Performing Islam

Much recent research on African Islam has focused on the division between Sufism and Islamic reform. Often these streams are seen as being in conflict and, especially since the political liberalisation of the 1990s, as competing for public space. Religious divisions of this kind cannot be explained by doctrinal disagreements alone, since they are always related to other spheres of life.

A workshop entitled Performance of belonging, difference and exclusion in the Muslim Africa took place in Uppsala on 5-6 December. Organised by the Nordic Africa Institute and the Forum for Africa Studies (University of Uppsala) it brought together anthropologists and others specialising in different Muslim communities in Africa. The workshop aimed at exploring performative modes of differentiation, as well as the social arenas in which the distinctions are made public.

Several papers demonstrated how the drawing of intra-religious boundaries follows ethnic alignments, so that religious performing becomes ethnicised. This is the case when certain local aesthetic preferences, such as the dances or dress codes of a particular ethnic group, become an emblem of religious belonging for some people, while signifying heresy for others.

Some presentations explored the high stakes involved in many Islamic ritual performances for religious leaders and specialists. Their spiritual authority and charisma is often dependent on successful performing, as well as the witness provided by their entourage of their spiritual powers.

Examples were also given of such spectacular events as mass prayers and political demonstrations. These, too, can be seen as powerful performances, during which cleavages between different Muslim agencies become visible and may occasionally lead to violent confrontation.

The specific themes of the workshop presentations ranged from the speech performances of Malian Tuareg refugees in Niger, to the turbulent feelings of Egyptian revolutionaries, and to Sufi and reformists’ efforts to cure spirit possessed Nigerian schoolgirls dancing compulsively in the Bollywood style.

- The performance theme was very inspiring for all participants, and there is scope for further discovery, says Tea Virtanen, the workshop convenor and a former NAI researcher who is currently a Finnish Academy research fellow at the University of Helsinki.

- The theme was also a good starting point for a workshop on Muslims and their intra-group distinctions, since Islam is a religion that places great emphasis on correct practice, and that is largely what successful performing is about.

Sponsors of the workshop were The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

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