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Response to ‘Similarity and difference, context and tradition, in contemporary religious movements in West Africa’ by J. D. Y. Peel
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Response to ‘Similarity and difference, context and tradition, in contemporary religious movements in West Africa’ by J. D. Y. Peel

In the immediate aftermath of ‘9/11’, it took very little for the axiom that adherents of evangelical Christianity and reformist Islam inhabit discrepant, permanently warring publics to solidify. With the very air laden with ‘the clash of civilizations’, the dominant narrative quickly became one of mutual antagonism, in which both religions were positioned as irreconcilably foundational in major global conflicts. As is often the case in such moments of heated contention, it was easy to overlook the counterintuitive fact that, in various parts of the world, especially in those communities where adherents of both faiths have lived in close proximity, there has always been a direct sharing and transfer of experiences in religious practices and evangelizing stratagems. Such ‘spiritual economies’ (cf. Rudnyckyj 2010) do not imply that theological differences are erased; they suggest, rather, that competing faiths, in their attempts to expand and preserve themselves, frequently cross boundaries to appropriate the other’s devotional and conversionary strategies.

J. D. Y. Peel’s analysis of the similarities and differences between contemporary religious movements in West Africa is symptomatic of a new bend in the intellectual river, a refreshing scholarly shift from the noted emphasis on ‘cosmologies in collision’ (Kifleyesus 2006) in favour of new and interesting convergences in their ‘dialogic constitution’ (Larkin 2008: 103). Read as part of his larger examination (Peel 2016) of the interaction of three religious traditions (Christianity, Islam and Oriṣa religion) in south-western Nigeria, Peel’s effort is a major contribution to socio-anthropological theorizing on ‘appropriation’, seen here as a ‘hermeneutic practice’ (Schneider 2003: 226) in which symbols and artefacts from one ‘culture’ are imported into another.

My interest in the same phenomenon started three years ago when, under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC’s) New Directions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) research initiative, I began researching new forms of Islamic prayer whose modalities – such as all-night prayer sessions, Sunday services, personal testimonies and a new emphasis on good and evil – bear a striking resemblance to those of Pentecostal Christians in south-western Nigeria. I have argued (Obadare 2016) that these new forms of Islamic prayer, especially when seen as part of a general acceptance and intensification by (Yoruba) Muslims of the kind of ‘all-embracing enthusiasm’ (Ojo 2006) normally associated with Pentecostalism, are indicative of an emergence of a ‘Charismatic Islam’. [End Page 640]

I use the case of these new dramatizations of Muslim prayer to pose broader questions, such as: how does the transformation of Islam, betokened by new expressions of prayer, help us to understand the shifting boundaries between Islam and Christianity, particularly in ecologies where both remain socially, economically, politically and ideologically competitive? Further, to the extent that nascent modalities of worship symbolize or anticipate doctrinal transformation within faiths, how does a study of prayer provide an analytic platform for an understanding of critical shifts and tensions within and between Christianity and Islam, primarily within the cultural context of Western Nigeria? In a national context in which the state is delinked from ordinary people’s lives, prayer has become a central element in the rearrangement of personal and interpersonal regimes, and in the composition of ordinary people’s selfhood. Using prayer transfers and imitation, which are important components of how the two faiths relate in Western Nigeria, my work interrogates the role of these emergent forms of Islamic prayer in the deeper transformation of the totality of the religious culture in the area.

This is the immediate pedigree I have brought to my appraisal of Peel’s article. Because we both work within the same conceptual paradigm – that is, appropriation as ‘hermeneutic practice’ and a constant feature of religious practices in context – I am in general sympathy with his overall approach. With that in mind, my comments here are addressed to two of the themes that are privileged in his article, and a third potentially productive theme which, for some reason, is elided – the place of women in both traditions.

For all the similarities between Christianity and Islam, or...