Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology

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Muslim Societies in Africa provides a concise overview of Muslim societies in Africa in light of their role in African history and the history of the Islamic world. Roman Loimeier identifies patterns and peculiarities in the historical, social, economic, and political development of Africa, and addresses the impact of Islam over the longue dure. To understand the movements of peoples and how they came into contact, Loimeier considers geography, ecology, and climate as well as religious conversion, trade, and slavery. This comprehensive history offers a balanced view of the complexities of the African Muslim past while looking toward Africa's future role in the globalized Muslim world.

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Introduction: The Geographical and Anthropological Setting

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Introduction

The Geographical and Anthropological Setting

Africa’s different habitats and ecosystems, as well as its surrounding seas and oceans, have been major formative forces in the development of societies on the continent. Before delving into the analysis of the history of Muslims in Africa, it may be helpful to have a look at the anthropo-geographic context in which Africa’s Muslim societies have developed since the mid-seventh century.

Anyone coming from western Asia and entering Africa from the northeast will inevitably encounter the Nile. The “nīl misr” (Egyptian Nile) of the Arab geographers,

˙ with its huge delta and densely settled valley, has been a major center of cultural and political development for more than 6,000 years. The Nile was of major formative importance for a whole series of cultures in the Nile valley, not only Egypt but also the countries upstream, in particular Nubia, the land between the first cataract south of

Aswan and the sixth cataract north of the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White

 

1 Is There an "African" Islam?

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Is There an “African” Islam?

The Diversity of Islam in Africa

Sometimes, old patterns of thought die hard. Even in the most recent literature on Muslim societies in Africa, such as Coulon and Cruise O’Brien (1988), Evers-Rosander and

Westerlund (1997), or Quinn and Quinn (2003), it is possible to find the concept of an

“African” Islam or, in French, Islam “Noir.” This African Islam is presented as peaceful and syncretistic, accommodating, and less orthodox than “militant Arab Islam.” The discussion of Muslim societies and Islam in Africa has to take into account, however, that there is no uniform and singularly “orthodox” form of Islam, either in Africa or in the Islamic world as a whole. The continent is not only much too vast to harbor just one continental expression of Islam, but African historical experiences with Islam have also been much too diverse to support the notion of a single, African Islam. When visualizing the expansion of Muslim societies in Africa in geographical terms and their multiple entanglements, the force of this argument becomes immediately clear.

 

2 The Bilād al-Maghrib: Rebels, Saints, and Heretics

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The Bilād al-Maghrib

Rebels, Saints, and Heretics

Historical Themes and Patterns

Between the late seventh and thirteenth centuries, the bilād al-maghrib saw a bewildering variety of religious and political developments, including a series of efforts toward religio-political hegemony. In the thirteenth century, the last efforts to unite the bilād al-maghrib came to an end and particularistic forces prevailed. The bilād almaghrib remained politically divided into the four major regions that we know today, namely Morocco in the west, Algeria in the center, and Tunisia as well as Tripolitania

(Libya) in the east. Not only the political divisions have remained the same since the thirteenth century, but major religious features which today still characterize Muslim society in the bilād al-maghrib were also defined conclusively at that time.

These features include adherence within the bilād al-maghrib as a whole to Sunni

Islam and the Mālikī school of law. Shīʿī efforts to gain a foothold in the bilād almaghrib eventually failed, despite the successful beginnings of the Fātimid caliphate

 

3 The Sahara as Connective Space

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The Sahara as Connective Space

Historical Themes and Patterns

In both North African history and the history of sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahara has been seen as a geographical, political, and economic periphery. As a result, the Sahara and its populations have been presented as forming merely an extension of either the bilād al-maghrib or the bilād al-sūdān. This perspective neglects the fact that the

Sahara has been a major connective space and has been as such an intrinsic part of the economic systems of both the bilād al-maghrib and the bilād al-sūdān. Due to these entanglements, the Sahara cannot be seen as an isolated backwater of world history and economics. The economic importance of the Sahara and its trade routes in fact has been so important for the bilād al-maghrib and the bilād al-sūdān that the rulers in the north and the south have repeatedly tried to gain control over the Sahara and trans-Saharan trade routes. Consequently, knowledge of trade and trade routes, wells, oases, and terrain was of paramount importance and collected eagerly. At the same time, knowledge was withheld as far as possible from possible competitors, especially

 

4 Dynamics of Islamization in the Bilād al-S#363;dān

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Dynamics of Islamization in the Bilād al-Sūdān

Historical Themes and Patterns

As in the Sahara and the bilād al-maghrib, trade constituted a major factor for the development of Islam in the bilād al-sūdān, and economic and political development was consequently driven by the same dynamics as in the Sahara and in North

Africa, namely, the effort to gain control over trade centers and trade routes. Often, the political centers of the trading empires of the bilād al-sūdān (see map 12) were identical with major emporia of trade, and Muslim trading communities came to coexist with the courts of local rulers. Regional economies and trade networks expanded and contracted, as will be shown in the case of Kano, in response to the capacity of

Sudanese states to create and maintain favorable conditions for commercial activities and investment. In the late 1860s, the French explorer Réné Caillié thus observed that war between Masina and Segu had disrupted trade routes, and that trade had consequently shifted from Jenné to Nyamina, Sinsani, and Bamako to the southwest. What has been observed as a general pattern of trans-Saharan trade remained valid for the bilād al-sūdān until the nineteenth century: war and economic instability had negative effects for all parties and triggered the shift of trade routes to safer lands and port cities. Trade, economy, and politics in the bilād al-sūdān were not dominated, however, by Imasighen or Arab tribal populations, but by a multitude of Sudanese populations and Sudanese trade networks. Also, trade was not based on camels, but on riverboats and caravans of oxen and donkeys, as well as human porterage, and thus involved different logistics that were based on seasonal constraints.

 

5 Dynamics of Jihād in the Bilād al-Sūdūn

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Dynamics of Jihād in the Bilād al-Sūdān

Patterns of Jihād

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bilād al-sūdān experienced a series of wars which led to the establishment of new states and empires that were ruled, for the first time in the history of these societies, by Muslim religious scholars. The wars which ended with the victory of these religious scholars were legitimated in religious terms and came to be regarded as jihāds, while the new states which arose from these movements of jihād came to be seen as imāmates. In major parts of the bilād al-sūdān, the jihāds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought to an end the rule of non-Muslim rulers and of those Muslim rulers who had tolerated the coexistence of Islam and local cults. They also set the stage for the European colonial conquest of Africa since the late nineteenth century which encountered a series of imāmates and Muslim empires, from the Atlantic to Lake Chad. When looking at the development of these Muslim states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we see that there was never a single model but a spectrum of expressions of jihād, and consequently not a single model of Islamic rule but a spectrum of expressions of rule: as each movement of jihād developed its own character, each imāmate developed its own style and structure of governance, from the almost ideal type of a Muslim state,

 

6 Islam in Nubia and Funj

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Islam in Nubia and Funj

Historical Themes and Patterns

The focus on Egypt as the paramount power on the Nile since pharaonic times has preempted a similar strong focus on the history of the lands beyond the first cataract, south of Aswan. The lands between the first cataract in the north and the sixth cataract in the south and beyond, to the confines of Ethiopia, nevertheless saw the rise and fall of great empires, from Kush in pharaonic times to Meroe in Roman times, to Nubia in Byzantine, ʿAbbasid, and Fātimid times and Sinnār-Funj in Ottoman times. These

˙ empires were informed in religious, political, and cultural terms by their closeness to Egypt and their entanglement with historical developments in the north. At the same time, the empires on the Upper Nile developed their own distinct identity and even met with Egypt on their own terms, as, for instance, in the context of military interventions in both pharaonic and Islamic times. The history of the populations on the Nile south of the first cataract can thus be described as being rooted in multiple cultural, social, political, and religious legacies, fusing pharaonic and post-pharaonic

 

7 Egyptian Colonialism and the Mahdī in the Sudan

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Egyptian Colonialism and the Mahdī in the Sudan

Historical Themes and Patterns

After the collapse of the Funj empire in the early nineteenth century, the lands on the two Niles became one of the few regions in Africa not colonized by a European colonial power but by an Arabo-African empire, Egypt. As in pharaonic times, Egypt sought to secure its southern marches, to control the Nile valley, and to gain access to the natural resources of the Sudan. Egyptian power politics were linked with a program of modernization in Egypt as well as in the new Egyptian provinces in the Sudan. While the Egyptian colonial conquest of the Sudan succeeded, Egyptian efforts to modernize the Sudan remained superficial and created unrest and instability. The new administration, often based on a bureaucracy staffed by Copts, turned social structures upside down, and marginalized established authorities while pampering new social and religious movements, especially among the Sufi orders and religious scholars. The extension of the Egyptian administration into the southern and western marches of the

 

8 Ethiopia and Islam

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Ethiopia and Islam

Historical Themes and Patterns

In Ethiopia, interfaces between Islam, Christianity, African indigenous religions and perhaps even Judaism have been of particular intensity and longevity. However, in contrast to Egypt and Nubia, orthodox Christianity has remained the dominant faith, while Muslims have formed a powerful historical counterforce. In many respects,

Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia have thus come to constitute each other’s flipside and cannot be understood without regarding the respective other. A historical account of Christian Ethiopia consequently has to consider this important Muslim legacy. At the same time, the historical anthropology of Ethiopia has to explain why Christianity has prevailed and why Islam has remained marginal, at least in political terms, in

Ethiopia to this day. The following account starts with an introduction into some features of Ethiopian historical development that have come to inform Ethiopia’s Christian (and later Muslim) history in decisive ways.

 

9 Muslims on the Horn of Africa

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Muslims on the Horn of Africa

Historical and Thematic Patterns

The Horn of Africa forms one of the smallest regions of Islam in Africa. The arid lowlands of the Horn are characterized by fairly homogeneous ethnic, linguistic, and religious structures dominated by Somaal tribal groups. The history of the Horn has been characterized by competition over scarce resources, as well as tribal feuds.

At the same time, the region has been marked by the absence of a central government until the early twentieth century. As such, the Horn can be seen as a huge bilād al-sība, where tribal self-governance has historically prevailed over processes of state formation.

While Ethiopia was linked with the lands on the Nile and those on the Red Sea, the

Horn of Africa formed links with southern Arabia in the north and the East African coast in the south. Islam in the Horn originated in three regions: the ports of Zaylaʿ and

Berbera in the north; Harär and other centers of Islamic learning in the eastern Ethio˙ pian highlands; and the ports of the Banādir coast, namely Mogadishu, Brawa, Marka, and Kismayu. From at least the thirteenth century, these market places, harbors, and trading places had sizeable settlements of traders and scholars from Hadramawt in

 

10 The East African Coast

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10 The East African Coast

Historical and Thematic Patterns

Whereas seas of sand connect the northern and southern shores of the Sahara, the

Indian Ocean and annual monsoon winds connect the East African coast with the shores of India and Arabia. The regional orientation toward India and southern Arabia also informed the development of East Africa’s Muslim societies. The Shāfiʿī school of law came to predominate in eastern Africa, whereas the Muslims in sub-Saharan

West Africa joined the Mālikī school of law. In contrast to the bilād al-maghrib, the

Sahara and the bilād al-sūdān, as well as the Nile Sudan and even Ethiopia, Islam in

East Africa remained confined for almost one thousand years to the littoral zones, the sawāhil, where a Muslim culture developed, characterized by a common language

˙

(Kiswahili) and a culture of seafaring and long-distance trade. In the East African interior, Islam started to spread, again through Muslim traders, in the nineteenth century only. The possible emergence of Muslim states, as in Buganda, was stopped by encroaching colonial rule. We have to understand thus the historical development of Muslim East Africa as two separate histories: the long history of the Muslim societies on the coast which were oriented toward the Indian Ocean; and the short history of the Muslim populations of the East African interior, upcountry Kenya, Uganda, mainland Tanzania, and also eastern Congo, where small Muslim communities started to develop from the late nineteenth century. While the history of Islam in the

 

11 Muslims on the Cape: Community and Dispute

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Muslims on the Cape

Community and Dispute

Historical Themes and Patterns

In the academic discussion of the history of Muslim societies in Africa, Muslim communities in South Africa are often ignored. They are usually seen as being not old and not African enough. Such a perspective omits the fact that Muslims have formed an integral part of society on the Cape since the mid-seventeenth century and came to be a decisive social force in Cape Town in the nineteenth century. In contrast to other regions of Africa, Cape Muslim history was always intrinsically linked with the colonial history of the Cape. From the very beginnings of the community in the 1660s, the community of Cape Muslims had to come to terms with religious, political, legal, and social structures dictated by a Christian majority population, the Afrikaaner settlers, organized by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and the Nederduitse

Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK). Despite the restrictions imposed by the VOC and the

NGK, the Cape Muslim community developed into a growing and thriving community in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, when the restrictions imposed by

 

12 Muslims under Colonial Rule

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Muslims under Colonial Rule

Comparative Perspectives on Colonial Modernity in Africa

European encounters with Africa had been confined for a long time to trading stations on the coast. In North Africa before the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans were mostly unable to travel beyond the coastal towns and their immediate hinterlands, mainly due to fears of espionage or policies of economic blockade. In sub-Saharan Africa, European endeavors to penetrate the coastal hinterlands inevitably failed, due to the toll that tropical diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and yellow fever took among the European sailors, soldiers, and traders. These conditions changed only in the second half of the nineteenth century, with medical research into tropical diseases, the development of superior firepower, and the disintegration of African polities which were unable to overcome the crisis triggered by the end of the slave trade in the early and mid-nineteenth century. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, European colonial conquest of

 

Conclusion

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Conclusion

When considering more than 1,300 years of historical development of Muslim societies in Africa, it is tempting to look through the lens of politics and to see Muslim societies in a longue durée perspective as primarily political bodies: after all, Muslims have built powerful empires and have inscribed Islam in African history in a way which cannot be disputed, in particular considering the emergence of the imāmates of sub-Saharan West Africa in the context of the movements of jihād in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I would contend, however, that the true dimensions of the impact of Islam cannot be grasped by looking at political development only. Islam has become the religion of more than 450 million Africans today (see map 8), because Muslims have offered multiple solutions in periods of crisis as well as in contexts in which

Africans were looking for new orientations. In addition, Muslims have advanced an agenda of societal development that was and is attractive beyond purely political considerations, such as stability and protection, as well as economic prosperity through trade, new modes of production, and integration in translocal networks of exchange.

 

Appendix

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Appendix

In Europe and North America, sub-Saharan Africa has been presented until at least the mid-twentieth century as a continent devoid of pre-modern literatures. This perspective on sub-Saharan Africa has been widely shared by orientalists and is reflected in the fact that

Carl Brockelmann’s monumental Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur, published between

1937 and 1942 (five volumes), had very few entries on scholars from sub-Saharan Africa. In recent decades, however, research has shown that Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa have not only produced a large number of chronicles and local histories (see chapter 4), but a tremendous number of texts on a large array of themes, as documented, for instance, in the current four (soon six) volumes of the Arabic Literature of Africa series, edited by John

Hunwick and Sean Rex O’Fahey or in Ulrich Rebstock’s Maurische Literaturgeschichte. As of today, we know that the corpus of Arabic writings composed in the central bilād al-sūdān comprised more than 2,200 texts, not considering king lists, diplomatic notes, and business or private letters, as well as amulets or recipes. Yet this number, though impressive, is still defective. Many texts have been lost or are still hidden, as Muslim scholars chose to hide their libraries when colonial administrations as well as postcolonial national and international bodies, such as museums or universities, appeared too keen on appropriating private libraries for their own purposes. Only recently (since 1996), twenty-one private libraries have been made accessible in Timbuktu alone, among them the Mamma Haidara collection (9,000 manuscripts), the Fondo Kati (7,026 manuscripts), and the Wangari collection (3,000 manuscripts). A similar situation prevails in the western bilād al-sūdān, in

 

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