Jihads transformed social, cultural, economic, political, and religious relations in Africa. Islam spread to north Africa in the 7th century by jihads and trade networks. Later, networks of trade, as well as conquests to a lesser extent, brought Islam to the Sahara and south to the Sahel. The religious landscape of west Africa was transformed in large part because of several notable and large-scale jihads, particularly during the 19th century. Overall, there were jihads in Africa from the 7th century to the 20th century, beginning with the spread of Islam to north Africa.
Jihad translates roughly to “struggle”; those who undertake jihad are often known as mujahideen. The concept of jihad is a complicated one, especially considering the very different historical contexts in which it has been invoked. Moreover, not all efforts at conquest couched in political or religious terms would necessarily be considered jihad by Muslims or scholars. Indeed, to define jihad simply as “holy war” risks simplifying complex phenomena and perceptions of religion, forms of power, and personal motivations.
Jihad is about more than violence. Muslims distinguish between “greater” and “lesser” jihads. The greater jihad stresses the spread of religious observance and Islamic thought and ideals; it puts a focus on ethics, conduct, learning, and, thus, conversion through reason and reflection as opposed to force. The lesser jihad (often called “the jihad of the sword”) refers to conquest, subjugation, and proselytization through violence. Greater jihad is an aspect of an individual's personal religious struggle, whereas lesser jihad is the tangible spread of Islamic ideas, practices, and political forms through force. Not all forms of organized political violence fall under the concept of jihad, however, since jihad also involves theological aspects.
African Muslims have engaged and interpreted both types of jihads for centuries. In important ways, the two types are inseparable in the African context. Still, it is helpful to distinguish the extent to which jihad connotes religious activity as opposed to just the conquest or subjugation of groups, polities, territory, or resources. Thus, jihad can take the following forms: warfare; conquest; subjugation; territorial expansion; entrance into and control of new markets; and impetus of religious change. This highlights the multifaceted importance jihads have had in shaping African history.
As early as the 17th and 18th centuries, jihads were active in Mauritania and Senegal. In large part, these jihads were about religious power and authority. As such, they had a notable theological focus, though at the same time, local and regional power struggles within the area suggest the importance of local-level leadership as well. The 19th century was a particularly active and very significant period of jihad activity in west Africa. Many parts of west Africa were Muslim or had significant Muslim populations prior to the 19th-century jihads. Still, these jihads were instrumental not just in spreading the geographic reach of Islam but also in connecting Islam to political rule and often to the state or empire. In west Africa, several jihads shaped the Islamic landscape in distinct ways.
Three examples, particularly notable due to their scale and ensuing long-term effects, are the following: the jihads of Ousman Dan Fodio and the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate, the jihad of Seku Ahmadu and the establishment of the Massina Empire; and the jihad of El Hajj Umar Tall and the establishment of the Tukulor Empire. Ousman (also Uthman) Dan Fodio (ca. 1754-1817) was a Fulani renowned for his learning and revered for his ability to put it to use. Discontented by the excesses of courtly rule in Hausaland (what is now northern Nigeria), he began in 1804 a jihad against the Hausa rulers of Gobir. By 1809, he had defeated the Hausa and established a caliphate in Sokoto. This was a theocratic state that governed by uniting the various Hausa leaders. At Sokoto, he stressed the importance of Islamic education as a vital component to citizenship and made significant efforts to expand education in general, and to provide schooling for women and girls. Dan Fodio's system of linked but autonomous emirates under a caliphate lasted until the British conquest of Hausaland in the early 20th century.
Shortly after Dan Fodio's jihad in Hausaland, Seku Ahmadu (ca. 1773-1845) began a jihad in Mali in 1818. By 1819, he had defeated the Bambara and founded the Massina Empire in southern-central Mali. His son assumed leadership after his death and was eventually defeated by the last of 19th-century west Africa's most notable jihadists, El Hajj Umar Tall.
El Hajj Umar Tall (ca. 1797-1864) performed the hajj around 1825 and assumed leadership of the Sokoto caliphate afterward. From Sokoto, he returned to his native Futa-Jallon, in what is now the Senegal-Gambia-Guinea region. Using light arms, Tall defeated the Malinke and Bambara states in Mali. Through jihad, he was instrumental in solidifying the Tukulor Empire, which at its height stretched from the interior of Senegal and Guinea to Timbuktu. He lost to the French at Medina Fort (1857) and later lost in Timbuktu (1863) as well, which marked the decline of regional Tukulor power.
At roughly the same time but at the other end of the continent, another jihad was shaping Islamic life in east Africa. In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmed (ca. 1844-85) claimed that he was the Mahdi (prophesied redeemer of the end-times) and began a jihad in 1881 to solidify this claim by fighting for Sudanese autonomy. Ahmed's efforts garnered a large number of followers and brought attention to his Mahdist movement. He was able to win decisive battles at Darfur and Khartoum. His successors penetrated into Ethiopia, Egypt, and elsewhere in Sudan with varying degrees of success. Over the course of several battles during the 1890s, the British defeated the Mahdists.
These jihads (and many others, both “lesser” and “greater”) Islamized parts of west and east Africa and confronted a changing social landscape, both prior to and then because of colonization. They also changed the ideas that African Muslims themselves had about political organization and empire. The importance of jihad in spreading Islam should not be overstated, however. In Africa, Islam was widely spread in other ways, especially through terms of access to markets and via trade. In short, jihad was one—but certainly not the only, and often not the dominant—factor responsible for the spread of Islam through Africa.
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