The stereotypical division of the Muslim world into the ‘mainland’ (Arab Middle Eastern) and the ‘periphery’ (non-Arab world) is being continually thrown from the twilight of the last century into the side-line of political and intellectual correctness as evidenced by two phenomena. First, the enormous intellectual legacy of the ‘peripheral’ Sudanic (I am unimpressed with the pejorative ‘sub-Saharan’, p. 25) Africa, as established in the multivolume Arabic Literature of Africa series (general editors John Hunwick and R. S. O’Fahey) and, secondly, the rich, ‘alternative’ truth and source of history and knowledge which is found in the indigenous, African sources, specifically materials which are written in local languages but in the Arabic script (ʿajamī). Both phenomena have emphatically proven the uniqueness of the African heritage under the Islamic dispensation. The five-chapter book being reviewed here is an eloquent representative of the latter. Up till now, the academic discussion on Ahmadu Bamba Mbakke (1853–1927) has focused more on his confrontations with the French colonialists and their local collaborators, gracefully side-stepping other key events in his life and movement, and sources on both. This book sets out to correct this. The enlightening and enlightened introduction (pp. 1–40) gives an account and analysis of the missing links which include an examination of Bamba’s encounters with the aristocracy and the intelligentsia from the founding of his Murīdiyya in 1883 until his first exile to Gabon in 1895, and a new interpretation of the doctrines and practices of his Murīdiyya Sufi movement, among others. Those missing links, as articulated across the book, are provided by the participant-observer field notes by the author, the electronic multi-media ephemerals and recordings. Other resources utilized in this regard are chirographic prose and poetry materials, recited and cantilated hagiographical texts, didactical and historical writings and digital resources, largely in Wolof ʿajamī, a source hitherto unutilized, either out of ignorance or contempt (cf. p. 3). Of course ʿajamī poetry has traditionally been an effective tool for mass mobilization and popularization of religious ideals in Muslim West Africa since the eighteenth century, as amply demonstrated in Usman dan Fodio’s (1754–1817) reform movement (see ʿAbdullāh Ibn Muḥammad Fūdī, Tazyīn al-waraqāt [ed. M. Hiskett, Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1963], 85). But as with other existing studies on and reference to ʿajamī, Ngom is equally unaware of such other languages, for instance, (Nigerian) Nupe, Ebira, Yoruba (noted en passant) and Afemai with long-attested history of ʿajamī tradition.1 The French-imposed restrictions on Bamba, namely, the exile to Gabon (1895–1902), otherwise characterized as the ‘Odyssey by Sea’ (pp. 115–52); to Mauritania (1903–1907), that is, the ‘Odyssey by Land’ (pp. 153–98), and open arrests and surveillance thereafter until his death in 1927 have become key elements in the Murīdiyya hagiographical narrative of Bamba’s endurance of persecution by the French and their local cohorts. His exilic experience is portrayed as exceptional investments in the spiritual sphere of perfection, hence the ‘celebration of suffering’ (p. 116), the sanctification of endurance and ideologization of perseverance in the Murīdiyya thought and salvation pericope. The Màggal, an annual commemoration of Bamba’s banishment to French Gabon (1895–1902), has become a rallying point for his followers at home and in the Americas. Unlike the preceding four, the concluding chapter has no musical transcriptions of the ʿajamī poetry and prose texts. But as useful as the Latin-based transliteration, musical transcription, and the translation of the illustrated ʿajamī poems may be, these surrogates cannot be a replacement for the original. Anyone translating poetry would discover that what is left untranslated is the poetry itself. The final chapter also illustrates the Murīdiyya work ethic, critiques the local leaders and rival clerics, and highlights the role and image of women in the Murīdiyya world. Bamba’s ‘pre-exile’ works (1883–95), including panegyrics of the Prophet; these and other devotional and pedagogical themes are, by his own estimation, a form of service (khidma) and gift (hadiyya) (p. 107). But his works in exile, especially his poetry, have shown his poetic imaginativeness and artistic efficiency in appropriating the powers of verse to establish the Murīdiyya worldview of transformations within the foundational texts of Islam and the larger Sufi literary and theosophical traditions.2 Of the paradigms employed by Ngom in the construction of the Murīdiyya narrative is what he designates ‘ʿAjamīzation of Islam’ (p. 39), a term he uses to characterize the enrichment process of using the Arabic script for local languages by the Muslim oecumene and for the assimilation of native ancestral values into Universalist Islam (p. 19). The term is somewhat problematic, if not misleading, for a variety of reasons. First, ʿajamī is used for both religious and secular purposes, so it will be more accurate to talk of ‘Islamization/secularization of ʿajamī’. Secondly, users of ʿajamī would not use the facility, for example, to read the Qurʾān or other Islamic litanies, so it remains a sort of Doppelgänger, a splitting image, of the formal Arabic chirographic facility; after all, those who use ʿajamī would have acquired some level of competency in the standard Arabic in the first place and ʿajamī, its by-product, would thus simply serve as an aide memoire, a medium for popularization, mass movement, or encryption. A queer dimension to the ʿajamī narrative, although not noted by Ngom, is a reverse process of ‘Arabization of ʿajamī’ in pre-modern Islamic Africa.3 Although the Murīdiyya salvation theory is propagated in the formal Arabic works and ʿajamī compositions by Bamba and his disciples, Ngom’s interpretation of pro-Bamba ʿajamī materials as ‘confirmations of his primordial election to lead a threefold universal mission of intercession, salvation, and mercy destined to humans and jinn’ (p. 68) sounds recherché and, to say the least, an overblowing of Bamba’s charismatic credentials on the one hand, and ʿajamī’s instrumentality in portraying the ‘resilient and powerful organization that the Murīdiyya is today’ on the other. (p. 38). Moreover, the impression one gets, albeit implicitly, is that the use of ʿajamī was exclusive to the Murīdiyya among the Senegalese, as there is no reference to any communication in ʿajamī by Bamba’s opponents or non-Murīdiyya authors or composers. Furthermore, Ngom’s reference to the Wolof lunar month and chronogram (dating events with numerical value of letters) is done in such a way that one may be left with the impression that both are exclusive to this linguistic group (cf. p. 193). This is not accurate. First, there is just one Islamic lunar month all over. Also, the use of chronograms is widespread in the West African Islamic literary traditions.4 The Islamic chronogram tradition, in its distinct ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ varieties, has a deep root in Islamic antiquity going as far back as the eighth century and indeed to the Greco-Roman alphabetical system, and it is also employed in other Islamically influenced traditions, for example, Urdu.5 A proof of Bamba’s charisma which may have also been overstressed was his praying on the sea (p. 136). Praying or dancing on the sea with a spread-out mat as identified with Bamba (p. 136) has been a familiar evidential topos in the Sudanic African Sufi charismatic narrative since the seventh/thirteenth century, as illustrated in al-Jawbarī’s seventh/thirteenth Kashf al-asrār (see M. Höglmeier’s edn., Al-Ğawbari und sein Kašf al-asrār … Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 2006, p. 352). Ngom tactically avoided discussing the raison d’être for Bamba’s toleration of the enigmatic Ibrahima Faal, his alter ego, in spite of the latter’s sceptical attitude towards the canonical prayer (ṣalāt) and Ramadan fasting, two of the eight ritual obligations emphasized by Bamba himself to his followers (p. 171). Faal was the Bāb al-murīdīn (the porte parole) of the Murīdiyya, the first and ultimate ‘Master of Tarbiyya’ of the order. (p. 97). He is reported to have abandoned, or at least failed to openly practise the two rituals, once he advanced in the Murīdiyya hierarchy. In allegiance to Faal was a renegade ‘fringe’ of the Murīdiyya, his ‘genuine followers’ (p. 99), who exhalted humanitarian services and ethics at the expense of canonical rituals, an ideology they must have adopted from their master’s controversial Jadhb al-murīd. This phenomenon certainly deserves more than the passing reference given to it by Ngom. It is probably not out of order to point out a few of the infelicities in this book. The translation of some Arabic terms, phrases, and verses are not unexceptionable. For instance, Bamba’s poem titled: ‘Qālū liya arkan’ translated as ‘They told me to kneel’ (p. 73) is better rendered as ‘They asked me to submit/report’, if properly situated in the context of the opening line or the entire poem in which Bamba rejected appeals made to him to succeed his father at the court (cf. J. Hunwick Arabic Literature of Africa, Leiden: Brill, 2003, iv. 432 and Qurʾān, 11. 113). Also, the prayer-poem, ‘Yā man jalla ʿan qawadin’, translated as ‘O you who transcends Justice and Punishment’ (p. 167), could better read ‘O you Who are above Retaliation [for inflicting harm])’. The Jadhb al-Majdhūb ‘Attraction of the Illuminated’ (p. 50), the title of an ʿajamī poem, can be more accurately translated as ‘Pulling the Divinely attracted’. But perhaps the most outlandish is the inaccurate rendering of Bamba’s rationalization of his exile to Gabon which Ngom has attempted to translate from French into English; his translation came out more as an explication or a paraphrase (p. 126). The Arabic original is better rendered thus: ‘The reason for my exile (lit. absence) was that God/wanted me to earn an honour by Him. That I should emerge as an intercessor for my people/ and, forever, a servant (of the Prophet)’. Ngom may have equally fallen, though unwittingly, into the enduring controversy on ethics and morality (concepts he considers as one) or rather, between ritual and morality in the Sudanic African epistemological discourse. Bamba is portrayed as giving priority to ethics over rituals (p. 102). But a quotidian epistemological philosophy in Sudanic Africa generally confers priority to ethics over knowledge, not over rituals (al-ʿadab fawq al-ʿilm).6 All these are but minor peccadilloes which do not detract from the overall quality of this great piece of scholarship. Ngom’s effort has convincingly demonstrated that the consideration of Euro-Arab sources on African subjects as primary and the local, oral, intangible, including ʿajamī sources as secondary (when not dismissed altogether) is no longer tenable and has become intellectually and realistically incorrect. He has shown that insights afforded by the ‘secondary’ sources have given more authentic voices to topoi and narratives in which Africans are the dramatis personae, the active participants and observers. His effort will certainly open up new vistas on other African movements and subjects. But could Wolof ʿajamī have influenced Yoruba language (Nigeria)? In Murid ʿajamī discourse, ‘njàngum téere’ means ‘book-based education’ (p. 75). The Yoruba word for book or a written stuff is tira. This may be an issue for a future investigation in trans-West African linguistic borrowing.7 The Companion website (www.oup.com/us/muslimsbeyondthearabworld) which puts at our disposal the recorded audio recitations, chantings, and cantilations of Murīd ʿajamī verses gives an added value. Ngom has brilliantly shown that the ʿajamī genre is an effective, if not the most comprehensively effective, medium for analysing the life voyage of Ahmadu Bamba as the spirit auctores of the Murīdiyya, both as a social mass movement and a mystical order. Africanists, and indeed all students and scholars of Islam in Africa will for long remain beholden to this effort. No academic platform which holds authentic African voice in high esteem should be without it. Its eloquent testimony to the unique and ground-breaking quality is recognized in the 2017 prestigious Herskovits Prize for the most important scholarly work in African studies published in English during 2016. Footnotes 1 Cf. Review of M. Mumin and K. Versteegh (eds.), The Arabic Script in Africa: Studies in the Use of a Writing System (Leiden, 2014), BSOAS, 78 (2015): 669–71; M. Ndagi, ‘A Thematic Exposition of the Nupe ʿajamī Manuscript Heritage of Northern Nigeria’, Islamic Africa, 2/1 (2011): 11–33. A new study on ʿajamī is Fiona McLaughlin, ‘ʿAjamī Writing Practices in Atlantic-Speaking Africa’ in F. Lüpke (ed.), The Atlantic Languages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, forthcoming). 2 Cf. S. Camara, Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba: Selected Poems (Leiden: Brill, 2017). 3 For example, one Muḥammad al-Wālī (fl. 1688) translated a Fulfulde ʿajamī theological text of al-Sanūsī’s al-Ṣughrā into formal Arabic. See D. van Dalen, ‘On Writing and Weaving. Muslim Scholarship in Seventeenth-Century Central Sudanic Africa’, Islamic Africa, 7 (2016): 4–18. 4 Cf. H. I Gwarzo, ‘The Theory of Chronograms as expounded by the 18th Century Katsina astronomer-mathematician Muḥammad b. Muḥammad’, RBCAD, 3/2 (1967): 116–23; al-Ilori, Lamaḥāt al-Ballūr (Cairo: al-Namūdhajiyya, 1982), 51. 5 See M. A. Farooqi, ‘The Secret of Letters: Chronograms in Urdu Literary Culture’, Edebiyât, 13/2 (2003): 147–58. 6 Cf. R. Seesemann, ‘ʿIlm and Adab Revisited: Knowledge Transmission and Character Formation in Islamic Africa’ in M. Kemper and Ralf Elger (eds.), The Piety of Learning: Islamic Studies in Honor of Stefan Reichmuth (Leiden: Brill, 2017). 7 Cf. Amidu Sanni review of Charles Stewart (ed.) ‘Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 5. The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara, Parts 1 and 2’, Journal of Islamic Studies, 28/1 (2017): 103–6. © The Author(s) (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 20, 2017
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