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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

M.A. University of Idaho

B.A. Brigham Young University

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 especially include the history and anthropology of Islam in West Africa, life history and biography, indigenous religion under colonization, and religion and ecology. My primary research language is Bambara (alongside French) and I am also beginning to learn Fulfulde.

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 grounded in Qur’anic teachings, 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. Most recently, I have started field research for an ethnohistory about ritual during the Sahelian famine in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to these projects, I serve as the secretary-treasurer for the Mande Studies Association (MANSA) for which I manage the society’s membership and financial records. Since 2012, I have also been a member of the steering committee for the African Religions Group, a program unit of the American Academy of Religion, and I recently accepted an appointment as assistant editor for the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.

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.