Pride, Faith, and Fear: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

“Pride, Faith, and Fear” is a study of the dynamic role of Islam in the political and cultural life of sub-Saharan Africa.
Charlotte A. Quinn, a senior policy analyst for the United States government and author of Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia (Northwestern, 1972), began the book some twenty years ago; Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest interested in interfaith relations, edited, expanded, and completed it after her death. The authors focus on five countries-Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, Kenya, and South Africa-to illustrate the range of African Islamic experiences. They give historical overviews to explain the development of Islam in each country before analyzing contemporary issues of Islamic law, leadership, and custom.

An estimated 160 million Muslims, the vast majority of them Sunnis, live in sub-Saharan Africa today, accounting for perhaps a third of the region's population. They are ethnically, culturally, and ideologically diverse. This diversity notwithstanding, the authors are able to identify several general features of African Islam.
First, it has strong local roots. Mosques cater to particular communities and have independent leaders who need not yield to any higher transnational Muslim authorities, a situation that reflects a kind of political diffusion that is typical of Sunni Islam at large.
At the same time, African Islam is globally connected, so that many Muslims are aware of Islamic developments occurring as far afield as Indonesia. The authors point out that the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 was particularly inspirational for African Muslims, who welcomed it, in part, for breaking the hegemony of the Arab world on Islamic leadership. More recent developments affecting the political worldviews of African Muslims include the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and U.S. government policies toward Muslim countries, particularly in the post-September 11 context. While Christian-Muslim strife is increasingly visible in some countries, reflecting communal contestations for political power, African Muslims are also beset by divisions and are competing for power and influence internally, within and among ethnic, Sufi, and Islamist groups. Finally, the authors note that Muslim militant extremism (as reflected in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi) is the preserve of a tiny, alienated minority, and that the vast majority of African Muslims, like their Christian counterparts, are holding to their faiths while trying simply to get by, individually or as families, often in the face of economic challenges.

The chapter on Nigeria is in some ways the richest of the book, though it is also the least organized. The authors explain the country's Shari'a controversies, their bearing on the 1979 and 1999 constitutions, and their renewed visibility after 2000, when the state of Zamfara began a trend in the predominantly Muslim north by imposing an Islamic penal code-a measure that it publicized and inaugurated by amputating the hand of a local cattle thief. The authors argue that this manifestation of Islamism, reflected in popular calls for the strict application of Islamic laws, is a response to disillusionment. It has arisen in the face of poor economic conditions (deriving from inflation, unemployment, and increasingly wide discrepancies between rich and poor in the midst of the country's oil boom) and over perceptions of lawlessness and endemic corruption. While Nigerian Muslims are certain to exacerbate tensions with their Christian compatriots by continuing to insist on the primacy of Shari'a law within the Nigerian federation, many Muslims apparently hope that an Islamic order will bring greater stability along with a more equitable sharing of national wealth.

The chapter on Sudan considers the role of religious politics against the backdrop of the country's chronic civil war, which has largely operated along a north-south, Muslim-Christian divide. The authors make two bold assertions. First, they argue that an "Islamic political system is clearly here to stay in Sudan, and solutions that ignore this fact"-including southern calls for a secular multicultural state-"will remain empty exercises" (66). second, bearing in mind Sudan's tremendous ethnic and linguistic diversity, they suggest that "long-feuding groups," Muslim communities among them, "can severely damage one another but never provide the knockout punch" (67), thereby complicating efforts to end the war through a stable political settlement. The chapter does not consider the likely impact of oil politics on the Sudanese civil war, though oil revenues only began visibly to strengthen the war-waging powers of Khartoum's Islamist regime in 2000, after the bulk of this book was written.

Relative to Nigeria and Sudan, Senegal looks like an oasis of religious stability. In Senegal, Sufi Islam is paramount and Islamism has had a negligible impact. During the postcolonial period, Sufi leaders have tended to cooperate with national political leaders, while Muslim-Christian relations have been generally harmonious. (Of course, Christians constitute only a small minority of about 2 percent and are concentrated in coastal towns). Yet tensions may be looming, as unemployment threatens to rise and as the two preeminent Sufi brotherhoods of the country, the Mouridiyya and Tijaniyya, compete for members while facing a generational shift in leadership.

About the Author:

Religion Charlotte A. Quinn and Frederick Quinn. Pride, Faith, and Fear: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. vi + 175 pp. Bibliography. Index. $29.95. Cloth.


Author: By: Heather J Sharkey