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“Invoking the Invisible in the Sahara: Islam, Spiritual Mediation and Social Change”- A Book Talk with Erin Pettigrew

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The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, Stanford Department of History & The Center for African Studies Present: Erin Pettigrew, NYU Abu Dhabi, in conversation with Bruce Hall, UC Berkeley.

In her book Invoking the Invisible in the Sahara: Islam, Spiritual Mediation and Social Change, Pettigrew explores how knowledge of and interactions with invisible forces and entities - esoteric knowledge and spirits – shaped social structures, religious norms, and political power in the Saharan West. She traces the changing roles of Muslim spiritual mediators and their Islamic esoteric sciences over the long-term history of the region. By exploring the impact of the immaterial in the material world and demonstrating the importance of Islamic esoteric sciences in Saharan societies, she illuminates peoples' enduring reliance upon these sciences in their daily lives and argues for a new approach to historical research that takes the immaterial seriously.

Erin Pettigrew

Erin Pettigrew is an associate professor of History and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is a historian of Africa specializing in West African colonial and postcolonial history with a focus on Muslim societies. Her research has focused on the cultural history of Islam, slavery, race, gender, and nation in what is today primarily the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. She is the author of Invoking the Invisible in the Sahara: Islam, Spiritual Mediation, and Social Change (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

Dr. Pettigrew has published in The Journal of African History, Mediterranean Politics, Islamic Africa, L’Année du Maghreb and the collected volume Politiques de la culture et cultures du politique dans l’ouest saharien. She has also recently co-edited a special issue of L'Ouest saharien entitled Femmes du Sahara-Sahel : transformations sociales et conditions de vie (2022). 
Dr. Pettigrew's research has been supported by the Fulbright Scholars Program at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (l'EHESS) in Paris, France, as well as the Fulbright-Hays, the American Institute of Maghrib Studies, Mellon Foundation, Erasmus Mundus, as well as a number of research fellowships at NYUAD and Stanford University where her dissertation was awarded the Elizabeth Spilman Rosenfield Dissertation Prize (2015).

Dr. Pettigrew's current research traces the emergence of the underground kādeḥīn (the proletariat, or "toilers") movement in Mauritania. This book project, Cries of the Oppressed: Leftists, Arab Nationalism, and National Identity in Early Post-Independence Mauritania, presents the Maoist kādeḥīn as constituting a rare and short-lived moment of leftist and non-religious political influence that was still able to put political pressure on the country's new and single-party state to enact major changes in the political direction of and cultural norms in Mauritania.

Bruce Hall is Associate Professor of History. His research focuses on Muslim intellectual history in West and North Africa, located at the intersection of West Africa’s Muslim high intellectual culture and social and economic issues which that intellectual culture sought to address. His first book, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) is an intellectual history of arguments made about race and slavery in the West African Sahel. It reveals the long history of racial ideas in this region, and the different work that racial ideas were made to do over a period of more than three hundred years. He is currently working on a second book project that focuses on the history of enslaved commercial agents in a nineteenth-century Saharan commercial network that connected Ghadames (Libya) and Timbuktu (Mali). He is also involved with a bibliographic database of Arabic manuscript materials from across West Africa developed by Charles Stewart, called the West African Arabic Manuscript Project.