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Joshua Fischler and Daniel Burns 5/4/14

AFST251 Dr. Moulay-Ali Bouânani

The History of Islam in Africa review

Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels’ book, “​The

History of Islam in Africa​” examines the spread and the impact

that Islam had on different regions of Africa. The book divides

its chapters into how the different areas of Africa are affected

by certain concepts that are related to Islam. Each chapter in

turn is written by a different contributor which leads to “The

History of Islam in Africa” to being an extensive text on the

subject matter in its title. When historical books contain

collectives of text from different writers, it is important to

understand that each author’s chapter contains their biases.

This makes understanding the subtext for collective books like

“The History of Islam in Africa” harder as, due to different

authors, the book contains different historical perspectives.

However Levtzion and Pouwels have done an excellent job in

organizing the collective chapter in “The History of Islam in

Africa”. The chapters in the book relate to each, as Levtzion

and Pouwels text inserts point out in some passages, in such a

way that book presents a well flowing historical analysis from a

variety of sources.
One of the many subject matters that “The History of

Islam in Africa” covers is Islamic education practices in

Sub-Saharan Africa. In this chapter Stefan Reichmuth, author of

the chapter, examines how Islamic education has spread and

influence African communities. One of the first impacts that

Islamic education has on African communities that Reichmuth

mentions is the distinction it creates between Muslims and

non-Muslims. Since this occurs at an early age it became

ingrained in many of the Muslims communities. Reichmuth never

really explains how this distinction affects communities made up

of differing faiths, and is a missed opportunity as the

relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims is a huge

component to the overall culture of Africa. One of the ways this

dynamic could have been explored is the distinction between the

faiths that starts with early education.

One of the over-arching themes of Reichmuth’s chapter

is the mixing of Islamic teachings and Modern African culture.

One of the examples of this dynamic mentioned in the text is

Islamic Learning relationship with the government of the state.

Reichmuth explains that the Islamic religion, and by extension

Islamic teachings, are well suited for involvement in the

government due to the unitive nature of the language, Arabic.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most diverse regions of the

world when it comes to culture however the language of Arabic,

which is an integral aspect of Islamic education, crosses these

cultural boundaries and serves as a tool for “diplomacy and

correspondence”. Islamic education also serves as a networking

tool as the institutions that propagate it are in contact with

other Islamic institutions in the Arab world. Reichmuth states

that the reason for this is that recently many scholars who

teach Islamic education in Africa are receiving their education

in Arab countries, and along with bringing in an Arab influenced

education principles they also bring along network of Arab


Chapter 20 of “​The History of Islam In Africa​”

discusses what the term Sufi brotherhood and its consequences in

Africa. Written by Knut Vikor the chapter starts with explaining

how Sufism was introduced in Africa. What is interesting about

this chapter is how Vikor details the interaction between Sufism

and traditional mysticism in Africa. Sufism in Africa, during

its infancy, became a magical lineage that was based down

through family ties. The chapter then goes on to list several

prominent ways of Sufism in Africa and their effects on regions.

It is interesting to note is that the different ways of Sufism

seems to be controlled by a select group of families, as most

schools names are attributed to the family name of those who

created it. Vikor explains that Sufi Brotherhoods serve as a

form of local identity that helps bring communities together as

they establish an African identity in a normally Arab Islamic

practice. This Africanization of Sufism has resonated throughout

Africa as evidenced by its continued spread throughout the


Chapter 21 of “The History of Islam in Africa”

continues the theme of the previous chapter as the author, David

Owusu-Ansah, discuss the use of prayer amulets for healing,

which, like Sufism in Africa, is a mixture of Islamic principles

and African traditional mysticism. Owusu-Ansah discusses how

prayer amulets, made by Muslim holy men, are used as wards to

protect one's self from diseases or to cure oneself of

affliction. What is interesting in this chapter is the dichotomy

between traditional African medicine and Islam. Owusu-Ansah

mentions how Islam which is supposed to be opposed to such

things as charms mysticism, as they distract people from the one

true god, has embraced these concepts in Africa. However many

parts of Africa has accepted this practice along with other

traditional forms of “magic”. This chapter further enforces one

of the main themes of the book, the cultural fusion of Islamic

and traditional African practices. Although it would appear that

the Islamization of Africa in certain regions have replaced

previous cultural practices the chapters that have been covered

suggest the opposite. Islam in order to appeal more palpable to

its new converts adopted previous traditional practices.

Chapter 22 discusses Islamic art in Africa from an

intriguing standpoint. It begins by discussing why it is so

difficult to find Islamic art that has been influenced by

African culture. Karin Adahl has a theory that some of the

reasons for this include that there was not really much court

art or centres for ceramics, carpets and manuscripts. John

Picton’s reasoning is that people studying the African Arts and

material culture do not reveal the Islamic impact. An example of

this in action is in Yoruba. No historians take into account the

effects on Yoruban society. Another example of this is the

impact of Islam on Dogon art and culture in Sudan cannot be

completely understood without considering how it was impacted by

Muslim texts such as the Kabbe which is featured in modern day

Dogon rituals. Another example of how Islam influenced African

culture described is how Muslim texts were woven into Tanzanian

grass mats. There were also weapons inscribed with holy words
cabalistic sign and talismans that were used by Jihadists in

Nigeria during the 19​th​ century.

Another interesting thing that is discussed is how

Islamic art is used in Islamic architecture. Mosques are not

supposed to be overly elaborate. Yet, the book discusses how the

minbar is supposed to be next to the mihrab. The mihrab

generally has a beautiful Islamic woodcarvings and marquetry.

While the Mosques are not elaborate they do contain many other

examples of Islamic art and dominate African Islamic communities

just like every other Islamic community. Similarly, Islamic

palaces such as Mansa Musa’s domed palace. Many were made form

Mud and had sloping, and pointy minarets. This was a unique

architectural style that took over African castles and mosques

by storm.

Chapter 23 speaks about another intriguing aspect of

Islam in Africa, Islamic literature. There are two main types of

African Islamic literature, arabocentric (pure) and al-mukhlit

(impure/the mixers). The impure style shows how Islam mixed with

the natural literature of Africa and developed. There were many

types of impure literature such as griots which are the

narratives of West African history from oral historians and

praise-singers. Most griots were epics that give people a view

of Islamic and African thoughts. In East Africa they wrote the

Utendi, an epic poem based upon oral traditions. Islamic

literature even went as far as to empower women in society via

sitaat which were women’s praise songs. There was also

literature about African Islam from colonial powers and nations

on the outside looking in that painted Islam in either a very

positive or negative light.

The ways in that purism and syncretism in literature

impacted Islamic practices within African societies are

discussed at length. One topic of discussion was how Islamic

literature and African Literature remained separate and what

occurred when the literary styles were combined. Hampate Ba

believed that the meeting of Fulani and Islamic traditions was

not confrontational but harmonious because it allowed Fulani

traditions to grow and gain Islamic morals. Another example of

this is in ​L’Enfant noir​, where Kamara Laye prepares to leave

home and at his farewell party his father made sacrifices to

their ancestors and his mother consulted the marabout. This

demonstrates yet again that people in African society believed

in Islam while also maintaining a belief in their pre-Islamic

cultural traditions.
Over the belief in traditional African beliefs waned

and people became skeptical and believed in Islam more. This is

quite fascinating considering one would be more likely to reject

a new culture than one’s own. It also bred conflict with the

people who retained their traditional beliefs in their heritage

because they were afraid of a social crisis resulting from

puritanical concerns with orthodoxy and accommodations as is

clearly described in ​The Last Imam​, another source referenced in

The History of Islam In Africa​. These literary examples serve as

windows into the daily clashes that have been occurring for many

years in African society between traditional African beliefs and

Islamic beliefs and provide multiple views on the subject so

that one may form one’s own opinion.

This book is a must read for one looking to read up

about Islamic culture in Africa. The wide array of topics

includes Muslim vs. non-Muslim education, Sufi Brotherhoods,

Islamic vs. African medicinal techniques, African Art, and

African Literature. That wide array of information is provided

in a mere 5 chapters of the 24 chapter book. It truly gives one

a glimpse into the working and fluctuating relationship between

Islamic and African culture that have been altering each other

on a daily basis since Islam was introduced to the continent in

an unbiased intellectual manner. The History of Islam In Africa

truly gives one an excellent picture of how Islamic and African

cultures interact with one another in an interesting fashion.