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Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions

January 11, 2021 at 11:19 am

  • Book Author(s): Oludamini Ogunnaike
  • Published Date: October 2020
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Hardback: 480 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-271-08690-3

Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions by Oludamini Ogunnaike is a sweeping and ambitious book that operates on multiple levels with the aim of getting us to think differently about the foundations of knowledge itself. Through the traditions of Tijani Sufism and the non-Muslim Ifa religion, found in Nigeria and West Africa, Ogunnaike dissects, analyses and applies a West African intellectual approach to some of the big issues in philosophy.

No mere philology, Deep Knowledge… wants to take on the stranglehold of modern western philosophy and suggests that Sufism and Ifa offer a more enriching approach. This is no mean feat; West Africa has often been dismissed as intellectually underdeveloped, but such a view is a reflection of two things: the racist and imperialist attitudes of Euro-American interactions with the region; and Euro-American scholars not recognising such scholarship.

“Virtually all of these traditions,” asserts Ogunnaike, “…exist quite independently of the modern academic traditions [and] have their own name for their traditions and categories of thought, and many of their members are largely unconcerned with whether what they are doing is called ‘philosophy’ by those outside the tradition.”

Part of the issue is that post-enlightenment philosophy views the acquisition of knowledge solely as an exercise in detached reasoned inquiry, which is often confined to academia, exists in written texts, is divorced from older intellectual traditions which are fused with theology, and cannot really be experienced beyond a cognitive exercise. While many of these processes do exist within traditional philosophy in West Africa, such traditions do not limit themselves to these modes alone; they fuse the oral with textual, reason with emotion, stillness with movement, thought with prayer; to philosophise is a way of life, much the same way that Greek and Roman thinkers saw it. Through these different experiences, acquiring knowledge to answer the big questions posed by existence becomes possible.

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Ogunnaike proposes taking this approach and situating ourselves outside the dominant post-enlightenment Eurocentric paradigms. This is a radical step that goes beyond post-colonial and post-modern methods for dealing with Europhile dominance, which is still located within the modern Western paradigm.

These are the first two levels that the book operates on. The third is trying to understand just what Tijani Sufism and Ifa are, and how and what they philosophise. It then compares the two to each other by using Tijani Sufism approaches to examine Ifa and vice versa.

The final level looks at what these two traditions teach us, summed up as thinking about and through these two West African traditions. This is a critical point, as Ogunnaike is not treating Tijani Sufism and Ifa as exotic curios, but living traditions with real agency. With the aid of 12th century Andalusian scholar Ibn Arabi, the author is able to create a workable framework to enable this study to exist.

Comparative work already exists within both Tijani Sufism and Ifa traditions, as Ogunnaike explains: “Islam plays a fairly prominent role in the oral corpus of Ifa, a testimony to the centuries of interaction between the two traditions… The general impression one gets upon surveying the references to Islam in the verses of Ifa is that Islam is regarded as another orisa tradition [a Yoruba spiritual tradition].”

Some verses appear to be critical of Islam and mock its rituals, the author points out, while others appear to praise it and Prophet Muhammad. The followers of Ifa are curious about Islam, and produce accounts about the origins of the religion, its various beliefs, its rituals and why it is the way it is.

“Orunmila [a spiritual being second in command to Eledumare, the supreme creator god of the Ifa tradition] instructed God’s slave [the Prophet Muhammad] that he should pray just as he had been doing previously in heaven, but Aafa [the Prophet] very much liked to imitate what Orunmila did when he practised Ifa. All the prostrations [Rak’at] that Muslims do in the mosque, Aafa learned from Orunmila. Before anyone can enter the house of Ifa, he [or she] must wash.”

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This account comes from Ifa tradition and aims to explain the origin of Islam and Muslim prayer. Ogunnaike thus demonstrates the extent to which Islam was localised in the region and recognised by a non-Muslim tradition; how much that religious tradition saw itself in Islam; and that fact that curiosity and comparison are features of Ifa. We find a similar approach in the Tijani Sufism approach to Ifa, which underscores the point that Ogunnaike is not innovating an entirely new approach, but following on from what Ifa and Tijani Sufi scholars are already doing.

This book is dense, and while readable the topic and the levels at which it is written can be intimidating. Familiarity with the great works of Western philosophy is not required to access Deep Knowledge… — you don’t need to be a philosopher — but a lack of understanding of the Western canon would make it difficult for some readers to appreciate the critique that the author is presenting. Nevertheless, the non-specialist will still gain a lot and it might stimulate new ways of thinking.