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West African ulama and Salafism

West African ʿulamāʾ and Salafism in Mecca and Medina Jawāb al-Ifrῑqῑ – The Response of the African

  • Book Title:
 West African Ulama And Salafism
  • Book Author:
Chanfi Ahmed
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This book aims to study the lives of a number of West African ʿulamāʾ from northern Nigeria, Mali, and Mauritania, who, after seeing the defeat of the Muslim jihād against European colonizers, chose to undertake the hijra (emi-gration) to Mecca and Medina. In doing so they seized the opportunity to perform the ḥajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and later settled there as mujāwirūn/mujāwir (residents of the neighborhoods of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina).

 In this hijra, the majority of people took the Sudan route (rather than the Maghrib route to Cairo and then to the Hijaz), which in the nine-teenth- and early twentieth-century was the more common route of most West African pilgrims to Mecca and Medina.

Some of these pilgrims who were fleeing colonization were also, to a lesser extent, attracted by opportunities to work in agriculture (especially cotton cul-tivation) or in the army in Sudan, first under the rule of the Mahdī and then under English colonial rule. The descendents of these migrants now form a significant proportion of the population in Sudan, where they are often called Fallāta; in Saudi Arabia they are called Takārira or Takkāra (sing. Takrūrī).1

Some of these West African ʿulamāʾ who arrived in the Hijaz after the conquest of the region by Ibn Saʿūd (1925–26) embraced his Wahhābī-Salafī doctrine and helped spread it through the Hijaz and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia by teaching and preaching in mosques and schools.

In this book, I argue that these ʿulamāʾ from Africa (and also those from India) in Mecca and Medina were not working for an international Islamic project, but were rather performing the Islamic duty of daʿwa (missionary work or propaganda), which for them was to spread the Wahhābiyya—the  version of Islam they came to embrace and that they regarded as the only  correct and valid doctrine. They did not identify themselves with the Saudi nation state, but with the daʿwa aspect of the policy of ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz and the Saudi kings who succeeded him.

They identified themselves only with their respective ethnic groups (their names indicated their countries of origin: al-Fūtī, al-Fallāta, al-Takrūrī, al-Shinqīṭī, al-Timbuktī, etc.) and with the tradition of the salaf al-ṣālih (pious predecessors). The Saudi nation state, the nostalgia for the Ottoman Islamic caliphate, and the idea of the umma as a national entity of all Muslims were far from the minds of these ʿulamāʾ.

For these ʿulamāʾ, the umma was not a political entity but rather a spiritual community that shares the same religion. And for this community to be true, they thought, it should adhere  to the Wahhābiyya doctrine. This is reflected in their writings, in which they do not question the politics of colonialism or the political institutions that were meant to defend the interests of Muslims.

Second, these ʿulamāʾ did not have an anti-colonial agenda in their coun-tries of origin, contrary to what the colonial administration believed and propagated. And third, I show that the project of Ibn Saʿūd was successful particularly because of the support provided by the ʿulamāʾ from outside the Arabian Peninsula.

Ibn Saʿūd presented his Wahhābi-Salafī project as a revival of Islam, and thus as a project of all Sunnī Muslims who follow the four schools (madhāhib) and not only as a revival of the people of Najd, as is so often propagated.

Apart from these arguments, I address the religious debate and practice of hijra, ḥajj, and jihād in the specific historical context of colonialism, pan-Islam, and nationalism, as well as the potential role of biography and autobiography in the history of the spread of Wahhābī teaching in Saudi Arabia and West Africa. In this way, the present book is also intended to be a contribution to this part of the history of the colonization of Africa, which has not been well studied.

I have utilized a method based on interviews with students and relatives of these ʿulamāʾ in Saudi Arabia and in West Africa and; my research is largely dependent on private archives and the private libraries of these ʿulamāʾ. Thus, the method followed here is both historical and anthropological.

By Salafism I mean a doctrine of Islam that claims to refer solely to the example of the salaf al-ṣāliḥ, that is, the first three generations of Muslims. According to the proponents of this doctrine and according to the ḥadīth (in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī and Muslim) of the Prophet Muḥammad, the best human beings are the people of his generation and then those of the two succeeding generations.

 Thus, the Salafī consider that these generations of people had the truest understanding of Islam and should therefore be the role model of all Muslims. This doctrine involves a full rejection of the schools of law (madhāhib) (as is the case of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth) or a partial rejection of them (as is the case of the Wahhābīs who follow the Ḥanbalī madhhab) and a complete  dependence, or in the second case, a heavy dependence on the Qurʾān and ḥadīths. Popular rituals such as the mawlid (celebration of Muḥammad’s birthday), visiting the tombs of saints, and dhikr ceremonies of the Sufi orders (ṭuruq, sing. ṭarīqa) are considered un-Islamic practices and blameworthy innovations (bidaʿ, sing. bidʿa).

Although the words salaf, salaf al-ṣāliḥ, salafiyya, madhhab al-salaf, al-ṭarīqa al-salafiyya, salaf al-umma, a⁠ʾimmat al-salaf, al-jiha al-salafiyya, al-ṭarīqa al-ʿaqliyya al-salafiyya al-sharʿiyya, ḥanafiyyan salafiyyan, ʿaqīda al-salaf, and athar al-salaf appear in the writings of many classical authors, they and  the Salafiyya doctrine were first popularized in the writings and teachings  of the Ḥanbalī scholar of Syria, Taqī l-Dīn Ibn Taymiyya (661–728/1263–1328), particularly in his Fatāwā.2

 The modern ideological meaning of the term Salafism, which developed to a large extent since the nineteenth century—the century of ideologies and of all the other “isms” with their tragedies, can be attributed to Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, and especially Rashīd Riḍā.

By Wahhabism, I mean the Islamic doctrine of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–92) of the Najd (central Arabia). The name Wahhābī (or Wahhābiyya), with which we refer to those who adhere to this doctrine, was given by their opponents; they called themselves Muwaḥḥidūn (Unitarians), that is to say those who believe in and adhere to a strict monotheism and do not associate anything or anyone with God.

But over time, some of those who claimed the doctrine of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb have accepted the term Wahhābī or Wahhābiyya for this Islamic doctrine. Wahhabism is, therefore, a branch of Salafism, as is the Indian Ahl al-Ḥadīth movement.

To better understand the historical and political evolution of Wahhabism, we confine ourselves here to mentioning four dates in the history of the Wahhābī movement.

In 1746, after struggling against superstitions (khurāfāt), idolatry, and inno-vation, Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb took refuge with some of his disciples in Darʿiyya, the seat of the Āl Saʿūd. The amīr of this principality, Muḥammad b. Saʿūd, responded to the intervention of his brothers and his wife, who embraced the cause of the shaykh very early, and agreed to help ʿAbd al-Wahhāb.

 In 1747, they concluded a pact of allegiance, in which they pledged reciprocal loyalty in order to establish the Islamic vision of the shaykh, if necessary by force. This pact thus established a theocratic state based on the Wahhābī doctrine. The pact inaugurated and organized a new model of “service exchange” between the religious and the political in contemporary Sunnī Islam, in a paradigmatic way similar to the implementation of the theory of “the government of the Islamic jurist” (wilāyāt al faqīh) established by Khomeini in Iran in 1979.

This system of government inaugurated and organized among the twelver Shīʿa a new paradigmatic model of the relationship between religion and politics. In the original Wahhābī model, religion, in the form of the Wahhābī ʿālim, pro-vided the political leader (the Saʿūdī prince) with a doctrine that legitimized his territorial expansion and solidification of power; at the same time, the political leadership of the Saʿūds provided ʿAbd al-Wahhāb the military force to impose its doctrine on the conquered territories. This “holy alliance” between the two families, the Āl Saʿūd and the Āl al-Shaykh, still governs the Saudi kingdom, with the difference that the political entity of the state (the Saʿūdī family) no longer needs the religious justifications of the Wahhābī scholars for territorial conquests, rather they serve to give the kingdom a religious legitimacy. Thus the custodians of the Wahhābī doctrine (the Saʿūdī ʿulamāʾ) were relegated to a subordinate position. When Muḥammad b. Saʿūd died in 1766, his successor, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, emerged as the true founder of the kingdom. Shaykh Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb continued to perform his duties as adviser to the prince until his death at the age of 89 in 1792.

Shortly after his ascension, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz became the victim of the three powers in the region at that time: Persia, England, and the Ottoman Empire. In 1803, the Persians sent a Shīʿī assassin to kill him. The second sent a squad-ron that bombed Ras al-Khaima, where the Wahhābis were hiding. The third sent the Egyptian army against the kingdom of Najd and destroyed Darʿiyya completely. The Amīr ʿAbdallāh b. Saʿūd and the descendants of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb were brought to Istanbul, where they were all killed.

A branch of the Āl Saʿūd family led by Amīr Turkī restored the kingdom and took Riyadh as their capital, and by 1833 the kingdom extended over a large part of the Persian Gulf. But interclan conflicts decimated the kingdom to the advantage of the Banū Rāshid, the leaders of the Shammār confederation. The few survivors of the Āl Saʿūd clan fled to Kuwait and took refuge with Shaykh Mubārak b. Ṣabāḥ al-Ṣabāḥ (1844–1915), an ally of England.

With ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Faiṣal Āl-Saʿūd, the state was reborn. In the month of Ramadan in 1901, at the age of just 22, he marched at the head of forty men and retook Riyadh. This point marks the beginning of the Wahhābī kingdom that still flourishes today.3

In chapter 1 I examine the role of the Sudan Road (ṭarīq al-sūdān) for the ʿulamāʾ undertaking the pilgrimage (ḥajj). The ʿulamāʾ discussed in this book came to the Hijaz (western Saudi Arabia, where Jedda, Mecca, and Medina are situated) by this route, which was used by thousands of West African pilgrims before and after them.

This route, which had been used by Muslims since the eleventh century, had grown in importance since the sixteenth century, when the Moroccans conquered the empire of Songhay (Mali), thereby rendering the pilgrimage route through North Africa more dangerous for West African pilgrims. In the sixteenth century pilgrims began to take the route through Sudan; the flow of people taking this route to the Hijaz increased during the period when the region was occupied by European powers, particularly England and France.

Many Muslims fled the rule of non-Muslims, and moved eastward, especially to Sudan and the Hijaz. In these trips to the East, the doc-trines of jihād, ḥajj, hijra, and the mahdī were often mixed and used to moti-vate mass migrations, which led to the formation of diasporic groups along the road, found to this day in Chad, Sudan, and the Hijaz. However, the historical event that marked this road is the Battle of Burmi (1903) and the exodus to the East that it resulted from it.4

In addition to dealing with the sociopolitical and historical role played by the Sudan Road, this chapter also precisely explains the meaning of hijra in Islam and discusses its significance in nineteenth-century West Africa as a movement of people, ideas, and hope. It also explains the conceptual and practical relationship between jihād, ḥajj, hijra, and the mahdī in Islam in gen-eral and Islam in West Africa in particular. In these migratory movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as people fled colonizers, who were often identified as the Dajjāl (Antichrist), they naturally followed the instructions of a mahdī, who was generally also identified as a mujaddid (reformer, restorer). Here, millennial eschatology and politics mixed.

I conclude this chapter by addressing the ways in which the colonizers, especially the elite, reacted to the eastward migration of West African Muslims.

The colonizers wanted to prevent a mass exodus of people, which would mean the loss of their work force (i.e., cheap labor). In addition, every adult male—Muslims and non-Muslims—paid a poll tax, so migrations meant a direct loss of liquidity for the colonial administration. Thus, in the eyes of the colonizers, this movement had to be stopped. One method to discourage pilgrims was for the colonial administration to control the organization of departures for the pilgrimage by forcing pilgrims to use ships or airplanes.

 Travel expenses thus increased, and this limited the number of pilgrims; fewer pilgrims also discour-aged others from making the journey. The colonial administration offered a few free places to carefully chosen notables, who were then expected to moni-tor the behavior of the pilgrims in Mecca as well as that of ordinary Muslims in West African towns and villages.

Those who did not or could not make the pilgrimage following the routes of the colonial administration took the Sudan Road, but faced many difficulties along the way, among them avoiding the mul-tiple checkpoints established by the colonial administration. In the Hijaz, the intelligence services of the colonizers kept the ʿulamāʾ that I discuss in this work under close surveillance. These ʿulamāʾ were suspected of inciting pil-grims to rise against the colonial power upon their return to West Africa. These suspicions were never proven.

Again, the central concern of this book is to show the contribution of the West African ʿulamāʾ of the Hijaz to the spread of the Wahhābī teaching in Saudi Arabia, as well as in their countries of origin in Africa. They were not alone in this endeavor, but worked together with the ʿulamāʾ of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth, an Indian Salafī movement, and with the ʿulamāʾ of the Anṣār al-Sunna al-Muḥammadiyya, an Egyptian Salafī movement. Thus, Wahhabism spread in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere not only as a result of the efforts of the ʿulamāʾ from Najd (the birthplace of Wahhabism), but also with the help of the ʿulamāʾ from all parts of the Muslim world, including West Africa.

In this book, I do not deal at length with the historical question of the hijra as an important response of West African Muslims to colonization. Nor do I focus on how the colonizers reacted to the mass migration toward Mecca and Medina. There is a substantial literature on the various responses of West African Muslims to the colonial military conquest, most of which focus on resistance and cooperation as the only two responses.

New works examine African agency vis-à-vis colonizers and point out that there were in fact many kinds of responses to the colonial conquest. But do these new works really rep-resent a breakthrough? We know that Africans mustered military resistance against colonial occupation, but we also know that without African soldiers fighting under the command of European officers, the colonial conquest prob-ably could not have occurred. In either case, the agency of Africans does not

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