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Vital Matters: Stories of Belief–Muslim Prayer Boards of West Africa

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December 13, 2021

Qur’anic boards, 20th century; wood and ink, coppe


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Muslim prayer boards combine divine arts with practical purposes. Made of wood and inscribed with a reed pen, they help young Muslims commit to memory Words of God. When the boards are washed for reuse, the water bears blessings that—if imbibed or applied to afflicted bodies—can console, heal, and bring hope. The Fowler is pleased to welcome Amira Hassnaoui, who will share her ongoing doctoral research involving people of West African descent in southern Tunisia; and Allen F. Roberts, who will discuss religious practices he and Polly Nooter Roberts (d. 2018) studied for their 2003 Fowler Museum exhibition, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal.

Vital Matters: Stories of Belief is generously supported by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

Amira Hassnaoui was born in Tunis, Tunisia. She received her BA in English Literature and Civilization from the Higher Institute of Human Sciences of Tunis in 2011 and her MA in English Literature and Civilization from the Superior Institute of Human Sciences of Tunis in 2014. She is currently a fourth-year PhD student and a teaching associate in UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, she also serves as Director of Publications at the UCLA Graduate Student Association (GSA); and editor at Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies—one of the oldest African Studies Journals in North America.

Allen F. Roberts is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA. His recent projects as a humanistic anthropologist include editing and writing for the Fowler’s exhibition book Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths (2019); and his prize-winning monograph A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo (2013). Roberts has co-edited Devotional Spaces of a Global Saint: Shirdi Sai Baba’s Presence (2022) dedicated to the memory of Polly Nooter Roberts (d. 2018), Professor of World Arts and Cultures, Consulting Curator of African Art at LACMA, and Deputy Director of the Fowler Museum (1999-2009).

Vital Matters: Stories of Belief: Vital Matters programs explore objects that arouse devotion, awe, or serenity; mediate relationships between human and spiritual realms; and are of vital importance to the cultural heritage of individuals and communities. This series accompanies the new digital initiative Vital Matters: Stories of Belief–a platform for sharing different perspectives on devotional works at the Fowler Museum.


Image: Artist unknown (Sufi tradition, Senegal); Qur’anic boards, 20th century; wood and ink, copper and paint; Fowler Museum at UCLA, X99.56.51; Gift of Dr. Allen Roberts and Dr. Mary (Polly) Roberts

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