On December 1st 2021, Dr. Michelle Johnson, who is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bucknell University, gave an illuminating talk about her newly released book Remaking Islam in African Portugal. The talk was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Change, which directs the Muslim Voice project with the cooperation of the Center of the Studies of the Middle East. The book is a result of her work on an anthropological, ethnographical, and transnational project over twenty years, studying the lives of Mandinga and Fula people who immigrated to Lisbon, Portugal.
She has started her long journey in studying the lives of the social, religious, political, and cultural life of this minority group in their homeland Guinea-Bissau. She was comparing the life of this minority group in their original homeland when they were living in small villages and how it changed when they transferred to bigger cities in Guinea-Bissau. Furthermore, she studied the significant change of this minority group in their understanding of global Islam when they immigrated to Lisbon, Portugal, especially after the military coup in 1998.
The Fula and Mandinga people who immigrated from Guinea-Bissau to Lisbon, Portugal have encountered other Muslim minority groups in Lisbon who have a different understanding of Islam than the people who were born and raised in Africa. Many Fula and Mandinga immigrants were rethinking and reevaluating their religious practices, which are mixed with a lot of African customs that seem not related to Islam. These customs are like female circumcision, childhood rituals like name-giving and hand-writing, and seeking help from healer-diviners etc. Beyond that, she has attended many cultural occasions for the African immigrants in Portugal, such as the welcoming back celebration for people who came from the pilgrimage journey from Mecca.
For example, regarding female circumcision, she has found that there is a strong conflict between the African custom which encourages this cultural practice and the Islam teaching which is against it because it causes a lot of harm to the female body and their psychological well-being. She also noticed that African males are more susceptible to getting rid of their African customs and purifying their Islamic practice to be more compatible with the global Islam more than African females because they have more access to socialize and participate with the other Muslims in the community. She also conducted several meetings with healer-diviners in order to know why the African immigrants to Europe are still interested to seek help from them and she listed several stories about some healer-diviners who tried to take advantage of people’s fears and needs.
Dr. Michelle Johnson has established and maintained very strong relationships with many of those African families since they were in their homeland until they immigrated and settled down in Lisbon, Portugal. She had noticed how they interacted and what their dreams and fears were when they were in the diaspora. The book opens with an introductory chapter that establishes a general background about faith and fieldwork in African Lisbon. From there, the book is divided into two parts. The first part is about remaking Islam through life-course rituals and contains chapters 2, 3, and 4: chapter 2 is Name-Giving and Hand-Writing: Childhood Rituals and Embodying Islam; chapter 3 is Making Mandinga, Making Muslims: Initiation, Circumcision, and Ritual Uncertainty; and chapter 4 is Distant Departures: Funerals, Postburial Sacrifices, and Rupturing Place and Identity. The second part of the book discusses remaking Islam through rituals beyond the life-course and contains chapters 5 and 6: chapter 5 is about Reversals of Fortune: From Healing-Divining to Astrology and chapter 6 describes the welcoming back from Mecca celebration and reimagining the Hajj. The book concludes with an epilogue entitled Faith, Food, and Fashion – Religion in Diaspora.
Although the book is anthropological and ethnographical, longitudinal research, it has a lot of anecdotes which depict the challenges and struggles that those immigrants face in the diaspora and how they tried to maintain their identities as an African and Muslim people in a foreign land. The book is part of Indiana University’s Framing the Global series, published in 2020.
Dr. Michelle Johnson is hoping to continue in this research. She has noticed that the second generation of the Mandinga and Fula immigrants to Lisbon, Portugal have a different worldview and are more eager to accept and integrate into the Western lifestyle than their parents. Many of them have a dream to immigrate to the US or another European country and live a normal life like any other Westerner. According to her, studying the life change for the second generation of the African immigrants in the diaspora is an interesting and more challenging project that she hopes to conduct in the future.
Dr. Hassan Bokhari is a graduate of Indiana University – Bloomington Linguistics Department. He was an editor in the Muslim Voices in 2021-2022.