Moderate Revivalists: Islamic Inroads in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Kane, Ousmane | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Moderate Revivalists: Islamic Inroads in Sub-Saharan Africa


Kane, Ousmane, Harvard International Review


There are approximately three hundred million African Muslims in the world, which comprises roughly one-third of the African continent's population. But despite this fairly large Muslim population and Islam's historical presence in Africa, African Islam has remained largely neglected in the study of Muslim politics. This neglect was to a large extent the result of an academic division of labor based on the assumption that Africa was only superficially Islamized. However, the truth is that many parts of Africa have been incorporated into the world of Islam for a long time. African Muslims have adhered to and practiced the main pillars of Islam--including the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca required of every Muslim--for more than a millennium.

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During the European colonial conquest of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial troops faced fierce resistance from organized religious political Islamic movements, including the Tijaniyya in Senegal and Mali and the Libyan Sanusiyya in the Sahara and Niger. After the establishment of colonial domination and the creation of French, British, and Portuguese-controlled territories, the movement of Muslims across the Sahara was considerably restricted by colonial governments that wanted to prevent the rise of transnational Islamic solidarities. This isolation of African Muslims ended with the collapse of colonial rule after World War II, at which point they began to enjoy greater freedom of movement and agency. Political independence also ushered in an era of charismatic leaders, such as Sukarno in Indonesia, Nehru in India, Nasser in Egypt, and Nkrumah in Ghana, all of whom sought to promote solidarity within the "Southern" bloc by way of the Non-Aligned Movement and various other bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements. Within the framework of such cooperation between southern countries, predominantly Muslim states in the Middle East and Africa were encouraged to develop closer relations based on a common Islamic heritage.

These connections between African Muslims and the rest of the Islamic world laid the foundation for the strong revival of Islam that occurred in the 1970s. This revival, although originating in the Middle East, gained momentum in Africa and led to a new wave of Islamist groups that sought to enact a series of social changes in the region. But contrary to general consensus in the West, these groups have no real aspirations for political power and do not adopt methods of Islamic extremism or jihadism. Indeed, such extremist ideologies and movements have had very little success in gaining influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Afro-Arab Relations After Independence

The attainment of political independence in Asia and Africa led to a rebuilding of ties that had been restricted or severed during colonial rule. Several North African and Middle Eastern Arab countries were keen to promote Islamic education in sub-Saharan Africa. From the early 1960s onwards, Egypt and Morocco strengthened their ties with many West African states. The Moroccan presence in West Africa, it must be noted, goes back to the sixteenth century when Morocco conquered the Songhai Empire and made it a province of the Moroccan kingdom. Another source of Moroccan influence in West Africa has been the spread of the Morocco-based Tijaniyya Sufi order, which millions of Black Africans have embraced. King Hassan of Morocco developed personal friendships with many West African politicians and religious leaders. Grants were provided to thousands of African graduates of the local Islamic scholarly tradition to pursue higher education in Moroccan institutions. These close ties continue to be cultivated by the current ruler of Morocco, Muhammad VI.

Next to Morocco, Egypt has done the most to strengthen relations with African nations in the postcolonial period. A nationalist, socialist, and towering figure of Thirdworldism, Egypt's former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, also believed in pan-Islamic solidarity. …

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