CENTRE FOR MIDDLE EASTERN
THE INTERACTION OF ISLAM WITH SOCIETY
The study of 'Islamic societies' often takes one or the other as a given factor, focusing on its 'impact' on the other: Either seeing 'Islam' as an unchanging entity which social groups promote or reject; or inversely tracking the inevitable 'decline' of Islamic thought by a teleological 'historical development' of modernization.
The projects grouped together here instead take a dynamic approach to the relationship between the development of Islam as religion and ideas, and the evolution of society. Neither Islamic thought nor social forces are fixed entities, developments in one link to changes in the other. This is true as well of the mystical and political movements of Africa and the Middle East in the past as it is in the ideas of Muslim immigrants to Europe today.
These projects look at this relationship from various angles, historical and contemporary, in widely different geographical areas, from the margins of the Islamic world in the south to the Muslim minorities in the north, and from a number of different methodological approaches, from Islamology to Anthropology. By combining the study of ideas with the study of society, it is easier to see the Muslim world through the eyes of its actors.
The research focus currently consists of these individual projects and activities:
The Sufi heritage of Ahmad b. Idris and his students
The informal program carried out in Bergen since the late 1980s has attempted to bridge this divide, by studying a circle of Sufi scholars of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries both in their social setting and organizational development and through their writings and ideas. The project has so far lead to five dissertations (four published to date) as well as several independent monographs and a number of articles, combining into what has been called a 'Bergen school' of Sufi studies.
The project focuses on the tradition established by the Moroccan Sufi
Ahmad b. Idris (d. 1837: O'Fahey 1990), and follows the careers of his
students Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Sanusi (d. 1859: Vikør 1995) and
Muhammad 'Uthman al-Mirghani (d. 1852: Karrar 1992), and associate Muhammad
al-Majdhub (d. 1831: Hofheinz 1996), as well as following the tradition
to twentieth-century Yemen (Bang 1996) and to South-East Asia and beyond
Books and monographs from the project to date:
A Muslim intellectual elite: Innovation and
leadership in the Sudanese tradition
The study of Islam as a religion and as a system of thought and belief has been neglected by comparison with research on the history and sociology of African Muslim polities or movements. One explanation for this neglect is that most scholars of Muslim Africa have come to the field from the social sciences rather than philology-based disciplines such as Islamwissenschaft (Islamic studies).
The study of Islam as a religion involves a number of different aspects. There is a scholarly tradition, involving the study of the writings of African Muslim scholars at such historic centres as Timbuktu (Mali), Kano (Nigeria), Harar (Ethiopia) or Lamu (Kenya) and elsewhere. Such research requires the discovery, cataloguing and conservation of the very numerous private and public manuscript collections found throughout Muslim Africa. Most of these manuscripts are in Arabic, but African languages, such as Hausa and Swahili, written in the Arabic script, are well represented.
Beyond the primary stage of finding and preserving the manuscripts will be their study; who wrote them and why; what do they tell us about scholarly networks, the interaction between African and Muslim scholars elsewhere in the Muslim world, and the educational tradition. What topics were focused on? For example, in East Africa, there appears to have been an especial interest in herbal medicine. Linked to this is the structure of education; who taught whom? What was taught. How widespread was literacy? Related to this theme is the use of Arabic by traders, traditional healers, poets and other literate non-scholars.
Arabic Literature of Africa
The volumes are compiled and edited by John Hunwick (Northwestern University)
and R.S. O'Fahey (Bergen). The volumes are:
Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources
Timbuktu manuscripts project
Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies