Many excellent scholars study Islam. Many other scholars explore the changing face of global Christianity. Rarely do those experts look at the two worlds--Muslim and Christian--side by side, which is a pity: when we do, we see some remarkable parallels and connections that shed light on both.
The early 20th century is a critical period in the modern history of Christianity, especially the years around World War I and the great epidemics that followed that conflict. In Africa, that was the era in which prophets and evangelists took the faith wholeheartedly into their own hands, translating it into local cultures and worship styles and creating churches thoroughly rooted in African soil. In doing so, they began the mass conversion of the continent.
Although hundreds of activists were involved, a few heroic names stand out, such as William Wade Harris in Liberia and Simon Kimbangu in the Congo. At the time, colonial authorities deeply distrusted the new churches. Chiefly they feared sedition. They were also wary of any syncretistic mixing of Christianity with animist beliefs. Kimbangu spent 30 years in a Belgian colonial prison; French authorities kicked Harris out of the Ivory Coast. But their churches and their offshoots flourished and have spread across Europe as well as Africa. The central story in African history during the 20th century was the conversion of half the continent's population away from traditional animist religions to Christianity (40 percent) and Islam (10 percent).
Although the Christian conversion story has been told frequently, less noticed are its very close parallels in the world of Islam. Among Muslims too, at much the same time, colonized African communities took that faith into their own hands, packaged it in familiar forms and made it immensely popular. And this controversial new synthesis of the faith is also making deep inroads in the Euro-American world.
The best-known Muslim equivalent of the Christian prophets was Senegal's saintly Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba (1853-1927). At the end of the 19th century he founded a pious Sufi order called the Muridiyya or Mourides, rooted in mystical devotion to God. Cheikh Bamba taught a practical message of hard work, charity and pacifism, based on the principle, "Pray as if you will die tomorrow, and work as if you will live forever." His movement drew heavily on African roots, with its cultivation of local saints and shrines. Like African Christians, the Mourides stand or fall on their promise of healing in mind and body. …