West Africa and the Maghreb

West Africa and the Maghreb

Reassessing Intellectual Connections in the 21st century

An International Conference to be held at Harvard Divinity School

13-15 September 2018 | Sperry Room

Convened by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professorship on Contemporary Islamic
Religion and Society, Harvard Divinity School







During most of the 20th century, the academic division of labor in the study of Africa rested on the assumption that the Sahara was a barrier separating North Africa from Sub-Saharan Africa. Based on that assumption, the Western academy typically divided the academic study of Africa so that North Africa fell within the realm of Middle Eastern studies, and the area south of the Sahara, which Westerners consider to be Africa proper, was explored within the field of African studies. Such a division and its underlying assumptions overlooked the fact that for centuries the Islamic faith, the Arabic language, trade and diplomacy glued together millions of Muslims of the Maghreb, the Sahara, and West Africa. In fact, like oceans, the Sahara Desert actually brought the regions bordering it closer in terms of language, culture, flora, and fauna. Furthermore, to this day many African Muslims imagine and understand their communities in ways that directly contradict this largely Western division of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa.

In the last three decades, a sustained intellectual endeavor led by scholars of North and West Africa as well as Western scholars has documented a long history of interconnections between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, laying this assumption of the Sahara as a barrier to rest. In North Africa, several research centers have devoted substantial research to document Afro-Arab relations. The Council for the Development of Social and Economic Research in Africa, a Pan-African social consortium based in Senegal, bringing together African intellectuals from all parts of the continent (North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa and Southern Africa) launched an Arabophone initiative to explore the role of the Arabic language and culture as a glue holding together tens of millions of Africans on the continent. In different Western universities, dozens of doctoral dissertations have been devoted to the study of Afro-Arab relations and several well-received books, primarily on trade, have addressed the unity of the region. Some of these studies have shown that scholars and students from North Africa also crossed the Sahara regularly, demonstrating that West Africa was not just a fully dependent extension of a North African center, but a full participant in a region of economic, religious, and scholarly exchange. That the connections between these different regions have been longstanding no longer needs to be proven. A number of geopolitical and technological developments, however, require a re-assessing of the nature of the relations between Sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa. West African pilgrimage to the Muslim Holy Lands and other holy sites in North Africa has been radically transformed in the 21st century. Until the mid-twentieth century, most pilgrims tended to be students for whom the pilgrimage was not just a means of worship but for intellectual advancement as they spent years studying along the way to and in the pilgrimage sites. In addition, the settlement of a sizable West African Muslim community in the West and the growth of the tourism industry has not just created new pilgrimage routes linking their host societies to the pilgrimage sites to their homeland, it has also changed the nature of pilgrimage. Indeed, the majority of pilgrims now are lay people combining religious tourism, entertainment and business.

The Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya are among the most widespread Sufi orders in the modern world. They were both born in the Arab world, but their center of gravity shifted to West Africa. In terms of following, institutions and intellectual production, these orders owe much of their vitality to West African Muslims. A number of major Sufi centers have emerged in West Africa in the twentieth century, attracting pilgrims from all parts of Africa and increasingly from outside Africa as well. This has led to the decentering of religious authority which has not been subject to sustained scholarly attention and that needs to be explored. What is the nature of the relations between these new centers and holy sites in North Africa?

Faith in scientific reason and belief in “magic” and the sacred have continued to coexist. Many of the same people who make recourse to magic also expect benefits from the worlds of science and technology. When science and technology fail to meet their expectations, they turn to the sacred and magic. In the name of rationalism and orthodoxy, some contest the ability of masters of talismanic knowledge to guide believers in navigating existential uncertainties, but many people continue to venerate such masters. When confronted with the vicissitudes of life, many politicians, elite sportspeople, ill people, and business persons will hire a cleric for petitionary prayer to be safe from misfortunes, to recover from diseases, to win elections or a wrestling tournament, or to settle a score with a foe. A panel on prayers and talismanic knowledge will address the reliance on these masters in contemporary African societies.

Before colonialism, a limited number of core texts were taught in Islamic centers of learning in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. These texts embrace a variety of disciplines, including law, mathematics, poetry, philosophy, logics that were taught in intellectual centers of North and West Africa. Despite the rise of modern Western type schools in North and West Africa, some of these texts are still taught in Islamic centers of learning. A panel of the conference will be devoted to the study of the key disciplines still taught in theological schools in Muslim Africa.

In July 2011, one suicide bomber drove and exploded a loaded car into the headquarters of the UN in Abuja, Nigeria causing great destruction of property and a heavy death toll. Whereas suicide bombing was hitherto unknown in West Africa, it has now become commonplace. New Jihadi movements such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram have been recruiting members from different countries of North and West Africa and Europe. Their ideologues have produced a lot of written, audio and video documents in Arabic, European, and African languages that still await critical analyses. How do these 21st century Jihadis differ from their 19th century and early 20th century predecessors? This question will be also be addressed by the conference.

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