In Review

Challenging Binaries, Crossing Boundaries

A review of four books on Islamic reform in contemporary Africa.

A member of the Tijaniyya Brotherhood prays as he takes part in a remembrance for Sheikh Sidi Ahmed al-Tijani on May 14, 2014, in the Moroccan city of Fez. Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

By Ousmane Kane

The story of Islam in Africa has always been one of a dual process. The first part of the story was the spread of Islam as a religion in African societies (the Islamization of Africa), and the second part was its adaptation to accommodate the already existing African traditions and cultures (the Africanization of Islam).1 Thus, throughout the second millennium, African Muslims were faced with the problem not only of how to spread the faith, but also how to improve its local practice.

A prime example of this is the Almoravid movement, one of the oldest and most influential reform movements in Africa, which started its odyssey in the south of present-day Mauritania. At its zenith, the Almoravids had conquered most of the Sahara, North Africa, and Muslim Spain. They eradicated Shiite and Ibadi influences and imposed a Sunni Maliki Islam in most of the Maghreb and in West Africa. From the rise of the Almoravids in the eleventh century until the establishment of European colonial rule at the turn of the twentieth century, many reformers attempted to rectify what they viewed as the corruption of the Islamic faith over time.

But it was in the twentieth century that Islamic reform had the strongest impact, for two reasons. The first is that Islam spread more rapidly and more widely in West Africa (where most Muslims south of the Sahara live) during the twentieth century than in the preceding nine centuries.2 The second is that the twentieth century witnessed the colonization and decolonization of Africa, as well as the globalization of Muslim movements. These developments created all sorts of challenges and prompted many Muslims to renegotiate their relations with their faith.

Four books have been published recently that considerably enrich our understanding of Islamic reform in Africa in the twentieth century. Because they deal with different regions of Africa and with a wide range of groups, together they offer rich material for instructors teaching modern Islam, but also for policy makers, journalists, and the larger public. In his work, Henri Lauzière analyzes reform movements in North Africa and beyond, clarifying the meaning of reform in different contexts. Alexander Thurston addresses the Boko Haram movement, a splinter group of the Izala movement, one of the largest Salafi reform movements in twentieth-century Africa. In his historical ethnography of the Sufi community of Ibrahim Niasse (1900–1975), Zachary Wright discusses the influential Tijaniyya Sufi movement and the important contributions Niasse made to Islamic reform. And Roman Loimeier provides a comprehensive study of twentieth-century reform movements (Sufi and Salafi) in Africa south of the Sahara.

These books certainly deepen our knowledge about Islamic reform in Africa, past and present. They also reveal and push up against longstanding academic binaries and territorialism, such as the Sufi/Salafi distinction and the North African/sub-Saharan divide, which I think are hampering our understanding of these important movements. To discuss these four books is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the field of Islamic studies in Africa, but it is also to encourage those of us who work in this field to go farther. We must rethink our categories and expand our disciplinary worlds so that we can do justice to these dynamic, influential, global religious movements.


A review of four books on Islamic reform in contemporary Africa

The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, by Henri Lauzière. Columbia University Press, 328 pages, $55.

Boko Haram:The History of an African Jihadist Movement, by Alexander Thurston. Princeton University Press, 352 pages, $29.95.

Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrāhīm Niasse, by Zachary Valentine Wright. Islam in Africa Series, E. J. Brill, 334 pages, $152.

Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa, by Roman Loimeier. Edinburgh University Press, 560 pages, $130.

Book cover of The Making of Salafism

The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century

But what is Islamic reform? Two words are used in the Arabic literature to describe it: Islah and Salafi. But, as Henri Lauzière reveals in The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, there has been a great deal of confusion between the two terms among scholars and activists in the past hundred years. Lauzière unpacks the concepts in his work and provides us with a more robust conceptualization of the ideology of reform.

Generations of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies students have been taught that a modernist movement named Salafiyya, spearheaded by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905), and Rashid Rida (1865–1935) appeared in the late nineteenth-century East. Founded at the height of European imperialism, this movement aimed to bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the West. It identified religious “superstitions” and imitation (taqlid) as the main cause of stagnation and advocated a return to the teachings of the pious forefathers (madhhab al-salaf). It also championed the acceptance of scientific and technological achievements of the West to strengthen Muslim societies. Students have been taught that this modernist Salafiyya movement is not to be confused with a classical Salafiyya based on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) and revived by the Najd theologian Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), which also advocated a return to the teachings of the Salaf, but which was an anti-innovative strain that has persisted through the purist strains of Wahabbism that we see today.

In The Making of Salafism, Lauzière argues quite convincingly that this narrative is wrong and that the purist concept of Salafi methodology, as applicable to law, theology, and all aspects of the human experience, is not as pristine as its contemporary adherents believe. Rather, Salafism was shaped during the colonial and decolonization periods and by the “cross-pollination between indigenous and nonindigenous ways of thinking about Islam” that took place during this period (236). As such, this reform movement was strongly influenced by modern understandings of religion and ideology and, indeed, was a direct result of decolonization. He stresses:

To say that it dates from the time of Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab not only is anachronistic but also obfuscates the development of modern Islamic thought. Although many of the ingredients of purist Salafism are old, the recipe and the final product (including the term Salafism) are not. (236)

Lauzière explains that the mere presence of the words “Salaf,” “Salafi,” and “Salafiyya” in Arabic sources in general, and in the writings of ‘Abduh and Rida in particular, is not evidence of a religious orientation dating back either to the medieval period or to the nineteenth century. From the medieval period until the beginning of the twentieth century, Muslim scholars referred to themselves and others as affiliates to the madhhab al-salaf only to signal their adherence to Hanbali theology with regard to the names and attributes of God (20–21). Al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh never claimed to be Salafi in the first place.3 Instead, the buzzword for their movement is “Islah,” which means comprehensive reform that encompasses the religious, social, educational, and political spheres (40).

One of the most important contributions of this book is that it clarifies the difference between the reform movement (Islah) that al-Afghani, ‘Abduh, Rida, and others championed and the Salafi theological creed. Muhammad ‘Abduh, for example, was Ash‘ari in creed, while Rida was Salafi (or Hanbali), but they were both partisans of the Islah movement (41). The Islah movement had a widespread appeal to many Muslims at the turn of the twentieth century and later. Some of them were Hanbali in creed (thus, Salafi), and others were not.

Lauzière traces the construction of the idea of Salafiyya as a comprehensive movement to 1917, when ‘Abd al-Fattah Qatlan, a Syrian associate of Rashid Rida, founded a journal he named al-Majalla al-Salafiyya, in order to promote his Cairo bookstore. A copy of the journal was sent to the Revue du monde musulman, a top Islamic studies journal in France. To make sense of this new journal, the French Arabist Louis Massignon presented Salafiyya as an intellectual movement that had emerged in early nineteenth-century India and from there spread by al-Afghani and ‘Abduh to establish itself in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, the Maghreb, Indonesia, and elsewhere (37–38).4 As Lauzière points out:

Massignon was not conveying the indigenous history and meaning of an already existing Islamic concept. He was rather constructing a new category as he went along, juxtaposing available historical facts and observations to produce a seemingly credible analytical tool. (38)

Massignon was misled because he had traveled to Ottoman Iraq at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he had befriended or exchanged letters with leading reformers.5 So, when the al-Majalla al-Salafiyya reached him in Paris, he made inaccurate connections between a word (Salafi), a series of Muslim reformers, and their ideas (39).

Emile Dermenghem, a French Islamicist who also was acquainted with Muslim activists in the Maghreb, embraced this narrative. Through such interactions between orientalists and Muslim activists, the flawed narrative of Massignon came to have a life of its own. Moroccan nationalist and reformist ‘Allal al-Fasi (1910–1974) was among those who embraced and indigenized Massignon’s understanding.6 This new understanding of Salafiyya became widespread among Muslim Salafis and orientalists, both in sources in European languages and in sources in the Arabic language. Thus, Lauzière shows, “indigenous and exogenous sources ended up validating each other’s claim in a circular way” (133).

This book shows how the struggle over this concept’s meaning leads to the ultimate triumph of those Lauzière calls “purist Salafis.” By analyzing in great detail the lives and work of Rashid Rida, ‘Allal al-Fasi, Taqi al-Din al-Hilali (1894–1987), Nasir al-Din al-Albani, and Mustafa Hilmi, he proves that advocates of reform disagreed on a number of important issues. Moroccan reformer ‘Allal al-Fasi’s writings are replete with references to rationalism, humanism, democracy, freedom of religion, and gender justice. He was a nationalist who conceived of Morocco as a nation that included all those who lived in it, and in particular the Jewish minority. This was in contrast to those the author calls “purist Salafis,” who had difficulty accepting the principle that a modern nation-state, not Islam, should be the locus of a Muslim’s identity and allegiance (134).

Despite their disagreements, leading activists who were Salafi in creed modified their understanding of Islamic reform to build strong alliances and increase the likelihood of achieving political independence (24). Decolonization transformed the situation by removing the common goal that had until then united advocates of Islah of all persuasions (25). It wasn’t until the last three decades of the twentieth century that Salafiyya became a worldview (manhaj al-salaf). This shift occurred in Saudi Arabia, after it opened its universities to Muslim activists worldwide. Thousands of Muslim brothers from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, as well as purist Salafis, settled in the Saudi kingdom. As purist Salafis began to distinguish themselves from Islamists, who they thought were obsessed with politics and guilty of some theological errors, the notion of Salafi methodology gained ground.

Lauzière identifies Egyptian professor of philosophy Mustafa Hilmi (born in 1932) as being pivotal in provoking this shift. Hilmi yearned for an Islamic state, insisted on Islamic culture, and strongly opposed both Zionism and Western cultural influence and secularism. He saw Islam as a sociopolitical system and sought to identify the method by which Muslim scholars arrived at the truth about this system and its implementation (218). Lauzière describes his importance:

Hilmi did for Salafi thought what Sayyid Qutb had done for Islamist thought. . . . Hilmi adopted the Muslim Brothers’ combative intellectual attitude and totalizing critique of Western civilization to reframe Salafism as an all-encompassing religious ideology comparable to Islamism. The key to this transformation was the notion of Salafi manhaj, which had both theoretical and practical implications. Hilmi described it as a method of investigation that provided irrefutable knowledge for all aspects of life. . . . (219)

The financial might of Saudi Arabia contributed to the wide dissemination of this new understanding of Salafiyya as manhaj, and not always peacefully. At the height of the Cold War, Saudi Arabia helped fund a military jihad in Afghanistan.

In his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani traces the origins of modern jihadi movements to the Afghan war, where Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States collaborated to recruit tens of thousands of Islamist radicals to fight the Soviet invaders.7 At the end of the war, veterans, some of whom were called Arab Afghans, returned home to spread the jihadi ideology. They linked up with other Islamist groups and began to organize military jihads against their states. Now, in the early twenty-first century, jihadi groups have taken root in all countries of Muslim Africa. One such group is the subject of Alexander Thurston’s new book, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement.

Book cover of Boko Haram

Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

The Boko Haram movement originated in Nigeria, the seventh-largest Muslim country in the world, with a population of more than eighty million Muslims. Thurston, who has done fieldwork in northern Nigeria, provides an in-depth history of this group, drawing from multiple sources.8 Reading this book after Lauziere’s is illuminating, since Thurston carefully examines the different channels that led to the growth of this “mobile jihadist gang,” starting with the Nigerian Islamic leaders who studied under Salafi scholars in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Thurston then traces the movement from its beginning as a small religious study group in Maiduguri to a militarized political group that has separated itself from the mainstream of northern Nigerian Salafi thought.

From the colonial conquest of West Africa in the early twentieth century until the beginning of the twenty-first century, no single Islamic group has successfully challenged the monopoly of West African states (either colonial or postcolonial) on the exercise of violence. Nor has any religious group (Islamic or non-Islamic) raised a standing army. Yet things have been changing in the last few years and, more than any other group, Boko Haram must be credited for this shift. The Nigerian army, one of the most powerful on the African continent, has still not been able to completely defeat this powerful and destructive insurgency, even with international support. Thurston’s book helps to explain why this is so, by revealing how Boko Haram has been reactive and adaptable; even its core doctrine has been repeatedly restated in response to external events.

Thurston argues convincingly that Boko Haram is the outcome of dynamic and locally grounded interactions between religion and politics. He divides its history into five phases. In the first chapter, Thurston analyzes the political sociology of Islam in northern Nigeria from the 1970s to the 1990s, addressing the fragmentation of sacred authority and the rise of Salafism in the context of political uncertainty, disruptive urbanization, and the widespread debate about Islam in politics.9 During these decades, resentment built among ordinary people toward Borno State local governments, which were not able to fulfill expectations in an “increasingly diverse, but also poor and vulnerable” context that reflected “the intersection of immigration, unplanned urban sprawl, inadequate infrastructural development, and rising social tensions” (48). It was in this milieu that Muhammad Yusuf, credited as the founder of Boko Haram, grew up and became a charismatic preacher.

In chapter two, “Preaching Exclusivism, Playing Politics,” Thurston covers 2001 to 2009, a period of open preaching ending with the rebellion of 2009. At first, Boko Haram was a Muslim group attempting to reform the local practice of Islam in Nigeria—especially with regard to the education of children—and it remained essentially a movement of religious reform between its founding in 2002–2003 and 2009.10 In this section, Thurston suggests that the relationship between Yusuf and hard-liners was much “messier” than has usually been characterized, and that Yusuf’s own “stated views on politics continued to fluctuate” during these years (96).

Mohammed Yusef

Mohammed Yusef praching. YouTube screenshot

According to Thurston, Yusuf had a set of core beliefs rooted in Salafi Islam, but his message hardened over time under the pressure of three main forces. The first was that of hard-liners around him whom he did not control and who recruited radicals to the movement. The second was a group of mainstream northern Nigerian Salafi scholars who mentored him at an earlier stage of his career. The third was the political establishment of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, and most notably its former state governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, to whom Yusuf was tied by a patron-client relationship.

Yusuf strove to sustain a balance among these three interlocutors by telling different stories to each of them about his intentions and beliefs. But, ultimately, he alienated both the mainstream Salafis and Borno State political authorities. Thurston explains:

As mainstream Salafis condemned him and politicians forgot him, Yusuf increasingly made the hardliners’ positions his own. He condemned democracy, Western-style education, and secular constitutionalism. By the time his conflict with authorities came to a head in 2009, Yusuf was advocating a confrontational, uncompromising religious activism. Although he was killed and his movement was suppressed, . . . the final incarnation of his message would become the core doctrine of the resurgent Boko Haram starting in 2010—a movement that now openly aligned itself with jihadism. (141)

After Yusuf’s extrajudicial execution by Nigerian law enforcement agencies in 2009, the group went underground and reemerged as a guerilla group in 2010.

Abubakar Shekau led Boko Haram in its third phase, from 2010 to 2013, when it conducted major attacks in Nigerian cities, including the capital, Abuja. The group perpetuated hold-ups, assassinations, and raids in the northeast. Thurston titles this chapter “Chaos Is Worse Than Killing”—reportedly Shekau’s favorite Qur’anic verse (Qur’an 2:192)—to capture this era during which “Boko Haram evolved . . . into a hardened jihadist organization” (195). Here, Thurston questions some of the typical ways of describing the movement’s growth and character. For example, he suggests that “one should question the very category of ‘recruitment’ itself,” since the drawing in of young men seems to involve a “gradual process of collaborating with Boko Haram’s cells” that includes “inducements (financial, peer based, and religious) for involvement and disincentives (threats of exposure and violence) for backsliding” (193).11

In a fourth phase, from 2013 to 2015—Thurston titles this chapter “Total War in Northeastern Nigeria”—Boko Haram controlled large tracts of territories and forced civilians to join the movement or be killed. He argues that the Nigerian government’s actions in northeastern Nigeria tended to contribute to a situation of “spiraling violence”:

Perhaps out of frustration at Boko Haram’s elusiveness, the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) became even harsher toward civilians. . . . Researchers documented systematic abuses of civilians by the security forces . . . [that] “have contravened international human rights standards and fueled further attacks.” (199–200)

The escalation into war actually “boosted Boko Haram,” according to Thurston, because it provided the group “with access to more arms,” and it “made civilians more isolated and vulnerable,” which “discouraged them from sharing important information with authorities” (204–205).

A fifth phase, 2015–2017, has been characterized by the creation of a multistate coalition to combat the group, while Boko Haram has lost its territories and resorted to guerilla warfare. Its own violence “became systematically regional” during this time and included attacks in Cameroon, Niger, and Chad (252). In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, though Thurston reads the timing of this affiliation as a reflection of Boko Haram’s weakness (272). Thurston calls this chapter “Same War, New Actors,” and argues that “the War on Terror context has helped to ensure that a military approach remains the dominant element of the international and Nigerian domestic response to Boko Haram” (283). Meanwhile, Boko Haram has led to “a complex humanitarian emergency that spans the Lake Chad basin,” one that involves “not only massive displacement of ordinary people, but also a hunger crisis and severe disruption of planting and harvest cycles” (290, 291).

Because of what Thurston calls “the interplay of doctrine and events,” he concludes that “there is no easy way out of the crisis” (301). Conventional wisdom seems to call for “a combination of military operations and socioeconomic development” to solve the problem, but Thurston suggests these efforts have often backfired. “No durable solution can be found to Boko Haram . . . until politics is brought back into view and confronted” (301–302), he writes. This means “trying to talk to Boko Haram,” because “dialogue could peel away some less hardened members of the group, allow for negotiations on prisoner exchanges, or bring to light new, and actionable, paths to decreasing the violence” (303). This book counsels that a long-term perspective, and approach, is needed.

Book cover of Living Knowledge

Living Knowledge in West African Islam

Whether in their moderate or violent forms, Salafi movements do not have the monopoly on reform. Sufi movements also have deployed considerable efforts to reform African Islam and to adapt Islam to colonial and postcolonial modernity. This leads me to Zachary Wright’s Living Knowledge in West African Islam, which discusses the Tijaniyya Sufi order, one of the most influential Sufi movements in the modern world. Wright focuses on the Sufi community established by Ibrahim Niasse (1900–1975), who, his biographer Rüdiger Seesemann has argued, is one of the most influential and versatile Sufi authors of the twentieth century.12 Niasse has millions of followers in Africa throughout the entire Sahelian belt, from Senegal to the Republic of Sudan, and especially in Nigeria.

Wright’s historical ethnography of Niasse’s community is interwoven with an analysis of the development of Islamic scholarship and the formation of clerical communities in West Africa over the past several centuries. Islamic scholarship in West Africa is focused on four main disciplines: the study of the Qur’an, Maliki jurisprudence, esoteric sciences, and Sufism. All of these subjects are taught among Niasse’s disciples, just like in other scholarly communities of West Africa. But what sets this community apart is not so much discursive knowledge as the emphasis on experiential knowledge of the Divine (ma‘rifa). According to Wright, the emphasis on ma‘rifa is unprecedented in West African Islamic history, though “seminal elements of the practice—initiatory personal transmission and the knowledge of sacred texts inscribed in the being of the practitioner—were present earlier in the development of Islam in West Africa” (32).

Wright’s discussion of the shaykh/disciple relationship is richly illustrated through extensive documentation of the long companionship between Ibrahim Niasse and his deputy, ‘Ali Cisse. Wright explains the historical importance of this “paradigmatic discipleship”:

Most Sufi shaykhs of renown had one disciple who surpassed all others in his proximity to the master. Significantly, such disciples are usually portrayed in the mold of Abū Bakr or ‘Alī, companions of the Prophet Muḥammad whom the Prophet particularly loved. . . . Given the emergence of new saintly authority in twentieth-century West Africa, the relationship between Ibrāhīm Niasse and ‘Alī Cissé provides unique insight into the logic and potential of shaykh-disciple relationships at a crucial juncture in the development of new scholarly communities. (121–22)

Like Rudolph Ware,13 Wright shows that West African Muslim societies, long considered by Western scholars and other Muslims to be inconsistent, have succeeded in reviving the Islamic habitus of an earlier time. Indeed, in their companionship with Ibrahim Niasse, disciples strove to reenact the personalized transmission of the Prophet and his companions, thereby making themselves exemplary Muslims. Despite the unprecedented growth of schools based on Western pedagogy in colonial and postcolonial Africa, scholars like Wright remind us that this mode of personalized transmission is alive and well in Madina Baye, and among disciples of Niasse throughout Africa. Wright articulates the political implications of Niasse’s teachings:

Ibrāhīm Niasse criticized Islamist trends in modern Muslim societies for their failure to understand the meaning of the texts they used to justify their divisive reform objectives. The primary reason for this failure was their inability to acquire good character in the presence of teachers who personified the Islamic religion. Modern Islamist reformers were people without the disposition and manners transmitted in the Prophet’s sunna: they were a people without adab. (284)

Through his creation of a transnational movement, Wright suggests, Niasse also “succeeded in decentering Islamic orthodoxy from the Arab heartlands” because his “vision of Islamic solidarity . . . created conceptual space for African leadership.”

Photo of Ibrahaim NIasse and Sayyid Ali Cisse

Ibrahaim Niasse and Sayyid Ali Cissé. Photo: Abdou Karim Cissé

Thus, a major lesson that Wright’s work teaches students of modern Islam is that Sufi revivalism is just as much an articulation of global Islam as some of the other movements that get more attention and press. In his conclusion, Wright advises scholars of Islam to avoid certain pitfalls:

Unlike an earlier generation of orientalist scholars who tended to associate anti-Sufi reformists with religious orthodoxy, academics today should recognize the inappropriateness of entering a debate on Islamic authenticity. But the other extreme—the claim that there is no one Islam, only innumerable “islams”—also represents an external misreading of certain recognizable orthodoxies. Indeed, there has been wide consensus on basic understandings of Islam across broad expanses of space and time. The solution is rather to recognize a spectrum of modalities, divergent ways of knowing (epistemologies), or even alternative ways of being (ontologies) within the religion. (289)

Wright’s caution is helpful, and yet most books—including the three I have reviewed so far—tend to address either Salafi or Sufi aspects of reform. What has been missing is a study of reform that transcends the Sufi/Salafi boundary, which is why I am grateful for Roman Loimeier’s 2016 book, Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa.


Book cover of Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africay

Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa

With notable exceptions,14 most of the literature on Islam in Africa tends to use the label “reformist” to describe Salafi- or Wahhabi-like movements. In contrast, Loimeier looks at efforts of reform within both the Salafi- and the Sufi-oriented movements. The book opens with two theoretical chapters conceptualizing the idea of reform in a way that is inclusive of Sufi orders and their Salafi opponents. Indeed, he argues that these two movements should be seen as “complementary” rather than “in stark contrast” to each other. This understanding leads Loimeier to “avoid terms that have often been used to explicitly label Salafi-oriented movements of reform as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘Islamist,’ ” since Sufi-oriented movements of reform “can also be seen in [these] terminological terms” (34).

Loimeier’s definition of reform includes “the process of translation, contestation, negotiation and reinterpretation of a specific interpretation of the canon in different geographic, social, political and religious contexts” (23). He further suggests that “such reform movements have synchronic and diachronic dimensions that require careful examination.” Above all, he argues, to look at specific reform movements and their generational dynamics necessarily leads to “attest[ing] to the pluralistic character of reform in Muslim contexts” (25). Thus, Loimeier strives to analyze the complex interactions between reform movements and their interactions with state, society, and the global Muslim community (ummah). He draws attention to the continual changes in structure and strategy within these movements, and to their reformulations of central Islamic doctrines.

Loimeier distinguishes between two “major orientations” within Salafi reform movements. The first group seeks political power, or at least to play a major role in politics, in order to eventually build an Islamic state.15 The second group regards doctrinal purity and the purification of the faith as being more important than political power, and consequently focuses on education, tarbiya (34–35). Loimeier also discusses the rise of what he calls “a jihad-oriented group of Salafis,” which, according to him, “do not care much about doctrine and . . . are also not willing to cultivate paths of accommodation with the state” (35).16 Finally, he identifies a fourth group of Muslims that abandoned politically oriented courses of action to stress the value of individual religiosity.17

The rest of the book consists of five regional case studies that effectively illustrate these theoretical points: 1) Senegal and Mali in West Africa; 2) Niger and Nigeria in mid-Western Africa; 3) Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia in Central and Eastern Africa; 4) Tanganika/Tanzania and Kenya in coastal East Africa; and 5) Zanzibar and the Comoros among the islands of the Indian Ocean. These detailed accounts prime the reader for Loimeier’s conclusion, in which he draws out some comparative implications about the patterns and particularities of Islamic reform in Africa.

Loimeier argues that “the competition between different families of reform has led to an opening of the market offering religious and social options in the different countries” (457, 458). He discusses both Sufi- and Salafi-oriented “chains of reform,” as he calls them, stressing “that Sufi-oriented movements of reform preceded Salafi-oriented movements of reform in each of the countries discussed” (458). He notes that “Salafi-oriented movements of reform have so far not been able to achieve hegemony of interpretation with respect to issues of reform in their respective countries and societies, despite their success in some regions and among some social strata,” and he suggests that Sufi movements in these regions “have sometimes represented a more vibrant approach to reform.” Yet, it is precisely the Salafi-oriented movements that “have stimulated the rejuvenation of Sufi movements and have contributed to the reemergence of modern forms of Sufi-oriented reform” (465).

Challenging the Salafi/Sufi binary, as Loimeier does, is extremely illuminating and allows for a deeper, dialectical understanding of Islamic reform in Africa. However, his previous book offered a thorough coverage of African Muslim societies, including North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, and even southern Africa.18 That work also analyzed the Sahara as a connective space, providing a valuable heuristic model for studying African Muslim societies. So, I find it unfortunate that Loimeier fails to adopt the same model in this important synthesis. He focuses on sub-Saharan Africa only, which leads me back to the limitations of methodological territorialism.19

To fully understand the dynamics of reform, it is imperative to pay close attention to the translocal networks of shared ideas that tie together various Muslim groups in the entire northern half of the African continent above the equator. This overwhelmingly Muslim area includes North Africa, the Sahara, and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The Tijaniyya Sufi order, the focus of Zachary Wright’s book, originated in Algeria, while the majority of its followers live in the Sahara or south of the Sahara. Movements of Tijanis between North, Saharan, and sub-Saharan Africa have been uninterrupted since the nineteenth century. Pilgrimages to the shrine of Ahmed al-Tijani in Fez Morocco and to the city of his birth—Aynou Madi in Algeria—have been institutionalized. Thousands of sub-Saharan pilgrims visit Tijani sites in Algeria and Morocco every year. Many descendants of Ahmed al-Tijani are now based in sub-Saharan Africa and have intermarried with local black populations.

Likewise, jihadi ideology, which is the focus of Thurston’s book, is shared by groups moving across the Sahara, including Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Boko Haram, and, last but not least, the Shabab in Somalia. The leadership of AQIM is Algerian, but its membership includes those from various African countries, as well as nationals of Western European countries who joined jihadi networks. The military brigades that identify with AQIM are spread across North Africa and the Sahel.

Given the intensification of global interconnectedness, an understanding of Islamic dynamics requires that we transcend methodological territorialism.Western universities typically divide up the study of Africa so that North Africa (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt) falls within the realm of Middle Eastern studies, while the area south of the Sahara, considered Africa proper, is studied within the field of African studies. Such a division and its underlying assumptions overlook the fact that Muslims have maintained close interactions in Africa for centuries. Throughout the second millennium, and even more so now, African Muslims have a long history of shared ideas. They have always crossed boundaries, and we scholars must do the same. To fully understand Islamic dynamics, especially dynamics of reform, we have to look at Muslim Africa—North Africa, the Sahara, and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa—as one single and unified discursive space.


  1. See chapters three and four of David Robinson’s Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  2. Mervyn Hiskett, The Development of Islam in West Africa (Longman, 1984), 281.
  3. Rida did identify with some of the teachings of al-Afghani and ‘Abduh, but he never used the Salafi label to designate his mentors’ school of thought.
  4. Between 1920 and 1925, Massignon dropped the reference to colonial India and began linking the term more intimately to al-Afghani and ‘Abduh (38).
  5. Among them, Mahmud Shukri al-‘Alusi, Hajj ‘Ali al-Alusi, al-Nu‘man al-‘Alusi, and Jamal Din Qasimi of Damascus.
  6. Ignoring the theological origins of the label “Salafi,” al-Fasi argued that Salafiyya was a movement in Islamic history and emphasized that al-Afghani and ‘Abduh were the chief makers of its modern iteration.
  7. Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon Books, 2004).
  8. To my knowledge, no scholar has been able to do serious ethnographic fieldwork on Boko Haram since it went underground in 2010, because of the associated risks. Thurston produced this coherent history by drawing from a variety of sources, including: academic books/articles on the sociology of Islam in Nigeria, secondary materials on Salafi jihadism, works on the political economy of violence in the Middle East and Africa, releases and recordings of Boko Haram, interviews with Nigerian scholars, confidential memos of Western diplomats available through Wikileaks, and theological writings in Arabic and Hausa.
  9. This chapter builds on Thurston’s earlier work, Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  10. Hard-liners in the group were suspected of attacking selected targets during those years, such as police stations.
  11. He also suggests that “the group often seems to function more as a collection of loosely linked cells and bands than as a tightly disciplined, hierarchical army” (194).
  12. Rüdiger Seesemann, The Divine Flood: Ibrāhīm Niasse and the Roots of a Twentieth-Century Sufi Revival (Oxford University Press, 2011), 7.
  13. Rudolph Ware, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
  14. John Paden’s Religion and Political Culture in Kano (University of California Press, 1973) is one.
  15. The Islamic movement led by Ibrahim El Zakzaky in Nigeria fits this model.
  16. The Harakat Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia, known as the Shabab, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, are cases in point.
  17. These groups include Jamaatou Ibadourahmane in Senegal and the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition, known as Yan Izala, in Nigeria and Niger.
  18. Roman Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology (Indiana University Press, 2013).
  19. By methodological territorialism, I mean that scholars engage in “formulating concepts and questions, constructing hypotheses, gathering and interpreting empirical evidence, and drawing conclusions all in a territorial spatial framework.” Jan Aart Scholte, “What Is Global about Globalization?” in The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, ed. David Held and Anthony McGrew (Blackwell, 2003), 89.

Ousmane Kane is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at HDS and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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