Erin Pettigrew

Associate Professor of History and Arab Crossroads Studies; Global Network Associate Professor of History Affiliation: NYU Abu Dhabi
Education: BA Hollins University; MA University of California Los Angeles; PhD Stanford University

Research Areas: 19th and 20th century West Africa, histories of Islam, race, and healing


Erin Pettigrew is an associate professor of History and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is a historian of Africa specializing in West African colonial and postcolonial history with a focus on Muslim societies. Her research has focused on the cultural history of Islam, slavery, race, gender, and nation in what she calls "the Saharan West," or what is today primarily the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

Dr. Pettigrew's first book, To Invoke the Invisible in the Sahara: Islam, Spiritual Mediation, and Social Change (Cambridge University Press, 2022), traces the shifting roles of Muslim spiritual mediators and their Islamic esoteric sciences in what is now the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. This project was particularly interested in answering questions of how local inhabitants use local knowledge and borrow exogenous concepts to respond to new historical circumstances. This research demonstrates the value of studying the marginal, the liminal, and the in-between ⎯ not only when it comes to geographic spaces such as the Sahara, which is often imagined as an empty barrier between two more significant regions on the African continent, but also when it comes to the politically peripheral, the culturally hybrid, and socially heterogenous. Dr. Pettigrew has published in The Journal of African History, Mediterranean Politics, Islamic Africa, and the collected volume Politiques de la culture et cultures du politique dans l’ouest saharien. She has also recently co-edited a special issue of L'Ouest saharien entitled Femmes du Sahara-Sahel : transformations sociales et conditions de vie (2022).

Dr. Pettigrew's second major research project traces the emergence of the underground kādeḥīn (the proletariat, or "toilers") movement in the West African country of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Linked to larger Communist-Maoist political movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the kādeḥīn and its members constituted a rare moment of leftist and non-religious political influence in a thoroughly Muslim space. This book project, Cries of the Oppressed:  Leftists, Arab Nationalism, and National Identity in Early Post-Independence Mauritania, presents the Mauritanian movement as a counter-narrative to histories of Islamic reform movements in West Africa in the second half of the twentieth century. Even though this moment of youth-led and leftist engagement was short-lived in Mauritania, the political pressure the kādeḥīn placed on the country's new and single-party state led to major changes in the political direction, economic choices, and cultural norms in Mauritania.

Another ongoing research project expands these interests and builds on her personal history as a former Peace Corps volunteer (Mauritania, 2003-2005) to write a history of the Peace Corps in Africa. This research, based on oral history and archival research in several countries used as representative case studies, will be of interest to those working on development studies, decolonization and the Global 60s and 70s, the role of US American foreign policy in Africa, and knowledge production.

Dr. Pettigrew's research has been supported by the Fulbright Scholars Program at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (l'EHESS) in Paris, France, as well as the Fulbright-Hays, the American Institute of Maghrib Studies, Mellon Foundation, Erasmus Mundus, as well as a number of research fellowships at NYUAD and Stanford University. Her dissertation was awarded the Elizabeth Spilman Rosenfield Dissertation Prize (2015).

Courses Taught