Sujud and symbolism in the Qur'an and in West Africa

The Arabic triliteral root, s.j.d., has the sense of bowing down, or prostrating oneself; the verbal noun is sujud, or sajdah. Such prostration is very prominent in the ritual of formal Islamic prayer. One of the commonest Arabic words for mosque, masjid, derives from the same s.j.d. root. We may see something of the impact of this symbolic act of prostration if we look at the way in which s.j.d. appears in the Qur’an. First, all creation bows down to God: ‘To God bow all who are in the heavens and the earth . . . as do their shadows also in the mornings and the evenings’. (Surah 13, verse 15; see also 16.48, 22.18, 55.6. Caution: verse numbering in the Qur’an is not as consistent as it is in the Bible! Also, although all the passages cited in this article do contain s.j.d., some contain also other Arabic roots with roughly the same meaning, making it difficult to be sure exactly what each English equivalent refers to). Taking this as our starting point, we may divide the other Quranic references into two general (and to some extent over-lapping) categories: to whom, and by whom, is sujud offered?

Essentially, sujud is offered to God. Two passages (27.24-5 and 41.37) specifically condemn misplaced sujud, offered to the sun and moon; indeed, in the passages already cited for creation, sun and moon are included among all other elements bowing down to God. However, there are two significant exceptions. One concerns Satan, or Iblis as he is called in the Qur’an, the rebellious angel, who expresses his proud disobedience by refusing God’s command to all the angels, that they should bow down before Adam. Seven passages touch on this: 2.34, 7.11-2, 15.29-33, 17.61, 18.50, 20.116, 38.72-5. The other exception occurs in the Surah, or Chapter, of Joseph, in two passages: one, when Joseph dreams of the sun, moon and eleven stars offering him sujüd (12.4 — exactly as in Genesis 37.9); and again towards the end of the story, when sujüd is offered (it is not altogether clear in the Quranic account exactly by whom) to Joseph as governor in Egypt (12.100; compare Gen. 42.6). By whom is sujüd offered? It is offered by the individual Muslim worshipper, often in the privacy of night prayer (3.112, 25.64, 76.25-6, and perhaps 50.40), or as a mark of additional devotion whilst reading the Qur’an (there are fourteen verses, at the recitation of which tradition requires sujud — for example 17.109, where the verb is not s.j.d., though this appears in v.107). It is offered by those who are humble, and who do not ‘wax proud’ (16.49, and many other passages). We can see sujüd here gradually taking on the role of a distinguishing sign, something which sets people apart. One passage, for example, encourages the Muslim against the mockers, telling him to be among those who bow down (15.95-9; see also 41.37-8, 96.19). There is even mention of sujud on the battlefield (4.102). Since sujüd is thus in a sense a badge of the believer, to perform it may be a statement of conversion: this is clear in the Quranic account of Moses’ confrontation with the sorcerers of Pharaoh, which leads to the sorcerers’ repentance (7.120-4, 20.70, 26.46; compare Exodus 7.8-13, where, however, the repentance is not mentioned). And, just as sujud may be a token of conversion, of accepting the alternative faith, so refusal to perform it may be a symbolic rejection of that faith (25.60, 68.42-3, 84.21).

There is one other important category of those who offer sujüd: Jews and Christians. This may occur in an historical context, looking back to Moses and the Israelites (2.58, 7.161), or to Mary and the Annunciation (3.42). But it was also a contemporary phenomenon, in Muhammad’s day, for it was noticed that Jews and Christians, like Muslims, bow down in worship (48.29, 3.112-3). In the second of these passages, it is said of the Jews and Christians, that ‘their mark is on their faces, the trace of prostration’. I do not know exactly what this refers to: it may have something to do with the practice today of some Roman Catholics (and other Christians?), who put ashes on their foreheads at the beginning of Lent; or it may more literally be the dust remaining on the forehead which has touched the ground in sujüd. A colleague of mine, doing research among the Muslims of Ivory Coast, told me how her interpreter used to preserve this dusty symbol of devotion upon his forehead, particularly after the afternoon prayer. These various Quranic categories of sujud reveal two basic types of ambiguity. On the one hand, there is the ambiguity existing amongst mutually reconcilable interpretations: this has been called the multivocality of symbols: we may compare it to the harmony of the various parts or lines in vocal music. For example, sujud is a universal expression, shared by all creation; yet it is, too, the intensely individual expression of private devotion. It is a token of man’s complete dependence upon God; and it is as well the sign of the equality of all believers. It is the badge which sets the believers apart; yet also a shared element amongst diverse religious traditions.

But those very traditions are sometimes bitterly antagonistic to one another. And it is at this point that the harmony begins to break down, and discord threatens. The ambiguity of mutually reconcilable interpretations begins to give way to that of potentially irreconcilable meanings: in extreme cases, it may be as though civil war has broken out within the symbol itself; the symbol becomes schizophrenic. Returning to our Quranic examples, when the Muslim sees someone performing sujüd, does this guarantee that the worshipper is also Muslim, a member of the same household of the faith — or might he be Jew or Christian instead? Or again, if sujud be offered exclusively to God, why is it that in Joseph’s dream sun. moon and stars offer it to him, and that this dream is fulfilled when Joseph receives sujud as governor in Egypt? (This particular ambiguity is still more dangerous since it raises the question of the possible influence of previous Scriptures upon the text of the Qur’an: and precisely this chapter, of Joseph, has been a centre of controversy in this respect: in an M.A. seminar discussion of an earlier draft of this paper. Muslim students fastened for discussion first of all upon these Joseph passages). And yet again, and most strangely, Iblis, the rebellious angel, proclaims his rebellion by refusing to obey God; but the very thing he refuses to do is the same thing which is otherwise almost universally condemned, that is, to offer sujud to a man. Precisely such an element of potential danger, conflict, irreconcilability, schizophrenia, within a symbol, is part of its impact: the piquancy of the symbol is enhanced when we know that, in using it, we take a risk.

Turning now to the West African historical record, we can see another, and very clear, instance of the schizophrenic symbol: for, in many local West African traditions, to bow down, to prostrate oneself, to pour dust on one’s head, is a token of courtesy to a family elder, or obedience to a duly appointed chief. Perhaps because Muslims were already acutely aware of the importance, within their own tradition, of just such symbolic action (though meaning for them something quite different), this action is one of the first things Muslim observers noticed in West Africa. Al-Bakri, a Spanish Muslim geographer writing about ancient Ghana at almost exactly the time of the Norman conquest of England. says this: ‘When the people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands.’

In the fourteenth century, when the celebrated world-traveller Ibn Battutah visited Mali, and left us the first full eye-witness account of West African Islam, he too dwelt in detail upon such behaviour. His editor, indeed, added a mention of the Malian ambassador to Morocco, who had a basket of earth brought with him, so that he might sprinkle dust on his head whenever the Sultan of Morocco spoke to him. In the Mali of Ibn Battutah’s day, even Islamic lawyers, judges and pilgrims removed their turbans and ‘dusted’ before the king. In listing his dislikes in Mali (he had also a list of things he appreciated), Ibn Battutah included ‘their sprinkling dust and ashes on their heads out of good manners’.

Just before 1500. some questions, about the religious rights and wrongs of various actions and beliefs, arrived in Cairo from West Africa. One question was about the propriety of Muslims who ‘bow and prostrate to their rulers’. And the answer from Cairo was that this is kufr, unbelief — that is, among the most serious religious offences of all, offences which lead to damnation. And early in the nineteenth century. a very celebrated Muslim reformer, Shehu Usuman dan Fodio, in what is today northern Nigeria, proclaimed that anyone bowing down in this way would surely go to hell.

Such evidence, from West African history, might easily be multiplied, though I must confess that for the earlier centuries it is scattered and sporadic. We can. I think, trace a pattern. At first, the symbol is noticed, but it is clearly and unambiguously located in the ‘other’ tradition, the local West African tradition: al-Bakri says that this is the way in which non-Muslims greet their king. In Ibn Battutah’s time, the two traditions, the local West African and the incoming Islamic, have begun to intertwine: Ibn Battutah is still aware that prostration before a human is done ‘out of good manners’, but he dislikes the practice, for now Muslims are doing it too: the ambiguity of the symbol is now becoming dangerous. By 1500, and later, the danger is so acute that the Islamic religious authorities condemn prostration before a human as deadly sin. (‘Dusting’, which is often mentioned, is a kind of sub-symbol, within the larger symbol of sujüd: we have already seen how it may be discerned in the Qur’an, ‘the trace of prostration’: perhaps the fact that even there it is somewhat ambiguous (does it signify a fellow-Muslim, or just a Jew or Christian?) helps to explain why later Muslims were so sensitive to just this sub-symbol when they confronted it in West Africa and, I suppose, elsewhere.)

Generalising from the Islamic/West African interaction, we may say that the same (or roughly, but recognisably, the same) symbol in two adjacent traditions excites remark, but does not arouse grave anxiety: but when the two traditions begin to mix, then this particular ambiguity of the symbol, derived from its source in two distinct traditions, becomes more and more intolerable, more and more schizophrenic. And in this transition, from two adjacent, similar symbols, to one internal, schizophrenic symbol, we may perhaps see part of the reason why heretics, within a religious tradition, are sometimes treated more harshly than aliens outside it. Finally, we might interpret sujud itself, and all the ramifications of its meaning, both Islamic and West African, as a symbol also of inter-faith meeting. The more intimate such meeting becomes, the more two sets of alarm bells are set ringing: one at the actual place of meeting — in our study, in Muslim West Africa — where apparently shared beliefs or practices may turn out to have diametrically opposed implications; and the other far away, in the heartlands of one or another party to the meeting — in our study, in the manifest concern of modern-day students (and modern-day Quranic commentators and translators) to rule out the possibility of any ambiguity within the faith. All religious dialogue arouses this double strain: the tension of adjustment and understanding at the point of meeting — and the repercussions of that tension on the frontier, for faith and practice at the heart of each of the participating traditions.


  • West Africa: Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Shaihu Umar, a short Hausa novel translated by M. Hiskett, London, 1967.
  • Ibn Battutah in Black Africa, ed. & tr. Said Hamdun and Noel King, 1975.
  • Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Ambiguous Adventure, New York, 1963; a novel, originally in French, with an excellent account of a traditional Senegalese Quran school.
  • Mary F. Smith, Baba of Karo, the autobiography of a Muslim Hausa woman of northern Nigeria, London, 1963, reprinted 1981.
  • Symbolism: Raymond Firth, Symbols: public and private, 1973.
  • Paul Tillich, ‘Symbols of faith’, chapter 3 in his Dynamics of Faith, New York, 1958.
  • Victor W. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, Ithaca, N.Y., 1967.
  • E.M. Zuesse, Ritual Cosmos, Ohio University Press, 1979.
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