Note: This was taken verbatim from MSANEWS (which is now off-line).

Africa and Islamic Revival: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

by John Hunwick

SOURCE: Direct Submission DATE: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 11:41:57 -0600 TEXT:

One thousand, three hundred and fifty-five years ago, in A.D. 641, the Arab commander 'Amr ibn al-'As led his army across what we would now call the Gaza Strip and into Egypt. The move constituted Islam's first footsteps in the African continent, and opened up an era of continuous expansion for the faith, both as a spiritual enterprise and a political kingdom. Today approximately one quarter of the world's one billion Muslims live in Africa-that is about 250 million. In the countries of the northern one third of the continent they are a majority-up to 99% of the population in some cases. This includes all the countries we would nowadays recognize as "Arab" countries in Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and, to some extent the Sudan), as well as a second tier of countries where Islam is either the majority religion, such as Somalia, Chad, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Guinea, or is the religion of approximately half of the population, such as Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Most other African countries have minority Muslim populations, i.e. less than 50% of the inhabitants, and these include some with sizeable minorities such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Tanzania; others have smaller numbers. Surprisingly, even South Africa has a small Muslim population (2-3%), which is, nevertheless, well educated and well organized, with greater influence than mere numbers might suggest.

Obviously at one time or another Muslims were in a minority in every corner of the continent. In Egypt, where the religion first penetrated the continent, Muslims remained a minority for several centuries, while being politically dominant. Even today 8-10% of Egypt's population is Christian. Muslims, then, had to learn right from the beginning, to survive and to preserve their religious integrity within a sea of non-Muslims. Not only did they have to define their identity as against neighbors who belonged to other faiths-Christianity, Judaism and many different African religions-they also had constantly to redefine their own Islamic faith, engaging in self criticism and seeking to redefine their faith in the light of what they learned from scholars of the wider Islamic world. Over the centuries certain cities in Africa themselves became centres of scholarship where the great issues of the faith were debated and new teachings evolved. Cairo, which was founded in 969 A.D., soon had its own mosque-university-al-Azhar-which became the reference point for orthodoxy among the Sunni majority of Muslims. Qayrawan in Tunisia, Tlemcen in Algeria and Fez in Morocco also became important centres of Islamic learning in North Africa, while Timbuktu was a focal point for West African scholars from the 14th to the 17th century. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, Islamic knowledge was not the sole prerogative of urban-based scholars. Islamic learning could also flourish in Saharan oases and in small towns and scholarly settlements such as Walata in southern Mauritania, Kalumfardo in Bornu (N.E. Nigeria), Kutranj on the Blue Nile (Sudan) or Lamu on the Kenyan coast. Even among nomads-often stereotyped as the arch back-sliders of religion-learning and religious zeal combined on occasion to produce revivalists and reformers whose influence was widespread.

Before I go into detail on how some of these processes of revival worked in Africa, and, indeed, are still working with considerable vigor, I would like to spend a few moments examining the concept of revival in the Islamic tradition. Right from its inception in 7th century Arabia, Islam has been a faith with an activist tradition, both in theory and in practice. The Qur'an, the scripture that Muslims believe to be the literal word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, encouraged Muslims to stand up for their faith against enemies and make Islam triumphant: "Say to those who disbelieve, that if they desist, God will pardon them for what has passed, but if they repeat it then the example of earlier folk has gone before. Fight them until there be no more dissent in the land and religion is all for God" [8: 28-9] Muslims were exhorted by the Qur'an to "strive in God's way", to undertake jihad for the defence of Islam and for its ultimate triumph. It was such sentiments that imbued the early Arab warriors who undertook the unification of the Arabian peninsula under the banner of Islam, and led the great wave of conquests that took the Arab Muslims as far west as Spain and as far east as India in the first century of Islam. Another passage of the Qur'an speaks of Muslims as "the best community produced for mankind", and characterizes its members as those "who command what is right and forbid what is wrong". Later this was echoed in a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "If any one of you sees something that is wrong, let him change it: with his hand if he can, but if not then with his tongue; and if not then with his heart-and this is the weakest expression of faith". This, then formed the basis for reforming action in Islam. Physical action is the preferred option. If this is not a viable option then preaching or exhorting is the next best approach to change. If one is too weak or fearful to do this, then the least that can be done is to will change in the heart and pray for it.

There is a close connection in the Islamic tradition between reform and revival. Over the early centuries of Islam Muslims began to develop a horror of what they called "innovation" (bid'a): a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad says: "Every innovation is an errancy, and errancy leads to Hell". Of course, in one sense every decision they made about law, doctrine and government down to that time had been an innovation. But by the beginning of the fifth century of Islam questions of orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy(correct practice) had been largely settled, and thereafter for the next eight centuries or so, what remained to be done was largely a matter of fine tuning. The great challenge was how to preserve what was already there, how to protect the beliefs of Muslims from the influence of ideas considered to be "un-Islamic"-however that term might be defined. Muslims came to believe that the best way forward in the faith was by looking back-for moral inspiration and example to the Prophet and his contemporaries who were considered the model generation of Muslims, and to the elaboration of the Qur'anic word of God and the Prophet Muhammad's teachings in the writings of the scholars of the early centuries. Thus reform itself became revival or renewal of what was considered to be the ideal practice of the early Muslim community, or at least a strict observance of the "classical" elaboration of dogma and law in the early golden centuries of Islam. An essential dilemma of Islam in the late 20th century is how to match this archaic idealism with the needs of Muslim communities struggling to enhance their material prosperity through rapid technological progress-how to build truly modern societies using not just the moral and ethical principles of an ancient religion, but retaining a frame of reference for social action which evolved in a bygone age. To this we shall return.

The process of revival began from the moment of the Prophet's death in 632 A.D. Then Arabian tribes who had acknowledged his leadership by formally committing themselves to his religion at least in a political sense, refused to acknowledge his wordly successor-his caliph, Abu Bakr-and demonstrated this by refusing to pay the religious tithe-the zakat-considered one of the fundamentals of the faith. To bring them back into line politically and fiscally, the caliph launched a series of military campaigns, and within two years political and religious loyalty had been restored. This example, incidentally, illustrates how closely bound up the concept of religious faith is with what we might prefer to call politics. Paying taxes and owing allegiance to an acknowledged political head are integral to the faith of Islam. This remains true, at least in theory, in 1996, though few governments of Muslim countries formally organize payment of the zakat tithe, and there is no politico-religious figure comparable to the caliph to whom Muslims might owe allegiance. Here again is an area of conflict between the realities of late 20th-century life and the ideals of pristine Islam.

The political aspect of the faith was, in fact, the one over which the deepest divisions arose in Islam. This is not the place to go into a detailed account of Islamic sectarianism. Suffice it to say that it was over the issue of who had the moral right to headship of the Islamic community that the major split between those who came to be known as Sunnis and Shi'is arose less than thirty years after the Prophet's death. What evolved out of this struggle-the first civil war in Islam-was a Shi'ite position which held that headship of the community should pass through the descendents of the Prophet's cousin 'Ali and 'Ali's wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, while the majority Sunnis held out for a broader base for leadership-simply within the Prophet's tribe, the Quraysh, but in practice within certain specific families of Quraysh. Another splinter group, the Kharijites, now surviving only in small numbers in Algeria, Libya and Oman, proclaimed a meritocracy, declaring that leadership was open to all, conditional only upon piety and Islamic knowledge. While the Shi'a leaders, the imams, were recognized to have authority in dogma and law-indeed to be infallible-the Sunni caliphs had no such authority, but were looked upon as defenders of the faith both in terms of orthodoxy and the territorial integrity of Muslim lands.

In practice, the Sunni caliphs-and since Africans are all Sunni Muslims we shall only be concerned with this model-the Sunni caliphs rapidly lost any real political control over most of their territory after the first two centuries of Islam. North African territories were among the first to claim autonomy. The whole area west of Egypt was essentially lost to caliphal control after about 820 A.D., and Egypt itself was lost by 969 A.D. Even the caliphs themselves in Baghdad came to be controlled by secular sultans of non-Arab origin from about this time. Independent dynasties became the rule in the African territories of Islam (and, of course, Islamic Spain too), but only two of these came to power with essentially reformist claims, so far as I can recall: the Almoravids, a Saharan dynasty that ruled Morocco and Spain between the mid-11th and the mid-12th century and their successors, the Atlas mountain Berber dynasty of the Almohads who united much of north-west Africa under their banner from the mid-12th to the mid-13th century. We have to wait until the 19th century to witness movements with a revivalist ideology-movements headed by religious scholars who take or are granted political power in the name of creating truly Islamic states and expanding the political kingdom of Islam through jihad.

The sense among Muslims that there has been a constant falling off in the practice of the faith since the earliest days of Islam is encapsulated in a saying-a hadith-attributed to the Prophet Muhammad which enters the literature in the mid-9th century: "God shall send to this community, at the head of every hundred years a person (or persons) who shall renew its religion for it". It is not clear how much significance was initially attached to this saying, except perhaps to boost the status of the legal scholar al-Shafi'i, who died in the fifth year of the third century (820 A.D.) and was later pointed to as the renewer of the second century of Islam. Several centuries later, at a time when the fortunes of Islam seemed at a very low ebb following the Mongol conquest of 1258 and the slaughter of the caliph and his family, scholars again took interest in this saying. Lists were compiled of possible candidates for the honor of being the renewer-the mujaddid-of the century. These circulated among scholars of the central lands of Islam and although there was no unanimity about the names put forward, the list of contenders for a given century was quite small.

The interpretation of the hadith also took on an eschatological tone. The notion of the appearance of a messianic figure heralding the end of the world had circulated among Muslims from the first century of Islam. Indeed, it is probable that the idea itself originated in Jewish messianic teaching and/or in Christian beliefs about the Second Coming, since large numbers of people of these two faiths were among the converts of the first century of Islam. It was believed that this person, known as the Mahdi, would restore justice to the world and would lead a movement to conquer the entire world for Islam, aided in such a task by Jesus who would descend again from heaven for the purpose. The Mahdi, then, was himself a renewer of Islam-the final one before the Last Trump and the Day of Resurrection. In the literature of the renewers of Islam, the Mahdi came to be counted as the final mujaddid.

This took on a special significance among those scholars who tried to forecast the end of the world-despite the Qur'anic dictum that no one other than God knows its hour. As the year 1000 (A.D. 1591) of the Islamic era approached there was speculation as to whether the world would outlast this millenium. When it did, various new forecasts were promptly made. The century beginning with the Islamic year 1200 (1785) began to be favored by some, especially in West Africa and the Sudan. The number twelve took on a special significance in the light of another saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, to the effect that there would be twelve "true caliphs" in Islam. Various proposals were put forward as to their identity, but it was generally agreed that not all had appeared. But by juxtaposing the hadith of the twelve caliphs with the notion of the centenial renewer of Islam and the Mahdi as the last renewer, it became possible to theorize that the Mahdi would appear and carry out his mission of renewal and conversion during the 13th Islamic century.

It is indeed during this century-the 19th century of the Common Era-that we see two major revivalist figures in Africa The first, Usuman dan Fodio, came close to being proclaimed Mahdi but opted instead for establishing an Islamic state in what is now Nigeria. The other, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself Mahdi in the Sudan, but died before carrying out his grand plans and left it to his successor, the Khalifa 'Abdullahi, to grapple with the day-to-day problems of establishing an Islamic state. Both men were scholars of the law and both were also Sufis-mystics; both were rare examples in the Islamic tradition of men of learning becoming men of action and wielders of state power.

Both of these movements deserve closer attention, not only because of what they tell us about the Islamic revivalism and its relation to social and political protest, but because the long-term consequences of them both are still with us. We begin with the movement of Shaykh 'Uthman (Shehu Usuman dan Fodio). He sprang from a Fulani group with distant origins in Senegal. They had been settled in north-western Nigeria since the 15th century and by the mid-18th century had become known for their piety and learning. Usuman received a local education in the Qur'an and Islamic law and dogma and by 1774 at the age of 20 had embarked upon a career as an itinerant preacher and teacher. He had also been inducted into the Qadiriyya Sufi Order. The Fulani were a marginal people, living on the edges or in the interstices of the dominant Hausa society. The Hausa were divided into a number of small and often antagonistic kingdoms, ruled by Muslim sultans supported by an elaborate hierarchy of officials. The mass of the people were peasants living in villages and hamlets, while in the cities a wide variety of crafts was pursued as well as trade both local and international. Slaves provided a good deal of the labor among the elite class, and the rulers maintained large harems of slave women. Yet others formed a staple in the trans-Saharan trade. Murray Last has argued that there was an economic crisis in the area in the 18th century. Hausa sultans practised extortion on their subjects to maintain their overblown life styles; a wide gamut of taxes was being raised, including a cattle tax which particularly affected the pastoral Fulani. The Fulani themselves were becoming increasingly hemmed in by Tuareg to their north and loss of grazing land turned over to agriculture in an apparent cotton boom. Enslavement of rural populations may also have been on the increase not only to satisfy the northern trade but to be funneled southwards towards the Atlantic slave trade, then at its height.

There also seems to have been an expansion of the Muslim learned class among the Fulani and increasingly narrow interpretations of Islamic obligations. Shehu Usumanu preached against narrow condemnation of the ordinary Muslim on doctrinal grounds, while fostering a movement of wider education and community solidarity among Muslim populations both Fulani and Hausa. The local ruler of the state of Gobir saw this as the development of a state within a state and tried to hold it at bay, banning what we would today recognize as "fundamentalist" dress-turbans for men and veils for women. Although he had some close and unfriendly encounters with his local sultan, Shehu Usuman was left free, though restricted in his freedom to make new converts. In the closing years of the 18th century he preached that the sultan of Gobir, and by extension all Hausa sultans had abjured the faith of Islam on account of their oppression of Muslims, their ostentatious life-styles, and the unislamic taxes they imposed on the people. Having declared them infidels he then withdrew from the territory of Gobir with a devoted band of followers following the practice of the Prophet Muhammad who left his city of Mecca to practice his new religion freely in Medina. Like the Prophet also, Shehu Usuman became political as well as religious leader of his community, and like him too, he proclaimed a jihad against his enemies. In the short space of four years, from 1804 to 1808 Shehu Usuman with the help of his brother and son had roused most of the local Fulani and many Hausa peasants-even some Tuareg-to fight and overthrow the sultan of Gobir, while allied Fulani groups undertook the defeat of several other Hausa sultans.

His movement certainly had millenarian overtones. Among his hundred or so writings are several that deal with the question of the Mahdi. It is clear that he thought the Mahdi's appearance was imminent and for a while he seems to have wondered if he might not, indeed, be the Mahdi. Nevertheless, he saw his basic mission as the establishment of an Islamic state and the spiritual preparation of Muslims for the eschaton. He set up Fulani-ruled statelets in place of the Hausa states and, together with his brother 'Abd Allah and his son Muhammad Bello, wrote numerous treatises on how to establish and run an Islamic state. Shehu Usuman's sons and grandsons continued to be at the helm of political affairs, using the caliphal title Commander of the Faithful, for the rest of the 19th century, while descendants of Shehu Usuman's original appointees ruled the emirates. These constituent parts of his Islamic state, the emirates as they were called, proved to be enduring political organizations, based as they were essentially on older Hausa forms of government that stretched back several centuries. When the state founded by Shehu Usumanu, generally known as the Sokoto Caliphate, fell to the Maxim gun of British imperialism in the opening years of the 20th century, the shrewd High Commisioner for Northern Nigeria, Sir Frederick Lugard, used them as the basis of his policy of Indirect Rule. Emirs continued to be responsible for the day to day running of their states, but under the watchful eye of British Residents who could intervene if the emirs' actions did not meet their approval. Certainly the wings of the emirs and of the Commander of the Faithful-now given the more secular title of Sultan of Sokoto-were clipped by the British, and they have been even more sharply clipped by successive Nigerian governments since independence in 1960. Nevertheless, they still survive, blending Islamic legitimacy with older traditions of Hausa government and now, increasingly with modern sector business-the present Sultan of Sokoto having been a successful merchant banker before his elevation.

If the shell, at any rate, of Shehu Usuman's political institutions has survived into the late 20th century, what about his social ideas? Shehu Usuman was writing and acting at a time well before any ideas of the European Enlightenment had penetrated the Islamic world. But he was active at a time when Islamic revivalist-reformist ideas were much in the air elsewhere in theMuslim world. In Arabia, in the Prophet's city of Medina, there was a prominent school of thought in the 18th century that gave pride of place to the precise implementation of the Prophet's practice-his sunna-in all spheres of human activity, and stressed the need for individuals to ascertain Prophetic practice and follow it. We know little about the direct connections of this school of thought with Shehu Usuman, but there were Fulani scholars who studied there. Shehu Usuman certainly preached a revival of the Sunna-one of his major books is entitled "Revival of the Sunna and Suppression of Innovation" and late in life appears to have advocated more personal responsibility in this matter. But by and large his approach was a conservative one: follow the models elaborated by the scholars of the past and eschew radical rethinking of social and political norms. His recipe for religious regeneration was education for all-study of the Qur'an, the Hadith, the prayers and basic obligations of the religion. Reviving the Prophet's practice, he encouraged the education of women in religious matters, and several of his daughters emerged as scholars and writers.

His teachings continue to be studied and republished in popular facsimile editions, both those that deal with social and political matters, and those that deal with such topics as Sufism, religious ritual, eschatology and theology. In the political struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s the Northern Peoples Congress, the dominant party in northern Nigeria, essentially presented itself as the party that embodied the ideals of the Sokoto Caliphate, and its leader Sir Ahmadu Bello was, indeed, a descendent of Shehu Usuman. Although other religious tendencies have become more popular since independence-notably the Izala movement which echoes the Saudi Wahhabi denunciation of Sufism, whether the Qadiriyya of Shehu Usuman or the Tijaniyya later introduced-the conservative and inward-looking ideology of Shehu Usuman's movement continues to be a hallmark of Islam, at any rate among the Hausa of the northern states. There are young radicals who would like to tear down the structure of privilege represented by the emirate system and establish something more akin to an Islamic republic along Iranian lines, and indeed the Iranian revolution of 1979 has been a powerful inspiration to Nigerian Muslim radicals. So far, however, the weight of the older sytem combined with the vigilance of Nigerian security forces has kept such tendencies in check.

Taking the country as a whole, however, we can detect clear signs of an increased Islam awareness amounting to Islamic revival (tajdid) in the years since independence in 1960. Numerically, Muslims are at least half of the Nigerian population, probably more. Additionally Muslims have been politically dominant over the period, whether in the rather few years of civilian government or the longer periods of military rule. But it has always been essential to maintain a balance between Muslims and Christians, and there have been public outcries when this balanced seemed imperilled. Christians probably account for about 35% of the population, mainly in the southern half of the country, but with important, and often militant communities of Christians who converted from African religions in the so-called Middle Belt and the plateau area of the north. The southern Yoruba, Igbo and other Christians have a long history of western education, travel and residence overseas, and agressive business instincts. Although recent years have witnessed a tremendous upsurge in Christian religious acitvity (especially evangelistic and charismatic Christianity), Christian Nigerians have always supported the idea of a secular state-and this has always been a principle of successive Nigerian constitutions.

Muslims, on the other hand, have been critical of the secular state, an attitude they share with Islamic revivalists worldwide. They argue that secularism is not a neutral concept but embodies many Christian notions, beginning with "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's". Muslims frequently argue that how public life is conducted is a fundamental part of the faith. In particular, in common with revivalists in the Sudan, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere, they argue that their faith is incomplete if they do not live within a system of Islamic law-shar'ia. Following the establishment of colonial rule in Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century, shari'a law continued to play an important role in the northern region of Nigeria, though by independence its domain had essentially been confined to family law. In the southern two (later three) regions it never had any official recognition. In the northern region a Shari'a Court of Appeal was established, but with the demise of that region and its division into six states in 1967, appeal courts were established at the state level but without an ultimate single court of appeal. This issue of a Shari'a Court of Appeal became a contentious issue in debates about a new constitution in 1977, when northern Muslims, joined by some southerners, argued for a Federal Shar'ia Court of Appeal. Ultimately the move was quashed, but it surfaced again with vigor in similar constitutional debates in the late 1980s and this time the military head of state simply ruled it out of order for fear of an acrimonious debate that had no prospect of amicable solution. In both cases Christian representatives had seen such moves as an attempt to enthrone a second system of law in Nigeria, and one with which they had no sympathy. For them, indeed, it seemed part of an agenda to create an Islamic state. For Muslims, their demand was considered minimal. Many would still like to see the scope of Shar'ia considerably increased, at least in predominantly Muslim areas. The Muslim Council of Ulama [Scholars] proclaimed that it sought "the uninhibited application of Shari'a law in Nigeria", and some have argued that making Nigeria and Islamic state is the only way out of its present moral and economic morass.

Parallel to the Shar'ia debate, there was a similar outcry, with similar arguments, when it was "leaked" in 1986 that Nigeria had been admitted as a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a pan-Islamic body promoting Muslim solidarity, development and cultural awareness. Later, in 1990 there was an attempted coup within the Nigerian army when Christian officers mainly from the Middle Belt tried to overthrow the military government of General Babangida, proclaiming that some of the northern Muslim states of Nigeria would be excised from the federation, either temporarily or permanently. When, in the aftermath of that coup's suppression, the Christian Council of Nigeria (the Christian umbrella organization) demanded resignation of certain Muslim government ministers and accused the military government of trying to islamize the country through political appointments, the Council of Ulama issued a statement denying this and added: "Strictly speaking, the government has more to do with Christianity than with Islam, since secularism as practised by the government is an extension of the church concept of government. In Islam, politics and religion are inseparable. For a government to be Islamic, Allah has to be the legislator through the Qur'an and the Sunna of the Prophet".1 This statement highlights the gulf that separates Muslim revivalists from their Christian compatriots, and it points to one of the reasons for Islam's success in Africa and the growing appeal of Islamic revivalism elsewhere. Muslims are able to claim that their religion has a political and social program-indeed, often a political and social panacea-and this, in countries faced with severe economic problems and repressive regimes, reduced to subservience by Euro-American hegemony, has a powerful appeal.

Earlier in this talk I referred to the concept of the Mahdi, the messianic figure that Muslims believe will manifest himself near the end of the world, and to the particular claimant to that office who arose in the Sudan in the year 1298 of the Islamic Era or 1881 of the Common Era. We shall now turn to the Sudan as the second example of Islamic revival in Africa and trace the story through from the time of Muhammad Ahmad to the present. The sense of expectation of the Mahdi's appearance which was felt by Shehu Usuman dan Fodio and his contemporaries continued in the Nigerian region as the century progressed, and there were several waves of migration towards the Nile valley to "meet the Mahdi" who was expected to appear somewhere in the east, perhaps in Mecca. How much of these Mahdist ideas percolated from the one region to the other is not clear, but the Mahdi's most ardent supporter and ultimate successor, the Khalifa 'Abdullahi traced his origin to a man who had emigrated to the south-western Sudan from Fitri near Lake Chad three generations earlier. He was the first person to recognize Muhammad Ahmad as the Mahdi, even before the man himself had proclaimed it. From then on until the fall of Khartoum to the Mahdi's forces in January 1885 there was a continuous triumphal progress of volonteer armies fighting for the victory of Islam and the accomplishment of the eschatological mission.

As in Nigeria, so in the Sudan, there was profound social and political discontent which the Mahdi was able to exploit, and which, indeed, may have served to convince him and his supporters that times were so evil that the end of the world must be at hand. The Sudan had been conquered by the forces of Muhammad 'Ali, a Pasha of Albanian origin who ruled Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Turks, in 1821. The objectives of this conquest were essentially colonial in nature: to exploit the country's resources, in particular to obtain slaves to serve in his army, and to open up the equatorial regions to Egyptian commercial enterprise. In so doing he also opened up the region to northern Sudanese and ultimately European commercial enterprise. The administration which the Turco-Egyptian government set up in the Sudan was alien and often harsh. Taxes along the Nile agricultural lands were heavy and had to be paid in cash. To supplement the agricultural economy, northern Sudanese undertook trading ventures in the south, capturing slaves for use on their lands and for export to Egypt, as well as hunting elephants for ivory which was sold to European merchants to satisfy Europe's demand for piano keys, knife handles and billiard balls. By the mid-19th century there were numerous European merchants in the Sudan and some Chistian missonary organizations had been allowed to operate in the south. Under Muhammad 'Ali's fourth successor Isma'il (reg. 1863-79) attempts were made to end the slave trade and at the same time to expand the area under Turco-Egyptian control. A number of Europeans were appointed to governing positions within the regime, including Charles Gordon who subsequently became effective governor-general of the Sudan as it was about to collapse under the Mahdi's jihad. The ending of the slave trade was certainly unpopular with northern Sudanese who profited greatly from it, and the fact that "unbelievers"-European Christians-were instrumental in this effort no doubt contributed to the discontent. At the time of the Mahdi's manifestation in June 1881, Egypt itself was in deep trouble, its finances largely mortgaged to European bankers due to Isma'il's extravagances, and in 1882 the British took over its government in the wake of a failed nationalist uprising led by Col. 'Urabi Pasha.

The moment was propitious for an uprising aimed at driving out the "infidel Turks", as they were proclaimed, while fostering a (northern) Sudanese identity closely identified with Islam, which became a building block for Sudanese nationalism. In restrospect many Sudanese have seen the Mahdi as a nationalist, or at any rate a proto-nationalist, but he would certainly not have thought in those terms. Nor was his great movement of Islamic revivalism universally popular in the Sudan, not least in the non-Muslim south but also among some northerners. However, at least in the central northern regions of the country, he established an effective Islamic state which was consolidated by his successor the Khalifa 'Abdullahi following the Mahdi's death in 1885. Although the Mahdi's mission to conquer the world in the name of Islam had failed, his supporters seem not to have given up hope even as they settled for the more modest goal of maintaining a state guided by the laws and precepts of Islam-as they understood them-within the area of the Sudan. The state, however, was to be relatively short-lived. By 1898 a joint Anglo-Egyptian expedition had regained control of the Sudan. The Khalifa was killed in battle and the Mahdist regime was over. From then on until Sudanese independence in 1956 there was a second colonial regime-ostensibly a shared rule by Britain and Egypt, but in practice it was government and administration by the British.

The Islamic experiment was over-or was it? Right now in 1996 we have in the Sudan a military regime that indeed proclaims itself to be an Islamic government, and one that implements the shari'a. Between then and now the Sudan has passed through a long period of secular government, followed by periods in which party politics were essentially an outgrowth of earlier religious structures, and periods of military rule that have increasingly tended toward the implementation of religious agendas. These agendas, however, are different from the traditionalist agendas of earlier years: they tend to be radical, revivalist, modernist, and aspiring to international recognition and influence. Let me explain. During the British colonial period the former core supporters of the Mahdi were regrouped into something more like a Sufi order under the leadership of Sayyid 'Abd al-Rahman, the Mahdi's posthumous son. This grouping was known as the Ansar ("Supporters"), using for religious effect a name originally associated with those who helped the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.

While Sayyid 'Abd al-Rahman was initially viewed with suspicion by the British, by the 1920s they had come to regard him as an ally and some one through whom they could ensure the loyalty of a sizeable number of Sudanese. In 1945 the Ansar, under the patronage of Sayyid 'Abd al-Rahman, formed the backbone of a political party known as the Umma party-again a very evocative title in a Muslim context. Opposed to them was the National Unionist Party which drew its main support from members of the powerful Khatmiyya Sufi Order, the ancestor of whose leader Sayyid 'Ali al-Mirghani, had opposed the Mahdi. The old political lines of the late 19th century then re-emerged in the political alignments of the immediate pre-independence period. Indeed, they survived well into the era of independence and are not yet irrelevant. In political terms the Umma party was pro-British and anti-Egyptian and stood for a completely independent Sudan. The National Unionist Party was pro-Egyptian and saw the Sudan's future as linked in a union with Egypt-a position favored by Egypt, both under the monarchy and, after 1952 by the military regime that succeded it.

When the Sudan became independent in 1956, it had renounced any thought of union with Egypt, and the two main political parties ruled in coalition. In the wake of political turmoil following elections in 1958 the army seized power, which it held till 1964. After a short period of democratic rule, the army again took over in 1969, relinquishing power in 1985, and seizing power again in 1989. In the intervening civilian regimes the dominant political figure has been Sayyid Sadiq al-Mahdi, a western-educated Islamist-inclined grandson of the Mahdi. More important than any of these political events, however, was the slow rise to prominence of the Muslim Brothers under the leadership of Dr Hasan al-Turabi, a brother-in-law of Sayyid Sadiq and, like him, western educated. The Muslim Brotherhood was an organization founded in Egypt in 1928 by a school teacher called Hasan al-Banna'. His program, which has been in essence the program of all Islamic revivalists after him, was to banish foreign domination and establish an Islamic order based on observance of the shari'a and the establishment of Islamic social justice. This was to be accomplished, if necessary, by force, and since his day-he died in 1949-groups claiming his mantle have become increasingly violent in their opposition to what they see as godless government.

The Muslim Brothers of the Sudan were certainly inspired by the Egyptian movement, even though there were no overt organic links between the two. Turabi, on his return from higher education in Britain and France, began to plan a long-term strategy. Following the popular uprising of 1964 that brought the first military government to an end, he founded the Islamic Charter Front and pushed for an Islamic constitution for the Sudan. The next military regime, that of Gen, Ja'far Nimeiri, found him out of favor and initially in exile. In 1977, however, he returned as part of a movement of reconciliation and was appointed Attorney-General of the Sudan. From this influential position he worked to get members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers into positions of political and economic influence in the country, believing that access to such positions under a disagreeable regime was more important than trying to work immediately for an all-out Islamic regime. One of his apparent successes was the 1983 declaration of what were called the September Laws-a form of shari'a law introduced with little preparation by a "born-again" General Nimeiri, and involving such dramatic displays of "righteousness" as the public amputation of thieves' hands.

Soon, however, he was in trouble again, and was imprisoned by Nimeiri shortly before the latter was overthrown by a new military regime in 1985. In 1986, however, he was free to contest new elections. These brought Sadiq al-Mahdi to power, but the National Islamic Front, as Turabi's party was now called, came a strong third, and until democracy disappeared again the NIF periodically joined a governing coalition. In 1989 came the final act of the drama. A military coup brought to power a regime that was essentially a tool of the NIF. The past six years have seen a steady erosion of civil liberties under a repressive regime, with the massive purging of the civil service, the army, the universities and other branches of public life of all those who do not subscribe to the Islamist philosophy of the government. Turabi officially holds no position in this government-it is, after all, a military government. But his influence is paramount, and he has attempted to boost his international standing by convening two meetings (1991 and 1993) of a body he founded called The Popular Arab and Muslim Conference. This is what may be described as an alternative Islamic conference, and it has passed many resolutions supporting Muslim movements in such places as the Phillipines, Burma, Tadjikistan and Kosovo, as well as proclaimng support for the Palestinian people and the Muslims of Bosnia. Needless to say, it has endorsed the present regime in the Sudan.

In all of this discussion about Islamic revivalism in the Sudan one factor has conspicuously been left out: the non-Muslim south. About one third of the land area of the Sudan occupied by (originally) perhaps one third of the population, is essentially non-Muslim, and in part Christian. These are non-Arab peoples, mainly cattle herders and agriculturalists, divided among many ethnic groups, who have been fighting a sporadic war against a succession of Arab-Muslim dominated governments in Khartoum since just before independence forty years ago. Down to 1972, when a modus vivendi was reached, the struggle was for independence. Fighting resumed again in 1983 when Gen. Nimeiri went back on agreements granting autonomy to the southern provinces and tried to impose shari'a law on the entire country. Now the struggle is ostensibly for a negotiated solution to the position of the south within a united Sudan. No Sudanese government has come close to military pacification of the region, but the present government proclaims the war a jihad-a sacred struggle, and in the northern most tip of the region, the Nuba mountains, has pursued a scorched earth policy and massive ethnic cleansing.2 Thus the war has been given an Islamic ideological justification, and the Khartoum government has recruited or impressed thousands of northern Muslim young men to face martyrdom in the swamps of the south, just as the Ayatollah Khomeini did in the Iranian war against Iraq a decade ago. Indeed, the Sudan has found an ideological ally in Iran which has supported it in its internal struggles, while the Sudan has been used as a training ground for volonteers for other Islamist struggles. Egypt, in particular, has protested vigorously against what it claims is the training and infiltration of fighting men aimed at overthrowing the Egyptian government. It also accuses the Sudan of harboring two men wanted in the assassination attempt of President Husni Mubarak in Ethiopia last November. The Sudan remains on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist states.

These rapid surveys of only two African countries naturally give only a partial picture of Islamic revival in Africa. But they do represent cases where one can see very clearly a number of parallels and can trace historical continuities stretching back over a century or more. Both are countries that were defined in many ways by their British colonial experience. In the case of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians as well as adherents of African religions were precipitously thrown together in political union by colonialism, were presented with the nation-state as their only political model and, initially, parliamentary democracy as their chosen method of self-government. Older Muslim structures of government and society, while not eradicated, were radically changed by the colonial experience and found themselves at independence mere units of a larger, often alien, political structure, educationally and economically disadvantaged-even though they would retain the political edge in the Nigerian federation.

There are parallels in case of the Sudan, but also significant differences. The Sudan, by its geographical position in the Nile valley, had for all its history been in contact, close or distant with Egypt and through Egypt with a wider Middle East and Mediterranean world. Its carving out as a political entity was originally at the hands of another Muslim power, the Ottomans, and thus the Sudanese experience of colonial status thus goes back deep into their history. However, it was the northern and Muslim sector of the Sudan that reaped any benefits of the Nile Valley-Egypt connection, and it was this area that first enjoyed whatever educational and economic benefits British colonialism had to offer. It was the south that remained isolated and under-developed down to independence. While Muslims in the Sudan had always had relatively easy access to Egypt, and to Saudi Arabia and its holy cities, Nigerian Muslims, though they certainly did travel to North Africa, Egypt and Arabia, were faced with much greater difficulties of access on account of their geographical position. When colonialism came at the beginning of the 20th century, it came from the sea, and it was the only marginally islamized south that reaped most advantage from western education and increased economic activity.

As we move to the close of the 20th century these geographical factors may be of less importance: air travel, the fax machine and computers tend to make distance irrelevant. But the historical processes that went to produce the problems that now beset both societies, and many other societies in Africa-such as population pressure, crumbling economic infrastructures, poor health care, inflation, elitism, corruption and ethnic antagonism-will not be solved simply by technology. Similarly, attempts to impose ideologically driven socio-political programs upon people in the name of solving all their problems is likely to exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them. One solution does not fit all, even when it claims divine authority. The application of any "Islamic" solution to economic, social and political problems is only likely to have any chance of success to the extent that it involves a re-examination of how the fundamental principles of Islam in these areas can be thought through in the light of contemporary realities and future needs. Any attempt simply to "warm over" formulae from a bygone age-no matter how "Islamic" their proponents may consider them to be-will fail and bring new miseries in their wake. One can only hope that Nigerians and Sudanese (and others) will have the courage of their religious and intellectual convictions and avoid calling for a simplistic "return to Islam" or attempting to revive archaic structures.

Evanston 3/13/96

1. Council of Ulama Press Conference, Kano, 31 May 1990.

2. Between 1983 and 1993 an estimated half million people were killed and 5 million displaced.

The preceding text was an unpublished lecture by religion professor Dr. John Hunwick (Northwestern University, IL) presented March 25, 1996 at James Madison University.

Dr. Hunwick holds a joint position as professor of religion and professor of African history. His research has concerned aspects of the intellectual and social history of Muslims in West Africa, especially in Mali and Nigeria.

His "History of Arabic/Islamic Writing in Nigeria" (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1995) was published last year as the second volume of "Arabic Literature of Africa," a six-volume work which he is writing with R.S. O'Fahey of the University of Bergen in Norway and a number of other scholars. Dr. Hunwick is a founding editor of the journal Sudanic Africa and co-general editor of the series "Islam and Society in Africa," published by Northwestern University Press.

He taught at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, from 1960-67 and at the University of Ghana from 1969-77. He was director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, from 1977-81. Dr. Hunwick earned his doctoral and bachelor's degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Dr. Hunwick would like to see reactions to his review of the "Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World" (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 4 vols. Price $395) which appeared in Sudanic Africa 6, 1995 and more scholarly input on this Encyclopedia. (Eds.)


1. "Arabic Literature of Africa: a multi-volume work of reference," Sudanic Africa 4, 1993. URL: <> 2. URL: <> (Site is now defunct) 3. "Recent Books: Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World," Sudanic Africa 6, 1995. URL: <> 4. Information on how to subscribe to Sudanic Africa is appended below.


Name of publication: SUDANIC AFRICA: A JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL SOURCES Type: Journal (one issue annually). Current: #6 (1995) Character: specialized//intellectual//regional//academic Language: Arabic, English, French, Where is it published: Institute of Middle East & Islamic Studies, University of Bergen, Norway. Address: Parkv. 22A, 5007-BERGEN, Norway Contact: Knut Vikor, email: <> John Hunwick, email: <> URL: Affiliation: None Charge: Annual Subscription: Individuals - $15 Institutions: $30 Institutions In Africa: free

Note: Sudanic Africa is published once a year in December. Copies of issues 2-5 (1991-1994) are still available. _______________________________________________________________________________

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