The Emergence of ‘Local Cosmopolitans’ in Port Louis: Migration and settlement in early 18th up to mid-19th century Port Louis
15.00 – 15.45 Steffen F. Johannessen, Norwegian Business School, Oslo
From Coconut Trade to ‘War on Terror’: Connectivity and disconnections in the Indian Ocean
15.45 – 16.15 Coffee break
16.15 – 17.00 Final Discussion on Conference Themes, Future Collaborations and Publication
Moderation: Burkhard Schnepel
May 27, 2015
from Ancient Egyptian Literature, edited by Miriam Lichtheim
"As to those learned scribes,
Of the time that came after the gods,
They who foretold the future,
Their names have become everlasting,
While they departed, having finished their lives,
And all their kin are forgotten.
They did not make themselves tombs of copper,
With stelae of metal from heaven.
They knew not how to leave heirs,
Children to pronounce their names;
They made heirs fro themselves of books,
Of Instructions they had composed.
They gave themselves [the scroll as lector]-priest
The writing-board as loving son.
Instructions are their tombs,
The reed pen is their child,
The stone-surface their wife.
People great and small
Are given them as children,
For the scribe, he is their leader.
Their portals and mansions have crumbled,
Their ka-servants are [gone];
Their tombstones are covered with soil,
Their graves are forgotten.
Their name is pronounced over their books,
Which they made while they had being;
Good is the memory of their makers,
It is for ever and all time!
Be a scribe, take it to heart,
That your name become as theirs.
Better is a book than a graven stela,
Than a solid tomb-enclosure.
They act as chapels and tombs
In the heart of him who speaks their name;
Surely useful in the graveyard
Is a name in people's mouth!
Man decays, his corpse is dust,
All his kin have perished;
But a book makes him remembered
Through the mouth of its reciter.
Better is a book than a well-built house,
Than tomb-chapels in the westl
Better than a solid mansion,
Than a stela in the temple!
January 14, 2015
Had the privilege to travel to Washington, DC in November to participate in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art's roundtable entitled "Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean." Lots of great nuggets to chew on here. Thanks so much to Nicole and the Smithsonian staff for inviting me!
October 15, 2014
Ingredients for incense (udi)
September 25, 2014
Click links for bao and hawalis
Each player has 32 men. The object of the game is to capture all the opponent’s men or so to reduce them that he cannot move. The centre horizontal line of the board divides it so that each player has two rows each of eight squares. He may play only his own men on his own side of the board and may not interfere with those of his opponent except to count them or take them. When he takes any men from his opponent, a player adds them to his own men and thereafter plays them exactly the same as his original 32.
When this has been done, the player’s move may or may not be finished. If the last of these captured men falls into an occupied square the player continues his move in the ordinary way, unless it should so happen that this occupied square is in the row of squares nearest the center line and that the two squares of his opponent’s half of the board opposite are occupied: in which case he again takes what men are there and proceeds to play them on his own side of the board starting from the square next to the one last empty. It is thus possible for a player by a combination of relayed moves and moves made with men taken from his opponent to travel round his side of the board several times before falling out of play through his last man falling into an empty square. The skill of the game consists in working out the moves well ahead so that the opponent’s men are taken whilst as few openings as possible are left to him.
There is one complication to mention: “going back.” In certain circumstances it is permissible to move back, in a clockwise direction. Notice the diagram highlighting the four squares on the left hand of each player. If a player sees that the number of men (being two or more of course) contained in one of these squares will land him when travelling clockwise into one of the squares in his second row (the row closest to his opponent), which is occupied and has two occupied squares of his opponent immediately opposite, he many move in clockwise direction and take the men. The men which he takes he then proceeds to distribute one to each square in the usual way, starting from the square on the counter-clockwise side of the square last left empty (one of the four left hand squares), unless he finds that the number of men which he has taken, will, if started from the square on the clockwise side of the square left empty land him in an occupied square in his second row which faces two squares of his opponent both occupied. In this last event he takes the men and goes back to the square left empty and continues his move in an anti-clockwise direction unless the requisite conditions for moving backward again prevail. In moving in a clockwise direction a player may not move beyond the right hand end of his second row of squares even though he may be able to relay until he comes round again to a square in the second row which is conditioned to permit him to take some opponent’s men.
The board is divided into four rows of 8 squares, for a total of 32 squares. Each player begins the game with 32 men.
Before the game proper starts each player distributes his men four to each square in his first row. The object of this is to ensure that each player has the correct number of men Having checked this each player allots his men between his sixteen squares as best pleases him. There is no rule as to the number which may be placed in any square and any square may receive any number of men or none at all. One common arrangement is the “seventeen game” (photo). In his own interest he will not place men in squares in rows one and two which are opposite to each other, as this is the position in which his opponent can take them.
It is only permissible to move backwards under the following circumstances:
a. Starting from the two squares at the left hand end of the first row or the two squares at the left hand end of the second row.
b. The move must immediately result in the taking of some opponent’s men.
c. The distribution of men taken may be started from either side of the square last left empty, but in the case of a start from the square on the clockwise side of the empty square the move must immediately result in the taking of some more opponent’s men. Having taken all the men possible by moving clockwise, the player continues his move in a counterclockwise direction by starting to distribute the last lot of captured men, relaying where possible and finishing on an empty square.
September 24, 2014
September 19, 2014
Man, they are literally building a new Kenya-Uganda Railway. (Almost 2,500 people died when the British built the original). The symbolic capital involved in this project is HUGE.
China to build railway linking East Africa - Africa - Al Jazeera English