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Mprint@EAST_AFRICA Islamic Manuscript, Print and Practice: Textual adaptations in coastal East Africa, c. 1880-2020

Alternative title: MPrint@EAST_AFRICA Islamske manuskripter, trykk og praksis. Tekstlige tilpasning på den øst-afrikanske kysten, c. 1880-2020

Awarded: NOK 11.0 mill.

Current research argues that something changed in Islamic thought during the 19th century, and that this transformation is still ongoing. Where local Sufi brotherhoods held religious authority based on a combination of ritual and text, a new global Islam emerged that emphasized the foundational texts (Quran and the Prophet?s practice). Researchers have particularly highlighted the rise of print from the mid-19th century as a cause for this shift. They point to the fact that Islamic texts could be more widely distributed, and argue that traditional Sufi texts lost out in the modern world of print. A core hypothesis of the MPrinT project is that this perceived break between traditional/local and modern/global Islam must be tested by research into not only what Muslims read, but also how they read. Were Sufi texts really discarded in the transition to print? How were texts continued orally, through recitation and rituals? How did this vary across locations? Are we really looking at a break, or rather a series of adaptations taking place within the existing Islamic tradition? In the MPrinT project, we will answer these questions by documenting the manuscript-to-print transition along the Swahili coast of East Africa. By comparing texts that circulated as manuscripts with printed texts, we will test whether the emergence of print actually favoured "global" Islam. A database will be set up where digital versions will be made available. The MPrinT project will also investigate how selected texts have been transmitted orally, through communal recitation, ritual and teaching. By mapping the usage of text, we will determine how people?s perception of text has varied, between locations, generations and genders. In this way, we will pave the way for a better understanding of the relationship between local and global Islam. This will nuance the widespread understanding of the former as peaceful and the latter as puritanical and potentially violent.

The MprinT project is designed to explore one central hypothesis: Reforms in Islamic textual tradition and ritual practice during the 19th and 20th centuries took place within existing authority structures and led to a series of adaptations rather than breaks from tradition. The project will address the much-debated phenomenon of Islamic reform (ranging from current research over the rise and origin of Salafism, to highly politized debates over “traditional” and “global” Islam) as it unfolded in both textual tradition and ritual practice. It will target the period of manuscript-to-print transition (i.e. c. 1880-1950), which in existing literature is viewed as a key factor for change. Further, the project will investigate how these texts have been used from c. 1950 to the present. The project will conduct this investigation in four different sites on the Swahili coast, which has a rich, but comparably finite corpus of Arabic-language Islamic texts from the period. The Islamic textual tradition of East Africa will be mapped, photographed and catalogued and a database will be created which includes images and bibliographical information. “Street texts” (smaller texts intended for recitation, typically prayers, dhikr, mawlid etc.) will be singled out for further investigation. Through observation and interviews, the project will map the usage of these text in the present and in living memory (c. 1950-2020). This will allow us to examine editorial choices and adaptations made to both text and its recited form. By combining bibliographical studies of “street texts” and mapping their continuous re-interpretation in the form of communal recitation, this project will illuminate the heretofore overlooked continuities between manuscript and print, as well as the role of communal text recitation in continuity and adaptation. In so doing, the project will challenge the existing understanding of “traditional” Islam and “global” Islam as fundamentally opposite.


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