Beyond Jihad

The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam

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Lamin Sanneh
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam, Lamin Sanneh provides an accessible yet thorough account of the clerical tradition and its role in the development of Muslim societies in West Africa. Building on over thirty years of ethnographic research and a critical study of documents that include French colonial sources, local biographical dictionaries, and widely influential manuscripts from Islamic legal traditions, Sanneh argues that the clerical tradition’s accommodation of orthodox scriptural and Sufi doctrines to local religious practices and communities was responsible for the spread of Islam in Africa. Subsequently, he emphasizes that Muslims in Africa were not on the fringes of Muslim society and thought, but vital participants in creating and developing the creeds of orthodox, scriptural Islam through the processes and lived realities of their local practices. By discussing the clerics commitment to pacifism, Sanneh also seeks to contextualize the relationship between Islam as a religious practice and the diverse political contexts in which it is found. In the process, Sanneh gives the reader a historical overview of the flow of people, ideas, and rituals that encompass the Jakhanke tradition.

Lamin Sanneh argues against the theory that the Almoravids brought an orthodox Islam to West Africa through the practice of martial jihad. Crediting the acceptance of Ibn Khaldun’s narrative as authoritative, future scholars did not “give any credence to the idea of local initative as an alternative quietest force for the penetration of Islam” (5). Sanneh highlights inconsistencies in contemporaneous records and the uses to which a narrative of a militant Islam were put by the French colonial regime to create “sitting targets of colonial action” (15). He instead focuses on the religious services provided by Jakhanke communities. Sanneh argues that these services, ranging from legal services to education, were both present prior to the Almoravid conquests and responsible for the development of Muslim communities in the region.

Beyond Jihad begins with a brief introduction situating the introduction and spread of Islam in West Africa, with particular attention paid to Ghana and Mali. This introduction has the dual role of providing the reader with a comprehensive account of the different Islamic traditions that contributed to the development of Jakhanke theology as well as explaining the relationship between Islam as a religious tradition and the political context of empires. Covering the establishment of the Kharijite movement in North Africa to the legendary pilgrimage of the Malian king Mansa Musa, Sanneh correctly points out the tension between the concept of a global Islam as a unifying force and local practices of Muslim societies as a possible political tool. Although the Kharijites in North Africa were largely members of the quietest Sufriyya and Ibadi sects and not extremists devoid of theology and characterized by a “puritan temper,” as Sanneh claims, the idea that a multiplicity of states helped shape Islamic practice in the area is well-founded (27). Through this discussion he demonstrates that the concept of jihad as a method of conversion was rare. Rather, conflicts labeled as jihad involved the temporary expansion of imperial power. Consequently, they cannot account for the establishment of Islam in the area.

The heart of Sanneh’s work analyzes the flow of clerical Jakhanke communities in West Africa. Detailing how the clerics established autonomous communities that transcended ethnic ties and how these communities served as nodes in an expanding network of Muslim societies, Sanneh lays the foundation for his argument that the clerics operated as autonomous centers of education and religious services responsible for the widespread establishment of Islam in West Africa. Emphasizing the clerical commitment to pacifism, Sanneh suggests that the autonomy of the community acted as a check on political power (255). This section culminates in a discussion of the French colonial encounter. Sanneh persuasively argues that the establishment of the nation-state irrevocably altered the very foundations of the Jakhanke culture, thereby forcing a new understanding of pacifism in relation to the state.

Finally, Sanneh examines the ideas of pacifism and jihad in West Africa in both the wider contexts of Muslim theology and the contemporary political state. Drawing heavily on Ghazali and medieval theologians, Sanneh brings to light the nuances of jihad in Muslim thought. Subsequently, he also establishes that the pacifist understanding of the Jakhanke is firmly rooted in and in dialogue with the broader field of Muslim theology and political thought (227). The presence and reality of the modern-nation state, according to Sanneh, alters the goals of the Jakhanke. Instead of pursuing an islamization of the state, they pursue an islamization of society through education and moral guidance (267-69). This is an expansion of their previous efforts that successfully led to widespread conversion in West Africa.

Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam is an important contribution to the field of Islamic studies. Sanneh correctly brings to light some problems in the inertia of the historiographical narrative of Muslim societies and the importance of critically investigating the implications of those narratives. By so doing he opens up further avenues of research and illuminates the importance of the pacifist clerical tradition to the landscape of Muslim society in West Africa. Sanneh’s assertions that the clerical communities were independent, however, are at times brought into question. For instance, the reliance of the Jakhanke on slavery to conduct their practice raises questions about their relationship to the political powers that controlled the trade routes in the Sahara (179-86). Additionally, the education, legal services, and material blessings provided by the clerical community could indicate a closer relationship between political regimes and pacifist clerics than Sanneh admits. Overall, Beyond Jihad is clear, thorough, and well-argued. It would be appropriate for general studies focused on Islam in West Africa as well as concepts of jihad in Islam.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Riggan is a doctoral candidate in history and ethnography of religious studies and Islamic studies at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
December 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lamin Sanneh is D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and Professor of History at Yale. He is the author of several books, including Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (OUP 2007).


Lamin Sanneh;

I am grateful to James Riggan for his thoughtful and generous review of Beyond Jihad, and the central points he makes strike me as sound. My intention in the book was to place the tradition of paficist clerical Islam practiced in ancient Mali in the broader context of classical Islam. It may be useful to set up the argument in this fashion:

1) A clear distinction exists in classical Islamic sources between religious thought and state power, a distinction recognized in the institution of Shari'ah law. The jurists were scholars independent of political rulers who pursued and oppressed them. The Sufi fraternities similarly created a tradition independent of the state.

2) The 'ulama (religious scholars) in time acquired critical mass enough to compete for the right of presiding over Islam's spiritual heritage and its propagation without political sponsorship. The chains of transmission of knowledge (asanid, sing. isnad) became the exclusive domain of scholars without the inclusion of rulers.

3) In Muslim West Africa this distinction gave impetus to the emergence of an independent clerical tradition in the Ghana and Mali empires. The conciliatory policies of Mali's Mansa Musa created a vibrant civil society as the center of religious life, which strengthened the clerical vocation when it was launched under al-Hajj Salim Suware of the Jakhanke lineage.

4) Jakhanke clerics gave a special orientation to the religious distinction from politics by elevating the peaceful teachings of Islam to a pacifist commitment set within the ummah, not outside or against it. It is an example of Africanization without separatism.

5) Jakhanke pacifist teaching pursued a compromise with political leaders by acknowledging the legitimacy of rulers in return for the clerics' right of moral repudiation of jihad and abstension from politics. The clerics disavowed political office for themselves without stigmatizing politics as such. A common faith bound the clerics to other Muslims while the pacifist vocation set them apart. The clerics were not conscientious objectors because for them, as for Muslims in general, power is not sinful. On the contrary, government is necessary, and the constraint of the religious code should make it productive and respectful of conscience.

6) This compromise carried contingent risks for the pacifist vocation. Rulers might not be dependable or consistent; jihadists would require suspension of the pacifist vow and bring pressure to bear; in their turn, colonial administrations would make submission and compliance a mandate of their authority and force the clerics to abandon their religious sanctuaries; and nationalist governments for their part would demand ideological loyalty as an alternative creed. The resulting contraction of the assets of civil society would shrink the clerics' freedom of movement and threaten the very viability of the vocation.

7) Yet the resourcefulness of the clerics, secured by the depth of a centuries-long historical practice and the strength of community support, combined to protect the religious heritage from complete disarray. Retreat, recovery, and renewal allowed the clerics to adapt and to thrive under new conditiions. In January 2018 the clerics will convene a public pilgrimage in Touba in Guinea to observe the two-hundredth anniversay of the founding of the center under Karamokhoba. Available on YouTube are video clips of annual community religious festivals taking place in centers that can now appeal to a global audience. At the time of my visits there these centers were cloistered in relative rural obscurity.

8) Compromise that is at the heart of the pacifist vocation did expose the clerics to temporal and historical challenges. Proximity to power may not be an option, and a price is extracted for that. Jihad and colonial rule made proximity sometimes costly, as the book argues. Slavery and the slave trade handed the clerics an ambiguous enticement. The scholarship the clerics were able to pursue in their rural centers was possible only because the clerics could own and deploy slaves on their farms. Large populations of slaves filled these clerical centers. Emancipation threatened dissolution of the centers. The clerics adjusted by recruiting student labor and by enrolling ex-slaves as hired labor. The clerical discipline rebounded and used its considerable prestige in the community to nurture disciples and patrons. I argue in the concluding third part of the book that it is this dedication and principled resilience that indicate the potential of Islam as a force for a tolerant democratic culture.


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