Closer than Your Jugular Vein: Muslim Intellectuals in a Malian Village, 1900 to the 1960s

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In Muslim West Africa, food-producing villages also produced literate scholars. This study examines how such unlikely intellectuals acquired and gave meaning to Islamic knowledge through one village's experience from 1900 to the 1960s. Unlike the colonial sources underlying conventional approaches to West African Islam, libraries and oral sources from Ruumde do not define Islam in relationship to the colonial state. Ruumde's sources uncover meanings of Islamic intellectual culture, closer to ordinary Muslims' lives. The biography of a modest village scholar reveals his individual path to competence as a legal reader, and community standing as an imam and legal debater. It also exposes how Islamic texts shaped community discussions about such intimate issues as gender relations and how such concerns shaped, in turn, the meanings that village intellectuals attached to the law. Histories of Ruumde's family units chart the social distribution of Islamic knowledge. Though one family claimed special status as the "neighborhood" of "Scholars," the general rule was not lineage specialization, but diversified investment of family labor resources. All families, including the "Scholars," had to engage in subsistence agriculture. Almost every family also invested labor in scholarship. Islamic esoteric sources help explain why ordinary families determined that textual skills were too valuable to be left to specialist lineages. Memories of an esoteric working-group active in the 1930s and 1940s, and textual toolkits from village libraries reveal that Islamic secret knowledge was powerful because it put solutions to ordinary rural problems within the reach of ordinary people. The final section of the thesis explores how intellectuals in Ruumde and nearby communities defined slavery and a process of emancipation that accelerated in the late 1950s and 1960s. Many masters identified the most offensive aspects of increasing slave autonomy not in loss of control over labor, but in "revolts" against Islamic legal distinctions between slave and "free." Slaves, likewise, defined emancipation in Islamic terms, using new social leverage to enter into their masters' intellectual tradition and assert new scholarly identities. State actions initiated emancipation, but village intellectuals determined its deepest meanings. Rural commoners had the power to produce Islamic knowledge and bind its significance closely to their own lives.

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  • 09/07/2018
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