Islam in Africa: A phenomenon beyond simplistic explanations

L’islam d'Afrique. Au-delà du djihad, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Éditions Vendémiaire, 2021, 513 pages
islam africa

 -   L'islam d'Afrifque

Sub-Saharan Africa does not appear much on our screens, and when it does it’s often to reveal the latest outrage perpetrated by terrorists such as al-Shabab in Somalia and other areas of East Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries, any of the jihadist groups operating in the Sahel, or ISIS-Mozambique in the north of that country. The continent has become integrated into the international fight against terrorism and currently hosts troops from a dozen non-African countries. This interesting work questions many of our assumptions about Islam in Africa and the conflicts in which that religion plays a role. As indicated in its subtitle, “Beyond Jihad”, L'islam d'Afrique seeks to present the issue in all its complexity, in an attempt to refute some of the arguments used to explain those conflicts and justify foreign military interventions.  

Its author, Africanist academic Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, starts off by highlighting the importance of African Islam. In 2050 there will be more Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa than in the whole of the Arab world, due to high birth rates in the region – especially among Muslims, who tend to live in the less developed areas of the interior – and to increasing life expectancy. Moreover, Sufism has a significant presence on the continent, especially in West Africa, which has become the centre of gravity for Sufi orders of Arab origin such as the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya. More dubious are the author’s arguments to emphasise the intellectual influence of African Islam. For instance, he points to the role of certain African clerics in Saudi institutions such as Dar al-Hadith and the Islamic University of Medina, which on the face of it seems rather anecdotal. 

“Good” Sufism vs. “bad” Salafism? 

Pérouse de Montclos argues that the current discourse on African Islam is based on comforting simplifications. Both African politicians and intellectuals and Western specialists attribute the appearance of jihadi movements to the arrival of Saudi Salafism, which differs from the traditional Sufism of African societies. Examining the historical context, the author shows that the opposition between a syncretic and moderate “African Islam” and a sectarian and aggressive “Arab Islam” is not new but dates from the colonial era, i.e., many decades before the emergence of the oil-rich monarchies that export Salafism. The French were already concerned with the Arab connections of Sufi brotherhoods in the Sahel back in the 19th century. Several European powers with colonies in Africa followed the example of the Netherlands, which in 1889 opened a welfare office in Mecca to keep an eye on “its” Malaysian Muslims during the pilgrimage. And in 1912 the British established an institute for Islamic studies in Khartoum to prevent African imams from going to study at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, where they could come into contact with “subversive” ideas. 

Un grupo de hombres identificados por la Policía nigeriana como combatientes y líderes extremistas de Boko Haram en Nigeria. AP PHOTO/JOSSY OLA
AP PHOTO/JOSSY OLA - A group of men identified by the Nigerian Police as Boko Haram fighters and extremist leaders in Nigeria. 

On the other hand, the simplistic opposition of a “moderate” African Islam and a “violent” Arab Islam conceals uncomfortable truths, such as that the jihads of the past, led by Sufis, were just as brutal as those we witness today. Both the Qadiri Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) and the Tijani Omar Tall (1794-1864) established proto-states – the Caliphate of Sokoto (in present-day Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso) and the Toucouleur Empire (in what is now Mali, Guinea and Senegal), respectively – through plunder and subjugation. The caliphate founded by Usman dan Fodio had one of the highest slavery rates ever known (between a third and a half of the population), but he is celebrated as a national hero and one of the universities in the town of Sokoto is named after him. Another example would be the destruction of mausoleums and manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012-13, which reminds us of the burning of books on religious sciences by the self-proclaimed Sudanese Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmad (1844-1885), although the reason behind his action was that he had only read the Qur’an and wanted to hide his ignorance. 

Our author also problematizes the contrast between “tolerant” Sufism and “intolerant” Salafism. He reminds us that many Sufi marabouts in the Sahel continue to support excision and marriage to prepubescent girls, while the Senegalese caliph of the Murids, Sidy Mokhtar Mbacké, called for protests against Charlie Hebdo just a week after the attacks that killed 12 of the satirical magazine’s workers. For their part, the vast majority of Salafists condemn jihadist violence. Furthermore, they voice reasonable criticisms of Sufi fetishism and of the exploitation of the pupils in Sufi Koranic schools, who are systematically forced to beg. In addition, Salafists tend to have a relatively high level of education and they work in the modern sector of the economy and, in a way, they express the desire for modernisation in Muslim societies. Thus, the clash between Sufis and Salafists could almost be interpreted as a generational conflict between traditionalists and reformers. 

In any case, African Muslims do not recognise themselves in the categories imposed on them from the outside and which were created to classify Middle Eastern Islam. The so-called Salafists – and even jihadists such as al-Shabab, Boko Haram or Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam – do not practice the Hanbali rite of Arab Salafism, or they combine it with the Maliki rite typical of the areas in which they operate. However, political and religious leaders in the region do not hesitate to use those categories for their own benefit. Following the 9/11 attacks, Sufis in Tanzania accused their Salafi opponents of terrorism in order to undermine their attempts to disrupt traditional hierarchies. And in 2015 Mohammed VI created a training institute for African ulama, ostensibly to promote the “moderate” Maliki and Sufi Islam of Morocco but also to gain political support for the occupation of the Western Sahara, as denounced by the Algerian authorities. 

 Los comandantes militares inspeccionan las armas y municiones recuperadas de los yihadistas de Boko Haram en el cuartel general del Batallón 120 en Goniri. AFP/AUDU MARTE
AFP/AUDU MARTE - Military commanders inspect weapons and ammunition recovered from Boko Haram jihadists at the 120 Battalion headquarters in Goniri.
Islam as an expression of grievances  

Another constant theme in the discourse about Islam is its politicisation. Pérouse de Montclos argues that Islam has had a strong political dimension since its inception by virtue of Muhammad’s position as prophet and statesman, and points out that it was used politically by the Sufis before the Salafists irrupted in the scene; both groups have resorted to takfir (excommunication) and jihad with the alleged aim of returning Muslims to the “right path.” Then as now, Islam has been an instrument of legitimation, as in the proclamation of a caliphate, or of opposition, as in the practice of declaring a ruler an “infidel” to justify rebellion. In reality, religion often serves to articulate grievances caused by the marginalization of certain groups or by competition for resources and territory, or to hide more sordid motivations such as greed.  

The author contends that those who speak of the politicisation of Islam are just comparing the current situation to the more recent past. In effect, the dominant ideologies in the countries that became independent after the Second World War were nationalism and Third World socialism, while increasing urbanisation and the expansion of education contributed to the secularisation of their societies. However, the failure of the nationalist project and the end of the cold war, which brought with it the collapse of dictatorial regimes, allowed for the establishment of multiple parties representing different ideologies and identities. Meanwhile, the debt crises and consequent structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank compelled governments to reduce the services they provide to their citizens. That space has been occupied by all kinds of associations, including Muslim ones.  

Pérouse de Montclos sees no cause for alarm in the growing visibility of Islam in African societies. As he explains, there is no pan-Islamic movement; Muslim parties and associations show the same divisions that afflict their communities, and which are religious as well as social and ethnic. The spread of the veil and similar garments has allowed women to increase their presence in the public space, because they feel less vulnerable to threats to their reputation and they don’t need as much money for clothes and cosmetics. The jihadists have been unable to establish a viable counterproject for society and their depredations have discredited the ideas they advocate. And despite receiving disproportionate attention, confrontations between Muslims and Christians remain exceptional and, when they do occur, they are not caused by religion but by problems such as access to resources. For instance, the mostly Muslim Fulani herdsmen do not attack the mostly Christian farmers in northern Nigeria because of their religion, but because constant droughts exacerbated by climate change have driven them from their ancestral grazing lands. On the other hand, it is common for Muslims who can afford it to enrol their children in Christian schools because of their good academic reputation. 

AFP/ABDIRARAZAK HUSSEIN FARAH - Soldados somalíes en el lugar de la explosión de un coche bomba suicida que tuvo como objetivo un convoy de vehículos de la Unión Europea en Mogadiscio, Somalia
AFP/ABDIRARAZAK HUSSEIN FARAH - Somali soldiers at the site of a suicide car bomb blast that targeted a convoy of European Union vehicles in Mogadishu, Somalia
A necessary perspective 

Any good argument can be taken too far, of course. Pérouse de Montclos can’t avoid referring to the oil boom, which allowed the Gulf States to export an Islam that not only rejects Sufism, but also promotes intolerant attitudes towards followers of other religions. In fact, he acknowledges that Salafists are often hostile to Christians, whom they see as conveyors of Western culture, and we can assume that this can only increase tensions in societies which are already fragile and fragmented. And despite his expertise of Africa and of Islam, the author exhibits certain gaps in knowledge. For instance, he translates the Arabic term tuba as “conversion” (it is actually tawba, “repentance” or “penance”). He affirms that the term Nassara, sometimes used to designate Christians, refers to conquest and victory (it comes from al-Nâsira, "Nazareth"). And he claims that the great Islamic reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh rejected Christian and Western influences, when in fact he was a great admirer of Western civilisation and is quoted as saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.” 

Despite these minor flaws, L’islam en Afrique undoubtedly deserves our attention. It is very instructive, adding to its 400-plus pages several maps, an annex on the Sufi brotherhoods in Africa, and a glossary. It is also necessary, because it forces us to reconsider our stereotypes about Africa and contains lessons applicable beyond the continent. Its criticism of Sufism is refreshing as well as fair and accurate, in contrast to the Orientalist romantic aura that frequently surrounds the topic. And he correctly indicates that Islam is not a problem in itself but can become a tool to mobilise communities in response to conflicts that have little or nothing to do with religion. For this reason, policies that favour armed intervention and ignore the underlying causes of violence – the French-led counterterrorism intervention in the Sahel comes to mind – will not only be ineffective, but may also exacerbate those conflicts.