Islam in Africa under French Colonial Rule

Jean-Louis Triaud
“Islam in Africa under French Colonial Rule”

The History of Islam in Africa. Levtzion & Pouwels (eds.). Athens. Ohio University Press. p. 169-188

Chapter 8

The colonial period played a decisive role in the history of Islam in Frenchspeaking Africa: it was the period of the greatest expansion of the Muslim presence in Africa. This paradox should be borne in mind when, on the scale of the millennium, one draws the balance of this significant period, which extends essentially from the mid-nineteenth century to 1960.
At the summit of its empire, France prided itself in being a “major Muslim power,” due to its possessions in the Maghrib, Black Africa, and the Middle East. This expression was ambiguous, for, under the pretext of recognizing its Muslim subjects, France’s interests lay rather in competing with the British Empire by symbolically vying for control over the territory of Islam.
Yet it is precisely the comparison with France’s great British rival that permits one to better emphasize the existence of French specificity in Islamic matters. In Africa-for example in the Sudan and Nigeria-under the doctrine of Indirect Rule, the British delegated local powers of jurisdiction to the holders of Islamic legitimacy, albeit under British control. France, for its part, even when it made use of the mediation of the Islamic brotherhoods, always refused to invest them with a recognized legal power. This was not merely a question of different conceptions of colonial policy but also concerned a particular representation of Islam. One thus cannot comprehend French policy in its sub-Saharan Muslim domain without going back to older determinants.

The French Fear of Islam

There is an anti-Islamic dimension inherent and recurrent in French political and administrative thought that merits study and inquiry. Although there have been authors, and periods, manifesting interest and sympathy for the Muslim world, French culture has maintained strong continuity in its negative view and fear of Islam.
The strictly religious sources that nourished a mutual spirit of a holy war between Islam and Christianity for several centuries are well known. But there are more recent ones. The hostility to Islam in France also has roots—and this is something that has been recognized less well—in the direct heritage of the French Revolution and the republic; namely, in the spirit accompanying the separation between church and state. Both republicans and radical secularists, who had waged an unfettered struggle against the Roman Catholic Church-denouncing it as obscurantist, feudal, and authoritarian-believed that they were encountering the same adversary again on the other side of the Mediterranean, but that this time it bore Islamic features. Their struggle against the Islam that dominated life beyond the Mediterranean was thus a direct extension of their confrontation with the Catholicism that dominated on the near side of the Mediterranean. The cult of democracy, science, and progress was not able to accommodate itself to a reactionary and dogmatic clergy that taught ignorance to the faithful . The administrative reports deriving from the colonial period bear witness to the permanent action against Muslim institutions.
In contrast to British colonialism, which had other points of reference and other forms of practice, French colonialism always experienced the Muslim presence in the guise of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Writing of the “French secular tradition, ” Cholvy (1991) says, “It invites the religious to be silent.” And when religion is not silent-which was the case in the conquered Muslim countries-this is perceived as an intolerable attack on the secular religion of “progress.”

The Model of the Secret Society

Fifteen years after the conquest of Algiers, French observers discovered the Muslim brotherhoods. These were immediately likened to their presumed European counterparts, in particular to the Jesuits, who were a “secret society” par excellence, being conspiratorial and subversive in the eyes of the republicans of the epoch.
In 1845, de Neveu, captain at the staff headquarters and a member of the scientific commission of Algeria, published a small volume in Algiers that was to become the required model of all approaches to the phenomenon of the Muslim brotherhood. His Les Khouans, ordres religieux chez les Musulmans dAlgérie was the first of a long series of works published in Algeria (by, for example, Brosselard, Rinn, Depont, and Coppolani). The brotherhoods were presented therein as secret societies that menaced the colonial power. From that time on, the colonial administration did not cease to investigate the connections between insurrections and the “Khouan” the “brothers” affiliated to these orders. A generation later, in the Mos, which were the years in which the republic was established in France, the’same models were still very much in evidence. They were applied, for example, by the scholar Duveyrier to the brotherhood of the Sanusiyya
Initially adopted in Algeria, the classificatory scheme that was applied to all Muslims according to brotherhood affiliation, at times contrary to the evidence, passed from Algeria to south of the Sahara at the end of the century. Alfred Le Chatelier, an officer and orientalist who later became a professor at the Collège de France, traveled ftom Algeria to West Africa at the end of the century to study subSaharan Islam. Twelve years later, when he published his results, he explained how much he had been influenced by this schematic grid, although it was poorly adapted to the local realities. Despite these reservations, the brotherhood remained one of the foundations of colonial administrative taxonomy up to independence. From 1840 to 1960, both to the north and south of the Sahara, human groups and individuals were classified according to ethnic entities, tribes, and brotherhoods.
To French observers who made a fetish of this structure, the brotherhood ensnared the minds of Muslims in bonds of obscurantism and rural superstition. For the republicans especially, the brotherhood was a form of chouannerie . For them, the religious community was one more example of those medieval holdovers that hindered the separation of church and state, the preeminence of science over superstition, and the superiority of bureaucratic organization over local “feudal systems.” Periodically, therefore, republican and anticlerical discourse together nourished and legitimized the struggle against Muslim institutions.

Islam in the Evolutionary Chain

To the “social Darwinism” of the age, on the scale of civilizations, Islam, because it had a written culture, was considered midway between barbarism and progress. In the context of the Maghrib, what was emphasized and denounced above all was the perception that Islam blocked progress. Islam was the vector and the sign of backwardness, as compared with the industrial societies. In the context of Black Africa, the place it occupied was different and more complex. Islamic culture was judged, on the one hand, to lag behind Western civilization; but on the other, it was seen to be in advance of sub-Saharan societies designated as “fetishistic.” This evolutionary perspective explains why, for a while, particularly under the governorship of Faidherbe in Senegal in the midnineteenth century, Islam was credited by the administration with this positive “differential”:

The Muslim propaganda is a step toward civilization in West Africa, and it is universally recognized that, with respect to social organization, the Muslim peoples of these regions are superior to the populations that have remained fetishistic.

We cannot claim to make it possible to climb in one sole generation, or even in five or six, the rungs of a ladder whose summit the old Western world cannot yet see, even after hundreds of years. One should remember that Nature does not make any leaps and that it is if not impossible at least dangerous for the Black to pass abruptly from his semi-barbarous state to highly advanced state of our social development. One should also remember that Islam bears an indisputable de-brutalizing force and moral value
However, after World War 1, the fear of Islam and of a conspiracy that would take its orders abroad, in Germany and in Turkey, finally overrode all other considerations. Paul Marty, the great French specialist on Muslim affairs in West Africa, expressly warned against the view that “the stage of Islamic evolution is necessary in order to elevate the fetishistic natives to French civilization” . French conquest of and progressive contacts with more southerly, animistic peoples produced a reevaluation of the place of these societies in the overall scale of human development. With this, the Islamic “stage,” far from being an opportunity to move forward, seemed more and more to be blocked. Professional ethnographers such as Marcel Griaule, who appeared on the Africa scene in those years, now privileged nonIslarnized societies, in the name of African authenticity, and in so doing, they constructed a model of isolated cultural entities that is the object of considerable doubt today. They agreed with their predecessors on one detail: the Islamic branch of the human species was a sterile bough, an impasse in the evolutionary chain, from which one could not expect any progress.
These variations in the order of discourse illustrate the fluid character of an Islamic policy whose formulation depended on the dominance of given ideological and conceptual references, on agents in the field, and on local and regional conjectures. The intensive use of polemical anti-Islamic literature, which was sometimes obsessive, created a common “culture of Muslim affairs” with which a large number of civil and military functionaries became permanently infused.

Variations of Time and Space

Beyond this common fear of Islam, one should not, in defining the objectives of French Muslim policy in Africa, retrospectively construct a scheme that is too linear. The administrator Mouradian (under the name of Gouilly), speaking from close acquaintance with the field, measured these variations in official viewpoints: “France, like the other powers that have colonized West Africa, has never had a Muslim policy, properly speaking. Administrative and political measures that are clearly directed against Islam have been pronounced, others have been taken in its favor, sometimes on the same point of territory, at the same time, and by the same authority. Thus, in matters of this kind one should avoid generalizations and systems constructed after the fact.” . Any reconstruction that does not take into account the multiple levels of decisions and execution and’ their occasional contradictions risks being artificial
Given these reservations, it is possible to sketch a convenient periodization that distinguishes four phases: the time of conquest and occupation; the official defiance from 1906 on; the accommodation that occured between the two world wars; and the recent decolonization.

The Time of Conquest: The Algerian Model

From the beginning, the French conquerors south of the Sahara were interested in Islam. Algeria was then the only recent model of colonization available, and with Islam one was on known ground, in contrast to what was known of the “fetishistic” cultures; they were regarded as disquieting and barbaric
Faidherbe, a pioneer and administrator of the colony of Senegal (1854-65), was a good representative of this tendency in the mid-nineteenth century. During his time, a Muslim court, Franco-Arab schools, and a unit of Senegalese tirailleurs were created, following the Algerian model. Faidherbe implanted the Arab tradition of the burnus in Senegal, where previously it was unknown. This hooded cloak was given to native chiefs as a sign of investiture and the power to govern . Thus, a generation later, Le Chatelier would criticize this orientation violently: “Saint-Louis was …. before the period of Muslim policy inaugurated by Faidherbe, a town of merchants who were indifferent in religious matters. Today it is an Islamic center, learned, devout, and restless.” 10. However, this favorable attitude toward Islam, which was accompanied by the building of mosques, remained ambiguous 11. Faidherbe himself was conscious of the danger involved in disseminating the Arabic language to the detriment of French. There was also not an undifferentiated recognition of Islam. The “enemy” was Tijani, first to be found in the person of al-Hajj ‘Umar, then his successor Ahmadu, and so it remained for a long time (see chapter 18). (Some have seen at the time the effects of a “Tijani league” in the religious resistance of the second half of the nineteenth century in Senegambia.) 12
The benevolent attitude toward Islam by Faidherbe and others was thus accompanied by a clear demarcation, following the Algerian model, between “good” and the “bad” brotherhoods. This favorable predisposition, selective as it was, and determined partly by vested interests, never commanded the support of all the agents of French colonialism. In particular, it was not shared by some members of the army, hostile to a policy favoring the Muslims, in the Sudan at that time. However, the support given by the notables of Saint-Louis and by Shaykh Sidiyya Baba and Shaykh Saad Buh in the conquest north of the Senegal River lent weight to this pro-Islamic orientation. Coppolani (1902-5) conducted a systematic policy in Mauritania of using religious figures as a network of domination. Here, however, as in Senegal, and in contrast to Algeria, the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya were cast in reverse roles. In contrast to Algeria, it was the Tijaniyya who were known for their intolerance and the Qadiriyya were seen as decked out in all the virtues.

The Path to War: Suspect Islam

The years from 1905-1914 witnessed a mounting danger. German claims’to Morocco and other parts of the continent and the constant fear of an alliance between pan-Germanism, pan-Arabism, and pan-Islam, in the terms of the time, caused disquiet. French colonial officials thought it was no longer the time to make concessions to the Muslims, who were suspected of clearing a path for the external enemy. At the same time, the assassination of Coppolani (May 1905) and the resistance of Ma’al-Aynayn in the northwest Sahara, caused tensions to mount.
This also was the period when the separation of church and state (1905), a powerful moment in the struggle against “Catholic clericalism,” created a political environment that reinforced established patterns of treating Islamic institutions.
Governor General William Ponty (1907-0, in the militant discourse of republican secularism 13, denounced Islam as being a feudal and enslaving system. His circular of igiz strongly illustrates this: “The Marabou propaganda is a hypocritical facade, behind which egotistical desires of old privileged groups reside. The Marabou is the last obstacle to the complete triumph of our civilizing work based on respect of justice and human liberty. This Marabou will disappear completely the day when all its unmasked militants, under close surveillance, will no longer be able to pass through the mesh of the vast net which surrounds them in the whole extent of our African West 14”. In the same period, specialists abandoned the schematic grid of the brotherhood to adopt the concept corresponding to maraboutism 15—an Islam structured according to clienteles around local personalities. In colonial literature, the theme of “Marabou feudal systems” from then on occupied pride of place and will be constantly drawn upon.
More important and lasting in its effects is the concept of “Black Islam” that emerged at the same time and that was to have a long career. In 1906, a Service of Muslim Affairs, charged with specialized surveillance, had been created in the government of French West Africa. The first head of this service was Robert Arnaud, a close friend of Coppolani and the author of a work that still marks in its contents the clear predominance of Mauritania in the treatment of the Muslim question in French West Africa 16. However, progressively, in the international context of the age, specialists advanced the idea that, under the condition that it be separated from the Islamic Mediterranean, the source of all danger, “Black Islam” could be recovered. For Quellien, “Sudanese Islam … has the advantage of tending to lose its fanatical character in measure of the increase in the black color.” 17. Arnaud developed the same position in his manual of Muslim politics (1912): “In West Africa Islam is virtually separated from the influence of the political turbulence that is elsewhere modifying its traditional aspect. Because West African Islam was increasingly mixed with fetishism, its way of life is particular to it and acquires an individuality that allows it to have its particular evolution, beyond the ideas professed by the social transformers of Egypt, Turkey, and Persia.” And further: “We have a considerable interest in seeing a purely African Islam continue and evolve in West Africa…. It would be desirable for us not to be indifferent to the formation of a Muslim Ethiopianism in the Western part of this continent.” 18. Enclosed within communities infused with “fetishism,” “Black Islam” would lose by this all its power of causing harm. It would be ethnicized and tribalized. It would cease to be a historic agent while waiting for its final assimilation to civilization.
Paul Marty, who succeeded Arnaud at the head of the Service of Muslim Affairs and was the author, between 1913 and 1930, of nine major regional syntheses issuing directly from dossiers of service, provided further dimensions to this policy of “Black Islam.” In particular, he made of this the theoretical basis of a reconciliation of the administration with Mouridism, a “sort of new religion born of Islam.” 19. The theory of “Black Islam” would have contradictory effects. In the administration, it appeased the fear of Islamic danger, but it placed the communities under constant surveillance 20
World War I represented the hour of truth. With the exception of the rims of the Sahara, the Muslims of French West Africa remained impervious to subversion. Muslim troops proved their courage and their loyalty. Throughout French West Africa, prominent Muslims, upon being duly solicited, officially took positions in favor of the French war effort and supported military recruitment 21. The “Islamic danger” thus seemed to have been dispelled. The fear had been great in all of the central Sahara, in the form of an old imaginary adversary—he Sanuslyya brotherhood—that had become very real with time 22
An essentially Maghribi brotherhood, the Sanusiyya was based in Cyrenaica; thus, it occupied a marginal position in the Sahel-Sudanese territory. However, it was against this brotherhood that French troops achieved the conquest of Chad in 1913, ending ten years of recurrent war between France and the Sanusi in this area. By transforming itself into a political and military force, the Sanusiyya subsequently became one of the inspirations for the uprisings that took place in the Sahara during World War I. Tuareg detachments, led by Sanusi agents, occupied the town of Agades for three months, from December 1916, imperiling the fragile French apparatus in the eastern end of French West Africa. Throughout the Sahara, the French perceived the Sanusiyya in particular and Islam in general as the force motivating the resistance Revenge and repression were directed especially toward the men of reli gion. In 1917, the marabou of Agades, who had sought refuge in the Great Mosque, and those of Abeche, who were gathered in the town, were massacred with machetes, although they were innocent of the accusations levied against them of conspiracy and of being an armed movement; at least the systematic crushing of resistance in the Sahara created a certain euphoria in the victorious colonial apparatus.

Between Two Wars: Domesticated Islam

Because Islam no longer inspired fear, for French colonial officials it became from now on a matter of reducing its significance. This reduction of the dramatization of the Islamic question was accompanied by a resurgence of criticism of those who had privileged Islam. This reaction found its most developed expression in Jules Brevié, whose Islamisme contre “naturisme” au Soudan français, a work with academic pretensions, was published in 1923. The work had a preface by Maurice Delafosse, the pioneer of French Africanism, who found in Brevié’s work ideas that he himself defended later 23
Brevié—a future governor general of French West Africa—reversed the old priorities: the fetishist was seen as perfectible, but not the Muslim, who remained frozen in a “moral impasse.” On the other hand, Brevié dramatized what he presented as the secular confrontation between Islam, a foreign religion, and the traditional African cultures, and he called into question the strength and the progress of Islam. Brevié praised William Ponty’s circular and, supported by Delafosse, deplored French ignorance of the African cultures and languages. No doubt Breviés’ work should be seen as an exercise on style; in any event, the idea of a “secular struggle” between Islam and what Delafosse called animism would from now on be a part of the administrative conceptual tools. These were the last flames of the burning debates on Islam. Everything, or almost everything, had been said.
Behind the conceptual polemics, complicity in the field was confirmed. In Senegal, the talents of the Mourid brotherhood, which corresponded to the needs and the demands of the administration, won quasi-immunity for the brotherhood in the French colonial system. Elsewhere, the networks of Muslim merchants, particularly the Juula, thanks to their role as intermediaries along the railway routes and the trails, benefited from the protection of an administration with vested interests 24. Muslim elites and the French administration found the terms for a lasting compromise, albeit one that was at times disturbed by fits of mistrust. Under the Popular Front, de Coppet, the socialist governor general of French West Africa, renewed links with “Islamophile” practices close to the British style, including attending the major Muslim feasts, subsidizing Islamic institutions, and giving instructions in this vein to the administrators. This movement to redress the balance in the opposite direction was not to have lasting effects.
There was, also, an important exception to this atmosphere of compromise and cooperation; namely, the situation with Hamallism. It was called thus after the name of its founder Shaykh Hamahullah, or Hamallah (approx. 1882-1943). Hamallism, or Hamawiyya, is a branch of the Tijaniyya that had come to refuse the monopoly of the ‘Umarian family in the name of a particular transmission of charisma (chapter 18). Minor divergences bearing on ritual only served to sanction this conflict of legitimacy. The splendid isolation of the shaykh, the turbulence of his partisans, and the hostility of the ‘Umarian family provoked terrible repression in 1940. The believers were deported and sent to internment camps. Shaykh Hamallah died in Montlucon (France) in 1943 after having been deported first to Mauritania, then Côte d’Ivoire, and then Algeria. This not only repressed Hamallism: the strike was also of pedagogic value for all those who may have doubted the determination of the French administration to prevent Islamic leadership from passing beyond its control.

After 1945: The Twilight of Muslim Affairs

The 1950s represent a period of “happy colonization”: there was a conjunction of prospering agriculture, an administration from now on more committed to economic development, and progressive political liberalization. However, the fear of Islam, which was reactivated by conflicts in the Near East and in the Maghrib, remained alive. The administration fortified itself on the theory of “Black Islam,” trying by all its means to cut the Muslims off from their Arab fellow believers. The brotherhood policy continued, above all in Senegal.
The perceived enemy at this moment was the real or supposed Wahhabism imported by young preachers, emerging from the world of the Mandenka and the Juula, educated at al-Azhar, and wanting to reform and purify their communities upon returning to their country from their studies abroad 25. Confrontations between traditionalists and newcomers for the control of the mosques and their communities took place in the 1950s at Bamako, Sikasso, Kankan, and Bouake. The administration, which took resolute action against these reformers, saw in them the sign of a conspiracy emanating from the Near East (it was the period of Nasser, then Of the Algerian War). Yet times had changed and repression did not pass the stage of bureaucratic maneuvers.
In fact, the horizon of decolonization profoundly modified the relations of power. The government desks of Muslim Affairs grudgingly recognized that Islamization had taken an irreversible leap forward in three generations and that the means at their disposal did not permit them to control the movements that were taking place. When local autonomy was instituted in 1956, it was the end of the system.

The Major Lines of French Policy

The colonial order was an authoritarian system imposed on Muslims and nonMuslims alike, and the administrators did not always distinguish among their subjects in the field. The ideological discussions on Islam thus remained limited to the sphere of the decision makers and policymakers, and the variations of opinion among them did not always weigh on colonial realities in decisive ways.
In this landscape painted in half-tints, major lines of French Muslim policy nevertheless remained, and they fixed the contours in lasting ways. First of all, the policy of the brotherhoods that was begun in Algeria and put to work by Coppolani was developed with success in Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia. Leaders of sufi brotherhoods opted for cooperation with the colonial system: among these were counted Sidiyya Baba (d. 1924) for the Qadiriyya, Saad Buh (d. 1917) for the Fadillyya, al-Hajj Malik Sy (d. 1922.) and ‘Abdullahi Niasse (d. 1922) for the Tiianivya, and, after a “bad start,” Amadou Bamba (d. 1927) for the Mourid brotherhood. The preeminent symbol ot this spirit ot cooperation was Seydou Nourou Tall (d. 1980), a descendant of al-Hajj ‘Umar, the son-in-law of Hajj Malik Sy. His life spanned this whole period and he served all the regimes, combining service to the colonial regime and the defense of the interests of the Tijaniyya and of his lineage with skill and discretion 26. With the exception of Seydou Nourou Tall, all these major figures died in the years closely following World War 1. The system, however, composed of services rendered, obtained either from coercion or complicity, was firmly established and the colonial administration could congratulate itself by the end of the war on its successes.
Another policy that issued from the Algerian model and that was acclimatized with much more difficulty south of the Sahara was that of the Madrasa; that is, Franco-Arab educational institutions under French control. The goal was to form future Muslim elites in schools controlled by the administration. The first madrasas were created at Saint-Louis and Jenne in 1906 and Timbuktu in igio. This approach did not meet with unanimous approval in the administration and it had difficulty taking hold in the population 27. The idea was taken up again in the 1930s in Mauritania (Boutilimit 1930; Timbedra 1933; Atar 1936), but the results never matched up to aspirations. The administration ran up against an obstinate “refusal of school” on the part of the Muslim elites, including those of the brotherhoods and the allied families, who were determined not to deliver their children up to an education governed by infidels 28. The last attempts focused on the creation of a “Franco-Arab college” at Abeche in 1952, conceived as providing a counter to a reformist local madrasa 29, and an institute of Muslim studies at Boutilimit in Mauritania in November 1953, aimed at discouraging African students from studying at al-Azhar.

The Persistence of Conspiracy Theory

Despite its successes, the administration had never lost its feeling of an Islamic peril. Persons and brotherhoods well known for their loyalty were subjected to the meddling surveillance of bureaucrats. This fear of the Islamic peril also took the form of a conspiracy theory that periodically was resuscitated. The three main sources of this French fear were those raised by the Sanusiyya before World War I, by the Hamawiyya between the two wars, and by the Wahhabiyya in the 1950s 30. In all three cases, Islamic leaders were accused of organized conspiracy against the colonial order and became the objects of campaigns or stern repression. Viewed with detachment, the accusations levied seem disproportionate, even fabricated. The goal of the government to distinguish between “good” religious movements and “bad” ones, and the repression of the latter, reminded Muslims of the realities of domination.

A Policy Key: The Geographical Diversity

Muslim Africa—from Senegal to Chad—is diverse in its historic and sociological heritage. It is possible to distinguish several geographical cleavages in the interior of this vast space. French observers had very early been sensitive to a historical dynamic that flowed from the north to the south. The progress of Islam had been perceived as a “descent” from the north to the south, whose advance it was necessary to block. This representation in terms of transversal belts, from the more to the less Islarnized, was one of the keys to French Muslim policy. It thus distinguished, from north to south, Mauritania, the Sahel countries, the southern Savannah, and the countries of the forest. In each of these regions, with time, a differential strategy was applied that was a function of the proportion of Muslims in each of them.
Mauritania, which was completely Muslim and had an Arabic-speaking majority, had a distinct position. The strategic importance of this territory in the Sahara, whose economic value was mediocre, forced a compromise at a very early point. The government in Paris never contested this specificity, and merely attempted, with some success, to win part-of the Muslim elite to its cause. In the Sahel countries, a majority adhered to Islam (but not to Arabic). Despite periodical fits of mistrust, the administration ratified the fait accompli and again sought to profit from the cooperation of the religious elites. In the 1920s, the Sahel was recognized as Islamic territory, and Christian missions were not encouraged there. Conversely, the countries of the forest, following Ponty and Brevié, were considered as protected territory, where Islamic propaganda had to be forbidden, using all means. However, and this was an internal contradiction in the system, economic logic reinforced the penetration of the Juula and introduced the ferment of local Islamization in the south. The most sensitive area thus became the southern savanna, which was largely animistic at the beginning of the century. There, from the point of view of the administration, exposure to Islam had to be firmly combated.
Yet this division into north and south according to religious criteria was not the only form of geographic cleavage. In the literature on Muslim Affairs and in specialist academic writing afterwards, it all seems as if there were a Senegalese and Mauritanian bloc that alone occupied the whole stage and served as the principal, if not unique, reference. Thus one can speak of a western “Marabou arc,” stretching from Trarza (Shaykh Sidiyya Baba) to Kankan (Shaykh Muhammad Cherif Fanta-Madi, 1874-1955). It is there, in effect, that one finds the larger part of information and documentation; it is there that one finds the major emblematic figures. This primacy, which reflects the apparatus of colonial power (with Senegal placed at the center), creates a disequilibrium in observation.
Independent of the Senegamblan “laboratory,” one finds in the rest of French West Africa a certain number of experiences whose results can be compared with those more classical ones of Senegambia. Thus the space of the Kunta provides an example of the cleavage between men of religion and warriors, the former being more favorable to an entente with the colonial power. One of their most brilliant representatives is Bay al-Kunti, the great grandson of Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti, resident in the Adrar of the Ifoghas, whose role was decisive in the final rallying to France of Musa ag-Amastan, the amenokal of Hoggar, and the vanquished Tuareg fighters at the end of World War I. In the Air, north of the Niger republic, Malam Musa also provides the example from the 1940s of a brotherhood “reconstruction,” under the sign of the Khalwatiyya. It evoked the relief of the warriors by the brotherhoods and cooperation with the administration, as could be observed in Senegal 31
Finally, the vast world of the Juula, which is more discreet in the religious context, is one of the principal stages of the remarkable numerical leap forward that characterizes West African Islam in the colonial situation 32. A readjustment is thus necessary between the sparkling facade of the western arc and the less mediated developments of the interior.

A Historical Balance

The decolonization of French-speaking Africa (1956-60, excluding Djibuti) and the progressive affirmation in the Muslim population of a strongly Islamic identity from the 1970s on have orientated contemporary historiography toward an appreciation of the value of the Islamic historical legacy.
This is presented, sometimes without nuances, as the essential foundation of what became the political, military, and cultural resistance to French colonization. There is no doubt about the existence of Islamic resistance. It is still necessary to distinguish regions, periods, and actors. After having been crushed in the 1890s (the conquest of Segu, the capture of Samori) in the region of the Sudan, it continued up to World War I in the Saharan regions (Ma’ al-Aynayn, Sanusiyya).
The failure of armed resistance led to the emergence of religious leaders who, from one end to the other of the Sudanese-Sahel band, tended to continue the cause of the defeated aristocracies and to establish their own hegemonies. Convinced that any armed resistance was in vain, these elites advanced a peaceful strategy based on the recognition of the colonial authorities and cooperation with them. Presenting themselves as intermediaries between the believers and the administration, they thus consolidated the base of their own power. The principal emblematic figures engaged in this type of strategy have already been named.

The Judicial Debates in the Muslim Community

With regard to jurisprudence, Islam under colonial protection was confronted with a completely unforeseen situation. In general, scholars could invoke the precedent of the Muslims of Granada, after 1492, who were authorized by the qadi of Oran to practice mental restriction and dissimulation (taqiyya) while waiting for liberation by the Ottomans. However, for the literate and the learned, who were used to a mode of reasoning based on the shari’a, the question had to be posed in more technical terms. In the first period of conquest, several positions confronted each other. Some, such as Ma~ al-Aynayn, espoused the obligation to emigrate (hijra) and practice holy war. Others, conscious of the unfavorable relations of power, supported passive and silent resistance. Still others, finally, spoke openly of conaboration (muwalat) 33 in the name of the overriding interests (maslaha) 34 of the community. A concept rarely used by the Sunnis, taqiyya (legal dissimulation) covered various forms of accommodation. Cooperation subsequently took on a quasi-structural form—that of an entente between French power and the Muslim establishment.
All those who now positioned themselves outside this dominant alliance were repressed unmercifully. Their existence must, however, be remembered. Apart from the Hamallists, one should name the local “Mahdi” figures. The extent of this dispersed dissidence of the Mahdi type merits investigation to a greater degree than has hitherto been the case 35. Thus, as late as 1941, a handful of Muslims attacked the Hotel Dalet in Bobo-Dioulasso and killed several Frenchmen, despite the total opposition of the Muslim heads of the town.
Cooperation with the colonial authorities was highly beneficial to the official Islamic movement. The colonial power, whether it repressed Islam, suspected Islam, or favored Islam, in every case accorded a particular status to the religion, which in the end added to Islam’s authority. This phenomenon of Islamization in the French colonial situation does not have, I contend, an equivalent in the rest of the world (including the rest of Africa). Above all, the remarkable malleability and adaptability of the African Muslim world must be recalled, one that was capable of utilizing cooperation and compromise with a kafir (non-Muslim) power to its ultimate benefit. Certainly, French colonization gained some advantages from this (finding, for example, in the Mourid or Tijani hierarchy in some places the framework for an indirect management of the believers), but it never succeeded in making of West African Islam a “Black Islam” or a “French Islam” other than in a conjectural fashion. The desolate cries of the administration in the 1950s bear witness to both this failure and the success of the strategy of compromise 36
Profiting, simultaneously, from its positions of power in the colonial apparatus, its close links to the commercial networks, 37 and its implicit dimension as a “culture of resistance” in the eyes of the Sudanese population, Islam has strongly consolidated its positions. Even today, in contrast to North Africa, African opinion does not reproach the elites for having cooperated with the colonial power. This collaboration, which was a source of power for the families involved, could even be viewed as a proof of the charisma of their members, who had established themselves as the interlocutors of the colonial power and had served as “links” to the rest of the population.

The Disadvantage of the Muwalat

A more nuanced presentation remains to be made for this period. At the moment of independence, the religious elites were ousted lastingly from their politically determining positions by elites who had a French education 38. They were left behind by the new state of the game, just as the colonial power itself had been. They also suffered, in varying degrees, the policy of undermining the Islamic culture fostered by French colonialism, which had discouraged the opening of Quranic schools and had controlled and diverted newspapers and books in Arabic by means of the postal service. Their intellectual production—beyond the major figures of the brotherhoods and the savants, such as Shaykh Musa Kamara 39—responded to the needs of the colonialists, and was limited. The French regime contributed to a certain isolation of the communities. In the 1950s, contacts with the Arab world permitted the opening of reformist sectors of the Ibn Badis school, like the Muslim Cultural Union in Senegal 40 and the neo-Wahhabis in the Juula world. These disputed expressions were, however, of limited extent. There is thus a contradiction for the period under consideration between a spectacular numerical upsurge and and a substantial defensive conservatism, or stagnation, of thought and intellectual reflection.
Material remains for investigation concerning the precise relations that existed between the representatives of the Islamic communities and French power in the colonial period. In the French-speaking context, “collaboration” and “resistance” have an echo that is out of all proportion—relating to events that France experienced in World War II; the term collaboration becomes defamatory, and apologists are anxious to find the virtues of resistance in those who have chosen the path of compromise (silent resistance, passive resistance, and so on). We might enlarge a concept that research in English has used for a long time: accommodation. The accommodation in question here encompasses all those attitudes that, without necessarily leading to open ideological collaboration, manifest the concern to adapt in various ways to new relations of power 41. Political collaboration is included here, but it represents only an extreme variant. Thus, the contours of a vast movement are revealed between collaboration and resistance, and it resists being systematically and definitively classified. This is the “period of the Marabou,” a short period (hardly more than three generations) that witnessed the emergence of new religious entrepreneurs, of new brotherhoods, and of a new leap forward of the African Islamic frontier.


. In the eighteenth century, the authors of the Enlightenment readily saw in Islam the deistic and natural religion that was capable of advantageously opposing Christian “obscurantism.” With the development of European imperialism in India, the Mediterranean, and Africa, there was no longer any question of this taking place.
. In 1883, with respect to the Sanusi, Duveyrier speaks of “their experience of the world,” of a political sense comparable with that which one can observe in the Jesuit order,” and of the “intrigues of the Senousiya, that is of a secret, religious, and political society.” The references are quoted in Triaud 1995.
. The reference is to the followers of the Breton Chouan, royalist peasants who opposed the French Revolution.
. Quellien (a functionary in the colonial ministry) 1910, 100, 128-29.
. Marty 1917, 261-62.
. Gouilly 1952, 248-49.
. A good example of this is the way in which the Sanusi question was treated in Chad in 1900-1902. Destenave, who had come as the successor of Emile Gentil at the head of the « Lands and Protectorates of Chad, » decided to attack the closest Sanusi zawiya of Bir Alati. This broke with the policy pursued by Gentil and contravened the instructions of the government. See Triaud 1987a.
. “Far from going to war with Islam, we should use it, we should profit from the social progress which it has brought to the fetishistic peoples. … The enemy, the only one, the real one, is fetishism.” See Villamur and Richaud 1903. One finds the same Islamophile tone in Binger 1906, which attempts precisely to refute the idea of an Islamic peril in West Africa.
. Pasquier 1974, 263-84.
1010. Le Chatelier 1989, 348.
11. This tendency was not limited to Senegal. One finds the effects of this, with a chronological delay, in other colonies, such as Côte d’Ivoire. Marty thus notes, “One encouraged the construction of a mosque at Tiassalé and Clozel, the governor, contributed 250 francs towards the expenses (1904). … The administration encouraged the construction of a mosque at Toumodi in 1904. It cost 2,000 francs and Clozel, the governor, subsidized it with 200 francs.” Marty 1922, 48, 51.
12. Militant leaders on the Senegal and the Gambia Rivers were influenced by the Umarian jihad or by the toorodo model: Ma Ba Jaaxu, south of the Senegal river (1861-67); Cerno Brahim (defeated in 1869); Amadu Seexu, leader of the Madiyankoobe, who was killed by French troops in Futa in 1875; and Mamadu Laamin Daraame, at the juncture of today’s Senegal and Mali, who was killed in 1886. None of these were Tijani.
13. See Johnson 1978, 127-56.
14. William Ponty, governor general of French West Africa, circular on the surveillance of Ilsma, Dec. 26, 1912.
15. Detafosse 1911, 81-80.
16. Arnaud 1906.
71. Quellien 1910, 111-12.
18. Arnaud 1912, 6, 128-29.
19. Marty 1917, 261-62.
20. One notes that this policy does not exclusively concern sub-Saharan Africa, even if it has the effect of establishing a split between Maghrib and Mediterranean Islam. See Laroui on this subject, with respect to the policy followed by the French administration in Morocco: “One attempted to encourage even the most abstruse particularisms in order to give popular religion a local, naturalistic, and primitive character.” Laroui 1975, 116.
21. See the testimonies published in the Revue A Monde Musulman (1915), “Les Musulmans francais et la guerre.” Here one finds all the major names of the period, among them Shaykh Sidiyya Baba, al-Hajj Malik Sy, and at-Hajj Abdullahi Niass.
22. On the theory of conspiracy applied to the Sanusiyya, see Triaud 1995.
23. Delafosse 1922.
24. Such an administrator writes in 1933, with respect to the Juula: “One should also not neglect to accord this faction of Islam the importance which it bears, and to consider it as the most reliable political agent among populations given over to the roughest mysticism.” Touladjian, head of the subdivision of the Toumodi (C6te d1voire), in a certificate delivered to Seydou Nourou Tall while he was on tour. National Archives of Senegal, 19 G 57 (108).
25. Kaba 1974.
26. See Garcia 1997. Seydou Nourou Tall’s major tours in French West Africa in the 1930s exhibited this entente between the administration and the Umari heir in a magnificent and very ostentatious way.
27. On the question of the Medersa, see Harrison 1988, 62-65, 101-2,183-86; and Brenner 1991.
28. Issa Hassan Khayar 1976.
29. Gardinier 1989.
30. One can add here more localized cases such as the affair of the Wali of Goumba (1909-12), in Guinea, well documented by Sanneh 1987; Harrison 1988, 68f.
31. On Malam Musa, see Triaud 1983.
32. On the Juula world, see Launay 1997.
33. On the concept of muwalat and the debates that it gives rise to, see Mahibou and Triaud 1983, 107-32 (for al-Hajj ‘Umar); Quick 1993, 7-33 (for Sokoto), and Mbaye 1993, 504-5.
34. See the presentation of the debate among the Mauritanian ‘ulama. Wuld Bara 1997; also Adeleye 1968.
35. Little has been written about the insurrectional Mahdism of West Africa. One can consult Hodgkin 1970; Le Grip 1952; al-Hajj 1967; and Biobaku and al-Hajj 1966 and 1969.
36. “One should not nurture any illusion: French West Africa is already too involved in the path to Islam, and the disequilibrium of power has already developed too far for our action to be able to expect anything other than a delaying effect” (Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer, Aix-enProvence, Aff. Pol. 2256, d. 4, governor general of French West Africa to the French Overseas MinistrY, 7 July 1950).
37. The opening of paths of communication (roads, railways) and the existence of the colonial order facilitate the installation of Muslim colonies in the southern regions where they had hitherto been absent (such as Côte d’Ivoire).
38. On the relations between the colonial administration and the Marabou and on the debates of 1958 to 1962, in Senegal, see Coulon 1981.
39. On Shaykh Musa Kamara, see several articles in vol. 7 of the journal Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara (1993).
40. Loimeier 1994.
41. Robinson (1997) has reconstructed the stages of compromise between the elites and the authorities in Senegambia.


  • Adeleye, R. A. 1968. “The Dilemma of the Wazir: The Place of the Risalat al-Wazir ila ahl al-ilm wa’l-tadabbur,”Journal of the Historical Society of Nigerias 4:285-311.
  • Arnaud, Robert
    • 1906. Précis de politique musulmane I: Pays maures de la rive droite du Sénégal. Algiers.
    • 1912. L’Islam et la politique musulmane française en Afrique Occidentale française. Paris: Comité de l’Afrique Française.
  • Bernus, Edmund. 1993. Nomades et commandants: Administration et sociétés nomades dans l’ancienne A.O.F. Paris: Karthala.
  • Binger, L. 1906. Le Péril de l’Islam. Paris: Comité de l’Afrique Française.
  • Biobaku, S., and M. A. al-Hajj. 1966, 1969. “The Sudanese Mahdiyya and the Niger-Tchad Region.” In Islam in Tropical Africa, ed. I. M. Lewis, 425-38. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Brenner, Louis
    • 1991. “Medresas au Mali: Transformations d’une institution islamique.” In L’enseignement islamique au Mali, ed. Bintou Sanankoua and Louis Brenner, 65-68. Bamako: Editions Jamana.
    • 1997. “Becoming Muslim in Soudan Français.” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 65-68.
  • Brevié, Jules, 19 23. Islamisme contre “naturisme” au Soudan français: Essai de psychologie politique coloniale. Paris: Leroux.
  • Brosselard, L. 1859. Les Khouan: De la constitution des ordres religieux musulmans en Algérie. Algeria.
  • Cholvy, Gérard. 1991. La religion en France de la fin du 18ème siècle à nos jours. Paris: Hachette.
  • Coulon, Christian. 1981. Le marabout et le prince (Islam et pouvoir au Sénégal). Paris: Pedone.
  • Cruise O’Brien, Donal. 1967. “Towards an ‘Islamic Policy’ in French West Africa (1854-1914),” Journal of African History 8:303-16.
  • Delafosse, Maurice.
    • 1911. “Les confréries musulmanes et le maraboutisme dans les pays du Sénégal et du Niger,” Bulletin du Comité de l’Afrique Française, Renseignements Coloniaux, no. 4:81-90.
    • 1922. “L’animisme nègre et sa résistance à l’islamisation en Afrique occidentale,” Revue du Monde Musulman.
  • Depont, Octave, and Xavier Coppolani. 1897. Les confréries religieuses musulmanes. Algiers.
  • Garcia, Sylvianne. 1997. “Al-Hajj Seydou Nourou Tall ‘grand marabout’ tijani: L’histoire d’une carrière (c. 1880-1980).” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 247-75.
  • Gardinier, David. 1989. “Muhammad Awuda Oulech at Abeche: A Reformist Islamic Challenge to French and Traditionalist Interests in Ouaddai, Chad (1947-1956),” Islam et Société au sud du Sahara 3:159-85.
  • Gouilly, Alphonse [Mouradian]. 1952. L’Islam dans l’Afrique occidentale française. Paris.
  • Griaule, Marcel. 1938. Masques dogons. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.
  • al-Hajj, M.A. 1967. “The Thirteenth Century in Muslim Eschatology: Mahdist Expectations in the Sokoto Caliphate,” Research Bulletin (lbadan) 3:100-115.
  • Hames, Constant
    • 1983. “Cheikh Hamallah ou qu’est-ce qu’une confrérie islamique (tariqa),” Archives de Sciences Sociales des religions.
    • 1997. “Le premier exil de Shaikh Hamallah et la mémoire hamalliste (Nioro-Mederdra, 1925).” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 337-60.
  • Harrison, Christopher. 1988. France and Islam in West Africa (1860-1960). Cambridge University Press.
  • Hodgkin, Thomas. 1970. “Mahdisme, messianisme, et marxisme dans le contexte africain,” Présence Africaine 74: 128-53.
  • Issa Hassan Khayar. 1976. Le refus de l’école: Contribution à l’étude des problèmes de l’éducation chez les Musulmans du Ouaddai (Tchad). Paris: Maisonneuve.
  • Johnson, Wesley G. 1978. “William Ponty and Republican Paternalism in West Africa.” In African Proconsuls, ed. L. Gann and P. Duignan, 127-56. New York.
  • Joly, Vincent
    • 1993. “L’administration du Soudan français et les évènements de Nioro-Assaba (août 1940).” In Edmund Bernus et al., 49-60.
    • 1997. “La réconciliation de Nioro (septembre 1937): Un tournant dans la politique musulmane au Soudan français?” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 361-72.
  • Kaba, Lansiné. 1974. The Wahhabiyya: Islamic Reform and Politics in French West Africa. Evanston.
  • Klein, Martin. 1968. Islam and Imperialism in Senegal. Edinburgh.
  • Laroui, Abdalla. 1975. L’Histoire A Maghreb, vol. 2. Paris: François Maspéro.
  • Launay, Robert. 1997. “Des infidèles d’un autre type: Les réponses au pouvoir colonial dans une communauté musulmane du Côte d’Ivoire.” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 415-30.
  • Le Chatelier, Alfred. 1989. L’Islam en Afrique occidentale. Paris: Steinheil.
  • Le Grip, P. A. 1952. “Le Mahdisme en Afrique noire,” L’Afrique et l’Asie 18:3-16.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and H. J. Fisher, eds.
    • 1986. Rural and Urban Islam in West Africa. Special issue of Asian and African Studies vol. 20, no. 1.
    • 1987. Rural and Urban Islam in West Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Reinner.
  • Loimeier, Roman. 1994. “Cheikh Touré: Du réformisme à l’islamisme, un musulman sénégalais dans le siècle,” Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara 8:55-66.
  • Mahibou, Sidi Mohammed, and Jean-Louis Triaud. 1983. Voilà ce qui est arrivé. Paris: CRNS.
  • Marty, Paul
    • 1917. Etudes sur l’Islam au Sénégal. 2 vols.
    • 1922. Etudes sur l’Islam en Côte d’Ivoire. Paris: Leroux.
  • Mbaye, El Hadji Ravane. 1993. “La pensée et l’action d’El Hadji Malick Sy: Un pôle d’attraction entre la sharia et la tariqa.” Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), thèse de doctorat d’Etat. 4 vols.
  • Pasquier, Roger. 1974. “L’influence de l’expérience algérienne sur la politique de la France au Sénégal (1842-1869).” In Mélanges Hubert Deschamps, 2,63-84. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne.
  • Quellien, Alain. 1910. La politique musulmane dans l’Afrique occidentale. Paris: Larose.
  • Quick, Abdullah Hakim. 1993. “The Concept of Muwalat in the Sokoto Caliphate and the Resulting Dilemma at the Time of British Conquest,” Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara 7:17-33.
  • Rinn, Louis. 1884. Marabouts et Khouan. Algiers.
  • Robinson, David
    • 1988. “French Islamic Policy and Practice towards Islam in Late Nineteenth Century Senegal,” Journal of African History 29.
    • 1997. “An Emerging Pattern of Cooperation between Colonial Authorities and Muslim Societies in Senegal and Mauritania.” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 155-80.
  • Robinson, David, and Jean-Louis Triaud. 1997. Le Temps des marabouts. Itinéraires et stratégies islamiques en Afrique occidentale française (v. 1880-1960). Paris: Karthala.
  • Rocaboy, Joseph. 1993. “Le cas hamalliste: Les évènements de Nioro-Assaba (août 1940).” In Bernus et al. 1993, 41-48.
  • Sanneh, Lamine. 1987. “Tcherno Aliou, the Wali of Goumba: Islam, Colonialism, and the Rural Factor in Futa Jallon (1867-1912).” In Levtzion and Fisher 1987, 73-102.
  • Savadogo, Boukary. 1996. “La Tijaniyya Hamawiyya au Moogo central,” Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara 10:7-23.
  • Soares, Benjamin F. 1997. “The Spiritual Economy of Nioro du Sahel: Islamic Discourses and Practices in a Malian Religious Center,” Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University.
  • Traore, Alioune. 1983. Islam et le colonisation en Afrique: Cheikh Hamaboullah, homme de foi et résistant. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose.
  • Triaud, Jean-Louis
    • 1974. “La question musulmane en Côte d’Ivoire (1893-1939),” Revue française d’histoire d’Outre-Mer, 61, no. 22,5:542-71.
    • 1983. “Hommes de religion et confréries islamiques dans une société en crise: L’Aïr aux 19ème et 20ème siècles: Le cas de la Khalwatiyya,” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 23:239-80.
    • 1986. “Le thème confrérique en Afrique de l’Ouest: Essai historique et bibliographique.” In Les Ordres mystiques dans l’Islam. Cheminements et situation actuelle, ed. A. Popovic and G. Veinstein, 2,71-82. Paris: Editions de ITHESS.
    • 1987a. Tchad 1900-1902: Une guerre franco-sanusi oubliée ? Paris: L’Harmattan.
    • 1987b. “Les études en langue française sur I’Islam en Afrique noire: Essai historiographique,” Lettre d’Information de l’Association française pour l’étude du Monde Arabe et Musulman, no. 2,: Aix-en-Provence, 65-80.
    • 1992. “L’Islam sous le régime colonial.” In L’Afrique occidentale au temps des Français, colonisateurs et colonisés (c. 1869-1960), 141-55, ed. Catherine CoqueryVidrovitch and Odile Georg. Paris: La Découverte.
    • 1995. La Légende noire de la Sanusiyya: Une confrérie musulmane saharienne sous le regard français (1840-1939), vol. 1: H-12. Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.
  • Villamur, Roger, and Léon Richaud. 1903. Notre colonie de la Côte-d’Ivoire. Preface L. Binger. Paris: Challamel.
  • Wuld Bara, Yahya. 1997. “Les théologiens mauritaniens face au colonialisme franqais: Etude de fatwas de jurisprudence musulmane.” In Robinson and Triaud 1997, 85-117.


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.