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  • Towards a joint framework for the study of Christians and Muslims in Africa: response to J. D. Y. Peel
  • Birgit Meyer (bio)

The main point of John Peel’s intriguing critical intervention is to warn against what he sees as an overemphasis on similarities between Christianity and Islam. Making these religions look all too similar, he argues, may come at the expense of paying due attention to the distinctiveness of each of these religious traditions and hence to their intrinsic differences. He suggests an analogy between the stance taken by ‘somewhat left-wing and anti-establishment discourse’ to equalize Islam and Christianity under the label of fundamentalism on the one hand, and a strand of Africanist work on West Africa that pleads for the close similarities between these two religions to be acknowledged on the other. For the latter, he takes the article ‘Pentecostalism, Islam and culture: new religious movements in West Africa’ by Brian Larkin and myself (2006) as paradigmatic. For my part, it is difficult to see how the use of the notion of fundamentalism in current debates and the position ventured by us converge. I would certainly refrain from using the notion of fundamentalism (even if invoked to balance Huntington’s equally problematic notion of the clash of civilizations) as a category that serves to draw out similarities between certain radical movements in Christianity and Islam both past and present – a use I view as highly problematic. The fact that Peel converges the levels of general public debate about political Islam and research regarding Christianity and Islam in African studies makes it quite difficult for me to grasp what his main concern is. Is it a worry about a – in his view – problematic, broader trend of denying actual intrinsic differences between Christianity and Islam, a trend that spills over from critical opinion into current Africanist scholarship, or vice versa? Is it the problem that foregrounding certain formal – and to him ultimately superficial – similarities favours an ahistorical stance with regard to these traditions? Or is it a concern – albeit not explicitly articulated – that the insistence on similarities with regard to Christianity might draw a too positive picture of Islam, pre-empting it from the critique that he considers necessary?

These are large and complicated questions. I cannot tackle here the difficult relationship between issues addressed by scholars in the study of religion and by public debates about the rise and presence of radical religious movements, especially in the sphere of Islam. Suffice it to note that Larkin’s and my critique of the division of the study of religion in Africa into two separate and mutually exclusive fields of expertise, focusing on Christianity and Islam – a division that has been dominant until now – led us to argue for the recognition of unexpected similarities between Islamic and Christian reform movements in West Africa. We argued that the strong emphasis placed on differences between these religious [End Page 628] traditions on the part of their respective followers, as well as in public debates in Nigeria and Ghana, should not be taken at face value by scholars. We intended our intervention to trigger a restructuring of scholarly inquiry in order to move beyond the current, poorly considered compartmentalization of the study of religion in Africa into separate fields devoted to Christianity and Islam, fields that are barely in conversation with each other. Certain new initiatives notwithstanding (see, for example, Janson and Soares, this issue),1 ten years later this situation has not yet changed substantially. Rather, with the rise of distinct anthropologies of Islam and Christianity, which have introduced a strong emphasis on their respective theologies, the cleavage has been widened. In my view, the need to look at both traditions together in the past and the present is more pertinent than ever. It is high time to pursue this intellectual project, and for this reason I am grateful to J. D. Y. Peel for engaging with our article. However, I feel that he over-rates the thrust of our argument. Of course, our piece does not offer a fully fledged paradigm for the study of Christianity and Islam on the basis of similarity; it was intended as a provocative intervention...


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pp. 628-632
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