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Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte

Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery and Spirit Possession

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    Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte
    Book Description:

    On the East African island of Mayotte, Islam co-exists with two other systems of understanding and interpreting the world around its inhabitants: cosmology and spirit-mediumship. In a witty, evocative style accessible to both the specialist and non-specialist reader, Michael Lambek provides a significant contribution to writing on African systems of thought, on local forms of religious and therapeutic practice, on social accountability, and on the place of explicit forms of knowledge in the analysis of non-western societies.

    The "objectified" textual knowledge characteristic of Islam and of cosmology is contrasted with the "embodied" knowledge of spirit possession. Lambek emphasizes the power and authority constituted by each discipline, as well as the challenge that each kind of knowledge presents to the others and their resolution in daily practice. "Disciplines" are defined as an organized body of practitioners or adepts, a concept precise and useful when applied to the contexts of Lambek's own research and equally so in the study of comparable environments elsewhere.

    Essential reading for those interested in the comparative study of Islamic societies, Lambek's argument directly contributes to the main anthropological arguments of the day concerning the social and cultural basis of systems of knowledge and ethnographic strategies for depicting them.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7653-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Tables and Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Stylistic Conventions and Conundrums
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Dramatis Personae
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xxiii-xxx)

    • 1 Knowledge and Hubris
      (pp. 3-30)

      The angel Gabriel, travelling in human form, once chanced upon an oldfundi(master, scholar, expert) living in a house built on a dry river bed. Curious, Gabriel stopped and asked the man what he was doing there. Wasn′t he afraid of being flooded out? Thefundianswered confidently that it wasn′t going to rain for seven years. Gabriel went and asked God about this. God replied that indeed it wasn′t going to rain for seven years, but that first it would pour that very day. Gabriel returned to thefundiand, finding him in the process of removing his...

    • 2 Locating Knowledge in Mayotte: Structure, History, and Practice
      (pp. 31-67)

      As we examined the story of Gabriel and the scholar in the river bed in the last chapter, we saw three distinct local perspectives begin to emerge - those of sacred Islam, cosmology, and the lay teller and his audience. One of the main points this book makes is that culture in Mayotte is not a seamless whole but consists of diverse and sometimes discordant strands. Ultimately, these are united, not through some underlying structure or axiomatic order, but in social practice.

      Although most people in Mayotte would claim that truth is single, there are many different kinds of knowledge...

    • 3 Village Organization and the Distribution of Knowledge
      (pp. 68-100)

      Knowledge is the stuff of social life in Mayotte. The objective character of much knowledge enables it to be actively pursued and its embodied qualities and consequences enable its presence to be evaluated. Everyone in Mayotte is a student or apprentice at something; virtually everyone is recognized as the master of at least some bit of knowledge. As a result, people are engaged in an ongoing, complex, multidimensional process of exchange and reproduction. This chapter introduces the villages in which I worked and attempts to describe the distribution of knowledge within them. At the same time, I try to see...


    • 4 Islam: The Perspective from the Path
      (pp. 103-133)

      This chapter is the first of three to deal with Islamic practice. I have divided the discussion very roughly along lines suggested by Schutz′s distinction between the expert (Chapter 6), the well-informed citizen (Chapter 5), and the man on the street (this chapter). It is useful to recall that for Schutz people on the path have ′a knowledge of recipes indicating how to bring forth in typical situations typical results by typical means′ (1964:122). Their interest in knowledge is practical and immediate: gaining the correct knowledge to get a specific job done. Their means is typically to call in an...

    • 5 Educating Citizens: The Reproduction of Textual Knowledge
      (pp. 134-161)

      Bismilla arahman arahim. In the Islamic world everything begins this way: a book, the Book, a prayer, a meal, a morning, a journey, a life. All human activity is modelled on the scriptures, the Qur′an, and is granted moral value by their utterance. In theory, I was told, an illegitimate child (mwana haram) is not simply one whose parents were not legally married (such legality being established, in part, also through the utterance of sacred text), but one whose parents did not utter thebismillaupon beginning the act of procreation. Conversation in Kibushy is lubricated with Arabic liturgical expressions,...

    • 6 Islamic Experts: Practice and Power
      (pp. 162-192)

      We have determined that the distribution of Islamic textual knowledge is uneven. This chapter considers the people who know more texts of ′ilim fakihior have access to deeper sources of interpretation than do others. Does their greater familiarity with this ′discourse of authority′ (Gilsenan 1982: 36) thereby give them power over others? I will argue that such power is neither immediate nor unproblematic. To be sure, thefundisare granted a great deal of respect, yet they are not to be identified with the texts they claim to know. Access to the sacred texts is in theory fairly open...


    • 7 Knowledge with Power: The Discipline of Cosmology
      (pp. 195-236)

      Thefundiwho astonished Gabriel in the introductory story was a cosmologer,mwalim duniaand it is in this discipline, ′ilim dunia, that the conjuncture of knowledge and power and the disjuncture between knowledge and morality are most apparent. ′ilim duniacomprises the most esoteric knowledge found in Mayotte, yet at the same time it is knowledge that has had tremendous practical import. Access to it is quite restricted, yet necessary. Hence the position of the expert, themwalim dunia, is sharply defined. He is a powerful figure and, from the perspective of the path, a dangerous one. The story...

    • 8 Knowledge and Antipractice: Committing Sorcery
      (pp. 237-265)

      In Mayotte the possession of knowledge is morally ambiguous since all positive applications of knowledge are potentially balanced by negative ones. The same knowledge that can be used for good can also be misused or abused. Much is made locally of the proximity of healing and harming, of the fact that knowledge of the correct application of medicine entails, by definition, the knowledge of its incorrect application. Intentional abuse of knowledge in order to harm is a pervasive theme in Mayotte. It is what is meant byvoriky, a word I translate in somewhat less adequate shorthand as sorcery.¹


    • 9 Removing Sorcery: Committing (to) the Cure
      (pp. 266-302)

      We have seen that in Mayotte sorcery is understood as a condition of all human knowledge. As such, it can occur in a myriad of ways. The methods dwelt upon in the public imagination may be outrageous and obscene, but while sharing the general view, the sorcery curer works with a much narrower and more precisely delineated conception. His or her job is to remove sorcery and its effects. To accomplish this he needs a clear theory of the mechanics of sorcery. He undoes what the sorcerer has done. As someone so close to sorcery, he also needs a clear...


    • 10 The Reproduction of Possession: Gaining a Voice
      (pp. 305-337)

      The third form of knowledge after ′ilim fakihiand ′ilim duniaexplicitly distinguished by the villagers in Mayotte is ′ilim ny lulu, knowledge of the spirits. This refers most saliently to spirit possession, both to knowledge about spirits, especially about how to handle them when they trouble humans, and to knowledge gained from spirits, especially from the intimate relationship that often develops between spirits and their human hosts. Spirit possession is a broad topic, something that can be approached from many angles, and the subject of a vast literature. I have already written extensively about it in Mayotte, seeing it...

    • 11 Tumbu and Mohedja: Excerpts from the Healers′ Practice
      (pp. 338-376)

      In the previous chapter we began to examine possession as a form of knowledge, a knowing how, a knowing who, and a knowing as. All hosts need a minimum of such knowledge and transmit it to the next generation through the example of their practice and through guiding the newly possessed. For established mediums, practice is not merely learning how to speak with a new voice, but elaborating the knowledge and authority to which that voice has access. It is both a means towards using more objectified knowledge, ostensibly learned from one′s spirits, and a refined knowing how, knowing how...


    • 12 Granaries, Turtles, and the Whole Damn Thing
      (pp. 379-406)

      In this book I have attempted to problematize ′local knowledge.′ I have described the articulation of three traditions over a decade in a pair of related villages in Mayotte. I have examined the relationships among experts and laity in the reproduction, circulation, and use of knowledge and the consequences for the exercise of power and the invocation of authority in the local arena. During my time in Lombeni, community members′ views differed on many topics. Among them, they proposed various kinds of explanations, fielded diverse arguments, and put them into numerous kinds of practice. The ideas proffered and the practices...

  13. Epilogue, 1992
    (pp. 407-408)

    I began this book asserting my right to write in the present tense, but I end it wondering whether what it records is not all ancient history by now. I was able to visit Mayotte for two weeks in June 1992, and learned more from Jean-Michel Vidal on his return to Canada. Change has been enormous and continues with increasing rapidity. The population is close to 100,000, having more than doubled since I began work in 1975. Part of the growth is attributable to migration from neighbouring islands; people are attracted by the relative prosperity and the services offered by...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 409-436)
  15. A Short Glossary of Words Commonly Used in the Text
    (pp. 437-440)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 441-452)
  17. Index
    (pp. 453-468)