According to traditional medieval histories—those that focus on the European West as a distinct civilization from North Africa and the Middle East—the advent of Islam in the 7th century was the final blow to the hope of a restored Rome, one that split the Mediterranean in two. In this version of the past, the Muslim conquests of the 7th century permanently divided Islamic North Africa and the Maghrib from the culture, society, and thinking of Christian Western Europe. In fact, the Maghrib was a major port of the culture, architecture, society, religious development, commerce, and politics of a common, medieval western Mediterranean zone. It is true that Christian and Muslim dynasties and states on both sides of the Mediterranean regularly saw themselves as enemies and rivals. The dogmatic and violent use of religion to justify enslavement, forced conversion, and conquest was common practice throughout this period. It is also true, however, that infidel Christian kings and unholy Muslim warriors formed alliances with one another, both across the sea and across faiths.1 The existence of a “convenient enemy” was often used as a means of gaining political or military advantage within Muslim or Christian lands. Popes and kings signed agreements with Muslim caliphs and Muslim sultans sought protection of Christian kings. In addition to high-level political alliances, ties between the Maghrib and Western Europe ran deep through the medieval economy. Commerce and business partnerships prospered and the 12th-century Commercial Renaissance lifted all boats. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish merchants took advantage of flows of trade and gold from Africa to the Mediterranean and into Europe. Dreams of conversion fostered unintended cultural interactions and exchanges, as was the case with the Franciscans and Christian mercenaries who journeyed deep into the Maghrib during this period. More than religion or politics, common artistic and architectural styles make perhaps the most compelling argument for a common, trans-Mediterranean culture.
Mauritania is an almost universally Muslim society in northwest Africa, with a deep history of Islamic scholarship but also painful legacies of slavery and, more recently, shifting permutations of political authoritarianism. Three main forces have affected the intersection of Islam and politics in Mauritania since independence in 1960: the growing diversity of Islamic identities and affiliations available to Muslims, the role of Islamic discourses within tense negotiations over socio-racial identity in Mauritania, and the state’s efforts to manage Islam and shape the religious field. Some of the diverse Islamic affiliations, postures, and movements in postcolonial Mauritania include loyalism, Islamism, Salafism, the missionary movement Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh, jihadism, and quietism. In terms of socio-racial tensions, there has been growing self-assertion on the part of the ḥarāṭīn (singular ḥarṭānī), an Arabic-speaking population of slave descendants who are classified as “black” within Mauritanian society, in distinction to Arabic-speaking “whites”—bīḍān (singular bīḍānī). Meanwhile, there have been variable and at-times tense relationships between the state and Islamists, as well as key moments when authorities sought to elaborate or modify structures relating to “official Islam” in the country. Amid these changes, there has been an ongoing construction and reconstruction of Islamic scholarly culture in Mauritania. The country has also had consequential exchanges with the wider Islamic world, with influence from Saudi Arabia and other states affecting dynamics of Islamic identity in Mauritania, but with Mauritania also making profound contributions to the trajectory of Islamic authority in the Gulf region through the transnational careers and media prominence of key scholars.
The modern Libyan state began to take shape within the Ottoman Empire from the mid-16th century onward. Libya’s path to independent statehood was violently interrupted in 1911 with the onset of an Italian conquest. Rome’s efforts to annex Libya through settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing were in turn disrupted by World War II. The United Nations (UN) helped to guide Libya to independence under the Sanusi monarchy in 1951, albeit in close collaboration with the United Kingdom and the United States. The Sanusi monarchy, founded in the eastern region of Cyrenaica in the late 19th century, faced substantial difficulties in its efforts to transform an incredibly vast, thinly populated, socially diverse, and seemingly resource-poor country into a modern nation state. Though the extraction and exportation of oil from the 1960s onward help to alleviate some of the financial constraints on the government, the increasing centralization of power within the monarchy eventually led to a military coup in 1969. Libya’s new regime, under the leadership of Mu‘ammar Al-Gaddafi, would eventually pursue a radical program involving centralized economic planning funded through oil sales, a baroque system of popular consultation, a terrifying array of “revolutionary” security institutions, military aggression in Chad, and confrontations with North Atlantic powers directly and indirectly. Though the Gaddafi regime was able to survive an array of domestic and international challenges for over four decades, a mass armed uprising in 2011, which precipitated a merciless civil war and foreign military intervention, led to its downfall. Subsequent international assistance and successive transitional authorities, however, were unable to address the spiral of insecurity that consumed Libya from 2012 onwards. A second civil war erupted in 2014, one fed not only by competing domestic visions for the future of Libya, but also by the competing ambitions of other states in the region.
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.
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.
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.”
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.