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A Country of Trial: Islamic Reformism, Pluralism and Dispute Management in Peri-Urban Northern Mozambique

A Country of Trial: Islamic Reformism, Pluralism and Dispute Management in Peri-Urban Northern Mozambique

Christian Laheij

London School of Economics | 2015

This thesis presents the results of 23 months of fieldwork conducted between 2010 and 2012 in Nampula City, northern Mozambique. It analyses the manifestation of Islamic reformism in the city’s urban periphery where social organisation has historically been structured by principles of Makhuwa kinship and post-socialist citizenship, while religious life is dominated by Makhuwa ritual specialists, the Catholic Church and Sufi orders. Recently, however, the ranks of Sufi orders have been dwindling. The decline has been matched by a sharp increase in the number and influence of reformist mosques. With financial support from international Islamic donors, reformist mosques seek to bring local understandings of Islam in line with globally-oriented Salafi-inspired interpretations. The thesis describes the appropriation, contestation and impact of these interpretations. There are three main findings. First, I found that Islamic reformism unsettles existing conceptions of personhood. The majority of city dwellers combine their religious and national sense of belonging with Makhuwa notions of relatedness and conceptualise the self as interdependent. In contrast, reformists define themselves in relation to the divine, and objectify the self as they seek to make it available for self-fashioning. Second, the significance of this reorientation lies in its epistemological ramifications. A variety of social forms in northern Mozambique, including neighbourly assistance, the administration of justice and political relations, are premised on the understanding that events in this world are structured by invisible forces. Attempts of Islamic reformists to orient themselves towards God lead them to perceive reality in more objective terms, and consequently, their participation in neighbourhood sociality changes. Thirdly, this reorientation is tentative. In a setting where many do not share the outlook of reformism, it produces dilemmas and uncertainties. People cope with these uncertainties using strategies of confrontation, negotiation and compromise. Islamic reformism and other dimensions of social life become, as a result, mutually constitutive. These findings have several theoretical implications. The recent trend in anthropology has been to study Islamic reform movements through the lens of practices of ethical self-fashioning. This thesis argues that this focus is too narrow. My data shows that the multiplicity and complexity of the life worlds of Muslims need to be considered, and that attention should be paid to questions of how Islamic reformism shapes social practice as a system of knowledge.

Region: Mozambique | Communities: 

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