Conference Africa, Globalization, and the Muslim Worlds

Harvard University

September 19-21, 2019




Featured Speakers: David Hempton, Harvard Divinity School, Diego Giovanni Castellanos, National University Colombia, Ayodeji Ogunnaike Bowdoin College, Youssef Carter, Harvard University, Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, Northwestern University, Irit Bak, Tel Aviv University, Cheikh Niang, Universite Cheikh Anta Diop Dakar, Ezgi Guner, University of Illinois, Steve Howard, Ohio University, Rhea Rahman, Brooklyn College, Samiha Rahman, University of Pennsylvania, Oludamini Ogunnaike, University of Virginia, Zachary Wright, Northwestern University Qatar, Amidu Sanni, Fountain University Nigeria, Ousmane Kane, Harvard University, Medina Thiam, University of California Los Angeles, Felicita Becker, Ghent University, Gadija Ahjum, University of Cape Town, Seam Hanretta, Northwestern University, Rebecca Shereikis, Northwestern University, Charles Hallissey, Harvard Divinity Scho

A conference entitled ‘‘Africa, Globalization and the Muslim Worlds’’ took place at Harvard Divinity School (Cambridge, MA) on September 19-21, 2019. This academic gathering gave rise to a generative conversation about globalized Africa and the Muslim dynamics that cut across the continent. It was co-sponsored by the Alwaleed Professorship of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School, and the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) of Northwestern University. The steering committee for this memorable event was led by Professors Ousmane Kane (Harvard Divinity School) and Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem (Northwestern University), assisted by Rebecca Shereikis (Northwestern University) and Norbert Litoing (Harvard University).

From the onset, Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem (Northwestern University) gave the tempo with a keynote lecture on Mauritanian scholars and their contribution to the reconstruction of religious authority in the Muslim world. In the same vein, Zachary Wright (Northwestern University-Qatar) delved into the metaphysical dimensions of African Islam, by closely studying two Tijani texts, Jawâhir al-ma’ânî and Rimâh. Oludamini Ogunnaike (University of Virginia) underscored the intertextual creativity of contemporary West African Islamic poetry. On his part, Amidu Sanni (Fountain University, Nigeria) gave an epistemological reflection on the intellectual history of Africa, insisting on the dialectic tension between globalization and glocalization.

Diego Giovanni Castellanos (National University of Colombia) spoke on Muslim identity and the social marginalization of a community of Afro-descendants in Colombia. Madina Thiam (University of California) looked at Sahelian kinship, Islamic education and emancipation between Jamaica and Nigeria from 1790 to 1854. Ayodeji Ogunnaike (Bowdoin College) highlighted the role played by West African intellectuals in education and Islamic practice in Brazil. The Middle East was equally on the radar. Irit Bak (University of Tel Aviv) talked about an aspect of the history of Islam in Africa that is seldom discussed, namely, the fascinating presence of West African Sufism in Jerusalem, from the colonial era to this day. South Africa was equally covered through the papers of Rhea Rahman (Brooklyn College) on black Islamic activism seen as “soft power” and that of Gadija Ahjum (University of Cape Town) on the emergence of Shiism in Cape Town. East Africa was discussed by Steve Howard (Ohio University) who looked at a Sudanese brotherhood as well as by Felicitas Becker (Ghent University) who spoke about the dynamic of reform extant in Swahili sermons in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. The new Turkish quest for influence in Africa was examined by Ezgi Guner (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign) who questioned the attitude of the Turkish state vis-à-vis West African Sufi brotherhoods. On her part, Mara Leichtmann scrutinized transnational Shia networks through NGOs active in Tanzania.

The particular case of Senegal is worth noting. In effect, Senegalese Islam took center stage during this conference as evidenced by the many papers dedicated to Senegalese Sufi brotherhoods, notably that of Sheikh Ibrahima Niasse (1900-1975). Youssef Carter (USA) presented an ethnographic study on the liberating virtues of Tarbiyah. Cheikh Niang (Cheikh Anta Diop University, Senegal) discussed the sociopolitical perspectives of the Fayda (Sheikh Ibrahima Niasse’s brotherhood) through its process of globalization. Finally, Samiha Rahman (University of Pennsylvania) looked at the pedagogical function of traditional Islamic education in Medina Baye Senegal.

Amidst all these academic reflections, the “Baraka Boys” introduced a musical note. The members of this London-based pop group are Afro-descendants. Through their performance, they offered an artistic illustration of the topic of the conference. Their trajectory bears witness to the perfect affinity that can exist between religious identity, globalization and musical production, a space of convergence that requires a renewed scientific interest.

With a total of 17 papers of extremely high quality, Africa was examined through a plurality of lenses, with the aim of highlighting the transversal dimension of African dynamics. This conference opened a space for discussing the contemporary challenges facing the continent, along original and generative paths. The critical edge of the communications is worth mentioning. Overall, it was not a question of romanticizing the African past or celebrating a so-called continental exceptionalism. Rather, historical depth was used to lay the groundwork for rethinking Africa in its extensions and mutations in the diaspora. The open and dynamic interplay between past, present and future is particularly productive in such research projects where African social and political realities are embraced in all their complexity, and African trajectories are depicted while paying attention to their unpredictability. From a methodological standpoint, this is an invitation to stop absolutizing theories and other generalizations, but rather take stock of the numerous approaches that emerge when one pays close attention to the multiple facets of a continent that has been globalized. At this conference, the analytical field was enriched with new concepts: Ethics of presence (Cheikh Niang), poetics of intertextuality (Ogunnaike), liberating principle of Tarbiya (Carter), Moorish parrêsia (Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem) and several others born of audacity and creativity. These prompted those present to rethink Africa not only from structured spaces, but also from the margins. Resolutely comparative and constructive, the research projects presented insisted on the processual character of these social, political and cultural elaborations.

Through processes of incorporation, indigenization and domestication, the African continent ceaselessly re-invents itself. It equally externalizes and delocalizes its multiple experiences through globalization. As a major player in the new globalized African topography, Islam is opening a space in which nation-states come to re-negotiate their sovereignty. Islam is spreading today through organizational forms such as NGOs, charitable foundations, cooperatives and others, without completely dissociating itself from traditional structures (families, clans, ethnic groups, nations, regions). The subtleties of the mechanisms put in place and the singularity of local variations are guaranteed by agents whose influence is boosted by their involvement in social and educational projects that have become the poster child of the missionary imagination. This micropolitical field benefits immensely from the globalization of economic, political and cultural exchanges.

Rapporteur: Cheikh Niang, Universite Cheikh Anta Diop Dakar

Professor Kane will present his book Beyond Timbuktu on the following dates:


  • Wake Forrest University: October 7, 2019

  • Georgetown University : October 23, 2019

  • The Africa Institute, Sharjah United Arab Emirates, April 18, 2020



Golden Peanut (Cauris d’or) awarded to Prof Kane by the Senegalese Chamber of Commerce, Agriculture and Industry for academic excellence (August 3, 2019)


Group photo study abroad program:



International Conference on Islam in Peace in Dakar


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