How (Not) to Teach Creed: Disputes Over “the Belief of the Common Folk” in the Early Modern Maghrib

Historical investigations of creed in Islamic Studies tend to focus on the doctrinal content, noting how creeds produced and promoted the orthodoxies of a particular time and place and marked what authorities saw as the most threatening heresies of the moment. Overlooked in the emphasis on inter-communal boundaries is the question of who – within a community – creeds were for, and how authorities envisioned different members of Muslim society engaging with creedal material.

This seminar shows that such questions could be as sensitive and contentious as the matter of the doctrinal tenets themselves. The seminar deals in particular with a controversy that took place in the oasis city of Sijilmāsa (today southeastern Morocco) around 1080/1670.

Drawing on a series of texts still in manuscript, Dr. Olson lays out the ideas and activities which led to the controversy, as articulated by one Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn Abī Maḥallī (fl. 1084/1673). To illuminate the dynamics at play, she borrows the idea of “vernacularisation,” used by Nir Shafir to analyse another 11th/17th-century theological controversy, in Ottoman lands (“Vernacular Legalism” 2020). “Vernacular,” in Shafir’s sense, designates not a regionally specific language but rather the use of a language in such a way as to render it accessible to a less educated audience, thereby empowering that audience to participate in discussions that would otherwise be beyond their grasp.

Dr. Olson suggests interpreting the creed written and promoted by Ibn ʿUmar as an instance of vernacularisation. She discusses several aspects of his efforts to root out what he saw as widespread creedal ignorance and his encouragement that others, including people without a formal education, do the same. A final section of the seminar looks at opposition to Ibn ʿUmar’s activities, examining why some of his contemporaries saw this particular “vernacularising” effort as misguided and dangerous and how they sought to put an end to it.

Speaker bio

Dr. Caitlyn Olson is a historian of the Maghrib – Morocco in particular – during the early modern period, meaning the 15th-18th centuries. Increasingly, she has also been interested in the circulation of ideas, people, and practices between the Maghrib, the Sahel, and West Africa. Her current book project, “Creed for the Common Folk,” focuses on disputes among elite theologians about whether and how they ought to intervene in the creedal knowledge of the broader Muslim populace and explores the place of orthodoxy in the ongoing process of Islamization. Research for the project took Dr. Olson to more than a dozen manuscript libraries in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.