by WILLEMIJN VAN KOL
courtesy: Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs,
Vol. 28, No. 3, December 2008
It is the beginning of February, sticky and hot in the minibus. The slumbering heat at the end of the rainy season is still in the air. The driver skillfully maneuvers his vehicle over the road between Monkey Bay and Zomba. With a childlike excitement I enjoy the first time I travel this route. Squeezed in between two people I manage to look outside over my neighbor's shoulder through the broken plastic window. Every couple of kilometers, small mosques, built in a particular standard format, catch my attention. The simple, yet impressive buildings in between the cornfields have a certain loneliness about them. I am thinking to myself. "That is odd; I only see mosques and no churches, while the large majority of Malawian citizens are Christians".
During my research I discovered that a lot of these mosques were built between 1994 and 2004, Bakili Muluzi's presidential period. After the fall of Dr Banda's regime, Muluzi was Malawi's first Muslim president in the multiparty system.1 It is not accidental that these mosques are built on prominent places next to one of the most important roads in Malawi. They are positioned with a purpose, namely to show that the presence of Muslims in the country can no longer be ignored. Muslims, after a long period of being socially, economically and politically marginalized in their national environment, now finally have the feeling they really are part of society. The visibility of this religious minority within the physical organization of the state plays an important role in this feeling.
For an extended period of time Muslims have been a relatively invisible group within the religious organization of life in Malawi. Not only on an ideological level were they isolated from the wider Islamic world, but also socially, economically and politically marginalized within their national community. This situation has its roots in the arrival and settlement of Islam in the area we now call Malawi. Although Islam was the first foreign religion to reach "the land of the lake", it did not structurally make its way into the organization of life and state – as did Christianity, only a few years later.
The main reason for this was their educational structure. The madrassah system provided a basic learning of Quran and Hadith while Christians, on the other hand, introduced a combination of secular and religious education, which opened up job opportunities in the paid sector of the colonial society. However, in the last thirty to forty years there has been a major change in the way Malawi's Muslims view and organize themselves within society. This change is the result of conscious and unconscious choices they made under the influence and within constraints of ideas, pressures and events on an (inter)national level.
Islam now enjoys representation within civil society, politics and media in Malawi. In this article I aim to take a closer look at transnational aspects that have influenced ideological and organizational changes of Islam within the state. I think it is impossible to review these changes from an isolated position, like the national context. In order to truly understand the reasons and elements of change, the local situation of Islamic reformation has to be placed within the context of worldwide Islamic reformation. Changes within the transnational arena have affected and influenced financial, social, political, ideological and cultural processes and organization in local situations. For this reason I choose to focus on the impact of transnational influences4 on Islam in Malawi. The concept I will use to approach the positioning of Muslims within the state of Malawi is "the politics of recognition" 5 that has contributed to a more equal position of Muslims within the state of Malawi.
For my research I spent four months in the southern region of Malawi, with Zomba as my home base. I interviewed mostly elite Muslims, because theirs is the main social class that practices a reformed version of Islamic faith. By reformed Islam I mean a way of practicing in which followers try to make a clear separation between cultural and religious elements and in which the holy scripts are the basis of religious practice. The main question I want to explore in this article is: how have transnational influences affected the reformation process that Islam has gone through within Malawi and what does this mean for the position of Muslims in a Christian dominated nation state? I will start by creating a historical perspective of Islam in Malawi. Subsequently, I will describe the development and organization of Islam in contemporary times, shedding light on the dynamics within Muslim civil society to create a picture of its fields of struggle. I will outline transnational influences that have had an impact on the way Islam moved from a traditionalist to a more universal way of practicing for a growing number of Muslims within the state. I will conclude by outlining the changing position of Muslims within the national context by stressing the challenges and opportunities Muslims have experienced and are experiencing.
Transcultural Influences from a Historical Perspective
Religious communities are the oldest transculturalists,6 and movements in the name of religion have existed for centuries. Examples of this are pilgrimages, crusades and the movement of students and scholars, refugees and migrants over borders of countries before these were even called nation-states. The spread of religion was often accompanied by the first and probably strongest forms of globalization: commerce, conquering and colonial rule. This was also the case in Malawi, where Islam as well as Christianity reached the area with trade and conversion as its main motivations.
Although Islam arrived in the area before Christianity did, there is not much information available about the history of Islam in the area that is now called Malawi. This coincides with the marginalized position Muslims have been in for a long time.
The origin of Islam lies in influences from the east coast of Africa. The Swahili Arab traders8 brought the first signs of Islam to contemporary Malawi. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a visible influence of Swahili-Arabs on Yao communities. Dr Livingstone who visited the area in 1866 writes in his field reports about the visibility of Arab influence in the way the Yao communities plated their crops, the way they dressed and their style of house building.9 Dale F. Eikelman and James Piscatori10 underline the importance of movement in the light of development within Islam. They see religious traffic, next to the influence of physical exchange by trade and pilgrimage, as an imaginary travel, in which the imagined connection with holy centers plays a significant role in the notion of religious belonging over distance, collective identity with people on different places and the spreading of ritual practice. This notion of religious belonging seems to be one of the most important reasons for first conversions to Islam, initially by distinguished Yao chiefs. These chiefs saw in conversion a possibility to strengthen relations with their prestigious trading partners. Conversion to Islam meant upward social mobility and enhanced their position and status as traditional leaders in their communities. Other motivations were the ambition to gain literacy and modernization, and the need to keep authority and power over other traditional leaders in the region.
To be able to understand the impact of introduction of Islam in Malawi in the early days, we need to take a closer look at the way this happened. At first Sufi brotherhoods found their way to Yao communities in the region due to trade with the Swahili-Arabs from the East coast. Sufism is seen as a mystical movement within Sunni Islam that is not so much based on the holy scriptures but more on rituals and practices and thus seems more tolerant to local traditions and beliefs. Quadriya and Shadihiya (Muslim brotherhoods within the Sufi tradition) are the main branches that influenced the Yao community's way of life at that time. The timeframe of introduction of Sufism12 in Malawi is not entirely clear.
Greenstein13 dates the emergence of Sufism in Nyasaland back to the early 1920s. Wile Bone,14 who in his work focused on the contact between the Swahili Arabs and the Yao communities, states that at least as early as 1700 CE Islamic elements played a role in Yao settlements. Dr. Shareef Mahomed declares that it is generally agreed that there were two phases in which Islamic impact was felt in Malawi. The first phase was during the pre-colonial period where due to trade of the Yao, Chewa and Nkhonde people with the Swahili-Arabs, the first Islamic centre was founded in Nkhotakota in 1840. The second phase is associated with the active proselytizing, which took place after the declaration of Nyasaland as a British protectorate in 1891.15 This I will focus on later.
Many authors16 claim that the success of Islam in Malawi lies in its tolerance of local practice and traditions. The Swahili Arabs did not introduce Islam as a non-tolerant, fixed religious structure, but rather in terms of customs and practices.17 Among these, the initiation rites became major vehicles of Islamization. Islamic elements were introduced into traditional Yao ceremonies which were turned into religious initiations. The introduction of Islam must also be attributed to the fact that the caravans usually had, what has been termed mwalims (Muslim teachers), with them.18 These usually more educated mwalims joined the caravans as secretaries to the heads of the caravans, but they also helped to spread with messages that local chiefs might wish to send to each other or to their contacts on the coast.
It was not so much these mwalims that worked on directly training Malawian men in the word of Islam, but rather they inspired teachers as Sheikh Abdallah Haji Mkwanda and his pupil Sheikh Thabit Muhammad Ngaunje. Due to their extensive travelling in the country, these sheikhs instructed people in Islamic beliefs and practices and encouraged literacy in Arabic and Swahili along the coastal Yao settlements. They also became involved in training young men— particularly the sons and nephews of the chiefs - as mwalimu. Some of these young men went to the coast for further training.19 With the arrival of these mwalims and sheikhs, the educational system of madrassah was introduced. However elementary, this learning system gave the Yao Muslims a sense of spiritual and moral orientation, which contributed to their cultural identity. While the exploratory trips of Dr Livingstone and the following missionaries established Christianity in the country, Islam had a head start, especially in communities around the lake. Even though Islam was not developed on a large scale, its influence and strategic relations were a fact.
The first contact of Christian missionaries with these Islamic Yao communities was described as opportunistic instead of hostile. Resistance to this contact came mainly from the side of the Swahili trading partners. They feared that the Europeans would try to end the lucrative trade in slaves and ivory.21 Around 1880, these relationships were influenced by events on a larger scale: the European scramble for colonial control in African countries. This resulted in hostile sentiments all over East-Africa. Eventually, this led to an armed conflict in Malawi in 1891 between the Swahili-Arabs and the British colonizers. In this atmosphere of hostility and violence, Yao chiefs chose the side of their political and economic trading partners, the Swahili Arabs. The conflict ended in 1895 when the British regime established a Protectorate. This military defeat was a major setback for Yao communities. Their leaders lost their economic and political power. Arguing from the fact that Yao's chose the side of Swahili Arabs during the years of struggle, substantial conversion to Islam within Yao communities during this period can be seen as a political reaction to the British rulers.22 During these years of confusion and conflict, the connection with the Swahili-Arabs and resistance to the British colonizers gave the Yao a distinct identity.23 With the departure of the Swahili Arabs this sense of identity stayed behind, and by the practice and organizational structures of Sufism, it developed from mainly a political to a more religious movement.
As noted earlier, the madrassah education system seemed a good move initially. However, with the British protectorate in place and the Christian missions settled, it became clear that the Christian educational system was more lucrative and gave access to the paid sector of the colonial society. The fear of Christian indoctrination, by attending Christian schools, stayed within the Islamic community until president Banda and even president Muluzi's government period. This led to a situation in which Muslims were stigmatized as illiterate and not very intelligent people. For a long time some Muslims hid their Islamic identity because of this. If a Muslim was to take a place in a higher section of society, he would often change his name to avoid the stigma attached to his religious orientation. An example of this is Dr Baliki Muluzi, Malawi's second president, who changed his name to Edison Muluzi during his years at college.
Muslims in Malawi Today
If we take a close look at the Muslim community in Malawi in 2007, we can distinguish two main groups: a more traditional, usually older group, that still practices Quadriya Islam;26 and a more universally orientated, younger group, that often practices a reformed version of Islam. While many Muslims, mainly in higher circles of society, want to hide this division within their religious community, tensions are visible on a political, social and economic level within society. This polarization is the logical effect of a modernization process. During the Islamic revival in the 1980s, the younger part of the Islamic community, that had access to secular education, started longing for a purer way of practicing Islam, than was practiced by the older generation, who were usually illiterate and did not have access to secular education. Whereas the older generation mainly practices a formof Islamthat was historically intertwined with the Yao's cultural identity, the younger generation started supporting a version that is intrinsically connected to a more universal way of practicing Islam. Language is found to be a dividing factor, whereas the older generation uses ChiChewa and ChiYao27 as their main form of communication, English and to a lesser extent Arabic are becoming more popular within the younger reformists circles.
The resistance to change in the practice of Islam fromthe side of the Quadriya community is mainly based on fear of losing social and cultural status. With the introduction of reform Islam, the ascribed status of respect for and power of elderly is changing into an achieved status, gained by the amount of effort an individual puts into being a good Muslim. Abdul Wahid, a young sheikh in a small community near Zomba, told me how his father never supported his academic ambitions and rejected the ways he views Islam. "What is trusted in the heart is difficult to change" describes the emotions shared by many members of the traditionally older generation regarding this "new Islam". Since education became more accessible—also in the lower socio-economic classes of society—many followers of the reformist movement stated that Quadriya would slowly disappear: "with the new knowledge of Islam they would realize that their way of practicing of Islam was "impure". These "impure" practices would be replaced by the "purer" new Islamic values and norms from a universal acknowledged Islam".
But this has not entirely happened. Quadriya Islam—with the existence of Quadriya Muslim Association (QMAM), AQSA (At-Tariqatul Qadria Sunni Association) and ASUM (Association of Sunni Madrassah's)—obtained legal representation in civil society. However, this development contributed to further polarization of the two Islamic groups within the state. This polarization was no longer based only on a generational conflict, but also takes place on an ideological, gerontocratic, social cultural and even political level. For the Quadriya Muslims, religion is intertwined with feelings of loyalty to local factors and traditions. For this reason, it creates feelings of resistance to factors hostile to these cultural traditions and practices.
Reform of Islam in Malawi
One of the first signs of reform within the Islamic community in the region dates back to 1937, when the term "sukuti" (to be quiet)29 was noted in research by Clyde Mitchell. He wrote about a dispute in the Jalasi's chiefdom in which Jalasi stated "The lord does not like dancing at funerals and we don't want Sukuti in this land, Islam is of the flag and came a long time ago". Jalasi didn't want the reformed "sukuti" (silent) way of practicing Islam since this was not the way it was passed on by their fore elders.30 An even earlier historical incident mentions the term "sukuti" in the Malawian context. During the funeral of Muhammad Masudi Ntaula in 1934, Sheikh Mufti Ali bin Salim led the funeral procession. While Sheikh Muhammad Masudi Ntaula identified with the Shadihiya Islam; Mufti Ali bin Salim called upon the people to be "sukuti".31 "Sukuti" is mentioned as a way of practicing a reformed version of Islam.
Sheikh Mufti Ali bin Salim spent some time on the east coast where he had access to different knowledge on Islam that he in his way tried to pass on. This incident can be seen as the introduction of "sukuti" in Malawi. Alan Thorold states that sukuti is a scriptural reform process that came up as an anti-Sufi movement.32 He states that the practice of Islam in the light of sukuti was more based on the religious scripts than the Sufi traditions, Quadriya and Shadihiya, were. It was only in the 1970s that sukuti was being used to refer to anything remotely reformist within Islam in Malawi. The main points of argument for division where based on specific practices like sikiri,33 specific food habits and prayer on Friday, the holy day of Islam. From this time on sukuti became a concept used for everything that is reformist within the Islamic community in Malawi, while on itself it is not a "true" path within the Islamic tradition.
The next phase of reform in Malawi started to take shape in the 1970s. One of the most important developments that contributed to the revival of Islam in Malawi was the new trend of Muslim students to go abroad for educational purposes. This development started from 1964 onwards when President Banda wanted to end the "marriage between religion and education", as he called it. Although this did not remove the Christian bias from the educational system, a small group of Muslim students were given the opportunity to follow higher secular education. The academic qualifications gained provided them access to the paid sector of society and turned them into role models for the Muslim community in Malawi. An even smaller group went to study in Islamic as well as non-Islamic states abroad. When these students returned to Malawi, they were full of ideas and inspiration to make a change in the position of Muslims in their home country. Their experiences abroad gave them insight in the double marginal position of their Muslims compatriots, who were not only the underdog of society on a socioeconomic level, but were also on an ideological level cut off from the wider Islamic world. They saw many differences in the practice of Islam between the countries they visited and their home country. To bring about change, these young students shared the ambition to pass on their new knowledge and experiences. Sometimes, their enthusiasm made them bluntly undermine the respect and traditional authority of elder members in their community. As some of my respondents stated, this can be seen as the starting point of the intergeneration conflict which led to the existing polarization in the Islamic community. The rise of the Muslim Students Association in 1982 was a significant event in this revival and with their slogan "No Qadiriyya! No Sukutiyya! Islamiyya!" they set their reform agenda in the country.
The revival of Islam in Malawi is also in a way connected to the arrival of Bakili Muluzi as president in 1994. For the first time Muslims felt they could openly voice their opinion and express their needs. During his presidential term, much of the existing Islamic infrastructure in Malawi was built. Islam became more visibly present in the country; a development that provoked reaction. President Bakili Muluzi also caught the attention of many Islamic states in the Middle East as a Muslim president in a predominantly Christian country, and diplomatic relations with states such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were thus established. These developments opened up the public debate on themes as halal food, fair representation within the educational system and legal representation in other important decision-making bodies in society. This can be seen as politics of recognition for a religious group whose members for a long time were not able to practice their rights as citizens.
An Islamic Identity
The trend in Malawi is that students develop an Islamic orientation and identity by following secular education. After graduation, they can fulfill important positions within society that reflect their Islamic identity. As I observed, a large portion of the young reformist Muslims follow a similar path in life. They usually come from a lower middle class family and follow secondary and tertiary education through funding from one of the main Islamic education foundations like Islamic Zakaat Fund (IZF) and the African Development and Educational Fund (ADEF). By studying in one of the many Islamic boarding schools in the country, their Islamic orientation and identity is strengthened. A small number get the opportunity to study abroad and usually end up in positions of importance in the secular or religious spheres in society. The ones that obtain advanced religious education usually find a job as a sheikh in one of the many village mosques in the country.
Formal education, the written word, abstract ethical codes, universal prophets, and holy land for all of humankind serves to elevate their appeal above more restricted terrains. They provide the discourse for the elaboration of a secondary moral and ideological identity beyond that given in the immediacy of local groupings.
In access to further education, young Malawian Muslims find the opportunity to create their own moral and ideological identity that gives them the courage to break free from the social and cultural structures of community and family. Through contact with different cultures, for example teachers from Arab states, they are put in an alienated position that creates the space and possibility to think critically and be self-conscious about their own culture and religion. This position challenges them to "play" with their own identity and develop a personal style and gave them the freedom to choose their own path in life, more often a path paved by the words of Quran and Hadith.
The Call for Purification
When this process is observed from a broader perspective, the growth of pietistic movements calling for "purification" of Islam is a regular African trend. The existence of these movements is mainly based on the ambition of a younger generation to make a clear cut distinction between religion and culture. Raymond Williams states:
The critical assumption here is that there are some aspects associated with past religious practice that are fundamental and essential to the continuation of the religion and others that are cultural accoutrements that are not so fundamental.
Thus, the process of searching for an adaptive strategy becomes the attempt to distinguish what is essential in the religion and what is not.35 Jaques Waardenburg talks about a growing trend, where young people reject national or regional traditions to take Quran and Sunnah as their main vehicles of orientation, in order to make a clear distinction between primary religion and secondary traditions.
Based on her findings in rural Sudan, Bernal states that transnational and fundamental37 ways of Islam give a moral base that challenges local traditions.
The scriptural knowledge is seen as superior to the local tradition, and is connected to and associated with Western civilization and formal education. This desire for modernization and call for purification of Islam was part of the quest for legal and moral representation of Islam within the public discourse of the Malawian society; a quest I call the politics of recognition. Within this quest, participation in the secular field played an essential role for uplifting the image of Islam. Image building combined with the need for unity, are main points on the reformist agenda. A good example of this came to me during an MSA conference with the central theme: "The role of Muslim university and college students in the promotion of Islam in Malawi" in which promoting equal representation and uplifting of the image of Islam came forward as points of central focus. During the conference, speakers concentrated on physical representation of Islam within society by way of dressing. Examples would be the wearing of hijab for women or jeleba for men within a secular position in society, at university as well as in their further careers. Muslims students were told that they, being role models for the Islamic community in Malawi, are the ones that have the power to make Islam a more prominent part of Malawian society.
Through the development of a better educated and internationally oriented Islamic elite in Malawi and their proclamation of Islamic identity, they cleared the way for the quest for recognition and equal representation within their national environment. This caused an upsurge of public representation and awareness of Islam within the state of Malawi. It resulted in a campaign for legal tolerance and civil rights—as freedom of religious expression and access to public means. A good example of this struggle for the politics of recognition is the 1998 public fatwa against anti-Islamic propaganda machineries
"I feel that I belong to a worldwide community. I see Islam as a body. . . if an arm gets hurt. . . the whole body feels the pain." (Hadith)
This statement comes from a young MSA member I talked to on a dawah meeting at Masongola secondary school. The reaction came up during a conversation on the hostility towards Islam due to events around the world, and one-sided world media coverage of these events, mainly from a Western Christian point of view. We live in a global social reality where borders of communication fade out, and the maintenance and extension of transnational religious communities becomes easier. New ways of personal and interpersonal communication make the exchange of ideas, images and thoughts as well as financial and ideological support over national boarders easier. Haynes points out that globalization stimulates the growth of transnational religious networks.
Until the mid 1970s, the Muslims in Malawi were, apart from a couple of contacts, isolated from the worldwide Islamic community. With a president like Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who wanted to keep modernity on the other side of the border, this did not really change until 1994, when Bakili Muluzi came to power through a referendum. The opportunity for new diplomatic and economic relations with different countries opened up the society and no longer halted influences from outside. The event of the so called five Al Qaeda suspects illustrates all different transnational influences I will describe in the following paragraph. In 2003, five foreign Muslims who were respected members of the Islamic community in Malawi were taken out of the country by the CIA on suspicion of being involved with the Al Qaeda network, without being able to exercise their right for a legal process. This event caused much commotion within the Islamic community and left many Muslims disappointed in their government and the role of MAM (Muslim Association Malawi) in dealing with these events. This tension demonstrates the diversity of transnational influences within the Malawian Muslim community.
Media and Literature
The first transnational influence I would like to lay out is media and literature. The Islamic community was and is aware of the negative image Islam has been carrying for a long time. Biased international media do not help in bringing about a balance and changing this image. Nevertheless different forms of media in Malawi, like Radio Islam, play an important role in promoting a better image of Islam and creating an understanding about the religion within the nation. Next to promoting a better image of Islam, the radio station and other forms of media—columns in newspapers and Islamic magazines—have a programmatic way of presenting Islam. It focuses mainly on the do's and don'ts of being a good Muslim. In short, this can be seen as the promotion of reform Islam brought by modern media. The Islamic Information Bureau is another example of the growth of accessibility of Islamic literature and text in Malawi.
The rise of institutions like this and the growing number of Islamic media knowledge about Islam is becoming more widespread within the society.
Another very important transnational influence on the reformation process of Islam in Malawi is human exchange. The first generation of what we now call new reformists, which in the early 1980s returned to Malawi after studying abroad, were the frontrunners in the reform process. They were the ones who received foreign education in the secular as well as the Islamic field. With the international connections made during this time, more funds found their way to Malawi. The people of influence on the reformation process were not only teachers and scholars from abroad, who came to Malawi for conferences or to teach, but also students who came back after their time abroad. Both parties brought along new knowledge about Islam which had an extensive influence on the growth of organizations and projects within the civil society of Malawi. Dr Shareef Mahomed told me, The Islamic Revival of the Middle East reflects in all the areas of the world. In Malawi it was mainly students who have been abroad, who brought back new knowledge and understanding on Islam. They really made a difference and contributed to the changes within the Malawian Islamic Community.
This form of human exchange had a great effect on the transfer of ideas and images that enforced an imagined connection with Islam around the world, and made the marginal position of Muslims in the country painfully clear and the need to make a change more urgent. This knowledge contributed largely to creating a background to the struggle for the politics of recognition of Islam in Malawi.
The rise of human exchange has also contributed to a feeling of belonging to a worldwide Islamic community.
Robertson notes that:
Even for relatively remote groups, transnational narratives construct and negotiate the relationships between multiple identities by tying individuals and communities into larger common constituencies.
Judging from my personal observation, I state that only for a relatively small group of Muslim elite, this exchange created a feeling of belonging to a worldwide Islamic community. For most Malawian Muslims who have the opportunity to follow higher education, it is merely the ambition to study and work in different countries that creates a desire to be a part of transnational community or to be able to use the possibilities this community offers. The loyalty of this group seems closer to the nation state and their religious community within the state, than to a transnational religious community.
This brings us to the importance of financial flows as a transnational influence on the reform movement of Islam in Malawi. In the 1970s, the wealth of the oil boom in the Middle East brought countries like Saudi-Arabia and Kuwait the financial means to develop and support different Islamic organizations, projects and initiatives worldwide.
Malawi also profited from these large amounts of money flowing from those oil-booming countries. Money coming from the Middle East, Indian communities in South Africa, Pakistan and also Malaysia, was channeled into the country through MAM. Munawwarah Islamic Dawah45 claims in their situational report from 2005, that ninety percent of the money for development of the Islamic community in Malawi was donated by foreign agencies. Most of the money that arrived in the country during this time was invested in Islamic infrastructure like the building of schools, mosques, Islamic centre but also in basic needs such as the development of water wells and providing food support. When the physical infrastructure was in place the focus of investment shifted to education. From halfway into the 1980s, most of the financial support was invested in providing study funds and the development of Islamic centers and boarding schools throughout Malawi. The regional coordinator of the African Development and Educational Fund (ADEF) states The Muslim community is developing in terms of education, and they are becoming more and more visible in the society. Education is the main vehicle for development and reformation of the Islamic community in Malawi.
Due to international conflict, like the Kuwait war from 1990 until 1991, the financial flow from mainly the Middle-East dried out. Dr Shareef Mahomed claims that there is no funding coming from abroad at the moment. Islamic organizations and projects in Malawi at the moment are mainly funded by rental of real-estate and to a lesser extent from the Asian Islamic community within Malawi. Changes in the World Order and Global Events The last transnational influence on the changing Islam I identified is changes in the World Order and events on a global scale. The downfall of the USSR and the disappearance of the two major power structures (East and West) are seen by many authors as a turning point in the globalization process.47 The flow of money, images, ideas, media and commodities intensified. One of my respondents whom I will call Ali claimed that the United States needed a new enemy to keep up their economic development which mainly depended on the firearms industry—and trade.48 In Islam they found their new enemy, and the anti-Islamic propaganda machinery was activated. The war in Iraq, the bombings in Pakistan and the controlling function of the United States after 11 September 2001, have intensified.
This declaration of the "war on terror" had an indirect effect on the stagnation of development within the Islamic community in Malawi. A good example of Malawi's connection to these global events is the non-active status of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) that had their regional office in Zomba. In a conversation with its former director he told me that his organization was forced to stop its activities under the pressure of the United States.49 The reason for this was thatWAMY received its funding from the Middle-East, being aworldwide organization with its head office in Saudi-Arabia. Also the African Muslim Agency (AMA), an organization that can be seen as one of the most important organizations in the physical development of Islamic civil society in the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, has minimized its activities in Malawi. This organization was on a list, put together by the US government, of organizations that have ties with militant and extremist Islamist organizations in the Middle East.50 The United States has a dominant position in monitoring money flows from this region and with their powerful financial position in Malawi, as one of the largest foreign donors for development aid, they had the power to put pressure on the Malawian government.
Nina Glick Shiller states that it would be nai¨ve to view all states as sovereign actors in the world, because this rules out the financial and military power that some nation states have over others.51 This position of power of a territorial regime over the political, economic and social life of other states we can call imperialism. Marxist theorists saw financial capital as an instrument of intervention in sovereign states. In today's world this financial capital takes the form of loans, investments and foreign aid. This leads to the following conclusion: Imperialistic domination can, through military power and global financial reach, influence less powerful states in their actions and policies. When J.F. Kennedy stated ‘Foreign aid is a method by which the United States maintains a position of influence and control around the world', he openly acknowledged the power relations that are connected to foreign aid.52 Coming back to the example of the Al Qaeda Five, one can see that the financial imperialist position of the United States, in this situation, undermines the sovereignty of Malawi's nation-state.
Changing Position of Muslims within the State - A Question of Unity
We all believe in the fundaments of Islam, the five pillars.We practice Ramadan together, pay Zakaat if we can, we pray five times a day and all wash our feet and b ody before we enter the mosque. It is only minor differences about small unimportant things. We are all united in our faith and that's what's most important.
This I often heard from Muslims who practice a reformed version of Islam in Malawi. If we look closer at the Islamic community in Malawi there lies a paradox in this statement. On the one hand many Muslims make an effort in media and politics to focus on unity within the Islamic community in Malawi, while on the other hand most of my respondents gave me a similar reaction on questions regarding Quadriya Islam in Malawi. The answer was usually something in the spirit of "Quadriya's are ignorant, they haven't learned about the true Islam yet". This statement shows a patronizing attitude towards Muslims who follow the Quadriya Islam. So on the one hand reformers want the Islamic community to be united, while on the other hand they do not really take seriously Muslims who have a different view on the practice of Islam.
Levels of Loyalty
The crux of this paradox lies within levels of loyalty. To whom are you loyal in different social situations and circumstances? Evans-Pritchard developed a model of loyalty based on his research on modes of livelihood and political institutions within Nuer communities in Sudan.54 He concludes: the smaller the group, the stronger the sentiment that is binding. As social distance grows, feelings of loyalty change. The common denominator is the binding factor in the question of loyalty. If we take this social distance theory to analyze the Islamic community in Malawi, we can see that ideological differences play an important role at a micro-level. But these differences become less important when moving to a meso-level, that of the state. Could it be that Muslims are, regardless of their differences among themselves, more loyal to Muslims on a national level, than they are to Christians?
Reviewing the theory of social distance on the Malawian situation this seems not true if we look at the differences in presidential support. I have observed that many Quadriya Muslims have strong sentiments towards current president Mutharica, while the reform Muslims mainly support the former president Muluzi. The reason for this is mainly speculative. It could be that Quadriya Muslims, during President Muluzi's time, felt excluded from his politics, because they were exhorted towards reformed or as he called it united Islam. The Quadriya Muslims felt that he did not acknowledge the Quadriya community as a separate Islamic group to have different points of interest.
Muslims on the other hand, felt more at ease and understood by a president with the same religious background, who made major contributions to the politics of recognition of their religious denomination and propagated the idea of one united Islamic community in Malawi. So in this case social distance, even at the level of the state, and polarization within the Islamic community still exist. If we review the position of Muslims within the state to get an idea of the factors of identification and loyalty that are of importance, it soon becomes clear that the civil society is a main body of representation for all religious denominations within the state. Internal factors from within the Muslim community, external factors from the Christian part of society and transnational factors affect the positioning of Muslims within Malawian context.
Islamic Organizations and Infrastructure
The development of many Islamic organizations, projects and initiatives within the social field of civil society of the state have had a large impact on the politics of recognition of Muslims within the state. Since 1957, MAM has been the main umbrella body of Muslim representation within the state that binds Muslims of all walks of life. Political statements, official reactions in media and, for a long time, financial flows, have been organized and monitored by this Muslim body. MAM aims to represent the whole Muslim community in Malawi but focuses mainly on reform range of thoughts. From riots during the time of for example the Al Qaeda Five we can see that many Muslims do not feel represented by this body and there is a certain feeling of being left out in their focus of development and attention.
The Muslim Students Association, founded in 1982, was very active the first few years of its existence. Many camps, volunteer activities, discussion meetings and dawah' activities were organized to actively carry out their mission of encouraging Muslim youth in various educational institutions to stay in touch with their Islamic identity. But, as Matter states in his dissertation on the National Muslim Students Association, this development slowed down in the last ten years.55 The organization still exists, but with the decrease in financial support, the number of activities slowed down as well.
MSA together with the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) had a big impact on the promotion of the importance of secular education and madrassah education in Malawi. They contributed for example to the development of the integrated religious syllabus for primary and secondary schools.
Next to these two important organizations there are many international, national, regional and community based Islamic organizations, projects and initiatives in Malawi that together form civil representation of Muslims in the state. Most of these organizations focus on the central and southern regions of the country, since this is where most Muslims live. There are organizations that focus on the arrangement of physical space (like building projects), on vulnerable groups (like women, children and youngsters) and on propaganda through madrassahs and dawah56 in which programs such as breaking the fast or halal slaughtering are organized to propagate the "true way" of practicing Islam. In 2007, the main focus in almost all programs lies on education, since this is seen as the main way towards development and reformation of Islam in Malawi.
Reformed Islam is often seen as a rejection of the Western World or a fight between East and West, while "modern Islam" and reform Islam in particular, is intrinsically intertwined with Western institutions such as education. Simone states, referring to her research in rural Sudan, reformists often use Western intellectual tools to achieve their goals. People such as Ibrahim Milazi - former high commissioner for Malawi in the United Kingdom and Ambassador to Libya - are concrete examples of this strategy.
Mr Milazi is the product of Western, secular education and a role model within the Islamic community in Malawi. To promote social, economic and political development within the Muslim community, the reformist wing focuses on a formof secular education in which devotion and Islamic orientation are seen as essential for development.58 "If you develop one side it means that they can't contribute to their religion, if you develop the other side it means they can't contribute to their society. The combination makes it complete" was a comment from a teacher of Islamic studies at Blantyre Islamic Mission that supports this assumption.
Since many Muslims students follow their secondary education at one of the many Islamic boarding schools in the country, this has an effect on their religious identity. An anonymous Muslim who followed his education on an Islamic boarding school near Zomba explains: "The importance of my faith changed by acquiring more knowledge about Islam, it encouraged me to be a good Muslim and to learn about Allah and Mohammed". But the social impact of this development lies not only in the individual; also their home communities and families are touched by this new input and exposure to the practice of Islam. A young Malawian man who studied abroad stated the following: "When I came back from my study in Iran people were very interested in what I learned, especially people from my home community, my friends and brothers".
One could say that reform Islam affects students as well as their families and communities due to a trickle down effect of information that contributed to the changes in Islam in Malawi during the last thirty to forty years. This change is visible on the streets, at colleges and on universities all over Malawi. A teacher at Chancellor College stated that the number of girls walking around campus dressed in hijab has grown extensively in the last five years. With the rise of Islamic organizations and infrastructure in the early 1980s, there was a growing feeling of fear within the Christian society. A Roman Catholic newspaper talks about the sudden outburst in the spread of Islamic literature, Muslim youth meetings and the use of mass media, a development that alarmed Christian churches.60 This feeling of Islamophobia and the difficultly in making progress as a religious minority group in a Christian dominated society comes up clearly in the story of the burning mosques in the North.61 Many Muslims I spoke with were offended by the fact that after this disturbing event, organizations focusing on conflict resolution were setup in places like Mangochi, where Christians were the victims; while in the North, where the mosques were burned, only financial assistance for reparations was offered. No further social assistance in interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution was even considered in the North where the Muslims were the victims. This, for many Malawian Muslims, is a clear example of the Christians bias in Malawi. A Muslim I met at the Islamic Information Bureau in Mangochi voiced his opinion regarding this development:
"Interfaith dialogue is good, but is has to be on an equal ground, not only towards Muslim[s], also towards Christians".
Muslims from different walks of life are on the one hand united within civil society representation; while on the other hand, this exacerbates polarization within the Muslim community. But a stronger sentiment is the pain from their historic marginalization. They still experience resistance from many sections of their society. The fact that the main societal structure is based on Christian norms and values, and most media establishments and organizational structures have a majority of Christians, makes it hard for Muslims to feel as equal participants in their national community. Although the politics of recognition have improved the position of Malawian Muslims within their society, there is still a long way to go before true equality, for each social and religious group, will be achieved.
Local Islam in Malawi has undergone a metamorphosis through influences from the transnational field. Economical, political as well as social connections have opened up opportunities for the development of a reformed Islam in Malawi. Discussing transnational connections and local changes, it was Dr Shareef Mahomed who gave me a good example of this. Not long ago he attended a conference in Beirut, Lebanon, on the "Cartoon issue".62 Muslim participants from Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, and other Islamic countries attended the conference because they were concerned about the global interaction between Islam and Christianity and the contradictions of Western freedoms, such as freedom of expression, when they offend others.
This kind of association with the wider Islamic world does not make a significant difference for the larger Muslim community in Malawi. But through this example it is evident how technological development and economic connections, symbols of globalization and transnationalism, can create a notion of an imagined transnational religious community. Looking at the religious identity of Malawian Muslims I conclude that there is no sense of a transnational religious identity. Rather I would say that transnational influences played an important role in creating the ambition, shared by many young Muslims, to study or work in Islamic as well as non-Islamic countries abroad.
These are mainly young Muslims from lower middle class families, who, with the support of scholarships and grants, completed their education in Islamic boarding schools. These young Muslims are taught Western secular education in an Islamic environment that strengthens their religious identity. Their contact with foreign teachers, sheikhs and sponsors stimulates them to become aware of their own identity. This more often creates a notion of "transnational religious longing to be" rather than "transnational religious belonging", a longing to expand their personal horizons, through academic and work experience abroad.
The reason why the reformist movement of Islam is mainly attracting young Malawian Muslims is, on the one hand, connected to the feeling of wanting to break free from gerontocratic social structures of family and community; and on the other hand, the need to make individual choices in life. Without a doubt there is a materialistic ambition that plays a part as well, with the opening up of new possibilities and opportunities in life.
The reformist movement has developed into a growing religious group in Malawi through the enthusiasm and fighting power of young urban Muslims. The politics of recognition created a larger social base within the public space of society due to the developments within civil society, and contributed to the fact that Islam has a more equal and recognized place within the religious sphere in Malawi. The growing visibility of Islamon the streets, in schools and in workplaces and the fact that there are more Muslims in important decision making bodies in society, are proof of this. The politics of recognition as a strategy for the future has been the main building block for progress of reformed Islam in Malawi.
These developments would not have been possible without help from the transnational Islamic community. This basically refers to the influences of media and literature, human exchange, financial support and world events, all of which have changed loyalties and identifications of Muslims within the state of Malawi. Transnational influences contributed to the development of a larger Islamic civil society and influenced the practice of Islam. These transnational influences, mentioned above, contributed to large-scale developments within the religious infrastructure and accessibility of information and education for a growing number of Muslims. But as seen before, it was not only transnational but also national influences like polarization within the Islamic community as well as the Christian bias in society that affected this development.
However much has been achieved for equal and respectful representation of Islam within the state, there is still a long way to go. Mainly in the rural areas, where the illiteracy rate ofMuslims is still about ninety percent, there is still the feeling of being second class citizens in a large part of the Muslim community. With the Quadriya being loyal to the local community and structure, and the reform movement mainly loyal to the new ideologies of a universal Islam, there is indeed still a long way to go.
To conclude, I state that transnational influences on the reformist Muslims in Malawi have not created a notion of transnational religious identity, but mainly reinforced a stronger religious identity within the national context of Malawi. Furthermore, we can conclude that transnational influences on all mentioned levels—media and literature, human exchange, financial flows and changes in the world order through events on a global scale—have played an important role in the changes in the way Islam is being practiced and taught in the country. In concluding, I would like to make the following statement that describes the position of Islam within today's Malawi: "Islam is not growing in numbers but in visibility and influence".63 With the support of a transnational community, a minority religion in a small country in Africa found the strength to battle for practice of their religious right within the national context of their society.
I would like to thank the respondents and professionals who assisted me in conducting and processing this research. Additionally, I would like to thank David Bone for sharing his knowledge and wisdom and his challenging way of thinking; Alan Thorold for his enthusiastic reactions and critical view on my research and writings; Imuran Shareef Mahomed whom by his trust, outspokenness and knowledge, gave me access to very valuable information and contacts within my research community; Ibrahim Milazi for his inexhaustible patience in sharing his personal knowledge and experience with me during some of the long talks we had; and to many others whom in their friendship, understanding and way of thinking, kept me sharp and critical during my research and writing process.