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Christianity and Abolition in Africa  

Paul Kollman

Efforts to mitigate slavery in Africa were multidimensional. Many drew upon Christian discourses and institutions, yet fully assessing Christian antislavery in Africa raises complex moral and historical questions. Christian abolitionism inspired missionaries throughout Africa and the diaspora, helped generate support for Christian missions, advanced global treaties that made slavery illegal, and profoundly shaped 20th- and 21st-century African Christianity, including through the evangelization of slaves, some of whom became famous abolitionists themselves. Antislavery appealed to humanitarian instincts among Christian missionaries, their benefactors, and European populations, and it undoubtedly alleviated some suffering. Notwithstanding the benevolence in such motivations, racialized paternalism was also in operation. Moreover, like slavery for export, antislavery altered African political economies, sometimes abruptly, helping some Africans and disempowering others. It also legitimated eventual colonial rule in Africa, since depictions of a vulnerable, slave-ridden continent implicitly defended European intervention as an urgent humanitarian undertaking. Europeans also applied antislavery unevenly in Africa due to their own self-interests, often, for example, delaying emancipation (legally ending all slavery) because it threatened labor systems deemed vital for colonial order and economies. Christian antislavery impulses and actions, whether to stop the slave trade or in pursuit of legal abolition, thus resist generalization and do not allow easy self-congratulation for either defenders of European colonization or Christians, African or non-African.

Article

The History of Mali: Connectivity and State Formation since the 18th Century  

Madina Thiam and Gregory Mann

The Republic of Mali comprises a very diverse population spread over a vast territory composed of a large part of the southern Sahara, the Sahel, and the savannah. One of the world’s great rivers, the Niger, runs through much of the national territory, reaching its northern apex near Timbuktu. For over a millennium, this territory has allowed empires and kingdoms to flourish alongside decentralized societies. These include the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, as well as any number of smaller states, trading diasporas, and nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. The territory of Mali has long been a hub in African commercial and intellectual circuits, notably those linking the societies of the Maghreb (or North Africa) to those bordering the Atlantic. In the 19th century, as elsewhere in Muslim Africa, new and explicitly Islamic states emerged in western and central Mali. They did not endure more than a few decades, as the territory was colonized by France in the late 19th century. The Republic of Mali claimed its independence in 1960 and rapidly developed greater autonomy from French neo-colonialism than did most of its neighbors. Mali has maintained an out-sized diplomatic and cultural role on the African continent and beyond under a socialist government from 1960 to 1968, military government through 1991, and a vibrant democracy in the decades since. However, since 2011, the country has been increasingly beset by violent conflicts between nonstate actors, the national government, and foreign forces including the French. Thus, in historical perspective, Mali’s geographic position and its environment have proven conducive to the production of expansive, diverse, and mutually dependent communities that have produced radically distinct and often fragile states.

Article

Islam and Emancipation  

Sean Hanretta

Emancipation is a broad concept that includes liberation from slavery as well as broader projects of self-fulfillment. Muslims in Africa have drawn on Islamic sources both to justify and to critique enslavement, slaveholding, and slavery as an institution. Commercial law in particular recognized slave owners’ rights and early debates focused on categories of enslaveability. Slaves themselves drew on Islamic resources to improve their personal situation, to press for reforms, and to critique or try to overthrow the institution as a whole. Political transformations often created openings for more radical attempts to remake social hierarchies in the name of Islam, while Islamic revolutions both disrupted and facilitated the slave trade, depending on time and place. More broadly, critiques of other forms of ascriptive inequality, such as those based on race, caste, former slave status or slave descent, gender, and sexuality, have had equally complex relationships with the ways people have drawn on Islam. Many, but not all, analysts have emphasized the greater effectiveness of emancipatory projects that mobilize Islamic repertoires rather than relying on “Western” ideas of liberalism. The colonial era provided a new set of intellectual and political resources for those seeking to support or critique inequalities in Islamic terms. Halfhearted efforts to abolish slavery created some openings, but colonial commitment to maintaining social order limited its impact. The discursive legacy of colonialism has been more pronounced, particularly by creating an alignment between cultural nationalism and some conservative readings of Islamic sources, while neocolonial discourses can marginalize or even hamper the emancipatory efforts of Muslim activists.

Article

Omar ibn Said  

Mbaye Lo

Omar ibn Sayyid (Said is the more prevalent Anglicized version of his name; 1770–1863), a West African Muslim scholar, was enslaved in North Carolina from 1810 until his death in 1863. Omar was captured in Futa Toro, modern-day Senegal in 1807 and transported to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1808, and he spent the first two years of his American life enslaved on a plantation there. He left behind a body of Arabic writings including his 1831 autobiography, which was the subject of two limited translations in the 19th century by Alexander Cotheal in 1848 and Isaac Bird in 1863; a more elaborated translation was produced by John Franklin Jameson in 1925. Since the 1980s, Omar has attracted scholarly interest as a striking example of the presence of enslaved Muslim scholars in the antebellum United States. The Library of Congress has created an Omar ibn Said Collection of documents in English and Arabic to serve as a resource for research on slavery and Islam in America. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper declared May 23, 2019, Omar ibn Said Day.

Article

Prisoners, Ransoms, and Slavery in the Maghrib  

Russell Hopley

The topic of prisoners, ransoms, and slavery in the Maghrib (that is, the lands of the Islamic west—the area that today encompasses North Africa, and historically, also the regions of Iberia and Sicily that came under Muslim rule) is of considerable chronological and geographical scope extending from the earliest establishment of Islamic rule in the region during the second half of the 7th century, persisting to the final decades of the 20th century, and enslaving or otherwise taking prisoner peoples from areas as geographically diverse as West Africa, the southern coastal regions of Europe, and as far north as Ireland and Iceland. The practice of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib are thus of substantial historical significance. Yet, it is only in comparatively recent times that this complex topic has drawn the attention of scholars. Therefore, our understanding of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib, especially during the medieval period, remains in its incipience.

Article

Saharan Peoples and Societies  

E. Ann McDougall

The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.

Article

The History of Islam in Mauritania  

Erin Pettigrew

The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.

Article

The Indian Ocean and Africa  

Edward A. Alpers

The Indian Ocean has occupied an important place in the history of Africa for millennia, linking the continental land mass to the peoples, products, and ideas of the wider Indian Ocean world (IOW). Central to this relationship are environmental factors, including the biannual operation of monsoon winds, which determined the maritime movement of people, things, and ideas. The earliest of these connections involve the movement of food crops, domestic animals, and commensals both from and into Africa and its offshore islands. From the beginnings of the Current Era, Africa was an important Indian Ocean source of valuable commodities, such as ivory and gold; in more recent times, hardwood products like mangrove poles, and agricultural products like cloves, coconuts, and copra gained economic prominence. Enslaved African labor also had a long history in the IOW, the sources and destinations for the export trade varying over time. In addition, for centuries many different Indian Ocean immigrant communities played important roles as settlers, merchants, sailors, and soldiers. In the realm of culture and ideas, African music, dance, and spiritual concepts accompanied those Africans who were forcibly removed from the continent to the different Indian Ocean lands where they were enslaved. A further indicator of Indian Ocean connectivity is Islam, the introduction of which marks an important watershed in African history. The human settlement of Madagascar marks another significant Indian Ocean connection for Africa. At different times and in different ways, colonial rule—Portuguese, Dutch, Omani, French, and British—tied eastern African territories to India, Arabia, and Southeast Asia. Since regaining independence, African nation-states have established a variety of new linkages to other Indian Ocean states.