First-year PhD student Bryon Maxey is the first DSR student to be awarded a highly-competitive Trudeau Foundation scholarship. Bryon is one of 15 Trudeau Foundation 2021 Scholars, and will participate in the Foundation’s three-year Engaged Leaders program. He spoke to the DSR about his research.
DSR: What is the focus of your research?
BM: The focus of my research is a historical look at Qur’an interpretation in Africa, or put another way, the holy book for Muslims in Africa. I focus on what is historically called Sudanic Africa, which is the Arabic term for the Black parts of Africa. I want to understand its role as a foundation for a diversity of worldviews, and how Muslim and other non-Muslim ways of looking at the world are connected from Africa to the Americas.
DSR: What made you want to focus on that area of research?
BM: I have been studying the history of Islam in Africa for years, and I am attracted to the idea of there being a central dimension that connects various Muslim histories, where there is some relationship with the Qur’an and how people interpret it, whether it is a mother teaching her child, or at the biggest levels, how a government runs or how states interact with each other. I am interested in that universalistic framework.
My research is part ethnographic, which means I interview communities and scholars. Even though I am a University of Toronto scholar, I don't see myself as a scholar of the Qur’an in the way in which these people I am interviewing are, because they are from lineages that have been studying the Qur’an for generations. This is a part of their history, and they have been doing this for over 1000 years in parts of Africa and Asia. I also want to look at how historically enslaved people in the Americas were connected to Islam in Africa.
As part of my ethnographic research I plan to spend an extended period in Senegal to interview some of the scholarly families there and another period in Southwest Nigeria, in order to do a comparative look across regions that are diverse culturally and historically, up until the colonial period in West Africa.
DSR: What is it like to sit down with scholars of the Qur’an, with, as you say, families that have been studying it for generations? What is that experience like for you?
BM: It is humbling and it is also reaffirming as a Black American. Growing up, I was indoctrinated with a history that doesn't necessarily validate or recognize the history before slavery, though ever since I was a kid, I knew there was one. Black history begins well before the slave trade, but what does that look like? As a young adult I was able to meet some of these scholars at a mosque in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood, and I was able to connect with people who are part of these African cultures who migrated to the US. Seeing this dynamic continuity sparked this whole process for me. In addition to everything we have learned from American/European modernity, there is also this great heritage and history that we have maintained in various ways with some difficulty, and that is what I want to focus my research on. I don't want my research to be viewed as a Muslim or Islamic supremacist framework, I’m interested in pluralistic ways of interpreting. These are scholars who are not always in the majority, so they're having to accommodate Indigenous African beliefs and European religions. They are finding ways to navigate other belief systems beyond Islam to live in harmony in these societies. So, in short, they have a way of understanding the world that is based on Islam, but also sensitive to other worldviews. I'm eager to sit and learn more from these scholars as a part of my research.
DSR: Ultimately what do you want to achieve with your PhD?
BM: I have had a dream for about 10 years of doing summer programming and after school programming, to develop ways of learning. These are methods that have been amplified by the pandemic. I want to give parents robust resources for empowering their children. And this goal has been amplified by the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. I want to help develop curricula for parents to engage with their children, that asks the questions: What do you think of what's going on with children and the atrocities that occur when they are taken away from their environment? What happens when they are forced into an environment that doesn't have their interests in mind and then lose the roots to their families, language and culture. Since I have three kids, I'm doing this actively myself while trying to be a scholar. I want to develop school programming that gives parents resources to create their own curriculum based in their traditions, their heritage, their culture, their knowledge system. I see how you can you empower people, parents and this even spills out into academia as well, when you address the questions around how people are cultivated, and the environment in which they were brought up.
DSR: What does this scholarship mean to you?
BM: I'm humbled and grateful, I wasn’t expecting it. I am thankful to everyone who encouraged me to apply for the award, professors Rao and Klassen, and also to all who have supported me including my advisor, professor Moumtaz, and my letter writers, professors Scott (here at the DSR) and Askew (from my alma mater U-Michigan). This fellowship allows me to outreach to community and to travel, so that I can pursue my research in a robust way.