This paper will consider the historical account of Islam’s spread in West Africa, pedagogical structures, ritual worship, the social institute of marriage and the place of women. It concludes with a meditation on the need for an interdisciplinary approach to Tales of Amadou Koumba.
Islam in West Africa: A Nonviolent Model of Expansion?
The character Narr the Moor in “Fari the She-Ass” is a devout Muslim, but we are not supposed to be surprised or impressed by this “since it was his duty to show himself worthy of his ancestors who had introduced Islam into the country by force”.(B. Diop 99) Similarly, in “Mother Crocodile” we are told that Islām was spread by a bloody sword when she speaks “of the red colour of the water after the passing of the white men, who had taught the black men to bow down like them to the rising sun…”(B. Diop 47) These apocryphal accounts of Islām’s dispersal in West Africa fly in the face of historical fact. Indeed, Cheikh Anta Diop attributes the success of Islam in West Africa to “the fact that it was propagated peacefully at first by solitary Arabo-Berber travelers”.(163) This paradigm is reinforced by Sylviane Diouf, who writes that “the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa followed a mostly peaceful and unobtrusive path… [being] diffused not by outsiders (except in the early years) but by indigenous traders, clerics, and rulers.”(4)
Preparatory to detailing this invasion-conversion model, Mother-Crocodile informs us of Ghanian merchants, past kings and a glorious empire, of ”Soumangourou… Soun Diata Kéita and… the empire of Mali”.(B. Diop, “Mother Crocodile” 47) One of the great Empires of West Africa was that of Mali, which had a great muslim ruler who deflated the value of gold in Egypt when he went for Ḥajj. Toyin Falola writes, “Under Mansa Musa (ca. 1312-37), Mali attained the height of its power … adding areas twice the size of the former kingdom of Ghana.”(95) Further, Stride and Ifeka credit Mansā Mūsā with being “responsible for establishing islam as the official religion of Mali cities,” and attributes his patronage of the culamā with encouraging the growth of indigenous Muslim scholarship.(52)
The Marabout: Pedagogical Structures in West Africa and Scholarship
In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”(B. Diop 34). The task of preserving and disseminating knowledge (cilm) in West Africa, as in the rest of the Muslim world, was the job of the culamā. Rudolph Ware III asserts that culamā was not the preferred term in West Africa and that a more widely used Arabic term was “mrābiṭ and its Europeanized equivalent, ‘marabout’”(78-79). The word mrābiṭ is derived from ribāṭ which has the meaning of being consistent in something, as well as guarding.(Ibn Manthūr 1561) Perhaps, this connotation is how the word mrābiṭ/marabout is to be understood. That is, these are individuals guarding the intellectual tradition of Islām, as well as its practical implementation.
In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne returning from Makkah who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”.(B. Diop 34) Timbuktu (timbuktoo), “the lodging place of the culamā (scholars) and worshippers, the abode of the righteous and the ascetics,” was the residence of “the elite amongst the culamā, pious people, and the wealthy from every tribe and land”.(Al-Sacdī 22) That Serigne is described as having more knowledge of literary Arabic than the inhabitants of this city is no small matter. Cheikh Anta Diop records the incident of an Arabian scholar who returned to Mali with Mansā Mūsā: “He settled in Timbuktu and found this city full of Sudanese legal experts. As soon as he realized that they knew more than he in legal matters, he left for Fez, devoted himself to the study of law there, then returned again to Timbuktu to settle here.”(181)
We are further told that Serigne, who had just come back from Ḥajj, spent his time at his host “[intoning] litanies and verses of the Koran”.(B. Diop, “The Deer and The Hunstmen” 33) Serigne is a walking example of the verse: ata’murāun al-nās bi al-birr wa tansawna anfusakum wa antum tatlūn al-kitāb afalā tacqilūn [Do you command mankind with righteousness and forget your own selves, while you are reading the book, do you not have intellect?]. (Qur’ān 2:44) One exegete of the Qur’ān, Ibn Kathīr, records Ibn Juraij as saying about this āyah (verse), “So whoever commands good should be the severest of people in hastening to it.”(1:246)
We also find in Tales of Amadou Koumba references to the small schools scattered across the continent of Africa where foundational cilm was covered. These Qur’ān schools were run by marabout and attended by “little talibés… who beg their morning bread, their midday meal and their evening provender.”(B. Diop, “The Excuse” 27) The act of begging mentioned in “The Excuse” is termed “yalwaan (begging for food) [and] was an important part of the Qur’an school experience”(Ware III 46). Dorte Thornston writes that “education in Daaras often is free or almost free but implies that pupils –Talibés– may beg for alms”(3). Ware III explains, “Because it was thought to produce humility and good character, yalwaan was esteemed by some teachers who did not require or even use the proceeds of the children’s quest for alms.”(47) Qur’ān schools were geared towards making functioning adults with upright morals and character.
“A Judgment” describes the importance which West African Muslims placed on their children’s education: “…in Maka-Kouli, as soon as a child could say to his mother, ‘Mama, carry me on your back,’ he was sent to school to learn the Fatiha and the other teachings of the Koran.”(B. Diop 13) This is little wonder, as one ḥadīth says: afdhalukum man tcallam al-qur’ān wa callama [the most virtuous of you are those who learn and teach the Qur’ān]. (Ibn Mājah 1:199)
Besides covering the Qur’ān, the curriculum also included “elementary education instruction in the obligatory rituals”(Reichmuth 424) Such studies would have covered basic beliefs, ritual purity, prayer, fasting, and other subjects. The concept of ritual purity is alluded to in “A Judgement” when it describes the detrimental nature of dog’s urine which “if it touches the slightest part of the body…reduces the most fervent prayers to nothing.”(B. Diop 12) One of the preconditions of prayer (salāh), as opposed to ducā (supplication), is the body being free of ritual impurity which can take a corporeal form (e.g. urine, blood, wine, etc.) or be intangible.
Faith In Practice: Ritual Worship
One of the main pillars of Islām is ṣalāh (prayer). We can see this form of worship in several stories, though most clearly in “A Judgement”. In that story we are told of how Madiakate-Kala leads the faithful in prayer after the muadhdhin “had already launched the izan on to the evening wind”.(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 14) Congregational prayers in particular are proceeded by an ordinary individual calling out adhān (i.e. the call to prayer) to let everyone know that the time for prayer has entered. The particular prayer being described here is more than likely the cAṣr prayer (the other prayers being, respectively: Maghrib, cIshā, Fajr, and Dhuhar). As is seen in “A Judgement” the men pray together in the masjid, an act which is deemed to be more rewarding for them, whereas it is more rewarding for women to pray in their homes.
Another pillar, the Ḥajj is presented in “Fari the She-Ass” which informs us about a moor who “had departed on the pilgrimage to Mecca”.(B. Diop 101) We are told that the story may have turned out better if the poor man had remained “for the rest of his days near to the Kaaba, to be closer to paradise”.(B. Diop, “Fari the She-Ass” 101) The Kaaba, which is a brick structure erected by the prophet Ibrāhim (Abraham), peace be upon him, in Mecca is the direction towards which Muslims are directed to face when performing prayer, just like they are asked to point the palms of their hands towards the sky while making ducā (supplicating), and is not strictly speaking consider to be closer to Paradise than any other place in the world.
In “The Bone” after Mor Lame is shrouded we find that “holy words were spoken” before he was “carried to the cemetery”.(B. Diop 133) Salāh in the graveyard is prohibited because it gives the impression that one is grave worshipping. The reference to holy words refers to the funeral ṣalāh prayed before the deceased is taken to be buried in which the congregants pray for forgiveness for the deceased and all Muslims. They then take the body to be buried and, as we are told in “The Bone”, put the body into the grave “lying on the right side”.(B. Diop 133)
The Institution of Marriage and Women
“A Judgement” deals with the case of a marriage that turns sour. It tells us of a husband who vents his ire at some outside problem on his wife, subtly critiquing this behavior by chastising the husband’s choice “to pass his annoyance on to his wife.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) Marriage in Islām is not, to borrow a term, a morganatic construct, by which I mean that it is not a union between people of unequal social status.
With his mind clouded by anger, Demba, the husband eventually “…began to beat Koumba…”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) Unsatisfied with physically abusing her, he utters the following words: ”Go back to your mother, I repudiate you.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) In Islamic jurisprudence, a man may not mentally, verbally, or physically abuse his wife. The ḥanafī madhab (i.e. the school of law founded by the Persian, Nucmān bin Thābit) takes the stance that this is grounds for a wife to annul the marriage.(Ibn cĀbidīn 6:131) This odious behavior of Demba’s exceeds the limits of Islamic decorum. He violates the aȳah of the Qur’ān which commands: wa cāshirūhunna bi al-macrūf [And live with them with macrūf].(4:19) Imām Tabrī (May Allāh have mercy on him) explains that this āyah means: “O Men, socialize with your women utilizing good manners…”(6:538)
Later, Koumba refuses to return to Demba when he comes to regret his rash actions and there is a distinct lack of social pressure compelling her to acquiesce to his demands. Furthermore, her apparent status as a divorcée has not caused her to drop in social standing, nor to be considered damaged goods, rather she is swarmed “by the many suitors who invaded her hut every evening, from the first day of her arrival.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 10) In this she resembles Awa, the widow in “The Bone” who is remarried soon after losing her husband. In these two episodes the critique of a commonly held notion that Muslims prefer virgins is scathing.
Nevertheless, the legality of Koumba’s refusal eludes the village elders and the couple are sent off in search of a verdict. They eventually arrive in the village of Maka-Kouli. In this village ḥijāb (i.e. separation of marriageable members of the opposite sex) is practiced as proven by the following: “Koumba dined in the company of the women and Demba shared the men’s meal.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 13) Furthermore, when it comes time to sleep, Koumba refuses to join Demba because she does not consider herself his wife, and Madiakate-Kala staves off an argument, ordering one of his own wives, “Take Koumba to your hut with you…”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 13)
Recognizing the natural attraction of the sexes to one another and the ensuing harms that unmarried sexual relations bring to society, Islām has prohibited unnecessary interaction between members of the opposite sex, termed ghair maḥram, who can marry one another. Such individuals are the polar opposites of another category, labeled maḥārim (i.e. people whom one may never marry due to blood ties or marriage). This prohibition is one of the reasons why we see that the narrator informs us in “The Bone” that “[woman] do not accompany a burial to the cemetery, any more than they go into a Mosque.”(B. Diop 133) Such strictness does not, however, preclude interactions that occur due to some valid legal reason. An example of this is the interaction between Demba, Koumba, and Madiakate-Kiala.
As an aside, this story also highlights the practice of polygny. The priest, Madiakate-Kala has more than one wife and, it would appear that, in keeping with Islamic law, they have separate houses. The Islamic allowance to take up to four wives is qualified in the Qur’ān with a stipulation that one be just when it sternly states: fankiḥū mā ṭāba lakum min al-nisā’ mathnā wa thulātha wa rubac fa in khiftum allā tacdilū fa wāḥid […then marry what pleases you of women: two, and three, and four; but if you fear that you cannot be just, then one…]”(4:3) Additionally, this is not a command to marry up to nine wives, as Ibn Kathīr explains, “Marry whatever one of you wishes of women besides them; if one wishes two, and if one wishes three, and if one wishes four.”(1:598) That is, if the husband fulfills the conditions he can marry up to four women, but not more than that at one time.
To return to Koumba and her failed marriage, Madiakate-Kala tricks Demba into admitting that he has divorced his wife, thus allowing Koumba to move on to a new phase detailed by Serigne-the-Marabout in “The Bone” when he states “As soon as the period of a widow’s mourning is over, you [i.e. Moussa] will take her [i.e. Awa] for your wife.”(B. Diop 134) Due to shortage of space and time the legality of giving away a matron without consulting her will be left to others. Nonethless, Serigne-the-Marabout is correct in delaying any marriage until after a certain period, termed an ciddah, has passed. The ciddah is defined as: “muddah manc al-nikāh li faskhihi aw li mawt al-ẓawj aw li ṭalāqihi [the period in which marriage is forbidden after its annulment or the death of the husband or his divorce]”(al-Ẓarqānī & al-Bunānī 4:354) This period does not include locking a woman in a room, and is only a period during which it is forbidden for her to marry, though suitors may make chaste hints of their intentions.
From the above we see that men and women have certain rights and responsibilities. We also see that Islām has a robust legal system derived from jurisprudential principles that take years to master. A grounding in the classical law schools is needed to understand and expound on certain legal aspects in the Tales of Amadou Koumba. Furthermore, conflation of European models of expansion in pre-Colonial and Colonial Africa with the growth of Islam in West Africa will lead to the propagation of historic untruths. Readings of Tales of Amadou Koumba should be strongly rooted in the history of West Africa to avoid such interpolations. While acknowledging the painful truths of history, we should also celebrate the contributions of autochthonous Muslim laymen, scholars, and rulers to the social-intellectual health of the region.
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