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Professor’s book compares West African ‘ways of knowing’

  • Ways of knowing
    Ways of knowing  In his new book, William & Mary assistant professor of religious studies Oludamini Ogunnaike compares West African intellectual traditions Sufism and Ifa to one another, as well as to contemporary Western theories of knowledge.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Unable to figure out how two worldviews fit together or didn’t, Oludamini Ogunnaike decided to look a little more closely.

The result for the assistant professor of religious studies at William & Mary is Sufism and Ifa: Ways of Knowing in Two West African Intellectual Traditions. The book, which started out as his doctoral dissertation, will be published next year by Penn State University Press.

West African religions will be explored on campus Oct. 9-13, including the Oct. 11 COLL 300 lecture, when the Center for the Liberal Arts hosts Nigerian Ifa practitioner Ifarinwale Ogundiran as part of this fall’s COLL 300 curriculum themed IN/EXclusion. Ogunnaike is teaching a COLL 300 class on Yoruba religions this semester.

Emigrating from Nigeria to the U.S. as a child, Ogunnaike found himself between two very disparate worldviews and was always interested in the differences.

“It was something I had to confront and think about because I’ll be told one thing at home or see one thing in Nigeria, and then something completely different in school in the States,” he said.

For example, Nigerians fervently believe that prayers, especially when spoken aloud, have an actual effect. There’s a widespread belief in things Americans would call magic, Ogunnaike said.

“Everybody knows that if someone gets ahold of your hair or your toenails, they can do something to you,” he said. “But in the States, obviously, that’s just nonsense — superstition; it doesn’t make any sense.”

Spending time in both worlds, Ogunnaike felt compelled to sort out if one set of beliefs was right or wrong, and what was behind them.

“So this is really at the origin of the project that the book is looking at, which is specifically looking at the epistemologies, or theories of knowledge, of two West African intellectual traditions,” he said.

He spent a total of approximately 18 months between 2008 and 2014  in Nigeria and Senegal interviewing masters and disciples of Ifa, an indigenous African religion, and Tijani Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition, and observing the educational processes and rituals they performed. Ogunnaike asked them what they have come to know within their traditions, how they came to know it and how they verified this knowledge.

The book not only compares the two to one another, but compares them to contemporary Western theories of knowledge as well.

“And that’s significant because a lot of the studies that have looked at these African traditions have tended to view them more as superstitions or as not very intellectually sophisticated, or even not as intellectual or philosophical traditions, just as kind of religious things that people do,” Ogunnaike said.

“And so I was trying to change this up a little bit and try to ask these traditions philosophical questions, and then take their responses on the same level as the intellectual and philosophical traditions here.”

Reading about it would be interesting not only for those with extensive knowledge of the topic, but for anyone curious about West African belief systems and ways of learning, he added. American and European societies tend to divide philosophical, scientific and religious approaches to knowledge, but there are many alternative ways of understanding the world.

“The average American is much less aware of African traditions like this,” Ogunnaike said. “So for anyone who’s interested in West African approaches to knowledge, ways of knowing, worldviews as a kind of alternative or different way of looking at thinking about the world, this would be a good book.”

Offshoots of the project include a digital archive of Sufi poetry, a book of collected poems and a paper on Sufi music videos that are part of ongoing research for Ogunnaike. He plans to return to Nigeria and Senegal to do further work on them, and is currently looking for students with a working knowledge of Arabic to accompany him.

Ogunnaike emphasized his realization while researching the book that both Ifa and Tijani Sufism have a lot in common with the traditions of ancient Greco-Roman philosophers.

Ancient philosophers saw one’s way of life as linked to being able to attain certain kinds of knowledge. But whereas philosophy became more of a purely mental academic notion in the West, the African traditions retained the old way of thinking about it.

“There’s an existential and therefore an ethical component to knowledge and to acquiring knowledge in these traditions that I think is really fascinating and interesting,” Ogunnaike said. “And in studying these traditions, I think I actually understand Plato and ancient philosophers a lot more from my understanding of these traditions and vice versa.

“If you know Plato, I think that it would be easier for you to understand these traditions. So it’s a really fascinating aspect of them, that in a lot of ways their approach to knowledge and learning is in some ways quite similar to those of ancient philosophy. So it’s not so much western versus non-western, in some ways, it’s more interesting and complicated than that.”