The constants of Islamic identity in Africa and the challenges attending its preservation

The constants of Islamic identity in Africa and the challenges attending its preservation

Pr. Safiya Abderrahim At-Tayyeb Mohammed, The constants of Islamic identity in Africa and the challenges attending its preservation
Pr. Safiya Abderrahim At-Tayyeb Mohammed, The constants of Islamic identity in Africa and the challenges attending its preservation

The constants of Islamic identity in Africa and the challenges attending its preservation[1]

Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds!

Peace and blessings be upon the lord of messengers, upon his virtuous Family, and upon his noble Companions!

Mawlay Ameer Al-Mûmineen (Sire, Commander of the Faithful)

Your dearly-beloved country, the Sherifyan Kingdom of Morocco, is bound to Africa geographically speaking. And its historical links are deeply entrenched in history. These solid links have kept Morocco tightly attached to the Continent with which it has shared a common destiny. For more than a millennium, Morocco has, in the framework of Islamic civilization, contributed to building African civilization. Proofs of these relationships have continued to be furnished during the Colonial period, the war of liberation, and even in the era of independence. And in every era Morocco contributed something to this Continent’s identity-building, on the basis of cultural values and deep spiritual ties. It is a well-known fact that Islam, one of the major components of this Continent’s identity, had actually spread in many African countries starting from Morocco. It has done so thanks to Sufi scholars and Sheikhs with a great many followers who really give due estimate to this scholarly and spiritual movement and heed its rights.

Mawlay Ameer Al-Mûmineen (Sire, Commander of the Faithful):

African people embrace several religions, with Islam in the first rank, claiming 45%. It is followed by Christianity with 40% adherents, and 15% of people practicing different local and Asian faiths and others following no religion, in particular. While the Sunni branch of Islam had been the main one in Africa, the situation started to relatively change in the 1980’s depending on the countries. Now to ensure that the situation does not turn into a religious identity crisis, the presence of Morocco in the depth of Africa is warranted and needed at this juncture-as is the case in the sphere of politics and cooperation.

Several matters with adverse effects have started to surface, calling for greater vigilance on the part of African partners. The situation in the midst of Muslim people does not hinge solely on the freedom of religious belief -which is upheld for the sake of Allah- and further guaranteed by Islam itself, on the strength of Almighty Allah’s command: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. However, what is feared, on the basis of Muslim people’s lived experience, is that a change in the denominational map may well lead to sectarian divisions and create serious problems for state systems if plain cupidity, which is disguised in religious garb, is allowed to foster conflicts and wreak havoc. To obviate this prospect, it is necessary to double the vigilance and to follow the unique model offered by your country, Morocco, O Majesty. It is a model based on sound protection of the country’s unity against all forms of disturbance and discord.

You do have a renewed role in the interests of Islam in Africa. This is all the more warranted if we bear in mind what is being done by way of help, cooperation, and partnership with your African brethren. What is being done is thus neither an instance of intrusion or interference, but rather a process able to unfold wisely, spontaneously, and objectively given its sincerity and candor. Islam should either be enhanced and protected in Africa or be doomed to decline on this Continent in the first century of this third millennium. The members of this faith should call to mind the importance of making the necessary diagnosis of the situation, as well as the stakes it entails. To put it another way, Islam should be viewed as furnishing help in the resolution of the problems facing Africa in order that all fair-minded people may consider it as useful and necessary. Muslims should also defend Africa and never allow any that seeks-either through ignorance or sheer malice-to burden Islam with the consequences of problems it has nothing to do with. At this point, we must pause to say a few words about the Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema (Muslim scholars) which you have instituted, O Majesty. The project is a model to emulate in the aspired-after awakening and vigilance of Islam in Africa. So far, religions organization and supervision have been dominated by the leading and momentous work performed by various Sufi Orders through the years. These orders, as is well-known, organize the people and train scholars spiritually speaking. For this reason, scholars in Africa have been for the most part affiliated to Sufi Orders. Besides, they fulfil all requirements in terms of combining thorough knowledge of the Dhâhir (or, the visible outer world) and the Batin (or, the inner esoteric one). However, in the present time scholars from various orders and other sympathizers stand in need of an organization which defends the constants of Africa and shields it against any doubts being cast about it. This is precisely the awareness that you have given expression to through the institution of the aforementioned foundation.

In order for Africa to defend itself by defending Islam, it has to raise some challenges which we would like to talk about briefly. As Almighty Allah states in Süra Al-Anfâl (or, the Spoils of War): “Because Allah will never change the grace which He hath bestowed on a people until they change what is in their own souls”

The verse encapsulates a warning: whoever has been blessed by having Allah’s grace bestowed on him should be grateful for it and preserve it with care. Allah has promised to make it lasting so long as the blessed one shows solicitous and grateful care for it. The verse has been revealed in relation to the Pharaohs whom Allah had graced with faith only to reject it later and become unbelievers. Theirs was one of the greatest and mightiest civilizations, of course. Another point worth discussing is that many people have assumed that the change brought about by Allah is from the worst to the best, through the provision of means. However, this is not really the case. The verse commands people to keep the situation up so that it may not be reversed and bring about decline or degradation. The relevance of the verse, as far as Muslims in Africa are concerned is that they should be grateful for the advent of Islam in Africa and for the guidance that Allah had given African ancestors so that they might embrace the faith and transmit it to their progeny. What is needed today is that the present generation undertake a thorough diagnosis of their state and identify the deficiencies and dysfunctions affecting their understanding of the faith. Some of this diagnosis is what we have referred to previously in terms of challenges that need to be perceived in the most appropriate ways in order that they may be countered effectively thereafter. This should be done amidst a massive onslaught against Muslims which ranges from accusation to outright aggression. In sum, the state of Muslim people in Africa is highly volatile calling for deep understanding and intervention warranted by salvage.

Now if we look at these challenges, we soon realize that they fall into two categories, internal and subjective and external ones:

  • Subjective challenges are of five kinds related respectively to identity, nationality, language, illiteracy, and Ijtihad;
  • External challenges have to do with the conceptualization and the actual unfolding of four events/phenomena: liberalism, globalization, secularism, and terrorism.

First: Subjective Challenges

  1. Identity-related challenge

An African Muslim person will find in his faith such principles as would allow him to be at ease vis-à-vis his composite identity and less embarrassed by its circles which have the same unified axis. Such is the feeling he experiences as he listens to the plain message sent to humankind at large, through the verse which constitutes the starting point of the present lecture: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (Sura Al-Hujurât, verse 13). Paradoxically as he hears this the intensity of the apparent contradictions between the components of the identity -negritude, Arabism, or Amazighism or any other element-causing a feeling of hardship arising from affiliation to any of these, if he should limit his sense of belonging to one of them only or if he should fail to conceptualize the components adequately. The various identity components are in fact overlapping, as suggested by the verse, which alludes to the tribal and to the national levels. Belonging to a tribe should not be taken to refer to a bygone historical epoch, but should rather be understood in terms of its connotations of localism and intimacy which man needs and benefits from immeasurably. Besides, belonging to an entity prepares one for adherence to a larger one, without any introversion, chauvinism, or complex.

The striving for multiple identities ought to be driven by interest in Ta ‘aruf (or, mutual acquaintance), which entails recognition of the principle of equality and the mutual benefits to be had from such acquaintance without any vainglory or frustration. An African Muslim person has a model which takes him back to the origins of his creation and shields him from any sense of embarrassment arising from affiliation to his tribe, nation, his homeland, and the larger community, the African Continent. The only criterion underlying difference and variation is Taqwa (or, piety) which combines all virtues and leads to excellence and benefaction not only to the self but also to others. From the small unit, the family, up to the largest unit, the global community, an African Muslim person experiences the various levels of his identity. He relies on one level to build for the next smoothly, easily, and in full acceptance of, and harmony with his country-folk, whether he belongs to the majority or the minority. He is never constrained as he transforms all that is negative about multiple affiliations to something positive in building a comfortable and beneficial plural identity.

  1. Language-related Challenge

Language differences constitute one of Almighty Allah’s signs in this world. The Multiplicity of languages from this divine consideration could not be a source of problems for people, whether in Africa or elsewhere. Researcher Hassan Ghambou has dealt with the linguistic map of the African Continent in its multiplicity, diversity, and relations with ethnic diversity. He argued that the advent of colonialism has changed the language system in several African countries in that local languages have suffered from marginality while foreign languages have gained in dominance. Even within regions, there are differences as every regional language is considered to be an official language in a particular region. An example that illustrates this situation well is Nigeria where four languages, namely Hausa, Kanory, and Igbo, dominate in different areas. And the English language is the common language, shared by all Nigerians. ln situations where language diversity constitutes a challenge to some African peoples and to their respective national identity, it is imperative to find solutions which make use of the experiences of certain countries where language diversity never constituted an impediment to its renaissance, but rather a lever thereof. This should be attempted in the framework of a national strategy which brings together the African countries concerned and competent institutions. ln such a strategy education and media ought to have a crucial role in creating highly productive language interaction and harmony which constitute a source of cultural enrichment and not an impediment to economic growth or a root-cause of political estrangement or conflict.

  1. Illiteracy and the Poverty of Culture

When we consider that illiteracy is one of the most formidable challenges facing the Islamic world in that it undermines its capabilities and impede its development plans, we wonder indeed how illiterate people could hope to benefit from the values of Islam. Illiteracy, as the mother of calamities, has stricken and spread widely in Islamic societies, including Islamic African ones. Even so, many African countries continue to deal with illiteracy merely as an educational and ethical issue.

Due to the backwardness in this field, many Islamic countries, including African ones, have failed to generalize primary education. Typically, solutions are imagined, with reference to other countries. But these solutions are not only “borrowed” but are also costly. With this in mind, more efforts should be expended in conceptualizing and developing approaches that can be adopted in these countries, taking into account their limited resources and special conditions.

Now even countries that have overcome primary educational problems are still faced with cultural challenges which can be seen in the superiority of other countries in many fields, including: technological advancement; the achievements in the many fields that make up the cultural domain; the smart and equal interaction with the cultural currents emanating from the West and the East, alike; the intelligent choices, implementation, and adaptation to modem economic models; the successful handling of social challenges notably, the dangerous triangle of poverty, ignorance, and diseases, as well as despair which leads many young people to the precipice; and the courageous stance vis-à-vis political challenges notably at the level of governance and administration, ensuring that these institutions adhere to the requirements of integrity, transparency, and justice and endeavor to respond best to the aspirations of people.

  1. Ijtihâd: Knowledge of the Constant and the Variable

On account of such abysmal gaps in education and flagrant weakness in cultural performance, a large number of stereotypes and misinterpretations of Islamic precepts and teachings have proliferated. The situation of Muslims who adhere to Islam but who ignore the most basic rules of this religion is worse, needless to say. This, in fact, is the most serious challenge facing Islamic identity in Africa and elsewhere. And it is more harmful to Islam, of course, than are its adversaries. Examples of the ignorance include failure to distinguish between priorities and to realize that there are constants as well as variables. And this ignorance serves only to exacerbate introversion and stasis. It is also exploited by extremists.

Awareness and discernment depend on religious training and orientation, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. They also depend on the work done by the transmitters of religious knowledge and the method they adopt in their transmission. ‘Ulema (Muslim scholars), when they are available, are expected to show people that the constants of religion cover the categorical ordinances, as spelled out by Almighty Allah by way of Revelation. Such ordinances never change, through the ages and places. The five pillars of Islam, for instance, are the same never suffering major changes through time. The same may be said about the five sacrosanct assets which the Revealed Law protects and upholds -namely, the preservation of the integrity of faith, the mind, the self, as well as the safety of one’s property and honor -are standing and invariable legal aims.

The variables of religion are flexible matters which change through time and place. It is subject to varied understanding and interpretation. Even when they do change, the change does not alter the fundaments in any significant way or change the bases of religion. Variables are expedients by way of which Allah (Glory and Majesty be to Him) guarantees continuity as well as the propriety and suitability of legal provisions to all conditions. Variables in the branch law are so because they have been subject to multiple understandings and various opinions which have been voiced as a result of rule-derivation endeavors undertaken by jurists from various schools, notably the four major schools of law. It soon became apparent that the differences between jurists are a blessing, as well as mercy for they foster ease and roominess beneficial to the Ummah, at large.

But such variety in the structure of the Shari’ah (Revealed Law) warrants vigilance in dealing with each class of components to ensure that the rank and characteristics of each class are safeguarded. Variables should never be given the standing of Constants. Nor should the rank “categorical” be conferred on conjectural matters. Similarly, a partial or minor provision should not be viewed as a major predicate. Each component of the law has its place, standing, and underlying rules. This is not to underrate any minor element in the Shari’ah, but simply to emphasize the importance of dealing with each component with the requisite scientific rigor, giving each class its due so long as we consider it in the framework of the Shari’ah.

New information and communication technologies may, in principle, be used to disseminate knowledge and mitigate the lack of religious supervision directed to Muslims in Africa. However, these technologies can easily be misused and utilized to induce them into errors, if placed at the disposal of the ignorant, the extremists, and denominational bigots who are determined to confound Muslims in African countries and steer them away from the Constants of their religion.

Second: External Challenges

  1. The Concept of Nationalism

Some people have peculiar perceptions of nationalism and Islam. They assume that there is a conflict between nationalisms, which are in essence ethnic-based affiliations, on the one hand, and Islam, by virtue of being a religion which transcends mere membership of an ethnic group, on the other. As a result, they reduce the size and substance of Islamic identity and even seek to cancel it altogether. On the other hand, a religious person considers that his religious identity is crucial in that it gives meaning to his material existence and to its spiritual and moral dimensions.

In raising this challenge, Islam seeks to establish the principle of “national affiliation” as a component embodying the intimacy of kinship relations which are essential to survival, safety, and strivings after goodness. However, Islam, at the same time, endeavors to sensitize nationalistic entities to the necessity of opening up to the other components of human existence. Islam considers that nationality, even if it is a natural and necessary component of the human identity, does not preclude the need for other affiliations which allow a human being to preserve his material and moral existence. This ranges from family ties to tribal and national affiliation, and then extends to cover the Ummah, which assumes an intangible dimension because it carries meanings that are not at variance with the peculiarities of affiliation.

What Islam rejects are clannishness and chauvinism; Muslims are required to ponder communal mores and practices, support them, and benefit from the positive sides of nationalism. They are also commanded to avoid confrontation with any level of affiliation so long as it does not unjustly undermine people’s existence or restrict their freedom. In this sphere, Islam has not neglected Muslims or left them in the dark; it has recommended them to care for the sacrosanct human assets, to observe forbearance, and to deal with other people in the most gracious ways. In view of the complexity of world affairs, all of the foregoing puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of Muslim people: they have to be wise in their dealings with all people and to avoid any kind of involvement in discord and dissension-under any pretext whatsoever. They are indeed more capable of opening up to all levels of mutual cooperation and shared values which serve a large human alliance, bearing in mind that such an alliance is the ultimate goal of mutual acquaintance.

  1. Ethical Liberalism

We do not mean economic liberalism here but rather patterns of conduct that are not restricted by what Muslims may consider to be legal provisions specific to them or marred by undue interference with what they deem to be traditions or noble ethics. Liberalism here means freedom from legal provisions or traditions in life, particularly when they relate to forbidden, reprehensible, or highly equivocal things in Islam. This kind of freedom or release from constraints can be found amidst non-Muslim in countries with a motley of religions-and that is the case of most African countries-and even amongst some Muslims who combine fair deeds with foul ones, in the hope that Allah would forgive them. The challenge here resides in the ability of Muslims to implement the Islamic principle of “let there be no compulsion in religion”, to act in line with the principle of freedom, and to strive to persuade others by highlighting their model ways of life and by opting for fair competition, away from all types of violence. At any rate, good co-existence is one where mutual respect dominates all interactions and where forbearing understanding prevails over other attitudes or patterns of behavior marked by humiliation and discomfiture. No one can ever exclude Muslims unless they utterly fail to understand other people and to convince them about the pertinence and astuteness of their views. Liberalism, as practiced by other people, may soon constitute a real challenge unless Muslims demonstrate that they have an open and thorough understanding of religion, which allows everyone to behave as they really wish in the framework of the law of the land-irrespective of whether he be a non-Muslim or a Muslim person that feigns liberal conduct only to release himself from some consequences.

The countries of the Islamic world may opt for aspects of liberalism by design in order to cope with realistic practices entailing constraints. This does not necessarily mean that they purposefully seek to contravene their religious teachings; it simply suggests that some of these countries are acting flexibly so as to adapt liberalism and to spare practicing Muslims any disconcerting situations. What is important in all these cases is to steer away from over-liberalism and hastiness in issuing judgments. In sum, the philosophical characteristics of liberalism are now a matter of debate that is open to everyone. However, a non-Muslim does not have to acknowledge the Revelation that has been made to Muslims. Nor may any Muslim person compel non-Muslims to adopt his creed. The aspect of liberalism that is dreaded is that an individual may grow ghoulish and oppress the community. Here, states must assume their responsibility in protecting the community, by adopting policies that uphold individual freedoms and balance between them and community rights.

  1. Globalization

African countries are increasingly affected by globalization, as evidenced by the reactions of African people, which range from enthusiasm to fear. Such reactions are shared with many other peoples and societies in the South. One of the reasons why globalization is so widely dreaded is serious concern over the consecrated heritage of individual countries. Dr. Ahmed Ben Rachid considers that globalization has sought to dismantle frontiers and barriers allowing major multinational companies, institutions, and networks to engage in various economic, media, and cultural activities, using their own means. This obviously reduces the roles played by states in the areas of finance, the economy, culture, and the media. This way of viewing things suggests that globalization is the will and constant endeavor to crown the capitalist system and to establish Western liberal values as the predominant on the global scale. This, of course, paves the way for cultural domination, as well as for other kinds of hegemony.

The fact of the matter is that globalization does not seek to achieve a unified world -as many people may be inclined to assume- but rather to develop a highly overlapping system which brings together several interconnected worlds. Cultural globalization envisions a world where cultures mingle, opening untold opportunities for cross-fertilization, exchange, and complementariness. However, much of the prominence to be gained and the benefits to be had depend on the strength of any given culture and the degree of its interactivity and participation. By contrast, a culture is bound to be on the wane if it proves to be vulnerable and disinclined to interact with others and to participate actively in the global exchange.

Accordingly, African Muslim people ought to dispel any misunderstanding of globalization and to stop viewing it solely through the lenses of hegemony. Islam does not recognize or approve of isolation, but approves and upholds diversity and difference which serve only to enrich and enliven existence. It also acknowledges the right of every Ummah to defend the peculiarity and specificity of its own heritage. Islam seeks to foster pride in religious identity but also promotes the virtue of tolerance vis-à-vis other people. A Muslim person neither denies the existence of other people nor shows chauvinistic intolerance towards them. Likewise, he does not negate their rights or harbor resentment or hostility for them.

  1. Secularism

Secularism emerged under the aegis of Western civilization, in the context of historical competition with religious institutions. Its manifestations thereafter spread to the rest of the world. The main premise of secularism resides in the establishment of the bases of day-to-day life away from religion, adopting rationalism, along with human sciences and accumulated experiences in resolving life’s problems. Some people perceive secularism in terms of worldliness and a non-religious life. Many thinkers actually contributed to the theories underlying secularism, including Nietzsche, Durkheim, Marx, Sartre, and Freud. In the Islamic world, champions of secularism include Ataturk, Qâssim Amine, and others.

Some of the problems related to this particular subject is that several African countries with Muslim majorities have formally adopted secularism in their respective constitutions, leaving the door open for private initiatives to take care of religious requirements (such as the construction of mosques and schools, for example). Experience has shown the dangers arising from this policy, which has prompted some of these countries to try and solve the problems partially by appointing government officials and tasking them specifically with Islamic affairs. This state of affairs, however, should not constitute valid ground for a religious person to misunderstand secularism, charge secularists with unbelief, and thereby justify hostile actions against them.

  1. Terrorism

Africa is presently confronted with three types of violent conflicts: sectarian disputes, denominational prejudices and ill will, and religious divergences. What concern us here are conflicts between Muslims themselves. This is because whenever these conflicts flare up, they call for the intervention of foreign powers and outright interference with the domestic affairs of Islamic African countries. Needless to say, this exacerbates the situation even further creating discord, unrest, and insecurity. Oftentimes this results in a regression of Islam in these countries or, at least in a stasis in the affairs of its followers and in the perturbation of their prosperity.

In order to overcome this dire cultural strait, it is necessary to counter terrorism by considering it a phenomenon with complex cultural roots. In Africa, owing to the inadequacy of religious training, organization and supervision, terrorism finds fertile soil to take root and grow. But inasmuch as terror has intellectual and social roots, it is imperative to combine security measures with awareness-raising campaigns in combating it. It is also necessary to improve education, to eradicate all forms of corruption, to enhance economic complementariness between African countries, to exchange expertise and know-how, to disseminate the value of work-ethics, to develop critical scientific thinking, and to foster the spirit of competition and creativity. The fight against extremism also requires the following: monitoring religious education thoroughly; enhancing the control exercised by qualified scholarly authorities; and requiring the latter to assume their responsibility fully in that regard. With all of these measures combined, it would be possible to devise a strategy to confront fanaticism-in its intellectual foundations and insidious actions, in reality.

In closing, O Majesty, I should like to say that the confrontation of all of the aforementioned challenges represent the Jihad Al-Akbar (or, the Greater Jihad) awaiting African scholars. And the confrontation here does not hinge solely on material means. This is because the confrontation that concerns us here is the one devolving to religious scholars and Imams. As for the other stakeholders, each will have to shoulder the responsibilities related to his position. However, scholars have a mighty role to play, for it is derived from a commandment made by Almighty Allah to the effect that a group of people in every Ummah should engage in the process of educating people in religious matters. It is also further confirmed by a statement made by the Noble Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him), which asserts that in every generation there is a band of sincere religious scholars who protect the faith from the twin blights of ignorance and extremism. In this respect, the Prophet has also instructed the scholars who undertake the task of raising people’s awareness to ensure that they themselves receive their knowledge from authorities that are righteous, well-versed in religious sciences, and staunchly opposed to dissension or discord. The warning is relevant because there are religious leaders who never weight the consequences of their talk about religion: they kindle the fire of dissension and prove utterly unable to put the conflagration out, thinking, out of sheer ignorance, that they would benefit from their misdeeds. But, alas, these people who sham concern for religion are bereft of religious wisdom. They never give due consideration to the weight of the responsibility they assume. They simply instigate people, sowing the seeds of division, and never heeding the sacrosanct conditions or requirements of Tableegh (transmission of religious knowledge).

Almighty Allah has described for us the characteristic features of wise people who are worthy of emulation in raising the challenges confronting people in Africa. And such people cannot afford but to possess these characteristics and qualities which the Almighty has mentioned. He (Exalted in Might be He) said: “Say to My servants that they should (only) say those things that are best”.  He also stated: “And argue with them in ways that are best (and most gracious)”. Elsewhere the Most High said: “Repel evil with that which is best”. The best approach is left up to the wisdom and discretion of the guided ones and ail the workers in Da ‘wa (or, religious outreach) in Africa, who operate in hard domestic conditions and have to cope with tough external factors. These austere conditions require them distinguish the best from the simply good and opt for it. Above all, these conditions require them to opt for the lesser evil instead of the greater mischief­ which is Fitnah (or, dissension and discord). Of course, there is no single recipe for dealing with reality, but there is one major requirement that is three-fold: sincerity, knowledge, and piety. And this is what we beseech Almighty Allah to confer on gentleman and lady scholars serving in the blessed Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema (Muslim Scholars) an institution you have graciously offered to the African Continent in these critical times. May Allah well approve of all your deeds and Peace be upon you.

[1] A Hassanian lecture delivered before The Commander of the Faithful, His Majesty King MOHAMMED VI, May Allah lend him support, by Pr. Safiya Abderrahim At-Tayyeb Mohammed, Former minister and current Professor at Umm Darman University and member of the section Of Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema in Sudan, On Ramadan 16th 1439 A.H. (June 1st, 2018), in: “the Hassanian lectures Ramadan 1439 A.H./May-June 2018, published by The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, p:73-85”.