Since 2001, my field research has focused on global Sufi Islamic movement, the Fayḍa Tijāniyya. I have examined how discourses and practices of mystical knowledge and authority not only accommodate contradictions and paradox but productively highlight them. In looking at these questions, I draw especially on linguistic and semiotic theories of multiplicity, simultaneity, and hybridity, showing how ancient Sufi ideas are reimagined to provide answers in a globalizing and urbanizing world.
My Senegalese collaborators and I have interviewed leaders and lay disciples in dozens of sites in the movement’s cradle of Senegal and Mauritania, with secondary research in other parts of West Africa, New York City, and Cairo. In addition to over two years in numerous sites in Senegal, I have studied Arabic texts with Bedouin Sufi scholars in the Mauritanian Sahara.
I am actively conducting two larger research and writing projects within this research on the Fayḍa Tijāniyya Sufi movement:
- Gender and Islamic authority: I am researching the little-known phenomenon of women Islamic leaders in Senegal who exercise forms of Islamic authority typically reserved for men. Some women act as spiritual guides for men and women, some teach the Qurʿān, and others perform Sufi chant in large meetings. These women draw on apparently contradictory strategies, both undermining and highlighting prevalent gender distinctions. For example, they define themselves as honorary “men” but also locate religious authority in conventionally feminine qualities such as motherhood, cooking, submission, and wifely devotion. I am interested in how these women work within and between multiple established idioms to expand the possibilities available to them. One book on women leaders, Wrapping Authority: Women Sufi Leaders in an Islamic Movement in Dakar, Senegal, was recently published (2018), and I am completing a companion volume tentatively entitled Women Who Are Men: The Emergence of Women’s Leadership in a Sufi Movement in Senegal.
- Religious performance (vocal, musical, and social) and change: Since 2014, I have researched hip hop artists, Sufi chanters, and others who use singing, chanting, and other kinds of performance as forms of Sufi religious practice and communication. I am interested in how these performers mediate social change and how they manage—or in some cases fail—to establish themselves as legitimate religious performers despite potential controversies surrounding the religious acceptability of their performances.
One conceptual focus of research is the political, social, and religious implications of mystical discourses of simultaneous truths, which Sufi Islamic speech juxtaposes in terms of apparent (ẓāhir) and hidden (bāṭin) realities. Through discussing Sufis’ paradoxical approach to plural truths, I draw attention to larger issues of how people negotiate contrasting hegemonic regimes (secular states, global religious authority networks, transnational development institutions), coexistence with cultural others within a global community, and multiple claims of authority within the same religious community. I am particularly interested in how people’s social performances use discourses and practices in ways that assert hidden meanings that undermine their apparent meaning.
West Africa, Middle East and North Africa; global networks
- Performance and social change
- Politics of Language and Semiotics
- Knowledge traditions and authority
- Transnationalism, Globalization, and Cosmopolitanism
For more on my research, go here