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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2014

Benjamin Soares*
Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden
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In this article, I focus on the historiography of Islam in West Africa while also reflecting upon and assessing existing scholarship in the broader field of the study of Islam in Africa. My position as an anthropologist who conducts historical research informs my perspective in evaluating the current state of the field and my suggestions for directions in which I think future research might move in order to advance our understanding of Islam and Muslim societies and the history of religious life in Africa more generally.

JAH Forum: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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I am grateful to John O. Hunwick for the many stimulating exchanges that have informed this essay and to Robert Launay, Rüdiger Seesemann, and four anonymous reviewers for their critical readings of earlier drafts.


1 The already existing essentialist thinking about Islam and Muslims both within and outside the academy that has proliferated even further in the post-September 11, 2001 era has had implications for the study of Africa that are beyond the scope of this essay. See Soares, B. F. and Otayek, R. (eds.), Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa (New York, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Launay, R., ‘An invisible religion?: anthropology's avoidance of Islam in Africa’, in Ntarangwi, M., Mills, D., and Babiker, M. (eds.), African Anthropologies: History, Critique and Practice (Dakar, 2006), 188203Google Scholar; and Saul, M., ‘Islam and West African anthropology’, Africa Today, 53:1 (2006), 333CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 See, for example, Lewis, I. M., Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (London, 1971)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For West Africa, see Stoller, P., Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa (New York, 1995)Google Scholar; and Masquelier, A. M., Prayer has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger (Durham, NC, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Peel, J. D. Y., Aladura: A Religious Movement among the Yoruba (Oxford, 1968)Google Scholar; Fabian, J., Jamaa: A Charismatic Movement in Katanga (Evanston, IL, 1971)Google Scholar; Beidelman, T. O., Colonial Evangelism: A Socio-Historical Study of an East African Mission at the Grassroots (Bloomington, IN, 1982)Google Scholar; Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J. L., Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa (Chicago, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 In contrast, see the work in religious studies by Patrick J. Ryan on Yoruba Muslims, Ryan, P. J., Imale: Yoruba Participation in the Muslim Tradition: A Study of Clerical Piety (Missoula, MT, 1977)Google Scholar.

6 See Robert Launay's overview of the study of Islam in Africa, which has informed my own thinking about this topic, in Launay, R., Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town (Berkeley, CA, 1992)Google Scholar, esp. 14–22.

7 See, for example, Cuoq, J., Histoire de l'islamisation de l'Afrique de l'Ouest: des origines à la fin du XVIe siècle (Paris, 1984)Google Scholar; Froelich, J.-C., ‘Essai sur l'islamisation de l'Afrique noire’, Le Monde Religieux, n.s. 29 (1966), 281–93Google Scholar; and Trimingham, J. S., A History of Islam in West Africa (London, 1962)Google Scholar.

8 On traditions of Islamic reform in Africa, see Loimeier, R., ‘Patterns and peculiarities of Islamic reform in Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 33:3 (2003), 237–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Loimeier, R., ‘Traditions of reform, reformers of tradition: case studies from Senegal and Zanzibar/Tanzania’, in Hirji, Z. A. (ed.), Diversity and Pluralism in Islam: Historical and Contemporary Discourses Amongst Muslims (London, 2010), 135–62Google Scholar.

9 Hargreaves, J., ‘The Tokolor empire of Ségou and its relations with the French’, in Butler, J. (ed.), Boston University Papers on Africa, Volume II: African History (Boston, 1966), 125–45Google Scholar; also see Robinson, D., The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1985)Google Scholar.

10 Last, M., The Sokoto Caliphate (London, 1967)Google Scholar; Hiskett, M., The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman dan Fodio (New York, 1973)Google Scholar.

11 On Umar Tall, see Robinson, Holy War; and Ly-Tall, M., Un Islam militant en Afrique de l'Ouest au XIXe siècle: la Tijaniyya de Saïku Umar Futiyu contre les pouvoirs traditionnels et la puissance coloniale (Paris, 1991)Google Scholar. On Samori, see Person, Y., Samori: une révolution dyula, 3 vols. (Dakar, 1968–75)Google Scholar.

12 See Lamin Sanneh's critique of such studies in Sanneh, L., ‘Review of D. Robinson, The Holy War of Umar Tall: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 18:3 (1988), 286–90Google Scholar.

13 Wilks, I., ‘The transmission of Islamic learning in the Western Sudan’, in Goody, J. (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1968), 162–97Google Scholar.

14 Sanneh, L., The Jakhanke: The History of an Islamic Clerical People of the Senegambia (London, 1979)Google Scholar.

15 , J.-L.Triaud, , ‘Le thème confrérique en Afrique de l'ouest’, in Popovic, A. and Veinstein, G. (eds.), Les ordres mystiques dans l'Islam: cheminements et situation actuelle (Paris, 1986), 271–82Google Scholar; Soares, B. F., ‘Rethinking Islam and Muslim societies in Africa’, African Affairs, 106:423 (2007), 319–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Triaud, ‘Le thème confrérique’, 277.

17 On the Tijaniyya, see , J.-L.Triaud, and Robinson, D. (eds.), La Tijâniyya: une confrérie musulmane à la conquête de l'Afrique (Paris, 2000)Google Scholar and the detailed studies of some of its important branches by Hanretta, S., Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community (Cambridge, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Seesemann, R., The Divine Flood: Ibrahim Niasse and the Roots of a Twentieth-Century Sufi Revival (New York, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Soares, B. F., Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian Town (Ann Arbor, MI, 2005)Google Scholar; and Seesemann, R. and Soares, B. F., ‘“Being as good Muslims as Frenchmen”: on Islam and colonial modernity in West Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa 39:1 (2009), 91120CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Hargreaves, ‘Tokolor empire’.

19 One important exception is Brenner, L., West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal (Berkeley, CA, 1984)Google Scholar, which drew upon Amadou Hampâté Bâ's earlier and more hagiographic study of the same figure. See , A. H., Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar: le sage de Bandiagara (Paris, 1980)Google Scholar. A more recent, deeply compelling study that takes religious discourse in the study of Sufism seriously is Seesemann, Divine Flood.

20 Two recent notable exceptions are Umar, M. S., Islam and Colonialism: Intellectual Responses of Muslims of Northern Nigeria to British Colonial Rule (Leiden, 2006)Google Scholar; and Seesemann, Divine Flood.

21 Babou, C. A. M., Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853–1913 (Athens, OH, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Kaba, L., The Wahhabiyya: Islamic Reform and Politics in French West Africa (Evanston, IL, 1974)Google Scholar; Loimeier, R., Säkularer Staat und islamische Gesellschaft: die Beziehungen zwischen Staat, Sufi-Bruderschaften und islamischer Reformbewegung in Senegal im 20. Jahrhundert (Hamburg, 2001)Google Scholar.

23 Trimingham, History of Islam; Fisher, H. J., ‘The juggernaut's apologia: conversion to Islam in black Africa’, Africa, 55:2 (1985), 153–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Miran, M., Islam, histoire et modernité en Côte d'Ivoire (Paris, 2006)Google Scholar.

25 Brenner, L., Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society (Bloomington, IN, 2001)Google Scholar.

26 Hall, B. S., A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960 (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Ware, R. T. III, The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014)Google Scholar.

28 Peterson, B. J., Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880–1960 (New Haven, CT, 2011)Google Scholar; O'Brien, S. M., ‘Spirit discipline: gender, Islam, and hierarchies of treatment in postcolonial northern Nigeria’, in Pierce, S. and Rao, A. (eds.), Discipline and the Other Body: Correction, Corporeality, Colonialism (Durham, NC, 2006), 273302CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Kobo, O., Unveiling Modernity in Twentieth-Century West African Islamic Reforms (Leiden, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hanretta, Islam and Social Change; Seesemann, Divine Flood.

30 Peel, J. D. Y., Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (Bloomington, IN, 2000)Google Scholar.

31 Shankar, S., ‘A fifty-year Muslim conversion to Christianity: religious ambiguities and colonial boundaries in northern Nigeria, c. 1906–1963’, in Soares, B. F. (ed.), Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa (Leiden, 2006), 89114Google Scholar. See also Barbara Cooper's important study of converts to Christianity in Niger in Cooper, B. M., Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel (Bloomington, IN, 2006)Google Scholar.

32 See also Sean Hanretta's insightful discussion of new religious movements in Africa in Hanretta, S., ‘New religious movements’, in Parker, J. and Reid, R. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (Oxford, 2013), 298315Google Scholar.

33 I have written about some of these processes in Soares, B. F., ‘Islam and public piety in Mali’, in Salvatore, A. and Eickelman, D. E. (eds.), Public Islam and the Common Good (Leiden, 2004), 205–26Google Scholar; and in a forthcoming book provisionally entitled, Dogon Muslims and Pagan Saints.

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