Timothy Insoll. the Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

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TIMOTHY INSOLL. The archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. xv+470 pages, 125 figures. 2003. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 0-521-65171-9 hardback 70 [pounds sterling] & US$95, 0-521-65702-4 paperback 25.95 [pounds sterling] & US$37.

This is a book long overdue. Timothy Insoll has taken on the ambitious task of including the entire sub-Saharan continent in a single study of the archaeology of Islam. Not only is the geographical breadth daunting, but so is the time frame. The book competently presents an archaeological, architectural and historical survey covering a period from the pre-Islamic Iron Age in black Africa to the sixteenth-century Moroccan incursions against the Songhai, the nineteenth-century Fulani jihads in Hausaland, and the last of the Omani Sultans in Zanzibar. Insoll's familiarity with the literature and his own extensive archaeological fieldwork in Africa has enabled him to engage in a comparative study that recognises difference as well as similarity through time and space. Regional and site particularities are highlighted throughout the work, and the grand narratives and singular models authored by earlier scholars are challenged. In brief; the book can be best summarised as an exploration of the complex and diverse manifestations of Islam in Africa, and its major contribution is surely the weave it produces between the social, cultural, religious, historical and archaeological dimensions of Islam.

At the start, Insoll presents an overview of the impressive body of interdisciplinary material that he draws upon, and he discusses his approach and method. The Arabic tarikhs (histories) comprise the earliest historical texts in sub-Saharan Africa, and play an especially important role in re-constructing an Islamic history of the West African Sahel. European traveller and missionary accounts, as well as oral histories, provide additional data for conceptualising the chronological spread of Islam across the continent. Insoll maintains, however, that it is through the archaeological analysis of material culture, mosques, tombs, diet and trade goods that we can best 'reconstruct the diverse social, political and economic effects of conversion to Islam, and the direct and indirect impact of the religion upon the peoples' (p. 3). Careful consideration of the social dynamics of conversion throughout the book--including the roles of trade, Sufism, holy men, jihad, the magic of Arabic script, and the pursuit of power and prestige--move us comfortably beyond the static three-stage models of Trimingham and Horton, and Fisher's two-tier structure. Insoll makes fitting use of anthropology and ethnography to better describe the remarkable variety of processes involved in local appropriations of Islam as an African religion (as opposed to being strictly coerced from the outside), and to explore Islam's often syncretic relations with traditional religions and magic. …