IF WESTERN perceptions of Middle Eastern peoples and Islam – preserved in and fuelled by an immense corpus of cultural and academic production – have been, and still are, characterized by a mixture of fear, fascination, loathing, and awe, the least we can say is that these perceptions were generated by and continuously adapted to an actual relationship between East and West. Although this relationship was often soured by violence and suspicion, it was also, in many instances, marked by cultural and economic exchange.

The popular and academic “mak- ing” and “imagining” of Africa, as David Robinson explains in Muslim Societies in African History, was shaped by a very different experience. Until colonial times, images of sub- Saharan Africa were primarily the product of wild speculations about a dark and mysterious unknown. When contact was eventually established, the cultural and historical interest in the colonized was determined by political, economic, and “civilizing” motives to such an extent that the academic study of the colonized peoples and their cul- tures became a natural extension of these interests. For political conve- nience and lack of knowledge, (sub- Saharan) Africa was declared the orphan of history. Perceived back- wardness was taken as sufficient proof of millennia of stagnation, so from then on, the “white man” would be the custodian of Africa’s past, as well as its future. Furthermore, as Islam was considered superficial and imposed on “black” Africa, the study of African Islam as a powerful social and political agent was excluded from the early discipline of African Studies.

One of Robinson’s primary objectives in Muslim Societies in African History is to bridge the ancient schism between the study of Islam and the study of Africa brought about by the isolated development of the respective disciplines of Oriental and African studies. The work is much more than a mere summary of the current state of academic knowledge and the debate on Islam in Africa as the flap advertises. Robinson’s quest to reunite African history with one of its most powerful agents has become a landmark (re)formulation of the complex mechanisms and processes through which Islam has been appropriated, internalized, and continually reconceptualized in the face of change by Muslim communities all over Africa. The author’s use of English as well as (translated) Arabic and African texts and his inclusion of both local and national case studies provide the work with a multi-perspectivity that many earlier works on the topic lack.

Robinson’s work is occasionally marred by the lack of textual and theological accuracy that result from the long separation of the scholarly domains of the Arabist and the African historian. For example, Swa- hili folk traditions about the Prophet’s journey through the seven heavens are described as Sufi-related extreme veneration of the Prophet, rather than being identified as a widely shared orthodox belief, related in the 17th Sura of the Qur’an, Al-Isra ‘. Likewise, Robinson inaccurately describes the Islamic legal principle of qiyas (analogy) as “a method through which precedents of other religions and cultures can be incorporated,” rather than a concept that was primarily applied internally to Islamic primary sources.

Such minor inaccuracies, however, are limited to the introductory chapter on the fundamental institutions of Islam and do not in any way devaluate the fascinating case studies that so aptly illustrate the book’s main objective: to show the countless ways in which African communities have made Islam their own.

The variety in scope of the seven case studies allows for a dynamic as well as profound impression of the myriad ways in which African communities have made Islam indigenous. The first two chapters focus on the national level; the first in a context where Muslims formed the majority and the second where they formed a minority in a Christian state Morocco and Ethiopia respectively.

The chapters that follow are temporally and geographically more limited in scope and therefore allow for a more subtle impression of the conditions and odds for Islamization on the local level. We get a glimpse of the theological concepts developed by the 19th-century Muslim traders living among the “pagan” Ashanti, to justify their residence in non-Muslim lands; we share in the struggle of the 18th-century Fulani ‘Uthman dan Fodio as he waged his jihad against the corruption and oppression of the local Hausa rulers, and we follow the subsequent birth of his African caliphate built upon its own unique Islamic pedagogy and an exclusivist interpretation of the concept of dar al-Islam.

In late 19th-century Buganda, we witness how, in a small rural community, Islamic proselytizing experiences a temporal success to eventually be cut short by the arrival of the technologically advanced Europeans accompanied by an aggressive Christian missionary movement. In TurkoEgyptian-British dominated Sudan, we see how one charismatic preacher succeeds in mobilizing a large anticolonial army by assuming the role of the Mahdi (Messiah) and presenting his struggle as a reenactment of the events of the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In the final case study of the Muridiyya brotherhood in the French colony of Senegal, we see how the quietist Sufi leader Amadou Bamba, through a balance between silent resistance, collaboration, and a spiritually motivated distaste of worldly power, built one of the most influential and durable Islamic movements on the African continent.

Undoubtedly, the importance of this publication goes beyond its uniqueness as the first undergraduate textbook to cover the historical spread and appropriation of Islam in Africa in such a comprehensive manner. Robinson’s elaboration on the historical misconceptions that informed the establishment of the institutionalized study of African peoples and cultures, and his multidisciplinary approach is an important impetus for the formulation of a new framework to study Islam in Africa. With his “snapshots” approach, he sets an example for how such a framework can be applied to real historical communities.

The greatest strength of Robinson’s case studies lies in the questions they raise, questions that are still acutely relevant to Muslim communities today and are at the center of global debates about Islam, both inside and outside Muslim communities. What role does Islam play in the integration of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim lands? Are Muslim minorities in need of new concepts and applications of Islamic law? What is the meaning of and what are the conditions for militant jihad? How does foreign domination affect the development of Islamic thought?

It is time for both Muslims and Western scholars of Islam to further investigate the local answers to these questions formulated by the African traders among the Ashanti, the revolutionaries of Hausaland, or the quietist laborers of the Muridiyya brotherhood. There is a lot there to be discovered.

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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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