- Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian Town
Historians and political scientists have long noted the heterogeneity of West African Muslim communities, but have often reduced the relationships among them to political factionalism or competition for resources. Anthropological and sociological approaches have been more sensitive to the symbolic and semantic stakes in religious identity, but have tended to fragment African Muslims into a set of cultures, or to treat Islam as an alien force in the region. Benjamin F. Soares's Islam and the Prayer Economy makes an important contribution to these fields by bringing archival research, ethnographic observation, and an innovative analytic framework to bear on decades of competition for religious authority in Nioro du Sahel, a Malian town widely known for its pious inhabitants and prestigious scholars.
Building on the historical anthropology of Islam in francophone Africa pioneered by Robert Launay, Jean-Loup Amselle, Mahir Şaul, and others, Soares details the ongoing struggles in Nioro over legitimacy and authority among three main sets of Muslims: the Tijaniyya and Hamawiyya Sufi orders and the reformists known sometimes as Wahhabis (ahl al-Sunna). He highlights the diversity of Muslims in Nioro while noting the shared assumptions, material conditions, and, above all, privileged symbols that link them, making their competition more than the mere expression of [End Page 125] instrumental manipulation or primordial sentiment. Moving from the precolonial period through the era of French rule and up to the present, he sheds light on the changing meanings of "being Muslim" in Nioro and the shifting relationships among religious, social, and political institutions.
Situating his study among debates on Islamic modernism, Soares details the increasing commodification and concomitant personalization of religious authority in Nioro. Central to the exercise of authority in the town is the way believers give gifts to holy men or "saints" in return for blessings. Holy men act as a conduit for the divine recompense (baraji) that is merited by the gifts, and can bring profound benefits of a visible and invisible nature to those who patronize them. Through the distribution of such benefits, as well as the redistribution of gifts themselves, saints bolster their followings, increasing their attractiveness. The growth of the cash nexus during and after the colonial period in Mali opened up this field of authority to competition by religious entrepreneurs; the range of gifts and givers expanded, pilgrims flocked to Nioro, religious guidance became indexed to wealth, and the competition to give became as intense as the competition to receive. The benefits individual believers derive from this "prayer economy" range from a simple recognition of piety, to assistance with personal problems, to ensuring victory in a political struggle or large business venture. The details of how such benefits can be commoditized and the debates surrounding this commoditization lead Soares to a treatment of the typically opposed camps of ahl al-Sunna reformists and adepts of the esoteric sciences. Both groups are easily and often maligned, but Soares treats them with great sensitivity, revealing their shared participation in the religious "market" and their mutual dependence on the social value of specialized knowledge.
The sometimes troubled but often harmonious coexistence of these quite disparate approaches to Islam is itself enabled by new technologies of print, photography, video, and sound recording, which have allowed for a proliferation of sites of consumption of religion and for a finer "granularity" in the prayer economy. These in turn have accelerated spiritual diversification, giving rise to an expanding, multilingual, and multifocal Islamic culture, particularly among the cosmopolitan sectors of society. Paradoxically, all this deinstitutionalization of authority has for the most part resulted not in spiritual individualism, but in the increasing use of religious affiliation to generate niche identities. There is, Soares observes, greater value to be had in attachment to a saint with a devoted following than to one who is simply able to convert wealth into spiritual power.
If the origin of the value of the saint remains uncertain in Soares's...