The Gnostic Qurʾān in West African Islam: Tafsīr and Sufism in Senegal

Thu November 17th 2022, 12:30 - 2:00pm
Event Sponsor
Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies
Center for African Studies
Encina Commons
615 Crothers Way, Stanford, CA 94305

A Lecture by Professor Zachary Wright 

Qurʾān exegesis in African Muslim societies represented the pinacle of scholarly acheivement, and public explanation of the Qurʾān was the event that marked the emergence of one of Africa’s most successful Sufi revivals, Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niasse’s “Community of the Flood.” Niasse’s network of knowledge transmission, foregrounding the direct experiential knowledge of God (maʿrifat-Allāh), continued to emphasis Qurʾān learning, and Niasse’s own recorded Arabic tafsīr demonstrated a shift away from traditional West African sources in this field. Prior understandings of the West African tafsīr discipline locate the fifteenth-century Egyptian Tafsīr al-Jalālayn as the primary influence on West African understandings. But Niasse’s tafsīr exhibits a clear preference for an early eighteenth-century Ottoman multivolume work, Ismāʿīl al-Ḥaqqī’s “Spirit of Explanation” (Rūh al-bayān), one of the most comprehensive summaries of Sufi understandings of the Qurʾān. This paper demonstrates not only the globally-connected nature of Islamic knowledge production in West Africa, it argues that Niasse’s claim to possess the “flood” of gnosis built on the Rūḥ al-bayān to ultimately occasion a noteworthy addition to the existing literary corpus of Qurʾān exegesis. 

This event will be a guest lecture as part of the GLOBAL 108 Course, “Beyond Decolonization: Islam in West Africa.” 

About the speaker:

Zachary Wright is Professor of History and Religious Studies in the Liberal Arts Program and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Northwestern University in Qatar. He received his PhD in African History from Northwestern University, his MA in Arabic Studies/Middle East History from the American University in Cairo, and his BA in History from Stanford University. His research focuses on Islamic intellectual history in North and West Africa from the fifteenth century to the present, with book publications including Realizing Islam: the Tijaniyya in North Africa and the Eighteenth-Century Muslim World (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), Jihad of the Pen: the Sufi Literature of West Africa (co-authored with Rudolph Ware and Amir Syed, American University in Cairo Press, 2018), Sur la voie du Prophète: Cheikh Ahmad Tijani et la Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Éditions Tasnim, 2018), and Living Knowledge in West African Islam: the Sufi Community of Ibrahim Niasse (Brill, 2015). He has also translated a number of West African Arabic texts into English, such as The Removal of Confusion concerning the Flood of the Saintly Seal by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (Fons Vitae, 2010 and 2019). He is currently working with Mauro Nobili and Ali Diakité on a new translation and analysis of the Timbuktu chronicles. Wright teaches classes on Islamic intellectual history, Sufism, and African and Middle East History.