The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Fleisher, Jeffrey | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa


Fleisher, Jeffrey, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. By Timothy Insoll. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 470; 125 illustrations. $95.00 cloth, $37.00 paper.

Timothy Insoll's detailed overview of the archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa can be read as both an encyclopedic summary of Iron Age archaeology as well as a challenge to begin thinking about the archaeology of religion and religious practice. In many ways, this volume is a much-needed and more nuanced revision of works such as J. S. Trimingham's regional summaries and overviews of the "influence" of Islam on sub-Saharan Africa.1 Additionally, it serves as a materialist companion to Nehemiah Levtzion and Randall Pouwels's recent History of Islam in Africa (2000). This ambitious volume focuses on the material correlates of Islam and Islamic practice, delineates what an archaeology of Islam might look like, and how it might be attempted. Insoll rightly indicates that although archaeologists might recognize that Islamic practice was one of most significant processes in the development of many African societies after the seventh century A.D. (through trade, politics, and the social processes of conversion), they have not yet found a cohesive language to investigate and express those themes.

The bulk of the volume is a detailed assessment of the archaeology of Islam in seven regions (Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, the Nilotic Sudan, the East African coast, the Western Sahel, the Central Sudan, the West African Sudan and forest, and "the African interior"). Insoll's regional summaries show dexterity in working with the minutiae of regional archaeological sequences. This work perhaps necessarily duplicates a considerable amount of the summarizing done by other fine texts, such as Graham Connah's African Civilizations (2002) and David W. Phillipson's African Archaeology (1993), although it includes numerous more recent findings. Whereas Connah uses archaeological data to demonstrate the processes of Iron Age urbanization and state formation, Insoll's particular contribution is to investigate the processes of religious transformation during similar periods.

To accomplish this goal, Insoll first argues that an archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa requires an integration of multiple sources, including those of archaeology, ethnography, history, architecture, and linguistics. second, Insoll attempts to establish a material baseline for what he defines as two discrete religious traditions: Islam, and pre-Islamic "African traditional religions." These archaeologically detectable manifestations include ritual architecture, diet, domestic spaces, burials, and art. Third, Insoll emphasizes that the archaeology of Islam must be investigated as a process, whereby Islam is contested, resisted, accepted, or integrated, thus bridging his concepts of African traditional religions and Islam. He is careful to note, however, that this is no simple process from one tradition to another, but one where peoples throughout the continent developed syncretic forms of religious practice that resulted in a plurality of Islams.

Insoll favors trade between African populations and Muslim traders as the most common reason for conversion to Islam (as seen in the chapters on the Western Sahel, the Nilotic Sudan, the East African coast, and the West African Sudan). …

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