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Louis Brenner’s life and work
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Biography of Louis Brenner

Louis Brenner is Emeritus Professor of the History of Religion in Africa, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has published extensively on the history of Islam and of Muslim societies in West Africa, with special emphasis on the dynamics and transmission of Muslim thought and ideas, and on Sufism.

Born in 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee, Brenner received his BA in History from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1959), MA in History from Columbia University (1964), and his PhD in African History, also from Columbia (1968). Before moving to London, he taught at Boston University from 1967 to 1976.

Brenner’s PhD thesis (published as The Shehus of Kukawa: a History of the al-Kanemi Dynasty of Bornu, 1973) focused on the nineteenth-century history of a Muslim kingdom in the north of what is now Nigeria. It was while conducting research for his thesis in the Muslim north of Nigeria that his interests turned more specifically to the study of Islam and of Sufism in Africa, his approach to which was influenced by two very different strands of thought. The first was anthropological; during a sabbatical year (1973-4), he familiarized himself with anthropological approaches to the study of religious thought and behavior under the direction of Prof. Ioan Lewis of the London School of Economics, himself a noted scholar of Islam and Sufism in the Horn of Africa. The second influence was of the Perennialist School; he sat in on a graduate course on Sufism at Harvard University taught by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who introduced him to the writings of Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt and Martin Lings.

During the mid-1970s, Brenner began to research traditional forms of Muslim education and Muslim thought in Mali, which led ultimately to the publication of West African Sufi: the Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal (1984; paper edition 2005). Research for this book was greatly enhanced by the generous cooperation of Amadou Hampâté Bâ, who at the time was preparing Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar (the book of which A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar is a translation) for publication. Over a period of several years, Hampâté Bâ granted Brenner many hours of interviews, in Mali, Paris and Abidjan. Although focused primarily on the life and teachings of Tierno Bokar, these interviews ranged over a broad range of topics: history, politics, oral tradition, and of course, Sufism, Islam and Islamic theology. In recent years, Brenner has drawn on these interviews, as well as other sources, to write several articles that explore aspects of the ‘life and teachings of Amadou Hampâté Bâ’, including the introduction to the English translation of Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar.

Other publications include "Réflexions sur le savoir islamique en Afrique de l'Ouest" (1985), an exploration of the diversity of thought and practice that in the past has enriched the Islamic religious culture of West Africa; and Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society (2000), a historical study of the relationship between Muslim thought, education and political culture, with special emphasis on the transformation of Muslim schooling in Mali in the twentieth century. Edited studies include L'enseignement islamique au Mali, (1991), and Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, (1993).

Brenner wrote the introduction to the World Wisdom title A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar by Amadou Hampâté Bâ . World Wisdom suggests Dr. Brenner's book West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Tall as an excellent complement to A Spirit of Tolerance because it provides much context, additional information, and insight on the life and teachings of Tierno Bokar.

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