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Islam in the Middle East and North Africa

Revelation in the Middle East comes in a variety of versions. Islam is one of them and, like Judaism and Christianity, it is constitutive of an entire civilization. Islamic civilization evolved according to its own dynamics, covering the periods of sacred foundation (634-750), scriptural formation (750-1050), classicism (1050-I8oo), and modern transformation (18oo-present). The focus in this article is on the latter period in which, largely in response to the modern Western concept of rationality, Muslim thinkers sought and still seek to formulate the elements of an authentically rational Islam.

Revelation and Theology. The sacred story of Islam begins with Abraham’s foundation of a shrine, the Ka`bah, devoted to God (Allah) the One, in Mecca. It includes accounts of peoples sliding back to paganism as well as biblical figures and Arab prophets calling them to return to God’s law; the youth, prophetic calling, and community leadership of the prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina; the rededication of the Ka’bah to the God of Abraham; the unification of Arabia under Islam and the Arab-Islamic conquest of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Iran; the murder of Caliph `Uthman and the subsequent struggle for leadership between Caliph `All and governor Mu’dwiyah. The story concludes with the allegedly worldly rule of the Umayyad caliphs and the emergence of religious scholars liberating Islam from the caliphal embrace.

This sacred story is obviously built on empirical historical facts. At a minimum, the establishment of an Arab caliphate in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, the minting of caliphal coins with religious inscriptions (earliest extant specimens dating from 690/691), and the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem with its Qur’anic verses and anti-Christian pronouncements (69o/69i) are indubitable events. But, as in Judaism and Christianity, there is considerable disagreement over what else actually happened.

A growing number of contemporary scholars have come to the conclusion that the sacred story of Islamic origins should not be read as a secular history with the addition of a few religious flourishes. Scholars using the form-critical method have shown that the sacred story is inseparable from the community of religious scholars (`ulamd’) that during the formative period (c.750-1050) was engaged in shaping the holy scripture (Qur’an), extrascriptural tradition (sunnah), theology (kaldm), and law (shara`ah) of Islam in opposition to the older revelations of Christianity and Judaism. Our understanding of Islamic origins depends almost entirely on the scholars of the formative period, who wanted to present a sacred Islam that emerged fullblown in precaliphal times and in remote western Arabia during the early seventh century in order to provide the nascent Islam of their own time with its distinctive identity and to elevate it over the older revelations. Thus the sacred story of Islam is not the same as its history, which begins fully, in the empirical sense, only in the mid-eighth century. Two important characteristics of Islam date from the formative period.

First is the rejection of caesaropapism. In less than a century Arabs succeeded in creating a caliphal empire stretching from Iberia to northwestern India (c.712). This empire contained a hodgepodge of orthodox and heterodox Christian and Jewish groups, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and various other populations. It was wracked by wars among the Arab ruling class (658-661, 683-692) and eventually by a revolution resulting in a change of caliphal dynasties from the Umayyads to the `Abbasids (750) [See Caliph.]

Both dynasties sought to consolidate their power through caesaropapism, a policy of claiming divine sanction for the caliphate and imposing doctrinal unity on the empire. Religious scholars were engaged to devise the desired doctrines, although other scholars resented government control and offered alternative doctrines for the empire. In the course of the 9oos a majority of the religious scholars managed to achieve independence from caliphal dictates; eventually, in 1063, it was a much chastened caliph who pronounced Sunnism, the scholars’ anticaesaropapist version of Islam, as the official orthodox religion.

Although the religious scholars overcame caliphal control, they maintained the caliphal policy of fusing emergent Islam with the cultural and legal traditions of the empire’s core countries, Syria and Iraq. They thereby succeeded in creating a religio-legal Islam that was largely independent from political regimes and their vicissitudes. Within this Islam the sacred story of a small and simple early Islamic community in Mecca and Medina, complete with divine law and communal institutions but without an empire, provided the inspirational core: Islam did not depend on imperial and dynastic political structures and was indeed better off without them. Contrary to widespread contemporary opinion, original Islam-that is, the scholarly Sunnism shaped in the period 750-I05o-did not fuse religion and state. Although Sunni scholars required their rulers to be good Muslims, they adamantly opposed caesaropapism.

The Shi’I minority of Islamic civilization, the origins of which are rooted in the ruling class rifts of the seventh century, opposed Sunnism by upholding the notion of caesaropapism for the caliphs. However, the legitimate Shi`i leaders (imams) were not put to the test: these leaders, descended from the fourth caliph ‘Ali, were excluded from power, and their line died out altogether in 874. It was only with the Egyptian Fatimids (909-1171), who put forth a disputed claim to the line of `All, and the Iraqi Buyids (945-1055), that the Shi’Is acquired a first experience with legislation.

A similar situation existed under the $afavid shahs in Iran (I6oo-1’722). Interestingly, however, from the end of the seventeenth century some Shi’i scholars began to oppose the legislative independence (ijtihdd, discussed below) of the shah. After the Afghan invasion and during the chaotic interregnum of the eighteenth century, religious scholars rediscovered the advantages of independence, which they managed to maintain under the subsequent Qajar dynasty (1796-1924). They succeeded in acquiring the right to collect a tax, the “share of the imam” (khums); they never deigned to regard the Qajars as more than caretakers ruling in the name of the Mahdi (the rightly guided one or messiah) who would arrive at the end of time. Thus over the centuries Shi’i scholars also came to reject caesaropapism, essentially restricting it to the eschatological figure of the Mahdi. In fact, bolstered by fiscal powers, their rejection became even more resolute than that of their Sunni colleagues, who in the nineteenth century again lost their guardianship over religion to the modernizing state.

The second important characteristic is the emphasis on divine oneness (tawhid). The famous “I am that I am” of Exodus 3.14 is perhaps the most succinct expression of this oneness but in its tautology it does not say anything about the relationship between oneness and Creation. Not surprisingly, the temptation to resort to further, metaphorical explanations has always remained strong, but if taken literally these explanations, borrowed from analogies with Creation, produce nonsense. Even the name “God” is a problematic metaphor because it implies the human characteristic of personality. Muslims were particularly sensitive about divine metaphors, coming, as they did, after the Jews and Christians. They accused the latter of falsification and polytheism in their scriptures and insisted on an uncompromising divine oneness.

One school of scholars during the formative period of 750-1050, the Mu’tazilah, drew a sharp line between God’s eternal essence of oneness and his Qur’anic attributes, such as knowledge (`ilm), power (qudrah) and will (irddah), which they considered created. They did so as staunch partisans of divine oneness (ashdb al-tawhid), which did not admit of creation, but they were quickly mired in theological absurdities: what was God like before he created his own attributes? Why did he create them? Could he have created different ones? Therefore other scholars drew the conclusion-“without [questioning] how” (bi-ld kayfa)-that God was inexplicably one as well as being endowed with distinct qualities. These latter scholars eventually-through the theology of the Sunni thinker Ash’ari (d. 935)-carried the day, presumably because they were more honest than their opponents in admitting that formal logic did not permit the conceptualization of indivisible oneness without implying composition. The theology of divine oneness, “without questioning how,” became a cornerstone of Islam, the new unitary revelation superseding all less rigorous ones. [See Tawhid.]

Mysticism and Brotherhoods. No orthodoxy is ever strong enough to enforce an absolute prohibition of questioning. Inevitably some Muslims challenged the formal logic that made divine oneness appear inexplicable. Today it is well recognized that the bivalent formal logic built on the rule of the excluded middle (“either/ or, no intermediates”) is a special case in the larger field of multivalent logic. During the classical period of Islam (1050-i8oo), when no formalism was yet available for multivalence, mysticism (tasawwuj) instead assumed the informal role of making divine oneness comprehensible. The Spaniard Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-`Arabi (d. 1240), who lived in Damascus, was perhaps the most articulate among the mystics of the classical period. The complex concept of “oneness of being” (wah, dat al-wujud) is attributed to him by his disciple al-Qunawi (d. 1273/74). In contemporary terms, it may be expressed as follows: one experiences God by stripping away all finite phenomena (sensations, concerns, memories, self) and slipping into a state of infinite latency or undifferentiated consciousness -an experience that, when named, is the actual infinite (oneness of being or God, in al-Qunawi’s rendering). With this ingenious joining of a contemplative experiential state with the name of God, Ibn al’Arab! liberated the theological oneness of the formative period from its seeming inexplicability and provided a sophisticated vocabulary for pious Muslims to express both their experience and their understanding of God. [See the biography of Ibn al-`Arabi. ]

Religious scholars who prided themselves on mastery of the formal logic required for the practice of law found it difficult to accept Ibn al-`Arabi’s careful counterbalancing of experiential undifferentiated consciousness and complex metaphysical concepts. For example, Tag! al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyah of Damascus (d. 1328) virulently attacked the mystic for having allegedly preached pantheism by identifying the everyday experience of people and things with the omniscient and omnipotent God of scripture. Accordingly, he condemned saintly (wah) mystics whose tombs were visited by believers calling on their intercessory powers (shafd’dt) or seeking divine blessings (barakat). Ibn Taymiyah was careful, however, not to attack mysticism as such, since it was based on a piety that had legal standing. He censored what in his consideration went beyond piety, namely the alleged pantheism of oneness mysticism and saint worship. [See the biography of Ibn Taymiyah.]

Ibn Taymiyah remained a lonely critic. The period from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century witnessed an extraordinary outburst of mystical Islam in the form of brotherhoods (sg., tarigah), which were unabashedly dedicated to oneness of being, saint cults, ecstatic rituals, and miracles, often without concern for Ibn al’Arabi’s careful conceptual distinctions. It was this Islam that was carried in the renewed expansion of Islamic civilization-peaceful as well as military-into Central and Southeast Asia as well as Saharan Africa. In the original Islamic countries, where the highly literate Islam of the legal scholars had failed to penetrate into the illiterate countryside, brotherhoods with their emphasis on mnemonics succeeded and successfully encompassed peasants and nomads. Eventually even the scholars, although sometimes scandalized by the dancing, swaying, handclapping, and shouting of the mystics, eventually deigned to join the more decorous brotherhoods. [See Sufism, article on $u$ Orders.]

Ibn Taymiyah was also unsuccessful in another respect. As mentioned above, during the period 750-1050 religious scholars shaped the heterogeneous pre-Islamic legal heritage of the caliphal provinces into a unified body of rulings invested with Muhammad’s authority. By the twelfth century authoritative compendia (sg., mukhtasar) had appeared that “commanded the good and forbade the evil” (lit. al-amr bi-al-ma’ruf wa-al-nahy Can al-munkar ); that is, they ostensibly ruled on everything, from the obligatory (wajib), recommended (mandub), and permissible (mubah) to the disapproved (makruh) and forbidden (haram), making scholarly Islam a moral as well as a legal code.

With the growth of these compendia, the original accounts (hadiths) of Muhammad’s rulings receded into the background. Religious scholars became intolerant toward colleagues who resisted legal dependence (taglid) on compendia and, going back to Muhammad’s rulings, practiced independence (ijtihad) of judgment. A turning point was reached in the period 1400-1500: although Ibn Taymiyah continued to render independent decisions, the claim of, for example, the Egyptian Suyuti (d. 1505) to be the “leading independent scholar (mujaddid) of the tenth century [A-1]” was met with strong opposition. The prestigious centers of legal Islam, especially Cairo and Mecca, demanded strict conformity with the compendia.

In practice, however, independent decisions continued to be promulgated, even if their authors eschewed the title of “independent scholar.” For example, Ottoman religious scholars in the sixteenth century, such as Bali Efendi (a mystic of the Helveti [Ar., Khalwatf brotherhood), ruled on the permissibility of cash trusts in addition to the existing real-estate endowments (sg., wagf ). Similarly, the legal status of guns, coffee, tobacco, and hashish was debated. Legal dependence on compendia, although binding in theory, was attenuated in practice.

Outside the prestigious centers of law religious figures were less diffident about claiming the title of “independent scholar.” For example, Ahmad al-Sirhindi (d.

1624) in Mughal India, a mystic of the Nagshbandi brotherhood and an avid reader of the Prophet’s rulings, claimed the title of “mujaddid of the second millennium.” In addition, he replaced Ibn al-`Arabi’s concept of oneness of being with that of oneness of appearances (wahdat al-shuhud): a mystic who attains the experience of undifferentiated consciousness should not call this experience “oneness of being” but rather “oneness of appearances,” because God, “without questioning how,” could neither be experienced nor comprehended. Sirhind! thus brought together independence from the law compendia and a theologically acceptable, albeit diminished mysticism. [See the biography of Strhindi.]

In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the new combination of legal independence and diminished mysticism attracted a number of religious figures who were able to make an impact in some of the more remote provinces of Islamic civilization. These figures acted in a situation of political decentralization from which the Mughal and Ottoman empires began to suffer after several centuries of territorial expansion and the beginning of European political and commercial encroachment. In India Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762) was the first to preach the new brand of Islam to local rulers. Two generations later Ahmad Barelwi (d. 1831) provided the Pathans of the northwestern frontier with a new religious unity in their defense against neighboring Sikhs and Afghans. In Arabia Muhammad ibn `Abd alWahhab (d. 1787), a Najd! educated in mysticism as well as in Ibn Tayrrnyah’s writings, inspired Muhammad ibn Sa’ud (1746-1765) to embark on a campaign of destroying saints’ tombs, renewing legal independence, and unifying Arabia under the nominal authority of the Ottoman sultan. [See the biographies of Wali Allah, Barelwi, and Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab.]

Reform and Revolution. The English colonial takeover in India (1784) and the French or English military invasions of Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria (1798-1830) shocked the surviving Muslim rulers into the realization that their only chance for preserving independence was a recentralization of power. The Ottoman and Moroccan sultans, Egyptian and Tunisian viceregents, and Iranian shahs struggled to adopt Western military technology in an attempt to reverse the decentralization process of the previous century and regain sovereignty. Administrative and legal reforms followed, and a small number of professionals emerged-the officers, diplomats, engineers, doctors, and journalists who were to become the vanguard of modernization in Islamic civilization.

In the past, civilizations of Europe and Asia had borrowed from each other without experiencing major cultural and social disruptions. Christians rediscovered Aristotle via Muslim philosophers in the twelfth century; Muslims adopted Western firearms technology in the fourteenth; and neither found themselves compelled to transform the foundations of their civilization because of these borrowings. In the Islamic countries of the nineteenth century, however, cultural and social disruptions proved to be unavoidable. After all, the West itself, in the course of its scientific-industrial revolution during the previous two centuries, had undergone the profound cultural transformation we call “modernity.”

At the heart of this ascendant modernity in the West was the ideology of mechanism, according to which reality was atomic in structure and fully determined by the laws of motion. These laws were “rational,” that is, they followed the rule of the excluded middle in formal logic. Since all atoms were equal to each other, the new principle of justice was equality, under which all traditional hierarchical institutions were viewed as “irrational” and had to be replaced by democratic structures. Religion, one of the traditional institutions, was required to be “rationalized” in order to escape the anathema of “irrationality.” By the mid-nineteenth century the ideology of modernity had become dominant in England and was well on its way to conquering the Continent and the New World.

Among Muslims the first reaction to the pressures of Western modernity in the mid-nineteenth century was the discovery of rationality in an Islamic civilization that had somehow failed to produce modernity by itself. The most prominent representative of “Islamic rationalism” was the mystically educated Iranian ShN Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), an indefatigable orator in the lecture halls, coffee houses, and salons of the Islamic world from India to Cairo and Istanbul. Central to his thought was the notion that reason (`aql) once reigned supreme in Islamic religion, philosophy, and science, but it was later disfigured by fanaticism (ta`assub) and tyranny (istibddd), thereby causing stagnation in Islam. Only through a return to the original thinkers, said Afghani, would Muslims be able to modernize themselves on their own, without having to undergo the humiliation of European colonialism.

Afghani never identified the fanatics and tyrants with any precision, although he blamed the authors of the twelfth-century legal compendia for their excessive conservatism. But since he also held up Muslims from

Muhammad to Mulla $adra (d. 164o) as paragons of rationality, as one would expect from an intellectual deeply steeped in mysticism, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact period in Islamic history when fanaticism and tyranny supposedly overpowered reason. Furthermore, by explicitly including mysticism in his definition of rationality, Afghani remained within he mainstream of classical Islamic thought. Although he made the concept of rationality thematic, his interpretation remained fundamentally different from that of Western modernity. [See the biography of Afghani]

At the same time, in the Sunni part of the Islamic world politicians carried the modernization of Islam much further. Their interest in the establishment of an efficient centralized administration functioning according to the principles of what Max Weber later called “goal-oriented rationality” naturally led them to clean up what appeared to them as the mumbo-jumbo of mysticism and to subject the leadership of the brotherhoods and shrines to state control. They thereby established the modern, “rational” equivalent of the former caliphal caesaropapism.

Egypt is a typical case. Here state administrators were appointed in 1812 to supervise all brotherhoods, as well as al-Azhar University, which had previously been autonomous. Subsequent regulations issued in 1.881, 1895 and 1905 reduced the number of processions and pilgrimages. Customary practices such as self-flagellation or the eating of burning coals, glass, and serpents were abolished. Drumming, singing, twirling, and leaping during an ecstatic session (hadrah) were outlawed. The contemplative litanies (sg., dhikr) had to be purged of all words requiring panting. Strict administrative and financial controls were imposed on the brotherhoods. Thus, step by step, formerly autonomous religious institutions were rationalized and incorporated into the state, at least on paper.

In the early 18gos the direct and indirect disciples of Afghani, loosely grouped in a movement devoted to a “return to the ancestors (salaf),” joined government efforts at religious reform. The most prominent figure in this movement (the Salafiyah), was Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian educated in mysticism, theology, and law, who was a member of the administrative council of al-Azhar and the grand mufti for the religious courts, both since 1882 under the protectorate authority of Great Britain. [See Salafiyah.]

In 1905 `Abduh published his Essay on Oneness (Risdlat al-tawhid), a restatement of al-Ash`ari’s theology of “without questioning how.” With this explicit return to the formative period he inaugurated the modern reformist program of rationalizing Islam. God, according to `Abduh, revealed himself through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad, an upright but not saintly human being, and called him to lead a corrupt society back to the path of righteousness. The Prophet succeeded through the rational persuasiveness of his message; no miracles were necessary. Even though `Abduh as a former mystic was willing to admit the existence of “knowers” (`urafd’) of God, he left no doubt that mysticism and sainthood had no place in rational Islam. That Ash’ari’s “without questioning how” nevertheless constitutes an ultimate residue of irrationality according to the either/or logic of modernity is passed over in silence. [See the biography of `Abduh.]

The efforts at rationalizing mysticism by the centralizing governments and at creating a rational Islam by reformist intellectuals did not produce immediate results in the general population. It is true that the Republic of Turkey, which succeeded the Ottoman Empire in 1921, outlawed the brotherhoods; moreover, in many countries modern education was expanded during the interwar period. But the great mass of the population remained ensconced in its traditional rural employments until well after World War II. The peasants saw no reasons voluntarily to desert their local brotherhoods or the saints who continued to heal them of afflictions, end droughts, and bless fields and women with fertility. Even when some rurals began to migrate to towns and cities in the 192os as a result of administrative urbanization and early industrial ventures, most joined urban brotherhoods.

Nevertheless, during the interwar period reformed Islam began to attract a few converts in urban areas, mostly from the ranks of modern-educated midlevel employees in the administration or services. These converts were organized in a number of private educational, social action, and welfare organizations founded by a new generation of Salafiyah intellectuals who were impatient with `Abduh’s reform from within and wished to return to the anticaesaropapist tradition of Sunni Islam. Characteristically, whereas Afghani and `Abduh were still steeped in the mystical tradition, the new generation represented a transitional group no longer fully at home in it.

Among these intellectuals was the Egyptian Hasan alBanna’ (1906-1949), founder in 1928 of the Society of Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan al-Muslimun), who had roots in the Hasafiyah brotherhood. The Algerian `Abd alHamid Ibn Bad-is (1889-1940), founder of the Association of Religious Scholars ((Jam’iyat al-`Ulama’) in 1931, was familiar with mysticism only as an academic subject during his studies at Zaytunah University in Tunis. However, Abu al-A’15 Mawdudi (1903-1979), founder of the Indian (later Pakistani) Islamic Association (Jama’at-i Islam!) in 1941, was a failed university student before becoming a journalist and self-taught Islamic reformer. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was a modern-educated schoolteacher who had spent time as a postgraduate in the United States before he assumed, in 1951, the directorship of propaganda (da’wah) in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever their backgrounds, these activists considered themselves as modern, practical, goal-oriented Muslims in contrast to what they regarded the irrational Islam of mysticism. [See also Muslim Brotherhood; Zaytunah; and the biographies of the figures mentioned in this paragraph.]

When colonialism ended in the Islamic world after World War II (beginning with Pakistan in 1947 and culminating with Algeria in 1962), the new governments were no more willing than the older ones to accept autonomous religious and legal establishments. Islam in its reformed version became the official or privileged religion (except in Lebanon and a number of sub-Saharan African and East Asian countries) and as such was taught in the systems of compulsory primary education. Ambitious state industrialization plans were adopted, and a massive urbanization process was set into motion; together with compulsory education, these became potent forces of religious change.

This change became manifest in the 1970s when the first postcolonial generation of Muslims with a modern education graduated from primary school. These young urban Muslims were completely divorced from the heritage of the brotherhoods, which now, for the first time in more than five hundred years, were reduced to marginal status in society. To be sure, mysticism is still today a force in Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and Sudan below the middle-class levels of society, but Islamic reform has become socially and culturally dominant.

Without mysticism the contemporary adherents of reformed Islam, or Islamists as they are generally called, are caught in two intellectual dilemmas. First, even though during the European Enlightenment (165018oo) modernity began with demands for a rational religion, once religion was rationalized with the help of the bivalent formal logic of either/or, this logic could easily be turned against religion altogether. Either everything, including God, is explicable, or it is not-and if not, why should something inexplicable be believed in? Islamists inevitably find themselves on the defensive against secular modernists who push this logic to its full agnostic consequences.

Second, since Islamists can no longer fall back on mysticism and are unwilling to accept multivalent logic with its broader definition of rationality, theirs is a rather narrow world. They share this world with the secular modernists, who are similarly narrow. Both are correct in concluding that organized mysticism in its traditional sense of brotherhoods and saintliness is now beyond resurrection. In fact, it is even difficult to imagine how the spiritual mysticism of Ibn al-`Arabi or Mulls Sadra, with its classical metaphysical vocabulary, can be revived. Nevertheless, without the adoption of some form of multivalence the Islamists will not be able to accommodate all faithful Muslims.

For the time being, the freshness of the Islamist phenomenon still obscures its intellectual dilemmas. The Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, although itself the result of a decade of preparation, is less than half a generation old. Its leader Ruhollah Khomeini (i9o21989) was extraordinarily inspiring in confronting the “either” of secular modernity with an attractive religious “or” building on existing anti-imperialist resentments. The West (especially the United States), according to Khomeini, has become the contemporary embodiment of Satan by creating the “oppressed” (mustad’afun, Qur’an 4.75, 98) of the Third World. Since Satan exists, so must God, whether he is incomprehensible or not; hence it is only a return to divine law (the shari `ah) that will restore dignity and justice to the oppressed. [See Mustad’afun and the biography of Khomeini.]

In the Iranian revolutionary constitution divine law is under the protection of the regime of the leading legal scholar (veldyet-i fagih; Ar., wildyat al fagih), who is assisted by the counsel (shurd) of the lesser scholars in an elective assembly (majlis). Together they interpret the law and issue rulings of absolute (mutlaq) binding power so that opposition to these rulings equals apostasy. This elevation of a single scholar to the position of supreme legal authority is quite unprecedented in ShN Islam, where in the absence of the Mahdi leadership is supposed to be exercised by the shah and the collective of religious scholars. This power of the leading scholar is mitigated, of course, by the institution of parliament. [See Wilayat al-Fagih; Majlis.]

Khomeini resembled the early reformers in another respect: he was fully educated in the unadulturated “oneness of being” tradition descending from Ibn al’Arab! to Mulls Sadra. As a young religious scholar in Qom during the 192os, he composed several commentaries on mysticism that earned him the hostility and later jealousy of his reform-minded colleagues. Although practical constitutional concerns dominated Khomeini’s thinking in the i 98os, he nevertheless remained faithful to his mystical antecedents, as is exemplified by the reissue of his commentaries in 1982-1986 and by his curious letter to Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1989 extolling the superiority of Ibn al-`Arabi’s spirituality over Marxist materialism. This stern man, unpredictably pragmatic as well as otherworldly, dared his less knowledgeable contemporaries to challenge him on a field of Islam the definition of which he reserved to himself- reformist mutterings about the alleged irrationality of his mystical convictions notwithstanding.

Even though Khomeini personally succeeded with a revolution al-Afghani only dreamed of, his achievements will be fuel for scholarly debate for years to come. His own broadly inclusive Islam of the classical period was no longer alive for the majority of Iranians, and the revolution certainly was unable to resuscitate it. The revolutionary epigones of Khomeini in both the Slu’i and Sunni parts of the Islamic world face the much less exalted task of convincing Muslims of the superiority of a religious over a secular modernity. Meanwhile, the nonrevolutionary majority of Muslims range themselves somewhere in the undefined middle, intuitively aware that rationality transcends facile either/ors.

[Each country of the Middle East and North Africa is the subject of an independent entry.]


General Surveys

A good concise overview of the evolution of Islam is Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, vol. 1, The Formative Period, and vol. 2, The Contemporary Period (London, 1990-1993). Formative and classical Islam are discussed from the perspective of mysticism in Henry Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy (London, 1993; French original, 1964). Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion (London, 1992), addresses the dilemmas of “rational” Islam in modernity from a comparative vantage point. A wellinformed, detailed overview of the contemporary currents in Islam is Reinhard Schulze, Islamischer Internationalismus im 20. Yahrhundert (Leiden, 1990). Reformed Islam in its historical evolution is discussed by John Obert Vol], Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (Boulder, 1982), and in its social setting (in the Arab Middle East) by Michael Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab World (New York, 1982).

Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

Revelation and Theology

Volume 1 of Rippin (above) contains an evaluation of the form-critical method (first applied by John Wansbrough) and its results in the study of the sacred story of Islam (e.g., Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Yehuda D. Nevo). The most up-to-date and complete discussion of al-Ash’ari’s theology is Daniel Gimaret, La doctrine d’al-Ash’ari (Paris, 1990).


Ibn al-`Arabi’s complex thought is expertly considered by William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-`Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany, N.Y., 1989). Ibn Taymiyah has yet to find his critical intellectual biographer; his attitude toward mysticism is accessible through Ibn Taimiya’s Struggle against Popular Religion, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon (The Hague, 1983). On Islamic law in the classical period; see Wael B. Hallaq, “Was the Gate of ljtihad Closed?” and “On the Authoritativeness of Sunni Consensus,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16.1 (1984): 3-41, 18.4 (1986): 427-454. The controversy over the beginnings of reformed Islam (did it begin in some Islamic provinces during the eighteenth century?) is examined in Nehemia Levtzion and John Obert Voll, eds., Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam (Syracuse, N.Y., 1987), and R. S. O’Fahey, Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad Ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition (Evanston, Ill., 1990).

Reform and Revolution

The standard biography of al-Afghani is Nikki R. Keddie, Sayyid Ja-mal al-Din “al-Afghani”: A Political Biography (Berkeley, 1968). On the reform of Islam by the Egyptian state, see F. de Jong, Turuq and Turuq-Linked Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Leiden, 1978). Muhammad `Abduh’s Risalat al-tawhid is available in English under the title The Theology of Unity, translated by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg (New York, 198o). His standard intellectual biography is by Charles C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt (New York, 1968). The interwar and early post-World War II reform movements are covered by Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London, 1969); Ali Merad, Le riformisme musulman en Algerie de 1925 d 1940: Essai d’histoire religieuse et sociale (Paris, 1967); Sheila McDonough, Muslim Ethics and Modernity: A Comparison of the Ethical Thought of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Mawlana Mawdudi (Waterloo, Ont., 1984); and Ahmad S. Moussalli, Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb (Beirut, 1992). The most detailed study on Iranian Islamic revolutionism is by Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York, 1993). Khomeini’s mysticism has been studied by Alexander Knysh, “Irfan Revisited: Khomeini and the Legacy of Islamic Mystical Philosophy,” Middle East Journal 46 (1992): 631-653. The literature on contemporary (including revolutionary) Islam is immense. A few books stand out: John L. Esposito, Islam and Politics, 3d ed. (Syracuse, N.Y., 1991); Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh, translated by John Rothschild (Berkeley, 1985); and Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven, 1990).


The history of Islam in Africa is almost as old as the history of the religion itself. Islam may have arrived in Ethiopia even before the beginning of the Islamic calendar era, when a few believers, persecuted in Mecca, crossed the Red Sea and went to the Habash of Abyssinia in search of asylum. Ethiopians celebrate this event to the present day.

Islam’s earliest African convert may have been Bilal (Bilal ibn Rabah), the slave who was freed as a result of the Prophet’s intervention. Bilal became the first muezzin in Islamic history and a favorite companion of the prophet Muhammad.

Cultural Diffusion: Religion and Language. With the Arab conquest of North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries CE, two processes were set in motion that have remained of relevance for Africa as a whole ever since-the processes of islamization and arabization. Islamization was the gradual transmission of the Islamic religion as more and more conquered peoples embraced the faith. Arabization was the transmission of the Arabic language. Arabization in North Africa took much longer than islamization, but when North Africans became native speakers of Arabic, it was only a matter of time before they came to identify themselves as indeed Arabs. It was not just their language, it was their very identity.

Up the Nile Valley, the twin processes of islamization and arabization continued. Increasing numbers of northern Sudanese were not only converted to Islam, but increasingly saw themselves as part of the Arab world. The Arabic language became their mother tongue, long after Islam had become their faith.

The establishment of British control in the Sudan (1898-1955) slowed down the processes of islamization and arabization farther south; southern Sudan was effectively insulated from the arabized north on British orders. Christianization was encouraged in the south, but islamization was essentially banned. The foundations of a religious apartheid system were being laid under British control.

This ethnoreligious compartmentalization had devastating consequences after Sudan’s independence in 1955 The first Sudanese civil war between north and south lasted from 1955 until 1972 and was widely perceived as a war between the Arabo-Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. The second Sudanese civil war broke out in 1983, partly in protest against President Ja’far Nimeiri’s decision to make Islam the state religion and the shari’ ah the law of the land. The southern military leader, Colonel John Garang, continued to rebel against the north despite the overthrow of Nimeiri and the succession of other regimes in Khartoum. Islam was further consolidated politically under the government of General `Umar Hasan Ahmad alBashir.

Despite the war, the Arabic language continued to spread in southern Sudan. Indeed, this was probably the only part of sub-Saharan Africa where arabization proceeded faster than islamization. Elsewhere, it was the religion rather than the language that was making the greatest inroads into African life.

In southern Africa, and especially in South Africa, Islam arrived as a victim. The importation of Muslim Malay slaves into South Africa in the eighteenth century created a distinct context for the religion in subsequent generations. While Islam in northern Africa was brought directly by the Arabs, Islam in southern Africa was partly a legacy of Southeast and South Asians. In North Africa Muslim majorities lived with deepening westernization; in southern Africa, Muslim minorities later experienced even more rapid westernization. For North Africa this westernization had come mainly through the region’s proximity to Europe and colonization; for southern Africa it occurred mainly through the massive white settlement locally, despite the region’s remoteness from Europe. Finally, in southern Africa there was islamization without any significant arabization.

East and West Africa also present contrasting models of islamization. Basil Davidson has argued that Islam in sub-Saharan Africa owed “nothing to Arab conquest but much to Berber influence.” The trans-Saharan trade went back to pre-Phoenician times and had resulted in the settlement of Berber communities in parts of West Africa. But later, “Islam could more effectively bind all these communities together,” whether in Sudanic Africa, the connecting oases, or North Africa (Africa in History, New York, 1991, p. 134).

Davidson does concede that there were two major Moroccan military invasions, the destructive Almoravid raids of the eleventh century and the Moroccan invasion of Songhay in 1591. But these incursions from the north did not help Islam in West Africa and, according to Davidson, might even have undermined it. Of more lasting significance was the quiet spread of Islam as a result of Berber settlements, trans-Saharan trade, and the broader historical intercourse between the Berber peoples and their Southern neighbors. It was not the sword of the Arab but rather the socializing of the Berber that laid the foundations of Islam in West Africa.

By contrast, in East Africa the Arab factor has been pronounced in the arrival and expansion of Islam from the earliest days into the twentieth century. Major religious leaders were overwhelmingly people who claimed Arab descent, if not indeed descent from the prophet Muhammad himself. One adverse consequence of this Arab leadership was that it prolonged the image of Islam as a “foreign” religion. Another was that Arab leadership inhibited the emergence of dynamic indigenous African Muslim leaders, in contrast to the towering role of local African leaders in West African Muslim affairs. This may be why Islam in West Africa continued to expand numerically and geographically even under the dominion of Christian imperialist powers, while its spread in present-day Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda was arrested because the foundations of the religion in the hinterland had not yet been adequately africanized.

In earlier centuries Islam in both West Africa and East Africa had been a major spur in state formation. In West Africa these included the imperial states of Kanem-Bornu (thirteenth to nineteenth centuries), Mali (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), and Songhay (fourteenth to sixteenth centuries). In East Africa Swahili city-states such as Kilwa, Pate, and Mombasa lasted until they were disabled by the Portuguese following Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1492. Zanzibar under the Omani Sultanate later fell under British “protection.” The British departed in 1963; in January 1964 a revolution by indigenous Africans (themselves mainly Muslims) overthrew the Arab sultanate.

Islam was also a major force in the history of urbanization. In ancient Mali and Songhay the social tensions were sometimes between the islamized towns and the far less islamized countryside. Monarchs sometimes played the forces of the countryside against the towns; a good example is Sunni `All, ruler of Songhay, in the late fifteenth century.

Agents of Islamic Expansion. Underlying the whole sage of religion and society are the five modes by which Islam has spread in Africa. The most spectacular mode is expansion by conquest. This mainly affected Arab North Africa, which was islamized initially by the sword. Sub-Saharan examples of islamization by conquest are few, but some did take place, as in the case of the Almoravids’ devastating incursions into West Africa from 1052 to 1076. Ibn Khaldun confirms that the conquerors did force Africans to become Muslims, but this harmed the image of Islam rather than helping it. Such invasions are therefore not useful in explaining the spread of Islam: people were subsequently converted despite the memory of the Almoravids.

The second agency for the expansion of Islam was Muslim migration and settlement in non-Muslim areas. Arabs from Yemen and Oman, settling in East Africa, were among the founders of the Swahili civilization in what is today Tanzania and Kenya. The rapid islamization and arabization of North Africa was achieved not only through conquest but also through migration and settlement. Doctrinally, this mode of transmission of the Message goes back to the great hijrah itself, the prophet Muhammad’s own mid-career migration from Mecca to Medina. Migration may sometimes be of victims rather than victors. This is true of the Malay slaves and laborers imported into South Africa, who have kept the flame of Islam burning in South Africa for three hundred years.

The third agency for the spread of Islam was trade, in particular the trans-Saharan trade. The camels that crossed the great desert carried varied commodities in each direction, but perhaps the greatest commodity of all was cultural diffusion-the spread of Islam from North Africa to West Africa especially. Today countries like Guinea, modern Mali, Senegal, and Niger are overwhelmingly Muslim. Arab and Swahili traders in eastern, Central, and southern Africa also played a part in carrying the torch of Islam to parts of what are today Uganda, Zaire, Malawi, and Mozambique.

The fourth agency for the spread of Islam was purposeful missionary work (da’wah). In earlier centuries this was carried on by traveling imams, healers, and teachers. Muslim healers acquired such a reputation that to the present day many of their African patients are non-Muslims, including Christians. Their healing techniques have employed verses of the Qur’an, including the popular prescription of writing out the verse in washable ink on a slate, then washing it into a bowl and having the patient “drink the sacred verse.”

In more recent times Islamic missionary work has included written materials for use in madrasahs and schools. Books or pamphlets have been written in African languages to explain the religion not only to students but also to non-Muslims. Pamphlets in the Swahili language have poured forth from Zanzibar, the Kenyan coast, and the coast of Tanzania. In the twentieth century the Qur’an was translated into Kiswahili, first by the controversial Ahmadiyah movement and later by Sunni scholars. Some Muslims believed that translations of the Qur’an were a sinful imitation of the holy book, but the chief Muslim jurists of East Africa have given fatwas contradicting that doctrine; they have argued that if it is not sinful to translate the Qur’an orally in a sermon in a mosque, it is not sinful to translate it in writing.

In parts of Africa, the most active missionary group for Islam has been the Ahmadiyah movement, founded by the nineteenth-century Indian religious militant Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The movement is widely regarded as heretical by African Muslims and has had a hard time gaining legitimacy in countries such as Nigeria. The main issue is that members of the Ahmadiyah do not regard the prophet Muhammad as the last of the prophets; they only acknowledge him as the greatest. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was, to his followers, a prophet in his own right, though not as great as Muhammad. In Nigeria in the twentieth century the Ahmadiyah have sometimes been denied the privilege of foreign exchange to enable them to make the pilgrimage to Mecca because they were not recognized as Muslims; the Saudi authorities also wanted the Ahmadiyah to be controlled at its source. Nonetheless, the movement continues to be one of the most active missionary forces in Africa. [See Ahmadiyah.]

Sunni and Shi’i missionary work entered a new stage in the second half of the twentieth century with the arrival of oil wealth in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, and other parts of the Muslim world. It became possible for the cause of Islam in Africa to command considerable financial resources. Schools and mosques could be built, clinics were subsidized, and scholarships to study abroad offered. On the whole, this wealth was used not so much to attract new converts as to support the welfare of those who were already Muslims, but there were incentives for new conversions as well. Sunni Islam is still by far the main beneficiary of such conversions, for even Shl’! Iran has sometimes been ready to subsidize Sunni missionary work in Africa in a spirit of Muslim unity. The Isma’ili movement under the leadership of the Aga Khan (more Shi`i than Sunni) sometimes explicitly committed its missionaries to the propagation of Sunni Islam rather than of its own denomination. The fifth and last agency in Africa’s historical experience has been periodic revivalist movements. These may take the form of an internal, morally purifying jihad, or they may occur under the leadership of a self-proclaimed Mahdi. Among the most spectacular of these revivalist movements were those that unleashed the jihad led by Usuman dan Fodio in what is today Nigeria. Inspired in part by a glorified vision of the ‘Abbasid dynasty centuries earlier, the nineteenth-century Mahdist movement partook of both revivalism and conquest. Its long-term consequence was the relative unification of much of Hausaland, formerly a loose and contentious federation, under a single sovereign. Usuman’s son, Muhammad Bello, became the first amir al Mu`minin (commander of the faithful) in the region, and Islam expanded under his control. [Seethe biography of Dan Fodio. ]

Also notable was the movement in eastern Sudan led by Muhammad Ahmad ibn `Abd Allah. This Muslim reformation started in 1881 in the wake of many years of Turco-Egyptian rule, compounded by British manipulation. Unlike Dan Fodio’s jihad, that of Muhammad Ahmad was also a struggle for national independence; religious revivalism intertwined with political nationalism. Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, appointed by God to reunite the Muslim ummah. His vision extended well beyond the Sudan; in a sense, he wanted to fuse Pan-Islamism with Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism. His dream was too big for his base, and too vulnerable to the new European imperialism, and his movement was finally defeated, but his religious and political legacy lives on in the political configuration of the Sudan. [See Mahdi; Mahdiyah.]

In Africa since independence two issues have been central to religious speculation-Islamic expansion and Islamic revivalism. Expansion involves the spread of religion and the number of new converts; revivalism calls for a rebirth of faith among those who are already Muslims. Expansion is a matter of geography and populations, while revivalism is a matter of history and nostalgia. The spread of Islam in postcolonial Africa is basically a peaceful process of persuasion and consent, but its revival is often an angry process of rediscovered fundamentalism.

In sub-Saharan Africa the central issue concerning Islam is not the revivalism that has created such strife in North Africa, but rather the speed of Islamic expansion. It is not often realized that there are more Muslims in Nigeria alone than in any Arab country, including Egypt. Muslims in Ethiopia constitute nearly half of the population. Islam in South Africa is three centuries old; the four most populous countries in Africa-Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Zaire-account for well over 120 million Muslims. Nearly half the population of the continent is now Muslim.

Eclecticism and Missionary Competition. Of the three principal religious traditions of Africa-indigenous, Islamic, and Christian-perhaps the most tolerant is the indigenous tradition. Precisely because the two latter faiths are universalist in aspiration, seeking to convert the whole of humanity, they are inherently competitive; Christianity and Islam have often been in competition for the soul of the African continent, and this rivalry has sometimes resulted in conflict.

Indigenous African religions, by contrast, are basically communal rather than universalist. Like Hinduism and modern Judaism-and unlike Christianity and Islam-indigenous African traditions have not sought to convert humanity. Thus they do not compete with one another. The Yoruba do not seek to convert the Igbo to Yoruba religion, nor vice versa; nor do either the Yoruba or the Igbo compete for the souls of the Hausa. Over the centuries Africans have waged many kinds of wars among themselves, but before the universalist creeds arrived hardly ever religious ones.

In contemporary Africa, indigenous tolerance has often mitigated the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam. An example is Senegal, which is more than 8o percent Muslim. Its Christian founder-president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, presided over postcolonial Senegal for two decades in political partnership with the Muslim leaders of the country, the marabouts. His designated successor was Abdou Diouf, a Muslim married to a Roman Catholic, and several of Diouf’s ministers are Christian. Senegalese religious tolerance has also continued in other spheres. What in other Islamic countries might be regarded as provocative has been tolerated in Senegal. A Christian festival such as a First Communion, accompanied by feasting, merrymaking, and singing, may be publicly held in Dakar in the middle of the Islamic fast of Ramadan, and the Christian merrymakers left undisturbed (Susan MacDonald, “Senegal: Islam on the March,” West Africa 3494 [6 August 1984] P. 1570).

Predominantly Muslim countries south of the Sahara have in general been above average in religious tolerance. The capacity to accommodate other faiths may be part of the historical Islamic tradition in multireligious empires, but far more tolerant have been indigenous African traditions. In Black Africa this indigenous tolerance has often moderated the competitive propensities of Christianity and Islam.

The former president of Uganda, Milton Obote (a Protestant), used to boast that his extended family in Lango consisted of Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants “at peace with each other.” Obote’s successor, Idi Amin Dada (a Muslim), had a similarly multirefigious extended family and once declared that he planned to have at least one of his sons trained for the Christian priesthood. However, Amin’s general record was not one of tolerance. Eventually, he found political refuge in Saudi Arabia as a guest of the custodians of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Tanzania’s population has a Muslim plurality, but Roman Catholic Julius K. Nyerere dominated the nation as president from 1961 to 1985 with no challenge to his religious credentials. His successor as president, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, is Muslim; Nyerere remained head of the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi. A truly ecumenical Tanzania was forged-a Muslim head of state was accompanied by a Christian head of the ruling party. Once again the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam was moderated by the more tolerant tendencies of indigenous African culture. (However, Muslim Tanzanians accepted Christian leadership more graciously than Christian Tanzanians have accepted Muslim leadership.)

The nearest that Islam has come to providing a secretary-general of the United Nations was when Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania was a candidate. Later Salim became secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity. The most important Muslim in the history of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was Ahmadou-Mahtar M’Bow of Senegal, who served as director-general from 1974 to 1987. He was both the highest-ranking African and the highest-ranking Muslim in the United Nations system. M’Bow became a controversial figure; the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore withdrew from UNESCO partly in protest against his leadership. However, his regime brought UNESCO much closer to Third World concerns than it had ever been. In both Salim’s and M’Bow’s cases, African and Muslim aspirations for leadership in the United Nations were obstructed by the United States in the face of broadly based African support.

Nonetheless, there are situations in Africa when even indigenous culture fails to ameliorate religious divisions between Christians and Muslims. This is true of the north/south divide in Sudan, with an overwhelmingly Muslim and arabized north and a Christian-led black southern region; the religious differences have reinforced other historical, cultural, and ethnic divisions. Similar ethnoreligious cleavages in postcolonial Africa have manifested themselves from time to time in Ethiopia, Chad, and Nigeria. When the Christian/Islamic divide coincides with ethnic frontiers, the competitiveness of Christianity and Islam overwhelms the natural ecumenism of indigenous Africa.

In his book Consciencism Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founder-president, traced the genesis of the contemporary African heritage to these three forces-indigenous traditions, Islam, and what Nkrumah called the “EuroChristian impact.” It was the synthesis of these three forces that Nkrumah called “Consciencism.” These three forces are sometimes mutually supportive, sometimes antagonistic, and sometimes independent, parallel lines in a nation’s history. One must distinguish between Western religious impact on a country like Nigeria (in the form of Christianity) and Western secular impact, which ranges from capitalism to the English language. Let us take the religious domain first.

What is the balance between Muslims, Christians and followers of African traditional religions? The situation in Nigeria provides an important case study. The hardest figure to estimate is the third, partly because African traditional religion can be combined with either Christianity or Islam. Millions of Nigerians follow both indigenous religions and Christianity; further millions of Nigerians are both traditionalist and Muslims. Beyond this, many Nigerian intellectuals empathize with Kwame Nkrumah’s affirmation, “I am a MarxistLeninist and a non-denominational Christian and I see no contradiction in that.” Postcolonial Muslim countries such as Guinea, Algeria, Iraq, and Somalia have produced hybrid Muslim-Marxists; some would describe the Nigerian scholar Bala Usman as such. But can one be both a Muslim and Christian? Here lies the rigid line of mutual exclusivity. Although Christianity and Islam are much closer to each other than either is to Marxism or African traditional religion, in reality the two Semitic religions tend to be mutually exclusive.

There are occasions when African Muslims are tempted to say “The best way of being a Christian is to be a Muslim.” This is because Jesus is a major figure in Islam. Muslims recognize the virgin birth of Jesus and accept many of the miracles he performed; they accept the bodily ascent of Jesus to heaven on the completion of his earthly career. But although theoretically Islam does encompass a version of Christianity, in reality no Muslim is likely to describe himself as a Christian, or vice versa. What does combine easily with other creeds are African traditional religions.

Imperative of Expansionism. Because of the syncretism discussed above, it is difficult to quantify the followers of the indigenous tradition in Africa’s religious experience. With regard to the number of Christians and Muslims in postcolonial Nigeria, the most reliable percentages recognized by the outside world were based on the 1963 census, which gave 47 percent of Nigerians as Muslim and 35 percent as Christian. Since 1963 the balance may have changed. We have no current and reliable figures for Nigeria, but on the basis of experience elsewhere in Africa, the end of colonial rule slowed the spread of Christianity without necessarily slowing that of Islam.

On the whole, colonial rule was favorable to Christian expansion, so its end was bound to be costly to Christianity, at least in the short run. The factors that slowed the spread of Christianity after Nigerian independence included the postcolonial decline of the prestige of Western civilization in Africa, the decline of the influence of Christian missionaries, and the shift in Christian missionary focus from commitment to salvation in the hereafter to commitment to service in the here and now. In addition, the postcolonial prosperity of oil-rich Arab countries has given Islam resources for missionary work in Africa that are unprecedented in modern Islamic history. Islam is beginning to be economically competitive with Christianity in the rivalry for the soul of Africa.

Although in the competition between Islam and Christianity in Nigeria Islam may be winning, in the competition between Islam and secular westernization, Islam is probably losing for the time being. The greatest threat to Islam is not the Passion on the Cross but the ecstasy of Western materialism; it is not the message of Jesus but the gospel of modernity; it is not the church with a European face but capitalism in Western robes. As young Nigerian Muslims are mesmerized by disco music and the nightclub, their faith is endangered more than by a Christian preacher. Western materialism is a greater threat to African Islam than is Western Christianity.

The strongest and most resilient indigenous culture in West Africa may well be Yoruba culture; it is certainly the most persistent of the three major heritages of Nigeria. Igbo society has been all too ready to be westernized; Hausa society has been all too ready to be Islamized. Yoruba culture, however, has absorbed both westernization and Islam and still insisted on the supremacy of the indigenous. Christianized Yoruba are usually Yoruba first and Christians second; islamized Yoruba are usually Yoruba first and Muslims second. No system of values in Nigeria has shown greater indigenous resilience than the Yoruba.

The best illustration in Nigeria of Islam triumphant is among the Hausa-Fulani, and of westernization triumphant, among the Igbo. But the best illustration in Nigeria of the triple heritage at work-with the indigenous as the first among equals-is the Yoruba experience. Yorubaland is capable of producing distinguished westernized scientists with startling tribal facial scarifications, or remarkable commodities for traditional medicine and sorcery sold alongside both the Qur’an and the Christian Bible in the streets of Ibadan. On the other hand, if Nigeria consisted of only these three major groups, the Islamic factor would predominate more clearly. The alliance between Hausa-Fulani Islam and Yoruba Islam would have overwhelmed any alliance between Igbo Christianity and Yoruba Christianity in the postcolonial era. However, among the smaller minority peoples of Nigeria the balance tilts in favor of Christianity and indigenous religions. The small ethnic groups were once the least alienated of all the groups, but they were also among the most exposed to Christian missionaries. The minorities exhibit some of the purest forms of Africanity and some of the most westernized.

The three forms of power in Nigeria have been economic and educational power, held for a while by Ibo and Yoruba; political power, held for a while by northerners under Hausa-Fulani leadership; and military power, held subtly and sometimes unknowingly by minority groups. The first to recognize their own power were the Igbo and Yoruba. Well before independence, the Igbo and Yoruba saw that they stood a chance of inheriting Nigeria because of their economic skills and Western educational qualifications. The Hausa-Fulani were slower in recognizing the political power of their own numerical superiority. On the eve of independence the Muslim north was so nervous about southern power that there was a strong separatist sentiment among the Hausa-Fulani. It was not the Igbo who were first tempted by secession, but the Muslim north. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo began to worry that Nigeria was going to be another India, partitioned along religious lines. These Nigerian leaders, and even Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, began to condemn what they called “Pakistanism.”

This meant that southerners in Nigeria were very selfconfident, while northerners were insecure and nervous about independence. However, within a few years the North became increasingly self-confident, while the south was frustrated and insecure.

Some writers have attributed this reversal of fortune to the brilliant regional leadership of Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. The former editor of West Africa magazine, David Williams once put it in the following terms:

When the Sardauna of Sokoto entered party politics in 1951 . . . the leading politicians of Nigeria’s then northern region were convinced that their own region . . . was threatened by political and even economic domination by the two Southern regions.

When he was assassinated in 1966 the politicians in the Southern regions were denouncing political domination by `the north.’ It was the towering personality and political skill of the Sardauna . . . which produced this reversal. (Financial Times, 24 February 1986)

Before long separatist sentiment became a characteristic of the south rather than the north-“Pakistanism” in reverse. Southern separatism took its most tragic form in Biafra’s bid to secede. The latest version of southern separatism is captured in the debate about confederation, a looser form of Nigerian union. The ghost of “Pakistanism” has been changing shape. The south is still self-confident and strong economically and educationally, but it has become insecure politically.

The last groups to discover their power are the minorities of Nigeria, the smaller ethnic groups. This selfdiscovery began during the civil war under General Yakubu Gowon’s administration and gathered momentum during the 1970s. But self-discovery can sometimes result in precipitate acts of self-assertion; this is one possible interpretation of the “Dimka affair” and the events that resulted in the assassination of President Murtala Muhammed in 1976. The minorities had been a sleeping giant without realizing it. The new awakening has had brief moments of danger, but the power is becoming domesticated.

Islam and Foreign Policy. The triple heritage affects foreign policy as well as domestic politics. Among African regions, the best illustration of the triple heritage is West Africa. Here the three forces of indigenous Africanity, Islamic culture and the Western impact are truly balanced as can be seen in the Nigerian experience. Nigeria’s policy toward the Middle East and the Arab

Israeli conflict has certainly been affected by its triple heritage within Nigeria. Some Nigerian Christians tend to support Israel, sometimes forgetting that there are more Christians among Palestinians than among Israelis. Again, it is ironic that Nigerians who favor a secular state at home support Israeli interests, when it has been Palestinians who demand a secular state encompassing Christians, Muslims and Jews. Israel, on the other hand, is not a secular state. Nonetheless, many Nigerian Christians give special support to Israel, and much of the explanation lies in the tensions of the triple heritage-especially the latent stresses in relationships between Nigerian Muslims and Nigerian Christians. Muslim attitudes to Israel are probably inherent in their being Muslim, but Christian attitudes to Israel are a reflection of the domestic politics of Nigeria.

Two issues arose when Nigeria applied for and was admitted to full membership of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). One issue concerned the method by which admission was sought and then announced. The other issue concerned the legitimacy of Nigeria’s membership in itself. The method of application and announcement was a matter of style; what was a matter of substance was whether or not Nigeria’s membership was legitimate or defensible. There was first the question of short-term defensibility. Did former president Ibrahim Babangida’s effort to have a more regionally representative Armed Forces Ruling Council and other powerful institutions go too far for Muslim Nigerians? Had the balance in the governing bodies tilted in favor of Christians? If so, there could have been a short-term advantage in compensating Nigerian Muslims with a foreign policy bonus like membership in the OIC. In the long term, however, some question whether a secular state such as Nigeria can afford to be a member of a religious organization like the OIC. [See Organization of the Islamic Conference.]

Christian Strategies in Nigeria. Aspects of Christian culture have been incorporated into Nigeria’s national lifestyle almost unnoticed. The Christian sabbath Sunday and its eve Saturday are days of rest nationally, but the Muslim sabbath, Friday, is not. The national calendar of Nigeria is the Euro-Christian Gregorian calendar; the timetable for the nation’s business is never worked out on the basis of the Islamic calendar. Nigeria’s Independence Day falls on a different day according to the Islamic calendar than according to the Christian, but it is always celebrated according to the latter. The criminal law of Nigeria, and much of the civil law, partly on Euro-Christian concepts of justice. form of cultural domination lies in the preferEnglish over Hausa as the official language of

Nigeria. Theoretically, upon independence the country could have either chosen the indigenous language with the biggest number of speakers, Hausa, or the language of the departing imperial power, English. Or Nigeria could have adopted both Hausa (the numerically preponderant) and English (the politically convenient) as national languages. Countries that have sought compromises of this kind include Tanzania and Kenya (Swahili and English), and Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco (French and Arabic).

For understandable political reasons, independent Nigeria preferred the functionally convenient English language to the numerically preponderant Hausa language. The Hausa language is saturated with Islamic imagery, expressions, and concepts; English has been deeply influenced by Christian civilization. From a religious point of view, the adoption of English as a national language has had consequences vastly different from what would have ensued upon the adoption of Hausa. Hausa would have introduced non-Muslim Nigerians to wider Islamic perspectives, but English has instead introduced non-Christian Nigerians to Euro-Christian literature and idiomatic Christian-influenced usage.

Islam between Revivalism and Expansion. Islamic revivalism in postcolonial Africa has had contradictory causes. Sometimes it has arisen out of economic disadvantage and desperation, almost echoing Karl Marx’s portrayal of religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature and the soul of soulless conditions.” At its most dramatic in postcolonial Africa, Islamic revivalism has emerged out of famine and drought, as if the physical barrenness of the soil has given rise to spiritual fertility. Susan MacDonald notes, in discussing Senegal and the Sahel, that “Persistent drought and the spreading desert have caused poverty, misery and hardship. This diversity has created a favourable terrain for increased religious fervour” (op cit., p. 1568).

Islamic revivalism in Muslim Ethiopia and Somalia was at one time a consequence of drought and famine. While in the 1960s and 1970s Somali poets sang about the ravages of “amputation” (lamenting the political fragmentation of the Somali nation and dreaming of reunification), poets and writers of the 1980s like Nuruddin Farah have lamented the agonies of hunger and deprivation, as well as the curse of domestic tyranny. Problems of political and economic refugees have merged. By the 1990s, the poets lamented anarchy and banditry in Somalia.

In Sudan Islamic revivalism has also drawn sustenance from social and economic deprivation. Nimeiri’s declaration of the shad `ah was partly in response to new hardships in the country in the 1980s and to the regime’s need for new allies among orthodox Muslims. The Bashir regime subsequently took the crusade of Islamization even further.

On the other hand, Islamic reformers in search of new interpretations were more vulnerable to fundamentalists than ever. The most dramatic martyrdom of an Islamic reformer in Sudan was the execution of Mahmud Muhammad Taha in 1985. His modernist Islamic ideas got him into trouble with the more orthodox `ulamd’. He was accused of apostasy under Islamic law and subsequently executed. But while revivalism in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel was in part the product of hardship and desperation, revivalism in Libya arose with new wealth and confidence. In this respect, revivalism in Libya had something in common with fundamentalism in Iran. Both were the outcome of a convergence of oil wealth and the threat of Western hegemony.

Underlying the outward confidence of both forms of Islamic revivalism, however, is the constant threat of Western cultural hegemony. The fear of Western imperialism is a constant inspiration behind Islamic fundamentalism. The ayatollahs in Iran were radicalized by American imperialism; Qadhdhafi was radicalized by the threats of Western imperialism and Zionism. Economic deprivation, economic wealth, and the threat of cultural disruption from the West have all played their part in sustaining the new wave of Islamic revivalism.

As for the geographical expansion of Islam, it is more modest in East Africa than in West. The reasons are both colonial and postcolonial. European colonization of West Africa earlier in the century never really arrested the spread of Islam, although it did considerably aid the spread of Christianity. Both introduced religions expanded at the expense of indigenous beliefs, but drew few converts from each other.

By contrast, Islam in East Africa was seriously harmed by the advent of European colonial rule. During the European colonial period Islam in East Africa continued to be Arab-led, whereas the leadership of Islam in West Africa had already been deeply indigenized. In East Africa it appeared as if Arab and European missionary efforts were two rival foreign forces. However, even the nineteenth century jihads in West Africa were entirely indigenous African phenomena. This degree of africanization in West Africa sustained that region’s Islam against the counterforce of European colonization.

Second, Islam in East Africa was hurt by the image of the Arab slave trade, especially when that image was exploited by Euro-Christian propaganda during Western colonization. Colonial schools in East Africa dramatized the Arab role in the slave trade and underplayed the Western, trans-Atlantic slave trade. East Africans emerging from colonial and missionary schools learned far more about the Arab slave trade, and far less about the trans-Atlantic flow, than did young colonial West Africans. Islam in East Africa therefore suffered more from anti-Arabism that did Islam in the western part of the continent.

After independence Muslims in West Africa were strong enough numerically and politically to take up the reins of power in countries like Mali, Guinea, and Niger. In Nigeria under civilian rule Muslims were also triumphant from 196o to 1966 and, to some extent, from 1979 to 1983. In Senegal a Roman Catholic rose to the presidency with Muslim support; in Cameroon a Muslim, Ahmadou Ahidjo, did the same. And in Gabon a Christian ruler, Omar Bongo, converted to Islam.

In East Africa, Somalia and Sudan had Muslim majorities which inherited postcolonial power. But in Uganda it took the military coup of Idi Amin Dada to put Muslims in supreme power from 1971 until 1979; succeeding regimes in Uganda have politically marginalized Islam to levels below those it enjoyed before the rise of Idi Amin.

Tanganyika under the Catholic Nyerere united with Zanzibar under the Muslim Abeid Karume in 1964. From that year until 1985, the country had a Christian president and a Muslim vice-president. Since then both the president and the vice-president have been Muslims.

In Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi, and in Southern Africa generally, the chances of a Muslim head of state in the foreseeable future appear remote. (Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi’s electoral victory and ascendance to the presidency in May 1994 is an interesting exception, however.) Kenya’s Muslim population is estimated at about six million, a quarter of the total, but with disproportionately small political influence. The spread of Islam in Kenya may have been helped by two factors-the missionary activism of the Ahmadiyah movement and the new financial aid given to Muslim institutions by the Muslim members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But while the support of Libya and Iran to African movements may have helped the cause of Islamic revivalism among those already converted, the radicalism of Iran and Libya has sometimes caused political anxiety in countries like Kenya and even Zaire, and has slowed Islam’s expansion into new ethnic and geographical areas.

Islam in African Art. In architecture and in verbal arts, the impact of Islam on sub-Saharan Africa has been that of a stimulus, opening up new horizons of creativity. In sculpture and the performing arts, Islam has often been an inhibition rather than a stimulus. In painting the impact of Islam has been mixed-stimulating in some respects, repressive in others.

In West Africa one of the most important milestones in the islamization of architecture came after the legendary pilgrimage to Mecca of Mansa Musa, emperor of ancient Mali (r. 1312-1337). His legend emphasizes how he traveled in golden splendor through Cairo to the holy cities of Islam; but more fundamental for the future of West Africa was Mansa Musa’s decision to bring back an architect (al-Sahil) from Arabia. New mosques rose with impressive minarets and domes in Timbuktu. Mansa Musa also presided over the use of a revolutionary new building material, brick instead of pise or pounded clay. The architectural civilization of Muslim West Africa was changed forever. Timbuktu became a major center of learning, and the new mosques were at once places of worship and centers of scholarship.

The architectural changes affected private homes also, many of them now built with a flat roof and a central dome. Subsequent influences from the Maghrib helped to stimulate local African innovations, culminating in subsequent centuries in such splendid creations as the Mouride mosque in Touba, Senegal.

In East Africa the Muslim stimulus in architecture came from the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, contributing to the rise of Islamic city-states on the East Africa coast such as Kilwa, Mombasa, Sofala, and Pate. The deserted ancient city of Gedi on today’s Kenya coast preserves much of the Afro-Islamic character in its ruins.

While Islam was a creative stimulus in African architecture, it may have been a stumbling block for African sculpture, the performing arts, and painting. It is to this inhibiting tendency of Islam that we should briefly turn.

Islam is in a problematic relationship with African sculpture than with African architecture. One reason is Islam’s uncompromising monotheism and concomitant wariness of idolatry. Yet African sculpture sometimes depicts deities or offers protection against magic. The tension between Islam and the African art of masks and figurines can be traced back to idolatry in pre-Islamic Mecca.

Pre-Islamic Arabs had worshipped idols in the very places where Muslims now circumambulate the Ka’bah in Mecca. According to Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad himself destroyed some of those idols with his own hands. In order to discourage the return of idolatry, arts such as sculpture and painting became circumscribed in terms of what they could represent; in time, according to some schools of Islam, to paint an animal was regarded as an attempt to imitate God. Thus the depiction of living organisms became increasingly taboo. Mosques were decorated with verses of the Qur’an rather than with creatures from nature; the culture of letters was sacralized. Islam was a stimulus to creative calligraphy, but a block to portraiture.

Islam’s uncompromising stance on this subject has often militated against African masks and bronze figures. The rich tradition which produced the bronzework of ancient Benin and Ile-Ife, and much later inspired such European artists as Picasso, was threatened quite early by this school of Islam. Of course, some African Muslims did mix the culture: syncretism is part of Africa’s religious history. But in general, Islam’s distrust of representational and organic art remained in continuing tension with this form of African art.

There has also been conflict between Islam and African dance. Islam distrusts African dance for two principal reasons-the dance’s apparent proximity to idolatry and to sexuality.

In later centuries even African governments that were not Muslim also tended to avoid celebrating indigenous gods. Today almost all African countries celebrate some Christian festivals. African countries that are Muslim celebrate festivals like `Id al-Fitr, `Id al-Hajj, and sometimes the Prophet’s birthday. Some countries, such as Nigeria, celebrate all of those, Christian and Muslim, and a few secular ones. What no African country has really celebrated nationally in the twentieth century are the indigenous religious traditions.

Fear of neglect of African indigenous ritual is not peculiar to Islam as a tradition: African governments themselves fall short. But Islam and missionary Christianity have also distrusted African dance for reasons unconnected with idolatry: for its presumed sexuality, and perhaps because certain dances are performed by women. In the case of Christian missionaries the distrust of the dance sometimes resulted in banning it in missionary schools, and their dislike of African patterns of dress sometimes led to special innovations to satisfy the rules of Christian modesty in dress. Islamic rules of dress have often been even more severe for women.

On the issue of African languages and literature, Islam has played a more stimulating role, though sometimes dialectically. On the one hand, Islam appears to be linguistically intolerant: liturgy has to be in Arabic, and the muezzin calls the believers to prayer in Arabic. On the other hand, Islam and the Arabic language have created whole new indigenous creoles in Africa, or have profoundly enriched indigenous tongues. Such AfroIslamic languages include Kiswahili and Hausa, arguably the two most successful indigenous tongues of the continent. In the verbal arts of Africa, Islam has been a great creative stimulus.

It may fairly be asked whether indigenous African traditions of poetry have been enriched by interactions with other traditions, including Islam. In regard to the range of subject matter treated by poets, Islam has sometimes been an inhibiting factor; Islamic values made certain topics sinful. On the other hand, in terms of depth of meaning and sophistication of the craft of versification, Islam has probably been immensely enriching.

While the art of African fiction in indigenous languages has been greatly influenced by contact with the West, African poetry in indigenous languages has been more enriched by contact with Islam. African languages with the most complex poetic forms are probably disproportionately within civilizations that have been in contact with Islam. The most remarkable preoccupation with poetry is probably found in Somali culture. Despite their political troubles, the Somalis developed an exceptional culture of oral and even extemporaneous poetry. Their greatest modern national hero, Muhammad Abdilleh Hassan (Muhammad `Abd Allah Hasan), was both a savior of his nation and a hero of his language.

As for the art form of song, in a way an even older aesthetic, is there a tense relationship with Islam? It probably depends on the themes of the songs. There may be certain themes in African culture that appear immodest by Islamic criteria, even if not by Islamic criteria of beauty. But song is of course a major part of Islamic as well as of African culture.

As for more recent trends in painting, there have been Muslim artists who have broken out of the confines of doctrine and painted people, sculpted animals, or drawn living forests. These artists have seen themselves not as imitators of God but as sparks of the Almighty. Human genius at its best is but a spark of the First Cause. Painter Ali Darwish of Zanzibar sometimes immersed himself in both living forests and dazzling calligraphy. Ibrahim Noor Shariff painted galloping horses in a “fourth dimension.” To him Islam was always a stimulus, and human genius was a spark from the radiance of God. Such aesthetic reformers may be the wave of the future for Muslim artists in Africa.

[See also African Languages and Literatures; and entries on specific countries.]


Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim. “The Islamic Factor in African Politics.” Orbis 8 (1964): 425-444. Early reminder of the significance of Islam in modern and contemporary Africa, written before the political importance of Islam received much attention.

Cruise O’Brien, Donal B. “Islam and Power in Black Africa.” In Islam and Power, edited by Alexander S. Cudsi and Ali E. Hillal Dessouki, pp. 158-168. Baltimore, 1981. Helpful discussion giving some emphasis to the role of Sufi orders.

Davidson, Basil. The Story of Africa. London, 1984. Chapter 8, “The Impact of Islam,” places the expansion of Islam in the broader context of African history.

General History of Africa. Vol. 6, Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s. Edited by J. F. Ade Ajayi. Berkeley, 1989. Vol. 7, Africa under Colonial Domination, 1880-1935. Edited by A. Adu Boahen. Berkeley, 1985. Researched and published as part of a major project by UNESCO under the leadership of Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow. The coverage of movements provides interpretations that go beyond the stereotypes of imperial scholarship.

Levtzion, Nehemia. “Islam: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 7, pp. 344-357. Broad survey with emphasis on the medieval period.

Lewis, I. M., ed. Islam in Tropical Africa. 2d ed. Bloomington, 198o. Contains an extended historical introduction and a number of important interpretive case studies.

Mazrui, Ali A. “African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion.” Third World Quarterly 10. 2 (April 1988): 499-518. Important contemporary interpretation of the different developments within African Islam.

Mazrui, Ali A., and Toby Kleban Levine, eds. The Africans: A Reader. New York, 1986. Collection of readings, prepared for use along with the excellent television series, “The African: A Triple Heritage,” that provides an excellent source for understanding the “triple heritage” interpretation of African realities.

Nyang, Sulayman S. Islam, Christianity, and African Identity. Brattleboro, Vt., 1984. Helpful introduction to some important issues. Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Influence of Islam upon Africa. 2d ed. London, 1980. Broad survey by one of the most influential scholars on the subject. Provides useful information despite the Christian missionary viewpoint.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/islam-middle-east-north-africa/

  • writerPosted On: May 30, 2014
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