Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions

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Paul Lovejoy
  • Athens, OH: 
    Ohio University Press
    , November
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Paul E. Lovejoy’s Jihād in West Africa During the Age of Revolutions is an important intervention in global political, economic, and religious history. Focusing on what scholars have called the “Age of Revolutions” (roughly 1775-1850), Lovejoy enters into an already rich conversation that has ignored the place of Africa and Africans in the formation of this period. Indeed, studies of this era have exclusively focused on French, American, and west Atlantic slave revolutions in the Americas. Given the northern and western focus of previous revolution age studies, Lovejoy brings the reader’s attention to reform movements in Africa during the same period and argues for their importance in geopolitical discourse. To do this, he focuses on what he calls the “Sokoto Caliphate,” the leaders of a jihād in West Africa during the early part of the 19th century. Ultimately, his argument is corrective and complementary to that of his main interlocutors, namely David Armitage, Eugene D. Genovese, and Eric Hobsbawm. As such, he seeks to nuance the Euro-American narrative driven by “Hobsbawm, Genovese, and other scholars who analyze the Age of Revolutions without reference to Islamic West Africa” (24).

Chapter 1, I argue, is where Lovejoy does most of the substantive work for arguing for the place of Africa in world history. He begins by outlining and describing the contextual material of the pioneers of the Age of Revolutions. It was Hobsbawm who coined the term in his 1962 text Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (Barnes and Noble, 1996) and used it therein to describe the French and British Industrial Revolutions. Genovese later extends Hobsbawm’s argument to include the Haitian Revolution. Lovejoy states quite clearly that his engagement with these two scholars is meant to “extend the discussion of the age of revolutions beyond Hobsbawm’s identification of a twofold industrial and political formation and Genovese’s recognition of St. Domingue … to ask how Africa fitted into their paradigms” (24). I would add that a religious reform movement (like jihād) adds a vital nuance to Lovejoy’s argument that goes understated throughout the text and is an important innovation to the largely secular work on the Age of Revolutions. In the latter half of the book, religious beliefs are shown to have dictated to the devotee how to navigate a world that was contrary to their own beliefs. Without exploring this vital piece of his contribution to this era, Lovejoy’s work falls into the same secularizing narrative his interlocutors fell into.

After having established the gaps in Age of Revolutions literature, Lovejoy moves to make the case for the important role of the Sokoto Caliphate in the remainder of the text. Chapter 2 gives a detailed history of Islamic reform movements in West Africa from the 17th century onwards and sets the stage for the entrance of the Sokoto regime. The reform movements that are explored in this chapter begin in the Senegal-Gambia region of modern-day Africa and eventually move westward toward the area between modern-day Mali and the Central African Republic. The period he covers in this chapter spans nearly two hundred years of African and Islamic history beginning in 1673 and ending in 1804 with the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate under the leadership of ‘Uthmān dan Fodio. 

Chapter 3 builds the case for the importance of the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest single state in Africa during the 19th century. Given the sheer size of Sokoto, its impact was not only political but also economic. As Lovejoy states, ‘Uthmān dan Fodio, Abdullahi dan Fodio (‘Uthmān’s brother), and Muhammed Bello (Uthmān’s son) were prolific writers who “wrote over one thousand books, pamphlets, and tracts that included poetry, legal texts, exhortations, and manuals of governance” (100). These legal texts are especially important for chapters 4 through 6, where Lovejoy traces the economic and political impacts that the jihād had on West African governance with particular attention to the religious prohibition of the sale of Muslims as slaves. Here is one example of the places where Lovejoy could have excavated more fully the socio-religious implications of the regime. From there, he moves on to discuss the role the caliphate had in the abolition of the slave trade in chapters 7 and 8. Arguing against a quasi-Orientalist perspective that sees enslaved Africans as lacking any subjectivity, he suggests we should instead see how the caliphate demonstrates how African Muslims navigated the colonial slave trade to their advantage, pointing back to chapters 4 through 6. 

One important caveat that a book like this requires in our political moment is a brief discussion of Lovejoy’s usage of the word “jihād.” This text is not a discussion of jihād in its many Orientalist versions, which typically conjure images of al-Qaeda or Boko Haram.

Instead, his monograph is focused “on the past, not the current manifestation of jihād and the global contradictions of enormous population growth, the tremendous advances in technology and scientific discovery, and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of tiny elites who have the means to perpetuate their position” (2). In the context of Jihād in West Africa, Lovejoy uses jihād to mean “an effort to confront impure acts or objects of disapprobation through the use of the heart, the tongue, the hands, and military action” (13). Therefore, any eisegetical reading of jihād betrays Lovejoy’s argument about how reform in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions influenced contemporary geopolitics in the same ways that the French and American Revolutions are argued to.

Readers already familiar with Lovejoy will likewise be familiar with aspects of the present text as this volume is somewhat of a culmination of his work (something he states himself in the introduction). Still, Jihād in West Africa During the Age of Revolutions represents a potentially important contribution to a multitude of disciplines. Indeed, this text will prove beneficial to scholars of religious studies, history, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Black Atlantic. Given the relatively recent emphasis on African-oriented studies in global history, Paul E. Lovejoy’s contribution stands as an important marker for its cross-disciplinary impact.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alejandro Stephano Escalante is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
July 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul E. Lovejoy is distinguished research professor, department of history, York University, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was the founding director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and Its Diasporas at York University and has published more than thirty books, including Transformations in Slavery.


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