Historicizing Piety: Changing Modes of Islamic Religiosity in West Africa

By Prof. Robert Launay, 26 June 2023, 2-4 pm


Piety has been the subject of recent debates in the study of Islam throughout the world. The hijab is often (though not always) at the center of these debates: what it means or does not mean to those who wear it, what kind of religious project it entails, the extent to which such piety informs all aspects of everyday life. Perceptive analyses sometimes point out that these practices reflect relatively recent changes in modes of religiosity, dating to the 1990s. Even so, such analyses rarely if ever explain why, all of a sudden, prior practices ceased to make sense to a new generation of believers.  Such an explanation requires an account of the logic of such past practices and the values they embodied. Based on my field experiences in northern Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970s and 1980s, I will attempt to supply such an account, situating piety in terms of hierarchies ranking seniors over juniors, men over women, people of free over people of slave status, among other distinctions. Nor were these forms of piety an embodiment of some timeless “tradition”, but rather reflected prior changes in modes of religiosity dating to the aftermath of the Second World War. I will attempt to analyze the significance of these shifts and the ways they reflect broader changes in society, especially in terms of the nature of authority.

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