Journal for Islamic Studies

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“Muslims of the spirits”-“Muslims of the mosque”: Performing contested ideas of being Muslim in northern Mozambique

Daria Trentini


Drawing on ethnographic research focusing on a group of women in Nampula city, northern Mozambique, this article interrogates the role of spirit performances in their conversion to Islam. By embarking on mimetic practices of Muslim healers (walimu) during established ceremonies, a group of women, coming from the mainland regions and of traditional backgrounds, claim to become ‘Muslims of the spirits’, distinct from what they refer to as ‘Muslims of the mosque’. This article seeks to go beyond prevailing theories of mimetic practices as a ‘representation’, a ‘parody’ of Islam, or as a form of ‘self-reflection’ obtained through the depiction of the ‘other’. In line with a performative theory of ritual, I argue instead that women become Muslim by adopting Islamic clothing, linguistic and bodily practices. I expand this argument that performing is becoming by taking into consideration local historical experiences. Women’s spirit conversion replicates a modality in which Islam spread beyond the coast at the times of the Atlantic slave trade. Conversion to Islam through the imitation of linguistic, material and ritual enactments was a common practice at the time of the slave trade, among people living in the hinterland regions. Furthermore, I argue that spirit possession exhumes older strands of Islam (Chiefship Islam) which came to be marginalised by the spread of Sufism and Reformist Islam in the 20th century. I then move to examine spirit conversion in the present Muslim context of Nampula. I interrogate the relationships between women’s Islam and other Islamic discourses. Finally, I ask whether these women involved in spirit possession gain any benefits from becoming Muslim.

AJOL African Journals Online