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Popularizing Islamic Knowledge through Oral Epic: A Malian Bard in a Media Age

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This article explores a rather understudied feature of West African oral epics, namely its role as a channel for the transmission and popularization of Islamic religious knowledge. The documentary basis of analysis is provided by a set of oral texts performed in the Bambara language by a Malian griot (i.e. a member of an endogamous bards' lineage) and marketed in audiotape recorded form through the channels of local informal economy. Special attention is devoted to the multiple roles played by the bard in his complex relationship to Islamic knowledge. In spite of his abundant references to learned, sometimes even esoteric doctrines in texts appealing to a broad, undifferentiated audience, at a closer look the main goal of his popularizing attitude appears to be the reassertion of the legitimacy of traditionally trained local scholars and religious leaders, acting as his patrons, through a compelling magnification of their superior knowledge. What is at stake is precisely the defence of a locally rooted epistemological model against the challenges coming from Islamic reformers who promote alternative (and more rationalising) understandings of religious knowledge and authority. Seizing the new opportunities offered by the mediatization of his verbal art, the griot engages effectively in the religious debates that animate an increasingly globalised national public sphere.

Affiliations: 1: Rome


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