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 Islam And Muslim Politics In Africa
  • Book Author:
Benjamin F
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Introduction: Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa

During the decade and a half since the end of the cold war, Africa has seen momentous changes. Indeed, since the early 1990s, economic and political reform and liberalization, the weakening of the state (or even in some cases its collapse), and increased global interconnections have all had dramatic impacts on the continent. Such processes have also influenced Muslim societies and the practice of Islam in Africa in ways that are still not well understood.

 The contributors to this collection explore the intersecting dynamics of Islam, society, and the state in sub-Saharan Africa. They address the gap in our understanding of contemporary Africa and also challenge us to rethink many of our assumptions about Islam and Muslim societies in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

In this Introduction, we have two main objectives. First, we consider conventional ways of understanding Muslim societies and Islam in contemporary Africa, along with their limitations, especially in the post–September 11, 2001, world in which knowledge of Muslims in Africa is so inadequate.

Second, we reassess the under- standing of politics in Muslim Africa and offer some new terms of analysis and styles of interpretation. Our main focus is on politics. Moving beyond a narrow conception of the political, we attempt a better understanding of what Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori (1996) have called Muslim politics (see also Hefner 2005).

That is, we explore here how politics have played out in the lives of Muslims in Africa. Our understanding of politics is thus, and intentionally, quite broad. It includes the for- mal politics of political parties, elections, and governing, as well as everyday politics “from below” (see, e.g., Bayart, Mbembe, and Toulabor 1992).

However, it goes beyond such formal and informal arenas of political action to encompass the new spaces and opportunities for debate in the public sphere, which has expanded considerably in many African countries since the 1990s.

In addition, we foreground the complex and changing global interconnections between Africa and the wider world that have influenced politics in Africa. In this way, the studies that follow draw attention to Muslims from across the African continent who have been involved in different ways in Muslim politics.

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These range from seasoned politicians and civil servants to young Muslim activists, students, scholars, preachers, and social service providers whose activities have flourished in the era of political and economic liberalization.

Focusing on the recent challenges and predicaments that Africans, and African Muslims in particular, have faced, we reflect upon how the practice of Islam is changing in an increasingly globalized world.

Islam in Africa

According to recent estimates, as many as one-fifth of the world’s Muslims currently live on the African continent. Estimated at more than 200 million today, the number of Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa has grown considerably over the past few decades.1 Islam has been present in Africa for at least a millennium, and countries such as Somalia and Djibouti, along with Mauritania, have long been nearly entirely Muslim. However, it was only in the twentieth century that Islam spread into many new areas and among many different groups of people.

Today, Muslims constitute a clear majority in most of the countries in the Sahel in West Africa, including Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. In Sudan, Chad, and Tanzania, Muslims are the largest religious group. With a population of more than 120 million inhabitants, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and approximately half of all Nigerians are Muslims (the other half are Christians). Although Muslims are only a very small minority in South Africa, they make up sizeable minorities in Kenya and Uganda, as well as in such countries as Malawi and Mozambique.

 Even where Muslims are a minority in sub-Saharan Africa, they sometimes constitute large majorities in certain regions of their countries, as for example in northern Benin, Cameroon, and Ghana and in highland Ethiopia and coastal Kenya.

The fact that so many Muslims and Christians live in close proximity in sub- Saharan Africa makes the continent different from some other places in the Muslim world. For example, Muslims are the overwhelming majority in all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, with the obvious exception of Israel and possibly also Lebanon, where Muslims may nonetheless constitute as much as 60 percent of the population.

 That Muslims constitute significant minorities in several countries in Africa where Christians are in the majority has sometimes helped to make the relative numbers of Muslims and Christians a politically sensitive and contentious issue. There are, however, simply no reliable enumerations of Muslims and Christians avail- able for most countries in Africa. The numbers of Muslims and Christians have occasionally featured prominently in longstanding and ongoing conflicts in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan.

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 Given the extent to which such statistics have become politicized in so many places, most governments in Africa would be reluctant to release such figures even if they were available.

Over the past few decades, scholars have produced an enormous body of literature on religion in sub-Saharan Africa. A substantial amount of that research has focused on so-called African traditional religions and Christianity, including the recent waves of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity in Africa. Although there has also been considerable research into the history of Islam in Africa (see Levtzion and Pouwels 2000), our knowledge about Islam in contemporary Africa is much more limited.

Much of the existing research on religion in Africa suggests that religious pluralism is the norm in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, one can find practitioners of African

religions, Christianity, and Islam side by side or in close proximity in a great many places. The ways in which different confessional groups—Muslims, Christians, and practitioners of African traditional religions—in Africa have interacted with each other and engaged with the state and politics have been both multifaceted and changeable.2 It is clear that there is considerable diversity among Muslims in Africa, both within and across countries.

While some are Shia, the vast majority of African Muslims have historically been and remain Sunni, like the vast majority of Muslims in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, secularism or laïcité, which was inherited from the British, French, and Portuguese colonial states, has been more or less the rule. Notable exceptions are Sudan and Mauritania, with the latter being officially an Islamic republic.

Although many commentators acknowledge the diversity of African Muslims, the conventional wisdom is that there are basically two variants or traditions of Islam in Africa: “African Islam” and Islamic reform. First, there is the so-called traditional Islam of Africa, which many refer to as “African Islam” in its historical and contemporary manifestations.3

In this way of thinking, “African Islam” is associated with the Sufi orders (Arabic turuq, singular tariqa) or brotherhoods and the mystical traditions in Islam. In this tradition of Islam, Muslims treat certain charismatic persons, living or deceased religious leaders, saints or marabouts (to use the French colonial lexicon) as intermediaries between ordinary Muslims and God. Such charismatic Muslim religious leaders, their descendants, and their followers are organized into Sufi orders, which became one of the main organizational forms for the practice of Islam in some parts of the Muslim world.

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Historians have convincingly demonstrated that Sufi orders have been present in sub-Saharan Africa since at least the eighteenth century.4 In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Sufi tradition gained in importance in Africa and Sufi orders have played important roles throughout the continent.

 In many places, leaders of Sufi orders have been involved in Islamic scholarship, as well as long-distance trade, state and empire building, jihad, conversion, and resistance to colonial conquest. Sufi leaders have had various kinds of working relationships with the state in colonial and postcolonial Africa, involving what some have called an “exchange of services.”

As this suggests, the considerable attention devoted to Sufism and Sufi orders in Africa does indeed have a solid empirical base. However, it is important to note that the conventional understanding of Islam in Africa as fundamentally Sufi in orientation is both limited and distorting. In fact, the origin of the notion of “African Islam” is intimately tied to the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European modes of apprehending Islam in Africa. It derives from European colonial attempts both to identify and to cultivate tractable Muslim subjects in their African colonies.5

European colonial administrators saw Islam, Muslims, and pan-Islamic movements, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa, as potential challenges and threats to their authority. For this reason, they focused on the organized Sufi orders, which were corporate groups with ostensibly identifiable leaders.

Thus, the British and French sought out the leaders of Sufi orders in their colonies and relied on them to act as intermediaries between the colonial administration and ordinary Muslims. After independence, postcolonial states have frequently continued such efforts to cultivate tractable Muslim citizens.

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