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The Problem with Moderate Islam in Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

August 1, 2014


The Problem with Moderate Islam in Africa

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 8 (August 2014)

For those who have researched and traveled to Africa, one is struck by the distinctive, moderate and tolerant Islam practiced on the continent. Indeed Eva Rosander[i] has referred to this phenomenon as “African Islam”. By this she meant an Islam which takes into consideration local context and is accommodating and flexible – not one which is dogmatically rigid. This African Islam is intimately tied to the mystical and spiritual aspects of Islam know as Sufism, or in Arabic tasawwuf[ii]. Unlike the formal ritualistic aspects of those subscribing to a more scripturalist Islam which stress the chasm between man and God[iii], Sufi brotherhoods or paths (tariqa in Arabic) stress the need to bridge that gap through love and knowledge of the true inner self.  Many African Muslims were Sufi in orientation. This form of the Islamic faith was more personal and more emotional stressing the love of God as opposed to the fear of God. Moreover Sufi Islam co-existed with the richness of pre-Islamic folk customs[iv].

The accommodating and tolerant aspects of Sufi Islam are seen in its dominant traits being “… ecstatic dancing (hadra), spirit possession and expulsion and visits to “saints” and tombs”[v]. These traits, in turn, are in keeping with much African traditional religious practices and accounts for Sufi Islam’s popularity across the length and breadth of Africa. Under the circumstances, this Sufi Islam continues to attract the largest number of adherents to Islam in Africa[vi].

In recent years, however, Sufism has increasingly been displaced by more radical, extremist versions of Islam – often termed Islamism. How has this come about? One major reason accounting for this is the fact that moderate Islam has often been seen as too accommodating to the status quo – collaborationist if you will.

Sufi brotherhoods grew exponentially during the colonial period partly as a result of their cooperation with the colonial powers. Donal Cruise O’Brien concludes that “… most Sufi orders came to collaborate willingly, even enthusiastically, with European rulers[vii]”. The British, for instance, incorporated the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhoods as part of the colonial administration in northern Nigeria. In Senegal, meanwhile, the Mouridiyya Sufi brotherhoods worked with the French colonial authority in the introduction of commercial agricultural production[viii].

In the post-colonial period, this cooperation between Sufi orders and the respective authorities were to continue with many Sufi leaders receiving financial benefits from government[ix]. The proximity of Sufi leaders to corrupt and authoritarian government caused them to lose credibility and popularity in the eyes of ordinary citizens and formed the basis of vehement attacks on them by Islamists. As a result, moderate Sufi Islam could not serve as a bulwark to radical Islamism since the Sufi leadership was perceived to be an extension of a corrupt state.

In similar fashion, other Muslim organizations aiming to foster peace and tolerance between faiths were tarnished on account of their proximity to an often predatory and authoritarian state. In Nigeria, in the 1980s an Advisory Committee of Religious Affairs representing both Muslims and Christians was established and aimed to mitigate religious tensions. Similar structures came into being across the continent: the Supreme Council of Muslims in Tanzania, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, the Association des musulmans au Rwanda and the Muslim Association of Malawi[x]. Few of these have been able to mitigate sectarian strife. Because of their perceived proximity to regimes which are viewed as illegitimate, those Muslims who participate in these structures were viewed as co-opted. The fact that these Muslims often defended the incumbent governments[xi] merely served to reinforce this perception. With moderate Muslims discredited, it left the door open for Islamists to spread their message of hate.

If moderate Islam is to regain its credibility and thereby serve to act as a bulwark to the Islamist juggernaut, it needs to keep a critical distance from state structures and articulate the concerns of ordinary citizens as opposed to acting as praise singers to corrupt incum


[i] Eva Evers Rosander, “Introduction: The Islamization of “Tradtion” and “Modernity”, in David Westerlund and Eva Evers Rosander (eds.) African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters between Sufis and Islamists. 1997. Hurst and Co. London, p. 1

[ii] Ibid., p. 3.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Milton Viorst, “Sudan’s Islamic Experiment,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 3, May-June 1995, p. 48.

[v] Ibid., p. 4.

[vi] David, Westerlund, “Reaction and Action: Accounting for the Rise of Islamism,” in David Westerlund and Eva Evers Rosander (eds.) African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters between Sufis and Islamists. 1997. Hurst and Co. London, p. 330.

[vii] Quoted in Westerlund, op. cit., p. 310.

[viii] Ibid., pp. 310-311.

[ix] Ibid., p. 311.

[x] Ibid., p. 318.

[xi] Ibid., p. 319.

  1. Gregory A. Obanado permalink

    While your conclusion is true , I would see this decline as coming from the role the tariqa-s took on themselves just before the modern era. They were neither sunni, shia or sufi , they prayed fought and related like other muslims. Their authenticity was always dubious.Their decline was unpredictably imminent. Distancing themselves from rulers alone will not prevent their decline. Other muslims consort with rulers; Their starting point will be to recognise where they went wrong….

  2. Thanks for this -something frankly I never thought of, I would appreciate your providing me with some readings, I could read up on this important point you raise

  3. Gregory A. Obanado permalink

    There is book coming out in the fall, will let you know as soon as sson as it comes. regards

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