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BAKKA’I AL-KUNTI, AHMAD AL- (c. 1803-1865), Sudanese religious and political leader. Ahmad al-Bakka’i inherited the religious and economic influence of the Kunta confederation in the Timbuktu region of the West African Sudan in the years 1847-1865 and was titular head of the Qadiriyah tariqah in West Africa during that period. He was a grandson of Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (d. 1811), patriarch of the Kunta Awlad Sidi al-Wafi to whom most strains of the Qadiriyah in West Africa are traced. He worked closely with his elder brother, Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Saghir ibn Sidi Muhammad, who succeeded at his father’s death in 1824 as principal shaykh of the Kunta until his own death in 1847. During this period the autonomy of Timbuktu and environs came under threat from the Masina mujahid Ahmad Lobbo, whose forces were initially welcomed in Timbuktu in 1824 as a counter to the Tuareg extractions of tribute that were blamed for a half-century decline in the city’s fortunes. A revolt by the urban elite of Timbuktu in 1833 set the stage for a thirty-year effort by Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Saghir and then Ahmad al-Bakka’i to negotiate the city’s autonomy with the Masina rulers. In the 1850s al-Bakka’i initially sought the support of al-Hajj `Umar Tal, whose jihad eclipsed Masina in 186o, but thereafter he directed a coalition of Kunta, Tuareg, and Fulbe forces that took control of the city while launching a general offensive against `Umar’s control over Masina. This warfare led to the deaths of both al-Hajj `Umar (in 1864) and Ahmad al-Bakka’i in 1865.

Ahmad al-Bakkai’s career and voluminous correspondence focus upon his efforts to assert Kunta control over the Timbuktu region, his objections to efforts in Masina to restrict the sale and use of tobacco (not unconnected to Kunta commercial interests), and his mounting antipathy toward the Tijanlyah and its adherents. Al-Bakka’i visited Sokoto before 1837 while al-Hajj `Umar was in residence there. Correspondence between al-Bakka’i and the Tijani reformer a decade later gives no indication of the virulent attacks against al-Hajj `Umar and the Tijanlyah that were to come, despite contemporaneous heated debate between al-Bakka’! and the Masina Tijani leader, `Umar’s disciple al-Mukhtar ibn Yirkoy Talfi. From the early 1850s until his death, however, al-Bakka’s correspondence reveals a growing hostility toward the Tijaniyah that led him to write to `ulama’ in Marrakesh warning of the dangers posed by the tariqah. At the same time, an issue that set al-Bakka’i at odds with the Masina authorities was the hospitality he offered the explorer Heinrich Barth, who visited Timbuktu in 1853. The event marked both the nadir of al-Bakka’s formerly cordial relations with Masina’s ruler Ahmadu III and the beginning of his efforts, which continued to 186o, to attract British assistance against the French advance (and control over commerce) in the central Sahara. Al-Bakkd’s defense of his hospitality for the Christian traveler reveals his sophisticated grasp of contemporary Mediterranean and European politics and his self-appointed role as a representative of both Ottoman and Moroccan authority in the region.

Ahmad al-Bakkais correspondence provides a rare, detailed glimpse into political and religious thought in the West African Sudan relating to three overriding concerns in the mid-nineteenth century: the nature of the imamate/caliphate in Sahelian and Sudanese communities; the problem of coming to terms with encroaching Christian powers; and the growing politicization of tariqah affiliation. The nature of the imamate had long preoccupied southern Saharan savants in the zdwiyah tradition out of which al-Bakka’i arose. Two positions had emerged by the early nineteenth century. One legitimated the acquisition of authority by force in times of fitnah (conflict, by which Saharan society, in the absence of a state, defined itself). The second, which was earlier argued by al-Bakka’!’s father, was that a sovereign is only an agent of corruption on earth, and that to seek the authority of the imamate is to challenge the established powers ordained by God. Al-Bakka’i used the latter argument to question the legitimacy first of the Masina jihad and then of al-Hajj `Umar’s movement, pointing up the fact that religious suzerainty in the region was owed to the `Alawi sultan in Morocco and/or the Ottoman sultan, because that was the largest Islamic polity of the time. The imam, he argued, must be a descendant of Quraysh Arabs in any event, and Fulani claims to this title represented innovation (bid’ah). In advice he ignored during the last three years of his life, al-Bakka’i summarized this position in his reply to Muhammad Bello’s suggestion that the Kunta shaykh declare a jihad himself. Al-Bakka’i warned, “jihad . . . leads to kingship, and kingship to oppression, and our condition as it is now is better for us than jihad, and safe from the error to which it leads” (Robinson, 1985, p. 305).

European visitors to the Muslim communities of the West African Sudan from the 1820s, growing European commercial interests along the West African coast by mid-century, and French colonial ventures in Algeria posed new religious and economic issues for West Africa’s Islamic leaders. For al-Bakka’i, Barth’s visit crystallized these issues. His response was to assert himself as an enlightened defender of Christians and Jews as people of the book, against his less informed critics who sought scriptural justification for detaining them. In correspondence with Ahmadu III of Masina he argued that since the only enemy of the Muslim peoples at the time was Russia (the Crimean War had just begun), Barth, a German under English sponsorship, could not be detained but rather deserved aman (safe passage).

Al-Bakka’s hostility toward the Tijaniyah tariqah was closely linked to the political implications of al-Hajj `Umar Tal’s movement. It was a threat to the longstanding Kunta religious hegemony symbolized by the Qadiriyah, and al-Bakka’i was further scandalized by the authority granted to persons from the lower classes in the `Umarian state. Al-Bakka’i increased his attacks on the Tijaniyah during the 1850s, and by the time he was leading armed attacks on the `Umarian forces he was labeling Tijanis as infidels and atheists (zandaq). This confrontation effectively marks the beginning of a politicization of tariqah affiliation in the Western Sudan that was to gain even greater momentum in the years following his death.

Ahmad al-Bakka’i was one of the last principal Muslim spokesmen in the Western Sudan in the precolonial era for an accommodationist stance vis-a-vis the threatening Christian European presence and, until the last years of his life, an exponent of noninvolvement in temporal matters. He was also the last of the great Kunta shaykhs, whose prestige and religious influence were interwoven with the Qadiriyah and the economic fortunes of the Timbuktu region. His significance lies in his wide range and voluminous correspondence documenting these issues.

[See also Mauritania; Qadiriyah; Tijaniyah; and the biography of `Umar Tal.]


Ba, Amadou Hampate, and Jacques Daget. L’empire Peul de Macina. Mouton, 1962. Provides oral tradition of al-Bakkai’s career as it touched on Masina politics after 1848.

Robinson, David. The Holy War of Umar Tal. Oxford and New York, 1985. By far the best account of al-Hajj `Umar’s movement and alBakka’i’s career from an `Umarian perspective.

Saad, Elias N. A Social History of Timbuctu. Cambridge and New York, 1983. Surveys al-BakkaTs career from the perspective of Timbuktu history.

Zebadia, Abdel kader. “The Career of Ahmed al-Bakkay.” Revue d’Histoire Maghrebine 3 (1975): 75-83. Summarizes his 1974 University of London Ph.D. thesis, which is the most thorough compilation of al-Bakk ai’s correspondence to date.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bakkai-al-kunti-ahmad-al/

  • writerPosted On: October 14, 2012
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