Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


African Studies Seminar: To Invoke the Invisible

31 January 2019, 1:15 pm–2:45 pm

invoke the invisible

The UCL African Studies Seminar welcomes Erin Pettigrew, IMAF and NYU Abu Dhabi, for the second seminar of this autumn term: ‘To Invoke the Invisible: Islam, Spiritual Mediation and Social Change in the Sahara’. Seminars will take place every other Thursday this term.

This event is free.

Event Information

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Hélène Neveu Kringelbach


IAS Seminar room 20
First floor, South Wing, UCL
United Kingdom

This talk focuses on invisible forces and entities – secret knowledge and spirits – to bring into view important social and political shifts in West Africa over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Situating this ethnographic history in what is today the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, the talk traces the changing roles of Muslim spiritual mediators and their Islamic “esoteric sciences”, with a focus on the colonial and post-colonial eras. These sciences and their experts have been part of a framework of therapeutic and protective practice attending to physical insecurity, social anxiety, and personal desires. Single women sought out the expertise of these Muslim spiritual mediators to ensure a timely marriage. Once married, they came to these specialists asking for numerological charts that would guarantee fertility and their husbands’ fidelity. Warriors and emirs rewarded these specialists in secret knowledge with herds of animals and promises of exemption from taxes usually paid for protection from raids. Families with a suddenly ill child summoned these spiritual mediators to diagnose and heal illnesses caused by jealous neighbours understood to harm through the evil eye or bloodsucking. These powerful sciences constitute a system of knowledge in response to the needs of its consumers, most often ensuring the health and welfare of local populations. Spiritual mediators invoked these divine forces in retribution for social wrongs, albeit less frequently. This Islamic esoteric knowledge could then be used both productively and destructively according to circumstance.

Download the Winter 2019 programme here

All welcome.

This seminar series is convened by the African Studies Research Centre/IAS: