Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery, and Spirit Possession


468 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7783-8
DDC 297.09694




Reviewed by Matthew H. Hill

Matthew H. Hill is an associate professor of anthropology at the
University of Waterloo.


During the 1970s and 1980s, Michael Lambek carried out ethnographic
research on Mayotte, an island in the Comoros group, located between
East Africa and Madagascar. In this book he examines the interplay of
three “incommensurable” disciplines that bulk large in the life of
the island: Islam, astrology (also presented as cosmology and sorcery),
and spirit possession. Each discipline has its local expert
practitioners and its consumers. How each is reproduced, practised,
consumed, evaluated, and continually reshaped by these processes is
examined by Lambek through the recounting and analysis of episodes drawn
from his field notes. The three disciplines coexist, compete, and
complement each other; when they touch, it is not in their essence but
in their practice.

Lambek describes his work as contributing to the anthropology of
knowledge, and the setting is almost a cliché of the exotic,
participating both in the exotic East and the romance of distant
islands. Geographically distant though it is, it finally anchors close
to home. The “fundi” of Islam, astrology, and spirit possession, and
those who chose which to call upon (and when), are very like the
“experts” of economics or social planning or engineering and their
clients. Indeed, Lambek borrows the contrasting sets of “Expert,”
“Informed Citizen,” and “Man in the Street” (here inconsistently
termed “Person on the Path”) to good effect. His book is less about
an island in the Indian Ocean than about human understanding.


Lambek, Michael., “Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery, and Spirit Possession,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 15, 2024,