Controversies among female supporters of Islamic moral renewal, and between them and other Muslims, pinpoint tensions

that arise between Muslim women’s emphasis on the primacy of deeds over talking about it, and the actual narrativization of their identity as proper Muslims.

(Re)Turning to Proper Muslim Practice: Islamic Moral Renewal and Women’s Conflicting Assertions of Sunni Identity in Urban Mali Dorothea E. Schulz

This article explores competing discourses and understandings of proper Muslim practice as they are reflected in controversies among female supporters of Islamic moral renewal, and between them and Muslims who do not consider themselves part of the movement. Supporters of Islamic moral renewal highlight the primacy of deeds, such as proper behavior and correct ritual performance, as ways to validate their newly adopted religious identity. Their emphasis on proper action, and their dismissal of talking about religiosity, stand in tension with their own tendency to construct elaborate narratives about their decision to embrace what they consider a more authentic form of Islam. The importance they attribute to the embodied performance of virtue leaves many supporters of Islamic renewal in a double bind: despite their claim to unity, their conception of the relationship between individual ethics and the common good, combined with the tendency among supporters of Islamic moral renewal to set themselves apart from “other Muslims,” reinforces trends of differentiation among Muslims who aspire to a new moral community.

In August of 1999, during my research on religious education institutions for adult Muslims in urban Mali, I visited a Muslim women’s learning group in an older neighborhood of San, a town in southeastern Mali.1 After the usual introductions and I had explained my interest in women’s learning activities, the group’s leader (tontigi) offered to respond “to any kind of question I might have” on Muslim women’s attendance to the “learning group.”

Prompted by my questions about the experiences that had motivated women to join the group, the women discussed events and experiences, some of them painful and worrisome, such as the passing of a close family member and other events that put the family under heavy financial strain. Finally, Mamou, who had introduced me to the group, turned to me and observed matter-of-factly: “You know, ultimately, all these differences [in experience] among us do not matter. What matters is that we all found the answer to our worries in God, in our search for greater closeness to him. Regardless of the experiences we made, and of the sorrow they may have brought us, we all realized one day that only God’s will counts, that we will be redeemed for our mundane actions, that we will reach paradise only when we return to the true ways in which God should be worshipped through all activities in which we engage.” And to the murmuring sound of other women’s approval, she added, “This is why we need to invite others to join us, to return to true Islam; those others who may claim to be Muslim yet whose actions reveal their denial of God’s truth.” Mamou’s account captures in a nutshell the concerns articulated by urban Malian people, who, to effect a moral renewal of society and self, a renewal based on what they understand to be the authentic, unmitigated teachings of Islam, as “true supporters of Islam” (silame kanubagaw) are central agents in a process that has led to an unprecedented presence of Islam in Mali’s urban and semiurban public arenas. Although their activities have roots in processes that started in the 1940s and have accelerated since the late 1970s, it was the introduction of multiparty democracy and the attendant granting of civil liberties in 1991 that enabled the current forms and infrastructure of Muslim proselytizing (da‘wa). In the streets of the capital, Bamako, and in other Malian towns, mosques, and schools (medersa), huge billboards and graffito-style Arabic inscriptions have multiplied. Muslims of different orientations, affiliations, and pedigrees play vociferous roles in public controversies that address questions of the cultural and ethical foundations on which the political community should be based (Schulz 2003). Their activities are most successful in urban areas in which lineages associated with Sufi orders and other traditional religious authorities formerly had little political influence. Women play a prominent role in the Islamic renewal movement. They refer to themselves simply as Muslim women (silame musow) and thereby set themselves apart from other women (muso tow), who, in their eyes, stray from the path set by the sunna, the prophet’s example. Like many male supporters of Islamic renewal, Muslim women thereby posit, if only implicitly, their distance from practices referred to, in local parlance, as “traditional” Islam (Brenner1993a:76–77).2 Still, they generally avoid making references to the sunna a point of direct, public confrontation. They do so because they know well that, by denying other women the status of Sunni Muslims, they risk perpetuating earlier struggles among Malian Muslims over ritual orthopraxy. Formerly, these struggles—at least those documented in the scholarly literature—were fought primarily by men, sometimes by violent

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means; they often crystallized in controversies over correct prayer posture (Launay 1992).3 Throughout my research on Islamic moral renewal in Mali, I was struck by recurrent elements in Muslim women’s self-portrayal, elements that reverberate throughout Mamou’s account.4 First, there was a complete absence of any term remotely comparable to the notion of conversion. Rather than referring to their effort to “move closer to God,”5 or for that matter, to “embark on the path to God,”6 as conversion, the women described their decision to join the movement as a “reverting” to older and more original forms of religious teachings and practice. They emphasized that this “embarking” should be seen as a cumulative, gradual process of self-making, one that manifested itself in a continuously cultivated ethical attitude and then in its performance vis-à-vis one’s social entourage. What piqued my curiosity was that the women emphatically denied that speech (kuma) or “mere words” (as opposed to deeds, kewale) could validate their newfound piety. Whenever they felt compelled to assert the truth of their ethical quest, they emphasized the importance of “doing the right things”—of engaging in proper ritual practice and behaving in a morally acceptable way. Patently, by focusing on “right deeds,” they posited a close link between proper ritual and a believer’s right disposition. This conceptualization can be seen as a feature of Muslim understandings of ritual. Nevertheless, its central place in Muslim women’s discursive constructions of self merits closer attention. The privileging of deeds as a means of self-validation seems to be at odds with the analytical focus privileged in anthropological accounts of conversion. Many of these accounts deal with narratives of individuals’ conversion experience, and they thus privilege precisely the kind of practice that converts in Mali denounce as inauthentic, lacking the capacity to validate a Muslim’s claim to a renewed religious faith. More significantly, the ways in which Muslim women establish their search and experiences as truthful raise the question of whether the notion of conversion, with its heavy burden of a Christian-paradigm dominated legacy, can be used to make sense of the process of ethical self-making promoted by them in Mali. Many anthropological studies of conversion tend to focus on the process that leads individuals to give up their “traditional” or “animistic” religious beliefs and practices in favor of the religions of the Book, especially Christianity and Islam (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; Grosz-Ngate 2002; Horton 1975; Jules-Rosette 1975; Landau 1995; Meyer 1999), yet, as Talal Asad notes in the afterword to a collection of essays on “conversion to modernities,” the notion of conversion that has dominated anthropological studies articulates a Christian view of faith and its relationship to practice: to understand how “conversion” processes shape, and are constituted by, individual religious traditions, we need, he insists, an analytical framework capable of explicating and understanding religious practice and belief beyond the normative assumptions and analytical framework of a Christian-inspired Western modernity (Asad 1993, 1996).

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The process of conversion to which Asad’s cautions refer differs from a process described by Nock (1933:7) as a reorientation in personal piety and a deepening of one’s relationship to God.7 Nock’s conceptualization of conversion is relevant to my study, first because it centers attention on the motivations and conditions that prompt adherents of a faith to convert to what they understand as a “purer” or more authentic version of the same religious tradition (Augis 2002; Janson forthcoming; Schulz 2004), and second because conversion as a form of reorientation and strengthening of personal piety is presently gaining in importance, not only in contemporary Mali, but across the globe, as manifested in the worldwide upsurge of religious-revivalist movements. Tendencies that favor a return to earlier, supposedly more authentic practices have been a longstanding feature of Muslim discursive traditions, not only in this area, but throughout Muslim Africa (Loimeier 2003). One can argue that because of the social organization of knowledge production and transmission in Islam, renewal tendencies, aiming to purge the religious field from innovations in religious practice, have formed a constitutive feature in how Islam has always been practiced and debated. In West Africa, the impetus to return to proper Muslim practice has been a core element of reformist movements, including those associated with Sufi orders (turuq). These movements have thus not shared a substantive definition of the kinds of doctrines and practices they have been promoting; common to them has been only the impetus to reform (tajdîd). It is precisely this impetus that prompted my interest in understanding the specifics of contemporary Islamic moral renewal in Mali. I here address some of these specifics by examining the process of reorientation claimed and discursively constructed by supporters of the movement. As in Bowen’s (1997) analysis of the discursive genres and “rhetorics of persuasion” that modernist Gayo Muslims in Indonesia employ, I explore how proponents of Islamic renewal in Mali authenticate their self-definition as proper believers. To do so, I engage the following questions. First, how can an understanding of conversion as reorientation help us understand the notion of return or reverting, which figures prominently in the women’s accounts of their search for “greater closeness to God”? Second, given that these women dismiss any Muslim’s attempt to prove her true reversion experience through words, what narratives of authentication do they create to validate their own positions and attempts to “move closer to God”? How do they bolster their claims to an identity as a “proper believer”?

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Islamic Moral Renewal in Mali: Historical Antecedents and Contemporary Modes of Intervention
Spokesmen of the Islamic moral-renewal movement in Mali call for a return to “purer” and more authentic forms of religious practice and Islamic standards of daily conduct. Supporters of this renewal thus contribute to a field

of Malian Muslim activism, as it emerged from Muslim discursive traditions in the colonial period. Their claims and modes of intervention draw on longstanding conventions of renewal in this part of Muslim West Africa, conventions shared by movements affiliated with a Sufi order (tariqa, plural turuq) and by their opponents, those who linked their call for renewal to a vehement criticism of the practices and, according to their view, unlawful innovations (bida‘) in which adherents of turuq engaged (Loimeier 2003). In present-day Mali, the reformist efforts of these critics date back to the late 1930s and the 1940s, when numerous Muslim intellectuals returned from extended stays in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and initiated educational and other reforms to counter the effects of French colonial administration and education. Their activities showed a marked concern with facilitating believers’ access to the written sources of Islam, in deepening ordinary believers’ religious knowledge, and in purifying conventional religious practice. These reformists contributed to Muslim reasoning and activity in ways that, regardless of local variations in forms and representatives, characterized social and political transformations throughout Muslim West Africa (Kaba 2000). Whether they drew inspiration from Salafi-Sunni influences in Egypt or from Wahhabi reformist trends in Saudi Arabia (Loimeier 2003), they were instrumental in a process during which the claims and credentials of traditional religious leadership encountered new challenges and new debates and controversies over authoritative interpretation were initiated (Brenner 2001). In Mali, Guinea, and Northern Ivory Coast, Muslim reformists’ efforts at renewal and purification manifested themselves in a stricter dress code, the denouncement of practices associated with lifecycle rituals, and, in some groups, the adoption of a prayer posture associated with Wahhabi doctrine and practice (Amselle 1985; Kaba 1974; Launay 1992; Masquelier 1999; Triaud 1986). Starting in the late 1970s, a new generation of Muslim reformists, eager to expand the local infrastructure of Islamic education and welfare, benefited from funds that flowed in from the Arab-speaking world (Brenner 1993a, 1993b; Mattes 1989; Miran 2005; Otayek 1993; Schulze 1993). This funding has diminished considerably since the late 1990s, but political changes during approximately the same period, initiated by the ouster of President Moussa Traoré in 1991, opened up new spaces for Muslim activism (Schulz 2003, 2006). As a result, the contemporary Malian field of Muslim reasoning and debate continues to be characterized by a variety of interpretations of Islam, sociopolitical positions, and relations to the state and the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré (since 2002).8 The main divisions structuring present-day Muslim debate in Mali are represented on one side by those close to (what in popular parlance is referred to as) “traditional” Islam. Among them are established families of religious specialists (in the literature often called “marabouts”), many of which are affiliated with Sufi orders, which enjoy great prestige and influence in some urban areas (Soares 2005). Other positions in the debate are taken by the above-mentioned critics of practices and ideas associated with “traditional”

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Islam. These critics do not hold a homogeneous position, partly because they occupy different positions vis-à-vis politicians and state administration, and partly because they draw to different degrees on intellectual influences from the Arab-speaking Muslim world, especially from Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Most of them are vocal supporters of Islamic moral renewal. Their objectives resonate with those of historical predecessors and with contemporary movements throughout West Africa (Hanson 2007; Kane 2003; Loimeier 1997, 2001, 2003). By mobilizing followers through networks of patronage and financial support, they contribute to a complex structure of religious and political patronage, which crisscrosses the divide between society and state (Lemarchand 1992; Schulz 2004).9 Muslim women’s support of Islamic moral renewal—and their conflicting constructions of Sunni identity—should be understood against the backdrop of this field of debate and practice.

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Muslim Women’s Forms of Religious Sociality
The principal form of religious sociality through which Muslim women insert themselves into the moral-reform movement are Muslim women’s associations (singular, silame musow ton). Created at the neighborhood level, they resonate with local conventions of socializing and mutual support, and resemble the forms of grass-root mobilization that are mushrooming throughout West Africa and the wider Muslim world and that variously address women and disenfranchised and privileged urban youth. In Mali, except for relatively few learning cycles devised for youth, mobilization has been directed mostly at married women.10 Members refer to their group as kalani ton (learning group), a term that indicates that learning, conceived as an individual striving for moral improvement and self-discipline, is the common rationale of the (otherwise very diverse) associations. Most of the time in women’s triweekly meetings is devoted to the acquisition of literacy in Arabic, to the learning of ritual and religious prescriptions, and to memorizing verses of suras necessary for correct ritual performance.11 These women’s preoccupation with learning could be seen as a reflection of a longstanding concern with proper ritual conduct, but, as I argue below, the “spirit” in which they engage in these learning activities reveals a conceptualization of education that extends its relevance beyond the ritual setting. They describe their learning of proper ritual performance and of the rules of Islam (silameya saria) as a project of intellectual and moral self-improvement, and thus as the prerequisite for inviting others to join the movement. Their understanding of education carries with it notions of enlightenment and progress in a broader sense. It is combined with an unprecedented emphasis on personal responsibility vis-à-vis family members and the community at large, and it is viewed as a comprehensive project of personal reform, predicated on a process that involves emotional and cognitive faculties and aims at the ethical remaking of oneself, not merely at the expansion of one’s horizon of knowledge. By promoting a distinctive view

of learning as totalizing act of self-making, these women reveal that they have been influenced, if often only tangentially and indirectly, by a transnational da’wa movement (Otayek 1993), which draws inspiration from early twentieth-century and present-day Salafi-Sunni reformist trends in Egypt and other areas of the Arab-speaking world. Many initiators and leaders of the groups occupied leading positions under Moussa Traoré, the former president. Because of their positions between ordinary group members and sponsors at the national and international level, they constitute crucial points of articulation between transnational influences and local members’ material and moral aspirations (Schulz 2005).12 That many leaders once occupied leading positions under Moussa Traore’s regime shows that they do not represent a “traditional” or “resurgent” Islam, but that they base their claims to authority on new credentials, such as Western education, (former) employment in the state administration, or an economically privileged family background.13 They thus exemplify how the gradual unsettling of the foundations of traditional religious authority, accelerated by educational reform and, more recently, by the introduction of various mass media, broadens the spectrum of credentials on which claims to normative guidance and religious leadership can be based in contemporary public arenas (Larkin and Meyer 2006 Schulz 2007a). Clearly, there are reasons to explain differences among the positions and claims of supporters of the movement by reference to their relationship to state institutions and actors, and to their diverging access to resources, actors, and symbolic registers originating in the Arab-speaking world, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and North Africa, but taken in and of itself, this interpretation is unsatisfactory. I propose instead to explore how the understandings of religiosity and proper practice by female participants in the movement interlock with the broader conditions and constraints that they, as supporters of moral renewal, face. This exploration will shed light on the background against which Muslim women’s conflicting constructions of a Sunni identity should be understood.

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Piety, Publicity, Ethical Self-Making: The objectives of Female Moral Renewal
What are the concerns and objectives of the movement as they are articulated by the initiators of Muslim women’s groups and by other female representatives of the movement? And in what ways do their understandings of religiosity and ethical responsibility continue with, or depart from, earlier understandings and practices? I mentioned above that the idea of a return to authentic Islamic teachings and practice figures prominently in the account supporters of Islamic renewal give of their moral endeavor. In some cases, these gestures involve a claim that these practices actually existed historically in the area of presentday Mali. In other cases, it is maintained that the notion of return implies

a move toward understandings and practices that have never been broadly shared by Muslims in the region. The second position gives a more realistic and representative portrayal of the situation, especially with respect to women’s practices and religious engagements, given that until the 1970s, most women’s level of knowledge in ritual and religious matters was limited, partly due to limitations on opportunities for and access to religious education. More importantly, the adoption of Muslim faith and practice was a recent phenomenon for these women. Broad segments of the Malian population had converted to Islam only since the colonial period, particularly after the 1910s. Even then, throughout southern Mali, families of Muslim merchants and religious specialists continued to be a minority in areas where animistic practices prevailed. Muslim faith and practice were closely connected to family and professional identity. To the majority of these Muslims, the practice of their faith was limited to the regular performance of ritual worship and to a particular dress code. Hence, for the first time, many women involved in the contemporary moral-renewal movement (or older members of their family) are engaging individually in a variety of religious practices, practices that, they feel, singles them out as true supporters of Islam. Their learning activities include reflecting on transformations in institutions and paradigms of religious learning and expansions of access to religious education. These transformations were initiated by Muslim reformist activities since the 1940s, yet have intensified since the 1970s. Whereas scholarly erudition throughout the colonial period was the privilege of a few women of Muslim elite background, the mass of women who meet in the learning groups today comes from the urban lower and lower-middle classes. The groups’ leaders constantly remind their disciples that they alone are responsible for their relationship to God and for ensuring their ultimate salvation—a view that departs from the conventional understanding of religious merit, requiring the intervention of intermediaries.14 A woman’s responsibility, the teachers argue, should translate into a persistent effort to understand and appropriate the written sources of Islam. It should show in her daily cultivation of a pious disposition. True religiosity should manifest itself not only in the performance of the conventional obligations of worship, such as the five daily prayers, but in a range of religious and social acts.15 Women’s self-disciplinary endeavor should show in specific dispositional and emotional capabilities, among them (the capacity to feel) shame (maloya ‘modesty’), endurance, patience, and a capacity for self-control and submissiveness (munyu). Women should practice these virtues in social and ritual activities in public and semipublic settings, so as to profess their ethical quest to a broader, potentially nationwide, audience, with the aim of extending their invitation to other Muslims. The emphasis placed by the groups’ leaders on the collective relevance of individual women’s propriety is in line with the moral guidance that Malian women are generally expected to follow. Their emphasis on understanding, debate, and a believer’s personal relationship to God should be seen as the culminating point of a reformist emphasis on text-based notions of

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proper Muslim life and ritual orthopraxy. Their stress on individual responsibility is noteworthy in yet another respect: it indicates a historical shift away from understanding Muslim identity as a family and professional identity (Launay 1992), and toward adopting proper Muslim conduct as the result of individual conviction and choice. What seems to indicate a relatively novel development is the highlighting of the obligation for women to become a more public (or publicized) example of moral excellence. The self-conscious adoption by women of a public persona departs from the traditional relegation of female religiosity and devotional practices to an intimate, secluded, domestic space.16 Before, women’s spiritual experiences were predicated upon their withdrawal from the area of worldly matters and mundane daily activities, but the emphasis now placed by many leaders on Muslim women’s collective responsibilities links the practice of piety and its public profession. Stress on the public enactment of piety constitutes a characteristic feature of the current Islamicrenewal movement, which condenses the particular mode of intervention Muslim women choose to extend their invitation to others. Into what concrete practices does their stress on collective responsibility and public presence translate? and what new challenges emerge from the particular modes of intervention they choose?

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Constructing Sunni Identity in a Heterogeneous Muslim discursive Field
In an analysis of the rhetoric of fundamentalist Baptist conversion, Harding (1987) argues that the narratives constructed by converts should be seen not just as factual reports on conversion experience, but as its performative construction and authentification. Harding distinguishes between relatively formalized sermons, which offer believers little opportunity to account for their personal conversion experience, and personal testimony narratives, as primary modes of authenticating the genuineness of a believer’s conversion. Among female supporters of Islamic moral renewal in Mali, in contrast, sermons (wajuli) or moral lessons (ladili) as the women themselves call them,17 constitute a central expressive register, through which women’s “moving closer to God” is explained, performatively constructed, and validated. In form and content, these sermons resemble local genres of moralizing that have no connection whatsoever to the context of Muslim reasoning and ritual practice: Muslim sermons draw on discursive conventions that are not necessarily Islamic, but form part of an expressive repertory in which various genres of (mostly mundane) oral performance intermingle (Schulz 2001a, 2001b). Female leaders’ and male teachers’ sermonizing reveals a preoccupation with the social responsibility of individual believers, a responsibility that translates into the obligation to invite others “to embark on the path to God” (ka alasira ta18). Each act of daily behavior, they argue, should reveal a

woman’s dedication to her spiritual quest. True religiosity should manifest itself not merely in the performance of the obligations of worship, such as the five daily prayers, but in a range of religious and social acts. Women should make a serious and persistent effort to cultivate a certain bodily, spiritual, and affective disposition. This endeavor should show in the acquisition of specific emotional capabilities, among them maloya “modesty, shame,” sabati “endurance, patience,” and a capacity for self-control and submissiveness (munyu). Cultivating these virtues, the groups’ leaders and teachers argue, helps women anchor their desire for greater closeness to God. It indicates a woman’s return to proper Muslim faith and practice (ka sègin silameya ma). These behavioral ideals are thus represented as principal criteria for the genuineness of a woman’s decision to break with past practices, that is, for their conversion; they serve as a way to distinguish between proper believers and others. The emphasis on believers’ responsibility for individual ethical selfmaking and collective well-being resonates with other dimensions of the Islamic-renewal movement, dimensions that hint at the ongoing reassessment of prevalent understandings of Muslim religiosity.19 The stress on individual disposition echoes the conceptions of female piety formulated by Salafi-Sunni–inspired reformist trends in contemporary Cairo (Mahmood 2005),20 a resonance that may have been effected by men who graduated from institutions of higher learning in Egypt or who entertain other kinds of ties to Egypt. The emphasis on individual responsibility is not evenly shared by the supporters of Islamic renewal: it does not serve everyone to claim and construct an identity as proper believer, and to deny others this identity. The lack of disagreement about the relevance of individual ethical action points to the complexity and inconsistency in which intellectual influences from the Arab-speaking world and other West African regions are introduced into local arenas of religious practice and reasoning. Even more importantly, it illustrates the heterogeneity of the Islamic-renewal movement, a heterogeneity that makes believers’ authentication of their own Sunni identity even more desirable, timely, and poignant. Muslim women feel the need to assert and perform their identities as true believers, not only vis-à-vis Muslims who regard the renewal movement from a critical distance, but also (as the introductory anecdote revealed) vis-à-vis some fellow supporters of the movement. Many of these contested constructions of Sunni identity center on the question of women’s prominence in the movement and, more specifically, of their visible enactment of piety. These disagreements emerge only because many key protagonists of the movement—men and women—emphasize that women’s emblematic position in moral reform, their role as promoters and symbols of collective renewal, should translate into a greater public visibility of female piety. What these leaders—but, again, not all leaders—exhort women to do is to extend their invitation to other Muslims by making ritual

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worship and other markers of personal piety, such as dress (Schulz 2007b), publicly more visible and audible. Their association of female Sunni identity with particular emblems, such as modest dress, and women’s public enactment of a pious disposition, generates considerable controversy among Muslims. It elicits a particularly adverse reaction from those who consider themselves observant Muslims, without feeling compelled to adopt the forms of intervention advocated by supporters of Islamic moral renewal. Not surprisingly, these Muslims take issue with the fact that supporters of the movement claim a Sunni identity for themselves, associate this identity with certain religious practices and their public performance, and deny any Muslim the status of a true believer who does not adopt their views on the relevance of religious faith for the life of the political community. I explore in more detail below how debates over specific forms of religious practice give rise to competing constructions of a “true” Muslim or “Sunni” identity. In discussing these dissonant views on ritual orthopraxy, I analyze the claims through which they are asserted and the ways in which they are constructed. I want to demonstrate that the definitions of proper Muslim ritual and site of performance that emerge from these debates are central to Muslim women’s constructions of their search for “closeness to God” as a genuine and truthful endeavor.

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Authenticating Female Sunni Identity
The heterogeneity of the moral-renewal movement in urban Mali makes it difficult to identify clear-cut and consistent cleavages among Muslims who that claim a Sunni identity for themselves. Competing claims to a Sunni identity pit against each other supporters of the renewal movement and “other Muslims,” but also different groups within the movement. It is difficult to classify the camps according to their views on proper ritual, its site of performance, and on its broader relevance to collective moral transformation. Thus, rather than labeling distinctive groups of Muslim women by reference to the particular view on ritual they promote, my intention is to show that Muslim women’s constructions of Sunni identity are contingent and shifting. It is precisely through debates on ritual that claims to a genuine and truthful act of return are effected, and Sunni identity is asserted, attributed, and disclaimed. To substantiate my argument, I focus on two ritual domains on which current debates over proper Muslim practice center: ritual worship (seli) and the celebration of the prophet’s birthday (Mawlud). Preoccupation with ritual orthopraxy is not novel in this area of Muslim West Africa (Launay 1992), nor should it be considered a feature unique to local Muslim discursive traditions (Bowen 1997): my point is that since the late 1970s, the ways in which these debates are framed have gained a more pronounced, gender-specific encoding: more than before, it is now a question not only of the “which” and “how” of ritual practice, but of the “who” and “where.”

Bowen (1989) has argued that worship (salat)21 as the ritual enactment of a worshipper’s submission—the literal meaning of the word Islam—to God’s will constitutes, despite procedural variation and the absence of a fixed semantic core, the common, even universal (Launay 1992:106–110), denominator of Muslim religious practice. Whether one agrees with his view or not, it is certain that throughout the colonial French Sudan, salat has tended to occupy a central position in discursive constructions of proper Muslimhood (Bowen 2003; Launay 1992, chapters 5 and 6). Ritual worship was one of the most important markers of Muslim religiosity and identity, besides the choice of apparel. In the cultural milieu in which Islam spread to wider segments of the population, communal worship asserted a moral community and a particularistic identity, in a setting in which believers coexisted and interacted with nonbelievers. Participation in congregational worship was part of one’s ethnic and professional self-definition (Launay 1992, chapter 4; Soares 2005, chapters 1 and 7),22 and allowed individuals to experience themselves as members of the community of believers. Yet many worshippers performed ritual worship only irregularly, or, in the case of women, only at a certain age. Women’s ritual performances formerly took place in a demarcated area of the mosque or within the courtyard, withdrawn from onlookers’ scrutiny.23 Today, ritual worship still operates as an indicator of Muslim identity, but many Muslims limit their performance of it to Friday congregational worship. It is this attitude toward religious practice that the many proponents of Islamic moral renewal decry. They attribute a new importance to it by presenting its regular and proper performance as a symbol of the new moral community of “Sunni believers” they strive to establish. Conventional understandings of ritual worship view it as establishing direct communication with God.24 Supporters of moral renewal share this understanding, yet, in line with their tendency to highlight individuals’ social responsibilities, they emphasize the broader significance of worship (and the ethical attitude it stands for) for collective well-being. They stress— and this is the point that generates the most vehement reactions on the part of Muslims critical of the movement—that a believer should render his or her worship publicly more accessible. As many participants in the moralreform movement point out, Muslims should manifest their decision to “embark on the path to God” by participating in public, communal worship. Implicit in this call to join their ranks is that only those who decide publicly to profess their newfound faith may consider themselves true supporters of Islam—because only they do, rather than just act. This approach to worship and its sign function follows closely from their reflections on how to anchor one’s cultivation of a virtuous disposition in daily practice. Ritual worship, properly and regularly performed, becomes the epitome of a superior moral order.25 An almost paradoxical implication of this view is that public worship once again serves to posit a particularistic identity, this time the identity of a true believer.

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Perhaps other Muslims would take less offense with this assertion of a Sunni identity were their critics’ emphasis on the collective significance of ritual worship not combined with a gender-specific encoding of publicly enacted piety. It is not that Muslim women suddenly take to the streets of Bamako and other towns to perform ritual worship in public, yet the sheer number of Muslim women who pray together as part of their associational activities, renders their joint religious performances more visible and audible. Many conversations and spontaneous remarks I overheard during my research in San and Segu suggested that it has become impossible for neighbors or any passerby not to notice the presence of a considerable number of women, who are engaging in worship in the courtyard next door. Even within the courtyards that serve as the tri-weekly meeting place for Muslim women, the location of their practice has shifted to a zone that is open to public scrutiny. Their worship can be easily viewed by men if the latter do not withdraw to a separate section. As I regularly witnessed during my participation in women’s learning activities, women’s joint ritual practice results in a temporary inversion of the conventional separation of male and female realms within these courtyards. Some supporters of Islamic renewal denounce the pressure toward more publicized (and feminized) forms of ritual practice, but most objections to this view come from Muslims who keep a critical distance from the Islamic-renewal movement.26 These Muslims particularly resent the claim that doing—that is, realizing proper Muslimhood—should manifest itself in more publicized forms of ritual practice. For some of them, this resentment crystallizes in the angry reply that publicizing personal piety through dress and ritual simply denotes a pretense at moral superiority. Similar conflicted assertions of true Muslim identity emerge in debates over the orthodoxy of celebrations of the prophet’s birthday (Mawlud, from Arabic mawlid al nabi). Here, too, a bone of contention is how gender-specific norms of propriety should translate into religious practice and the ways in which religion is shown to be relevant to collective life. Again, supporters of Islamic renewal make questions of ritual orthopraxy central to their assertion to have returned to the true teachings of Islam, but to a greater degree than in discussions about public worship, debates over the Mawlud reveal and reproduce divisions within the Islamic-renewal movement. In local traditions of Islam, the celebration of the Mawlud forms part of conventional religious events. Women play an important role in its organization and in the preparation of food and drinks, and contribute to the ceremony itself, in the form of praise songs on behalf of the prophet and of other musical entertainment that is considered morally edifying. Even if there exists considerable regional variation in the celebration of the Mawlud, a common feature of these ceremonies is that they are pervaded by a sense of liminality, played out for instance in the transgression of the boundaries of proper conduct.27

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Numerous supporters of Islamic renewal, men and women, are convinced that this event forms part of the ritual activities in which a proper believer should engage. They endorse women’s key role in it and maintain that women’s willingness to participate in these ceremonies reflects on their genuine endeavor to contribute to the well-being of the community. This view elicits vehement criticisms on the part of some Muslim women’s groups and their leaders, many of whom point to Saudi Arabia as a model case for eradicating this un-Islamic practice. In line with the criticism of earlier generations of reform-minded Muslims (Brenner 1993a, 1993b, 2001; Launay 1992), these critics denounce local celebrations of the Mawlud as unlawful innovation (bid‘a), and they assert that “no true Sunni Muslim (woman)” engages in practices that venerate any being other than God. Though many of these critics from within the movement generally endorse women’s participation in public manifestations of Muslim virtue, they adamantly contest that the Mawlud should be such an occasion. Those whom they criticize retort by charging the critics for their “arrogant” attempt to establish their moral superiority and their monopolizing of Sunni identity. Others who are equally in favor of the celebration of the Mawlud, denounce the critics for undermining the joint quest for moral reform and assert that the Mawlud constitutes an important occasion to invite others to return to the authentic teachings of Islam. These conflicting constructions of the relationship between Mawlud celebrations and proper Muslim practice illustrate that Sunni identity, rather than existing prior to debate and practice, emerges only in the process of Muslim discourse and refers to a temporary state, a work in progress. Controversial constructions of one’s truthful ethical search commonly arise around other elements of ritual. In November 2003, for instance, Muslim women’s groups in Bamako and Segu engaged in a heated, only partly publicized, debate over whether the special, nonmandatory nightly prayers during the last two weeks of the Ramadan (the period of the commemoration of the Qur’an’s delivery to the human world) were a new invention or an element of traditional religious practice. Several Muslim women’s groups, which, as I knew from our multiyear acquaintance, were highly critical of the celebration of the Mawlud, emphasized the importance of these prayers and the special merit (nafa) they generated for those who engaged in them. They repeatedly referred to these prayers as Sunni practice that, they maintained, had been introduced only recently into local religious practice and thus clearly distinguished those who endorse a return to Islam’s authentic teachings from the mass of other Muslims. Not surprisingly, members of other women’s groups with whom I discussed these prayers adamantly rejected this portrayal and the implicit claimed that they themselves were not proper Muslims. They observed that this practice not only formed part of local religious conventions, but was not a mandatory act and therefore should not be used to claim a Sunni identity.

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implications of local discourse
These disputes are suggestive in several ways. One is that the significance of Muslim women’s current interventions resides not in their ritual acts per se, but in their explicit orientation toward an audience. Their ritual performances acquire the diacritic and iconic meaning of ritual (Bowen 1989:612). Muslim women’s worship not only signals collective submission to God’s will: it acquires a strong representational function in signifying the moral community to which supporters of Islamic renewal aspire. Second, and closely related to the marked emphasis on publicized female virtue, these women’s preoccupation with ritual orthopraxy allows them to emphasize practice central to their constructions of proper Muslimhood. Similar to the previously analyzed debates on the proper site of ritual worship, questions about the orthodoxy of Mawlud and about the novelty of surregatory prayer helps women of different persuasions to claim a pious disposition, while denying the relevance of talking as a way to prove one’s identity as proper believer. How do these conflicting views relate to earlier controversies over ritual orthopraxy and to the discourse of “truth and ignorance” (Brenner 2001) that has structured Muslim debate in this region for more than a century (Last 1992; Launay 1992; Launay and Soares 1999)? Current controversies among supporters of Islamic renewal, and between them and the Muslims they criticize, clearly continue with earlier disputes centered on elements of ritual procedure, such as the positioning of one’s arms during worship (Launay 1992, chapters 3–7), yet contemporary disputes oppose different categories of Muslims (Otayek 1993; Schulz forthc.). More than before, debates revolve on the proper site of worship and its visible and gender-specific encoding. This insight prompts me to refine Soares’s argument (2004) that transformations in Malian Muslim public discourse since the colonial period should be seen as the emergence of public signs of piety. With this proposition, Soares demonstrates that Launay’s analysis of discursive constructions of Muslim identity in northern Ivory Coast can be fruitfully extended to other areas of the colonial French Sudan. Still, I would argue that the incentives (and the pressure) to present oneself as a Muslim in a public arena not only generate new controversies over what signs should be chosen. These signs, and the controversies they create, should be understood in their decided gender-specificity. Some of them are encoded as feminized emblems of piety. Some of the differences or changes I (mean to) discern may be just due to the analytical focus I bring to my research as a female scholar. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, because of the new opportunities offered to women by mass religious education and by the possibilities of self-organization under postauthoritarian conditions, women can contribute in unprecedented ways and degrees to these disputes, and they can make feminized signs of piety more central to public interaction and controversy. Finally, the term Sunni occupies a more central position than it seems to have occupied in preceding controversies (Brenner 2001). Most discussions

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of whether women’s public performance of ritual worship resonates with Islamic standards of propriety are framed through competing claims to being Sunni. The same applies to controversies among different Muslim women’s groups. Some of these controversies are publicized in newspapers and on local and national radio. As I realized during my attendance at Muslim women’s gatherings, the term’s high currency in debates among women is a direct result of the instruction they receive. Even if the widespread use of the term Sunni by members of the renewal movement suggests that their views of proper Muslimhood are formulated under direct influence from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, this impression is misleading. It is impossible to draw a clear line between Muslim women whose practices are in continuity with conventional views of religiosity and women whose views are informed by Salafi reformist thought or Wahhabi doctrine. Muslim women who claim a Sunni identity do not necessarily do so to express their closeness to these trends. It is more useful to think of their positions, and of those of fellow male activists, as ranging on a continuum of positions and local reformulations. This means that, rather than referring to substantive difference, the recurrent assertion of a Sunni identity seems to serve a primarily performative function in authenticating an understanding of religiosity and proper ritual as the true, and thus exclusive, path toward God. The term Sunni becomes more central to the narratives that Muslim women and male supporters of Islamic moral renewal construct to assert and validate the truthfulness of their decision to “move closer to God.”

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The controversies among female supporters of Islamic moral renewal, and between them and other Muslims, pinpoint tensions that arise between Muslim women’s emphasis on the primacy of deeds (manifested in proper behavior and correct ritual performance) over talking about it on one side, and the actual narrativizing of their identity as proper Muslims on the other. Muslim women dismiss attempts by Muslims to prove their return to authentic Islam, and the reorienting and return experience that goes with it, through words; yet, by this discursive move, they do narrativize their experience and engage in the kind of practice they otherwise denounce. By devoting an important share of their sermonizing and learning to the assertion of difference from other Muslims, they establish a discourse on ethical distinctiveness that undercuts their own rhetorical privileging of deeds over words. There is yet another insight to be drawn from the disputes between Muslim women and the Muslims whom they criticize for their lack of genuine devotion to the cause of Islam. The emphasis that many supporters of the moral reform movement place on the embodied enactment of virtue leaves them in a double bind: contrary to their claim to moral unity, their conception of the relationship between individual ethics and the common good, combined with the tendency among Muslim women (and men) to claim

a truthful reversion process for themselves by distancing themselves from others, reinforces existing trends of internal differentiation among Muslims who aspire to a new moral community. Therefore, both the new emphasis on public ritual and the trend to authenticate one’s true Muslim identity by dwelling extensively on the larger significance of public ritual undermine activists’ claim to base their renewal endeavor on ijma, consensus among Islamic scholars. This leaves us with the question of whether it is possible to identify practices of validating conversion experiences that reveal a specifically “Islamic” inflection and can be considered equivalent to the ways in which conversion experiences are narrated and performatively constructed in Christian contexts (Harding 1987). Supporters of Islamic moral renewal in Mali stress the importance of deeds over words, and therefore account for and simultaneously construct the process of reversion that allows them to “move closer to God.” In doing so, they rely not only on Islamic discursive conventions, but on an expressive repertory in which genres of (mostly mundane) oral performance intermingle. The discursive tradition of Islam, in Mali and elsewhere, is deeply immersed in the structures, technologies, and rationalities of modern state governance (Asad 1999). This context of modernity has, it seems, standardizing effects on the ways in which Muslims and Christians come to voice their convictions in a broader public realm and seek to invite others to follow their moral call. The setting in which Malian Muslims claim and disclaim Sunni identity is deeply shaped by the terms set by modern state politics and its attendant institutions and representatives. These conditions, and the ethical concerns and sensibilities that emerge from them, structure Muslims’ self-understandings as believers, their formulations of the relevance of a religious ethics to everyday life, and, by implication, their discursive constructions of the right path to God. Therefore, to fully understand the forms of reorientation promoted in contemporary Islamic renewal movements, we need to draw attention to the social and political conditions under which conversion processes are narrated and validated because these conditions deeply affect the spiritual experience and ethical responsibilities that are claimed through these narratives.

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1. This article is based on data collected in the southern towns of San and Segu, and in the capital, Bamako, between July 1998 and august 2006 (altogether twenty-one months). i conducted the research in Bamanakan, the lingua franca of southern Mali, and in French. in addition to participant-observation, and more than sixty semistructured interviews with, supporters of the islamic moral-renewal movement, i regularly attended the two- or threeweekly learning gatherings. Muslim women in San and Bamako, and i participated in a range of religious ceremonies and social events. unless stated otherwise, all foreign terms are in Bamanakan, the lingua franca of southern Mali.


These religious practices include expressions of devotion to religious leaders and other acts that are inspired by the assumption that a believer needs the mediation of spiritually blessed leaders to communicate with god. The proponents of islamic renewal denounce as unlawful innovation (arabic, bid‘a makruha; Bamana, a yelema donna silameya la) spirit-possession cults and the use of islamic esoteric knowledge for divination or protection.


Starting in the 1970s, Muslims influenced by intellectual trends in Saudi arabia dismissed with greater vehemence the conventional posture of worship. They promoted their praying with crossed arms (bòlòminènaw, “bras-croisés” in French) as being the only practice in accordance with the Sunna. Their claims translated into bloody confrontations between them and representatives of conventional views of Muslim orthopraxy. in the end, the ahl-Sunna, as many reformists called themselves, built their own mosques, in which to practice what they considered to be the correct prayer posture, but this development did not always end confrontations between them and representatives of the religious establishment. an incident of violent confrontation occurred in 1996, when a mosque in Sikasso was bombed. (This mosque had been erected by proponents of the “new” prayer posture.) after the incident, there was a general agreement that those aiming at the destruction of the mosque had come from the ranks of the local religious establishment, which opposed the prayer posture, and the claims associated with it, of reform-minded Muslims.

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The terms renewal and reform are translations of the arabic term tajdid. Much of the literature on movements in Muslim africa that correspond to the Malian movement uses the term reform, but i prefer the terms renewal and rejuvenation because they come closest to how participants of the movement describe their efforts (ka sègin silameya ma; a yèlèma donna silameya la).

5. 6. 7.

K’i magrè ala la. K’ala sira ta. nock has come under the attack of scholars’ because of his focus on individual conversion and his distinction between conversion on one side, and adhesion (as a less radical form of conversion) on the other. as his critics point out, his focus on the isolated individual and his/ her experience is misleading and reveals the legacy of the augustinian paradigm. his assertion that only conversion to christianity and Judaism can be described as processes of reorientation is exclusionist and mistaken. The validity of these criticisms notwithstanding, i find that his notion of reorientation, and the spatial movement it implies, come closest to the terms used by Muslim women to describe their “search for greater closeness to god.”


one year after a military putsch had ended the single-party regime of President Moussa Traoré (1968–1991), alpha Konaré and his party, aDEMa, won the first democratic elections and were reelected in 1997. in June of 2002, colonel Toumani Touré, leader of the putsch that had overthrown Traoré, was elected president.


as has been demonstrated for Senegal (Villalon 1995), these networks of religious patronage have been constitutive of political processes in local, regional and national arenas since the colonial period.


Because the meeting time (about two hours in the afternoon) cuts importantly into married women daily schedules, the only women who participate regularly are those who have adolescent girls (or daughters-in-law) to do cooking and other household chores while they are away from home.


For a more detailed account of the contents and paradigms of learning of these educational circles, see Schulz 2004, chapter 6.


That female leaders refer to these sponsors in much the same fashion as ordinary group members do—that is, as someone who offers support or hope ( jigi) in times of distress—suggests that their activities are embedded in the moral matrix of patronage typical of other institutions of islamic moral reform in contemporary Mali.


These female leaders’ emphasis on women’s central position in societal renewal echoes the agenda and ideology promoted by the union nationale des Femmes du Mali (unFM) under former President Traoré’s single-party rule (De Jorio 1997, chapter 6). a crucial difference between the agendas of contemporary Muslim activism and the party-orchestrated mobilization of women is that Muslim women’s associations and their leaders mobilize followers outside of formal party structures—a factor that, i suggest, greatly enhances their credibility. also, whereas it is safe to assume that the effects of the unFM’s mobilizing activities remained rather superficial, Muslim women’s activism is significant because it is supported by urban women from different socioeconomic backgrounds (Schulz 2004, chapter 6).

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The emphasis by some activists on ritual worship as a direct, unmediated communication with god goes against not only the Sufi hierarchical conception, but also convictions of representatives of the older generation of reformers, who, as i show below, similar to their former opponents from the traditionalist camp, seek to keep control over interpretation. This situation illustrates the heterogeneity of the landscape of current Muslim activism.

DoRoThEa E. Schulz


i argue elsewhere (Schulz 2004) that stress on women’s individual responsibility in cultivating an ethically superior disposition suggests that prevalent conceptions of Muslim religiosity are currently being reassessed, partly in response to broader societal transformations and to transnational influences. Muslim identity is conceptualized no longer primarily as a marker of family or ethnic identity, but as the result of personal conviction and daily practice (see launay 1992, chapters 3–5).


oral historical accounts i collected, roughly covering the period between 1920 and 1950, document the respect a few women earned for their piety and, occasionally, religious learning. The accounts illustrate that to lead a life withdrawn from the pressures of public opinion and worldly matters was an ideal many women aspired to, yet only the economically privileged ones could realize.

17. 18.

Elsewhere (Schulz 2007a), i explain in detail why and how female leaders refrain from calling their lessons “sermons” in the proper sense of the term. Alasira is commonly translated into French as “religion.” Though the metaphor resonates with the Sufi notion of path, i never witnessed a teacher or follower explicitly establishing this connection.

19. 20.

For the different importance that teachers and followers attribute to a believer’s attitude, as opposed to the application of rules of proper conduct, see Schulz (2004, chapter 7). Mahmood, in a brilliant analysis of how participants of the cairene mosque movement, a prominent manifestation of female islamic revivalism in contemporary Egypt, conceive of the cultivation of religious virtues, shows that women cultivate a pious disposition through repetitive practice. She argues that women who subscribe to this discursive tradition view their submission to god’s will as an actively cultivated capacity, rather than as an expression of passivity (Mahmood 2005, chapters 3 and 4).


With salat, i refer only to the regular act of worship that constitutes one of the five requirements of religious practice, as opposed to individual petitionary prayer (duwa, from arabic, du‘a).


in southern Mali, where most people converted to islam only in the colonial period, the practice of ritual worship allowed people (and colonial administrators) to establish a three-tiered classification, distinguishing among those who belonged to families of religious specialists and were instructed ones or scribes (kalimutigi, from kalimu “feather” and tigi, “owner”). This group was contrasted to regular Muslims (minw bè seli kè “those who pray”) and to pagans. Members of religious lineages expressed their affiliation with a particular Sufi order through additional prayers and the recitation of special litanies and verses from the Qur‘an.

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Withdrawal from a domestic area in which most daily activities are performed suggests that women’s ritual worship was considered an almost intimate act. Still today, the interior of the house, which consists of bedrooms, is closely associated with acts that require secretiveness and tact, such as sickness and sexual intercourse.


This does not preclude that many Malian Muslims seek the assistance of religious specialists to enforce their petitionary prayer. The common acceptance of mediators who, by their special spiritual powers (baraka), are best suited to increase the efficiency of petitionary prayer shows traces of West african Sufi conceptions of spiritual authority.

25. 26.

For an instructive parallel to the modernist conception of proper Muslim practice formulated by acehnese leaders in indonesia, see Bowen (1989:600–604). Stress on the significance of communal worship goes back to the 1940s, when Muslim intellectuals influenced by modernist trends from Egypt highlighted the importance of communal worship and its egalitarian and universalist moral aspirations (see Bowen 1989:601–602), thereby countering the predominant hierarchical conception of spiritual leadership associated with traditional lineages of religious specialists.


The celebration of the Mawlud in Timbuktu constitutes one of the major yearly attractions for Muslims from all over Sahelian West africa. its carnivalesque character and liminality manifest themselves in its temporary reversal of gender and rank distinctions.

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