Research Africa Reviews Vol. 4 No. 2, August 2020
These reviews may be found on the RA Reviews website at:
50 Years of Research on Islam and West African History
A Literature Review by David Robinson, Michigan State University.
In composing this, I am struck by the remarkable good fortune I had of working with so
many outstanding and generous collaborators over the years; African, European and North
American, as I labored on the history of Senegal and Mali. Those collaborators included
informants, guides, intermediaries, translators, graduate students and fellow researchers.
Actually, I should say close to 60 years of experience, if not research, in and on West Africa. Let
me explain. It began for me in a work camp in Huguenot country in southern France, midway
through college. The sponsor was the World Council of Churches, and it was 1958, after my
sophomore year at Davidson College. About 15 of us were rebuilding dry walls in an old refugee
camp of the Huguenots, refugees from the persecution of Louis XIV and others. Among my fellow
campers were an Israeli Arab and a black American student from Alabama. We spent the evenings
in discussion. The Israeli talked about what it was like to live as a marginalized person in Israel.
The Alabaman and I, a South Carolina white boy, were asked to talk about segregation. I really
didn’t know how to defend – or if it was defensible – the system in which I was schooled and lived.
The next summer I went to work for James Robinson, director of Crossroads Africa and
pastor of the Church of the Master in West Harlem. Black pastor, black congregation, and the
creator of a program called Crossroads Africa. He prevailed in getting one of his parishioner
families to take me in as a boarder for the summer. My hosts were a railroad porter and his wife
who worked at home.
After graduating from Davidson and doing a year at Union Theological Seminary in NYC,
I embarked on a Peace Corps-like program in Dakar, Senegal. The sponsor was CIMADE (the
Comite Intermouvement aupres des Evacues), an organization formed after World War II for
settling refugees from eastern Europe in France; it was particularly active in the late 1950s at the
height of the French war in Algeria. And CIMADE sent me to spend a week in Algiers and Medea,
amid the curfews and explosions that marked the evening hours.
Senegal was newly independent and governed by a bicephalic administration of Mamadou
Dia and Leopold Senghor. I lived in Grand Dakar in a social center, trying to teach French, learn
a bit of Wolof, and do youth work. At some point I read Cheikh Hamidou Kane’ss best seller,
Aventure Ambigue. I was drawn to the character of Samba Diallo, trying to live up to Islamic and
Futanke ideals amid the cultural intrusion of the French and French schools. Certainly Samba’ss
setting in Futa Toro and Kane’s origins in Futa Toro had to be different from the craziness and
westernness of the big city of Dakar – or at least so I thought.
The next episode in my trajectory came in 1964, in the PhD program in African History at
Columbia University, and living in NYC again. I studied with Graham Irwin, a Southeast Asian
historian who had done a few years in newly independent Ghana and re-treaded as an Africanist.
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A few years later he was joined by Marcia Wright, a more bona fide Africanist working on
East Africa. Somehow, after an African Studies conference, I also got adopted by Philip Curtin
and spent a semester at Wisconsin alongside Joe Miller, Allen Isaacman, Paul Lovejoy and several
others who would form the first generation of Africanist historians in the USA. Out there I started
learning Pulaar and preparing for research in Futa Toro – alongside a more bona fide Curtin student
named Jim Johnson.
In 1967 Jim and I shared a penthouse apartment below the Marche Sandaga in Dakar for
the next year or so. We were both working on Futa. It was a time in African history when the
premium was placed on doing pre-colonial history of African states and societies – before the
Europeans took over. We decided to divide up the area – west for Jim, centered on Podor, and east
for me, centered on Matam. He ended up writing on the early Islamic regime or Almamate of Futa
from the late 18th century, while I did the later period down to the French conquest in 1890.
My inaugural trip to Futa was by boat, on the famous Abou El Moghdad, which sailed (or
steamed) out of St. Louis up the Senegal River. It took several days to get to Matam. It featured
a first class of Europeans and a deck class of Africans, in good old colonial style. I got off in
Matam and imposed myself on two sons of the Futanke scholar Cheikh Moussa Kamara – Amadou
and Moustapha. By that time, I had been working at IFAN, with the encouragement of Oumar Ba,
a Mauritanian Futanke, and had been introduced to the works of Cheikh Moussa – especially the
Zuhuur al-Basaatiin. The Kamara sons treated me well, made me feel at home, and introduced me
On my next trip I drove a bright red Deux Chevaux across the Ferlo, went to Matam and
then to Thilogne, where I met Thierno Seydou Kane, tooroodo, hajj, former colonial chief, and
grandson of Abdul Bokar Kane, who became the focus of my research. Thierno became my
adopted father and my host in Thilogne. Some years later his son Moustapha came to study with
me at Michigan State. From time to time Tierno Seydou suggested I convert to Islam, join the
Tijaniyya and accompany him on a pilgrimage to Medina Gonasse.
Equally or more important for me was meeting and bonding with Moussa Gueye, a burnaajo who
had been working with Animation Rurale, the bottom-up mobilization program pushed by
Mamadou Dia. Moussa became my constant companion as we drove around eastern Futa
conducting interviews in Pulaar. His contacts, and his ability to inspire confidence, were
invaluable as we created a precious set of interviews for the history of Futa in the 18th and 19th
Jim worked away in western Futa and together we deposited open-reel copies of our
cassettes at IFAN (where they unfortunately disappeared in a year’s time).
Jim and I finished our dissertations on Futa and got teaching positions at Northwestern and Yale
respectively. I revised my thesis and published it as Chiefs and Clerics. Abdul Bokar Kan and the
History of Futa Toro in 1975. It featured Abdul Bokar, a bold, pragmatic and not very pious
leader, not the Samba Diallo of Aventure Ambigue. I had also identified my next project, a history
of the military jihad of al-hajj Umar, the famous native son of Futa. I had some hesitation and
reservations about embarking on a work about Umar, partly because of the massive emigration
that he organized from Futa and his transformation of the Islamic practice of many Futanke in the
late 19th century. I had also absorbed some of the attitude and distance of Cheikh Moussa towards
the military jihad, as opposed to the greater jihad of striving that Cheikh Babou symbolizes in his
book about Amadou Bamba: Fighting the Greater Jihad.
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When I went back to Africa in 1976 and 1979, it was to Mali with only brief stops in
Senegal. I was in pursuit of al-hajj Umar and his jihad, which was in areas within the confines of
colonial Soudan and today’s Mali. At this time my funding came from a grant from the NEH that
I had obtained along with Louis Brenner, a friend and colleague since my Columbia days. It called
for the microfilming of Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu, at the Centre Ahmed Baba where
Mahmoud Zouber was the director. We constructed a board with strobes and a support for a camera
which I transported to Timbuktu in 1979, and wrote a manual for usage in French for the system;
I don’t think the system was ever used very much, but Louis and I had high hopes for it at the time.
And Louis, my research companion from the days of the doctoral program at Columbia in the
1960s, went on to do his splendid work on Bandiagara and Tierno Bokar Tal.For my research on
Umar, I went to Alpha Oumar Konare; then, I went to the head of the Institut des Sciences
Humaines in Bamako helped me secure the services of Almamy Malik Yettara, a marvelous
amateur historian with wonderful language skills and access to Niger, Segu, Mopti, Bandiagara,
and the other centers where I needed to work – he filled the role that Moussa Gueye had occupied
in Futa in the late 1960s. In Almamy’s case, he lives on in a splendid biography by Bernard
In Bamako I enjoyed wonderful company and meals at the home of Alpha, his wife Adam
Konare Ba and their family. In Segu I shared a house with Jim Bingen, then completing the
research for his PhD in political science from UCLA, and he and I shared the wonderful meals that
Madani Tal, a fourth generation descendant of Umar, would send over. I also met Richard Roberts,
who was doing his dissertation research on the Middle Niger for the University of Toronto, and
began a lifelong friendship with him. I had already met his mentor, Marty Klein, while doing
research in Senegal.
Almamy provided the introductions, selected the informants, and provided the translation
for sessions in Bamana, Pulaar and Arabic as we created an invaluable collection, the value of
which you can see in The Holy War of Umar Tal, which appeared in English in 1985 and in French
a few years later (thanks to the interest and investment of Robert Ageneau of Karthala). The
hospitality of Mali and Malians was formidable for me, and it is painful for me to think of the
violence and conflicts in today’s Mali.
After 1979, all of my research trips were to Senegal – Dakar and Saint Louis in particular.
The History Department at UCAD had, by this time, undergone a transformation initiated in part
by Yves Person, who spent several years at the university in the late 60s and early 70s, before
taking his post at the Universite de Paris I. Boubacar Barry, Abdoulaye Bathily, Mohammed
Mbodj, and Mamadou Diouf – and a little later Penda Mbow and Ibrahima Thioub – blazed a new
path in historical research on the states, societies and relations of Senegambia and the wider region.
They trained a new generation of students, supervised an incredibly rich collection of senior and
master’s essays, and provided great insight and collaboration for budding American historians like
me. I, along with Marty Klein, Lucie Colvin, Eunice Charles, Vicki Coifman, James Searing and
a host of others, benefitted from their wisdom and experience. Charles Becker had by the 1980s
settled into a position in Kaolack, and then Dakar and was an incredible resource for visiting
scholars as well as UCAD faculty with a wonderful library that. Becker played a big role in sending
Mamadou Moustapha Kane, son of Tierno Seydou, to MSU (where I had assumed a post in African
history in 1979) to pursue his doctoral studies – my first student from Senegal. Moustapha wrote a
very pioneering dissertation on the colonial history of Futa Toro, which had become a backwater
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of Senegal (and Mauritania) in the 20th century, and took up a position in the History Department
One of his fellow students at the MSU program in African History was John Hanson, who
wrote his dissertation on the Umarian emigration and settlement in Nioro and Kaarta in the late
19th century, which became Migrants, Jihad and Muslim Authority in West Africa, and took the
Umarian story to greater depth than I did in my book.
In the late 1980s I joined forces with Becker, Diadie Ba, and Jean Schmitz, who was
working on a sociology doctorat d’etat on Futa, and others to try to make available some of the
work of Kamara in translation. With Schmitz’s encouragement, I wrote my own article on Kamara
that appeared in the Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines in 1988. At the same time, we took copies of the
IFAN version of the Zuhuur Al-Basaatiin to Paris, where Schmitz enlisted a team of translators
and annotators, whose work appeared as Florilege au Jardin des Noirs, vol 1, published by the
CNRS. It was an expensive enterprise, and the rough French translations of the rest of the work
have still not seen the light of day. Connie Hilliard, Mbaye Lo and others have worked on other
parts of the Kamara corpus since, but the true stature of this remarkable intellectual of the early
20th century has not yet been fully appreciated.
In the 1990s I teamed up with Louis Brenner and Jean-Louis Triaud, professor of the
history department at Aix-en-Provence, to obtain two grants from the Collaborative Research
program of NEH to study Islamic movements in West Africa. With those resources we brought
together scholars for two conferences and two books. The first conference was held in 1993 in
Aix-en-Provence, where Triaud was teaching, and the second in 1996 at Champaign-Urbana,
where Charles Stewart had built his remarkable collection of manuscripts and resources around
Mauritanian Islam. The first conference resulted in the publication of Le Temps des Marabouts,
the second in La Tijaniyya, in both cases published by Karthala and Robert Ageneau. It was during
that time that I was able to get to Trarza and Nouakchott, thanks to the hospitality of Abdel Wedoud
ould Cheikh and Dedoud ould Abdallah.
By this time, several of us had joined forces with Mary Ellen Lane of the Center for
American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), based at the Smithsonian, to launch the first
American center in Sub-Saharan Africa: the West African Research Center or WARC. Boubacar
Barry, Mohammed Mbodj, Jeanne Tounkara and many others met in Washington for the launch,
and WARC enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Mary Ellen in the years that followed. Under
directors such as Wendy Wilson-Fall and now Ousmane Sene, WARC and its North American
counterpart WARA (the West African Research Association), have become a real hub for research
in West Africa. WARC has made the research process much more collegial, pleasant and
WARC was very helpful to me as I embarked on research for Paths of Accommodation, in
which I shifted my work from the pre-colonial to the colonial period, and to the relationships
between the leading marabouts and the administration of the AOF. I created the designation
Senegalo-Mauritanian zone to emphasize what I thought was a reality of the thinking of the
marabouts and the French administrators. I used the terms civil society, intermediaries and Sons
of Ndar to describe key institutions and personalities based in St. Louis, at the mouth of the Senegal
River. This framework allowed me to treat the Sidiyya family and Saad Bou alongside Malik Sy
and Amadu Bamba in one volume. The NEH sponsored volumes that Triaud and I engineered fed
into this process, as well as the work of my second Senegalese student, Cheikh Anta Mbacke
Babou, as he worked on the dissertation that led to Fighting the Greater Jihad. Cheikh and his
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family hosted me in Mbacke (and Touba) during that time; it was a wonderful way to appreciate
the Muridiyya movement and its strength.
I also spent a lot of time in St. Louis, the early capital of colonial Senegal and the jumpingoff point for French expansion, as well as the institutional basis for Muslim Affairs and other
colonial institutions. Not to mention the home of Bu El Mogdad and the Seck family. I also enjoyed
the simulation of several MSU graduate students during this time. Hilary Jones focused on the
Franco-Senegalese actors in St. Louis, which resulted in her book The Metis of Senegal. Tamba
Mbayo worked on the interpreters, and then published Muslim Interpreters in Colonial Senegal,
1850B1920: mediations of knowledge and power in the Lower and Middle Senegal River Valley.
Kalala Ngalamulume wrote a thesis on the social and health history of St. Louis. And Ghislaine
Lydon helped me appreciate the richness and links of bidaan and Mauritanian history, which
became her book On Trans-Saharan Trails.
After 2000, I did not do much research in Senegal or France, but became more of an
armchair commentator from my base at MSU, and prepared the manuscript for Muslim Societies
in African History, which appeared in Marty Klein’s Cambridge series in 2004. By this time Mark
Kornbluh and Dean Rehberger had developed the resource of Matrix, the Center for the Digital
Humanities and Social Sciences. Matrix became an important stimulus for research on Africa and
secured many grants for work. It was at Matrix that Catherine Foley and others created AODL, the
African Online Digital Library.
It was also the time to work with my third Senegalese doctoral student, Ibra Sene, who, in
addition to his work on Senegal prisons, led an effort to create an effective partnership between
MSU and UCAD. I have been really blessed by my Senegalese doctoral students. Ibra is now
teaching at Wooster in Ohio while Cheikh is thriving at the University of Pennsylvania.
This is the time, I think, to conclude this memoir, which has already become much longer my
years of living in and working on West Africa.
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