Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

"Muslims of the Spirits"-"Muslims of the Mosque": Performing Contested Ideas of Being Muslim in Northern Mozambique

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

"Muslims of the Spirits"-"Muslims of the Mosque": Performing Contested Ideas of Being Muslim in Northern Mozambique

Article excerpt

Drawing on ethnographic research focusing on a group of women in Nampula city, northern Mozambique, this article interrogates the role of spirit performances in their conversion to Islam. By embarking on mimetic practices of Muslim healers (walimu) during established ceremonies, a group of women, coming from the mainland regions and of traditional backgrounds, claim to become 'Muslims of the spirits', distinct from what they refer to as 'Muslims of the mosque'. This article seeks to go beyond prevailing theories of mimetic practices as a 'representation', a 'parody' of Islam, or as a form of 'self-reflection' obtained through the depiction of the 'other'. In line with a performative theory of ritual, I argue instead that women become Muslim by adopting Islamic clothing, linguistic and bodily practices. I expand this argument that performing is becoming by taking into consideration local historical experiences. Women's spirit conversion replicates a modality in which Islam spread beyond the coast at the times of the Atlantic slave trade. Conversion to Islam through the imitation of linguistic, material and ritual enactments was a common practice at the time of the slave trade, among people living in the hinterland regions. Furthermore, I argue that spirit possession exhumes older strands of Islam (Chiefship Islam) which came to be marginalised by the spread of Sufism and Reformist Islam in the 20th century. I then move to examine spirit conversion in the present Muslim context of Nampula. I interrogate the relationships between women's Islam and other Islamic discourses. Finally, I ask whether these women involved in spirit possession gain any benefits from becoming Muslim.

I would like to acknowledge Tea Virtanen and Liazzat Bonate for commenting on earlier versions of this article. I am grateful to the reviewers for their insightful critical comments. This article was presented at the Anthropology Seminar Series at the University of Witwatersrand in 2015. I am grateful to my colleagues, and in particular to Hylton White and his students in the course 'Ritual and power,' who helped to sharpen and clarify my argument. Finally, I owe a debt to the all the spirit healers, mediums and patients of spirits I encountered and worked with in Nampula between 2007 and 2016.

In the East African context, processes of ethno-religious 'belonging' and 'exclusion' have been widely analysed as embedded in social practices, whether in cultural performances,1 or in more mundane practices.2

Examining processes of identity-making through the lens of 'performances' and/or 'performativity' is particularly revealing in a context like the city of Nampula, northern Mozambique, where ethnic and religious differences continue to carry significant weight. Centuries old trades, migrations, the spread of Islam, colonial occupation, a protracted civil war and economic liberalisations have all contributed to solidifying ethnic and religious boundaries rather than unifying the region.3

Situated as it is on the border between the Western Indian Ocean region and the matrilineal mainland, the population of Nampula is roughly divided into two main groups: the Makhuwa, from the mainland, who are generally peasants and have a Christian background, and the Muslim population, historically known as Amaka, those who come from the coast.4 Both people of the coast and people coming from the inland are motivated to draw continuous distinctions between themselves based on variations in practices: ways of dressing, use of distinct verbal expressions, culinary dishes, and in religious and medical rituals. Looking closely then, at the local Muslim community, residents are roughly divided into three main doctrinal frameworks (Chiefship Islam, Sufism and Reformist Islam), along trans-local networks (those with Indian or Saudi Arabian connections), as well as ethnic and regional differences (African Muslims, Indian Muslims, Muslims of the coast/Muslims of the mainland). …

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