Muslim Reformists and the State in Benin


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Muslim Reformists and the State in Benin
liste des auteurs
Denise Brégand
liste des rédacteurs
Soares, Benjamin F.
René Otayek
en Political liberalization and economic reform, the weakening of the state, and increased global interconnections have all had profound effects on Muslim societies and the practice of Islam in Africa. The contributors to this volume investigate and illuminate the changes they have brought, through detailed case studies of Muslim youth activists, Islamic NGOs, debates about Islamic law, secularism and minority rights, and Muslims and the political process in both conflict and post-conflict settings. Their work offers fresh perspectives on the complexity of Muslim politics in contemporary Africa.
Book Title
Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa
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New York
Palgrave Macmillan
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C h ap t e r 6
Muslim Reformists and the
State in Benin
Denise Brégand

With the promulgation of its constitution in December 1990, Benin became a
secular republic guaranteeing religious freedom and freedom of association and
recognizing religious values while stipulating that no religious party may field
candidates in elections.
The establishment of a new political regime, the outcome of a national conference
held in February 1990 under the presidency of Monseigneur de Souza, then
archbishop of Cotonou, was followed by a proliferation of religious movements, most
of them Christian, and by a greater visibility of religion even in the political
sphere: Nicéphore Soglo, elected president in 1991, turned toward vodou and established a holiday celebrating traditional cults, and, in the presidential elections of
1996, Mathieu Kérékou ran as a new man; he converted to Pentecostalism and never
appeared in public without his Bible (Strandsberg 2000; Mayrargue 2004). Religious
and political discourses were intermingled: “God loves Benin,” as demonstrated by
the fact that he gave it democracy and foreign aid (Mayrargue 2002).
If we compare the religious situation in Benin to that in other West African countries, in particular to the one in neighboring Nigeria, it appears to be a model of good
religious coexistence, and Christians, Muslims, and adherents of traditional religions
are often found in the same family. However, in the context of religious revival following the end of the revolutionary regime, certain leaders who perceived the risks of
religious radicalization established, as early as the 1990 conference, an interreligious
dialogue1 which continued throughout the early years of the decade in lectures and
publications.2 Few Muslims participated in the national conference; they had until
then emphasized trade and were not very interested in politics. But this situation is
changing. Younger people are more involved in political parties and present
themselves as candidates in elections.
Islam is gaining ground throughout the country. In the 1992 census, it was the
declared religion of 20.6 percent of the population; that figure had increased to
24.4 percent in 2002.3 Muslims are the majority in the north of Benin, constituting
as much as 94.3 percent of the population of Malanville; they remain a minority in

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the south, where they are 14.2 percent of the population of Cotonou and 25.1 percent
of that of Porto Novo, the two principal towns.
Introduced largely by traders, most of them affiliated with Sufi orders (the
Tijaniyya and, more recently, its Niassène branch, associated with the Senegalese
shaykh Ibrahima Niasse, have supplanted the Qadiriyya, which is nevertheless still
active), Islam has been reinterpreted and reappropriated. It has experienced considerable growth in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first
century because of numerous conversions. This “traditionalist” Islam, so labeled because
it is anchored in local social practices, is a way of life. It structures time, organizing
sociality around the mosque and around ceremonies marking major points in the life
cycle: aqiqa, the naming ceremony for newborns on the seventh day after birth; marriage; ceremonies held one week, forty days, and three months after a death. It is
inseparable from divination and “magic,” and the alfas (Qur'anic scholars trained in
this system), with their talismans and prayers, relieve earthly afflictions.4 Alongside
this “popular” Islam, the Sufi orders developed in intellectual circles and were largely
oriented toward mystical quests. Sufism has been renewed by the establishment of
two new orders in Benin: the Nimatullahi order, introduced in 1991 by Yacoubou
Fassassi, grand master of the order for West Africa; and the Alawiyya order, introduced into Porto Novo in 1990 by al-Hajj Saliou Latoundji, a pharmacist and disciple of Shaykh Bentounès, who lives in France. The members of these two new orders,
still few in number, are part of the country’s intellectual and social elite.
In Benin, as in other West African countries, this understanding of Islam has been
contested since the 1970s by graduates of Arab Islamic universities who, deriving
authority exclusively from both the Qur'an and the Sunna, that is, the authoritative
practice of the Prophet Muhammad, want to eradicate everything which does not
stem from these texts. These arabisant graduates are joined by others who have
studied in sub-Saharan Africa, in universities in northern Nigeria, Niamey, or Côte
d’Ivoire. They receive support from international Islamic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) which, at the same time as furnishing humanitarian aid, pursue their
primary goal, da'wa: the call to Islam or propagation of the faith. The principal
Islamic NGOs in Benin have their headquarters in Cotonou. These are the Kuwaitibased Africa Muslim Agency (AMA); the World Organization for Islamic Aid,
founded by the Muslim World League (under Saudi influence); the Libyan-based
Association mondiale de l’appel à l’Islam (AMAI, World Islamic Call Society); and
Al-Muntada al-Islami, a British NGO founded by Muslims of Arab and Asian origin.5 Islamic NGOs of lesser importance, mostly Saudi and Kuwaiti, operate in the
rest of the country. All the NGOs provide humanitarian aid, but their principal goal
remains da'wa, and their “da'wa offices” hire graduates of Arab universities as preachers (on the average forty each in total for the bigger NGOs). They are also intended
to spearhead the African policies of the states which finance them (Schulze 1993;
Mattes 1993). This is particularly clear in the case of the AMAI (as evidenced in its
brochures), in the corridors of its Franco-Arabic school,6 and in the clinic of the
Islamic complex of Cotonou, all of which prominently feature quotations from
Muammar al-Qaddafi. In a very difficult social environment, these NGOs offer jobs
in the religious field to graduates of Arab universities.
However, although the local Islamic arena is often characterized by tensions
between old and new trends, a large number of Muslims are neither members of an

muslim reformists and the state in benin / 123

order, nor reformists, nor fundamentalists; they are not militant and do not involve
themselves in these internal Islamic conflicts.
After presenting the different trends and forms of action of the multifarious
reformist and fundamentalist tendencies, I will examine the relationship between
these trends and the state.
Islamic Renewal: A Fragmented Reformism
Islam and Modernity
The will to reform Islam, apparent throughout the Muslim world, has some of its
roots in the Arabian peninsula with Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), himself inspired by
Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) and an advocate of a rigorist model. The term reformism
designates more precisely the movement which, from the middle of the nineteenth
century up to the years 1935–40, confronted Islam with the problematic of modernity, and whose best-known leaders were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad
'Abduh, and Rashid Rida. By modernity, they meant the mastery of science and of
technological progress, which they deemed necessary to adopt without reservation,
accompanied by a return to the religion of the pious ancestors (al-salaf ). Since then,
other thinkers have influenced the evolution of Islamic thinking in a more political
direction, among them Mawdudi (1903–79), who founded the Jama'at-i-Islami in
the Indian subcontinent in 1941, and Hasan al-Banna (1906–49), who founded the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1929, as well as Sayyid Qutb (1906–66) in the
same movement. All these men continue to influence contemporary Muslims. In
Benin, however, no one refers to these predecessors, nor to the “contemporary
thinkers in Islam” (Benzine 2004), and the term reformism (rejected by the movement’s proponents, who prefer renewal or awakening) is here pragmatic, aiming to
purge Islam of its local adaptations (ceremonies, magical practices) and to return to
the founding texts, the Qur'an and hadith. Different interpretations and meanings
are given to the concept of modernity; here we find a dispersed reformism, ranging
from a reading which situates texts in their historical contexts to a fundamentalist
version which, following a literal interpretation, calls for a return to fundamental
principles and wants to impose its own norms.
In any case, the relationship between Islam and modernity is at the heart of the
question. Everything depends on what one classifies as modernity, and this classification changes from period to period. Reflecting on modernity within reformism,
Olivier Roy states, “One can define modernity in terms of values (those of democracy). Or else one can define modernity in the sense of the individual’s separation
from inherited identities and affiliations and in terms of the affirmation of the
subject” (Roy 2004). As Roy emphasizes, this definition encompasses values within
the sociopolitical domain as well as those pertaining to the individual. By individualizing their religious engagement, everyone is freed from their primordial membership
in family and village (Marie 1997); however, not everyone accepts the values of
Western democracy, whose model has been transplanted to Benin, and the fundamentalists are distinguished by their radical critique of the West, of its values and its
Although it is easy to delineate the extremes within this broad “renewal”
movement, the situation is complex, and reformism encompasses a spectrum ranging

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from a liberal reformism which is open to the world’s changes to the most normative
fundamentalism. Moreover, there exists an indigenous reformism, advocated by men
and women who are often educated and who have occupied important positions in
government or private enterprise, and who categorically refuse the notion of
reformism. Thus the anthropologist going to interview a supposedly “traditionalist”
Muslim may find herself face to face with an interlocutor who has not studied in an
Islamic university but who seeks answers to today’s questions in the Qur'an; a pragmatist, he or she is involved in associations to develop Qur'anic instruction among
Muslims and to promote a return to a more orthodox practice, all the while maintaining ties with the imams. These are the individuals who make “bridges” (Otayek
1993, 8) possible between reformism and Sufi orders, though such bridges still
remain exceptional.
For the purposes of this chapter, I will call “reformists” those who work to reform
Islam, while continuing to envisage it within its present context, and who see no
contradiction between their religion and the political and social changes occurring in
Benin. They are to be distinguished from “fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism
consists in wanting to adhere more closely to religious texts understood literally and,
with a mythic understanding of the early period of Islam, wanting to reestablish its
practices, such as by imitating the clothing of the Prophet Muhammad and going
bearded as he did. The fundamentalists do not reject modernity but consider that it
is already contained in the Qur'an. They accept scientific and technical progress but
oppose the idea that this progress should change society or lifestyles. As one of them
is it seen in the Western manner, encouraging liberty and libertinism? According to me,
modernity is what allows man to stay up to par, to accept scientific discoveries and
adapt them to his Islam. If this is modernity, it is already within Islam. The first sura is
an incitement to research. The Qur'an speaks of biology, of physics, of medicine. You
cannot be a Muslim and avoid modernity, except that a Muslim places limits on

One example illustrates the difference in ways of understanding contemporary
problems: one of the few people I interviewed who declared himself a “reformist,” a
graduate of al-Azhar who taught in a Franco-Arabic school in Porto Novo, participated in awareness days organized by UNAIDS and discussed AIDS prevention in his
sermons, considering that attacking this problem is a part of reform. On the other
hand, a fundamentalist affirmed that prevention can “only encourage debauchery”
and that, in countries where sharia is applied, there is no AIDS problem.
A Heterogeneous Fundamentalist Tendency
Alongside two highly structured and easily identifiable groups, the Tablighi Jama'at
and the Ahmadiyya, there is also a diffuse, unorganized movement which defines
itself as Sunni and presents every degree of dogmatism and rigor.
The Tablighi Jama'at, a missionary organization founded near Delhi in 1927 by
the scholar Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas, has as its goal the propagation of the faith
and the improvement of Muslim belief and practice (Gaborieau 1998). It has spread

muslim reformists and the state in benin / 125

throughout the world since 1947, reaching Benin in 1986 from Nigeria and developing primarily in the south. Its grand assembly in Glodjigbe, on the outskirts of
Cotonou, attracted seven hundred people over three days in February 2005. There
are perhaps a thousand tablighis in Benin. In accordance with their methods of outreach, they travel in groups, preach, and sleep in the mosques. Although they belong
to a transnational movement, they receive no money; they live in poverty, travel
mostly on foot, and must earn a living while remaining entirely at the movement’s
disposition, since belonging to the Tablighi Jama'at requires total commitment. Very
mobile, they do not hesitate to leave Benin to preach in neighboring countries, and
in turn they host Pakistani, Nigerian, and Ghanaian missionaries. They attempt to
re-create the model of the early Muslim community, the golden age, the age of the
Prophet, and they follow a very strict code of daily behavior. They live deeply concerned with purity, in fear of hell, and the women among them are always entirely
veiled in black.
Another transnational proselytizing movement, the Ahmadiyya, was founded in
India at Qadian, where Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1838–1908), “the promised Messiah
and Mahdi,” was born; in 1882, he declared himself a reformer chosen by God
(Friedman 1989). He called on Muslims to renounce holy war and to devote themselves to peaceful proselytism. He encouraged missionary activity throughout the
British Empire and beyond, a program which would be realized by his followers. Jihad
in the sense of holy war was replaced by da'wa or the call to Islam (Gaborieau 2000).
The Ahmadiyya movement arrived in East and West Africa in the first quarter of
the twentieth century (Ajayi and Crowder 1988). It was introduced into Benin in the
1960s, and, after having been evicted under the revolutionary regime, was allowed to
reopen its missions in the context of democratic revival. The movement’s spiritual
and temporal leader, the amir, lives at its headquarters in Porto Novo and sends
missionaries into other provinces. Many other Muslims do not recognize the Ahmadis
as fellow Muslims, and even prohibit them from making the pilgrimage to Mecca. An
ambivalent movement, the Ahmadiyya can be described as fundamentalist in that its
members refer strictly to the Qur'an and to the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad;
on the other hand they call for adaptation to the world, social success, and interfaith
dialogue, and they accord women an important role. In a sermon for the Feast of the
Sacrifice ('Id al-Adha or Tabaski) in February 2002, the amir condemned the attacks
of September 11 and all violence in the name of Islam, insisting on an understanding
of “greater jihad,” a struggle within oneself. The Ahmadiyya has an excellent rapport
with the current regime, and its November 2004 publication Le message told followers,
“Every Ahmadi citizen is free in his political allegiance, but after the electoral contest,
he should support the state and the government in power.”
Fundamentalists with Wahhabist leanings do not distinguish themselves from
other Muslims by setting up their own associations, but rather they exercise a diffuse
influence from where they happen to be situated, their ambition being to promote
the “awakening” of all Muslims. Those with religious diplomas try to obtain positions
as imams in order to lead the Muslim community. “Traditionalist” Muslims and nonMuslims call them “Wahhabis,” but they do not define themselves in terms of the
founders of that ideology, such as Ibn Taymiyya and Abd al-Wahhab; rather, they
strictly observe rules which they have brought back from universities in Medina or

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Kuwait and insist on holding as closely as possible to the texts—that is to say, to their
own reading of them. Their most influential ideologue is certainly Abubakar Gumi
(1922–92; Loimeier 1997, 2003), who in Nigeria in 1978 supported the founding of
the radical movement 'Yan Izala (Jama'at Izalat al-Bid'a wa Iqamat al-Sunna, Society
for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition [i.e., the Sunna]),
whose ideology and activities contributed to the application of sharia criminal law in
the states of northern Nigeria. The 'Yan Izala movement of Malanville, a frontier
town and international marketplace, is directly overseen by the Nigerian organization. It was only able to obtain control of one mosque after bitter local conflicts
(Abdullaye 2003). Other than 'Yan Izala, very small groups calling themselves Ahl
al-Sunna or “people of the Sunna,” mostly in Porto Novo and Cotonou, represent the
most radical wing of this Wahhabist tendency. Finally, there is a broad range of
fundamentalisms circulating within the networks of local mosques, Qur'anic and
Franco-Arabic schools, and international Islamic NGOs.
Islam’s Greatest Visibility in the Public Sphere
Fundamentalism is highly visible in the public sphere, giving non-Muslims an exaggerated impression of its importance. Very attached to form, fundamentalists wear a
jellaba, a long white tunic, over calf-length pants; some wear turbans; and all sport
beards trimmed to a “regulation length.” They seem to enforce this dress code; anyone seeking entry into the circles that control religious employment needs to observe
it. Women must veil themselves from head to toe in black. Wearing the hijab, the
headscarf of women student members of the Association culturelle des étudiants et
élèves musulmans du Bénin (ACEEMUB, Cultural Association of Muslim Students
of Benin), is more a sign of protest.
Islam has achieved greater visibility both in towns and in rural areas. Financed by
NGOs, “Kuwait mosques” have proliferated throughout Benin; the urban religious
landscape has changed with the construction of Islamic complexes that include a
mosque, a clinic, a Qur'anic school, and sometimes an orphanage. The fundamentalists have opened libraries to attract further public attention. Over the past decade,
they have conquered public space in the city of Djougou in a particularly spectacular
manner (Brégand 1999). The concern for madrasa or Franco-Arabic education was
part of the twentieth-century reform movement. All reformists and fundamentalists
insist on the necessity of educating children in religion and developing teaching in
French. School has become a major instrument of da'wa.
In the early 1990s, Arabic-language instruction accompanied Islamization and was
heralded as an “instrument of identity formation and a language of politics” (Otayek
1993, 11). In Benin nowadays, although learning Arabic to understand the Qur'an is
still considered a necessity, campaigns of proselytism are conducted in French, the
language into which the Qur'ans distributed by NGOs are translated. This is certainly one of the reasons for the spectacular success of da'wa. The NGOs, and also
small individual entrepreneurs, open schools, encouraged by the strong demand for
education. Since the liberalization of the economy, the public schools’ insufficient
capacity and poor reputation have encouraged the multiplication of private schools
which welcome students from all social backgrounds; even parents with modest

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incomes (for example, domestic servants and drivers of motorcycle taxis) send their
children to private schools, because in Benin, at least in towns, education is highly
valued. The educational sector has experienced the same development as the health
sector: the withdrawal of the state has left room for private initiatives, and Muslim
establishments, new to this market, make up for the state’s inadequacies. There is thus
a place for new Franco-Arabic schools, which in addition provide jobs for graduates
of Islamic universities. The growing success of Franco-Arabic schooling reflects the
belief that it guarantees Muslim morality, whereas public or Christian schools
presumably lead students away from their faith.
In this context, fundamentalists attempt to control specific spaces, a mosque or a
school, thus creating the nuclei of a network within which they circulate to teach or
to preach. If there exists an international flow of capital (NGO financing through
petrodollars) and of preachers, it is through daily local work that they slowly gain an
audience. The local trumps the global; certain graduates, who on their return harshly
contested the imams in place, have now set themselves up as religious entrepreneurs,
reinserting themselves into their society as soon as they accept the position of imam
in an important mosque.8
One must be careful not to lump all reformists together. Reformism is a plural
phenomenon in the making whose diversity is expressed by different attitudes and
political positions held by a variety of actors. If, as Muslims, all consider themselves
part of the umma and share the will to return to a more orthodox Islam, their discourse about the world, their assessment of political changes in Benin over the past
fifteen years, and their projections for the future do not allow any generalizations. All
have their discourses on politics, but the content of these discourses and the concrete
forms of action they promote vary considerably.
Reformists, Politics, and the State:
“The Situation Is under Control”
The Fundamentalists: “Regenerating Society to Regenerate Public Life”
With the exception of the members of 'Yan Izala, the fundamentalists are not
Islamists, those who use Islam for political ends: conscious of being a Muslim minority, especially in the cities along the coast, they do not aim at acquiring power in the
name of Islam. They belong to the category which Olivier Roy calls “neofundamentalist,” defined by a very strict and literal vision of the Qur'anic message and by an
anti-Western stance (Roy 2002).
Throughout the world, anyone who owns a satellite dish can receive foreign
television broadcasts. In Benin, all the people I spoke with were well informed: they
regularly follow news broadcasts on francophone networks and receive Arabic stations. As Internet users, they find arguments to support their positions on Islamic
and Islamist websites. Although one need not be a fundamentalist to criticize the
global order, the fundamentalists distinguish themselves from other Muslims by
the virulence of their anti-Western discourse. Like other Beninois, they criticize the
World Bank and its structural adjustment programs, but it is in the domain of international relations that they affirm their radicalism. Their critiques are also aimed at
the deviant use of scientific progress, the decline of family values, and moral depravity.

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In interviews I conducted from January to March 2005, my informants displayed a
lively interest in the issues in French news having to do with Islam, denouncing
Islamophobia and the law of March 2004 that banned religious insignia in public
schools, and vehemently defending Tariq Ramadan, who they felt had been unjustly
treated by the media. It is consequently logical that they are not satisfied with a political system patterned after a Western model whose conceptions of democracy and of
public liberties they do not share. Like many of their fellow countrymen, they condemn corruption, but they distinguish themselves from their fellows by the solutions
they propose for the country’s problems.
They consider that the moralization or regeneration of society will lead to the
regeneration of public life. They concentrate on proper conduct and morality, and
they advocate a flawless social morality. In answer to the question “How do you participate in your country’s development?” a member of the Ahl al-Sunna group
we participate in development in our own way, by regenerating social life, because we
think that if we fail to improve society’s morals, public life will be immoral. When
someone sees that he is already fleeced of his money at the mosque or in church, he will
then fleece money from the public coffers. Through da'wa, we can purify, we don’t have
to seize political power. Acquiring power is not contrary to Islam. If you feel you can do
something to improve the situation, you have to go for it, because if you think you can
do something and don’t try, you are sinning. The Prophet was not only a spiritual leader,
he was a statesman; he organized society.9

In matters of religion, they denounce all forms of corruption and embezzlement,
which are far from having been eradicated in Benin (Blondo and Olivier de Sardan
2002). Younger men engage in politics through the religious domain. Even conflicts
for control over mosques express the struggle of “juniors” against elders who hold up
the transfer of power from one generation to another. Their proposals for change are
based on moral rules. They think that the application of sharia will solve all problems
and uncritically idealize the states that apply it:
For us, that is where there is divine law. Here, it is not possible, unless everybody were
Muslim. We are in a secular state, but we are inwardly persuaded that with sharia, you
can regulate society, because with sharia all children have to go to school, the rights of
man must be respected, he who has stolen has infringed on the rights of someone else,
and God tells you, “Cut off his hand,” and wherever they cut off people’s hands, in
those countries there is less theft. Wherever they stone and beat the adulterer, there is
less of an AIDS problem. The stricter the law, the fewer problems with security. We
have information from northern Nigeria that the [Christian] Igbo are returning because
they feel safer there, their women are not raped. It is God who brought us sharia and it
was applied in the time of the Prophet.10

For the reformists, sharia remains an ideal, but it is inaccessible because it is circumscribed within a historical context that contemporary society makes it impossible
to reproduce.11 Reformists and fundamentalists are sharply divided by their different
relationships to history. The latter, lending credence to the myth of the ideal umma,12
dream of a political and social system which takes as its model the era of the Prophet,

muslim reformists and the state in benin / 129

but they do not situate it outside this world: that is, unlike the members of the
Tablighi Jama'at, who proclaim that the goal of life is to “prepare for the next world,”
they think that Islamic law can change life on earth. In this, they are similar to the
How to Reconcile the Desire for Sharia and the Secular State
Benin can be called “secular” (laïque) in the legal sense, even though it is a nonsecularized society (Roy 2005) where religion and religiosity remain ever-present.
Secularism does not present any problems for Muslims, and the fundamentalists who
take the precaution to state that they respect it negotiate an arrangement between
their desires for sharia on one hand and secularism on the other.
This contradiction, lived out in everyday life, concerns in the first instance marriage, the family, divorce, and inheritance. The first issue of the newspaper Al-Oumma
Al-Islamia, published by the Zongo neighborhood mosque in Cotonou, appeared on
July 27, 2001, at the same time as the Code of Family and Personal Law was being
voted on. An article in it was entitled “Why not a legislative option for Muslims?”
The author reaffirmed his recognition of the state’s secularism, and in the name of
freedom of conscience and of religion asked whether Muslims could be exempted
from those measures of the law which, according to him, were contrary to Islam,
it is now time to envisage the possibility that certain categories of citizens might choose
a legislative option. Muslims could then have the chance to apply Qur'anic legislation in
situations of demonstrated incompatibility with the Code of Personal and Family Law.

This proposal was not followed up in later issues, perhaps as a measure of prudence,
as the authorities had called the Zongo mosque to order several times. Polygamy and
the seclusion of women are at the heart of this contradiction between the law and
sharia. In the north of the country, Muslim Hausa women often lived in seclusion, in
particular in the families of alfas and imams. In Parakou during the Revolution, the
army entered compounds and forced the women out (Brégand 1998, 223). In the
south, on the other hand, where Islam was introduced by Yoruba traders, there was
no tradition of secluding women, who enjoyed an important role in society. Like the
alhadji of Parakou (those who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca), the women
alhadja traders in the Dantokpa market of Cotonou financed the construction of
mosques, acquiring in this way a social prestige unthinkable in the north of the
country.13 The Muslims advocating polygamy and female seclusion get around the
law by avoiding civil marriages, enabling them to believe that they are living
according to sharia, at least in private life.
If, as a previously cited interviewee suggested, Islam is not opposed to political
activity, in the absence of any hope of installing an Islamic regime, is it not contradictory to participate in a system modeled after the much-devalued West? At present,
well-known fundamentalists do not seem to be involved in institutional politics, preferring to devote themselves to “Islamization from below,” whereas reformists do not
hesitate to engage in political activities.

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Separating Religion from Politics,
and Engaging in Politics
The reformists affirm the principle that one cannot mix religion and politics,14 but
this does not signal discretion or withdrawal on their part; they expend considerable
energy in associations, and the separation of religious and political spheres allows
them to engage individually in politics, as citizens. The state intervenes directly in the
affairs of Muslims only in exceptional circumstances, leaving other intermediate
institutions the role of managing problems internal to Islam.
The number of Islamic associations registered by the Department of Worship and
Customs of the Ministry of the Interior, Security, and Territorial Management, admittedly far fewer than that of Christian associations, expresses the will of these Muslims to
constitute themselves as actors in civil society.15 The registry of associations shows that
leaders have emerged in the Islamic arena who are responsible for several associations.
In 1992, thirty-two Muslim associations met in the Amitié stadium in Cotonou on the
initiative of Yacoubou Fassassi, a politician and Sufi and the promoter of the National
Conference of Islamic Associations of Benin (Conférence nationale des associations
islamiques du Bénin, CONAIB-Shura), in order to coordinate their activities, but this
initiative failed because of rivalries over power and was never pursued further. More
recently, in 2000, the imam of the Zongo neighborhood mosque, a center of reformism
in Cotonou, founded the Network of Islamic Associations and NGOs of Benin (Réseau
des associations et ONG islamiques du Bénin) with the aim of federating the
associations; about fifteen joined. In general, the associations pursue their activities
independently, some of them devoting themselves to promoting Islamic education.
One example is the Organisation pour la culture islamique du Bénin (OCIB,
Organization for Islamic Culture in Benin), which is a part of the Network. Its principal goal is Islamic education according to the Qur'an and the Sunna, and it holds
two meetings a month at the mosque of the Association mondiale de l’appel à l’Islam,
both where people educated in Arabic offer classes and where an imam gives a lecture
followed by discussion. The OCIB declares itself apolitical as an association, but its
members participate as individuals in institutional politics, joining parties which
sometimes are in opposition to one another. They adopt a secularist posture and, as
Muslims who since Independence have occupied seats as representatives or positions
as ministers, participate in politics not as Muslims but rather as citizens.16 As politicians,
they have become secular Muslims.
Another example is the Union of Muslim Women of Benin, led by educated
women either active in the workplace or retired.17 Their program concentrates on
health, education, and knowledge of Islam; they concern themselves with literacy and
AIDS education and struggle for the schooling of girls and against their decreasing
educational levels. They give lectures and, preoccupied by the condition of women,
want to “let women know about their rights and their duties according to the Qur'an.”
Although they refuse the notion of reformism because “there is only one Islam,” they
adopt a reformist approach in that it is on the basis of their interpretation of the
Qur'an that they work to better the condition of women, though their reading of the
Qur'an is diametrically opposed to that of Ahl al-Sunna. The ACEEMUB also
organizes lectures; by maintaining among their goals the “training of executives with

muslim reformists and the state in benin / 131

integrity,” the students in this association intend to influence the country’s future.
They want Muslims, whom they consider to be underrepresented in politics and in
high-level administrative positions, to catch up to the rest of the country.18
Although the fundamentalists are made highly visible by their dress code, Muslim
reformists, fundamentalists included, remain very discreet compared to members of
Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the south of Benin. The Christian religions
have their own fundamentalisms; could radicalization threaten interfaith peace? The
state, while guaranteeing religious freedom in a country where religion plays a
prominent role, also needs to guarantee social peace.
The State and Muslim Communities:
“The Situation Is under Control”
Whereas freedoms of religion and association are respected in Benin, the NGOs and
associations must request recognition from the Ministry of the Interior, Security, and
Territorial Management (Pirotte 2005, 35). The state thus has a means of control in
its administrative services, but it is rare that it intervenes directly in Muslim affairs,
leaving the Union islamique du Bénin (UIB, Islamic Union of Benin) to manage
problems internal to the Muslim community. Because of the development of
Islamism in the world and the proximity of Nigeria, fundamentalists, whom some
believe to be under heightened surveillance, are objects of particular attention, and
the monitoring of them has been discreetly increased. Islamic NGOs, like other
NGOs, additionally depend on the ministry responsible for their particular domain
of activity; for example, the construction of a clinic requires the authorization of the
Ministry of Health. All the directors of NGOs declare that they cooperate with the
state, which does not oppose their projects, because the construction of schools and
clinics fills the void which the state has left. These government departments apply the
law. Thus, in the name of secularism, the ACEEMUB was denied authorization to
build a mosque on the campus of Abomey-Calavi University (in a suburb of
Cotonou). This mosque, the base for da'wa in the university, was eventually built
off-campus with Saudi financing.
The Ministry of National Education is careful in granting permission for the
founding of Franco-Arabic schools. The imam of the Zongo mosque, a prominent
personality in Islamic reformist (or, according to some opinions in Cotonou, fundamentalist) circles and founder of the Franco-Arabic school across from the mosque,
deplores the fact that it was a Muslim minister who raised the most obstacles to his
opening the school. The election of the Pentecostal Mathieu Kérékou to the presidency finally resolved this situation, because this neighborhood in Cotonou, with a
Muslim majority, voted for him in 1996.19 Powerful Islamic NGOs easily obtain
authorization because the education they offer is often superior to that in public
schools. The situation is often more delicate for schools opened with meager funds by
graduates who are attempting to create jobs for themselves; the buildings rarely meet
the required standards, sometimes amounting to little more than a shed, and the
teaching staff do not always have the necessary qualifications.
When internal problems arise within the Muslim community, the state only intervenes in cases of public disorder. The UIB plays an intermediary role by ensuring that

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individual and collective Muslim actors cooperate with the central political authorities.20 Founded in 1984, the UIB replicates in its structure that of the administrative
divisions of Benin, with national and departmental offices. Its leaders have intervened on numbers of occasions in conflicts between “traditionalists” on one hand,
and arabisant Muslims and Islamic NGOs on the other. These conflicts break out
when, for example, an NGO that has built a mosque wants to impose its choice of
imam, as was the case in Parakou, where the AMA built several mosques, including
that of the Zongo Islamic complex. The situation was so tense that, when the imam
was nominated, the minister of the interior traveled there in person. There was
another serious conflict when the Africa Muslim Agency (AMA) wanted to inaugurate a mosque outside Parakou and declare it a Friday mosque despite the categorical
opposition of the local imams. Similar problems have occurred in other localities,
and, in each case, the president of the Islamic union of the department of Borgou had
to mediate.
The question of the calendar is a recurrent problem. The beginning and the end
of the month of Ramadan are fixed by the Conseil supérieur de l’Islam au Bénin
(Higher Islamic Council of Benin, part of the UIB), but reformist imams who orient
themselves by the moon’s appearance in Saudi Arabia, which is a day off, do not
observe this schedule. Religious holidays are consequently celebrated on two consecutive days, which complicates public life, especially as religious holidays are officially
recognized in Benin.
Conscious of the fact that they have been weakened by their divisions and anxious
to revitalize the organization’s activities, members of the UIB elected a new slate at the
December 2003 congress and decided to work harder to promote Islamic education.
In the new leadership, where “traditionalists” work alongside those who are Westerntrained, policies are not static and reformist ideas have penetrated the UIB; the priority given to Islamic education is one index of this change. In interviews, some
members of the UIB appeared to be hovering between traditionalism and reformism;
some were more modernist than others, in that they advocated abandoning certain
practices and rethinking Islam in a contemporary context, but all shared the will to
oppose the development of fundamentalism and invoked the example of Nigeria.
Most declared that they were not worried, saying, “The situation is under control.”
The following statements from my fieldwork give an idea of their preoccupations and
their determination:
We were in the process of making an effort so that those who would like to dictate Islam
calm down, and that we can create Islamic unity in the country. In Kano, they cross
arms [in prayer]; if you don’t cross them, they can kill you. We don’t want these kinds
of quarrels in our country; we are struggling for this, for an Islam in peace.
There are young men just back from Arab countries and they want to change things,
but they encountered resistance, and I think they have calmed down; they were obliged
to. When they tried to impose their will, they were quickly overcome.

Control is exercised by Muslims themselves, which does not stop the state from having recourse to the usual means of exercising surveillance over individuals and groups.
Islam in Benin is experiencing an expansion which encourages different actors to
engage in da'wa, and more and more are doing so. The dynamism of Islam is

muslim reformists and the state in benin / 133

stimulated not only by the activism of these new trends but also by the rivalry of
Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. Reformism and fundamentalism remain urban
phenomena because urban life is open to outside influences, favors individualization,
and allows change. Moreover, it is to the cities that graduates of Islamic universities
flock to find employment in an Islamic NGO or a school. From there, preachers set
out for villages where NGOs build mosques and, in fewer numbers, schools.
Reformism, plural and pragmatic, is winning over new strata of Muslims, some of
whom come from “traditionalist” Islam; among them, certain personalities have
emerged as true agents of democratization, activists for social peace and for a peaceful Islam coexisting with other religions, heirs of the quietist Islamic tradition associated with al-Hajj Salim Suware (Wilks 1968). They are conscious of the changes
taking place, and an imam indulgently remarks, “We can speak of an Islamic awakening provided that we avoid the euphoria of callow youth; they need to understand the
Reformism and fundamentalism have affected Muslim communities the world
over, but reformists in Benin, including their extremist fundamentalist branch, have
finally shown themselves as devoted to their society and to peace, the local here
trumping the global. There is only one society, composed of Muslims, Christians,
and followers of traditional religions, and political rivalries in Benin do not translate
into religious divisions. Confronted with this renewal, which is difficult to characterize, the state seems content to keep its distance and leave the UIB to manage issues
concerning Islam; and the UIB is very confident, one of its members declaring that
“in Benin, everything is under control, there is no problem, and when there is one,
we are well situated to intervene.” Under control, no doubt, but for how long?
“Traditionalist” Islam lacks young leaders, and so the face of Islam will necessarily
change as one generation is replaced by another. The Sufi orders are renewing
themselves as well, with the arrival of new mystical orders which remain very elitist.
Change may be dominated by an indigenous revival which, while it moves closer to
the orthodoxy of the Qur'anic text, situates itself in continuity with the tolerance and
openness which characterized and still characterize Islam in Benin. These forces exist,
but they may be overwhelmed by strict and militant fundamentalism which
acknowledges only the Qur'an and the Sunna and rejects any ideas of local culture.
Moreover, without resorting to determinism, we can wonder about the future
relationship between political radicalization and growing inequality. A Muslim
intellectual from Benin, a member of the Qadiriyya and very active in the local
Islamic arena, who traveled to Islamabad in June 2004 for a seminar organized by
Pakistan entitled “Enlightened Moderation against Islamism and Terrorism,” concluded thus: “What creates radical fundamentalism? Social injustice and poverty pave
the way for fundamentalism.”
1. “With other religious leaders, we said to each other: we have to check the fanaticism of
traditional religions, the Aino (in Fon, masters of the earth), the extremism of certain
Christians in light of the multiplicity of churches, and the extremism of young arabisants
who return from [Saudi] Arabia.” Interview with Imam Ligali, Cotonou, March 11,

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2. Two tendencies emerged in this effort to promote interreligious dialogue in the 1990s.
One was the movement begun by Yacoubou Fassassi, leader of the Nimatullahi Sufi order,
who in 1995 founded the African Group for Islamic Revival, which publishes the quarterly review Iqraa Afrique; the other was the intellectual movement centered on El Hajj
Bachir Soumanou (the Niassène Tijaniyya), founder of the magazine La lumière de l’Islam
(The Light of Islam) and of the Centre d’étude et de recherche Islam et développement
(CERID, Islam and Development Center for Study and Research).
3. At the same time, Christian groups, largely Evangelicals and Pentecostals, increased from
6 percent to 12.5 percent.
4. On “traditionalist” Islam, see Piga 2003 and Coulon 1993.
5. “Similarly, the activities of International Islamic organizations like Al-Muntada al-Islami
Foundation . . . their publications and enlightenment campaigns[,] provide additional
impetus to Muslims’ aspiration for Islamic system in Nigeria” (Bunza 2004, 54).
6. Madrasas, called “Franco-Arabic schools” in Benin, combine education in modern disciplines, according to a national curriculum, with religious and Arabic education. Some
classes are conducted in French. In Qur'anic schools, by contrast, only religion and
sometimes Arabic are taught.
7. B. M., interview at a Qur'anic school in the Dodgi neighborhood of Porto Novo, January 26,
8. This is very clearly true in the case of the mosque of the Zongo neighborhood complex in
Parakou. I suspect that the case of the great mosque of the Zongo neighborhood in
Cotonou is similar.
9. Collective interview in a mosque in the Tchébié neighborhood of Porto Novo, January 26,
10. Ibid. Murray Last recorded the same arguments and the same hopes in northern Nigeria
when sharia was applied (Last 2000).
11. “For ‘enlightened Muslims,’ whom official Islamic institutions hardly take into account,
the sharia, even in the domain of marital law, is an inspiration, a path that was expressed
in a precise and long-past historical context” (Carré 1993, 34).
12. Appadurai (2001) insists on the imaginary dimension of life linked to transnational
networks in a globalized world.
13. Alhadji (feminine alhadja) has become a common term for rich Muslims. Toukourou, a
rich woman trader of Dantokpa very respected for her generosity, is currently financing an
Islamic complex in her neighborhood of Akapakpa in Cotonou.
14. For Olivier Carré, a well-known scholar of Islam, the “few true reformists and reformers”
show “that politics and religion are separate once and for all and that Islamic theory itself,
and not only practice, has carefully separated the spiritual from the temporal, ever since
the Prophet’s time” (Carré 1993, 34).
15. On this concept, see Pirotte 2005.
16. Interview with Yaaya Salouf Alihou, president of the OCIB, Cotonou, March 3, 2005.
17. Interview with Madame Bio Tchané, president of the Union of Muslim Women of Benin;
al Hadja Afsa Igué, the vice president; and al Hadja Lawani, responsible for school affairs;
at Madame Tchané’s home, Cotonou, March 10, 2005.
18. Interview with the leaders of the ACEEMUB, March 4, 2005. The amir Moudachirou
Dramani, who participated in this collective interview, was killed in an accident in late
19. Most Muslims in northern Benin, and also those of the Zongo neighborhood in Cotonou,
support Kérékou.
20. Marie Miran (2005) paints a negative portrait of the UIB, agreeing with its critics; she
correctly points out that the Muslim community remains very divided. My discussion of
the organization is based both on my field observation during several consecutive years in
the north and from January to March 2005 in the south and on interviews with people
who participated in the events in question.

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