Digital project widens impact of scholarly research at Northwestern Qatar

September 15, 2020

Following the publication of his latest book, Realizing Islam: The Tijaniyya in North Africa and the Eighteenth-Century Muslim World, Zachary Wright, associate professor at Northwestern Qatar, created a digital resource where literature from his research for the book is showcased for the benefit of the broader community.

“I started the Tijani Literature online project in recognition that the vast literary corpus of the Tijaniyya was too large for one researcher or one monograph to properly grasp,” Wright explained. “I also recognized that important research insights could come from outside of the Western academy and that academics needed to be in dialogue with other intellectual traditions (in this case traditionally trained Muslim scholars or activists) to add depth to their own work.” 

In thinking about the project, Wright was also motivated by how the digital age “has begun to redefine what we mean by ‘literature,’ adding that alternative sources such as online publications, spoken word performances on Youtube, and Islamic music videos can now “all be considered types of texts that represent or influence contemporary Muslim subjectivities.” By consulting a “large ‘research council’ of some 30 scholars,” the website engages numerous voices and perspectives in the field to build an exhaustive repertoire of Tijani literature.

As a scholar of Islam in Africa, Wright’s research and writings focus on the history of Muslim societies in the African continent and the Islamic intellectual history of North and West Africa, from the seventeenth century to the present. His classes at Northwestern Qatar cover an array of related subjects, including African history, modern Middle East history, and Islam in America.

Realizing Islam: The Tijaniyya in North Africa and the Eighteenth-Century Muslim World, focusing on the Tijaniyya, Africa’s largest Sufi order, adds to this scholarly journey by challenging the orientalist view that “the Tijaniyya is a distinctive form of Islam Noir, or African Islam,” a position that thrives, he said, “mostly by ignoring facts in front of one’s face.”

By investigating the rich and vibrant Arabic textual tradition produced by Tijani scholars, Wright’s book sheds light on these overlooked facts, including the important role of African Muslims in global debates and their influence on orthodox scholarly culture. Challenging the stereotype of Tijani scholars as “simply Sufi mystics,” Wright reintroduces them as a community of renowned jurists and conservative interpreters of the Quran whose work influenced the reforms of Islamic rulers and kings, such as the Moroccan Sultan Mawlay Sulayman (r. 1792-1822).

Despite accounting for roughly 100 million followers today—stretched out between America, Turkey, Palestine, Oman, India, and Indonesia—Wright suggests that the lack of an equitable and foundational study of the Tijaniyya, the kind that less popular movements like the Muslim brotherhood have received, is the result of “lingering anti-Black prejudice” in Islamic circles, seeing as the majority of its practitioners are found in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I think that’s largely because the European colonial mind hierarchized Islamic religiosity according to race, where Arab Muslims were thought to be orthodox by default, and everyone else, especially those at the bottom of European racial conceptions (black Africans), were thought to be not real Muslims, somehow more prone to syncretism,” Wright explained.

Given what the book reveals about the role and influence of the Tijaniyya, Wright hopes that both his manuscript and online digital project would help academics question the “center-periphery framework” that continues to neglect the work of non-Arab/Persian scholars, particularly from North and West Africa, India, and Indonesia. For Muslims more broadly, he hopes they will be empowered to engage in “healthy questioning of various Islamist political projects that claim the exclusive right to speak for Islam.”

Wright, who completed his graduate training at Northwestern, was a visiting scholar at the University’s home campus in Evanston in 2018 when he began working on the research for the book. His work on the Tijaniyya, he said, “continues a trend, which Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) has often been at the forefront, of paying serious attention to the intellectual contributions of African Muslims.”

Wright holds joint appointments in history and religious studies. He earned his Ph.D. from Northwestern University, with a dissertation focusing on the history of Islamic knowledge transmission in West Africa. His other book publications include Jihad of the Pen: the Sufi Literature in West Africa (AUC Press), and Living Knowledge in West African Islam (Brill).