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Islam and the Prayer Economy

Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian Town

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 320
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    Islam and the Prayer Economy
    Book Description:

    At a time when so-called fundamentalism has become the privileged analytical frame for understanding Muslim societies past and present, this study offers an alternative perspective on Islam. In an innovative combination of anthropology, history, and social theory, Benjamin Soares explores Islam and Muslim practice in an important Islamic religious centre in West Africa from the late nineteenth century to the present. Drawing on ethnography, archival research, and written sources, Soares provides a richly detailed discussion of Sufism, Islamic reform, and other contemporary ways of being Muslim in Mali and offers an original analytical perspective for understanding changes in the practice of Islam more generally.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-7935-5
    Subjects: Religion
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-v)
  3. LIST OF FIGURES (pp. vi-vi)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS (pp. vii-viii)
  6. ABBREVIATIONS (pp. x-x)
  7. GLOSSARY (pp. xi-xii)
  8. Maps (pp. xiii-xiv)
  9. INTRODUCTION (pp. 1-22)

    In a cemetery in Montluçon, a town in central France not far from Vichy, there is a grave that many take to be that of Shaykh Hamallah, one of the most renowned Muslim religious figures in twentieth-century West Africa and head of a branch of the Tijaniyya Sufi order or brotherhood – the Hamawiyya – that bears his name.¹ In the first half of the twentieth century, many living under French colonial rule in West Africa recognised Hamallah not only as a living Muslim saint or wali (Arabic), but also as the highest-ranking saint of the day. Hamallah attracted a wide range...

  10. Part I History

      My objective in this chapter is to discuss some of the culture and history of the broader region of West Africa where the town and religious centre Nioro du Sahel is located. Although my larger objective in this study is to trace the transformations in ideas about Islam and authority and conventions of religious practice from the pre-colonial period, through French colonial rule, and in the postcolonial period, I begin in this chapter with an overview of such ideas and conventions in the period before the colonial period. I intend this discussion to serve as the backdrop for understanding the...

    • 2 COLONIALISM AND AFTER (pp. 44-68)

      Although French colonial rule was clearly not the first or only rupture with the past that the region of Nioro du Sahel has experienced, it was, in many ways, deeply transformative. Indeed, the French conquest of what was to become the Soudan français in the last decade of the nineteenth century ushered in a variety of profound social transformations in this region. While the full complexity of such transformations is beyond the scope of this study, I focus here on some of those transformations associated with the colonial project that helped to shape Nioro as a social, political and religious...


      Over the past few decades, several studies of Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa have emphasised the appeal and potential of Islam for resistance, proto-nationalism, or anti-colonialism. Most notably, some have interpreted Islam in Africa as the basis for various kinds of ‘counter-society’ movements both during and after the colonial period (for example Coulon 1988). Some of the postcolonial interpretations of the rise of the Sufi affiliation around Shaykh Hamallah have, indeed, followed such a model, tending to privilege the colonial encounter and placing considerable emphasis on the purportedly anti-colonial and proto-nationalist features of the Sufi order, its leader and followers...


      As I have argued, the influence of Shaykh Hamallah and the Sufi affiliation around him expanded largely at the expense of the existing Sufi orders and their associated religious leaders during the colonial period. This was especially the case for the Tijaniyya and some of its leaders in the town of Nioro. Although there were people in Nioro who never accepted Hamallah as their shaykh, nearly all people report today that such people were a minority, perhaps even in the immediate aftermath of the repression in the 1940s. It is here that I would like to return to one of...

  11. Part II Authority
    • 5 THE ESOTERIC SCIENCES (pp. 127-152)

      In this chapter, I examine more closely the Islamic esoteric sciences in West Africa (Brenner 1985a). The diversity of knowledge and practices that can be grouped under the heading of Islamic esoteric sciences include, among other things, special prayers such as petitionary prayers and blessings (Ar., du’a), instruction or guidance in alms-giving (Ar. sadaqa), geomancy (Ar., raml), mystical retreat (Ar., khalwa), decision-making via divine inspiration (Ar., istikhara), the confection of written texts or gris-gris in the colonial lexicon (to wear or to keep as amulets, to ingest or with which to wash after effacing with water), astrology (Ar., ‘ilm al-najum)...

    • 6 THE PRAYER ECONOMY (pp. 153-180)

      In some of the previous chapters, I explored power and authority as they have related to Islam before the onset of colonial rule and during the colonial period. In this chapter, I focus more explicitly on the shifts in power and authority from the colonial to postcolonial periods, and the contemporary organisation of religious practice in the town of Nioro. If the most obvious of shifts came in the wake of independence with the departure of the French, I consider perhaps the most dramatic of such shifts in religious practice in the postcolonial era. This is the development of what...

    • 7 ‘REFORM’ (pp. 181-209)

      In preceding chapters, I outlined the evolution of the Hamawiyya and the Tijaniyya, and emphasised the strength and resilience of these two Sufi orders and the power and authority of their present leaders, particularly in the prayer economy. Although the two Sufi orders and their respective leaders dominate the field of religious practice in Nioro, other Islamic discourses are hardly inconsequential in Nioro and its hinterland. In fact, Islamic ‘reformist’ ideas, including anti-Sufi currents, have long been important in this region of West Africa. In general, reformists in West Africa have been opposed in principle to the way that Islam...


      In the previous chapter, I discussed the presence and influence of reformists and their discourses in Nioro and its hinterland, and their relationship to the understanding of Islam centred around the Sufi orders, their leaders and practices. In this chapter, I want to extend the discussion of the changes in Nioro as a social and religious landscape. Over the past few decades, there have been a number of inter-related factors helping to shape what it means to be Muslim, changing the way Islam is practised at least for some people in the town. These factors include the proliferation of Western-style...


    I began this study with Shaykh Hamallah, the absent religious leader, who retains a strong hold on the social imagination, especially of those living in the town of Nioro, but also elsewhere in Mali and beyond. Shaykh Hamallah also seems to exert a hold on the imagination of scholars, both African and Western, as the number of works that invoke him seems to suggest. It is this history of Shaykh Hamallah and the earlier nineteenth-century history of al-Hajj Umar Tall in the town and the broader region that has helped to guarantee a special place for Nioro in the social...

  13. NOTES (pp. 257-278)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 279-298)
  15. INDEX (pp. 299-306)