Islam and West Africa

The Great Mosque of Djenné; Photo credit by 37 °C

Islam, the dominant religion of Mali, first appeared on the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century. It soon spread out of Arabia into North Africa, Spain and the Middle East along with the military conquests of its leaders. (See From North Africa, Islam penetrated into Sub-Saharan Africa in a generally peaceful manner. In the process, West Africa developed a unique form of Islam known for its tolerance and the assimilation of elements of the traditional African beliefs. However, in times of adversity (slave trade and European colonization) Islam proved to be a powerful force capable of leading resistance to oppression.

Before the seventeenth century, the conversion of West Africa to Islam was mainly the result of the influence of Arab and Berber traders that would come into contact with the African kingdoms of the Sahel region. Trans-Saharan traders were usually members of Muslim brotherhoods that would provide support and protection all along the routes crossing the Sahara. Well organized and able to read, write and count, these North African merchants quickly became really sought after in the courts of the various kingdoms of West Africa.  They served as counselors in financial and economic matters, and they eventually facilitated the conversion of some of the rulers of the major West African empires of the time such as Mansa Musa (1307-1332). These early conversion were, however, limited in scope and often limited to the courts of African princes and to the urban milieu; the sovereigns continued to rule over “pagan” populations. Nonetheless, we owe to these Muslim monarchs the construction of marvels of architecture like the mosques of Djenné or Timbuktu which became prestigious centers of learning.

Widely used in the administrations of African states, Muslims became the object of suspicion and persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at a time marked by political divisions and an expansion of the slave trade following the collapse of the great West African empires. Membership in a Muslim brotherhood provided an efficient mean of protection, especially since a Muslim could not put a Muslim brother into slavery. Furthermore, the severe disruption of the African traditional societies caused by the slave trade contributed to the growing influence of Islam as a solid societal frame. Pastoral peoples like the Peuls (also known as Fulanis) lived in all of West Africa and thus formed a society that was often at odds with the sedentary populations and the rulers of the regions in which they lived. The Peuls found in Islam a way to develop an identity that would supersede the territorial and ethnic limitations of the kingdoms in which they lived. Islam thus acquired a large popular base which gave strength to the idea that Muslims should create their own states in order to safeguard their community.

This change of fortunes affecting the Muslim communities throughout West Africa led to the “jihads” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Jihad” may be understood in this case as the duty to fight against the non-Muslim rulers in order to establish Muslim states. These religious movements first originated in the Futa Toro and Futa Djallon region in modern Senegal and eventually spread to regions south and east of Senegal, all places of interest for the French territorial expansion in West Africa. The Muslim states of Cheick Hamidou of Macina, of El Hadj Omar and Samory Touré, all resulted from these early jihads and did resist the French expansion in West Africa from the mid-nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Islam did not cease to grow in West Africa with the French conquest. On the contrary, the destabilization of African societies provoked by the colonial expansion strengthened the appeal of Islam and particularly that of Muslim Sufi orders (Muslim brotherhood). The colonial administration also contributed to the expansion of Islam as a way to fortify its authority over such a large empire. To this day, West Africa is predominantly Muslim especially in the Sahel

Islam in West Africa at the Time of Wangrin (1900-1930)

Already acquainted with Islam through the colonization of Algeria, the French that came into contact with West African population had a tendency to consider African traditional societies as primitive. Muslims, on the other hand were considered as more civilized as they used writing and their religion was also more akin to Christianity than animism. Therefore, up until World War I the French authorities gave Islam the means to spread quickly throughout West Africa. Because of the experience of dealing with Muslims in Algeria, the French widely used Muslims in their administration in order to fill in the positions of clerks, schoolmasters or interpreters. Muslim law was even used to judge indigenous matters in total disregard for the traditions of the local populations. Muslims thus became the privileged intermediaries in dealing with local populations. This situation benefitted the spread of Islam throughout West Africa, but the French authorities remained vigilant and made sure to promote an Islam that would support the French administration.

From its beginning, French colonizers did not hesitate to wage war against Muslims who were considered hostile to the French occupation, as seen in their struggle against El Hadj Omar and Samory Touré.  As illustrated in the memoirs of Hampâté Bâ (Oui Mon Commandant!) “marabouts” and Muslim brotherhoods (Sufi orders like the Tidjaniyya) were closely monitored; some leaders exiled; and all publications in Arabic were prohibited except for those that were strictly focused on religious matters. The advent of World War I changed the French administration’s overall outlook on Islam as it feared the propagation of anti-French propaganda coming from the Ottoman Empire (an ally of Germany).

From that point on, the colonial administration really tried to maintain a status quo in so far as religion was concerned. For instance, in regions where Islam was dominant, the administration allowed its inhabitants to practice freely as long as it did not promote resistance to French occupation. In areas where animism was dominant, the spread of Islam was to be avoided. Finally, the administration position was officially to take no part in the action of Christian missionaries in West Africa.

Finally, more than the result of any conscious action on the part of the colonizers, the spread of Islam was due to the fact that Islam was able to present itself as a religion for Africans that would provide support to uprooted populations. Christianity was the religion of the colonizer and the traditional African beliefs got undermined by the collapse of African societies resulting from forced labor and migrations. 

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