In their effort to contribute to Islamic reform in Niamey, young Salafi (Sunnance) have embraced preaching and have made it part of their religious practice. As preachers or audience members, they invest time and energy to imagine various ways to popularize the Sunna, the tradition of the prophet Muhammad. Because of the jokes, mimicry, and theatrics that characterize their preaching style, their critics have rejected their initiatives, claiming they are unqualified and therefore should not be allowed to preach. In response, Sunnance have argued that an effective sermon (wazu) requires art, skills, ingenuity and know-how (iyawa, hikma in Hausa). By examining how aesthetics are central to Sunnance popular and street preaching, this article invites a reexamination of Salafism through its aesthetic forms. Wazu is not just a gathering that seeks to deliver a message, be it divine; it is also a way to promote religiosity through particular cultural and aesthetic performances.
Focusing on ritual, scholars have made the point that performance is at the heart of religious practice (Gharavi 2012; Turner 1995, 1982; Mudimbe 1997; Davis 1985). From diverse disciplinary backgrounds, they have aptly demonstrated how preaching is intricately linked to performance (Bauman 1978; Keeler 1998; Walker 2009; Howarth 2005; Hirschkind 2006; Piga 2005; Grimes 2012; Schulz 2011; Chambers and Edelman 2013). This article analyzes the performance of wazu (sermons) in Niamey among young Salafi who identify as Sunnance in reference to the tradition of Prophet Muhammad, the Sunna.
Critics of these young Muslims—mostly established scholars, Sufi orders, and even other Salafi—accuse them of reducing religion (adini) to a playful performance (wasa, foray), taking the wazu into unconventional domains and giving too much of a dramatic character to their preaching styles. In response, Sunnance preachers have argued that an effective wazu requires ingenuity and know-how (iyawa and hikma in Hausa). They point out that it takes rhetorical and dramatic skills to convey Allah’s message in an efficient manner. As Abdallah, one of the preachers I discuss in this article, argues, ‘One has to speak the idiom of the urbanites, understand what they like and the predicaments of their lives’ (bafunay, in Zarma-Songhay). ‘We need also to consider the kind of world (anduniya, in Zarma-Songhay) these people are living in’, another preacher noted. In fact, one needs only a few minutes at Sunnance wazu to notice how jokes, sarcasm, satire, and impersonation are essential parts of their preaching style.
From my experience researching religion in Niamey, I argue that to understand young Sunnance commitment to wazu we need to look at the social and discursive contexts within which they emerge and become charismatic preachers. Before I elaborate further, I must point out that although my focus here is on groups that feature only young male preachers, one should also mention the sustained visibility of women since they claim television and radio programs devoted to preaching and question-and-answer programs, usually referred to as fatwa, i.e., legal opinions, on everyday life events and preoccupations.1
The Sunnance preaching style is not just determined by a strategic move intended to draw people for what Ide, a critic of the young preachers, referred to as ‘the futility of their discourse’. For Sunnance, wazu is both a serious act and an act of faith, as Gharavi (2012) would say. It bridges two features of life in Niamey: first, the significance of cultivating one’s religiosity, and second, youth’s tendency to perform Islam in reinvented ways, a process that has resulted in the ubiquity of preaching, a distinctive feature of Muslim practices in Niamey today.2 In recent years various women’s and youth’s groups have emerged to take major roles in promoting a Sunna-inspired life. Salafism as a religious discourse that takes inspiration from the Prophet Muhammad and his successors, those referred to as the pious ancestors (al Salaf, in Arabic), has been the distinctive mark of Islamic reform in Niamey. The Salafi movement, Izala, which emerged in the 1970s in Northern Nigeria and expanded across West and Central Africa, has been the main agent of this dynamic in Niamey (Sounaye 2009). Contested at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s because of its rejection of Islamic establishment, revolutionary ethic, and confrontational style, it slowly became a powerful and much-accepted discourse by the mid-1990s. As a consequence, it empowered both youth and women to become key religious actors. Keeping in mind the broader regional context, one can even extend these features of Salafi preaching to northern Nigeria and Ghana whose Salafi preachers point to a shared Salafi preaching culture (Sounaye, forthcoming). Preaching celebrities such as Abubakar Gero and Kabiru Gombe of Nigeria or Bashir Nyandu of Ghana, who have acquired popularity in Niamey and across Hausa-speaking Africa, illustrate that common culture.
From this perspective, I further argue that wazu should be understood not only as a creative appropriation of a religious institution that uses cultural resources and repertoires, but also as a way to promote religiosity through particular aesthetic performances. In a wazu, as I show below, the preacher and the audience are complementary parts of a public-speaking event that relies heavily on the experience of both sides. I suggest using performance as an analytical category to emphasize the dramatics, play, and acts that constitute both the delivery and the reception, and therefore the experience of wazu. These, I contend, constitute wazu as occasions through which cultural performance occurs, making the wazu itself audible and observable while it uses cultural media that mobilize melodic recitation, mimicry, and dramatic acts and gestures. Wazu are held to be seen, heard, and felt, especially because they draw people and aim to convey messages. Therefore the practices that developed around wazu in the last two decades in Niamey materialize the expressive cultures of Islamic reform and what I refer to as Salafi aesthetics.
In examining the new articulations of religion in the contemporary world, Meyer argues that we need to keep these developments in historical perspective, relating the new, the present, and the future to the past to which they are all indebted (Meyer 2013). In fact, part of the reason why religion remains a vital force today resides in its propensity to transform by opening up and incorporating new elements. In Niamey, appealing by incorporating and opening up, has been one of the strengths of the Sunnance approach to Islam; they transform Salafism by resorting to aesthetic forms and performative acts that until recently were foreign to preaching practices. The young Sunnance I focus on are the heirs of the Izala reform process that has promoted both antiestablishment and emancipation discourses that have gradually empowered lay people to enter the religious sphere and pursue religious entrepreneurship.
One of the consequences of this process is that Niamey, a city that was not particularly known for its religious activism a few decades ago, has now become a major center of religious entrepreneurship with the rise of both Muslim and Christian activists. Izala and Pentecostals, to name two of the major ones, have had a major impact on the religious landscape, the mediascape, and the city soundscape as they take on the streets and the media (radio, television,
Sunnance eager to serve the Sunna see wazu as a privileged occasion in which they perform as preachers but primarily as mere audience members, participating in the making of the event. While wazu is an essential part of their religiosity, it has also become one of their ways of being in a city where they need to assert presence amid religious rivalries and competitions. Agency and performance are necessarily linked in this context. Appropriated and reinvented, wazu becomes a major platform in which the Sunnance speak and mobilize constituencies, demonstrating the significance of preaching for religious politics. In this process one of the appeals of wazu has been precisely the fact that it goes beyond the content of the sermon delivered by the wazuko (preacher) to become an entertaining and playful performance. As a young woman graduate of Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey put it, ‘Dans la vie, il n’y a pas que la religion’ (‘Life is not only about religion’). In this specific formulation religion means a strict set of norms and values that confine and constrain, denying to playfulness and humor any seriousness. Religion in that sense not only structures life; it rigidifies it and often leaves it tasteless,3 as one may read in the words of the young woman and many like her in Niamey. The same statement also assumes that reducing life to religion is unrealistic, although, as many would also say, there is nothing more important than religion, while they strive for aljanna (paradise).
The promoter of a Sunna-inspired life, the wazuko stands behind the pulpit, claiming moral superiority and theological insight (cf. Keeler 1998; Waters 2004) and therefore presents himself as a social critic and a moralist who enjoins and recommends paths to qualitatively improve peoples’ lives. As Muslim scholars in Niamey stress, not everyone gets to speak to the Muslim public from such a symbolic position. Understandably, when they scorn young preachers whom they believe are usurping a religious office because of their stylized wazu, they seek to protect an Islamic institution allegedly too important to be left in the hands of youngsters and novices. A popular preacher who previously enjoyed unchallenged popularity and seeking to drive that point home lamented: ‘Today you can no longer distinguish the genuine and qualified preacher from the fake and impostor’.4
As I show in this article, wazu builds on the verbal art (Bauman 1977) of telling and retelling, and narrating stories in order to create and maintain an audience. In that sense, wazu has its techniques, a gamut of figurative special codes and theatrical forms that includes jokes, satire, metaphors, mimicry, analogy, innuendo, and insinuation all intended to engage listening audiences. These traits mark the Sunnance wazu perhaps more than any other Muslim discursive form in Niamey. At the same time, they illustrate how the wazuko not only mediates or translates but also brings to life the Sunna through performance and spectacular acts. Commenting on Pentecostal Charismatic churches in Ghana, Meyer notes that sensation becomes a key dimension of religious experience and one of the ways in which the presence of the Holy Spirit materializes (Meyer 2010). In the Sunnance context sensations are also appealing, although in a different manner. Many wazu I attended among the Sunnance are spectacles aiming to revive the Sunna through a constant appeal to the senses and aesthetic forms.
Performance and ritual studies have extensively demonstrated the usefulness of an approach that focuses on performance in understanding religion and analyzing religiosity in the social context (Dox 2016; Bell 1997). As Grimes reminds us, ‘not only is performance an inescapable fact of religious life, it is an especially fruitful theoretical notion’ (2012, 381). I share this analytical suggestion and would like to highlight in the present case how dramatic acts serve sermon practice among the Sunnance. I emphasize some of the features of the wazu within this Muslim community, and then move to examining the wazu as performances and how a wazuko, through his stylized use of words and images, becomes a major point of reference among the Sunnance. Emphasizing performance implies paying particular attention to the delivery and the experience of the sermon, but also to the sensuous conditions within which it occurs, especially when wazu involve emotional and somatic experiences. How humor plays out during the wazu reinforces the connection between performance and theatrics in Sunnance religiosity (cf. Beeman 1993). In the last section I discuss the ways in which wazugoers and the wazuko come together to set a stage for performance and participate in the making of the wazu. Obviously wazu cater to different audiences, but I discuss mainly the case of wazugoers who make it a point to be part of the crowd and be with the preacher, alerting us to the differentiated ways in which religion is performatively constituted and interactions become central to wazu.
What I want to stress here is precisely that we cannot fully understand the wazu if we limit it to its moral content. We need to consider its forms, both aesthetic (cf. Meyer 2009; Schulz 2011) and rhetorical. As a performer, the wazuko inscribes forms to the ideas, i.e., the content that he or she intends to mediate and communicate. In most of the wazu I attended or watched, the pressure is then on him or her to find the most effective speech genre and communication strategy. In this case the considerations often go beyond the content intended to be delivered. The wazuko is compelled to choose, create, craft, and reinvent ways of addressing the audience that have resulted in particular aesthetic forms among the Sunnance.
Thus in drawing attention to the aesthetic performances of wazu, I want to call for a critical engagement with the forms Salafi reform has taken in a context in which preaching has become an avenue for creating publics, a mobilizing force for Muslim politics, and a major expressive form in urban Niger. In fact, Sunnance wazu has given way to new modes of sociality in an ever-changing urban landscape in Niamey. As I demonstrate, an actor- and performance-centered approach helps us understand not only this process, but also the modes through which Sunnance express their being Muslim, Salafi, and a community while they bring the Sunna to life.5 More theoretically, one of the goals in this article is to bring together the cultural performances that define Sunnance religiosity and the forms that preaching has usually mobilized within Sunnance interactions.
Wazu: A Distinctive Feature of Sunnance Practice and Interaction
‘Wazu’ is a Zarma-Songhay word associated with preaching practices among Muslims in Songhay-speaking West Africa (Niger, Mali, Benin).6 It derives from the Arabic wa’z (sermon, moral exhortation), which in recent years has become the main channel of da‘wa (calling to Islam, outreach) in the Salafi context. In common parlance, however, wazu denotes any cautionary advice, suggestion, and recommendation given in time of duress and crisis. Parents address wazu to their children in order to prepare them to face life challenges, trying moments, or important life transitions such as marriage, starting a new job, or embarking on an economic venture. For instance, youth traveling abroad to seek higher Islamic learning or simply for seasonal migration are subject to wazu because of the high risks they might face. Living away from family members and relatives and therefore lacking advice, as well as because of the temptations that are part of life, they could easily go astray and become lost to their families and communities. Similarly, a newlywed couple and co-wives receive wazu to prepare them for managing their divergences, tame their egos, and prevent or resolve their conflicts peacefully. A stable and convivial household necessitates wazu and wazuko.
Because it is part of a moral repertoire and an ethical discourse, wazu draws from harsh and difficult life situations since one is expected to learn lessons and avoid repeating mistakes through these experiences. Therefore both corrective and preventive, wazu seeks to reinforce one’s ability to be part of the community, and to behave and interact with others smoothly. In this sense, wazu teaches how to socially become (cf. Christiansen, Utas, and Vigh 2006; Sztompka 1991) and fit in a context where belonging and sociability are of the highest importance for both the individual and the community.
When people refer to wazu in Niamey, they can mean both the sermon the preacher delivers and the gathering that justifies the sermon. Although its purpose is to preach, in this second instance the gathering translates the coming together of a community committed to promoting a particular form of being Muslim. Sunnance wazuko insist on this normative dimension and ethical significance of their wazu, while they enjoin changing behaviors and lives by breaking from what is dismissed as inauthentic and unlawful religious practice (bid’a) in order to embrace forms of religiosity deemed true, authentic, and therefore appropriate. To facilitate this qualitative shift, wazuko’s responsibility—as Isa, a young preacher in Niamey, notes—is to ‘help Muslims keep religion (addini) in their hearts so that they continue to stay good Muslims’.
‘Everyone needs a wazuko’, as the saying goes in Zarma-Songhay. ‘One who has no wazuko is simply lost’, adds another saying in Hausa. In Niamey the quest for appropriate practice of Islam has usually relied on wazu to shape hearts and make them available to the Sunna. In the local imagery the heart is the locus of intention, courage, memory, and, most importantly, of good deeds. A good heart usually refers to dispositions for sociability. The repertoire goes as far as to distinguish the colors of the heart: a white heart (bine kwarey, in Zarma-Songhay) is generous, warm, and hospitable; a black heart (bine bi, in Zarma-Songhay) connotes harm, evil, and maleficence, the perfect target for wazu and wazukos whose role in that instance is to help cleanse the heart.
However, the fact that wazu stresses ethics and morality does not preclude it from being a powerful affective space, especially if we consider how it involves not only a message conveyed in a specific language and discourse—in this case religious—but an experience that may even overwhelm the listener. Many women wazugoers have expressed this quality of the wazu to humble them and remind them that ‘life is nothing; and human beings are nothing’, (anduniya manti haykul; adam-ize manti haykul, in Zarma-Songhay).
At this juncture it is worth noting that in most of the wazu I have attended in Niamey women play a major role to the point that they usually make up the majority of the audience, especially in popular quarters. This is perceptible with young Sunnance whose preachers enjoy an attentive audience among women. Women’s dominance in Sunnance activities is not exclusive to wazu, however; it expands to Islamic learning institutions (Makaranta) where they have also become key players in reshaping what I refer to as the new Islamic knowledge economy (Sounaye 2016, 2012; see also Alidou 2005).
What happens at the wazu is something that warrants our attention if we want to make sense of the sermon as an institution, but also as an idiom that is stylized and appropriated according to skills and sensibilities. Bridging ethics and aesthetics, wazu is thus both a moral genre and a performative act. Hirschkind (2006) shows how aesthetics and ethics meet in the body, demonstrating that they are not exclusive of one another (Hirschkind 2009), but often mix to produce what some scholars have referred to in terms of political performance (Flynn and Tinius 2015). With the rise of Salafism in Niamey and most of urban Niger, preaching has become a social practice and discursive performance that brings to the fore ethics and aesthetics. Izala has been the main agent in spreading Salafi ethics and religious practice (Sounaye 2009).
Arguing that Muslims need to distance themselves from the Sufi organization and traditional Islamic practices and consequently reject the authority of the Malam, the main figure of Islam in Niamey until the 1990s, Izala has managed to establish a culture of contestation and democratization of Islam at the same time that a similar trend was affecting the public sphere (Sounaye 2009; Zakari 2009). The ensuing opening up of the religious arena provided various theological discourses and religious actors with the opportunity to emerge and establish themselves as normal and legitimate components of the public sphere and public Islam. It is within that context that wazu became one of the most dynamic institutions of urban life and certainly a potent element of youth’s oral culture, in particular in Niamey, a city that has until recently played no particular role in the history of Islam in the region. Compared to Sokoto, Timbuktu, or Agadez, which were historically major destinations for young men seeking higher Islamic learning, Niamey was simply insignificant. Thus, two decades ago wazu was hardly part of the religious practices in this city. Even in mosques where preaching finds its institutional location wazu was performed only occasionally, during Muslim festivals or at exceptional occasions such as the visit of a renowned Muslim scholar or the celebration of the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (Mawlid). Additionally, youth were uninterested in embracing such practice, the office of the preacher being systematically assumed by seniors and established Muslim scholars. In contrast, today preaching has democratized in Niamey, not only because wazu are performed by youth, but also because they are taken beyond the mosque into streets, cultural centers, private homes, and in the open air where they have found some of their most attentive audiences.
However, while Sunannce preachers claim to be personnel of no mosque in particular, they resist dismissing the importance of the mosque as a social and strategic space. As religious cadres, Sunnance preachers are not settled and fixed but on the move to find their audiences. In motion, they have ‘unmosqued’ the sermon, and made the street their stage, as Schechner (1995) would argue, claiming that they are only out there to invite people to embrace Islam, a responsibility any good Muslim should carry no matter their social status or religious authority. For many Niameyans this feature of Sunnance preaching has introduced a major dynamic in the religious field. In fact, while mainstream Izala (Zakari 2009; Sounaye 2009) and Sufi communities tend to mark whatever terrain and area they conquer, in contrast young Sunnance preachers have no interest in mosque grabbing, so to speak. This actually transpires in the heterogeneous Sunnance wazu audience, which is generally made up of active members of the community but also of all kinds of spectators and notably passersby, who can also be critics.
I am not arguing that the mosque has lost its significance in Niamey;7 rather, my point is that the ‘unmosquing’ process that appears with the Sunnance coincided with the rise of specific individual preachers and their strategic moves to occupy the streets and make a religious use of these public places.8 Their being in the streets is also explained by the fact that ‘we had to kick them out’ or they were ‘forbidden to preach in our mosque’, as some of their critics are quick to add. Feeling under threat and clearly bothered by the innovative preaching styles of the young Sunnance preachers, these critics justify their decisions by claiming they had to ‘rescue wazu, now accessible to anyone’, as Alfa Maiga, one of their critics, claims. This need to defend Islam against such appropriations illustrates how Sunnance performative acts and styles have troubled and unsettled established Muslim practices and commonplaces on being a preacher and a good Muslim. It is also an indication that in this reconfigured Islamic sphere, knowledge and higher Islamic learning, generally associated with the older generation and established scholars, are not the only options for achieving an authoritative voice and position. Alternative paths exist, and Sunnance in various positions have managed to make themselves authoritative while they claim to simply be serving Islam, an attitude that has become their mark of distinction.
Across West Africa and even beyond, Salafi criticism of Sufism has particularly emphasized the way in which Sufi practices involve the body and the voice (Jones 2010; Werbner and Basu 1998; Hammarlund, Olsson, and Ozdalga 2001). Rationalist Salafi have repeatedly condemned music and dance as inauthentic and un-Islamic practices, yet in many ways these rejections stand only theoretically. In practice, Sunnance also rely very much on style and bodily performances, as their wazu illustrate. In fact, breaking from particular ascetic formulations found in Salafism’s austerity and rejection of ostentation, they have invited new aesthetic forms into public religion while demonstrating a rearticulation of Salafism. For a Sunnance wazuko, being a performer and a godly man is no longer an oxymoron. The idea of a humorless preacher gradually becomes a nonissue or simply disappears. In a down-to-earth way, the Sunnance preachers are both religious men (irkoy tame, in Zarma-Songhay) and hilarious, and therefore no longer out of touch with ordinary people.
Not surprisingly, for many Salafi, in particular those who cling to the idea of the purity and authenticity narrative, Sunnance attitudes flirt with heresy and must therefore be repelled. This view needs to be situated and understood against the aesthetic order that Izala, the representative of mainstream Salafism in Niamey, sought to impose. A striking feature of this order resides in the way it was organized around the color green, and more generally around any dark color, what people refer to locally as heavy colors. The Sunnance have somewhat diluted that order by introducing light and shiny aesthetics while they also expose parts of the body, a practice that was unthinkable with the initial formulations of Salafism in the 1990s. As we can see in the pictures below, dark colors are still in use, but they cohabit with various other colors at the same time that the hijab itself is stylized.
Based on these developments, I argue that what Sunnance practices underscore is not so much a heretical relationship to the Sunna but a sense of the world that conveys and also relies on feeling, enjoyment, and entertainment, all dimensions of performativity that bring to the fore what I call Sunnance aesthetics. Consequently, the Salafi major claim that their reform is built on knowledge of the Qur’an and the Sunna needs to be reevaluated and understood against the backdrop of their performative acts often silenced by Salafi discourses themselves, and overlooked by scholars of Salafism.
In short, as one can witness in Niamey, wazu is a street performance, to use Cohen-Cruz’s (1998) words, and mainly targets youth who are enjoined to keep the Sunna alive. As a public event, wazu also plays to other audiences as I noted, in particular those ‘who are not yet persuaded of the value of the Sunna and who are undecided or in transition’,9 as Fodi, a preacher, put it. In exceptional situations the wazu has also taken the form of a political performance, staged to take a position in debates over specific social and political issues such as the polio immunization campaigns in the early 2000s or after the government drafted a bill that, if passed, would have required all families to keep their girls in school at least until age sixteen. On both occasions Sunnance preachers used wazu to voice dissent, but also show their ability to mobilize and fight what they equated to the usurpation of family prerogatives and an intrusion of the state into private and domestic domains.
Wazu as Performance
In their arguments with their critics or while standing at the pulpit, preachers usually remind themselves and their interlocutors that the Qur’an is the spoken word of God. It is thus less a scripture that should be read than a text that is better rendered once uttered, suggesting that oration and declamation are the most appropriate ways to engage with the Qur’an; a text that is then meant to be recited out loud. ‘Kourana ciaw yan’ in Zarma-Songhay or ‘Karatun Kur’ani’ in Hausa are ambivalent formulas that could mean learning, reading, reciting, or declaiming the Qur’an. Wazuko are prompt to invoke the godly command to Muhammad ‘Iqra!’ which some understand as ‘Recite!’ or ‘Declaim!’ making preaching a key prescription to the Sunnance. Adding to this view the imperative to propagate the words of Allah, wazuko have then legitimized their interventions, stressing that since Muhammad is the prime Muslim preacher, anyone striving to follow in his footsteps should also embrace wazu, regardless of their age, gender, or status. Sunnance youth have regularly brought these views on Islam and being Muslim against critics who mock and deride them, or argue that they are too young, inexperienced, and unqualified to preach. To brush off and silence those critics Abdourahmane, a young Sunnance wazuko who is popular for his use of humor in preaching, resorted to the crushing argument I have heard in this debate: ‘Only your fear of Allah [tsoron Allah] and deeds will save you the day of reckoning’. Of course, performing wazu here is not only a sign that one fears Allah, it is also one of the most valuable deeds.
A gathering with a ritualistic tone, wazu involves no rupture or liminality that require redress and reintegration, to use a framework Turner (1995) has popularized. Yet I call wazu a social drama that uses theatricalization and relies on a repertoire of acts and a reservoir of gestures and words, most of which are actually improvised, spontaneous and depend on the skills and talents of the wazuko or, as one young man put it, ‘on the feeling and the dexterity [hikma, in Hausa] of the wazuko’. As I illustrate below, wazu also depends on the interaction between the wazuko and the audience, suggesting that it involves a theatrical process, to use Schechner’s concept (1985). Most importantly, in the Sunnance context wazu as a verbal genre is the result of an interaction between a preacher and an audience, an aspect that the anthropology of Salafism still needs to research. Most wazu are not prepared and fixed as a lecture might be. The language and the structure of many wazu may be the same, but the wazuko builds on mise-en-scène, mimicry and spontaneity, expecting the audience to laugh or enter in exchange with him. The wazuko also knows that he is expected to show mastery of speech, and even to entertain the audience.10 For that reason he invents and reinvents, making creativity and imagination major parts of the wazu. Obviously this makes each wazu an occasion that mobilizes specific contextual elements and creates a particular relation between the preacher and the audience. The topic of two wazu may be the same, but how they are performed distinguishes them and could be for many the reason to prefer one over the other, especially once they are recorded and circulated.
In most wazu I observed, the performance dictates the order of ideas and the exposition of the arguments. Unlike the traditional tafsir (exegesis of the Qur’an) or khutba (sermon delivered on Friday during the congregational prayer), the wazu requires no writing or particular preparation.11 It builds on memory and public-speaking skills, regularly feeding on whatever might be going on during the wazu and in the surroundings. In explaining his preaching style, the popular wazuko Alarama said, ‘I keep mental notes and just keep speaking until I am done’. Wazu is an oral performance that depends for the most part on the capacity of the wazuko to cast vivid pictures of social contexts, actors, practices, behaviors, norms, or whatever they may need to mobilize to make a point. Given that the Sunnance are Salafi and thus promote ritual purity and authenticity, one of the topics their preachers consistently discuss is witchcraft and divination, two practices that tarnish and impede, in their views, a Sunna-inspired religiosity. Wazu in Niamey particularly dwell on these topics, whose examination has become occasions to deride and ridicule adepts of spirit possession (bori, holley), Sufi practices, unprincipled youth, debauchery, and rivals or opponents.
On those occasions Sunnance wazu is heavily charged with indirect language, a form of address that not only requires familiarity with the slang of Niameyze (lit. native of Niamey12), but also imagination and theatricalization. Because of the significance of the verbal creativity they deploy in their address, wazuko can easily be compared to griots, storytellers, and other professionals of public speaking popular across the region. Like these virtuosi, wazuko build on local speech genres, verbal performance, and aesthetics of speaking. ‘Avoir le verbe’ (to have a great command of speech) or sanni waniyan (rhetoric, in Zarma-Songhay) are skills that the Sunnance expect from their wazuko. For example, they insist that a good wazuko needs more than a ‘head full of the Qur’an’ or a ‘stomach that has drunk the Qur’an’; he cannot do without a ‘mouth full of words’, ‘a skillful tongue’, and ‘an emotional heart’, as the popular preacher Abdallah has put it. In fact, shedding tears, taking breaks to collect oneself after an emotional recitation or evocation of a scene in the Qur’an, modulating the tone of the voice, stepping back and asking the assistant preacher to take over, gesturing frenetically, pausing and standing still for a moment, are all parts of the drama that make the wazu.
In that sense, the wazu appears as an act of dramatization that better transmits its message through that performative form. As an efficient mode of communication, wazu allows subjectivities to take shape, and religiosity to express itself simply as a way of feeling, crafting, creating, impressing, and transmitting. Thus while they insist on skill and art, wazuko suggest that the condition for grasping a wazu lies less in the command of a reason that seeks an objective truth, but more in a body and a heart they can impress.
Performance, Fischer-Lichte (2008) reminds us, is transformative. Many young wazuko I followed in Niamey have built on that disposition and an art they developed or efficiently used in other domains of their social lives. For example, Alarama, was a choreographer and a professional dancer before he broke away and decided to serve the Sunna, ‘sunna ga’, as he says, a phrase he has regularly used to characterize his awakening to Islam. He now rejects parts of youth culture such as ‘wasting time and energy partying’ and ‘playing belote’.13 While critical of these elements of the daily life of youth, he has also adopted a realism that avoids blind rejection and therefore compromises on certain practices, such as watching television or going to the fada (gathering space in most urban contexts in Niamey), two habits that many older preachers and Muslim scholars have accused of ‘spoiling’ youth.
Sunnance wazuko themselves have seen in this compromise an awareness of the social and cultural milieu within which they live. That makes many of them eclectic in their theological orientation, and translates into the accommodationist14 positions they have usually taken on some social practices and customs that have drawn strong condemnation from the Izala reform movement. For example, a recurring discourse among this movement insists that one should not indulge in music because it shuts down religious acuity and obstructs the true word of Islam. In other words, music hinders and poisons piety. For these reasons Sunnance are particularly critical of rap and Coupé-Décalé,15 two genres they consider morally unfit because of their sexually suggestive moves and irreverent content. Yet not dismissing the content of their wazu, they draw attention to emotions and affects: ‘Rejoice, when you go to the wazu!’ says Abdallah, ‘Fill your ears with the poetry of the Qur’an!’ ‘Open your senses (ji) to whatever the Qur’an says!’ says Sanussi, another young preacher. ‘Let your heart be touched!’ enjoins Alarama, while Adiza, a female wazugoer, exclaims: ‘What a sweet voice!’
Drawing attention to aesthetic both in the sense of the beauty of the word of the preacher and the capacity of the wazu to affect, all these exclamations are reiterations of the significance of wazu, an occasion that, I should stress, rarely engages in intra-Muslim arguments. It is a social critique that, instead of pitching itself against other competing theological discourses by mobilizing doctrinal arguments common to many religious disputes of the 1990s, in most cases it now limits its goal to calling to Islam (da‘wa). Issa, a prominent Sunnance young preacher, repeatedly stresses, ‘C’est la Sunna qui vous parle ; ce n’est pas la parole de Abdul Aziz. Ce n’est pas non plus ma parole!’ (The Sunna is calling you; these are not Abdul Aziz’s words. They are not mine either). Apparently, by resisting a face-on attack, the Sunnance avoid heated arguments and therefore conflict. However, as one may expect, many established figures, both Sufi and Izala, have condemned these and similar claims, arguing they are only made to justify the intrusion of unlearned youth into a domain that should be left to the learned. With these competing claims and the controversies they have engendered, it is fair to say that wazu has become a major platform of Muslim politics in Niamey and the wazuko one of the central figures of these politics.
Wazuko as Performers
As a preacher, the wazuko is both a translator and a mediator in charge of the popularization of the Sunna. However, he is not only that. Often putting the text aside and even contradicting it on occasion, he also embodies the Sunna, enacts it, and brings it to life. In his study of the Friday Masowe apostolics of Zimbabwe, a community of Christians who do not read the Bible, Engelke notes a particular relation to the scriptures that overrides texts and dwells on the ‘live and direct’, part of a religiosity that emphasizes performativity and presence (2007, 19). The Sunnance promote a similar relationship, stressing the need to voice the Qur’an and the urgency to hear and listen to it. After all, as many have pointed out, the Qur’an is better rendered through Iqra and properly understood only when put to work. For this reason the Sunnance claim to be the ‘true heirs of the Prophet [Muhammad]’ who embrace the Sunna to make it better known and the template for their everyday lives (rayuwa/bafunay, in Hausa/Zarma-Songhay). Being Sunnance is then intricately linked to putting the Sunna to work and taking part in what the Sunnance themselves have referred to as a popularization process that would break the esoteric and therefore exclusivist character of traditional Muslim practices.
In this role the wazuko is not out there only for praise and applause, even though he needs those moments of recognition to establish his authoritative voice. Preachers build on performance and usually achieve particular status through their ability to perform and touch their audiences. Performance, as Grimes (2012) reminds us, is the child of the mother term action and has other siblings such as play, dance, and music. As the previous section emphasized, wazu emerges at the intersection of popular cultural performances, specific aesthetic forms, and the cultivation of piety in urban context. It is not surprising that preaching practices among wazuko build on the skills preachers have acquired in their previous lives, in particular when they were dancers or musicians, especially in Niamey. The connection between music and religiosity is important to note here, not only in Niamey but across Niger and West Africa as musical preaching has spread from Northern Nigeria to Senegal (Niang 2006, 2009, 2013). Masquelier (2010) draws attention to this trend in Niger, but for the most part it has remained understudied and in dire need to be analyzed in order to grasp the imbrication between preaching styles, aesthetic forms, and cultural performances.
A wazuko who has been preaching to urbanites for the last seven years, Alarama encapsulates this model of the new and performing preacher (Sounaye 2013). Embodying the typical Sunnance on a mission and the exemplar of a new and dynamic generation of wazuko, he embraced preaching as a way of serving Islam. In so doing he sought to promote the Sunnance discourse, especially among those young Niameyze whom he views not only as mischievous but also as ‘lost’ to both Islam and their families. Because of the moral predicaments of their existence, ‘Niameyze are precisely the subjects that need the most wazu’, he notes. Hence he frequently calls on them to ‘throw away rap music and useless attay [tea] drinking,16 and follow him to ‘work for the Sunna’ (Sunna goyo). Like many preachers who have emerged in recent years in West Africa, his sphere of influence has expanded beyond the confines of his home city and even West Africa to extend to the United States and Europe, where he is now regularly invited to preach to the Nigerien diaspora. He was in Hamburg, Germany in April and August 2014. I spoke with him in 2011 in Indianapolis on his way to Greensboro, North Carolina, a town that hosts a significant portion of the Nigerien diaspora in the United States. Media savvy, Alarama systematically tapes his visits to these communities and uploads them on YouTube and diaspora websites (Sounaye 2013). In Niamey he has regularly used television and the open-air wazu to carve out for himself a still-growing popularity.
In a similar manner, two other wazuko, Sanussi and Abdallah, have also gone global. Star-like figures in Niamey and Niger, they both crisscross West Africa and even parts of Central Africa to perform wazu to the Nigerien diaspora, but also to Hausa- and Songhay-speaking communities in those areas. Two years ago they formed a wazu duo to tour these regions, spreading the sweetness of their voices (dadin murya, in Hausa). They stress the poetry of the Qur’an, an idea that has crossed centuries (Young 2003; Jones 2010; Muessig 2002; Berkey 2001; Talmon-Heller 2008) and which is increasingly revived among youth in Niamey and across West Africa, in particular within Salafi communities in Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. In their view the role of a preacher is precisely to recognize that dimension of the Qur’an and reveal it to the public.17 Building on that claim, they have gradually legitimized and popularized their poetic and melodic18 renditions of the Qur’an in the face of a discourse that has grown even more critical of their practices in the last few years. Still, they insist that the only goal of their wazu is to help people understand and accept the Sunna in their lives. Perhaps more than any other preachers in Niamey, these three wazuko call for both the uncovering and the ‘full exhibition of the beauty of the Qur’an’, which, as Alarama puts it, should be the task of the preacher.
In other words, a wazuko is simply a performer who brings out that divine beauty and communicates it to the audience.19 In fact, the main market of Niamey (Grand Marché) hosts many Islamic ‘discotheques’ (recorded-sermon kiosks) that produce and distribute the sermons of Sunnance preachers who have become prominent voices of Islam and the agents of an exhibition of the Qur’anic beauty. In one of his YouTube videos, Sanussi, the preacher to whom I referred above, is shown in a radio studio in Bamako.20 In another he is on a preaching rally in Accra, Ghana. In yet another he is shown in one of those moments of recitation in Cotonou, Benin,21 intonating his voice, moving his head right and left, captivated and closing his eyes while drawing many expressions of ‘Allahu Akbar’ from the audience.
Voice is a very important element of the wazu. For many wazugoers it is a significant factor that draws them to a specific wazuko. There is no formal training of the voice; according to most Sunnance and preachers it is a godly gift. Referring to Sanussi, his peer Abdallah observes: ‘Allah gave him that voice and we are happy he is using it for the Sunna. And, you know, one can learn how to read the Qur’an, but some sweetness of the voice, nobody can give except Allah’. Capitalizing on this sweetness, they have become wazu sensations in Niamey.
During a wazu in March 2014 at the Académie des Arts Martiaux in Niamey, Abdallah and Sanussi teamed up to perform a wazu held to raise funds for a Madrasa project. For many, what made the day was not the words of good intention and the various contributions the audience promised, but the voices of the two wazuko, who, as if they were challenging each other, took turns impressing the crowd and drawing repeated exclamations of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and ‘At-Takbir!’ At one point when Abdallah took his turn, a woman who was ‘filled up with the words of the Sunna’, as they would say, and clearly affected by the rendition jumped over the fence, broke through the open area separating the women’s section and the pulpit (Minbar, Hausa/Zarma-Songhay), passed a group of young men recording the wazu, sped onto the stage, and embraced the wazuko, whose voice had by then electrified the crowd. She then took a piece of fabric out of her handbag and wiped the sweat on his neck and face. This act drew even more shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and ‘At-Takbir!’ while the brouhaha of the roaring crowd enveloped the dying voice of the preacher. She stood there on the Minbar behind the wazuko until he took a break to catch his breath. In this event, where seating is strictly gendered and close contact frowned upon, the woman’s act drew no particular comment. As I learned later, she was the second wife of the wazuko, a woman who fell in love with him and decided to marry him against the will of her parents.
Similar scenes can be seen at weddings, naming ceremonies, and other weekly celebrations, especially when they involve singing or dancing. To show support and congratulate the performer, getting on the floor to ‘wipe the sweat’ (shahe zuha, in Hausa) is a gesture of appreciation, pride, and satisfaction. In nonreligious contexts similar performances would have drawn shouting, applause, and often showering the performer with bank bills. In this current event, however, the audience refrained from such gestures. Hadiza, a wazugoer I met a few days later for an interview, said, ‘It was the best wazu I have been part of’.
Wazu in Niamey are replete with scenes of participants ‘filled up with the words of Sunna’ who, to express their satisfaction, shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ However, many remain quiet, struck by the verbal utterances and the timbre of the wazuko’s voice. In those instances Sunnance wazuko clearly appear as performers who have given wazu a new personal and performative tone, illustrating a particular dimension of Salafi religiosity and aesthetics. As a speech event wazu remind us of the power of orality to constitute a public but also to affect audiences, creating emotional states and affective bonds22 (see Flynn and Tinius 2015). Those bonds explain why for many wazuko, identifying with their audience means speaking the idioms they know and discussing the topics that preoccupy them in their everyday life. For example, unlike their parents’ generation, young Sunnance wazuko do not hesitate to discuss sexuality and love, two strong taboos just a few decades ago. In addition, I have seen wazugoers actually develop affinities that end up moving the group from an occasional formation to a real community structured around specific wazuko.23 Certainly wazugoers attend the wazu with a sense of mission and engage in a quest that they expect will transform their lives by increasing their piety and helping them abide by the prescriptions of the Sunna; but they also follow specific wazuko because they just like them, generally preferring the style or voice of one over that of another. In those instances wazuko not only perform to bring the Sunna to life, they also build and keep an audience that likes, understands better, or appreciates their voices, words, or public speaking skills, as I have been repeatedly told.
Thus when the Sunnance say they are not out there to challenge anybody but to popularize the Sunna, it is easy to disagree with such a claim precisely because resorting to such a style of preaching in a context where ostentation and playfulness (foray/wasa) are frowned on equates to a subtle subversion and even an open rejection. In fact, when their critics claim that Sunnance preaching are heretical, they explicitly point to the ways in which these young men not only challenge conventional preaching practices and styles but also disrupt an established hierarchical order and authority. The increasing number of young preachers and the preaching styles that have emerged over the last few years in Niamey are obviously decentering and democratizing preaching and religious authority. In many quarters of Niamey, especially in the most populous ones such as Banifandou, Yantala, Harobanda, Sonni, Boukoki, and Talladjé, the youth seem to have acquired a near monopoly on preaching in the streets but also on mass media as they devise various strategies to appropriate those spaces.
Wazu, Wazuko, and Wazugoers: A Moment of Participation
In various religious traditions and social contexts, the interplay between preachers and audience members is a major element of the performance of a sermon. For Sunnance this dimension is particularly important. For a wazu to be successful in their eyes, it has to ‘move the crowd’, both literally and figuratively. Thus it is always an event that involves more than the wazuko. While the wazuko performs by taking the stand and voicing and acting the Sunna, the audience participates in ‘lending ears and eyes’, responding to the rhetorical invitations of the wazuko. When in tune with the wazuko, the audience can even find itself completing his sentences. These chorus moments are part of the performance of wazu and illustrate the degree to which it is a collective endeavor. ‘Preach to us; we will listen!’ is a call of support that I have regularly heard at wazu.
In their sermons wazuko regularly stress the idea of softening hearts as a way to discipline oneself and be a good Muslim. ‘Work on your hearts and open up before it is too late!’ Alarama urged. ‘Listen and soften your hearts; drop all those dark things you carry and clean up your hearts; calm down, put your head down and be humble’, he added on a night on which he ended up shedding tears. I attended over forty of Alarama’s wazu, and this one was the most emotional. It was on the night of Laylatul Qad’r (the night of destiny, in Arabic), one of the last nights of Ramadan, when the Sunnance in Niamey spend most of their time preaching and praying as their fate is decided. ‘Whatever will happen to you in the coming year is decided that night’, states Alarama. In the audience one can also hear part of the audience following suit, murmuring Allahu Akbar, Subahanallahi, Irkoy mir yafa (Allah is great. May Allah protect us. May God forgive us) while others remain still and quiet. At one point the only sound one could hear was the sobbing of the preacher. ‘In that moment of humility’, as he would tell me later, ‘one should be happy to be alive and experience that night, pray and ask Allah for his mercy. Not everyone gets to live that truth’.
Both wazuko and wazugoers become emotional, part of the experience that many say softens their hearts and brings them back or leads them to piety. As Hadiza, a female wazugoer, remarked, a good wazu ‘finds its way into your heart, makes you feel humane and vulnerable. You may be the king or president of this country, [but] some wazu will make you forget all that and get your head down to earth’. Emotions humble a person, and that is exactly what Sunnance wazuko and wazugoers constantly remind themselves.
While the wazuko enacts and even makes something present, wazugoers are not just passive observers. As Goffman (1959) shows, in a performance audience members also participate in the making of the event. Here not only do they enter into a verbal exchange with the wazuko, they also emotionally open up to the words and evocations of the wazuko. In those instances theatricalization and dramatics create an area within which the wazuko meets the wazugoers to constitute the wazu, illustrating what Marsden has referred to in another Muslim context in terms of social aesthetics (Marsden 2007).
In the mainstream Salafi context, especially in Niger and Northern Nigeria, many equate the sermon to a darasi (lecture, in Hausa), an occasion to learn and increase knowledge. However, among the Sunnance it takes on an additional character. Unlike in the Madrasa, for example, the wazu always requires an audience that is never a mere recipient but an active partaker in the event. Madrasa subjects are learners who receive knowledge; wazugoers acquire knowledge but they also participate in the making of the wazu, especially because wazu is performed in order to be seen, watched, and listened to. In Niamey a wazuko who is not listened to and who is not able to draw an audience to his open-air performances has simply failed. Anyone claiming the status of a Sunnance wazuko should be able to deliver or will otherwise be ‘left alone with his talk’, notes Adiza.
If wazu is a lived experience and part of a theatrical process, it is also performed for and through the interaction between the wazuko and the wazugoers, as I argued above. The wazuko takes the stand and bears witness to the Sunna. Wazugoers also contribute to making wazu a lived experience filled with interjections, laughs, and chorus reactions that create a shared experience and eventually a community of listeners. In other words, an emphasis on performance allows us to grasp how the Sunna gets into the lives of the Sunnance, but also how wazu becomes an ‘immediate experience of being a group’, as Schulz (2011, 216) has shown in her study of cassette sermons among women in Mali.
At the same wazu at the Académie des Arts Martiaux mentioned earlier, Sanussi repeatedly urged the audience, ‘Please, do not let my words go out for nothing! I did not speak on this stage in vain!’ (ban-yi magana banza ba, in Hausa), an injunction followed by a chorus of Insh’Allah. In a performance situation, Goffman insists, scholars should consider the relationship between a front stage and a back stage (Goffman 1959); in the present case it is perhaps more useful to collapse that distinction and look at the performance as an interplay between two entities of the same stage, both brought on the stage in a participatory mode that constitutes the wazu. The articulation between these entities, especially their back-and-forth exchange, explains why the wazu is not script based. If we may still speak of one at all, then such a script is always in the making while the wazu is performed and the wazuko and the wazugoers create and establish their relationship. In that sense, unlike the formal tafsir that is essentially an exegesis of the Qur’an, Sunnance wazu relies less on the authoritative presence of the Qur’an, but more on the performative act that makes it a stage.
Wazuko certainly quote the Qur’an and other Islamic texts, in particular the hadith, but most of the time only minimally, leaving most of the wazu to comments on the topic discussed, digressions, and evocations around which the performance is woven. The structure of the wazu itself clearly indicates this dimension because the last part of the event is usually devoted to questions and answers, a moment when the wazuko assumes his role as scholar to enlighten the audience, as the Sunnance observe. However, this is not the only moment in which the wazu adopts a conversational mode. In fact, throughout the performance the audience talks back to the wazuko, creating dialogical moments that, as I have seen in many wazu, can disrupt the preacher and lead him into endless digressions.
The main point here is not just to say that the wazu should not be reduced to a monologue; rather, I would like to stress the prevalence of dialogical forms in the wazu and underline how these forms alternate and overlap throughout the performance. In fact, segments of many wazu I attended suggest that wazu should be associated with a fakaray, a conversational genre that involves public speaking, storytelling, and performative skills that is very popular among Niamey youth. Part of the local oral culture, fakaray draws from jokes and mimicry and proceeds by ‘adding salt and pepper’ (sa tonka da gishiri, in Hausa) or ‘putting make-up to a story’ (turu ga talam, in Zarma-Songhay) in a show of oratory skills—me kanay,24 in Zarma-Songhay. Obviously, extrapolations and speculations beyond actual facts are very common in these instances. As elements of an oral culture, salt and pepper and make-up are no challenge to the credibility of the wazuko; they are simply understood as modes of an oration that seeks to beautify the story or the facts but never transform them into a fiction.25 Wazu borrows from those modes of oration and speech acts to spice up the talk. However, the wazu is a special fakaray that is peppered with references taken from Islamic scriptures and life events that help illustrate whatever point the wazuko wants to make. The association with fakaray also allows us to grasp the fact that wazu often breaks loose and becomes an unpredictable exchange that alternates and combines different modes of communication and performance, from elaborated argumentation to dramatic gestures. In any case, the point here is to emphasize that like fakaray, wazu often relies first on an exchange between the wazuko and the wazugoers, and second, on the awareness that there are always people listening.
During a wazu held in March 2010 in Boukoki, a popular neighborhood of Niamey, while the wazuko Alarama was discussing the commitment to prayer as the primary condition for strengthening faith, a boy sneezed, prompting the wazuko to pause and say: ‘Tisso wala!26 And keep sneezing, maybe the alsilamay27 will get married this year’. The audience followed with ‘Ameen wallah!’ (Amen! In the name of Allah). A male voice coming from behind Alarama was particularly loud in responding to the remark. Alarama followed sarcastically: ‘Yes, they need a loud Ameen … give them a strong Ameen, maybe those who have been singing for months that they are getting married would finally take the crucial step they need’. A burst of laughter followed. The wazuko paused, held his chin and added: ‘Actually, I wonder whether they have found the girl to marry … don’t you need to find a girl first? I think they should resolve that issue first … yes, find the bride first, right?’28 More laughs followed. As the audience was laughing, one of Alarama’s assistants, the target of the comments as I would learn later, replied: ‘Allah has not set the time yet. So, please, pray for us! We need your prayers, Preacher!’ Alarama turned and addressed the assistant directly: ‘God said: “Stand up! And I will help you”. So, you need to wake up, find the girl and then get the money for the wedding. Start making it happen!’ More voices replied, stretching the end of the sentence: ‘May God make it happennnnn!’ (Irkoy Mateeeee!).
This form of exchange, which invites the audience into a dialogue, is common to many other preachers I observed in Niger. Among the Sunnance, however, this feature is particularly striking, making the wazu more than an act of communication but instead a space for exchange and a relational moment filled with acts and reactions in which improvisation becomes necessary. Frequently calling for a response and thus making the audience active participants, the orations of the wazuko assume and at the same time highlight the relational structure of the Sunnance wazu. By its nature, a sermon is destined for communication since it implies not only a target audience to which it speaks but also any listener who might respond.
On another occasion, as he parodied social behaviors and interpersonal relations during a wazu held at the home of one of his relatives, Alarama spent a great deal of time poking fun at young men who, with no source of income and no prospects, rely on their parents for their financial needs. This creates a form of dependency and a ‘waithood’ situation that many have criticized. Youth conditions in Niamey have certainly deteriorated because of the structural transformations that have affected the economy and the rapid urbanization process that reshaped life in the city. Still, in many Muslim discourses the youth are also to blame because of their idleness and tendency to ‘despise work’ (a siba goy, in Zarma-Songhay). The target of Alarama’s words was precisely that category of youth:
You spend the whole night drinking tea (attay) … you sleep in, wake up well over 10:00
am… let’s not even talk about you missing the early morning prayer.… And what do you do? You send your sister to your mother to get you some breakfast money … what a shame! Then later in the afternoon, [your girlfriends] Aissa and Fati come to visit you … and when they are about to leave, again you send your sister to your mother to get you some taxi money for your girlfriends.… Am I wrong?
The audience exploded into laughs with some voices responding, ‘Cimi No!’ (That’s right!’), while he continued his satirical comments: ‘And then, of course, one day, she will get pregnant … who is going to get you the sheep for the naming ceremony?’ Turning to the audience, he repeated: ‘Who is getting him the sheep?’ A voice in the audience replied: ‘His mother!’ Then, mimicking the young man walking, he added: ‘After all this, you are still proud to walk in the street, your head up, showing off.… What a stinky life!’ Once again, the audience burst out laughing.
As public discourse, preaching is not only about crafting an argument against opponents’ discourse; it is also a site of verbal art intended to persuade an audience, as many scholars have already noted (Talmon-Heller 2008; Bauman and Briggs 1990; Sennett 2003; Young 2003; Berkey 2001; Waters 2003; Jones 2010). The desire to convey an effective message has been at the core of wazu practice. In order to persuade, wazuko frequently build on contextual factors and tap into the reservoir of values and norms familiar to the audience. In doing so, they build trust and demonstrate awareness of the living conditions of their audiences. Alarama, Sanusi, and Abdallah, the three preachers discussed here, are all famous for such an approach to wazu. Therefore one could argue in a Bourdieusian perspective that both the art of wazuko and its effect should be considered within their social contexts (Bourdieu 1999).
Well aware of this dimension of preaching, Sanussi, Abdallah, and Alarama have also argued that wazu is never only a matter of erudition and competence in the Islamic texts; they also emphasize the performative nature of their wazu. With these preachers and Sunnance wazuko in general, one is struck by the way the knowledge of the text defers to skillful rendition of the Qur’an, the imagination, and the eloquence (iya magana, in Hausa) of the wazuko. As the Sunnance observe, in addition to knowledge a wazuko needs to develop oratorical and rhetorical skills to make the message accessible to the audiences. Alarama, for example, is aware of both this pedagogy and the need to ‘throw in some jokes in the wazu’; he points out that one can be a great scholar but a mediocre preacher.
This stance on wazu has greatly contributed to the Sunnance discourse of legitimization as they face the criticism that they lack the pedigree to perform an efficient wazu. Many critics believe these unlicensed preachers rely primarily on skills and attributes they have often acquired outside and before their religious careers. As we can see, operating in a different moral order has not affected those skills. On the contrary, they mobilize them to promote repentance and religiosity among urbanites while also establishing new performance practices. Using wazu to promote the betterment of Muslims has become the trademark of the Sunnance of Niamey as they crisscross the city to perform wazu.
Among the Sunnance wazu certainly contributes to education—as they say, it is a darasi (lecture, instruction). Most important for a performative analysis of this event, however, is the fact that the value of wazu not only lies in its call to a pious behavior; it is also an occasion ‘to soften hearts’, touch the sensibilities of the listeners, and impress the audience. In this instance wazuko appear as masters of speech and performance. When I inquired among women on why they attend wazu, they referred to aesthetic sensibility and the preacher’s know-how. One young woman said: ‘I just like him’. Another added, ‘He knows how to speak to us’. Yet another one stressed, ‘He knows how to preach; il a le verbe’ (he has a good command of speech), emphasizing his discursive and rhetorical style. As a performer, the wazuko builds his authority and maintains his status through these dimensions of his art. These elements of aesthetic persuasion, to borrow Meyer’s (2010) words, are something that any attempt at understanding and explaining the popularity of wazu and wazuko among Salafi in Niamey cannot afford to overlook.
An oral performance (Bauman 1977) that relies heavily on improvisation and the dynamic that characterizes the audience, wazu is mainly an oration that draws on a cultural reservoir, a personal repertoire of skills, and the significance of religious aesthetics. Thus the resources the wazu, wazuko and wazugoers mobilize go beyond that of religiosity, strictly speaking. While both wazuko and wazugoers involved in ‘acts of faith’ to constitute the wazu, they are also engaged in a participation that creates a sense of reality that transcends the popularization of the Sunna, the stated purpose of the wazu. Performance transforms (Fischer-Lichte 2008) and gives way to a sense of social aesthetics (Marsden 2007). This is clearly manifested in the Sunnance context in which it has created and inspired particular forms of sociality, demonstrating the Sunnance quest for beauty (cf. Stokes 2016).
Finally, as I noted, as a social drama wazu is performed by an individual claiming a religious role, authority, and power, and an audience—attentive or not29—that contributes to make the wazu a complex communicative event. The young Sunnance wazuko may be denied the legitimacy to preach, but he has the skills to mobilize committed wazugoers or simply any audience that is ready to ‘lend him eyes and ears’, as the Hausa expression puts it (ba shi aron kunnuwanka da idanunka). It is through lending eyes and ears that the audience contributes to the making of both the wazuko and the wazu.
In the Hausa and Zarma-Songhay-speaking areas of West Africa that are the primary contexts of my research, the Salafi have built on those understandings and aesthetics of Islam. Despite their widespread condemnation of some forms, their practices have consistently suggested that to understand their religiosity and, to a broader extent, religion, we need to pay particular attention to the aesthetic forms through which their messages and discourses are expressed. Utilizing a nuanced approach that goes beyond the content of the ritual, symbols, and scripture—key classical categories that have been used to analyze Islam—helps scholars open up to a perspective that also appreciates the aesthetics of religious phenomena. Therefore the case presented here invites a more-differentiated understanding of both Islamic and other religious reforms. The examination of Sunnance aesthetics is only a point of entry into the complex and variegated expressions of Salafism. Sunannce have not only introduced a new preaching culture in Niamey; their case also brings to the fore the need for scholars of Islam in Africa and beyond to de-essentialize Salafism, and look at it in both its differences and contradictions. Failing to take this into consideration can lead to losing sight of a significant dimension of the very dynamics that drive Salafism and, to a broader extent, religion.
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Part of this also resides in the anticlericalism and the emancipatory discourse of young Salafi in Niamey.
Another young woman stated, ‘That religion is the religion of our fathers’, pointing also to a generational divide in the understanding of what religion ought to involve.
In the local understanding Sunnance are literally those who enact and perform the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad. For the Sunnance reading the Qur’an; going to the Makaranta (learning center); hosting, funding, or going to a wazu are all major ways of enacting the Sunna and therefore following in the footsteps of the Prophet.
One has only to walk a few quarters of Niamey to notice that mosques are still key spaces for Muslims there. They are places of prayer but also sites of encounter for Qur’anic reading groups, wedding and naming ceremonies, and so on.
Obviously Sunnance and their preachers had to compete with other actors and users (youth groups, petty-traders, conversation groups, and so on) of urban space that have already made their mark on the streets. In part because of the warm weather conditions, in Sahelian cities such as Kano, Niamey, Ouagadougou, or Bamako the streets are very important spaces that are usually taken over by all kinds of activities, especially at night.
I must say that not all wazuko in Niamey are exceptional public speakers. I have come across several who are far from the standards usually set for a popular wazuko.
In the past, in the main urban centers of Niger and before it was delivered at the mosque the Friday khutba needed approval by the state institution, the Association Islamique du Niger. Because of the transformation within the religious sphere and the lack of personnel both on the state’s side and among Islamic authorities, this form of control is no longer implemented. This is part of the democratization of Niger.
The label connotes familiarity with the city. It can also be derogatory. In the latter case, it is used to refer to unprincipled and mischievous young men.
In the sense that these positions do not entirely dismiss either the elements of youth culture in question or their criticism by hardline clerics.
This is a popular practice in Niamey where youth gather in the streets and spend long hours chitchatting around a kettle of tea. In Niamey and most of the Sahel, tea drinking has become a way in which youth socialize. In Niamey critics see nothing in it but idleness and a waste of time (bata locaci). For readings on tea-drinking practices in Niger, cf. Boyer (2014) and Masquelier (2013).
This discourse on the beauty of the Qur’an should also be read alongside and against the popular idea that stresses the comprehensive nature of the Qur’an and claims that ‘it has left nothing out, contains all sciences, those we already know and those to come’ (Idrissa). Again, to legitimize their Islamism and thus the rejection of other value systems, many activists have built on this idea.
Let us note that wazu is not the only genre that dwells in melodic renditions. Qasida, poems sung in honor of Shayks and the Prophet Muhammad, also use melody.
For an illustration see, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJIxn4Mlb6I.
Studying Pentecostal-Charismatic preachers in Ghana, Marleen de Witte talks about fans and celebrities, two qualifiers that apply to some extent to the context I am examining (cf. de Witte 2011).
Factuality, sincerity, and truth can be important topics to analyze in the performance of wazu and in order to grasp the type of epistemology to which the discourse of wazu belongs. However, that would go beyond the scope of my discussion. Here it should suffice to recognize that dimension of wazu.
Literally Muslims. However, he was actually alluding to one of his assistants who had been talking about getting married.
Note that many women also attend wazu to show their Sunnance identity, which for many increases the chances of finding a husband. In fact, many have used the wazu to make public their desire to find a good Sunnance husband. I have heard many such announcements at wazu in Niamey. Cf. Sounaye, 2009.