Islam in a Zongo: Muslim Lifeworlds in Asante, Ghana
By Benedikt Pontzen
In Thomas Eriksen’s apt phrase, anthropology attends to “large issues in small places” (Eriksen  2015) – and so does my book, Islam in a Zongo: Muslim Lifeworlds in Asante, Ghana, which takes Islam in a zongo as its subject. Kokote Zongo, the ‘small place’ of my ethnography, is home to about 5,000 people and the largest zongo in the Asante town Offinso. Founded in the 1920s, Kokote Zongo quickly grew into a hub in the transregional trade that connected Ghana’s Asante region with the West African subcontinent. Due to this transregional trade, zongos are found widely across West Africa. Their name derives from the Hausa word zangō, which refers to the camping sites of the trading caravans that crossed the West African subcontinent during the 19th century. Eventually, these itinerant traders settled down and founded their own wards where they conducted their trade – the zongos. Yet, the inhabitants of these wards were not only strangers in relation to their surroundings but also strangers to one another as they hailed from different backgrounds and regions. Islam, the ‘large issue’ of my book, provides the people of the zongos with a common ground and shared values to relate to one another, to intermarry, and to partake in each other’s lives. Zongos are Muslim communities, and Islam is central to how people relate to and live with one another in these wards. Meanwhile, one encounters a diversity of Islamic conceptions, practices, and imaginaries among the people of the zongos who conceive of and live their religion in multiple ways that remain irreducible to one another. In its diversity, Islam is subject to constant debates among them. In the zongos as much as elsewhere, Islam emerges as a “discursive tradition” (Asad 1986; cf. Ahmed 2016) that is both informed by the changing history of Muslim presence in the region and perpetuates it.
Muslim immigrants have been present in Ghana’s Asante region since at least the early 18th century. Drawing on oral histories, interviews, archival records, and secondary literature, I narrate a history of Muslim presence in Asante in the first part of my book. Throughout the Asante dominion (ca. 1700–1874), theirs was a small community of Dioula from the Malian Sahel region living at the royal court. Under colonial occupation (1874–1957), numerous Muslim traders and laborers from the northern regions moved into Asante and founded zongos across the region. In the process, Hausa traders from northern Nigeria replaced the Dioula as hegemonic group, and the Qadiriyya Sufi order became the predominant Islamic movement in the zongos. During the early 20th century, the Qadiriyya was supplanted by the Tijaniyya Sufi order that held Islamic hegemony until the 1970s, when the Tijaniyya came under open attack by reformist Muslims, who in Ghana are commonly referred to as Sunna. Up to this day, the Tijaniyya and the Sunna struggle for Islamic hegemony in the zongos. Thus, the present diversity of lived Islam in the zongos is at once informed by this changing history and informing its divergent and contested narrations, which are part of and co-shape the discursive tradition of this religion in these wards.
Meanwhile, zongos are also part of wider surroundings and must be considered in their contexts to comprehend their complex dynamics. As immigrants, the people of the zongo find themselves as a minority and as strangers in their Asante surroundings, which limits their influence on broader social dynamics, restricts their access to land, and renders them vulnerable to political actions, like Ghana’s mass expulsion of national aliens in the early 1970s. Furthermore, Muslims constitute a significant minority of about 17 percent of Ghana’s population – which is predominantly Christian, meaning that Christian actors decide the terms and topics of public debates in the country. As strangers and as Muslims, the people of the zongo find themselves as a dual minority in their surroundings, and their resulting marginalization impacts the socioeconomics and the imagined community in these wards. With the decline of the long-distance trade since the 1970s, zongos have turned into rather destitute wards whose inhabitants struggle hard to make a living. Meanwhile, Islam provides the marginalized strangers of these wards not only with a common ground and shared values but also with a sense of community that they share with other Muslims in their regions of origin and across the Islamic world. Similarly, the dynamics of Islam in the zongos are also informed by the transregional connections of the people of these wards.
Islam as lived by the people of the zongo is marked by an irreducible diversity and ongoing debates that I delineate in the second part of my book. In three ethnographic chapters, I describe and discuss the dynamics of this diversity in relation to the various Islamic prayer practices encountered in the zongos, to the authorization of distinct Islamic knowledges among the people of these wards, and to the different and ardently contested Islamic divination and healing practices that they perform.
In prayer, the people of the zongo relate to the divine, embody the Islamic tradition, and integrate into a community of ‘those who pray together’, as they refer to themselves. Through their prayer practices, the people of the zongo become Muslims. Yet, their prayer practices are also marked by the religious dissent and the Islamic distinctions running through their community, so that the irreducible diversity of how they live Islam is already part of and co-created by this fundamental religious practice. The religious dissent running through the zongos finds its main expression in the separate congregational prayers that the people of these wards attend, as they refuse to pray behind Muslims belonging to an Islamic group other than their own. Furthermore, their different prayer practices provide the Islamic groups in the zongos with markers of belonging and distinction that hold as much for the Tijaniyya’s dhikr rituals (i.e., congregational recitations of litanies in remembrance of Allah), as for the Sunna’s Qur’anic recitations, attendance at which is commonly read (and intended) as a marker of one’s belonging. Accordingly, the relation between prayer and piety is not as straightforward as others have suggested. Rather, it is part of the more complex dynamics that Muslims find themselves caught up with as they practice their religion.
The sphere of Islamic scholarship and knowledge – ʿilm – is also quite diverse and marked by distinct knowledge practices and epistemes. The Islamic scholars who “speak for Islam” (Pontzen 2017) in the zongos put forward divergent Islamic tenets, mutually contest these, and thereby partake in the (re)making of Islam’s irreducible diversity. Portraying three Islamic scholars from Kokote Zongo with their diverse biographies of Islamic learning, I highlight the diversity of Islamic knowledges and epistemes encountered among them, which holds especially for their salient distinctions and contestations of exoteric (ʿilm zāhiran) and esoteric (ʿilm bātinan) Islamic knowledges. These different knowledges are transmitted in distinct ways and through distinct institutions. In turn, the Islamic scholars deploy their distinct knowledges in their sermons and counseling and challenge one another in these. Thus, they not only engage with but propel the lived diversity of their religion. Hence, ʿilm is not a pre-given body of Islamic knowledge but a varied and contested field on which various actors seek to assert their religious authority as they engage with and (re-)make the discursive tradition of Islam.
The most ardent debates in the zongos revolve around divination and healing practices. The critics of these practices label them as ‘bōkā’ (Hausa for ‘traditional’ spiritual healing practices) and thereby identify them as polytheistic – the gravest transgression in Islam. In turn, the practitioners produce and present their doings as part of the Islamic tradition. Accordingly, they reject and resent these critiques. Proposing the concept of the imaginary, I argue that these practices should be considered in their respective contexts and in view of people’s understandings of how things (should) hang together. Therefore, I present two ‘bōkā’ practitioners and retell the discourses they have on their doings, seeking to convey how they make sense of and ground them in the Islamic discursive tradition. Concomitantly, I present the various critiques of ‘bōkā’ by different actors and highlight how they ground these within the discursive tradition of Islam and thereby lay claims to and partake in it as well. In debates like the one on ‘bōkā’, the people of the zongo engage with and partake in a shared discursive tradition as they (re-)make and live their religion. Yet, what they make of and how they partake in it is not only open to varied engagements but inherently diverse.
The diversity of lived Islam in the zongos is thus at once informed by and informing the lifeworld of these wards as the people of the zongos relate to and live with one another as Muslims. In the process, they engage with and (re-)make their religion in open but not ungrounded processes as they anchor their divergent Islamic conceptions, practices, and imaginaries in the discursive tradition of their religion and thus partake in and perpetuate it. As a lived and living tradition, Islam is inextricably bound up with how people enact it. This is the main insight into the large issue of ‘Islam’ that my book seeks to convey.
 The Qadiriyya has its roots in 12th century Iran and was a widespread and influential Sufi order in West Africa during the early 20th century.
 The Tijaniyya has its roots in 19th century Morocco and is one of today’s largest and most prominent Muslim movements in West Africa, not least thanks to its propagation by the Senegalese Islamic scholar Ibrahim Niasse.
 This designation of reformist Muslims in Ghana derives as a shorthand of the name of their first official organization, the Ahl us-Sunna wal Jama’ah.
Ahmed, Shahab. 2016. What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Asad, Talal. 1986. ‘The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam’. The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. Occasional Paper Series, Washington, DC.
Eriksen, Thomas H. (1995) 2015. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology: Fourth Edition. London: Pluto Press.
Pontzen, Benedikt. 2017. ‘“Speaking for Islam” and Religious Authority in Zongos in Asante, Ghana’. Journal of Religion in Africa 47 (1): 42–71.
Benedikt Pontzen is an anthropologist and writer. He has been carrying out ethnographic and historiographic research in Ghana’s Asante region since the early 2000s. In his research, he focuses on lived Islam, so-called ‘African Traditional Religions’, religious diversity, and religious encounters. He is the author of Islam in a Zongo: Muslim Lifeworlds in Asante, Ghana (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and of several essays that have been published in edited volumes and in journals, including Africa, Islamic Africa, and The Journal of Religion in Africa.
Citation: Benedikt Pontzen, Islam in a Zongo: Muslim Lifeworlds in Asante, Ghana, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.06.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/29127.