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Dianna Bell



Mellon Assistant Professor
of Religion
Indigenous Religious Traditions of Sub-Saharan Africa

Contact Information

Phone: (615) 343-1334


Ph.D. Florida State University
Religious Studies
with distinction, 2013

Curriculum Vitae

Research and Teaching

I study the history and ethnography of indigenous religions and Islam throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. My research and teaching interests include the history and anthropology of Islam in West Africa, life history and biography, religious change under colonization, and religion and ecology. 

My current research focuses on mutual influences between indigenous religion and Islam in West Africa. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork and life histories collected in southern Mali, I show how Malians use the concept of baraji , which translates as into English as “merit,” as a framework for understanding proper religious practice and the role of indigenous religion and Islam in daily life. I theorize baraji as a form of value through which Malians discern and judge the different religious practices and daily choices they make throughout their lives. As a value system, Malians use baraji to posit equivalences between overtly Islamic pursuits and indigenous practices. Through an exploration of baraji, my research shows that one cannot understand the textures of Islam in West Africa without understanding the imprint that indigenous practices have left upon it. In addition to researching baraji, I study links between religion and ecology by exploring how West Africans use ritual to understand and manage their environment.

As an instructor, I have designed and taught a range of courses including: Religion in Africa; Anthropology and Religion; Islamic Traditions; Encountering Religious Diversity; Islam in Africa; and Ecology, Ritual, and Power in Africa.