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AfricaIndigenous Vehicles Of Islamization

The political movements and philosophical trends that prevailed in the older Islamic world did not immediately sway African Muslims. Even the process of linguistic and ethnic Arabization, in which the indigenous peoples acquired Arabic as their language and connected themselves in the Arab tribal system, did not take hold immediately, nor did it proceed equally in all regions. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the level of Arabization that took place had a huge impact in transmitting the new Islamic outlook—words, ideas, and behavior usually being interconnected.

Similar to the performance of hajj that we have mentioned earlier, learning the Arabic language (and writing in it) had also become an important instrument for linking the fledgling African religious elites, especially in the relatively stable mosque-colleges that emerged in the western, eastern, and central regions of the continent, enriching and authenticating a genuine Islamic civilization. In some of these mosque-colleges, works of al-Muhasibi, the famous Sufi of Baghdad (c. 751–857), and al-Ghazali (1058–1111), the Sufi and Ash'ari theologian, were required readings. It should also be noted that the traditional rift between the ulama (doctors of law) and the Sufis, which prevailed in the older Muslim regions, had been mitigated in these new African centers of learning. Along the eastern coast and the Nile, the Arabized and Islamized Nubians, Beja, and Somalis developed, since the fourteenth century, indigenous Sufi brotherhoods that succeeded in blending law with Sufism. Maliki and Shafi'i jurists did, in some cases, embrace Sufism.

The traditional Islamic principle affirming that the ulama are the heirs of the prophets had nearly been actualized in the African situation. African Muslim ulama had truly become the points of intersection of religious and political ideas, activism, ethnicity, and intellectualism. The groups that coalesced around the ulama would usually become the indigenous vehicles through which Islam acquired its significance as a basis of political power and resource mobilization. The reasons for this are not hard to find.

The scholar serves mainly as a spiritual mentor who helps the people, through sessions of recitation and meditation, to relate to God. Demands for spiritual help necessitate close contact and regular sessions with the scholar during which certain litanies (dhikr) are chanted, thus sharing in the blessing of the Koran and the Prophet. In these ways the scholar shapes individual behavior. Moreover, the ulama would naturally, as scholars, investigate, describe, analyze, and explain, but as citizens most of them would be deeply embedded in the social and political structures of their communities. Their scholarship would not be disconnected from their social and political activities and commitments. This is what gave some of them particular force, encouraging political groups and movements to identify with them and with their ideas.

To make this clearer we may take the example of Muhammad ibn Sahnun, of the Qairawan mosque-college, who was responsible for the promotion of Malikism in Africa. The Qairawan, where he and his disciples taught, became the citadel of Sunnism. Some of their works (for example, the Mudawana, the Risala, and the Mukhtasar) have become important sources of Islamic thought and have had the greatest influence on African Muslim communities. The Maliki trend took a more serious turn when Ibn Tumart (c. 1080–1130), a Berber from South Morocco (Masmuda tribes), and one of his Zenati followers and successors, Abd-al-Mumin, mobilized their followers and founded the greatest empire in the Muslim West that ruled from 1147 to 1269.

It is therefore reasonable to contend that most Islamic social and political movements that had a significant impact on African communities were the outgrowth of a type of ulama-tribal alliance. The rise of Shiism in North and West Africa; the expansion of Malikism and the Sufi brotherhoods; and the revolutionary (jihadist) movements are prominent examples of the crucial role of the ulama-tribal alliances.

But Islam was not alone in shaping African communities or determining their future development. By the end of the nineteenth century, the entire African continent (with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia) was shared out among the European colonial powers. In line with the secular modernization begun by the colonialists, Arabic was replaced by French in West Africa, and by English in Central, East, and South Africa. These and similar drastic colonial policies not only undermined the centuries-old Islamic educational system (and the religious elites that relied on it) but ushered in a new, westernized African elite that wielded enormous power out of its connections with the colonial state and/or the Christian missionaries.

With the internalization of secular values, and the incorporation of African communities into the international economy, older bases of legitimacy were challenged and new value systems and ideologies began to compete for people's minds. That cultural and economic experience, as well as the fractured, postcolonial social structures that remain, constitute the major challenge to African Muslims today. Whether this apparently complete secular modernization process will continue to strangle Muslim communities—thus provoking an imminent counterinsurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and providing it with needed resources of resistance—or manage to break these communities' cultural isolation and revive a wider meaning of human existence that Islam itself impresses on its believers, remains to be seen.


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Eltigani Abdelgadir Hamid

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to KabbalahIslam - Africa - Muslim Frontier Communities, Islamic Philosophy, Indigenous Vehicles Of Islamization, Bibliography