Muslims beyond the Arab World

The Odyssey of Ajami and the Muridiyya

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Fallou Ngom
AAR Religion, Culture, and History
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


*Winner of the 2017 Melville J. Herskovits Prize for the most important scholarly work in African studies​*

Fallou Ngom’s Muslims beyond the Arab World recounts a remarkable and little known history of Islam in Africa. In the late 19th century, the jihad of Umar Taal brought terrible devastation to the peoples of West Africa. Taal, a Tukulur Fulani (“black Arab”) from the Futa Toro, brought Tijaniyya Sufism to the region, declaring holy war against the “heathen” Bambara and others. (The main Islamic Sufi orders of the region today are the Tijaniyya, Qadriyya, and Muridiyaa. The vast majority of West African Muslims belong to Sufi orders founded by venerated leaders like Taal.) However, Taal’s followers became embroiled in an inter-ethnic and sectarian war against fellow Fulani Muslims, the Macina of Northern Mali. After executing the Macina ruler Ahmadu Ahmadu, Taal too died a violent death, and his descendants killed one another in a struggle for control of his movement. In the wake of Taal’s jihad, the French seized control of the region. It was within this context that a humble black Sufi named Ahmadu Bamba emerged in Senegal. Bamba, a Wolof Sufi who claimed no Arab lineage, had already absorbed the teachings of the Tijaniyya, the Qadriyya, and other Sufi orders. (The Wolof are the largest ethnic group in Senegal. Other ethnic groups include the Fulani, Mande, Seereer, etc.) Two central aspects of Bamba’s teaching rejected key features of Taal’s teachings: First, Bamba rejected Taal’s views about the legitimacy of using violent means to promote Islam; and second, Bamba’s teachings contradicted Taal’s views about the privileged status of sharifan Muslims (i.e., blood descendants of the Prophet Muhammad).

As he rose to prominence, Bamba’s first and most immediate struggle as a Muslim spiritual leader was against Arab, Moor, and Fulani Muslims who promoted racial bias against “mere” blacks. His second struggle was against French colonizers, who mistakenly assumed he was a jihadist like Taal. Bamba’s struggle continued for decades. The French sent him into exile in Gabon and then to Mauritania. Meanwhile, the movement he founded continued to attract new followers. The Muridiyya Sufi order prospered because Bamba’s message of racial equality and non-violence resonated with the masses, and also because the French were totally ignorant of ajami—African language writing systems with Arabic-based scripts—which were dismissed as “bad Arabic.” Reliance upon ajami enabled the Muridiyya movement to flourish without censorship. Bamba’s teaching also elevated local views about the appropriateness of African languages as vehicles of religious belief.

Despite the fact that alphabetic literacy has existed in the region for centuries, West Africa has long been viewed as an oral culture: a civilization without writing. Another false notion has been that the only writing that existed in the Sahel prior to European colonization was Arabic written by Arab or Berber Muslims. Idées recues of this nature have contributed to the neglect of ajami. Colonialist scholars either disparaged it or ignored it altogether; as do many scholars today. Ngom tells the story of Bamba’s rise to prominence from ajami sources, showing how the Muridiyya themselves perceived Bamba. Against the views of established authorities like Paul Marty, Ngom demonstrates the profundity and complexity of Bamba’s revolutionary message. Among other lessons, Bamba emphasized the importance of hard work, ethical integrity, self-reliance, and tolerance. However, Bamba’s most revolutionary teachings were those centered on non-violence and anti-racism.

Ngom documents the painful history of a “taboo” form of racism that has too long gone unrecognized. This form of racism is underwritten by an occult belief in the mystical power of sharifan blood. Those who claim blood lineages to the family of the Prophet Muhammad are viewed as especially favored Muslims, blessed before all others (but especially before lowly “blacks,” a synonym in Arabic for “slaves”). Ngom introduces the concept of “ajamization” as a means of reversing Arabization and sharifan ideology and the historical bias against black African approaches to Islam. For Ngom, the transformation that Islam underwent as it came to be written in African languages is a metaphor for a larger cultural phenomenon now taking place in Senegal. As Ngom shows, the popularity of the Muridiyya continues to grow because of Bamba’s anti-racist and non-violent message.

In the era of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Ansar Dine, this message has perhaps never been more urgent. After the fall of Qaddafi and the racist state of Azawad, West African Muslims find themselves confronted with circumstances that are similar to those that existed after Umar Taal’s failed jihad. But today’s jihad is led by Wahhabi militants, largely Arabs and Berbers, rather than Sufi militants of the Tijaniyya order. Their “jihad” is funded with money and arms from the Arab world. What the historical and current jihads share is a sharifan ideology denigrating black African civilization as pagan and inferior. The destruction of the tombs of saints and ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu are, for this reason, best construed as racist attacks upon black African civilization. Those jihadists who led the attack on Northern Mali are Wahhabi converts who promote the very Arabization ideology that Bamba spent his life combatting. This is also why the jihadists who firebombed a Bamako nightclub in 2015 boasted that they would “eat their lunch in Senegal, after taking their breakfast in Mali.” Today’s jihadists see the Muridiyya as heretics in need of their “benevolent” intervention.

Through the use of ajami manuscripts, Ngom documents how Bamba’s help was solicited about a hundred years ago against Wahhabi fanatics who sought to destroy the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. Ngom also documents the great respect for Bamba and his teachings held by the Arab delegation sent from Mecca to Senegal. These Arab men were grateful for Bamba’s support against the threat that the Wahhabi movement posed to Muslims everywhere, including Arabs and blacks. In his important new study, Ngom presents a vibrant image of a black African civilization locked in a struggle not against Islam, but against Arabization ideology. Ngom also compellingly shows that today’s most urgent social conflicts in West Africa are due to racism and neo-imperialism, not religion.

For those who wish to make sense of recent events in West Africa, Ngom’s book is an excellent place to begin. He corrects many false images of Africa as a continent without writing and demonstrates the dangers of relying exclusively upon oral culture and colonialist-written sources alone. Ngom’s book has set a new standard for African studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Wise is Professor in the Department of English at Western Washington University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fallou Ngom is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the African Language Program at Boston University. His research interests include the interactions between African languages and non-African languages, the adaptations of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, and 'Ajami literatures-records of African languages written in Arabic script. He has held Fulbright, ACLS/SSRC/NEH, and Guggenheim fellowships.


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