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Sufism in Africa: Adapting to Changing Realities
April 3, 2015 @ 3:30 pm - April 4, 2015 @ 5:00 pm
It is generally assumed that Sufism in Africa has become increasingly marginalized, mainly due to the expansion of Islamic “reformism”, but also as a result of changing political and social conditions. While there might be a decline in affiliations with Sufi orders and in adherence to Sufi practices in some cases, the picture is far more complex and multifaceted. There are instances where we see a resurgence of Sufism – often in rather innovative ways. Recognizing the ambiguity of the term Sufism, and positing that Sufism in Africa is affected by rapid religious and socio-political changes, this symposium will explore how Sufism is discursively adapting to such changes. It aims to show how Sufi movements are reconfiguring themselves in a fluctuating landscape, and will thus explore such questions as: How has religious reformism affected Sufi debates about religious symbols and ritual practice? How have Sufis responded to violent attacks by militant movements? How are Sufi movements responding to the redefinition of Sufi sites and practices as part of “cultural heritage”? How have Sufi movements (together with other religious movements) been impacted by or had an impact on state level politics? How have Sufi groups responded to international and especially Western policy discourse on Sufism as “peaceful” and “moderate” Islam, and how has this affected their own discourse? Through a variety of presentations, the symposium thus aims to demonstrate that contemporary African Sufis are not merely voiceless victims of rapid changes, but active agents contributing to the constant reshaping of the African religious landscape.
Friday April 3 – 404 Grinter Hall (Center for African Studies)
3:30-5:00 Baraza Benjamin Soares (African Studies Centre, Leiden)
“On ‘Structural Adjustment’ Islam and Sufism in West Africa”
Abstract: The presentation concerns young religious entrepreneurs who have become increasingly important in the fee-for-service religious market in Mali. Eschewing simplistic, albeit commonplace, teleological models of Islamization, reform, and ethical self-fashioning, I draw on ethnographic research on religious entrepreneurs and fee-for-service religion to propose ways of thinking about youth and religious practice that foreground the particularities of the current neoliberal era. The religious entrepreneurs are new social figures who are involved in new forms of Sufism and non-Islamic “pagan” practices. As I argue, they are effectively social brokers who embody some of the contradictions of the neoliberal era where the religious economy has become much more like the neoliberal market.
Saturday April 4 – 404 Grinter Hall (Center for African Studies)
8:30 – 9:00 Coffee & Tea
9:00-10:00 Felicitas Becker (University of Cambridge)
“Is there ‘neo-Sufism’ in Tanzania? Sufis, new media and reformist movements in East Africa”
Abstract: Coined with innovations around the turn of the twentieth century in mind, the term ‘neo-Sufism’ has also been used to describe innovations in Sufism that respond to the rise of reformist and Islamist movements since ca. 1980, for instance in Indonesia. In Tanzania, it is clear that Sufis are engaged in attempts to recover from a long period of decline starting in about 1970. It is less clear to what extent reformist/Islamist criticism ’caused’ this decline, and whether a more assertive attitude in the face of such criticism is helping to revert it. The presentation will examine the multiple causes of the attenuation of Sufi networks, with particular attention to the ambivalent effects of political independence. It then examines how Sufis have been seeking to counter reformist criticism, and to adopt some of the proactive new media practices used by their critics. Sufis’ core message and their theological means of defending their practice have changed little, but they are seeking to address new audiences in new ways. In many ways, they still appear caught on the back foot in encounters with Islamists. Nevertheless, they can be expected to persist and evolve, and may yet produce a more distinctive Sufi take on new media practices.
10:00-11:00 Joseph Hill (University of Alberta)
“Sufi Hip Hop and Performative Apologetics in Senegal: Beyond ‘Discursive Tradition’”
Abstract: Hip hop has long been intertwined with mystical Islamic movements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, many prominent hip hop artists in Senegal have joined a Sufi movement, the Fayḍa Tijāniyya, and use hip hop to communicate esoteric knowledge and to draw young people into the movement. Yet as with nearly any new practice, debates surround the compatibility of hip hop and Islam. Recent scholars of Islam have conceptualized Islam as a “discursive tradition” (Talal Asad), eschewing suggestions of either a monolithic “Islam” or many relativistic “Islams.” Yet some of the multiple modes Sufi rappers use to establish Islamic truth and authority exceed discourse and text. These include intuitive access to truths that language can only obliquely reference; divine mission as revealed through visions; and what I call “performative apologetics,” or a demonstration of heightened religiosity such that potentially controversial practices can be reconciled with one’s pious persona.
11:00-11:15 Coffee & Tea
11:15-12:15 Marie Nathalie LeBlanc (Université du Québec à Montréal)
What happened to the marabouts? Occult Trajectories and “Islamic Reform” in Côte d’Ivoire
1:30-3:00: Plenary panel discussion, all four speakers plus UF moderator
Benjamin Soares, an anthropologist, is a Senior Researcher and Chair of the research staff at the Afrika-Studiecentrum in Leiden, The Netherlands. He is a scholar of Islam and Muslim societies in Africa whose research focuses particularly on religious life from the early 20th century to the present. He is the author of Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian Town (University of Michigan Press & Edinburgh University Press, 2005), co-editor of New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa with Rosalind Hackett (Indiana University Press, 2015), and co-editor of Muslim Youth, the 9/11 Generation? with Adeline Masquelier (SAR Press, forthcoming).
Felicitas Becker is University Lecturer in African history at the University of Cambridge, and has previously taught at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and SOAS, London. She is a specialist in the modern history of East Africa with particular focus on Islam in the region. Her current research interests include the post-colonial history of Muslim congregations in East Africa as reflected in the work of Muslim preachers, the aftermath of slavery, the politics of development, and poverty and anti-poverty intervention. Her publications include ‘Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania’ (OUP, 2008), and ‘Remembering Nyerere: political legitimacy and dissent in contemporary Tanzania’ (African Affairs, 2013).
Joseph Hill is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta and holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Yale University. He previously taught at the American University in Cairo. His research focuses on Sufi Islam as it relates to gender, forms of knowledge, authority, and performance. Since 2001, Hill has conducted ethnographic research on the global Fayḍa Tijāniyya Sufi movement among the movement’s members in Senegal and Mauritania. His current publications examine the gendered performance of religious knowledge and authority among Fayḍa adherents, especially among its female leaders, and on the use of mystical discourses and practices to negotiate and resolve potential conflicts. Additionally, he has recently begun to examine the rise of performances genres such as hip hop and Sufi dance in the Fayda community as controversial yet effective vehicles for drawing young people into the religious community.
Marie Nathalie LeBlanc is a Professor in Sociology at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). She completed her doctoral degree at the Department of anthropology of the University College London in the United Kingdom, and is the director of a research axis on the topics of democracy, civil society and social movements at an interdisciplinary research center on international development and society (CIRDIS) at the University of Quebec in Montreal. She is also a member of a research group that studies changes in African societies (GIERSA). Her main publications deal with youth and social transformation occurring in postcolonial African societies (Ivory Coast and Mali), and she also studies the place of religion within popular culture in Quebec society. Marie Nathalie’s recent research interests focus on new types of charisma in the context of the use of information and communication technology and on the feminization of Islam in African countries such as Ivory Coast.