Between the extensive literature reviews and frequent anthropological study comparisons, Schulz paints an excellent picture of social and religious life in southern Mali. The approach is academic but lively, digesting the many conceptions, misconceptions, theories and generalizations of the region's gender and religious movements; engaging the controversy makes for an intriguing read.
Schulz begins by describing daily life, subsistence farming, elements of the informal economy; all factors that build up to the character of the religious movements and female participation. History, colonial legacy, and Islam's relatively "new" spread to the region (last 100 years) make much of West Africa's Islam younger, more creative or accommodating.
Women specifically are challenged to fulfill their family obligations alongside religious demands in very difficult economic circumstances. On the one hand, wealthy women (and men) have the "luxury" means and time to spend on activities like: fulfilling all daily prayers, completing the Hajj, studying in Arabic, extended meditations. Poverty does not afford everyone the luxury to forsake the struggles of daily life and pursue spiritual gain alone.
The "Moral Renewal" movement, as explained by Schulz, is the convergence of many factors including the above. The movement, with individuals like Sheikh Haidara at the fore, provide women the "pious requirements" that fit the social environment of Mali and yet maintain a trajectory on a deeper spiritual path. The moral renewal movement, known also by the name "Ansar Dine" (not to be confused with Iyad Aghali's radical Ansar Dine in Northern Mali), is recognized by women religiously donning the veil, a decision that contrasts them with most other Muslim women in the region. Moral Renewal argues at its foundation that women gain dignity through pious, submissive and modest behavior.
Schulz counters the argument that women join more "conservative" religious circles merely for economic gain. While there may be some economic benefit to endorsing the patriarchical Islamic system, Mali's social and family structures mean that membership in groups like Ansar Dine bring religious and social security. The religious security is provided through a stricter set of legalistic requirements where, as I read it, even the most poor of women can gain favor with God through more concerted religious observances.
The Moral Renewal movement endorses conservative moral values and appearances but it is not Salafi. It honors zealous following of an enlightened or inspired leader but it is not Sufi. It is concerned with the outward expression of faith but does not endorse a forced Shari'a. The movement has political influence but strays far from Islamist politics. Schulz reminds the reader, once again, that Islam is not monolithic. To understand the local movements inside specific a local one must first dig in to the unique socio-cultural context.
True to the book's title, Schulz describes how media events, radio programs and cassette tapes serve as an instruction medium but are also regarded as tools that can be spiritually blessed, harnessing the esoteric charisma of the speaker behind the recorded voice. The women specifically in the movements are encouraged to further their religious education but not to the extent of some religious movements in North Africa where fluency in Arabic allows for deep, critical Qur'anic exegesis and personal interpretation.
Influenced by local Sufi flavor, the Ansar Dine followers admit to some form of human intercession to God. This is contrasted with Salafi teachings where human mediums are bida' (innovation) and outside of true Islam.
Not so true to the title of "West Africa", the book focuses entirely on Southern Mali; emphasis on Sheikh Haidara's Ansar Dine. Islamic moral renewal is Malian, influenced from outside but in no way a carbon copy or even a sketch of Egypt, Morocco or Mauritania. West Africa can and does have an Islam all its own, whose character will react differently to global trends; violent, moderate and pacifist.