- Islam and the Prayer Economy: history and authority in a Malian town
Benjamin Soares has written an innovative study about the history and relationship between various Sufi orders, reformers (so-called Islamists), civil society and political authorities in the Malian town of Nioro. It is a remarkable book, based on personal observation and archival research as well as ethnographic and written sources. The range of data collected is impressive, which makes the book a potential gold mine for researchers – not only those interested in Islam and Muslim practices in an important West African Islamic centre, but also those seeking to understand long-term micro- and macro-level societal-cum-religious changes in the region.
The focus of Soares's book is the emergence and development of a new Sufi order, the Hamawiyya; he considers its relationship to the other central Sufi order in the region, the Tijaniyya, and to the colonial and post-colonial political authorities. However, the book is more than the history of the founder of the order, Shaykh Hamallah (Ahmad Hamadu Allah b. Muhammad b. Sayyidina Umar; ca 1881–3 to 1943), his family, his scholarly network and his reputation as a living Muslim saint. Instead, Soares explores the development of different Islamic discourses, practices and institutions in the town of Nioro from the late pre-colonial to the contemporary era. Consequently, his approach is to study these discourses and practices, and their exponents, at the intersection of the local, the supralocal and the translocal, including the scriptural traditions of Islam. Central to his discussion are notions of charisma and hierarchy as well as the centrality of charismatic leaders. This theoretical position is outlined and presented in his introduction, which is followed by his two-part presentation.
The first part, entitled 'History', is basically a socio-political and religious investigation. Oscillating between a historical and historical-anthropological presentation, Soares sets out in Chapter 1 with an overview of the late pre-colonial societal and religious conditions in the region, in particular the social and cultural foundations of Islamic practice and the relationship of different understandings of Islam to ideas about power and authority before the onset of French colonial rule. The next chapter focuses on the French colonial period: the changes in and transformations of the socio-political and religious space; and French policy toward Islam and Muslims. The first part concludes with two chapters on the social history of the two main Sufi orders and its leadership: the Hamawiyya (Chapter 3) and the Tijaniyya (Chapter 4). Whereas in the former chapter an interesting discussion evolves around what Soares terms 'economy of martyrdom' – the effects of the persecution and deportation of [End Page 314] Shaykh Hamallah on his community – the latter chapter considers the decline and later revitalization of the Tijaniyya.
In the second part, entitled 'Authority', the focus is on shifts in authority and the contemporary configuration of religious practice in Nioro. The four chapters offer valuable insights and understandings through the prism of contemporary Islam. Chapter 5 discusses Islamic esoteric practices and the centrality of the knowledge and use of such practices, as well as different positions towards such knowledge among local Muslims. Chapter 6 discusses the development of what Soares (and others) have termed 'the prayer economy', namely the exchange of gifts for blessings, prayers and intercession with God. Here, as in the previous chapter, the role and position of the various Sufi leaders is crucial. In the next chapter the contemporary critics of the Sufi leaders and Sufism per se – the 'reformists' – and their agenda are discussed. Chapter 8 highlights the impact of the secular state and the development of a 'new' public sphere, both on the national and in particular on the local level, especially in relationship to the existing religious and social space. The concluding chapter is a well-balanced summary and discussion of the central arguments and insights of the book, and stands as an informative text by itself.