Sunday, June 17, 2007

african islam and islam in africa: encounters between sufis and islamists

book review by Korwa G Adar, Journal of Third World Studies, Fall 2001 of African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters Between Sufis and Islamists Rosander, Eva Evers and David Westerlund, (eds.). Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 1997 358 pp.

This interdisciplinary book deals with an important subject, Sufism and Islamism in Africa. Specifically, it examines the relationship between Sufism, that is, African Islam and Islamism or Islam in Africa. It is a collection of Twelve Chapters by experts who have examined various aspects of the subject. Most of the scholarly works which have been done on the subject have focussed mainly on critical Islamist views on Western-centred ideas and life. The book focuses on the "intra-Muslim relationship between Sufis and Islamists" as its main point of departure. Apart from using Islamization as a mediator between tradition and modernity, sharia (Islamic law), jahiliyya (ignorance about Islam), tahara (purity), and baraka (blessing), among others, are treated in the book as some of the central levels of conceptualization.

In the Introduction Eva Evers Rosander details concepts such as Sufism, Islamism, and Ismaization of tradition and modernity. Rosander argues that Sufi orders or brotherhood have had great political and religious impact in Africa over the centuries. Apart from benefiting from the British colonial rule in Tanganyika the author states that the Sufi orders gained considerable political influence in the 18th and 19th centuries while at the same time collaborated with the French colonialists in North and West Africa at the expense of the nonMuslims.

In his Chapter John Huwick argues that for many centuries there has been intense interaction between Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabo-Islamic world. These include travel by African Muslim scholars to the Arabo-Islamic world, the inflow of visitors to the Sub-Saharan Africa, the formation of pan-African Islamic organizations and networks as well as membership in international Islamic associations are some of the contributing factors to the linkage between Muslims in Africa and those in other parts of the world. Huwick states that because of the continued contacts with the Arabo-Muslim world SubSaharan Africa is increasingly being integrated into the Muslim world at the expense of the West.

The "eternal dichotomy" between Sufistic, rural and popular religious practices and the learned, urban and elitistic Islam in the Maghrib region of North Africa constitute the main focus of George Joffe's Chapter. He states that irrespective of the fact that the two Islamic orientations do not intermingle they form part of a dynamic complementary and dialectical social process. Joffe argues that this has been the long standing tradition in the Maghrib religious culture. He emphasizes that Islamic radicalism has a negative impact in popular forms of Islam, comparing it to what prevailed in the area during the colonial period. Joffe found out that the impact of Islamic radicalism in the societies in the Maghrib region varied from country to country. In Tunisia, for example, the Hizb Nahda, the Harakat al-Islami (or the 15-21 Movement as it is also known) and the Hizb al-Tahri-ral-Islami which had influence in the 1970s and 1980s had virtually been eliminated. Similarly, the al-Adl wa'l-Ahsan and al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya committed to the violent overthrow of the monarchy in Morocco have either been successfully repressed or co-opted into the government. However, the Algerian case differs in that the Islamic radicalism, notably led by the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) and the Armee Islamique du Salut (AJS), have destabilised the country for a number of years.

Abdullahi A. An-Na'im's chapter focuses on Islam and human rights in the Sahelian region in Africa. The author puts into proper theoretical perspective the relationship between Islamic religious and customary practices and international law norms. He finds some correlation between Islam and cultures of the Sahelian peoples. He stresses that cultural diversity which prevails in societies need not be a hindrance to the growth and legitimacy of international law, particularly in relation to human rights. He argues that such a view is in conformity with what is prevailing in a number of countries in Sahel except Sudan. The author argues that the Sudanese leadership does not recognize human rights because they equate human rights regime with Western values and norms. The author states that Islamization which is taking place in the Sahel region is not unique in that it is similar to what prevailed in the 18th and the 19th centuries, with jihad playing important role. An-Na'im, however, points out that Islamic views of human rights are different from international human rights norms in that non-Muslims and women are seen to be unequal and inferior.

The controversial and contentious issue of translation of the Quran into other languages is the theme which is examined by Justo Lacunza-Balda. In West Africa the arabisants have a strong view that Quran was originally given by God in Arabic and as such cannot be distorted by way of translations. They condemn the practice where, for example, the Mouride women in Senegal sing religious songs in Wolof, their founder's language. The same negative views about the translation of the Quran prevails in Nigeria. The author argues that the main disagreement about the authenticity of the translation of the Quran in East Africa is mainly due to the existing translations which were done by a Christian and others by a member of the Ahmadiyya movement, regarded as non-Muslim. However, the author states that Muslim translators are the advocates of the need for the translations of the Quran in Swahili, the lingua franca in the region.

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