- Entangled religions: response to J. D. Y. Peel
When Meyer and I (Larkin and Meyer 2006) wrote our article on the shared similarities between Islam and Christianity, it was intended to interrupt what seemed to us then, and still seems to me now, the tendency for studies of Christian movements to be written as if Muslims did not exist in the same polity and vice versa. Difference has been the normative grounds upon which the scholarly literature on religion in Africa has been based, usually organized around a set of binary distinctions: animist movements are opposed to mission Christianity; traditional (often Sufi) Muslims are opposed to Salafis; mainline churches to the Born-Again movement; Islam to Christianity; both of them to animism; and, finally, religion to secularism. While the particular content changes, the structural ordering does not.1 It is undoubtedly important, as Peel argues, to understand the theological traditions that orient the attitudes and regulate the practice of adherents,2 but there are other dynamics that are also important and which the emphasis on difference occludes.
First, while religions do operate in specific cultural contexts that need to be taken into account, the reverse is also true. Korea is not western Nigeria and neither of them are Guatemala, but Born-Again adherents claim to follow a universalist revelation given to them through the Bible, and our ability to discuss these religions has to take seriously those elements that connect these movements beyond local contexts. Alafia may indeed undergird the operation of Pentecostalism in western Nigeria, but one presumes that it does not in Korea or Guatemala, and yet all see themselves as joined together in a similar religious endeavour.
Second, in many parts of Africa (certainly Nigeria), Christians (mainline, African Independent, Born-Again), Muslims (Sufi, Salafi, orthodox) and traditional religious practitioners all participate in a common space – one that is in constant dialogue with secular forms of Nigerian life. One problem with the emphasis on difference is that it makes it difficult to analyse this more thickly constituted religious and secular environment and to understand quotidian [End Page 633] entanglements of everyday encounter. This is an important part of how religion grows and operates. It involves, perhaps, an expanded definition of religion, taking seriously actions that lie on the margins of religious practice, not at its normative core, and things that some may not even see as fully religious at all, even if they are undertaken in religion’s name.
In my own research, I focus on taking seriously the differences that exist between movements, while at the same time examining the complicated forms of entanglements in which those movements are engaged (Larkin and Meyer 2006; Larkin 2015). These entanglements are diverse, taking place in differing ways, with varied consequences.
First, movements evolve similar responses to shared conditions, even if the origins of those practices are largely independent of each other. Peel refers to these rightly as their ‘elective affinities’, similarities in action that do not necessarily derive from the same origin; this is largely what Meyer and I were arguing in our chapter on the similarities between reform Islam and Pentecostalism. Second, there is the much more explicit borrowing of organizational forms, mission techniques, media practices, discursive norms, style of prayer, and the entire range of formal devices that emerge from one religious or secular context and migrate into another. This can happen just as much within religious movements (from Salafist to Sufi Islam, for instance) as between them. Third is the entanglement that happens through opposition, the pas de deux that occurs when one religion responds to the actions of another so that, even in moments of difference and antagonism, religions are mutually engaged.3
Fourth, and of most interest here,4 religious and secular practices evolve in relation to each other and to the secular world, as well as to their own traditions. Cohabiting in mixed urban settings, religious actions are part of the complex of practices that members of a community develop in learning the habitus of living in that community. In his writings on ‘social imaginaries’, Charles Taylor has argued that these form part of the ‘repertory of practices’ that we...