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CHAD. Comprising more than 1,284,000 square kilometers between the northern and southern edges of the central Sahara, Chad lies at the crossroads of the dar al-Islam and black Africa. About four-fifths of its territory-the entire area north of the tenth parallel-is under the sway of Islam. Sizable Muslim minorities are also found in many southern towns. Slightly more than half of the country’s people (estimated at 4 million in 1978) are Muslims (Chapelle, 1980, p. 149). Numbering approximately 450,000, Arabs are the largest Islamic ethnic community, but they form a distinctive minority in relation to the rest of the Muslim population. For the vast majority of Chadian Muslims Arabic is a foreign language, albeit a sacred one; although Chadian Arabic (Turku) is the lingua franca among northerners, classical Arabic is neither widely spoken nor understood.

The first carriers of Islam into the Chad basin were islamized Berbers (Zeltner, 1992, P. 25). As early as the eleventh century, long before an Arab presence was reported in the area, Islam was firmly anchored among the ruling elites of Kanem and Bornu. Some three centuries later, however, Arabs emerged as the principal vector of the new religion. At the end of the sixteenth century Baguirmi claimed hundreds of converts, as did Waddai a century later. In both states, as in Kanem and Bornu, Islam was at first an urban-based religion confined to the ruling elites, notables, and scholars (`ulama’). By then Islam had long ceased to be the hallmark of Arab elements. A long heritage of intermarriage between Arabs and non-Arabs, coupled with the gradual expansion of Islam among non-Arab communities, resulted in a social landscape in which Arab influences were no longer predominant.

The diffusion of Islam through the rural sectors took much longer. Cattle- and camel-traders, Hausa pilgrims on their way to Mecca, itinerant Qur’anic teachers, and Sfifi orders all played roles in the conversion of rural communities. Although the traders were probably the first to appear, their impact was not as decisive as that of the Hausa pilgrims, the wandering fuqahd’ (jurists) and mallamai (spiritual advisers or clients). By the late nineteenth century many of these itinerants could be seen traveling through the countryside, begging, teaching, trading, and making converts (Works, 1976). Although most belonged to Sufi orders-the Tijaniyah claiming the largest number of devotees after the Qadiriyah and the Sanusiyah-the spread of the brotherhoods did relatively little to lessen the hold of animism on the rural communities. In contrast with what happened in the cities, rural Islam in Chad remains highly syncretistic and permeated by pre-Islamic beliefs and practices. The phenomenon is nowhere more evident than among the Toubou people of the Tibesti, whose conversion to Islam occurred at a rather late date (late nineteenth century) as a result of their sporadic contacts with the Sanusiyah (Triaud, 1987). [See Tijaniyah; Qadiriyah; Sanusiyah.]

The significance of the brotherhoods lies in their remarkable adaptability to indigenous power structures, and, with few exceptions, in their unrelenting opposition to colonial rule. This is where the history of the Sanusiyah merits particular attention (Zeltner, 1988; Triaud, 1987). Besides its sustained resistance to French penetration in the Tibesti, culminating in the bloody battles of Bir Alali (1901) and Ain Galaka (1913), one must stress the psychological impact these encounters had on French attitudes toward the brotherhood. In the minds of many French administrators the Sanusiyah emerged as the incarnation of evil, the vehicle through which the twin dangers of Pan-Islamism and PanArabism threatened to undermine France’s “civilizing mission” in the heart of the continent. While never missing an opportunity to play one brotherhood off against another, the French went to great lengths to make Islam safe for colonial rule by defusing its PanIslamic elements and bringing it firmly under the control of the traditional sultans.

Nonetheless, the legacy of conflict between the forces of Islam and France’s colonial enterprise is a key factor behind the striking reversal of developmental patterns that has accompanied the intrusion of Western influences. Until the arrival of the French, the Islamic north was far more advanced than the animist south in both the scale and character of its political, economic, commercial, and cultural activities. By the end of the colonial period, however, the now predominantly Christian south-tellingly referred to by the French as le Tchad utile, “useful Chad”-had emerged as conspicuously more developed, socially, economically, and politically.

Predictably, the country acceded to independence (1960) under the control of a southern, Sara-dominated government, headed by Francois Tombalbaye. But if the south inherited the political kingdom, the systematic exclusion of Muslim elements from all positions of authority soon paved the way for the bloody rebellion that broke out at Mangalme in November 1965. Although the immediate cause of the northern rebellion is traceable to the forced collection of taxes at a rate substantially beyond the capabilities of the local taxpayers, for a while Islam provided a powerful unifying bond among otherwise diverse ethnic and regional communities. It also gave Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi a convenient pretext for coming to the assistance of his “Muslim brothers” against the neocolonialist regime of Tombalbaye and his French allies.

In the end France’s protracted military involvement on the side of the Chadian government proved utterly ineffective in coming to terms with the roots of the insurgency; the same applies to Tombalbaye’s attempt in 1971 to enlist the cooperation of the traditional sultans of Wadai, Kanem, and Baguirmi as a counterweight to the rebel leadership of the Front de Liberation National du Tchad (Frolinat), followed by his belated overture to Libya in 1972 that led to the exchange of ambassadors with that state and the severance of diplomatic relations with Israel.

The return of the Frolinat warlord Hissene Habre to Ndjamena in June 1986 brought to a close the longdrawn-out trial of strength between north and south. Habre’s victory, however, can hardly be described as emblematic of a triumphant Islam. Although it provided initial social ballast for the rebellion, Islam proved a remarkably feeble counterweight to the divisive forces of ethnicity and regionalism.

Islamic revivalism is now emerging as a powerful source of solidarity among middle- and lower-class Muslim elements in Ndjamena. Echoing the preaching of Hasan Husayn, imam of the Grand Mosque, many insist that the only path to salvation is through the shari’ah, the study of the Qur’an in schools, and the recruitment of educated Muslims into government and the civil service. Islamic fundamentalism has been bolstered by the infiltration of devotees of Hasan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front (NIF), operating from the Darfur province in western Sudan, and has become a significant piece on the Chadian chessboard. Its growing appeal among Muslims lies both in the attraction of its ideological worldview and in their conviction that it offers the only viable solution to Chad’s endless crisis.


Chapelle, Jean. Le peuple Tchadien. Paris, 1980.

Triaud, Jean-Louis. Tchad, 1900-1902: Une guerre franco-libyenne oubliee? Paris, 1987.

Works, John A. Pilgrims in a Strange Land: Hausa Communities in Chad. New York, 1976.

Zeltner, Jean-Claude. Les pays du Tchad dans la tourmente, 1880-1903. Paris, 1988.

Zeltner, Jean-Claude. “Les Arabes: Propagateurs ou spectateurs de l’Islam au Tchad?” In L’Islam au Tchad, edited by Jean-Pierre Magnant, pp. 25-29. Bordeaux, 1992.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/chad/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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