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Ahmadu Bamba  

Fallou Ngom

The mid-19th century was an era when the French colonial administration was consolidating its control over colonies in French West Africa. Having witnessed armed resistance movements from non-Muslim and Muslim leaders in the region, the French administration was suspicious of popular leaders who did not support the colonial agenda. Some were killed, and others were arrested, exiled, or put under house arrest in order to destroy their movements. Ahmadu Bamba (1853–1927) was one of the Muslim leaders the French administration regarded as a threat to colonial rule. Because he did not share the position of local Muslim leaders who allied with the Wolof ruling nobility whom he regarded as unjust, Bamba founded a new Sufi movement that sought to provide the masses with an ethics-centered Islamic education. His conflict with the Muslim leaders and Wolof aristocratic rulers exacerbated his tension with French administrators who saw him as an imminent threat. As a result, Bamba was arrested and exiled in Gabon (1895–1902) and Mauritania (1903–1907) and was kept under house arrest in Ceyeen-Jolof (1907–1912) and Diourbel (1912–1927). The exiles and arrests, which were designed to destroy his movement, did not work as his Murīdiyya order has become one of Senegal’s most culturally, economically, and politically powerful movements, with committed members spread around the world. His legacy endures. He was a prolific writer and has left an impressive corpus of Arabic texts that continue to guide his followers around the world. His senior disciples, who translated his ethos to the broader Wolof audiences using Wolofal or Wolof ʿAjamī (Wolof written with the Arabic script), have also left a rich corpus of primary sources that capture the history, traditions, and doctrine of the Murīdiyya from Murīd perspectives. Unfortunately, these sources remain largely inaccessible to academics.

Article

Boko Haram: History and Context  

Hilary Matfess

Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, better known as “Boko Haram,” is the most violent phenomenon of the Nigerian Fourth Republic. It is responsible not only for a regional food crisis that has devolved into famine in some areas, but also the displacement of millions and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The insurgency in Nigeria began as a dissident religious sect’s venting of local grievances in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State. The movement was founded at the turn of the century by Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafist preacher notorious for his rejection of Western education and government employment. Boko Haram only gained significant international attention in the aftermath of the 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the remote town of Chibok, but the group did not always employ such deplorable tactics. Although policymakers in capitals the world over have been eager to emphasize the group’s connections to international terrorist groups, the movement is localized and often more akin to an African insurgency than to a prototypical terrorist organization. The group’s initial years were characterized by relatively benign activities like the provision of social services, punctuated by occasional bouts of criminality that, over time, escalated into a series of targeted assassinations that provoked federal government response. A series of violent actions ultimately transformed Boko Haram from a largely nonviolent fundamentalist religious movement into the lethal and resilient force it is today, known internationally for its brutality: notably, the group’s interactions with the Nigerian security sector, categorized by indiscriminate state violence; leadership changes within the insurgency’s ranks that elevated Abubakar Shekau following Mohammed Yusuf’s execution; and regional trends in weapons flows and ideological currents.

Article

Bori Religion in West Africa  

Kari B. Henquinet

Bori is a religious tradition with origins in West Africa dating to at least 1500 ce. Based on oral histories, ethnographies, archaeological analysis, and limited written sources, its origins lie in complex, syncretic blendings of pre-Islamic Arna (Maguzawa) religious traditions, Hausa aristocracies, and Islam throughout what became Northern Nigeria and south-central Niger over many centuries. Bori practitioners have special knowledge of the spirit world and thus are skilled at healing spirit-induced illnesses or interpreting communal problems with a spiritual basis. Individuals are frequently initiated into Bori as they seek healing but also sometimes through their heritage. Once initiated, Bori adepts learn to live with their spirits for the rest of their lives, inviting spirits to possess them during ceremonial rituals. Bori specialists are more prominent in areas heavily influenced by Arna traditions or Hausa aristocracies that maintained special leadership positions connected to Bori for the protection of the kingdom. Women have often found opportunities for power and prestige through Bori in a patriarchal society, although in some regions, men dominate religious leadership and healing practices in Bori. From the early 19th century, Bori was condemned and banned in the Sokoto caliphate and subsequently under British rule in Nigeria. Nevertheless, it persisted in these areas and especially flourished in regions of Hausaland outside of the caliphate, where historical practices of Hausa kingdoms and Arna religion were practiced more openly and centrally in society. Over the course of the 20th century, Bori has been studied by researchers not only in these regions of West Africa but also among diasporic communities and pilgrims with ties to West Africa.

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

Islamic Historical Sources: Manuscripts and Online  

Amidu Olalekan Sanni

Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew. The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.

Article

Muslim Brotherhoods in West African History  

Mauro Nobili

Muslim Sufi brotherhoods (ṭuruq, sing. ṭarīqa) are ubiquitous in contemporary Islamic West Africa. However, they are relative latecomers in the history of the region, making their appearance in the mid-18th century. Yet, Sufism has a longer presence in West Africa that predates the consolidation of ṭuruq. Early evidence of Sufi practices dates to the period between the 11th and the 17th centuries. By that time traces of the Shādhiliyya and the lesser-known Maḥmūdiyya are available between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Chad, but it was the activities of the Kunta of the Qādiriyya and of al-ḥājj ‘Umar of the Tijāniyya that led to the massive spread of Sufi brotherhoods in the region. The authority of leaders of ṭuruq did not disappear with the imposition of European colonialism. In fact, the power of those leaders who adjusted to the novel political situation further consolidated thanks to their role as mediators between their constituencies and the colonial government. Eventually, the end of the colonial period did not signal the decline of ṭuruq in West Africa. Conversely, during the postcolonial years, Sufi brotherhoods continued flourishing despite the secular nature of West African independent states and the increasing tension with a plethora of equally rising Salafi movements.

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

Samuel Ajayi Crowther: African and Yoruba Missionary Bishop  

Andrew Barnes

Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary bishop charged with evangelizing the territories that became modern Nigeria. Over the last decades of the 19th century Crowther was the best-known Christian of African descent in the British empire. Pious offerings from British Christians allowed him to build a network of mission stations and schools in the Niger bishopric, as his territories were called. Crowther’s career ended in tragedy with a group of English CMS missionaries that traveled to his bishopric to dismiss as either corrupt or immoral most of the African missionary agents Crowther had recruited over the decades. Crowther resigned his office in protest against what he felt was the usurpation of his authority. Crowther died a short time later. Most of the historical scholarship since Crowther’s death (1891) has been concerned with assessments of two things: Crowther’s missionary strategies and the circumstances behind the events at the end of his career. The events at the end of his life have drawn the greatest amount of attention, but as argued in this article, Crowther is better appreciated for the revolutionary ways in which he rethought the missiological ideas of Henry Venn, his patron and mentor, and applied these ideas to the evangelization of his territories. The schools established under Crowther’s direction offered students a combination of skills aimed at making those students competitive in the society created by the expansion of British overrule in the lands that became Nigeria. The appeal of his schools drew many Africans toward the Anglican Church. By the end of his life, however, Crowther’s schools were coming under increasing criticism from Europeans for making Africans too competitive with Europeans.

Article

Spirits and Healing in West and Central Africa: A New Synthesis  

Wyatt MacGaffey

Though seemingly innocent, descriptive, and even commendatory, both “spirits” and “healing” are problematic terms in the history of African studies. Rather than identifying well-bounded domains of African life, both of them have evolved from the history of European attitudes toward Africa. “Spirits” often give rise to problems of well-being that “healing” is called upon to solve. Despite this close connection, spirits have been the primary subject matter of religious studies, whereas healing is among the concerns of anthropology. The study of African religion has thus come to be divided between two disciplines embodying the distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” the irrational and the rational, developed in Europe during the Enlightenment. Anthropology itself has long divided social life into the separate domains of religion, politics, and economics, assigning the study of each to a different discipline with its own preoccupations and specialized vocabulary. This ethnocentric template misrepresented African societies whose institutions were unlike those of Europe. In the forest zones of West and Central Africa a particular set of beliefs and practices regulated the use of power for personal and collective well-being. Power, or the ability to effect change for good or ill, was and is still thought to be derived from forces called “spirits,” which are in fact as much material as spiritual. Following special procedures, gifted persons obtain power from an otherworld that is simultaneously the earth itself and the land of “the living dead,” who are buried in it. The uses of such power to kill or to cure, for collective or private benefit, define a contrast set of four roles—called for convenience chief, priest, witch, and magician—whose functions are simultaneously moral, political, economic, and therapeutic. This system is open to novel revelations within a stable cognitive framework, and adapts to new conditions. Different ideologies and practices of social regulation are found in other parts of Africa.

Article

Sufism, Islamic Philosophy, and Education in West Africa  

Oludamini Ogunnaike

West Africa has been home to and contributed to the development of several important Islamic intellectual traditions, including logic (manṭiq), theology (kalām), Sufism (taṣawwuf), legal philosophy (uṣūl al-fiqh), and even philosophy (falsafa)—all of which influenced the distinctive forms of pedagogy that emerged in West Africa, in which ritual practice, physical presence, and the cultivation of virtue and adab (manners, a particular habitus) played an important role. The 20th and 21st centuries ce (14th and 15th centuries ah) witnessed the emergence of radically different forms of pedagogy and epistemology in Muslim West Africa, because of both increasing exposure to texts and ideas from other Muslim societies and the colonial encounter with Western philosophy and institutional education in the context of nation-states, which profoundly altered the intellectual landscape of the region. The contemporary situation in West Africa is quite plural and dynamic, in which traditions of Sufism, Salafism, Shiʿism, Western philosophies and pedagogies, Pentecostalism, and traditional African religions coexist, compete, interact, and influence each other across a wide variety of domains of life. Nevertheless, Sufism remains an important and prominent feature of many dimensions of life in Muslim West Africa, including Islamic education.

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

Uthman (Osman) dan Fodio (1754–1817): Life and Religious Philosophy  

Seyni Moumouni

Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817), an emblematic figure of Islamic history in West Africa, was born in 1754 in Maratta in the Tahoua region (present-day Niger) and died in 1817 in Sokoto (present-day Nigeria). The role of Sheikh Uthman (Osman) dan Fodio is well known to all who are familiar with West Africa’s Muslim culture. Sometimes referred to in West Africa as “Nûru-l-zamân” (the Light of Time) and in Western literature as the “Great Pulaar Jihadist Sheik,” Uthman dan Fodio was one of the greatest Muslim theologians and thinkers in West Africa and is regarded as the founder of the last Muslim Empire. He studied under the Fodiawa family as well as with the great scholar Sheikh Jibril. As a successful teacher himself, he attracted attention from the royal palace. As a preacher, Uthman dan Fodio was listened to and followed by the religious devout, which led to him being persecuted by the successors of Bawa Jan Gorzo, consequence the jihad of 1804 and the foundation of the Islamic Empire of Sokoto. Despite this, in the tradition of prominent spiritual masters of Islam (Al-Ghazali, Al-Muhâssibi, Azzaruk, As-Suyûtî, Abdel Wahab, etc.), Uthman dan Fodio’s legacy remained strong in the Muslim world between the end of the 18th century and the end of the 19th century. The sheikh described his contributions in terms of moral and religious rebuilding; he felt as if he was invested in a messianic mission to save his community from perils. In other words, his tasks included promoting widespread change as it pertained to societal norms, morals, and education. Uthman dan Fodio’s reform project is part of the reformist heritage movement, which is also known as “the wave of the reformist current of the 18th century.”

Article

Women in Muslim Northern Nigeria  

Beverly B. Mack

Women’s roles in Muslim northern Nigeria have been shaped by both pre-Islamic traditions and Islamic customs dating to the earliest introduction of Islam into the region around the 11th century. Contemporary women in the region draw their identities from a legacy of illustrious 19th-century Muslim women teachers, scholars, and authorities who in turn acknowledged a historic legacy of titled, renowned pre-Islamic women in the region. The more consolidated Islamic period, which resulted from the 19th century Sokoto Jihad (1804–1808) of Islamic reformation, pushed back against syncretism to establish orthodox Sunni Qadiriyya Islam in its place. The Sokoto Caliphate (1804–1903), which developed in the Jihad’s wake, spread orthodox Islamic practices and principles widely in the region. Instrumental in this spread of Islam was the ‘Yan Taru (“the Associates”) extension program of women’s Islamic education. This grassroots program was begun by Nana Asma’u bint Usman ‘dan Fodiyo (1793–1864), a daughter of Jihad leader Shehu Usman ‘dan Fodiyo (1754–1817). (This surname has variants, including Fodio and Fudi.) Asma’u, a multilingual scholar, poet, and teacher, was just one of a multiplicity of women who were well educated and led activist lives. The ‘Yan Taru’s efficacy was enhanced by its incorporation of Nigerian pre-Islamic women’s authoritative roles and titles. Since its founding in the mid-19th century, the ‘Yan Taru has served the needs of urban and rural women, literate and illiterate, providing Islamic cultural literacy in an oral society. The late 20th century saw a rise in Muslim women’s organizations modeled on the ‘Yan Taru template. An understanding of women in Muslim northern Nigeria depends upon attention to early Islamic, pre-19th-century women’s titles and authority; the 19th-century reformation period; and a post-independence period, in which 20th- and 21st-century women define their identities in the framework of Nigerian women’s historical legacies.