Texts, Knowledge, and Practice: The Meaning of Scholarship in Muslim Africa

Harvard Divinity School, February 16–18, 2017

Sponsored by Harvard Divinity School, the Center of African Studies, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard.

Executive Summary

Sitting at the intersection of African, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies, Islam in Africa has long suffered from a crisis of disciplinary identity. Neither strictly area nor solely religious studies, Islam in Africa has only recently received attention within the academy. The shift is overdue. Africa has influenced scholarship throughout the Islamic World for better than a millennium. With the spread of Arabic literacy, African scholars developed a rich tradition of debate over orthodoxy and meaning in Islam. The rise of such a tradition was hardly disconnected from centers of Islamic learning outside of Africa. From Mecca to Sind, African scholars have played significant roles in the development of virtually every field of Islamic sciences.

Islamic scholarship in Africa remains as significant today. By the end of the twentieth century, thousands of integrated curriculum schools and dozens of modern Islamic universities have redefined Islamic studies across sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of communications technology has reshaped Islamic scholarship still further. New representations of Islamic scholarship have formed across Africa through teaching websites, MP3s, and social media apps. The emergence of these new spaces, both physical and virtual, holds the potential for recasting notions of class, authority, canon, and orthodoxy common to the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa today.  
This conference aims to rethink how such an evolution occurred. It will be the first of two meetings, both intended to bring together specialists from Western academia and the Islamic world. The first will explore the ways in which Islamic scholarship integrated Africa in the Islamic world, as well as the interconnections between west, north, and Saharan Africa on the one hand, and east Africa and western Asia on the other hand.

Drawn from a variety of disciplines, including history, Islamic studies, anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, and political science, conference participants will explore six main themes. The first theme is: History, Movement and the Spread of Islamic Scholarship; the second: Courts, Colonialism, and Islamic Law in Africa, the third: Authors, Texts, and Islamic Scholarship; the fourth: Contemporary Expressions of Islamic Scholarship in Africa; the fifth: Vernacular in both text and Verse; and the sixth and last panel deals with Quranic education.

Conference Conveners

Ousmane Kane, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion at HDS and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University; Matthew Steele, PhD candidate, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

Learn more on the conference website.