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  • Controlling knowledge. Religion, power and schooling in a Muslim society
  • David Robinson
Louis Brenner, Controlling knowledge. Religion, power and schooling in a Muslim society (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001)

Louis Brenner has provided another innovative work on African history, religion and education. Since his early study of Bornu, Brenner has focused his attention on religious and educational practice in West African Muslim societies. The results have been important for students and scholars over the last 20 years. I am thinking in particular of West African Sufi (1984), which treats the heritage, search and context of Cerno Bokar Taal of Bandiagara; his Reflexions sur le savoir islamique en Afrique de l’Ouest which was published by the University of Bordeaux Centre d’Etudes de l’Afrique Noire in 1985; and the book on identity constructions which he edited in 1993: Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. The present work is the fruit of all of these efforts, and of a sustained and collaborative research experience in Mali over the last 20 years. It bridges the pre- colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods of that country, examines the containment policies established by the colonial and independent regimes, and features a number of Malian Muslims who challenged the “contained Islam” of the states in the period after World War II.

This is an intellectual and pedagogical history. Brenner argues from a framework adapted from Michel Foucault, distinguishing between connaissance, knowledge of particular works and facts, savoir, a style of knowledge, and episteme, a paradigm of knowing. Over his time period of the last 100 years, he sees a shift from an esoteric to a rational paradigm as access to knowledge becomes greater and more public, both in the secular French schools and in the independent Islamic medersas created by new and innovative Muslim scholars interested in a broad curriculum..

Brenner features these scholars and the schools that they created in Kayes, Bamako, Segu and other centers in the period of the 1940s and 1950s, and he does this in the context of the containment policy practiced by the French under the idiom Islam noir. He shows the fluctuation in strength and energy of the department of Muslim Affairs, which was charged with the surveillance of Islam within a larger context of French intelligence and propaganda. The department is particularly important in the territory of Soudan, just as it is about to become the independent country of Mali. Its agents focused to a considerable degree on 1) the Malians who made the pilgrimage to Mecca and studied in Egypt, as those who might pose a special danger to the quarantine that had been practiced for decades, and 2) instruction in Arabic, deemed to be a significant rival to French as a language of instruction and an avenue to an alternative civilization.

This provides the author with the occasion to tell the fascinating story of “counter-reform” linking the Muslim Affairs department, led by Marcel Cardaire, and its allies, both older ones such as Seydou Nourou Tall of Dakar and Muhammad Sharif of Kankan and newer ones such as Amadou Hampate Ba. In the case of Ba, this meant a short-lived program of instruction in “national” languages (in this case Pulaar). Arabic was again excluded, and by implication the Islam practiced in the Middle East. The most articulate opponent of Ba was Saada Oumar Toure, the leader of the medersa of Segu with close links to the local Tall family. Toure was an advocate of instruction in Arabic and French in a broad range of subjects. He was also a contradiction to the general colonial thesis of Middle Eastern influence because he never made the pilgrimage nor studied abroad. Brenner has sketched out some of his thinking between these rival pedagogies in articles appearing in Le Temps des Marabouts in 1997 and La Tijaniyya in 2000 published by Karthala.

The most innovative achievement of Brenner is to take the struggle over paradigms and control of knowledge into independent Mali. He reveals habits in the Malian state of Keita and Traore reminiscent of its colonial predecessor: a desire to create clients and maintain control. This leads the functionaries, products...

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