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What is “reform”? Muslim movements of reform in sub-Saharan Africa and the negotiation of modernity

Prof. Dr. Roman Loimaier

In the 20th century, Muslim societies in Africa had to face a plethora of challenges in numerous fields: European colonialism and the development of secular nation states, processes of urbanization and the social transformation of many African societies. Processes of social transformation have created new spaces and new forms of social life as well as new modes for the organization of time. National as well as international efforts have contributed to increasing literacy and a subsequent explosion of text production for local “consumers”. Processes of modernization have also enhanced the spread of new media such as the internet and have introduced “global” issues of dispute into local contexts of discussion. Oftentimes, processes of modernization are seen, by Muslims, as having an adverse impact on Muslim communities and societies. In response to multiple challenges, Muslim scholars have tried to find multiple answers to the challenges of modernity (and globalization) and to find a place for religion in different local, regional and national contexts. In their responses to processes of modernization, Muslim scholars of many orientations have not only developed “rejectionist” answers, though, as symbolized, for instance, by models of self-isolation (example: Madina Gunass in Senegal); or movements of radical and activist opposition against processes of modernization (perceived as “Westernization”), as, for instance, in the case of the TablÐghÐ JamÁÝat movement in contemporary Tanzania; Muslim reformers have also incorporated features of modernization in their endeavours of reform. They have developed educational programs for Muslim women, new schools to replace seemingly obsolete QurÞānic schools and supported sports in order to “catch” the Muslim youth and to integrate them into “Islamic” leisure-time programmes. In their efforts to translate “modernity” into an “Islamic” code, Muslim “reformers” have thus contributed to the emergence of new views of both their own communities as well as the world.
Endeavours of “Islamic” reform have usually been associated, in both past and current research, with activist Muslim movements of reform which have tended to attack established Sufi brotherhoods and Sufi religious activities as “un-Islamic” innovations. Research on Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa has largely been focussed, however, on Sufi brotherhoods which seem to represent a larger section of Muslim populations in many sub-Saharan African countries. Activist Muslim reform movements, by contrast, have been largely ignored in research, except some few case studies (Brigaglia 2005; Desplat 2005; Gomez-Perez 1999; LeBlanc 2000; Loimeier 2001, 2003, 2005; Miran 2007, Villalon 1995, Tayob 1999), although the issue of “reform” has been discussed extensively with respect to theological debates in North Africa and Western Asia. Activist Muslim movements of reform are often also seen, from a purely “political science” perspective, as radical “Islamist” movements close to “terrorism”, while their efforts to negotiate “modernity” in more quotidian terms (such as “Islamic sports”) in their respective societies have been neglected. Yet, Muslim reform movements have had a growing impact on Muslim populations in many sub-Saharan African countries, as the author of this proposal could witness in a number of research projects since 1981: in Nigeria, the ´Yan Izala may today form the biggest Muslim reformist mass movement in sub-Saharan Africa; in Senegal, the jamāÝat ÝibāÃ al-raÎmān have managed to establish some influence in the Cap Vert region despite the strong presence of Sufi brotherhoods; in Tanzania, the different groups of the anÒār al-sunna have started to support new models of Islamic education and have gained popular support due to their struggle against Pentecostal churches. Due to the fact, that movements of reform have acquired a different character in different sub-Saharan Muslim countries, the question thus arises as to what “reform” actually means in these different contexts.