BOOK REVIEW: Jihad of the Pen, the Sufi literature of West Africa


By Shamsudeen Sani

Author: Rudolph Ware, Zachary Wright and Amir Syed
Number of Pages 324
Date of Publication 2018
Publisher The American University in Cairo Press

Ku san Malamanku, a BBC Hausa Program series, sparked an intellectual curiosity in me to learn more about indigenous African Sufi scholars. While the program tends to highlight the enormous contribution of these scholars to modern Islamic scholarship, it is frequently conducted from an insular perspective and neglects the substance of an intellectual history – the content of their writings. This is part of a broader problematic, racialized belief and attitude that disregard the robust intellectual dialogue of African Sufi thinkers, the majority of which was composed in immaculate classical Arabic prose or poetry. This book aims to answer this question in relation to Sufism in Africa and compels historians to regard Sufi intellectuals at the core of Islamic intellectual history in West Africa. It also enables readers to explore the complementing perspectives of writers in discussion with one another, thereby gaining a deeper understanding of Islamic intellectual history in Africa.

The introductory segment of this book is brilliant! Rather than simply introducing some four Sufis’ scholarly works, this book beautifully dispelled three misconceptions about African Muslim identity: that African Muslims practice Sufism at the expense of Shari’a law, that the metaphysical language of theoretical Sufism is absent from African Muslim articulations, and that African Muslim women are silent in the Islamic intellectual history of the continent. Accordingly, this part examines the literature of West African Islam as a means of dispelling these prejudices and establishing them in context.

The book sampled four scholars who represented four distinct generations during which most Muslim identities in West Africa increasingly included membership in a Sufi organization. Most notably in relation to European colonization, each certainly responded to unique historical conditions. Nevertheless, their combined teachings succeeded in advancing the dissemination of Islamic knowledge despite the numerous historical obstacles posed by slavery, revolt, and colonial occupation. These scholars are Shaykh ‘Uthman bin Fudi, Shaykh ‘Umar al-Futi Tal, Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké and Shaykh Ibrahim bin ‘Abdallah Niasse.

Rudolph T. Ware III is an historian of West Africa, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He formerly taught at the University of Michigan and before then at Northwestern University.

Zachary Wright, PhD, is associate professor in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, Liberal Arts Program, with joint appointments in history and religious studies. Wright received his PhD (history) from Northwestern University, his MA in Arabic studies, Middle East history, from the American University in Cairo, his BA in history from Stanford University

Amir Syed is a Professor at the University of Pittsburg. An intellectual and cultural historian of Muslim communities in Africa, with an emphasis on the Sahel region of West Africa.

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