Major Seminar

Spring 2014

HIST 4501 (5)

Major Seminar

"From Shrine Mafias to 'Born-again Witches' and Women's Jihad: Religious Experience and Mobilizing Mases in Africa and the Middle East"

Noel Stringham

Traditionally historians have framed their narratives of the modern era around the rise of nation-states and paid little attention to stories that historians cannot explain as a kind nationalism, or which do not make sense in terms of the fixed territorial borders of states and empires. The first half of this discussion-based major course seminar delves into the fascinating histories missed by academics operating in terms of nation-states by looking at the religious experiences of people across Africa and the Middle East, and episodes where these people have mobilized around shared religions during the last two centuries. Students have no assigned reading in the semester’s second half but will write one 3-5 page research prospectus on a topic of their choosing, conduct research, and complete a 20-25 page final paper.

The course opens with an introductory discussion of how historians have approached witchcraft in Africa, the veneration of Sufi saints throughout the Muslim world, and current anthropological theory based on the lives of contemporary Shi’ite women. The course then explores a series of historical examples beginning with the stories of how Twelver Shi’ites from India financed the infrastructure that supported Shi’a shrines in Iraq, alliances between Shi’a scholars and gangsters at these shrines that led to open revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1843, and a Shi’a “holy war” that replaced the Hindu temple of Rama with the Babri Mosque. The course then moves chronologically from the 1860 peasant revolts in Mount Lebanon, to spirit-possessed prophets with magical powers in what became South Sudan, to Sufis in the Western Sahel who have linked prayers with Mercedes-Benz ownership, to Born-Again Witches who use a budding film industry designed for in-home viewing in contemporary Nigeria, and Lebanese women who describe their acts of public worship as jihad.

The course asks students to consider a range of historical questions about religion, politics, gender, and wealth in Africa and the Middle East. First, how have scholars made sense of religious experience? Second, how have historians made sense of mobilizing along religious lines? Third, how have religious leaders who have wielded political power in Africa and the Middle East contended and coexisted with invading Western secular nation-states and later post-colonial states patterned after Western secular models? Fourth, how have people in Africa and the Middle East used gender as a religious concept and how have women invoked religious ideas to argue that they are qualified to participate, or take the lead, in political decision making. Finally, how have people in Africa and the Middle East understood material wealth in religious terms? Each of these questions is meant to suggest possible paths of exploration for students’ research papers, though the list is by no means exhaustive.

This course fulfills the Second Writing Requirement, the Non-Western Perspectives requirement, and for students who receive a C or better, the history department’s Major Course Requirement.

Final grades will be based on the student’s highest consistent performance in the categories of class and group participation, paper proposal and presentation, the research paper’s first draft, in class paper presentation, and the final draft.

The assigned readings will present students with perspectives from historical monographs, edited volumes, peer-reviewed journals, and newspapers articles. Many assigned readings will be available on collab. Students will need to procure a copy of the following texts, or make use of the copies the instructor will place on reserve in Clemons.

Deeb, Lara. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 


Johnson, Douglas. Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Soares, Benjamin F. Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian town. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.                                             

Westerlund, David (ed.) Global Pentecostalism London: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2009.  

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
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