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

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Journal article published in Africa Today, a publication of Indiana University Press. Volume 54, Number 4. A copy of this journal can be purchased from IU Press at: http://inscribe.iupress.org/loi/aft 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.
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  Controversies amongemale supporters oIslamic moral renewal, andbetween them and otherMuslims, pinpoint tensionsthat arise between Muslimwomen’s emphasis on theprimacy o deeds over talk-ing about it, and the actualnarrativization o theiridentity as proper Muslims.  (Re)Turning t Prper Muslim Practice:Islamic Mral Renewal an Wmen’sCnficting Assertins  SunniIentity in Urban Mali Drte E. Sz This article explores competing discourses and understand- ings o proper Muslim practice as they are refected in contro-versies among emale supporters o Islamic moral renewal,and between them and Muslims who do not consider them-selves part o the movement. Supporters o Islamic moral  renewal highlight the primacy of deeds, such as proper behav-  ior and correct ritual perormance, as ways to validate their newly adopted religious identity. Their emphasis on properaction, and their dismissal o talking about religiosity, stand in tension with their own tendency to construct elaborate narratives about their decision to embrace what they con-sider a more authentic orm o Islam. The importance they attribute to the embodied perormance o virtue leaves many supporters o Islamic renewal in a double bind: despite theirclaim to unity, their conception o the relationship between individual ethics and the common good, combined with thetendency among supporters o Islamic moral renewal to setthemselves apart rom “other Muslims,” reinorces trends o dierentiation among Muslims who aspire to a new moralcommunity. Intructin In August o 1999, during my research on religious education institutions or adult Muslims in urban Mali, I visited a Muslim women’s learning group inan older neighborhood o San, a town in southeastern Mali. 1 Ater the usualintroductions and I had explained my interest in women’s learning activi-ties, the group’s leader ( tontigi ) oered to respond “to any kind o questionI might have” on Muslim women’s attendance to the “learning group.”   (   R E  )   T  u R n i   n  g T  oP R  oP E R M u  S l i   M P R a  c T i    c E  2 2   af     r  i      c a T  o dA y  5 4  (   4  )    Prompted by my questions about the experiences that had motivated women to join the group, the women discussed events and experiences, some othem painul and worrisome, such as the passing o a close amily memberand other events that put the amily under heavy nancial strain. Finally,Mamou, who had introduced me to the group, turned to me and observed matter-o-actly: “You know, ultimately, all these dierences [in experience]among us do not matter. What matters is that we all ound the answer to our worries in God, in our search or greater closeness to him. Regardless o theexperiences we made, and o the sorrow they may have brought us, we allrealized one day that only God’s will counts, that we will be redeemed orour mundane actions, that we will reach paradise only when we return tothe true ways in which God should be worshipped through all activities in which we engage.” And to the murmuring sound o other women’s approval, she added, “This is why we need to invite others to join us, to return to trueIslam; those others who may claim to be Muslim yet whose actions revealtheir denial o God’s truth.”Mamou’s account captures in a nutshell the concerns articulated byurban Malian people, who, to eect a moral renewal o society and sel, arenewal based on what they understand to be the authentic, unmitigatedteachings o Islam, as “true supporters o Islam” ( silame kanubagaw  ) are central agents in a process that has led to an unprecedented presence o Islam in Mali’s urban and semiurban public arenas. Although their activities haveroots in processes that started in the 1940s and have accelerated since thelate 1970s, it was the introduction o multiparty democracy and the atten-dant granting o civil liberties in 1991 that enabled the current orms andinrastructure o Muslim proselytizing ( da‘wa ). In the streets o the capital,Bamako, and in other Malian towns, mosques, and schools ( medersa ), hugebillboards and graito-style Arabic inscriptions have multiplied. Muslimso dierent orientations, ailiations, and pedigrees play vocierous roles inpublic controversies that address questions o the cultural and ethical oun-dations on which the political community should be based (Schulz 2003).Their activities are most successul in urban areas in which lineages associ- ated with Su orders and other traditional religious authorities ormerly had little political infuence. Women play a prominent role in the Islamic renewal movement. They reer to themselves simply as Muslim women ( silame musow  ) and thereby set themselves apart rom other women ( muso tow  ), who, in their eyes, stray rom the path set by the sunna , the prophet’s example. Like many male sup-porters o Islamic renewal, Muslim women thereby posit, i only implicitly,their distance rom practices reerred to, in local parlance, as “traditional”Islam (Brenner1993a:76–77). 2 Still, they generally avoid making reerencesto the sunna a point o direct, public conrontation. They do so becausethey know well that, by denying other women the status o Sunni Muslims,they risk perpetuating earlier struggles among Malian Muslims over ritualorthopraxy. Formerly, these struggles—at least those documented in thescholarly literature—were ought primarily by men, sometimes by violent   D  oR  oT h E a E  . S  c h  u l z  2  3   af     r  i      c a T  o dA y  5 4  (   4  )    means; they oten crystallized in controversies over correct prayer posture(Launay 1992). 3 Throughout my research on Islamic moral renewal in Mali, I wasstruck by recurrent elements in Muslim women’s sel-portrayal, elementsthat reverberate throughout Mamou’s account. 4 First, there was a complete absence o any term remotely comparable to the notion o conversion. Rather than reerring to their eort to “move closer to God,” 5 or or that matter,to “embark on the path to God,” 6 as conversion, the women describedtheir decision to join the movement as a “reverting” to older and more srcinal orms o religious teachings and practice. They emphasized that this“embarking” should be seen as a cumulative, gradual process o sel-making, one that maniested itsel in a continuously cultivated ethical attitude andthen in its perormance vis-à-vis one’s social entourage. What piqued my curiosity was that the women emphatically deniedthat speech (  kuma ) or “mere words” (as opposed to deeds,  kewale ) couldvalidate their newound piety. Whenever they elt compelled to assert thetruth o their ethical quest, they emphasized the importance o “doingthe right things”—o engaging in proper ritual practice and behaving in amorally acceptable way. Patently, by ocusing on “right deeds,” they pos-ited a close link between proper ritual and a believer’s right disposition.This conceptualization can be seen as a eature o Muslim understandingso ritual. Nevertheless, its central place in Muslim women’s discursiveconstructions o sel merits closer attention. The privileging o deeds as ameans o sel-validation seems to be at odds with the analytical ocus privi-leged in anthropological accounts o conversion. Many o these accountsdeal with narratives o individuals’ conversion experience, and they thusprivilege precisely the kind o practice that converts in Mali denounce asinauthentic, lacking the capacity to validate a Muslim’s claim to a renewedreligious aith. More signicantly, the ways in which Muslim women establish their search and experiences as truthul raise the question o whether the notion oconversion, with its heavy burden o a Christian-paradigm dominated legacy, can be used to make sense o the process o ethical sel-making promoted bythem in Mali. Many anthropological studies o conversion tend to ocus onthe process that leads individuals to give up their “traditional” or “animis-tic” religious belies and practices in avor o the religions o the Book, espe-cially Christianity and Islam (Comaro and Comaro 1992; Grosz-Ngate2002; Horton 1975; Jules-Rosette 1975; Landau 1995; Meyer 1999), yet, asTalal Asad notes in the aterword to a collection o essays on “conversion tomodernities,” the notion o conversion that has dominated anthropologicalstudies articulates a Christian view o aith and its relationship to practice:to understand how “conversion” processes shape, and are constituted by,individual religious traditions, we need, he insists, an analytical ramework capable o explicating and understanding religious practice and belie beyondthe normative assumptions and analytical ramework o a Christian-inspired Western modernity (Asad 1993, 1996).
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