"These people in Africa have been Muslims for as long as they can remember. They've always considered the way they practice Islam to be both African and Muslim and there was never a conflict between those two things."

The rich tapestry of African cultures fascinates Michelle Johnson. As an associate professor of anthropology, she explores the religious and cultural practices of the Mandinga people in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau and in Portugal, the country's former colonizer.

Guinea-Bissau, which is nestled between Senegal and Guinea, is roughly the size of Delaware and has fewer people than Philadelphia — about 1 million. The Mandinga comprise the fourth-largest ethnic group in the country. Many Mandinga people immigrated to Portugal in the late 20th century, especially following a violent civil war in 1998, creating a complex blend of beliefs and traditions.

"These people in Africa have been Muslims for as long as they can remember," says Johnson. "They've always considered the way they practice Islam to be both African and Muslim and there was never a conflict between those two things."

As the Mandinga in Portugal encountered Muslims from Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they began to realize that the way they practice Islam differs from other Muslims. The Mandinga, for example, practice initiation rituals, including circumcision for boys and girls, writing on children's hands and naming practices. They believe that without these rituals, Allah won't hear their prayers.

"The life-course rituals, which they have always cast as Muslim rituals, are really Mandinga rituals," Johnson says. This new realization has stirred debate within the Mandinga community as to whether they should give up their African customs and continue to practice only those Islamic customs common in other parts of the world, such as giving alms, regular prayer and traveling to Mecca.

Johnson studies the ways in which this debate is being argued through ritual. "They are arguing about what it means to be a Mandinga person, what it means to be a member of an ethnic group in Africa and a practitioner of the world religion of Islam," she says. The discussion is divided by gender. The men, who travel and study the Qur'an more rigorously than the women, tend to be more concerned about being cosmopolitan Muslims. Many attend mosque on Fridays and dress like Muslims from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, women are more focused on the rituals that have always centered their world. "There is this huge debate going on. These men are saying, 'I don't want my daughter to be circumcised,' and the women are horrified by that," Johnson says.

While some Mandinga start to question their old ways, they also are adopting new traditions. Many now make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon return from the journey, pilgrims are often greeted by a distinctly Mandinga welcoming ceremony called a bunya. Again, the practice is divided by gender, with women hosting the ceremonies, and men tending publicly to dismiss them.

Islam is Europe's fastest-growing religion, with 11 million practitioners. "Yet we know relatively little about the lives of practicing Muslims in this diverse continent, especially African Muslims," Johnson says. "My job as an anthropologist is to show what is unique about this group, what is interesting and why we should care." As a teacher and scholar, she clearly welcomes the challenge.

Posted Sept. 9, 2009

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