Review: Muslim Societies in Africa

loimeier coverThe study of Islam in Africa has long been in need of a coherent work of synthesis that bridges specific and substantive knowledge on Islamic contexts in Africa with a broad continental view that places those African experiences of Islam in a larger world history. Many a scholar have tried gallantly, but even more have failed miserably. At last, with Muslim Societies in Africa (IUP), Roman Loimeier has provided us a resource to sit with and digest, a resource that will likely prove to be a foundation for the study of Islam in Africa for years to come.

Few scholars would attempt to produce a work of such scale and scope. Loimeier, uniquely positioned as a scholar who has done research in Senegal, northern Nigeria, and Tanzania, has written a historical anthropology that emphasizes the importance of place. The result is a book organized largely by geographic region with some attention to periodization.

I do not want to suggest that other syntheses of Islam in Africa have not paid attention to geography before, they certainly have, but one of Loimeier’s contributions is a sustained interest in geography. This approach forces us to look at the way in which Islam as a series of discourses have been taken up or rejected in specific times and different places. Importantly, Loimeier’s regions are geographically, even climatically defined, allowing him to get past regions defined strictly by discourses of either Arabic or Europhone texts. In other others words, the sustained interest in geography allows him to put discourse in dialogue with material conditions.

As a result, Loimeier is able to discuss African societies and African persons who have not become Muslim just as much as he does those who have. Perhaps one way of thinking about this work is as a historical anthropology of Islamic encounters in Africa and their entanglements beyond. Accordingly, it should be of interest to the much larger field of African Studies, which has tended to treat Islam as an external force and alien presence in Africa.

Those familiar with the field of Islam in Africa might protest my characterization of the syntheses we have had at our disposal. They would most readily refer to Nehemia Levtzion’s and Randall Pouwels’ edited volume The History of Islam in Africa (2000) and David Robinson’s post-9/11 inflected apologia Muslim Societies in African History (2004). There are other works, mostly by historians, but they are so steeped in orientalist discourse they hardly warrant mention here.

The Levtzion and Pouwels volume was indeed a hallmark and its most valuable contribution is perhaps its insistence on taking a “continental approach” to Islam in Africa. However, its strength is in fact its weakness. It compiles the work of scholars working on Islam in Africa for the preceding thirty years or so.  There is a great deal of variation in approach, topic and region of focus, as well as depth. Quite a few of the essays overlap while some seem not to belong with the others at all.

As for Robinson’s book, it has served its purpose well enough in undergraduate classrooms in communicating the standing literature. However, it has not done much more than that. What seems to be its contribution in focusing on the dialectic process of the Islamization of Africa and the Africanization of Islam had been articulated at least two decades before by Humphrey Fisher. It is just that his presentation of it had a particular resonance after the American academy’s preoccupation with agency. Africans, Robinson says, “make Islam their own.” This, of course, is another way of saying that Africans have made their own Islam, a conclusion long associated with colonial discourse about African and Black Islam’s particularity.

Loimeier succeeds in escaping many of these traps by avoiding the rigid model of Islamization theory that has dominated historical studies and instead looks for patterns and particularities in various distinguishable geographic regions. He does so by first problematizing the idea of African Islam. He then uses the historical experience of Islam in the Bilād al-Maghrib as the source template to understand dynamics in the rest of the continent, going far beyond the “gateway” relationship that has dominated the literature until now. As a result, Loimeier presents the legitimacy of political rule, the role of outsiders in religio-political movements, the relationship between center and periphery in African Muslim empires, and the pervading importance of trade and the struggle for control of long-distance trade routes as important themes throughout Africa.

However, I should be clear in stating that Loimeier goes beyond a statist paradigm of history in arguing that the story of Islam Islam in Africa is not simply the history of Islamiccaly inflected politics. As the expressed faith of some 450 million Africans, Islam must be understood for its transformative impact in terms of land ownership, modes of production, sociability, public institutions, and cultural forms.

With all hope, Roman Loimeier’s Muslim Societies in Africa will leave a lasting impression on the ongoing realignment of the field that is increasingly understanding Islam in Africa not as a phenomenon of a double periphery but as a center unto itself with its own peripheries and histories of engagement with the rest of the world.

About Wendell Marsh

Wendell Hassan Marsh is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. His work lies at the intersection of the study of Islam in Africa, Arabic written culture, and intellectual history. Specifically, his research interrogates the African Islamic library as a locus of knowledge production and circulation