African Islam and Islam in Africa: encounters between Sufis and Islamists

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Date: Spring 2000
From: Africa(Vol. 70, Issue 2)
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 730 words

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D. WESTERLUND and E. ROSANDER (eds), African Islam and Islam in Africa: encounters between Sufis and Islamists. London: Hurst, 1997, 357 pp., 40.00 [pounds sterling], ISBN 1 85065 282 1, hard covers, 15.95 [pounds sterling], ISBN 1 85065 281, paperback.

This important volume comprises twelve essays whose primary focus is Sufism in Africa and what is termed Islamism'. The latter is characterised as having a `focus on the Islamic law, sharia', and we are told that Islamists conceive of Islam as an ideology, a total mode of life' and that they work for the establishment of Islamic societies and, eventually, states based on Islamic law'. In a very real sense, then, Islamism is a reformist and puritanical movement similar to previous ones which have appeared at intervals during earlier centuries, emerging as a reaction against the process of withdrawal from the Quran and the Sunna, which form the main basis of the sharia' (pp. 4-5). The volume ranges widely, from an introduction which surveys The Islamisation of "tradition" and "modernity"' (Eva Evers Rosander) to others which deal with Islam in the Maghrib (George Joffe), Islam and human rights in Sahelian Africa' (Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im) and Sufism and Islamism in the Sudan' (Muhammad Mahmoud); it concludes with three highly specialised case studies which survey a Mouride Mahdi, a north Cameroonian Islamic judge and a northern Nigerian Islamic reformer. The whole volume concludes with an essay by one of the editors, David Westerlund, entitled Reaction and action: accounting for the rise of Islamism'. In their preface the editors rightly draw attention to the fact that so much past scholarship has focused on the criticism by Islamists of Western thought and culture; there has been less concern with what is termed the intra-Muslim relationship between Sufis and Islamists'. This volume is designed to fill the lacuna. Its wide-ranging and often highly specialised essays mean, however, that it is impossible to evaluate each essay in the space of a review. Attention will therefore be focused on a few important comments which arise throughout the book.

Rosander makes the important point that Islamisation may be characterised as a kind of mediator between "tradition" and "modernity" in Africa' (p. 2) and adds that a salient point that emerges from the chapters of this book is that what is legitimate African Islam and Islamism depends fully on who has the authority to decide on a definition and to get acceptance for it' (p. 3). In African Islam, then, as in other forms of Islam, the old problems of legitimacy and authority never go away! Paradox, too, is never far from the surface, as in the differing Western and Islamist perceptions of the practice of veiling (p. 11). John Hunwick believes that aspects of Euro-American culture' must inevitably play a role in forging new African Muslim cultures' (p. 52) but in Maghribi Islam Joffe finds little readiness to abandon the basic fabric of popular belief' (p. 77). For An-Na'im the more Islam is identified with sharia in popular belief and practice, under an "Islam in Africa" model, the less likely will human rights norms be accepted and implemented by the Muslim population at large' (p. 90). Tomas Gerholm concludes that the character of Islam in Egypt is continuously under negotiation' (p. 129). What may one conclude from such a range of remarks? An obvious answer would be to draw attention to the dangers of generalisation about any religion in what is a huge and diverse continent. David Westerlund, one of the editors, provides us with his own conclusions on the basic debate which infuses the essays in this volume: By modernising their own activities and by expanding their presence in urban centres, where the Islamists have their strongholds, Sufi Muslims have in many cases responded effectively to the challenge of Islamism. Despite the continued growth of Islamist groups, Sufism is still the strongest force of Islam in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa' (p. 330).

This is an important and valuable volume which makes a notable addition to the scholarly study of Islam in Africa. I hope the editors will consider producing a second collection of essays along the same lines. My only small caveat concerns the use of the ugly neologism Islamist', if only because many, including scholars of Islam, will not know exactly what is meant without full explanation and definition.

IAN RICHARD NETTON University of Leeds

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A64698543