RELIGION, IDENTITIES, AND POLITICS:
MUSLIM DISCOURSES IN THE NUBA MOUNTAINS OF THE
author discusses the increased importance of Islam in religious and social life
In 1966 the anthropologist Ian Lewis wrote in the introduction to his seminal book Islam in Tropical Africa that “as with Christianity in the West, Islamic civilization is being gradually detached from its religious roots, and the gulf between the spiritual and the secular spheres of life is widening. While, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, continuing to influence deeply the private lives of individuals, it is thus at least questionable whether Islam can be expected in the future to exercise the profound political effect it has had in earlier periods of African history” (Lewis 1966, 91).
In 1993 the fundamentalists in the
Bismillahi Al-Rahmani Al-Raheem (In the Name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful)
Praise be to Allah, and due prayers and peace be unto the messenger of Allah.
The conference of the Ulamah (scholars in Islamic Studies), the imams of mosques, and the sheikhs of the Sufi sects in the State of Kordofan, which was held at the Peoples Committee Hall, in El-Obeid, on 24 Shawwal 1413 (the  Muslim hijrah calendar), which corresponds with 27 April 1993,
Hereby issue the
following Fatwa about the imperativeness of mobilizing for jihad (holy war) in
order to fight in the war which is taking place in the southern part of
rebels in Southern Kordofan or in Southern Sudan have rebelled against the state and
have waged war against Muslims, with their prime objective being the killing
and massacring of Muslims, the destruction of mosques, the burning [of] copies
of the Quran, and violating the honour and dignity of Muslims, while the rebels
are being driven and instigated by the enemies of Islam from amongst the
Zionists, the Christian Crusaders, and the forces of arrogance, who have been
supplying them with food and arms. Therefore, the rebels who are Muslims and
are fighting against the state are hereby declared apostates from Islam, and
the non-Muslims are hereby declared kaffirs (infidels) who have been standing
up against the efforts of preaching, proselytization, and spreading Islam into
The point here is not to expose Lewis’s lack of prophetic skills, a deficiency to which most of us have to confess, but rather to point at some of the underlying assumptions behind views such as the one he expressed: first, that there is an underlying dynamic that the religious and political spheres will part ways and that religion will increasingly be confined to the private sphere, and second, that the model case is, as in so many other examples, the Western and Christian experience. The quote is interesting in that it shows how anthropology in general, in this case religious anthropology in particular, reflected the dominant modernization  theory assumption of the day, namely, that the more a society “modernizes” the less religious it will become.
Obviously, we need not elaborate on the fatwa cited here to make the point that Islam is indeed alive and well in the political field. And the issue is the definition of being a Muslim, that is, belonging to Dār al-Islām, as opposed to Dār al-Ḥarb. But this is not new. At all times there has been disagreement within Islam about what it means to be a Muslim and the fact that, from time to time, some of these disagreements enter the political field should not surprise us. Certainly it is of interest to analyze cases of “political Islam,” but I also feel we should not only look at Muslim politicians but pay more attention to how “ordinary” Muslims themselves argue concerning this issue, not only within the field of political Islam, but also in everyday discourses about what is right and wrong, what is proper behavior, and the like. Although less spectacular than fatwas about jihad, such mundane issues may nevertheless enhance the understanding of how Muslims themselves experience their religion.
This call for jihad also raises certain conceptual challenges. How can we conceptually approach the diversity of Islam in terms of beliefs as well as practices? In one sense there are as many Islams as there are situations that sustain them. Hence a critical point is to acknowledge the importance of context, be it local as in “village Islam,” regional as in “West African Islam,” or national as in “Indonesian Islam” and “Moroccan Islam.” But Islam is much more than a product of any local, regional, or national situation. It has a global nature, in that for believers it contains generalized truths and is in that sense very real. For instance, the general notion of umma makes all Muslim people belong together in a specific relationship to God characterized by equality. The same equality is expressed in the Quran as well as in other religious texts. However, Muslims living in any real society may find themselves characterized by inequalities, based on age, gender, social status, or the like, that are products of other socio-historical forces than Islam itself. However, in a Muslim society, discourses relating to such local realities are couched in Islamic idioms, or are couched in discourse that resonates with the Islamic one, be it by way of opposing it or not. This means, for instance, that discourses about such inequalities are legitimized and given authority by relating them to various standard Islamic notions of authority and the basic Islamic texts (Koran, sunna, and the legal and ethical works that make up sharīʿa). But they cannot be reduced to such readings and interpretations of religious and esoteric texts alone. First of all, the basic texts may not be at all unified. Sharīʿa, for instance, is not made up of a single collection of texts, but consists of the accumulated body of many  texts from many centuries and many continents. Furthermore, people may not have direct access to such texts and may depend on interpretations given by local literate people, or their own interpretations of events and information brought to them through different sources. Thus there are a multiplicity of voices involved in such interpretations, not only the voices of scholars with texts at hand but also those of “ordinary” Muslims, diversified as they are in age, gender, class, ethnicity, education, and so on, a factor that further strengthens the notion that Islam consists not only of the cosmological themes of the canonical texts and subsequent religious treatises but also of lived identities in local contexts, emerging within ongoing debates about what is right and what is wrong (Manger 1999).
Talal Asad in his 1986 article “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” offers conceptual tools to handle this type of diversity. He is critical of those who involve themselves in the search for the essence of Islam, and he suggests we look at Islam as a discursive tradition, in which our task is to understand the production of knowledge and the institutional conditions for the production of that knowledge. We should not assume religion and culture to make up any a priori system of meaning and we should not look for what is essential in Islam. Rather we should look for historical formations through which what is taken to be essential in Islam is being produced. In this perspective, Islam does not become an active agent but an arena of many processes that become Islamic because they belong to the discursive tradition of Islam. The tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. Hence the discourses “relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions)” (p. 14). The discursive tradition also has its social organization, including experts on different levels—with knowledge, with specific technologies for transferring their knowledge, with internal hierarchies, but also with relations to rulers, and so on. The question here is not one of seeking the essence of Islam, but of knowing the historical conditions necessary for the existence of particular religious practices and discourses.
fits well together with Robert Launay’s suggestion in his 1992 book Beyond the Stream:
Islam and Society in a
Differences in form should therefore not be reduced to an anthropological problem of classification. Our task is not to decide whether acts, statements, rituals, and the like can be classified as Islamic or non-Islamic, political or non-political, public or private, traditional or modern. Rather, our aim is to see how Muslims themselves make use of such differences in their own lives. Furthermore, Muslims are well aware of differences and inconsistencies, within their own society as well as between their own society and others. But unlike the case with anthropologists, such comparisons made by Muslim people (and others, for that matter) are not intellectual exercises. They are very real, and they constitute the basis for the shaping of identities. This can go on in the form of peaceful processes, but identities (as our quote shows) can also sometimes appear in violent opposition to each other, and the struggles can lead to new evaluations about what is perceived as Islamic.
Let me illustrate
these points by discussing the case of the
What Constitutes Being a Muslim?
doing fieldwork (late 1970s, early 1980s) among the Lafofa Nuba in
This evident difficulty in agreeing on
who is a Muslim, and what it entails to be one, is not something that is
special for the Lafofa and the southern
The Nuba of Liri: Some Major Changes
Lafofa is one of the matrilineal Nuba groups in the southern parts of the
The institutions that were decisive in regulating any person’s life, and providing him or her with people to cooperate with, were not only found within the realm of the family and in-laws. In the daily life of a person age-mates were also of great importance. There were seclusion ceremonies that took place shortly after puberty had been reached. Boys would spend the rainy season taking care of the cattle and they would live in cattle kraals. At the end of such a period of seclusion they would return and a ceremony would be performed. For girls, the transition ceremony meant seclusion in the granary, a practice which brought out clearly the relationship between menstruation and female fertility on the one hand and the production of food for the reproduction of the groups as such on the other. A final institution that regulated people’s lives was the existence of certain experts in the villages, called kujūr. The most important of them was the rainmaker. He was a man of great dignity, possessing powers from the ancestors to bring the rain that is so crucial for cultivation. For his services to the community, the rainmaker had his plot cultivated for him, and he was also paid in beer. Apart from the rainmaker, there were other domain experts who operated along the same principles. There were experts for each of the important crops. Sickness experts were also important, as they could cure people through their powers. And finally, there was an iron expert. A common way of paying all these experts was in beer.
The general framework of the social organization outlined above has undergone changes through the decades of this century. The matrilineal principle is still there, but it is not as critical an organizational principle as it used to be. Marriage is totally changed, being now permeated with Arab customs and ruled by Islamic sharīʿa principles. The position of the rainmaker and other experts is challenged by Islamic holy men, who perform the same functions, relating their powers to Allah instead of the ancestors of the group. The age grade system is no longer a living institution among the Nuba of the southern mountains and the seclusion periods no longer exist. Today the transition ceremonies are the Islamic ones—name-giving, circumcision (of both girls and boys), and marriage. The ceremonies are individual and the Islamic holy men provide the blessing. At the death of a person he or she is buried in an individual  grave, not in the former lineage graves. The ceremony is Islamic, with a seven-day mourning period.
These developments are of far-reaching
importance for the ways Lafofa ritual traditions are reproduced and changed. The
old rituals were all occasions on which Lafofa social and ritual life coalesced
and could be expressed and reinforced.
Furthermore, the ritual cycle was organized around the cultivation
cycle, tying together economic and ritual life. The rainmaker kujūr
was the pivotal point around whom all this revolved, and his house was an
important spatial center for this ritual life. This is very different from the outwardly oriented organization and lay-out of
the Islamic rituals into which the Lafofa are drawn. On a general level such
rituals are organized around the five daily prayers and the important Friday
prayer, the mosque being the point of reference. Other references are the month
of fasting, Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to
Nuba Identities in Different Historical Contexts
One major characteristic of the southern parts of the
The identity of the slave hunters
varied, but apart from official slave hunting expeditions organized by the
states themselves, the main groups involved were the immigrant groups, namely,
the Arab pastoralists and  the
jallāba traders. The pastoralists used the
The basic pattern of this exploitation
For the Nuba a basic
problem was how to organize themselves for defense in order to survive in their
home areas. This could be partly
achieved by hiding in their mountains where the horses of the slave raiders
could not enter, the task of defense being thus made easier. But political
allegiances were also at work, showing that the situation was not completely
anarchic. There were smaller political units ruled over by local leaders called
meks. They owed allegiance to greater rulers above them, and the link
was maintained through payments of tribute. This description is particularly
relevant for the Lafofa who, before settling in Liri, lived in Tekeim, an area
to the east of the
It is in this context we should see the Nuba involvement with Islam at the time. Islam was not a matter of private and individual belief, but rather a chosen identity that tied Nuba groups to power holders who were Muslim. By being categorized together with such leaders as being Muslims, some groups managed to become defined outside the group eligible for enslavement by Muslims. Aside from birth in slavery, the only lawful source of slaves in Islam was the capture of non-Muslim prisoners of war. Muslims could not be reduced to slavery (Encyclopaedia of Islam  1986, 1:26a).
Building a similar picture for the developments in the 20th century involves a description of various policies during the period of British colonial rule as well as the various regimes following Sudanese independence after 1956. Again, my aim is to focus on patterns, not on detail.
Compared to the
earlier period, the years of the British rule in the
The British presence also brought
changes to the economic environment of the area. To rule the region the British
established military and administrative towns, centers that also grew into
markets where the expanding exchange of goods
could take place. Contact between these towns and others was improved by
the construction of new roads and the introduction of motorized vehicles.
Developments thus moved towards opening up the previously closed area. In the
early period of their occupation of the
But such developments were counteracted by another element of British policy, which was to keep the Nuba apart from the Arab populations to avoid the processes of Arabization and Islamization. The British saw that the labor migration created a “detribalized” Nuba. The migrants settled elsewhere in the country, took up Arab and Islamic customs, and showed various signs of cultural change, something the British wanted to  avoid. Several policies were established to this end. The Closed District Ordinance was introduced in 1922 in order to control the movement of people. The British started to create economic opportunities in Nuba home areas, particularly through the introduction in the early 1920s of the cultivation of cotton as a cash crop. British views on socio-cultural integration between the Nuba and Arabs come out clearly in the field of education. The policies of education show how the administrators experimented with different types of schools and different languages of instruction, as well as with involvement by Christian missionaries, all in order to contain the Nuba as an indigenous group, distinct from the Arabized Muslim population.
British policies also show regional differences. Those areas with an Arab population or a population of Nuba stock that had long been Islamized were treated as “Northern” and offered their education in Arabic, and the Koranic schools (khalwas) were allowed to operate. This applied to the Taqali areas and hence also to the Liri region. The central Nuba areas were treated differently. Here the Government experimented with Christian mission education and also with secular education in kuttāb schools.
The period of Sudanese independence,
starting in 1956, represents a continuation of earlier developments towards
greater commercialization of the economy, a fact which manifests itself at
various levels. Local farmers and pastoralists, to an increasing degree, become
involved in the market sector through buying consumer goods and selling crops
and animals. In the contemporary
In the southern
A second expression
of the increasing rate of commercialization is seen in the expanding trade
sector. Indigenous trade in the
This has opened up a new field of investment for those people who have been successful in their own traditional adaptation. Income from a good cash crop or from wages helps create small surpluses. The most common way to invest such small surpluses is in petty trading, and many people are doing just that. Continued success can be converted into increased trade in consumer goods and the operation of a permanent shop.
The general picture, then, is no longer a simple dichotomy of subsistence oriented farmers and pastoralists versus the jallāba commercial groups, who are the main agents of commercialization. It is rather a complex setting in which most groups have become deeply involved in the commercial process and are looking for investment opportunities to further improve their position.
The changes sketched out above are not uniform, nor do they affect all Lafofa in the same way. For instance, while doing fieldwork I could clearly see how young men involved in labor migration and local trade were much more inclined to present Islamic identities and to argue for the necessity of adopting Arab customs than were the old-timers. Likewise, among the women, the wives of these migrants showed similar characteristics when compared to their older sisters. Such observations may not be surprising when related to the various economic strategies of the different groups, particularly regarding their involvement in the modern sector as outlined above.
Looking at what type of symbols people make use of to signal their new identities is also enlightening. For instance, today any Lafofa would agree that marrying in a “modern” way and performing circumcision are basic elements of any person’s identity; and all Lafofa comply with them, no matter how Arabized or Islamized they are. It is interesting, however, to note that these changes started as individual strategies. People who had contact with the government in the 1920s would start putting on clothes and gradually adopting such practices as circumcision.  This was partly a strategy, common in central Sudan, to gain prestige through adopting the ways of the dominant groups in the society. Similarly Arab-Islamic marriage customs started to be introduced only in the 1940s. That they became universally valid and accepted customs is to my mind related to the need of a group like the Lafofa, living among Islamic and Arabic-speaking groups, to signal the fact that they were fully human. An undeniable premise for slave hunting, in the period in which the Nuba were a target for slaving expeditions, was the local categorization of the enslavable non-Arab, non-Muslim population as not truly human (mā insānī), an attitude perhaps reinforced by the fact that in Islamic jurisprudence slaves, when considered as property, were legally classified together with livestock (cf. Encyclopaedia of Islam  1986 1:26b–27a; Spaulding 1982, 12 and n. 51). With increasing contact, which for the Lafofa started in the late 1920s, it was necessary to deal with this fact. As the customs they adopted were basic to notions of human decency among their neighbors, they became useful markers to express full humanity. In the context, they were general requirements, not a matter of individual belief or choice. Similarly, the differing development of the celebrated Nuba wrestling among boys and girls further illustrates my point. Whereas wrestling has continued among men, celebrating strength and manhood, the female wrestling that took place at harvest times has totally disappeared. Such an activity would definitely collide with an Arab and Islamic view of what a woman should be. Female wrestling thus came to be perceived as similar to nakedness and to the traditional female transition ceremonies, and thus its discontinuation was not viewed as a matter of individual choice but as a matter of fundamental human decency.
This gradual embracing of new elements that would be included in the local Lafofa identity also provided new definitions of what it meant to be a Muslim. For the Lafofa who today want to appear as “pious” Muslims, the act of putting on clothes, or circumcising a child, are not things useful for setting oneself apart from one’s fellow Lafofa. New signs have to be utilized. In an earlier paper I have shown how giving up beer drinking among Lafofa migrants can be interpreted in this perspective, demonstrating how one traditional symbol of Lafofa culture has taken on new meaning and has, from being a basic integrative element in ritual and social life, become a part of a stigmatized identity, which leads to its disappearance as people try to deal with that stigma. Similarly, the contemporary pressure to domesticate women can be seen in the same perspective. The traditionally independent role of women has become a sign of following the old Lafofa way of life, and one way to avoid  accusations of doing this is to present a domestic situation with women in the house, making food and appearing to be under male control.
For a long time,
then, the Lafofa have been involved in an interactional game in which they have used signs and symbols to
show an Arab and Muslim environment that they are true human beings, that they
are persons deserving respect, not slaves and pagans, words almost coterminous
in this context. In the Sudan they share this inferior social status in the wider
stratificational system with groups like the Ingessana, all of them being known in the Sudan as the zurq (the
blue-blacks), which is a derogatory term. Comparing the Nuba with the
Arab populations, the distribution of power is clearly in favor of the Arab
groups, and against the non-Arabs and non-Muslims. This is related to the long
history of Arabization and Islamization in the
The Islamic Factor
are we then left with an analysis showing that the important dynamic forces are
only economic and political? I believe not. The
The period after the fall of the Mahdi
was one of religious unrest in the
brotherhoods, on the other hand, were restricted and regarded as a dangerous
form of fanaticism that could create political problems. It is a fact that in the early years of the new
century hardly a year passed without some
religious uprising or some fuqara being arrested and deported.
Death penalties were not uncommon after such uprisings. The uprisings usually
started when a local fakī declared himself  a new mahdi or the nabī ʿĪsā
(the prophet Jesus), secured some supporters, and attacked a British station.
The first important uprising took place in 1908, when ʿAbd al-Qādir
Muḥammad Imām Wad Ḥabūba and his followers attacked and
killed some British administrators in the Masalamiya district of the
The uprisings that took place in the
The British fear of Sufism was well grounded. The Islamic brotherhoods did indeed turn out to be supra-tribal mass organizations, and the roles played by the Anṣār of the Mahdist-based Umma Party and the Khatmīya of the Unionist Party in the politics of independent Sudan should suffice as examples. The thin layer of British-made Sudanese clerics could not stop the spread of the Sufi sects, nor attenuate their political importance.
But it is also important to our
discussion to note the effects of such brotherhood organizations on the local
level. In the south of the
Around these leaders a group of followers developed, the dervishes (faqīr, pl. fuqara, also the plural of fakī). These local converts became propagators of the new religion among their own people. The fakī performs the Islamic rituals at important events, like name-giving, circumcision, marriage, and funerals. He likewise operates as a healer to the extent that he has been given power (baraka) to do so.
The Qādirīya in Liri is a ritual and organizational unit with the great sheikh at the pivotal point and with lesser sheikhs as his representatives.  This network of dervishes is very important for teaching illiterate people about Islam. The teaching of Muhammad and the content of the Koran are conveyed through direct contact between a sheikh and his followers. The teaching in such encounters contains various elements of direct relevance for the daily life of the Lafofa. A central theme is what is lawful (ḥalāl) and what is forbidden (ḥarām) in Islam. These teachings can subsequently be used to understand the reality with which the Nuba are confronted. People are told that beer-making and beer-drinking is ḥarām and not tolerated. They are told that women should be protected and not allowed to go shopping or sell produce and that young daughters should be married before their virginity is endangered. In this manner the Lafofa gain knowledge about Islamic standards and can use this knowledge to evaluate themselves and others in relationship to the central problem of being a Muslim or not being one. Thus to a Lafofa being a Muslim also means going to the places where Islamic teaching goes on, be it at a nōba dance, a karāma, a wedding in the village, or the masīd.
But the Islam taught by Sufi groups, and
the groups themselves, came under attack by the new fundamentalist regime that
took over in
We have already quoted the beginning of the jihad fatwa, here we can conclude by quoting the remainder, to illustrate further what this policy  does to the “climate” within which the Nuba find themselves. After stigmatizing the non-Muslim rebels in the South as kaffirs and the Muslims fighting with them as apostates, and after further remarking that Islam, as is clear from the Koran, authorizes fighting against and killing their like in a jihad, the document provides additional evidence for this from the Koran, the sunna of the Prophet, and the example of the first caliph Abu Bakr:
2. Another Quranic evidence which supports the stated position, is what Allah has said: “They will continue to fight you (i.e., the enemies of Islam), until you abandon your religion if they could get you to do so, and whoever abandons his religion from amongst you, may them (sic) and their deeds become defunct and a waste here in this life and in the hereafter; surely, they will be condemned permanently to the fire of Hell.”
3. The justification for killing the rebels, is further supported by what Allah has said in the Quran: “Oh, the prophet of Allah, wage jihad against the kaffirs and the hypocrites, and be tough and heavy-handed with them, as they will [be] destined to Jahannam, and to a fate of misery.”
4. The justification for fighting and killing the rebels, is further justified and supported by what the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, had (sic) said: “Whoever attempts to divide you, the unity of your purpose, and/or the unity of your Muslim groups or peoples, kill him.” A statement reported by a Hadith Chronologist called “Muslim.”
5. Our greatest example in fighting against apostates, is the first Khalifah Abu Bakre El-Siddig, may the blessing of Allah be upon him, who fought against some of the Arabs who deserted Islam. In his most famous statement, he said: “In the name of Allah (swearingly), I will fight those who may differentiate between salat (prayers) and zakat (payment of taxes)”; i.e., those who may fulfill one act of worship and lapse on the other. He also said: “In the name of Allah (swearingly), if the apostates and deserters of religious duties will refuse to pay up a “camel” in tax which they used to pay during the time of the messenger of Allah, peace [be] upon him, I will fight them until they continue to pay these dues.” In our Islamic history and heritage, there was also the war which was waged by the Khalifah (successor) Ali Bin Abi Talib, in the battle of “Saffaine.”
6. As for those Muslims who cooperate with the rebels, and try to question or doubt the Islamic justifiability of jihad, [they] are hereby classified as “hypocrites,”  who are no longer Muslims, and also “apostates” from the religion of Islam; and that (sic) they will be condemned permanently to the fire of Hell.
The Quranic verses which support these claims and our position in general, include the following: “The hypocrites will be condemned to the lowest and worst parts of hell fire"; and what Allah has also said: “Forewarn all the hypocrites that very painful experiences will be inflicted upon them, those who take the kaffirs for guidance, and leadership other than those who believe in Allah, hoping to have through them dignity and wealth; surely, all the dignity and wealth belong to Allah.”
To summarize our empirical argument, the historical changes we have described for the Lafofa and the southern Nuba groups have led to changes in important encounters in which basic socio-cultural relationships and their content are expressed. Changes in such encounters also imply changes in the messages that are communicated and thus form a basis for the development of new notions about the world. On a general level the changes are from an orally based local tradition towards a scripture-based one, in which the class of interpreters of the scripture become major agents of change. Changes in economic life have also added to this process of change, and the movement of people from their mountain villages down to the market places along the mountains has contributed to the disintegration of the mountain cultivation system around which basic rituals were organized.
However, as I said earlier, people do not take over Islam as one unified system and in one process of conversion. Rather, people take up individual customs and practices that become symbols of such conversions. Looking back at the Lafofa adherence to Islam we see that those things that changed first were their notions of physical and sexual shame and their transition ceremonies. From this it appears that basic changes are related to the notion of personhood. We have already indicated that such a process of Islamization has long been important to the Nuba and that it is one basic premise for dealing with the stigma on their identity, a stigma that is related to their earlier status as a group providing slaves. Such changes in the area of identity and personhood also imply basic changes in social relations among the Lafofa.
It is in this perspective that Lafofa
Islamization should be interpreted. Many of the changes are not directly tied
to Islam as such, but they are made Islamic through the local discourse in the
A general argument in all this is that
rather than looking at Islam as an integrated
body of beliefs we need to regard Islam in circumstances such as those
prevailing in the Nuba Mountains as a collection of practices that
people can chose to embrace or not. This is not to say that there is no
religious commitment among the Lafofa who call themselves Muslims, but rather
that other factors outside the religious field provide constraints on the
conversion process itself. This was dramatized in the early 1980s with the
introduction in the
An interesting observation is that important discourses within Islam are not necessarily about the cosmological dimensions of things. Rather, they revolve around issues of religious practices; they are about issues of morality, and identities. To hold one identity implies not holding another, and how people “choose” such identities can be studied and their arguments about what is proper or not can be listened to. But such “religious” identities go together with other identities that make up a total inventory of identities in a specific place. How such bundles of identities go together will vary, but they are in one way or another couched in Islamic idioms, or are couched in discourses that resonate with the Islamic one. Islam in this sense does not reflect society, it makes sense of it.
Thus we should seek to avoid the old problem of how to classify combinations of so-called Muslim beliefs, customs and identities, and non-Muslim ones. Or rather, the discussion in this paper shows it is a question  wrongly put. The issue is not one of classification, but of grasping the content of the discourse itself. Such discourses confer meaning to individual life wherever it is positioned, and help create “identity-space” in which a person can live a life that everywhere, also in Muslim communities, is characterized by change and flux. And, as this paper shows, the content of the discourse can not be decided a priori, but rather must be discovered through ethnographically based research.
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 Quoted from the English translation sent by the Sudan Discussion list <SUDAN-L@EMUVM1.BITNET>, Aug. 16, 1995. The translation is reported to have been made by the Nuba Mountains Solidarity [Abroad] (NMSA). Minor changes in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation have been made. The names of the alleged signers of the fatwa, which were included in the e-mail message, have been omitted. The remainder of the text is cited at the end of the paper.
 Cf. n. 1.
 The identification of the compiler of one of the two most authoritative collections, for Sunnis, of prophetic sayings and deeds simply as “a Hadith Chronologist called ‘Muslim’” may perhaps reflect that the translator had a limited Muslim education or a non-Muslim background.