Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa

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Dorrit van Dalen
Islam in Africa, Volume 20
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , July
     317 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The 17th century was an important time in the history of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, few studies are available about this crucial period. In fact, stuck between the history of great medieval political formations—such as Mali and Songhay—and the 19th century’s age of jihads, the Early Modern Sahelian history is still largely unknown. Moreover, relatively few examples of the central Sudanic tradition of Arabic writing have been examined from the point of view of intellectual history. In this context, Dorrit van Dalen’s book, Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa, is an important step in our understanding of African history.

This book is a revised version of van Dalen’s doctoral dissertation focusing on one ‘ālim—or Islamic scholar—who has received little attention so far: Muḥammad al-Wālī (fl. 1688). This Fulani scholar, who lived in Baghirmi sultanate (present-day Chad), wrote several important texts, and had a huge influence in the intellectual history of Islam. Van Dalen analyzes al-Wālī’s two most famous texts: The Peerless Method to gain knowledge of the science of theology (PM), and Valid proofs to prohibit the smoking of tobacco (VP), in order to provide a micro-history of a Sahelian intellectual in the Early Modern period. With his global connections, al-Wālī is therefore seen “as a mirror of social developments, including conflicts, and of changing values” (2) in the Lake Chad basin, Sahel, and the wider Islamic world. 

Doubt, Scholarship and Society is divided into eight chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion. It also contains three valuable annexes of eighty-four pages—including the Arabic edition of the VP, with a codicological presentation of the manuscript; its annotated English translation; and an annotated edition of al-Wālī’s poem, ‘Awsikum yā ma‘shar al-ikhwān. After the introductory chapter, in which van Dalen explains her methodology—based on the constant dialogue between al-Wālī’s life, his text and the global and local contexts—chapter 2 focuses on the historical context. After presenting Borno and Baguirmi’s history, the author discusses slavery and the spread of Islam in the Lake Chad area. The third chapter focuses on al-Wālī’s biography, works, and core curriculum, as well as his contacts with other Islamic scholars. The fourth chapter is “about the cultural, social and intellectual influences that are likely to have played a role in al-Wālī’s choice of a particular scholarly persona” (81), placing him among the scholars of his time. Chapter 5 tries to answer the fundamental question: how did al-Wālī fashion himself as a scholar and make his work significant for his environment? (107). Van Dalen shows that the PM is the translation of Fufulbe oral traditions of commentaries on al-Sanūsī’s Sughra. The author emphasizes the similarities between the structure of the PM and contemporary oral traditions of teachings in West Africa (119). The sixth chapter is focused on the VP. It is a remarkable concentrate of van Dalen’s original methodological and historical approach towards historical texts—from text analysis to multi-layered historical contexts—from Chad to al-Azhar (180). The seventh chapter explores why al-Wālī translated the Fulani commentaries (198), and explores al-Wālī’s auctoriality.

Doubt, Scholarship and Society has two great merits: it integrates al-Wālī’s texts into both the religious and intellectual traditions of the Islamic world, emphasizing the fact that Sahel did not differ from other Islamic areas. Additionally, van Dalen successfully shows the integration and adaptations of Islamic scholars and discourses within their local context. Moreover, she redefines the concept of center and margins by analyzing al-Wālī’s texts, not only as an intellectual production on the fringes of Dar al-Islam, but also as a part of global discourses that affected the Islamic world during this period. At the crossroad of intellectual, cultural, and religious history, van Dalen connects the Lake Chad basin to a greater Islamic context, thanks to a noteworthy knowledge of Arabic and of Islamic literature. She often draws a parallel with other texts and religious traditions from the Islamic World, emphasizing the inclusive dimension of al-Wālī and Sahelian Islamic scholars into a wider Islamic knowledge.

We can only regret that the author did not consider recent historiography of the Lake Chad area—especially Borno history. Several of van Dalen’s statements are imprecise or outdated. For example, the author overestimates Songhay’s expansion (29); Idrīs (Alawma) b. ‘Alī’s dates of reign are incorrect (32); and she overestimated al-Maghili’s influence in Borno, neglecting the fact that Borno had stronger ties with Tripoli, Egypt, and its eastern neighbors, than it did with West Africa (4). Finally, van Dalen overemphasized the influence of Ottoman sultanate over political entities in the Lake Chad area in the Early Modern period as well as the 19th century (36), and did not focus enough on Central Sahel’s particularities (93). These oversights or imprecisions would have been avoided if van Dalen had incorporated recent Francophone historiography on precolonial Sahel—such as Jean-Louis Triaud and Camille Lefebvre.

These critiques aside, van Dalen’s Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa opens a fruitful and necessary debate on the Islamization processes in Africa prior to the great jihads. Al-Wālī’s life challenges the traditional 17th century opposition between the “compromising” and the “independent” ulemas, urban and rural Islam, and between African and Orthodox Islam. It would be interesting to compare al-Wālī with other Islamic scholars from the Early Modern period, such as Aḥmad b. Furṭū of Borno, using a regressive method to achieve a more complex view of the history of Islamic societies in Sahel. To conclude, van Dalen’s book is an important contribution, successfully navigating between global and local contexts. Doubt, Scholarship and Society encompasses text edition and translation with a trans-disciplinary analysis combining micro and global history, anthropology, religious studies, and palaeography, which is the best way, in this reviewers opinion, to renovate African history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rémi Dewière is Max Weber Fellow in African and Islamic History at the European University Institute.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dorrit van Dalen has published on West Africa as a journalist, before she obtained a Ph.D. from Leiden University in 2015.



Dorrit Van Dalen

Many thanks for this review. I would just like to say that I mention Urvoy once, when I speak of an image that formed in part of the Muslim culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth century that depicted non-Muslims as dangerous: “This still comes through, for instance, in the work of Urvoy, when he writes about the struggle against ‘paiens farouches’ and ‘agressifs’." I thought the literal quote would make it clear that I share the view that such words reveal an outdated approach.


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