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Anthro-History Workshop presents "Visionaries: Second Sight and Social Insight in Islamic West Africa since 1400 CE."

Friday, February 12, 2016
5:00 AM
Titiev Library, West Hall


The paper discussed here is a draft of an introduction for an in-progress book manuscript. The book explores—in the context of Islamic West Africa—two related senses of the meaning of the word ‘visionary’: a person who experiences ‘visions’ and a person who provides inspirational leadership. In short, it is an examination of the relationship between ‘extra-sensory’ religious experiences and social action in the Islamic tradition of the African West.

From one perspective this book might be called an intellectual history; it is a history of the idea of seeing the unseen world. But from another standpoint, this is a historical ethnography of an embodied sensory experience: the experience of having the unreality of the material world peeled away, and reality unveiled before your very eyes.

This is not to suggest that this experience was only one of sight. It was also one of sound and smell, touch and taste. For these African Muslim visionaries the scents of the Garden, or the smoke and burning sulfur of the fires of Hell were real. The taste of the fruits of paradise were on their tongues and their flesh trembled in fear as though a fire “whose fuel is men and stones” (Qur’an 2:24) was roaring at their feet. The English language—which favors sight among its five culturally constructed senses—offers no word better to describe such all-encompassing sensory experiences than ‘vision.’