The Mediating Role of Religious Paper Documents: First Findings from Research in Morocco and Senegal

By Johara Berriane

The administrative registration of people is generally conceived as a „technology of writing tightly associated with the rise of state power“ (Szreter and Breckenridge, 2012: 3.) Apart from the state, however, there are many non-state agents who keep records about people such as for instance corporations, NGOs or religious institutions. From those non-state agents, my project focuses on religious groups and investigates how they participate in processes of identification, registration and governance of individuals today. In addition to that, I look at how and when the states themselves produce religiously relevant documents. My project is part of the research group “Identity, Identification and Bureaucratization in sub-Saharan Africa” that is based in Dakar, Senegal and was initially launched in November 2015 by the German Historical Institute in Paris and the Centre de Recherche sur les Politiques Sociales (CREPOS) in Dakar. Since January 2017, our research initiative has been extended to a Transregional Research Group of the Max Weber Foundation called “The Bureaucratisation of African societies”.

Based on anthropological research in Morocco and Senegal, my project’s trajectory is to trace the production, uses and meanings of religious identity documents in both Muslim and Christian contexts. I am especially interested in a comparison of the bureaucratisation of faith in the cities of Rabat (Morocco) and Dakar (Senegal). My main hypothesis is that members of religious groups adopt norms, categories and procedures through bureaucratic “formalities” (Hibou, 2013.) in order to become better organized. Therefore, religious groups produce identity cards and other administrative documents to identify, coordinate and control the members of their own communities. In certain settings, these religious registration practices echo with the production of religious paper documents by the states. Drawing on Matthew Hull’s work on documents and bureaucracy, I understand these religious documents as mediators that are “constitutive of bureaucratic rules, ideologies, knowledge, practices, subjectivities, objects, outcomes, and even the organizations themselves.” (Hull, 2012a: 253.)

Baptism cards enabling transnational belonging?  

A house church in Rabat. Picture: Johara Berriane.

As I discovered during the first stage of my research (December 2015 to June 2016), religious documents seem to be very important in transnational settings, particularly when the faithful become mobile. During my fieldwork among Congolese and Ivorian Christian migrants in Rabat in late 2015 (November 2015 to January 2016), I found members of this Christian immigrant population often become affiliated with revival and charismatic churches in Rabat, although they previously had been belonged to and been baptised in longer established denominations (mainly Catholic and Evangelical churches). Once they had arrived in Morocco, many of the immigrants became very active in private or informal revival churches instead of trying to join a parish of their earlier affiliation. At the same time, however, the same people tend to keep the baptism cards of their old congregation as a proof – as they said – of their continued belonging to their old faith. Christine, a Congolese deaconess of an informal revival church that I met in Rabat, always keeps her baptism card from the Evangelical Church of Congo in her bible. She once told me: “The Protestant Church is everywhere, it is established everywhere […] therefore if you do not find a Revival Church, you can go to them [the Catholics or Protestants] and introduce yourself. Since they have churches everywhere, the card is like a proof, it is like the identity card: if you don’t have it, you can have trouble.” (Interview conducted by Johara Berriane, December 13, 2015, Rabat.)

To outsiders it may look like a small white cardboard with her first and her family name, her address and parish of origin, the baptism date and place, the signature of a pastor and the stamp of the president of the Evangelical Church of Congo, but to Christine it was proof of belonging to the universal Protestant community, in the same way as her ID-card would confirm her civil status.

Control and coordination of believers

One example of a recommendation letter. Picture: Johara Berriane

Besides the creation of a transnational sense of belonging, bureaucratic documents can be used for the coordination and control of church members from a distance. As I discovered in Dakar earlier in 2017 , it is very common among Evangelical Chadian migrants, who settle in Senegal to carry a letter of recommendation from their Chadian mother church with them. Typically, this letter is handed to the Evangelical Church in Dakar and helps the newcomers to gain acceptance and integrate more easily into the Senegalese Evangelical community. Then, before a member of this group leaves Senegal again, he or she gets his or her letter of recommendation back from the church. It will carry a stamp of the church in Dakar and a pastor’s signature. This letter is then, at arrival in Chad, returned to the person’s mother church that originally issued the document. In this way, a small stamped piece of paper becomes a powerful document proving the regular worship and involvement of the believer during his or her stay abroad. Consequently, this document plays a major role in the shaping of the religious reputation of a church member and in controlling his or her behaviour during the stay abroad.

When bureaucratic acts generate religious identities

A text sample of a Conversion Certificate. Picture: Johara Berriane.

In other settings, where legal rights can be affected by religious identity, some states dispense documents that indicate people’s belonging to a certain religion, which may shape individual religious identification. This, for instance, is the case in Morocco where – apart from a small Jewish community – the majority of Moroccans are officially considered Muslim and are therefore subjected to the national Islamic personal status code. According to this code, non-Muslim family members are denied certain rights, such as inheriting from Muslim relatives or receiving child custody. In this context, foreign citizens who come from non-Muslim societies and have Moroccan relatives need to obtain a conversion certificate from professional witnesses called ‘udul in order to gain the right to custody and to inherit. During my field research, it was interesting to see that the bureaucratic necessity during which the applicant recites the Testimony of Faith (Shahada) and chooses a Muslim name to proof his Muslim faith witnessed by two ‘udul is often perceived as a conversion to Islam. This perception is thus an example of how the application for a bureaucratic document and a subsequent related act are perceived as testimony of a genuine conversion of religious identity.

These are just three examples of the numerous ways in which documents produced by religious institutions or a state can become constitutive of religious belonging, enable the coordination of believers or/and generate complex religious identities. These first insights from my field research exemplify how religious identity documents become formative and play an important role particularly in contexts of mobility, social marginality and foreignness. While analysing the role and usage of religious identity documents, my project studies these processes and investigates how religious spheres and the State are entangled and tied together through a “regime of paper documents” (Hull, 2012 b:1.) In other words, I examine how on local, national and transnational levels religious actors participate in the shaping of quotidian governance of people via bureaucratic and registration practices.


Hibou, Béatrice (2013): Introduction. La bureaucratisation néolibérale, ou la domination et le redéploiement de l’Etat dans le monde contemporain. In Béatrice Hibou (Ed.): La bureaucratisation néolibérale. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, pp. 7–20.

Hull, Matthew S. (2012a): Documents and Bureaucracy. In Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (1), pp. 251–267. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104953.

Hull, Matthew S. (2012b): Government of Paper. The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Szreter, Simon; Breckenridge, Keith (2012): Recognition and Registration: The Infrastructure of Personhood in World History. In Simon Szreter, Keith Breckenridge (Eds.): Recognition and Registration: The Infrastructure of Personhood in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press (182), pp. 1–36.

Johara Berriane. Picture: private.

Johara Berriane holds a PhD from the Freie Universität Berlin, where she graduated in 2014 with a work on “La zaouïa d’Ahmad al-Tijânî de Fès: pratiques, représentations et enjeux autour d’un sanctuaire soufi au rayonnement transnational”. She held PostDoc positions at the University of Oxford and the University Mohammed VI-Polytechnique, Morocco. Since 2015, she is a fellow of the transregional research group “The Bureaucratisation of African Societies” run jointly by the German Historical Institute in Paris and the Centre de recherche sur les politiques sociales (CREPOS) in Dakar, Senegal.





Citation: Johara Berriane, The Mediating Role of Religious Paper Documents: First Findings from Research in Morocco and Senegal, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.09.2017,

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Editorial Board (2017, 26. September). The Mediating Role of Religious Paper Documents: First Findings from Research in Morocco and Senegal. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 16. April 2024, von

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