This is an extract from a larger paper I drafted for my final African Literature class. In it I examined Islam as it is presented in The Tales of Amadou Koumba, offering corrections where needed. This section deals with the mrābiṭ/marabout and schooling. I’ve only scanned through it for spelling mistakes… A later post of the final draft is scheduled to go up in June, God willing, which has the citations for quotes and information provided.

A monotheistic dīn (lit. way of life), Islām was not merely ritual forms of worship, but informed the mundane, quotidian (i.e. daily) routines of its adherents as well, regulating everything from international relations to toiletries, and beyond. It built egalitarian societies, deeply rooted in the pursuit of knowledge, especially theological, and the practical implementation of the aforementioned in an individual’s life.

We are told in one ḥadīth (lit. saying, action, approval, or disapproval of the Prophet Muḥammad, peace and blessing of Allāh be upon him): [Seeking knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim]. Commenting on this, Imām Bayhaqī said, “It means, and Allāh knows best, that knowledge for which there is no room for a bāligh (i.e. legally mature), sane individual to be ignorant of.”(Sunan Ibn Mājah Bi Sharḥ al-Sindi Vol: 1, Page: 146) Knowledge was gained not for the purpose of information, but to mold moral-ethical human beings who would be of benefit to themselves and society.

The task of preserving and disseminating knowledge in West Africa, as in the rest of the Muslim world, was the job of the culamā. Rudolph Ware asserts that culamā was not the preferred term in West Africa and that a more widely used Arabic term was “mrābiṭ and its Europeanized equivalent, ‘marabout’”.(78-79) The word mrābiṭ is derived from ribāṭ which has the meaning of being consistent in something, as well as guarding.(Lisān al-cArab 1561 Ibn Manthūr. Dar al-Ma’cārif. Cairo) Perhaps, this connotation is how the word mrābiṭ/marabout is to be understood. That is, these are individuals guarding the intellectual tradition of Islām, as well as its practical implementation.

In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne returning from Makkah who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”.(B. Diop 34) Timbuktu, “the lodging place of the culamā (scholars) and worshippers, the abode of the righteous and the ascetics,” was the residence of “the elite amongst the culamā, pious people, and the wealthy from every tribe and land”.(TS 22) That Serigne is described as having more knowledge of literary Arabic than the inhabitants of this city is no small matter. To put it in context we must look at an incident reproduced by Cheikh Anta Diop concerning an Arabian scholar who returned to Mali with Mansā Mūsā:

“He settled in Timbuktu and found this city full of Sudanese legal experts. As soon as he realized that they knew more than he in legal matters, he left for Fez, devoted himself to the study of law there, then returned again to Timbuktu to settle here.”(181)

We are further told that Serigne spent his time at his host “[intoning] litanies and verses of the Koran”.(B. Diop 33) Serigne’s knowledge is more than just an inward knowing, it is an outward knowing. It manifests itself on his limbs and shapes his physical reality. He is a walking example of the verse: ata’murāun al-nās bi al-birr wa tansawna anfusakum wa antum tatlūn al-kitāb afalā tacqilūn [Do you command mankind with righteousness and forget your own selves, while you are reading the book, do you not have intellect?]. (Qur’ān 2:44) The great exegete of the Qur’ān, Ibn Kathīr records Ibn Juraij as saying about this āyah (verse), “So whoever commands good should be the severest of people in hastening to it.”(1:246) Erudite scholars trained in esoteric and exoteric sciences, masters of cilm (knowledge) and camal (practice), the marabout were a powerful force of change in society. They were entrusted with the most precious elements of the community: their dīn and children.

Cities like Djenné and Timbuktu in West Africa, or Qayrawān in North Africa, were home to large universities but there were also smaller schools scattered across the continent of Africa where preparatory work was covered: the Qur’ān schools. These Qur’ān schools, one of the foundations on which West African Islām rested, were also run by marabout and attended by “little talibés… who beg their morning bread, their midday meal and their evening provender.”(B. Diop 27) The act of begging mentioned in “The Excuse” is termed “yalwaan (begging for food) [and] was an important part of the Qur’an(sic) school experience”.(Ware, The Walking Qur’an 46) Dorte Thornston writes that “education in Daaras often is free or almost free but implies that pupils –Talibés– may beg for alms”.(3) Rudolph Ware explains, “Because it was thought to produce humility and good character, yalwaan was esteemed by some teachers who did not require or even use the proceeds of the children’s quest for alms.”(47) Much like the traditional West African initiation ceremony whose purpose was to cause the child to become a man capable of dominating their fear and pain, Qur’ān schools were geared towards making functioning adults with upright morals and character.

“A Judgment” describes the importance which West African Muslims placed on their children’s education: “…in Maka-Kouli, as soon as a child could say to his mother, ‘Mama, carry me on your back,’ he was sent to school to learn the Fatiha and the other teachings of the Koran.”(B. Diop ) Recounting the methodology of education in Kano, Stefan Reichmuth writes:

“…the majority of the inhabitants sent their sons to a Quranic school when the boy knew how to count up to ten. The teacher, with full authority over the student given to him by the father, would at first have him learn the opening sura (fatiha) and the last suras of the Quran by heart. The pupil then began to learn how to read and spell the Arabic letters and vowel signs. From this , he would be taught to read and recite the whole Quran, starting from the last hizb (sixtieith) and moving to the first.”(424) 

The famous North African traveler, Ibn Baṭūṭah, records in his travelogue that one of the good qualities which West African Muslims possessed was: cināyatim bi ḥifdh al-qur’ān al-cadhīm wa hum yajcalūn li awlādihim al-quyūd idhā dhahara fī ḥaqqihim al-taqṣīr fī ḥifdhihi [their diligence in memorizing the Mighty Qur’ān and placing their children in chains when the latter appear to be lax in memorizing it]. This is little wonder, as special blessings have been reported in the ḥadīth for those who teach the Qur’ān, the parents of ḥuffādh (i.e. someone who has memorized the entire Qur’ān), and for the person who learns/memorizes the Qur’ān. For example, one ḥadīth says: afdhalukum man tcallam al-qur’ān wa callama [the most virtuous of you are those who learn and teach the Qur’ān]. (Sunan Ibn Majah 1:139) 

Besides covering the Qur’ān, the curriculum also included “elementary education instruction in the obligatory rituals”(Reichmuth, Stefan 424) If similar to modern day Qur’ān schools, such studies would have covered basic beliefs, ritual purity, prayer, fasting, and other subjects. The concept of ritual purity is alluded to in “A Judgement”  when it describes the detrimental nature of dog’s urine which “if it touches the slightest part of the body…reduces the most fervent prayers to nothing.”(B. Diop 12) One of the preconditions of prayer (salāh), as opposed to ducā (supplication), is the body being free of ritual impurity which can take a corporeal form (e.g. urine, blood, wine, etc.) or be intangible.

“The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” tells us that all Bouki-the-Hyena had received from being at the Qur’ān School “…all she got from it was a bent back and a drooping rump, from the weight of the sticks she had carried every day to light up the evening classes.”(B. Diop 35) Though Bouki-the-Hyena is clearly not a taalibé, she alludes to one of their duties: “The pupils of the Koran school were also obliged to bring the  wood for the fire around which the class met in the evening and at dawn.”(Diop 177). Ware records the schedule of the taalibé as follows: “[Live-in students, or njángaans] … engaged in njang njël (dawn study) from about 4:30 to 6:30 , before the morning prayer, and studied again after sunset. The firelit studies (dudal or hearth is the name of the for a Qur’an school in Fula) more than doubled the hours of instruction that most live-in students received.”(190) Extended studies had the double benefit of increasing the scholastic abilities of students and forging a strong teacher-student bond.

The powerful bonds produced between teacher and student can be seen in stories like “Dof-Diop” in which we find that the great marabout, Mor-Coki Diop, is offered the daughter of one of his greatest disciples “without dowry, as a payment for his good teachings and his excellent counsels…”(B. Diop 113) A similar picture is painted in “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” which informs us that “on his way back from Mecca(sic), [Serigne] stopped at Kayes, at the hut of one of his disciples…”(B. Diop 33) This student, so esteemed his teacher that he allows him to be “shut up in the finest of the huts.”(B. Diop 33) This teacher-student bond, which is built on ṭūl al-ṣuḥbah (prolonged companionship), was and still is an important part of acquiring knowledge. The companions of the Prophet, peace and blessing of Allāh be upon him, are called ṣaḥābah (companions) because they stayed with him, peace and blessing be upon him, and, traditionally, this is how knowledge was transferred from one generation to the next: ṭūl al-ṣuḥbah.