Joseph Hill, PhD

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts - Anthropology Dept

Personal Website:


Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts - Anthropology Dept
(780) 492-5889
13-29 Tory (H.M.) Building
11211 Saskatchewan Drive NW
Edmonton AB
T6G 2H4


Area of Study / Keywords

Islam West Africa Middle East and North Africa gender performance


  • Ph.D. (Anthropology), Yale University (2007)
  • B.A. (Honors Humanities and Anthropology), Brigham Young University (1999)

My fieldwork in West Africa, especially Senegal and Mauritania, focuses primarily on Islam—and specifically Sufi (spiritualistic or mystical) Islam—and its place in contemporary society, politics, and culture. Conceptually, I am interested in how significant religious and social changes are made to seem natural through new performances of religiosity that reconfigure prevalent norms, mediating change with little open debate. Another theme in my research is how people accommodate mutually contradicting truths, demands, and points of view they face in life, especially through esoteric language and practice.


Since 2001, my field research has focused on global Sufi Islamic movement, the Fayḍa Tijāniyya. I have examined how discourses and practices of mystical knowledge and authority not only accommodate contradictions and paradox but productively highlight them. In looking at these questions, I draw especially on linguistic and semiotic theories of multiplicity, simultaneity, and hybridity, showing how ancient Sufi ideas are reimagined to provide answers in a globalizing and urbanizing world.

My Senegalese collaborators and I have interviewed leaders and lay disciples in dozens of sites in the movement’s cradle of Senegal and Mauritania, with secondary research in other parts of West Africa, New York City, and Cairo. In addition to over two years in numerous sites in Senegal, I have studied Arabic texts with Bedouin Sufi scholars in the Mauritanian Sahara.

I am actively conducting two larger research and writing projects within this research on the Fayḍa Tijāniyya Sufi movement:

  • Gender and Islamic authority: I am researching the little-known phenomenon of women Islamic leaders in Senegal who exercise forms of Islamic authority typically reserved for men. Some women act as spiritual guides for men and women, some teach the Qurʿān, and others perform Sufi chant in large meetings. These women draw on apparently contradictory strategies, both undermining and highlighting prevalent gender distinctions. For example, they define themselves as honorary “men” but also locate religious authority in conventionally feminine qualities such as motherhood, cooking, submission, and wifely devotion. I am interested in how these women work within and between multiple established idioms to expand the possibilities available to them. One book on women leaders, Wrapping Authority: Women Sufi Leaders in an Islamic Movement in Dakar, Senegal, was recently published (2018), and I am completing a companion volume tentatively entitled Women Who Are Men: The Emergence of Women’s Leadership in a Sufi Movement in Senegal.
  • Religious performance (vocal, musical, and social) and change: Since 2014, I have researched hip hop artists, Sufi chanters, and others who use singing, chanting, and other kinds of performance as forms of Sufi religious practice and communication. I am interested in how these performers mediate social change and how they manage—or in some cases fail—to establish themselves as legitimate religious performers despite potential controversies surrounding the religious acceptability of their performances.

One conceptual focus of research is the political, social, and religious implications of mystical discourses of simultaneous truths, which Sufi Islamic speech juxtaposes in terms of apparent (ẓāhir) and hidden (bāṭin) realities. Through discussing Sufis’ paradoxical approach to plural truths, I draw attention to larger issues of how people negotiate contrasting hegemonic regimes (secular states, global religious authority networks, transnational development institutions), coexistence with cultural others within a global community, and multiple claims of authority within the same religious community. I am particularly interested in how people’s social performances use discourses and practices in ways that assert hidden meanings that undermine their apparent meaning.

Geographic interests

West Africa, Middle East and North Africa; global networks

Thematic interests

  • Gender
  • Performance and social change
  • Politics of Language and Semiotics
  • Knowledge traditions and authority
  • Transnationalism, Globalization, and Cosmopolitanism

For more on my research, go here.


Courses Taught at University of Alberta

  • Humans, the Natural, and the Supernatural (Anthr 487/587)
  • Islam, Gender, and Performance (Anthr 487/587)
  • Anthropology of Gender (Anthr 310)
  • Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Anthr 207)
  • Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (Anthr 208)
  • Anthropology of Sub-Saharan Africa (Anth 286)
  • Islam, Gender, and Authority (Anthr 487/587)
  • Religion, Politics, and Secularism (Anthr 487/587)
  • Islam, Performance, and New Media (Anthr 487/587)

Courses Taught Elsewhere

  • Language in Culture
  • Language, Meaning, and Politics
  • Contemporary Anthropological Theory
  • Ethnographic Fieldwork Methods
  • The Social Construction of Difference: Race, Class, and Ethnicity
  • Religion, Ideology, and Society
  • Peoples and Cultures of Africa
  • Islam, Politics, and Society in a Global Era
  • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
  • Arab Society
  • Anthropology of Food
  • Sovereignty and the Postcolonial State in Africa
  • Religion and Power in Africa


ANTHR 150 - Race and Racism

The challenge of racism in modern societies and the response of anthropology, including the history of how the 'race' concept has been used to explain human variation.

ANTHR 208 - Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology

The anthropological study of language and communication. A brief survey of field and analytical methods and the theory of linguistic anthropology.

ANTHR 302 - History of Anthropological Theory

Major theoretical trends in social and cultural anthropology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prerequisites: ANTHR 207 or 208 (or ANTHE 207 or 208) or consent of Department. Not open to students with credit in ANTHR 415.

ANTHR 587 - Advanced Seminar in Social, Cultural and/or Linguistic Anthropology

Consult the Department and/or the University timetable for the specific topics offered.

Browse more courses taught by Joseph Hill

Featured Publications

Joseph Hill

Approaches to the Qur’an in Sub-Saharan Africa (Oxford University Press). 2019 January;

Joseph Hill

University of Toronto Press. 2018 January;

Joseph Hill

Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 2017 January; 87 (4):832–852

Joseph Hill

Culture and Religion. 2017 January; 18 (4)

Joseph Hill

Contemporary Islam. 2016 January; 10 (2):267–287

Joseph Hill

Cultural Entrepreneurship in Africa. 2016 January; London: Routledge

Joseph Hill

Islamic Africa. 2014 January; 5 (2):275–315

Joseph Hill

City & Society. 2012 January; 24 (1):62–83

Joseph Hill

Islamic Africa. 2011 January; 2 (1):67–103

Joseph Hill

Journal of Religion in Africa. 2010 January; 40 (4):375-412

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