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MALI. The region now within the Republic of Mali has been exposed to Islam for more than nine hundred years. In present-day Mali the Islamic presence has grown to the point where 8o to 90 percent of the population of approximately 9 million is Muslim, the most significant minority faiths being Catholic Christianity and so-called “paganism.” Islam has always been more entrenched in the north, mainly because of its transmission from the Maghrib through trans-Saharan trade and the Moroccan invasion of Songhay in the sixteenth century.


By the early nineteenth century the major centers of learning-Timbuktu, Gao, and Jenne-had long been in decline in terms of Islamic scholarship, largely because of insecurities brought about by conquest and fluctuations in trade. More popular versions of the faith, based on rote recitation of the Qur’an and adherence to the Qadiriyah brotherhood, were practiced in the northern countryside, especially among the nomadic Tuareg, Fulani, and Moors. The south remained largely resistant to Islam, with the Bambara and Dogon being known for their adherence to local polytheistic religious systems.

As in other parts of the Sahel in the nineteenth century, a social context that combined the expanded popularity of Islam with reduced scholarly rigor and frontier societies resistant to the faith became fertile ground for historically significant reform efforts. The jihad of Usuman Dan Fodio from 1804 to 181o did not penetrate far into the territory, but it did lead to settlement by a vanguard of Fulani warriors on the eastern portion of the Niger bend near Ansongo. The jihad of `Umar Tal in the mid-nineteenth century had a greater effect on the Islamic heritage of Mali. Although `Umar Tal was defeated and killed in battle in 1864, his holy war did result in a widened influence of the Tijaniyah. Through much of the nineteenth century a more peaceful revival of the Qadiriyah was largely inspired by the Kunta jurists Sid! al-Mukhtar (d. 1811) and Shaykh Sidlyah alKabir (d. 1868). With their close links with the Berber and Arab traditions of North Africa, Kunta jurists are largely responsible for the present-day dominance of Maghribi influence throughout West Africa. [See Tijaniyah; Qadiriyah; and the biographies of Dan Fodio and `Umar Tal.]

Like other parts of French West Africa, this region underwent an Islamic resurgence that increased in momentum through the period of colonial occupation. This was expressed in a number of reform movements, most notably the Hamalliyah and the Wahhabiyah.

The Hamalliyah was an offshoot of the Tijan! brotherhood that developed in the Nyoro region in the early 1940s. Aside from veneration of its founder Shaykh Hamallah, its main distinguishing characteristic was a revised formula of recitation (wird) that used an elevenbead rosary. Despite Shaykh Hamallah’s espousal of pacifism, his followers became involved in a massacre directed against a rival nomadic group, resulting in harsh suppression by the French. The scattering of the Hamalliyah resulted in two very different successors to the movement: a quietist Sufi tradition exemplified by Cerno Bokar, and more overtly enthusiastic, short-lived uprisings, including the abortive jihad of Musa Aminu in his natal village of Wani north of Bourem.

In the postwar phase of colonization, more lasting reform efforts were initiated by West Africans who had been educated in the Middle East. One of the central platforms of these reformers was opposition to the perceived excesses of the brotherhoods, including veneration of holy men and dependence on “Islamic magic,” such as the manufacture of amulets, for worldly aid. As with some medieval reformers of Christian Europe, their reforms have hinged on scriptural literacy and a basic understanding by the laity of the original sacred texts. This reformist trend was to become known as Wahhabism because the French saw a negative similarity between these reformers and the puritan followers of Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab of the eastern Arabian Peninsula (d. 1787). One important West African reformer, `Abd al-Rahman al-Ifriqi, a native of the Ansongo region, became a fulltime resident of Saudi Arabia, where he taught in the Islamic schools Dar al-Hadith and alMa’had al-Ilmi. Many of his students were West African pilgrims who returned to their natal areas with greater religious knowledge and commitment. More significant was the return to Bamako of a group of students from al-Azhar University in Cairo who established the Muslim youth organization Subbanu al-Muslimin in the 1950s.

Trading groups were central to the development of the Wahhabiyah, particularly in Bamako, a strategically situated trading center. Since independence, however, there has been an expansion of reformed Islam into a wide range of social groups, including students, administrative officials, and peasants. An increase in the popularity of the Wahhabiyah during the later phase of colonialism and the first decades of independence was marked by disputes and occasional violence between adherents of the Sufi orders and the reformers. Such disputes often hinged on the outward symbols of change, such as the fact that the reformers pray with arms folded across the chest rather than hanging at the sides. [See Wahhabiyah.]

The first independent government (1960-1968) led by Modibo Kieta promoted radical state socialism; although its ideology was moderated by a Pan-African Islamic identification, this regime had a dampening effect on the development of Islam. Islamic reform efforts sponsored by Malian clerics, however, continued to make progress, especially in the migrant communities or zongos of West African coastal cities. The military government of Mousa Traore (1968-iggi), while remaining nominally secular, was more tolerant of the development of Islam. In 1971, however, the Traore government disbanded the Union Culturelle Musulmane, the main organizational body of reformers in Bamako, and in the 1980s it made efforts to bring religious organizations under government control, first in 1981 by creating the Association Malien pour l’Unite et le Progres de l’Islam, sponsored by the state to the exclusion of other formal Islamic organizations, and then by regulating Islamic education, sanctioning only officially recognized madrasahs. Despite such efforts to coopt Islamic reform, independent movements such as the Jama’at Ansar al-Sunnah of the Gao region have continued to exist on the margins of state control.


Brenner, Louis. West African Sufi. London, 1984. Detailed examination of the historical background and teaching of Cerno Bokar, which provides some material on the Hamalliyah.

Kaba, Lasine. The Wahhabiyya: Islamic Reform and Politics in French West Africa. Evanston, Ill., 1974. Considers the development and political involvement of Islamic reformers in the postwar colonial period.

Launay, Robert. Traders without Trade. Cambridge, 1982. Good case study of the place of trading groups in the development of West African Islam.

Niezen, R. W. “The Community of Helpers of the Surma: Islamic Reform among the Songhay of Gao (Mali).” Africa 3 (1990): 399424.

Robinson, David. The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Oxford, 1985. The most thorough historical study of `Umar Tal’s background and career.

Saad, Elias N. Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables, 1400-1900. Cambridge, 1983. The best study to date on the political background of Timbuktu, but not as strong in its sociological analysis.

Stewart, C. C., and E. K. Stewart. Islam and Social Order in Mauritania. Oxford, 1973. Excellent study of the scholars and Islamic traditions of Mauritania whose influence reached much of presentday Mali.


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

  • writerPosted On: August 2, 2014
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