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Domesticating the Médersa: Franco-Muslim Education and Colonial Rule in Northwest Africa, 1850-1960


This dissertation examines the place of the médersa, a Franco-Muslim school offering both European and Islamic instruction, in the colonial history of northwest Africa. It pays particular attention to the trans-Saharan nature of the institution, as it expanded from its original context in Algeria to an eventual presence in the West African colonies of Senegal, French Soudan, and Mauritania. It also demonstrates how the médersa evolved over the course of major changes in colonial policy from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, from the "Arabophilia" of Napoléon III to the civilizing mission of the Third Republic to the era of the French Union and decolonization. Tracing the médersa's history over this span of space and time reveals a process of domestication, a negotiation between African Muslim societies and French administrators that resulted in institutional adaptations and what I call a "multi-local" institution. In other words, the médersa's core mission, providing Franco-Muslim education and producing a class of Muslim intermediary employees for the colonial administration, remained the same while certain practices changed to suit local imperatives. Two of these "practices of order" receive special scrutiny in the dissertation. These are the curriculum, which evolved to include certain local practices of Islamic knowledge transmission, and student recruitment, which determined the makeup of the colonial intermediary corps in tandem with local and colonial ideas of religious, racial, and social identity.

Most scholars have dismissed the médersas as a colonial curiosity. The dissertation argues that the médersa's domestication in fact had a major impact on the intellectual, political, and institutional histories of northwest Africa, and that its influence is best understood through a new multi-local, trans-Saharan framework. Adopting this comparative perspective demonstrates how the médersa's institutional practices, and the médersa's students, influenced other developments in colonial society. As such, the dissertation argues for the importance of Franco-Muslim education as a mode of connection across northwest Africa in the colonial period.

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