Volume 11, Issue 1
Cheikh Anta Babou. Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadou Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007.
Amadou Bamba M’Backe, founder of the Muslim Sufi brotherhood known as the Muridiyya, was born in western Senegal in 1850, at the beginning of concerted French colonization of the region. By the time of his death in 1927, when the French had consolidated their control, Bamba had established a widespread following and a reputation, both among colonial administrators and local leaders, as perhaps the single most powerful force in Senegalese religious and political history. Bamba’s life story, as well as his complex, fluid, and ambiguous relations with secular authorities, have been well-documented and examined in both contemporary and historical accounts, creating a cottage industry within West African studies. An abundant hagiographical literature exists on Bamba, and his followers continue to write and speak about his life, practices, and ideas. Because of the lasting and visible influence of Amadu Bamba and the Murids in colonial and independent Senegal, as well as the rather distinct and, some would argue, unorthdox practices of the Muridiyya, scholars from various disciplines have mined the extensive and readily available relevant archives, oral sources, and secondary literature.
To justify another narrative historical account of the life of Amadu Bamba and the early years of the brotherhood, Babou sets out to examine not only the conventional sources, but previously neglected internal documents, including works in Wolof and Arabic, as well as oral interviews the author conducted with Murid members. The author notes that previous studies have focused primarily on state building and the question of whether Bamba qualifies as a resistor or collaborator with colonial authorities. Babou stresses his intention to focus more on the domestic and internal dynamics and development of Bamba’s ideas and practices, most notably on Islamic education. Like many younger scholars, especially when their first book is a revised dissertation, Babou proposes to revolutionize the field, and to shed startlingly new insights which will require the rethinking and rewriting of the historiography. As is often the case, the author makes some contributions to the literature, but he promises far more than he can deliver. Despite these qualifications, Babou does make some contributions to the literature and our understanding of the meaning of “jihad,” a word that desrves clarification and refinement in today’s world.
Babou draws well and selectively on the extensive secondary literature in English and French as well as the familiar archival materials that others have investigated rather thoroughly. This work, however, only cites a few of the available archival French sources without revealing any new documents, or offering any new insights into that data. While the author conducted some interviews in Wolof in Senegal, he could have interviewed a much larger pool of informants and integrated their accounts more assertively into the narrative. The interviews were undertaken in a rather confined area of the Murid heartland and in relatively truncated periods of fieldwork. More archival and oral research in Senegal would have considerably enhanced the author’s intention to tap into underused and new materials and to break new ground. The book does make a solid start at exploring the memories of some Murid members, but much more could have been done with this avenue of investigation. Babou could have utilized their actual words in the text to give a more compelling voice to the narrative and to argue his case for Amadou Bamba as an original and astute thinker and practitioner, especially in the area of Muslim education.
The author does a commendable and original job of tracing Bamba’s lineage back several centuries and considering the cleric’s familiar and intellectual predecessors. Previous biographies have given scant attention to Bamba’s ancestors and have often skimmed over his early years, particularly Bamba’s Islamic education. Babou makes a convincing case for analyzing the formative influences of Amadou Bamba’s life and thinking and how the Muridiyya emerged and built upon a long and revered tradition and did not spring out of nowhere. Another strength involves the careful narrative of Bamba’s various moves throughout western Senegal and the individuals, including religious figures and traditional Wolof leaders, with whom he interacted on a daily basis. These encounters foreshadow the manner in which Bamba would interface with the French colonial authorities, a topic that has engaged numerous scholars and followers. Babou correctly asserts that the inconsistent and reactionary reaction of the French to Amadou Bamba arose from colonial reliance on traditional Wolof chiefs unalterably opposed to the cleric out of fear for their own authority. The author also rightly insists that the outdated and discredited notion of collaborator vs. resistor does not adequately describe the dynamic, ambiguous, and at times apparently conflicting relationship, on both sides, between the Murid founder and the colonial authorities. Yet, whereas the author succinctly reviews the recent literature, he fails to provide any new insights or nuances based on his own research and fieldwork. Likewise, throughout the book, Babou competently summarizes and synthesizes the secondary literature while lacking a certain degree of originality or creativity.
The book, although disappointing in regards to providing a fresh analysis of Amadu Bamba’s relationships with the colonial authorities and insufficient insights into his thinking and the practice of Islamic education, should appeal to scholars interested in the Murid brotherhood and recent Senegalese religious and political history and society. It might serve as a useful case study for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in the history of Islam in Africa.
Andrew F. Clark University of North Carolina - Wilmington