What Hausawa's magic amulets can tell us about: SPbU’s student

SPbU’s student in African studies Polina Kolupaeva has just returned from Nigeria and brought unusual souvenirs — Hausawa's amulets of magic. In Arica, she prepared her graduation thesis in “The attributes of magic practices ofhausawa: Analysis of museum collections”.

Her thesis focuses on the amulets of Hausawa from the museum collections and analyses the practices how they are created and used in the Quran magic of Hausawa. In our interview, she told why she had decided to delve into the topic and what discoveries she made during her trip to Nigeria.

Tell us about your study. What African languages did you study at SPbU?

In 2018, SPbU is opening a graduate programme in Languages and Cultures of Africa taught in English.

This year, I am graduating the programme Oriental and African Studies, field of study Languages and Culture of West Africa (Hausawa). Why did I choose African studies? Difficult to say. It was my aim. Even when I was at school, I wanted to delve into the African studies.

I chose the region of West Africa as a topic for research since it is my field of study and I studied the language of Hausawa. Honestly, I could have chosen another region, but I love this region.

Hausawa was the language of instruction for us. When I was in Nigeria, I talked with the locals and they understood me. Besides, I learned another two languages: Bamana and Arab. Of course, our curricular also includes European languages: English and French.

What makes the Quran magic in Africa so unique?

It is not magic or magical attributes: for locals they are just part of their life. They are often regarded as part of the African arts, part of the elitist culture, although they are not.

The study of the Quran magic and its attributes (amulets and mascots) is essential for research of the culture of Hausawa. An important part of the magic is addressing Quran as a source of power and support not only in the moral sphere, but also in everyday life. The amulets and other attributes therefore constitute a part of the material culture and everyday life of Hausawa. The field study showed that the amulets are still attributes of the material culture.

North Nigeria, where the Hausawa live, is mostly Muslim. Islam has played a role in forming the traditional believes and culture.

What tasks did you solve while preparing the graduation thesis?

Islam appeared in Nigeria in the 11th-14th centuriesm although no exact data is known.

The main concern of my thesis is to analyse the museum collections in terms of whether they have the attributes of the Quran magic of Hausawa: amulets, mascots, and others.

First, I selected the museums and what collections they offer by examining the catalogues published today and even in the mid- or early last century. The main collection was the collection of the Kunstkamera. I also examined the collections from the ALEP Musée de l’Homme in Paris that was made by Alen Apelbaun from the waste landfill. During my trip to Nigeria, I also found a number of amulets.

What are the relationships between Islam and pagan magic cults?

The traditional believes of Hausawa have spirits. The spirits can be benevolent and evil. The former help people, while the latter can cause damage, illnesses, and misfortune. To live in harmony with the spirits, they have rituals, sacrifices, and offerings to the spirits. For example, the cult of bori (the cult of domination of the spirits) helps them overcome illnesses through the state of trans and ritual dances. It is a kind of conventional medicine for them.

Islam definitely did influence this system of believes and became its integral part. As times passed, Islam replaced the traditional believes. Maguzava, with advent of Islam, started to believe that the spirits act when Allah allows them to, although the pagans didn’t worship Allah. Moreover, the spirits were devided into the bad and good in the following way: the good spirits were Muslim spirits (including angels), while the bad spirits were pagan spirits. The word “iska” (a spirit in Hausawa) was replaced by an Arab word “djinn”.

The rituals were also modified. If you are in trouble, you should ask for advice from a malam who is a spiritual leader of the community that has Muslim education and can act as a judge, healer, and preacher. If the malam cannot help you, you go to a boka who is a healer who can communicate with the spirits. The boka asks Allah to get a permission to heal the “patient”.

Tell us more about Quran magic.

Quran magic is typical to many Muslim communities. It is based on the magic properties of the Quran letters and text, numerology, and astrology. The magic formulas on the papers are considered to bring luck to the owners of the papers. These formulas can incorporate any wish: from relieving the headache to wealth and happiness.

There are magic squares with the letters of the name and numbers inside: each Arab letter is assigned its numerical value. This system is called abjad. Each name has its own numerical value that is incorporated into the magic square.

Yet another ritual from Quran magic. You write magic formulas by an ink on the wooden board and then washed them to drink the liquid or use it for ablution.

Which amulets and magic attributes did you get in Nigeria?

In Nigeria, I got four amulets of Quran magic. They are all made by Ahmed Sadauki from Kano.

In the centre of the amulet, there is a geometrical figure  - hatim – with the names of the prophets inside, Allah, and excerpts from Quran. They are all framed by the instructions. The malam decide what form and content the amulet will be, then he makes an author’s version to make copies for sale.

In Nigeria, I talked with a teacher from the National Open University of Nigeria who study the same topic. He said that the form of the amulet depends on its content. If the amulet is designed to bring luck on the field of battle, it could be done as a shield. Yet in most cases it is difficult to understand why the malam has chosen a particular figure.

In other words, the amulets are Islam’s attributes and have religious texts. What is the traditional, pagan meaning of the amulets?

The writing of Hausawa appeared with advent of Islam, and the Hausawa hadn’t done such amulets before. The instructions are written in Arabic script (ajami). However, my amulets are written in Arabic, only some words are in Hausawa.

What I found most difficult is how to read the text written by intricate scripts.

Presumably, the traditional culture can be found in how these instructions are performed in the rituals. One of the amulets gives the following instruction: “If you want to be universally admired, you should write hatim on the board, then wash the ink, mix the water with the soil from the mosque, market, and white honey, and drink it”. I think that we can see traditional medical practices in how these rituals are performed.

Have you seen the pagan amulets?

I have never studied the pagan amulets or met the pagans in Nigeria, although there are pagan communities there. The Kunstkamera has some objects that are far from being Islam. Yet as they are old enough we don’t have information about them and cannot decipher what they mean. I would say that most Hausawa use the amulets of Quran magic.

How did you manage to obtain the amulets? Are they publically available?

No, not at all. Such amulets can hardly be found in the places of tourist attractions. I had to visit several markets to find a person who sold the Islam literature near the mosque and he helped to find these amulets. I could persuade him and he sold them to me at an incredibly high price.

The problem is that the life in the capital where I travels is completely different from the life in other regions in Nigeria. Probably, such amulets are more widely spread in towns in the north. Unfortunately, I did not travel north. I hope I could continue my education at the University.