MSU professor builds online West African Muslim library
An MSU professor is creating a Web site drawing attention to some of the world’s almost 1.2 billion Muslims who live outside the Middle East.
MSU professor of history David Robinson is teaming up with professors from Indiana University to build an online library about Muslims in West Africa with a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It will be part of MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online, within the Africa Online Digital Library. The library has galleries of interviews and research about topics related to Africa.
Robinson said the information will be available to everyone and should be useful to students.
“It’s going to be going into the classrooms,” he said. “It’s text and image and sound.”
He said the gallery will focus on Senegal and Ghana. Senegal has a 90 percent Muslim majority, and Ghana has a Christian majority with Muslims constituting 20 to 25 percent of its population.
“We picked two countries with contrasting situations as far as numbers but the same as far as pluralism,” he said.
In both countries, Robinson said, it’s not uncommon for Muslims and Christians to live in the same family.
“That kind of blows your mind,” he said.
Mohammed Ayoob, the coordinator of the MSU Muslim Studies Program, said the new galleries will focus on the experiences of Muslims.
“I think … (the grant) denotes the coming of age of the Muslim Studies Program,” he said. “This grant, among other things, is aimed at breaking the image of a monolith of the Muslim world.”
He said of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, only 20 percent of them are Arabs.
“Unfortunately, in the United States, when you talk about Muslims, the focus is immediately on the Middle East,” he said.
Assistant professor of anthropology Mara Leichtman said most Muslims in West Africa practice Sufi Islam, a slightly different form from those practiced in the Middle East.
Sufi Muslims can come from either the Sunni or Shiite Muslim traditions, but practice different recitations, she said. She said French and English colonial rulers incorrectly thought Sufi Islam was a less pure form, mixed with tribal beliefs.
“From the time of French colonialism, there’s been some misunderstanding of Islam in West Africa,” she said.
Robinson said Sufi Islam became popular during the 19th century, when Ghana and Senegal were British and French colonies, respectively.
“This form of Islam placed more emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God,” he said, making it less political and allowing practitioners to be good Muslims while still obeying their colonial rulers.
Ayoob said students need to understand the diversity of Islam.
“Islam is the second largest religion in the world,” he said. “It’s also the fastest growing religion in the world.”