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Volume 42, Number 5September/October 1991

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Learning the Word of God

Written by Geert Mommersteeg
Photographed by Brynn Bruijn

Rhythmically, young Salifou recites his lesson, his finger moving slowly over the Arabic letters on his wooden board.

Around him, the other pupils of this Qur'anic school learn their lessons by reading aloud the words on their tablets; each has his own text and contributes a little to the cacophony. The teacher, the marabout, sits on his sheepskin and listens to the recitation. Once in a while he urges his pupils to read more ardently. Some older ones recite briskly long passages from the Qur'an which they have learned by heart, occasionally using their boards, on which verses from the Book are written in a fine, small hand, to prompt themselves.

Walking about the old town of Djenne, in central Mali, means hearing the word of God now and then. While passing one of the dozens of Qur'anic schools, a visitor is almost sure to hear students reciting passages from the holy book.

It has been so for centuries. Djenne, situated in the Inner Delta of the Niger River, was once an important commercial center (See Aramco World, July-August and November-December 1990). Although the town was never as famous as its sister, the legendary city of Timbuktu - 350 kilometers (210 miles) to the north - still, during its heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries Djenne played an important role in trans-Saharan trade. It was here that the salt merchants from the desert in the north met the gold traders from the south. "Because of the blessed city of Djenne, caravans flock to Timbuktu from all points of the horizon," the West African historian al-Sa'di wrote about 1650.

Islam was part of urban life in Djenne from an early date. When, at the beginning of the 13th century, the 26th chief of Djenne, Koy Kunboro, proclaimed his conversion to Islam, some 4200 learned Muslims were present, according to the chronicle of al-Sa'di. Although the writer, once imam of the town himself, may have exaggerated, clearly Islam was a significant force in the city at that time, and it remains so today.

Today, Djenne is a small town with some 12,000 inhabitants of ethnically diverse origin - mostly Marka/Sonray, Fulani and Bozo. Economically, it is of only minor regional importance, and the drought of recent years has left its mark here as everywhere in the Sahel. But Djenne's famous mosque and its many Qur'anic schools still reflect the glorious days of the past.

The town has about 35 elementary-level schools where young students learn how to read and recite the Qur'an, as well as half a dozen schools for "secondary" Islamic education. Law, Arabic grammar, rhetoric and literature, theology, the traditions of the Prophet and Qur'anic exegesis are taught at the secondary schools, whose teachers have specialized in advanced studies and are known for their learning. These schools have regional appeal: Young men from throughout the Inner Delta region come to Djenne to study. Many of them stay in town for years and take in their own pupils for elementary instruction, thus establishing yet another small school.

Among the hundreds of students at Djenne's primary Qur'anic schools is young Salifou, diligently naming the first letters of the universal Muslim invocation, the beginning of every endeavor, "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful": "Ba,si, mi,alifu,lamu, lamu,ha...."

Salifou's school, like most here, is situated in the vestibule of his teacher's house. A layer of sand covering the floor of tamped earth, a collection of wooden writing tablets in a corner and one or two copies of the Qur'an in a niche in the wall distinguish the school from an ordinary vestibule. Class is held from about seven to 11 o'clock in the morning and from three to about six in the afternoon, except on Thursdays and Friday mornings. Only during the hot hours, when the sun is high in the sky, do the marabout and his pupils sit inside; early in the morning, all are seated in the strip of shade at the foot of the school's mud wall, and in the late afternoon, the house opposite shelters them.

The students, most of them boys and ranging in number from a dozen to a hundred or more, do not, strictly speaking, form a class. Teaching is individual. Each student works on his own part of the Qur'an and makes progress at his own pace, according to his intelligence and ardor. Although all girls also follow Qur'an lessons for some time, they are always outnumbered by the boys. With one or two exceptions, girls normally spend only enough time at school to learn the few short chapters of the Qur'an needed for daily prayers.

Educational materials are simple: a pen, black ink, and a wooden tablet covered on both sides with a thin coating of white clay, on which the Qur'anic verses are written. The pen is cut from the stalk of a particular shrub and the ink is made of water, gum arabic and soot washed off cooking pots. The older students, who write on their tablets themselves, have their own ink-pots and pens; the younger ones have only tablets. No blackboard or notebooks are used, and there are no books other than the teacher's own Qur'an and one or two extra copies which the advanced students may use.

The advanced students, ranging in age from 11 to 16 years or older, write long Qur'anic passages on their boards in a small, neat hand. Some of them have already read the entire Book and now practice the art of dursu. By reciting it over and over, they work to memorize the word of God.

Young Salifou still has a long way to go before he will be able to recite the Qur'an the way the older students do: He is only seven years old. Just a few weeks ago he reached the age at which he could begin his Qur'anic education. Over the past few months, his father had asked him from time to time whether he knew how to count from one to 10. Once Salifou was able to count to 10 without fault, he was old enough to be handed over to a marabout who would teach him to read, recite and later write the Qur'an, the fount of the Arabic language.

Today the marabout has written upon Salifou's tablet several new words of the first two verses of al-Fatiha (The Opening), the first sura, or chapter, of the Qur'an. Indicating the letters on the board with his finger, the teacher pronounces each one aloud several times, waiting for his young pupil to name them after him. This is Salifou's lesson for the day.

While the marabout occupies himself with his other students, Salifou repeats his lesson on his own. Occasionally the teacher or an older student checks on him and helps him with his pronunciation. The following day, the marabout will test Salifou to see if he has learned - that is, memorized -his lesson correctly. If so, the teacher will write the next few words on the tablet, also to be read aloud and memorized.

The first phase of education at the Qur'anic school, during which young students like Salifou memorize the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, is called alifu-alifu: the alif being the first letter of the alphabet. However, the letters are not learned in strict alphabetical order. Starting with Sura al-Fatiha and continuing with the short suras at the end of the Book, the student learns the letters in the order in which they appear in the Qur'an. The verses are divided into their smallest elements, the letters, and the lessons consist of reciting each letter by its name: "Ba, si, mi, alifu, lamu, lamu, ha" Salifou recites the names of the letters which together form the very first word in the Qur'an: Bismillah, "In the name of God."

The alifu-alifu phase encompasses the first sura and the ten short, final ones (suras 105 through 114). The same part of the Qur'an is used in the next phase of education: timiti-timiti, a term derived from the Arabic verb matta, to stretch or draw out. Now, the marabout writ* the letters with the vowel marks and other diacriticals that accompany them. The recitation of Bismillah, for example, runs as follows: "Bi, si, mi, iye, la, hi."

When a student has completed reading the 11 short suras in this fashion, he has encountered all the letters of the alphabet in combination with the different vowel marks and diacritical signs. This is not to say, however, that he has really learned the alphabet - he can simply rattle off the vocalized letters, just as they were recited by the marabout.

After the timiti-timiti phase, the student returns for the third time to the Qur'an's opening sura, to be taught to read the words of God properly. He is now a tyo koray - literally, "clean reading" - student. The writing on his board is the same as during the previous phase, but the recitation no longer consists of reading each letter separately. They are combined to make words. After a few lessons the student recites the two first verses of Sura al-Fatiha: "Bismillahi rahmani rahimi. Al-hamdulillahi rabbi al-'alamina" - "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds" - a combination of words which he does not yet understand, for the student's only concern, at this stage, is to recite them correctly. To the inhabitants of Djenne, as to all other West African people - except for a few Arabic-speaking desert tribes - Arabic is a foreign language. Even to speakers of colloquial Arabic, the seventh-century Makkan Arabic is not always immediately accessible.

Learning a fewwords orone phrase at a time,the tyo koray student reads the first sura. When he masters the correct recitation of Sura al-Fatiha, the marabout will write on his tablet the first verses of Sura al-Nas (The People), the 114th and final chapter of the Qur'an.

For the most part, the suras of the Qur'an are read in reverse order, with the shortest and most easily memorized suras first. The ultimate aim of the Qur'anic schools is to enable a student to recite the final verses of the second and longest sura, al-Baqara (The Cow), though only a minority ever reach this goal. Most students leave school before they have read the entire Book.

Correctional methods may be harsh. The student who repeatedly makes errors in reciting, or one whose attention slackens and who does not practice his lessons ardently enough, can count on a smart touch from the marabout's quirt, or one wielded by an older student.

When a student's lessons have been heard and he has recited his verses correctly, the teacher gives him permission to wash the text off hi» writing board. The water he uses to do this is collected in a pitcher, called a nesi-kusu, or holy-water jar, set aside for this purpose in the courtyard of the marabout's house. This is because everything that contains words from the Qur'an is considered holy and must be handled carefully - even the water in which the words of the Qur'an are dissolved. Once or twice a year, the nesi-kusu is emptied; the water, thick with ink and clay washed off the writing boards, is carried outside the town and poured into one of the branches of the river Bani. Even the water with which the pitcher is rinsed out must be discarded there. One marabout, who grew up in the countryside near Djenne, explained that in the villages students wash their writing boards at the spot where the fire is lit at night, "because nobody ever walks on that spot," and the holy words, dissolved in water though they be, will not be defiled by human feet.

The reading phase of primary Qur'anic education in Djenne continues up to Sura 67, al-Mulk (Kingship). From this point on, the student is simultaneously taught how to read the words of the Qur'an and how to write them. The marabout scratches the verses into the thin coating of clay on the writing tablet with a pointed piece of wood. The student meticulously follows these marks on his board with a pen, filling them in with ink, and shows his tablet to the teacher when he is finished. The marabout reads the passages aloud, corrects the writing, returns the tablet to his pupil and reads the text to him word for word. The student, following what he has written with his finger, repeats the words after the teacher, then sits down and works on the correct recitation of the verses on his tablet. When in doubt, he consults a fellow student or the master, and asks him to repeat a particular passage. This phase is called khairun (from the Arabic khair, meaning good, a good thing, a blessing). During the next phase, khairun kasida, which embraces Suras 36 to 46, the marabout leaves more space between the lines he scratches on the board. The student no longer traces the script the teacher has written but writes out his own script below the master's example.

At the end of the khairun kasida phase, during which he has copied his master's script,the student has read one-quarter of the Qur'an. The remaining suras he will read after he has written them all by himself, copying them from single pages of loose-leaf copies of the Qur'an. Before this fita (leaf) phase, students are considered too immature to handle the Qur'an with proper respect.

When the fita student has written his lesson, he shows it to the marabout for correction. And after having heard from his teacher how to recite the verses, he practices the proper recitation by himself. The fita phase includes most of the Qur'an and ends with the final verses of Sura al-Baqara.

Studying in this manner, a student needs at least four years to finish the Qur'an - though individual differences are substantial. When he has learned the final verses of the second sura, a ceremony (al-korana dyumandi) is held: Other Qur'an teachers of Djenne are invited to the school to witness how the student, repeating the words after his master, recites the last part of the second sura twice over. A visiting marabout delivers benedictions and all present partake of a meal prepared by the student's family. Together with a few schoolmates, the student walks about town displaying his writing tablet and collecting the tribute of respect: small gifts of rice, millet, peanuts or a coin. The boy's father shows his gratitude for his son's education by donating a sum of money to the teacher.

Besides this "final payment," which may vary from 5000 to 20,000 francs CFA ($17 to $70 or £28 to £40), the teacher is also paid about 500 francs when the student reaches the halfway point of his studies at Sura 19 - in addition to regular payments each Wednesday, when the students bring a fee of 10 or 25 francs CFA to school.

However, a student's Qur'anic education does not necessarily end when he has read the entire Book. He may continue his studies, either moving on to the secondary level or remaining at the elementary school and rereading the Qur'an. In the latter case, with the final ceremony postponed, the student begins to write and read the entire Qur'an again from the first sura onward. Some try, at the same time, to learn the text by heart.

All this is of no concern yet to young Salifou: His Qur'anic education has only just begun. But he is proud to be among the older children now, and he keeps practicing the recitation as the marabout showed him: "Ba,si, mi,alifu, lamu, lamu,ha...." After a few months he will combine these letters in the holy phrases of one of Islam's central and most beautiful prayers - words he will recite and read all his life: "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; the Compassionate, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid do we seek. Show us the straight way: The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose [portion] is not wrath, and who go not astray."

Geert Mommersteeg is an anthropologist attached to the Department of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the September/October 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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