Caitlyn Bolton

Doctoral Candidate, AnthropologyCity University of New York (CUNY) / Graduate Center

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

AnthropologyCity University of New York (CUNY) / Graduate Center

The Spirit of Progress: Islamic Education, Development and Modernity in Zanzibar

Perched on the edges of Africa and the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar has long been a site for British colonial and Euro-American development programs. Yet it was also a colonial center for the Arab Islamic world, and now a destination site for international Islamic development organizations. This project analyzes approaches to development and social change by international Islamic organizations working in education in Zanzibar, examining the role of religion and religious knowledge within a site at the nexus of multiple global communities and systems of meaning. I ask: How do contemporary Islamic development organizations attempt to work on the inner (batini) spiritual lives of their recipients, given development's enduring focus on outer (dhahiri) material conditions (that nonetheless discipline internally)? In what ways do they employ conceptions of progress that are measured by the spiritual (as well as material) and invoke a return back to a golden Islamic past, and in what ways do they draw on Euro-American liberal notions measured by the economic and technical and oriented toward an infinitely perfectible future? How do Islamic development approaches change as they increasingly interact with Euro-American development agencies, including receiving grants and program implementation? To answer these questions, I will engage in participant observation within three Islamic organizations linked to the three main Indian Ocean diasporas in Zanzibar (South Asian, Omani, and Hadrami/Yemeni), complemented by interviews with administrators, teachers, development workers and parents. This ethnographic data will be grounded in historical data from the Zanzibar National Archives, drawing on Arabic manuscripts, British colonial files and development reports. Twelve months in Zanzibar will be broken up by three month-long trips to Oman to interview at an organization's headquarters and trace the contemporary networks of Islamic scholars and students across the Indian Ocean.