Emir of the Trarza region during the colonial period, Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (FRANOM) FP 15 APC/2 Gaden

Erin Pettigrew: Islamic Spiritual Mediation in Mauritania

Exploring the connections between the Middle East and West Africa.

Oct 30, 2016

Erin Pettigrew is a historian of modern Africa. Pettigrew received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and is currently an Assistant Professor of History and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her research interests include 19th and 20th century West Africa and histories of Islam, race and healing in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Pettigrew is currently working on a book manuscript examining the social history of Muslim spiritual mediators in Mauritania.
Professor Pettigrew, how do you organize your research in West Africa, what kind of sources do you use and how do you access them?
Historians who work in Africa often do not have the kinds of sources that historians who work elsewhere might have, as for much of the continent there were no written sources until — in some cases — the colonial period. In West Africa and the Sahara, which is where I work, there were written sources in Arabic from a fairly early period. Some of our earliest written sources in the region are those of early Arab traders that came from North Africa across the Sahara. They were Muslim, knew Arabic and thus would have been writing in Arabic. Thus the area where I work is a bit different than many parts of the continent, in that there is a tradition of writing from an early period and that makes doing history there in some ways easier.
That said, the other methods that many historians of Africa use are very reliant on ethnographic sources. I do a combination of written and ethnographic history, so that I am looking at local legal texts that are written in Arabic, for example, questions that were asked of legal scholars in the Sahara that have been kept in Saharan libraries or published. There are also written records from the Europeans starting from the 16th century, coming from either early European traders or the French colonial administration. And finally there are locally-produced texts and historians working after that. As for how I actually do my research, I initially went to Mauritania not in the capacity of a historian or a researcher. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in my early 20s and I taught in a high school in a desert town of about 3000 people for about two years. I bring that up because that is where my interest in this particular region of Mauritania came from. That greatly facilitated my work, as I spoke the local Arabic dialect called Hassaniya and had some kind of social network before I arrived as a researcher. So not only do I know other scholars or historians or anthropologists who are locally situated but I also have a broader social network that after so many years is pretty deep.
Given your experience, how would you comment on the attitude of a foreign researcher encountering unfamiliar practices, be it religious practices or not?
One of the approaches that I think historians have tended to take when they are approaching not just religious practices or religious traditions but foreign cultural practices more generally, is that they often look at them through what cultural anthropologists have called functionalist or structuralist lenses. They analyze these religious traditions or cultural practices in terms of their utilitarian purposes, so that they see these practices as serving some kind of political, social or cultural purpose.The practices themselves aren’t necessarily taken seriously. This is very much what I see, especially when it comes to Africa and when it comes to issues of dealing with invisible forces and invisible spirits. There has been hesitancy on the part of researchers to take those kind of practices seriously and accept them as possibly being true. Therefore, part of what I am trying to argue is that historians should be writing about these practices in a much more matter-of-fact way: instead of, for example, saying these people “claim that” or “believe that” some people possess spiritual powers, one could write instead that people have these powers.
But the important thing is that my question has never been whether these practices are true or not. I am not trying to prove whether the kind of spiritual mediators that I study actually have the power to solve a woman’s fertility issues or ensure that someone passes the baccalaureate exam. The important question for me is why people go to these spiritual mediators and how the role of these spiritual mediators has changed over time. In short, what I am trying to argue is that researchers should accord a greater place for these kinds of spiritual practices and invisible forces that people understood to be surrounding them, because their presence affects how people move through their daily lives. Otherwise we are really ignorant about their experiences.
What is the place of Islam in West Africa and Sufism in Islam?
As I mentioned, people in this region were introduced to Islam at a fairly early period. Islam was present in North Africa at the end of the 7th century, and probably by the 8th or 9th century there were Muslims in West Africa. One of the big debates in the historiography is about how people started to convert to Islam. The general understanding is that Islam traveled along the trans-Saharan trade routes. Some of these Muslims travelers, regardless of whether they were merchants or religious figures, settled down — they might have married locally — and then started to establish a slowly growing Muslim community. But it probably wasn’t until about the 11th century — when the Almoravids had a reform movement to try to establish a standardized kind of Islam in the region based on the Maliki school of law — when most people in West Sahara converted to Islam. From that point on, in this part of southwestern Sahara, people have mostly been Sunni Muslim of the Maliki school, and have considered themselves Muslim for a very long time.
Sufism too has been historically a very central part of how people understood themselves. Even though everyone in this region is Sunni and Maliki, these Sufi orders have also defined people’s intellectual networks in the region. So that the area which is now Mauritania is known within the Muslim world as a place of great Islamic learning, where many impressive scholars came from; they would get to be known because they would travel to Saudi Arabia or to Egypt, for example, on the Hajj or with trading caravans. There they would study the Islamic law, all of the Islamic sciences, grammar, esoteric knowledge and logic, and would often either stay and gain reputation as great scholars, or return to Mauritania where they had reputations as these great men of learning. Not all, but many of them were Sufis. And in Mauritania people have historically understood Sufism as an important part of how they practice and understand Islam.
Women are sometimes seen as more prone to having spiritual abilities. Are there certain gender biases or roles that you have encountered in your research?
Gender comes up a lot when people ask me about my research. Spiritual mediators, often Sufis, that are communicating with spirits to heal or to protect people, are seen as especially appealing to women. That is often because women’s role in society often depends on things they cannot always control — marriage, for example — so they seek out help in being able to ensure their place as mother and wife in society. But women have also had a publicly-sanctioned role as traditional herbalists, and had the knowledge — that they could acquire formally or informally — to heal someone’s stomach ache or soothe a burn. When it comes to spiritual mediation, there are some women that are known to have had that capacity, but because spiritual mediators usually need to have a great command of the Quran, which demands literacy and long years of individualized study and travel, women were often not able to do that because of social circumstances. Women are much more literate today, and they would presumably have this capacity too to communicate with spirits, but historically they were much fewer in number.
And what do these spiritual practices reveal about the underlying biases about race and class?
If a woman were to come from scholarly background, she would have probably have more access to the Islamic knowledge. Apart from that, I wouldn’t see class as historically important in the region. But I do think race plays a large role in these issues. People who are understood to be of slave origin — and in this region understood to be black — are not accorded that kind of knowledge. They would be understood to be non-Muslim, which of course wasn’t always the case, but being non-Muslim those people were understood to have access to black magic. People who were black were seen to have some very powerful and dangerous knowledge, but that was not religiously sanctioned knowledge. And so it was often understood as being much more negative, much more harmful. These people could be feared, which then would give them a certain kind of power, but only in a negative context.
In times of crisis, people tend to be much more willing to believe in specific spiritual practices. Would that be something that you have noticed in your research? Why would we observe certain changes in visibility of certain magical or spiritual practices over time?
A lot of historians have looked at magic in the European context and tried to argue why it disappeared in the 16th or 17th century: that there was a certain kind of modernization or enlightenment that occurred, or that people acquired a different kind of rationality — beliefs in magic did not necessarily make sense anymore. In the case of African studies, people have tried to explain the opposite: despite modernity and increased education, why do Africans — and this is what anthropologists have tried to argue — still believe in magic and invisible forces? That’s the kind of argument I don’t want to get involved in, because it assumes that modernity implies some kind of human progress. What I try to study is the moments when, for example, accusations of magical practices such as bloodsucking were more frequent. I had an assumption that perhaps during famine and drought, which are very common in the Sahara, maybe people would accuse those marginalized people they didn’t want around anymore of these kinds of practices, to get rid of dependents. But I could never get enough cases to really clearly argue that there were certain causes or an overarching narrative that might explain that.
My sense is that life in the Sahara and now in what is a very poor post-colonial country, is not any less uncertain than it was 500 years ago. People’s livelihoods are still very much in question; the way in which they envision succeeding and being happy is still unattainable for so many people. I see these kinds of appeals to spiritual mediators and the persistence of stories about bloodsucking as continuing because of uncertainty. What I do see changing now — and what I wasn’t assuming would be the case when I went into my research — is that people are changing the way that they talk about their beliefs. People are using certain terms to talk about their practices, not because the government is trying to control how people protect and heal, but because there exist more conservative Muslim groups that claim that these practices are un-Islamic and thus, punishable. I don’t see that people are necessarily changing the actual methods they use to heal, because the people I work with understand themselves as Muslim and understand that their sciences are based on the Quran, but they are changing the terms that they use to fit into a more conservative interpretation of what they are doing.
Would you say that there has been a mutual exchange of ideas between the Middle East and West Africa, not just through immigration of Muslims to West Africa but also exchange in the opposite direction? Could certain Islamic practices from West Africa perhaps be identified in the Middle East?
The old narrative is that all knowledge, religious practices, texts in Islam came to West Africa from what was imagined to be the Islamic heartland, the Middle East. Definitely part of what I want to argue is that there has been a lot of production of Islamic knowledge happening in West Africa over the course of history. When it comes to these spiritual practices and esoteric knowledge, there is also a claim within the Islamic world and the Western academic world that the use of amulets for protection and healing and the belief in invisible forces are specifically African, and thus somehow tainting Islam. That helps this sort of discounting that is done when it comes to African religious practices, although in fact so many of these practices are part of the history of Islam in the Arab world. The other thing is that Africans have historically been traveling to the Gulf, and you can see this presence of West Africa and East Africa — which has a long connection with Oman — when it comes to religious beliefs and practices, but not always in the most positive ways, because they are feared. Speaking of Mauritania specifically, I know there are a lot of Mauritanians in the UAE who have come to work as clerics. So there is a sense of respect for the kind of Islamic education that they are receiving, at least today.
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