Nehemia Levtizion and Randall Pouwels (eds) (2000): The History of Islam in Africa

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Author: Scott Reese
Date: Oct. 2004
From: Journal of Asian and African Studies(Vol. 39, Issue 5)
Publisher: Sage Publications Ltd. (UK)
Document Type: Book review
Length: 990 words

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Nehemia Levtizion and Randall Pouwels (eds) (2000) The History of Islam in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000. pp. 592. ISBN 0821412973 (pbk) US$26.95.

This volume provides a much needed, comprehensive historical and cultural overview of Islam in Africa, south of the Sahara, from its earliest roots in the 7th and 8th centuries to the modern period. Such an all-encompassing work on Islamic civilization in Africa has not been attempted since the series of books written by J. Spencer Trimingham more than a generation ago, that took a more or less regional approach. In The Influence of Islam Upon Africa (1968) Trimingham wrote that Islamic civilization in Africa was, at best, a 'marginal' part of the 'wider Islamic world' and 'primitive', in comparison to the glories of central lands (p. 3). The various chapters included in this work, amply demonstrate the fallacy of such a belief and provide a long-overdue corrective aimed at the non-specialist reader.

Following an introduction by the editors, the book is divided into four parts that arc variously geographic or thematic in nature. Part I, 'Gateways to Africa', provides an historical summary of the role of Islam in North Africa and the Indian Ocean--the two directions from which the religion entered the continent. Parts II ('West Africa and the Sudan') and III ('East and Southern Africa') are regional and chronological in scope, exploring the role of Islam throughout Africa, from its earliest appearance through to the present. Finally, the chapters contained in Part IV are thematic, examining topics that are of particular interest to both scholars of Africa and Islamic civilization.

As the editors promise, the individual chapters are written by some of the most distinguished scholars of Islam in Africa, currently working in the field. Among those with the greatest name recognition are historians such as John Voll (Chapter 7, 'The Eastern Sudan, 1822 to the Present'), David Robinson (Chapter 6, 'Revolutions in the Western Sudan'), Lidwien Kapteijns (Chapter 11 'Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa'), and Edward Alpers (Chapter 14, 'East Central Africa'). In addition, many other chapters come from contributors of equal distinction in their fields, although possibly less well-known in the wider world of African studies. These include, M.N. Pearson (Chapter 2, 'The Indian Ocean and the Red Sea'), Jay Spaulding (Chapter 5, 'Precolonial Islam in the Eastern Sudan'), Allan Christelow (Chapter 17, 'Islamic Law in Africa'), and Knut Vikor (Chapter 20, 'Sufi Brotherhoods in Africa').

Many of these chapters provide concise overviews of well-traveled topics in African Islam, such as the West African jihads, or the development of Swahili culture. In addition, a number of the regional chapters, as well as topical ones, introduce readers to areas of the African Islamic past that frequently receive less attention. Thus, we are given Robert Shell's excellent chapter on the origins of the Muslim communities of South Africa (Chapter 15, 'Islam in Southern Africa, 1652-1998'), including Spaulding's contribution on Islamization in Sinnar (Chapter 5, 'Precolonial Islam in the Eastern Sudan'). On this basis alone, Islam in Africa will likely become a standard reference work for both scholars in the field and their students.

One unifying theme of the volume is the cosmopolitan nature of Islam in Africa and its deep historical and contemporary connections with the wider world of the umma, or community of believers. Contributors in various chapters consistently highlight the plethora of international connections that have continued to influence African Muslim communities from their earliest beginnings to today. Most eschew the notion, supported by scholars such as Trimingham, that Islam was simply deposited in Africa and thereafter affected only by largely local factors. Instead, they take the position that while local factors are important, Islam in Africa was continually informed and affected by events and intellectual currents at work within the wider world of the umma. This sentiment is best summed up in Knut Vikor's conclusion to his chapter on Sufi brotherhoods. He asks, rhetorically,

   Have the Sufi brotherhoods 'Africanized' an Arabic or 'global'
   Islam? ... It has been suggested that the brotherhoods, by
   providing an outlet for local leadership, have promoted a
   self-assertion in the face of non-African dominance. It would
   however, rather seem that their function has been to
   internationalize the Islam of Africa, by bringing the existing
   local leaders into contact with networks that span the continents
   and in which geographic and ethnic background is of minor
   importance. (p. 468)

Vikor's sentiments, while concerned solely with the brotherhoods or turuq, are echoed in a number of other selections. None of the authors try to imply that African Islam was a cheap copy of some 'authentic' Islam found only in a mythical Muslim heartland. What they do argue is that African Muslims were, historically, continuously aware of the various intellectual tides current in the wider Islamic community and drew on these to meet their own needs. International connections do not make these communities any less African, but places them solidly within the context of the so-called Islamic 'mainstream' where they belong.

Curiously, this theme is not exploited, or even mentioned, by the editors in their introductory essay. This is, in fact, the one major flaw of the book. Rather than taking the opportunity to begin to develop a broader paradigm for the study of Islam in Africa, the editors chose to simply provide the reader with an exhaustive summary of the various selections. In the Preface, the editors, in fact, endorse the outmoded essentialist view of an 'Africanized Islam' when they declare that they are concerned primarily with 'the particular historical, cultural, and environmental factors that produced diversity and local forms of Islam' (p. ix). Certainly, local factors were central to the evolution of African Muslim societies. However, the influence of events and intellectual currents within the umma have often been of equal importance and need to be brought fully into the equation if we are to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Islamic past in Africa. While the import of international factors is given due consideration in the individual chapters, the absence of this theme from the editors' discussion constitutes a serious omission. While the general reader may still discover the importance of the broader Islamic world within Muslim Africa, it is a journey that would be made easier with a better map from the editors.


TRIMINGHAM, J. Spencer (1968) The Influence of Islam Upon Africa. New York: Praeger.

Scott Reese

Northern Arizona University, USA

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A132843683