"Conversion to Shi'i Islam and the Transformation of Religious Authority in Senegal" with Mara Leichtman

AVACGIS Spring 2015 Lecture Series

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 4:30 PM to 5:45 PM
Johnson Center, Meeting Room G, 3rd Floor

Senegalese “conversion” to Shi‘i Islam resulted from cosmopolitan interactions with West Africa’s resident Lebanese population and Iranian revolutionary ideologies. Shi‘i advocates spread their religious convictions through teaching, conferences, holiday celebrations, and media publicity. Key to their success are libraries full of Arabic and French texts from Iran and Lebanon. Inherent in Islamic education is the authority bestowed on those who are knowledgeable, and with the spread of religious knowledge through books, media, and the Internet comes a broadening of the scope of religious authority and resulting conflict with or accommodation of old political communities. Senegalese converts to Shi‘i Islam use their literacy in Arabic and individually acquired libraries of Islamic legal books to bypass the authority of Sufi marabouts. Some keep their feet in both Sunni and Shi‘i worlds, and their ability to compare religious texts of both traditions wins them disciples. Shi‘i minorities claim authenticity in Senegal through narrating revisionist historical accounts of the spread of (Shi‘i) Islam to Africa. Conferences commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn during the Shi‘i mourning period in the month of Muharram target Sufi Muslims who also love the family of the Prophet. Shi‘i leaders skillfully detach this foreign religious ideology from Middle Eastern politics and make this branch of Islam relevant to Senegalese through establishing religious centers as NGOs, which work to bring health care and economic development to neighborhoods in the name of Shi‘i Islam.

Mara Leichtman is associate professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University. Her book, Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal, is forthcoming with Indiana University Press. Dr. Leichtman has edited (with Dorothea Schulz) a special journal issue of City and Society on Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Movement, Identity, and Contemporary Reconfigurations (2012) and (with Mamadou Diouf) the book New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Her articles have appeared in Anthropological Quarterly, Contemporary Islam, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Religion in Africa, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Shi’a Affairs Journal, Journal of North African Studies, and Identities.