ISLAM AND MUSLIMS ARE RF.CEIVING A GREAT DEAL of attention from the international press. Scholars and social commentators have given divergent views about why Islam and Muslims are in the news. This global fascination is not limited to matters related to the Middle East or South Asia, but also extends to Islam in Africa. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. Some trace the fascination to post- World War II reactions of Muslims to the ideological contest between capitalists and communists. Others suggest that the Iranian Revolution and its worldwide impact contributed to the Western media’s fascination, if not fear, of Islam and the Muslim World. No matter how one relates to these matters, the fact remains that Islam is a matter of interest to Islamic activists – whose efforts to revive their religion under a climate of secular hegemony actually make life difficult for Islam and its adherents – and government agencies, whose personnel work feverishly to contain any negative political fallout from the efforts of these political Islamists or Islamic revivalists.

This article argues that the present state of affairs in Muslim Africa is largely the result of Muslims’ reactions to the burning issues of postwar and postcolonial Africa. These issues are deeply rooted in the African struggle for a common identity and in the quest for political and economic development, global recognition and cultural adjustment in a world increasingly dominated by secular forces not of their making. By examining these and other related issues, we hope to shed some light on the nature of Islam in the postwar period and to help explain the relationship between African Muslims and the Muslim Umma.


The story of Islam in Africa is long and checkered. Muslim sources say the holy Prophet Muhammad sent his Companions to Abyssinia on the Horn of Africa when their young movement was threatened by hostile Meccan forces. Since this early contact, much has taken place between this world religion and the African people. Major historical developments before the Second World War include the Arabization and Islamization of Northern Africa; the settlement of Muslims from the Middle East on the east African coast starting in the Ummayyad period; the intensification of the trans-Saharan trade from the 9th to the 15th centuries; the rivalry between European Christians and Muslims for control of world trade routes from the 15th century to the collapse of the Ottoman and other less powerful Muslim empires and kingdoms in Africa and Asia; the domestication of Islam in African societies and the rise of Islamic learning and culture among African people; the planting of Europeanized Christianity and the impact of colonialism on African societies; the emergence of Pan-Africanism and Negritude and the successes of the anti-colonial movement.
By 1900, virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, was under the colonial yoke, and Islam and traditional African religions were on the defensive. Islam was putting up a fight against the political and military might of the colonial powers, but its adherents were increasingly shaped by the new rules of the political game called imperialism. Related to, but not necessarily identical to, the colonial process were the missiological challenges posed by European missionaries. These religious rivals of Islam had suffered defeat at the hands of the African mosquito in the centuries preceding the discovery of quinine. But by 1900, their enthusiasm and activism combined to make them more eager to compete with Muslims in the conversion of the African people. By the end of the Second World War, Africa became a theater of religious coexistence under several imperial roofs. Each imperial power had its own formula for religious interaction and social change in the colonies. Muslims seized the opportunity of indirect rule in British Tropical Africa to refurbish the decaying structures of their glorious institutions and to redefine their identity under the colonial dispensation. Those African Muslims who lived under French colonial rule, especially the inhabitants of the Four Communes of Dakar, St. Louis, Rufisque and Goree Island in Senegal, soon found themselves bracketed legally from their Muslim counterparts in the interior of Africa simply because they were supposed to be more assimilated into the French colonial culture. Many Muslim intellectuals who went to study in France during the war were products of this concerted French policy of assimilation. It was in response to the challenges of the colonial regimes and their cultural policies that the African nationalist movement gained momentum. It led to the reexamination of the African historical experience and the redefinition of the African identity question. We will return to this issue when we examine the relationship between African Muslims and the Pan-African movement.

Self-definition was critical on many grounds. Historical records show that colonial powers posed a serious threat to African Muslim identity. The colonial powers embarked on a course of deprivileging Arabic and eroding its psychological and psycho-historical position in the African Muslim consciousness. The enthronement of the European tongue in the African cultural world gradually created a small but growing army of young African Muslims who drank more from the fountains of Anglo-Saxon or Gallic cultures than from the longstanding Muslim centers of higher learning. Apart from the declining significance of Arabic as a lingua franca among Muslims, there was also the downgrading of the Qur’anic schools and madrassas of the past. By creating Western schools in the heartlands of the Muslim societies, the colonizing powers made it categorically clear that the elevator to the top of the colonially constructed pyramid was by way of the colonial language. Although most Muslim families saw this new language as a potential cultural instrument of infiltration into the Muslim community, over time many families began to see the utility of this borrowed tongue. In fact, some families began to realize that the instrument the colonizers used to rob Muslims of their classical heritage could be used judo-style against the imperial order. This discovery of latent power in the language of the imperial enemy was soon acted upon by the interwar generation of Africans, Muslims and others who began to agitate for decolonization. Among the most prominent across Africa was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea-Conakry, and Mamadou Dia of Senegal. The message certainly reverberated in the eastern and southern portions of the continent as well.

The sense of cultural alienation that accompanied the gradual and effective secularization of Muslim Africa was more evident to the older generations than the young, who were beginning to benefit from the reward systems created by the colonial rulers. In retrospect, one can argue that the detraditionalization process initiated by the colonial powers did not affect only the Muslims; it created a community of colonial sufferers that brought African Muslims and others under one imperial roof. This forging of new solidarities created opportunities for nationalists to bring down the im- perial state. The African nationalist movement owed much of its strength and sting to the galvanizing powers of Pan- Africanism. Much has been said about the idea that “we are all Africans.” What is not often addressed is the relationship between this idea and the religious traditions of Africans. It is true that Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana tried to locate this idea within the framework of Africa’s diverse heritage. His idea of Conscientism, which argues for what Ali A. Mazrui called the recognition and appreciation of “the triple heri- tage,” is based on the understanding that a postcolonial Afri- can society must reconcile three strands of thought com- peting for primacy in African societies. These strands, according to Nkrumah, are the traditional African, Arabo- Islamic and Euro- Western heritages in Africa. From a Muslim perspective, Conscientism is not related to the Islamic ideal. In the interest of African unity, however, and because of the challenges posed by imperialism and colo- nialism, many a prominent Muslim leader within the natio- nalist movement accepted its logic and worked energetically with non-Muslims to create a new dispensation in which everything African, whether Islamic or not, is valorized effectively and simultaneously. This marriage of conve- nience between the secularized Muslim leadership in anti- colonial Africa and their non-Muslim counterparts cannot be dismissed offhandedly. The united front of the African people was an imperative and the logic of the global anti- colonial struggle was driven more by secularism than by any global religious tradition.
While acknowledging the historical role and place of the secular nationalism of interwar Africa, we must deconstruct the nationalist historiography on two levels to appreciate the role and place of Islam or any of Africa’s religious heritages in the struggle for political independence. First, what role, if any, did Islam play in the anti-colonial struggle for indepen- dence? One can answer that Islam never ceased combating the colonial creature and its cultural partners in the African cultural universe. The Islamic elements in the anti-colonial struggle, especially in countries where a tradition of Muslim resistance is known and celebrated, are trying to bring back the lingua franca role of Arabic and to reconnect sub-Saha- ran Muslims with their brothers and sisters in the Muslim Umma. No longer willing to accept the colonial propaganda that the “Sahara Desert is the great divide between Arab Africa and Black Africa,” these Muslims of the interwar generation traveled across the Sahara to seek knowledge from northern African universities, such as al-Azhar in Cairo and Zaitouna in Tunisia, ostensibly to rekindle the old fires of Islamic solidarity that colonial rule ended. At another level, we can show how Islam contributed to the anti-colonial struggle. Here the accent is on the theological feeling of moral and spiritual superiority exhibited by colo- nized Muslims. Instead of accepting the military might of the colonizers as evidence of moral and cultural superiority, these Muslims in Africa behaved very much like their coun- terparts elsewhere in the world. In all instances known to contemporary historians, the Muslims have held on to this sense of spiritual superiority by virtue of their position in the chain of revelations. Being custodians of the last revelation from God, the Muslims argue, no other society or civilization can define itself as superior to them. This sense of moral and spiritual superiority is often missed by non- Muslims looking at the Muslim experience in contemporary times. Of course, this point is not missed by many contemporary observers and many an author from the West has referenced this fact.


The impact of Islam on the historical developments that shaped the Independence Movement cannot be understood unless one remembers that the social justice component in the Islamic doctrine has always been present in the consciousness of the Muslim communities scattered around the continent. Although colonial orders created by different European powers responded differently to the Islamic challenge, there was some coherence in the colonial and imperial logic. All colonies were in effect divided into two categories: the colonized and the colonizers. As Cheikh Hamidou Kane pointed out in Ambiguous Adventure, a novel that captures the impact of colonial education on a Muslim child, the colonizing power was more interested in making black Frenchmen than in the creation of a social order in which the integrity and uniqueness of Islam were recognized and appreciated. This cultural challenge to the Muslim sense of being Adamic in words and spirit, an important reflection of the Tawhidic Paradigm, was played out in the denial of full human status to those not “assimilated to the French cultural system.”

The interwar period was an important part of the colonial episode in Africa. The incorporation of Muslims into the colonial system of government created different conditions and conflicting responses on the question of social justice under colonial rule. Muslims were basically divided into three categories: the collaborationist, covert and not-so- covert resisters, and political quiets. The collaborationists gradually emerged among the ranks of the old Muslim elites who had run Muslim societies and communities before colo- nial rule. Caught between the crossfire of the defenders of the old order and the new, and determined to make the best out of their deteriorating situation, many traditional Muslim elites chose to play along with the imperial powers. This was certainly the case after 191 2 in northern Nigeria where Atahiru, the successor of Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, dared to rise against British colonialism there. Atahiru’s ex- periences were replicated in those of Sheikh Ahmad Bamba before the reconciliation with French colonial masters who, in more hostile times, had exiled him to Gabon. It would not be historically incorrect to say that many a collaborationist emerged from Muslim households whose ancestors fought valiantly against the rising imperial powers. Muslims in significant numbers worked with the Europeans and made the best out of a bad situation. It is only in this light that one can understand the successes and failures of Muslims in advancing their welfare and that of their non-Muslim neighbors in colonized Africa. The collaborating Muslims worked with the colonial systems to defend minimally their rituals and way of life without the benefit of political and military instruments of old.

Muslims in the second category who could not accept the colonial imperative learned to cope by acts of silent resistance. Many of these men and women became partners of the Westernized and secular forces who saw African liberation in the secular ideologies of the day. Some of these Muslims joined labor unions, others embraced rising political parties, and yet others saw a brighter future in the creation of Muslim political parties. In the special case of northern Nigeria, Amir Ahmad Bello, a descendant of Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, saw the resurgence of Muslim power in a northern party where traditional Muslim families could coalesce to seize power from the Westernized intellectuals and secularized non-Muslims. Although Ahmad Bello was a collaborator in the British rule of northern Nigeria, his insistence on the teaching and practice of Islam left a legacy and an image endearing to many Nigerian political Islamists. This Muslim use of secular vehicles to collaborate with the African nationalists was visible almost everywhere. Resistance to colonialism through the Pan-African Movement in most Muslim majority colonies became almost synonymous with deploying Islamic resources to advance a secular cause.

Muslims in eastern and southern Africa in many ways saw themselves and were seen as privileged by non-Muslim neighbors, many within their ranks became actively involved in the anti-colonial struggle. Their activism, in retrospect, contributed to the polarization of their communities. Those among them who saw the relevance of Islamic teachings on social justice in the anti-colonial struggle tried to justify and rationalize to their Muslim constituencies the need for Muslims to close ranks with the suffering and exploited African masses. For example, the early days of the Chama Cha Mupendezi (formerly the Tanganyika African National Union) saw many Muslims joining hands with other Africans in the creation of a nationalist movement for this part of East Africa. President Julius Nyerere had many Muslims in his company when the emerging leadership of what is now called Tanzania was being forged. Muslims also were involved in party politics in Kenya and Uganda. Scholarly and journalistic accounts of this political maneuvering of East African Muslims are well known.

Events in South Africa also showed that Muslim voices were not absent among those reverberating in the firmaments of African political debates. Evidence of Muslim participation in these struggles for social and political justice is known in Africa and abroad. The political historians who will write the history of the postwar struggle for freedom in this part of the continent will certainly register the role and place of many Muslims in the activities of the African National Congress and the Pan- African Congress. The details in these biographical and communal narratives are well known to our South African brothers and sisters. Those who joined the struggle for freedom and made enormous sacrifices for their cause can be called heroes and sheroes (formerly heroines) not only among African Muslims but also the larger Umraa. Their efforts on the side of freedom and social justice reaffirmed the unwavering opposition of Islam to what we have described elsewhere as “Iblisianism,” which denotes any sense of superiority – tribal, ethnic, racial, caste, gender or age – over any other human. The idea is derived from the Qur’anic narrative about Creation and the arrogance of Iblis (Satan) when God commanded him and the angels to bow before Adam. In our view, those Muslims who joined the anti-apartheid struggle to raise their society from the pitfalls of Iblisianism were self-affirming inheritors of the Prophetic message.

The third group of Muslims who responded to the colo- nial challenge through acts of political quietism was mainly among the Sufi orders of Islam. These mystical bodies of Muslims responded differently to the colonial powers. Some of them, such as the Hamilliyya order, resisted the colonial designs openly and, for this and other related reasons, suf- fered French persecution. In fact, the French treated this group more harshly than the Muridiyya order, whose exiled leader was eventually reconciled to the French colonial order. The Sufi orders in the Sudan and other parts of the Horn of Africa also followed this political behavior. For example, the descendants of the Mahdi of Sudan gradually developed a strategy of political adjustment, which paved the way for their successful involvement in Sudanese poli- tics. In eastern Africa, the Sufi groups also took the political quietistic road to politics. In other words, the murids were not known for political activism. Rather, they helped create many dayirahs, and for this and other related reasons, they diverted energies of their constituencies away from anticolonial politics. This approach to the challenges of the colonial order gave a bad name to some of these Sufi groups and the nationalist leaders who came to power after the Europeans and they have since been targeted as obscurantist and retrogressive. There is, however, no unanimity of opinion on this matter. The fortunes and misfortunes of these groups have generally depended on the history of their relationship with the state and the collective power exercised by their leaders.


When we look at the impact of 9/11 on African countries, one must identify areas where this impact is felt. First, this tragic event has complicated the African quest for development. In contrast, during the Cold War, the Western Alliance and Soviet Bloc recognized the possibility of terrorism within their spheres of influence and violence of that nature was almost always attributed to the machinations of their rival and their proxies. This was particularly true during the anticolonial struggle waged by guerrillas in the settler colonies or surrounding areas commonly called frontline states by African nationalists. This was also true in the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and the fight against the Portuguese in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

Because of the parity that existed between the two superpowers and because of their grudging acceptance of the principle of mutually assured destruction should they ever contemplate a nuclear exchange, the leaders and the led of these rival ideological powers reluctantly accepted the Palestinian hijacking of planes and military operations of the African and Asian members of the tri-continental movement that originated in Havana, Cuba, during the mid-1960s. This movement provided political and intellectual justification for the use of violence by national liberation groups. Before the Havana meeting, almost all the African liberation groups, except the Algerians, took the Ghandian path to political liberation. This was evident in the activities of Kwame Nkrumah, known as Positive Action, and in the work of Kenneth Kaunda and others in the Pan-African Movement.

What is strikingly different about the present state of affairs is that international terrorism is in most cases religiously inspired and not secularly motivated in any significant way. Because of the clash between the international fundamentalist cartels in Africa, the masses are most likely to suffer from the consequences of this new war between religious fundamentalists. “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.” Therefore the persistence and the pervasiveness of religious bigotry in African societies could spell disaster for African development. Even though these two religiously inspired global movements have the capacity to infuse capital and technical know-how in Africa, their divisiveness will likely undermine the unity of the society and, because of their hegemonic ambitions, they could pose serious threats to Africans’ state-building efforts.

Another area in which 9/11 has impacted Africa is in introducing the politics of fear among Africans. This phenomenon, which is gaining much ground in the West largely because of bombings in certain Western capitals, has manifested itself in many ways. There is the politics of fear in the vocabulary of African leaders who wish to profit from Western fear of terrorism by lumping together their political opponents as “terrorists.” Such were the Cold War practices of Third-World dictators who saw in anti-communist rhetoric a useful tool to suppress their rivals and secure the backing of Western powers. Third- World radicals also oftentimes dismissed their ideological opponents as counter-revolutionaries and collaborators bent on sabotaging the revolution. This politics of fear is beginning to create waves of African refugees from places being used as theaters of operation against international terrorists. The collapse of the Somali state, which triggered a mass exodus from the Horn of Africa, has not only led to an unprecedented creation of a Somali Diaspora, but it also has made life nasty, brutish and short there. The politics of fear also has made life miserable for Somalis and Muslims, who are increasingly being treated as suspects by law enforcement in many Western countries. The politics of fear does not only reverberate in the firmaments of African politics, but it also interferes with capital formation and international remittances from Africans abroad. Prior to 9/11, Somalis living abroad were able to remit millions of dollars to relatives in Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. As a result of 9/11, however, their financial transactions have been subjected to serious scrutiny.

Given this state of affairs, we can see how the politics of fear in the West could impact and distort the politics of the belly in Africa and beyond. In a continent where a majority of people fall below the $2-a-day standard of living, the politics of fear, which could lead to unintended consequences for the poor and the powerless, needs to be carefully examined and addressed. African dictators who are resisting the winds of change toward greater democratization of their societies will certainly exploit it. Western NGOs and Muslims who are seriously committed to the democratization of their societies should join hands in preventing dictators from taking advantage of this phenomenon as they did during the Cold War. But in order for these domestic and international forces to succeed, they must pay close attention to the activities and operations of the international fundamentalist cartels. These generally bigoted religious forces are sometimes allied with the dictators. In other cases, they are system-challengers who oppose the dictators not from a commitment to the democratization of African societies, but from their propagan- distic campaign to foster their brand of metaphysics. NGOs and foreign groups that represent this kind of engagement with African societies are not likely to help Africans in their quest for economic and political development.

As a final note, 9/11 and the impact of international terrorism has affected Africans in terms of their choices. Their lives have been complicated by the greater penetration of their societies by Western military and security forces, which operate in the Third World because of the visible and invisible threat of terrorist groups that use Islam or any other religion as a justification for violent acts. Because of the under-development of African societies, it is dangerous and unwise for Africans – Muslim or non-Muslim – to fall into the trap of the international fundamentalist cartels. Their message and methods are not likely to help Africans overcome the problems of nation- and state-building in this new century.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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