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Islam and Africa

Join the Islam in Africa Working Group for special discussions of African Islamic practice. See “Upcoming Events” for more details.

Islam in Africa is one of the Center for Global Islamic Studies’ main research clusters and an important part of its activities. The cluster pays attention to the diversity of Islam in Africa and its diaspora, its multifaceted historical trajectories, geographical differences, ideological variations, and contemporary dynamics. Approaching the intersection of Islam with broader social, cultural, economic, and political processes, the researchers in this cluster focus on issues including the history of Islamization, Islam and politics, Sufism, Islamic reform, and Muslim-Christian encounters.



Salafism and ‘Super-Salafis’ in Ethiopia

PI: Prof. Terje Østebø

The project builds on earlier research on the emergence and trajectory of the Salafi movement in Ethiopia from the late 1960s to the present – focusing on the interaction between the outside (global) and the local, and on the role of agents of change in relation processes of religious reform. This current project explores the increasingly heterogeneous character of Salafism in Ethiopia, and investigates the so-called Madkhaliyya group, or the “Super Salafis” as it is labeled locally. Drawing inspiration from the Saudi quietist scholar Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali, the group has been much devoted to maintaining religious purity, and to avoid engagement in public and political affairs. This research analyzes how this is played out in relation to the broader Muslim society, what implications it may have in a religiously plural society, and how it is affected by an increasingly constrained political environment aimed at combating what it perceives as “extremist Islam”.

Representations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ethiopia

PI: Prof. Terje Østebø

The ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, generally labeled as Islamism, have over the last decades followed an interesting and uneven trajectory, moving away from a more exclusivist position to the accommodation of liberal democracy, human rights, and secularism. Similar discourses have been taking place in Ethiopia, seen by internal debates about the nature and future of the Ethiopian society: the nature of the secular state, inter-religious relations, religious freedom, and the role of religious values in the public. The main aim of this project is to shed light on local representations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ethiopia – its historical trajectory and current status. It will in particular focus on the ideological dynamics, and an important aspect will be to analyze such local expressions in light of broader ideological developments taking place within the Muslim Brotherhood. The tentative assumption is that these ideas have provided a young generation of Muslims with material for the production of an assertive religious identity, in which individual spirituality and morality are pivotal, and moreover, that the ideas have provided important rationale for a Muslim “politics of recognition” in Ethiopia.

Relations of Religion and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa

PI: Prof. Terje Østebø

The role of religion and ethnicity in the construction of identities and in the demarcation of boundaries has been subject to broad scholarly debates. With the Oromo ethno-nationalist movement in Ethiopia as a point of departure, this project will contribute to the debate by adding new perspectives to the relationship between religion and ethnicity. It aims to provide much-needed knowledge on the Oromo ethno-nationalist movement, and will in particular pay attention to the intertwined relationship between Islam and ethnicity, and explore the reciprocal impacts the two had both in the movement’s formative period and in later developments. Moreover, it seeks to forward new perspectives on how to conceptualize the relationship between religion and ethnicity. Whereas theoretical approaches and empirical studies recognize the existence of such a relationship, there is a need for a more explicit conceptual framework on this matter. The project will especially relate this to issues such as the construction of (social) identity, the formation and trajectory of ethno-nationalism as a phenomenon and to the role of such categories in inter-group conflicts.

Ajami literacy in Senegal

PI: Prof. Fiona McLaughlin

This project is part of a larger research focus on vernacular literacy in the Sahel and explores multiple facets of ajami writing in Senegal. Ajami refers to the writing of a language other than Arabic in the Arabic script and is a widespread phenomenon in many Muslim societies (Urdu and Farsi, for example, are written in the Arabic script in Pakistan and Iran, respectively). In Senegal, where basic literacy is often acquired in Qur’anic schools, there is a longstanding history of writing local languages such as Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka in the Arabic script. Ajami Wolof, known locally as wolofal, in particular is highly visible in the written environment, even outside religious centers such as Touba. This project investigates ajami writing from the theoretical perspective of Blommaert’s (2008) work on grassroots literacy and focuses on the ways in which local literacy practices develop outside of established regimes of literacy. I presented a first paper on the topic, entitled “Grassroots literacy at the port of Niodior (Senegal)” at a workshop on the Arabic script in Africa at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in April 2013. This paper takes a first look at ajami writing in the Seereer language.

Linguistic warscapes of northern Mali

PI: Prof. Fiona McLaughlin

This project is part of a larger research focus on vernacular literacy in the Sahel, and falls within the purview of the emerging field of linguistic landscape, or writing in public space. Here I examine the graphic environment of northern Mali during the political crisis that started in 2012 when a Tuareg liberationsist movement and a coalition of jihadist groups vied for control over the northern part of the country as the Bamako government fell into disarray punctuated by a military coup d’état. The time period of this research continues up to the French-led military intervention of January 2013. My principal interest here is to understand the uses to which public writing (grafitti, billboards, banners, writing on vehicles and clothing, etc.) is put in times of war, and how such writing contributes to symbolic control over territory, people, and ideas. The warscapes of northern Mali are linguistically complex. They are written in multiple languages, primarily Arabic, French and Tamasheq, and involve three scripts, Arabic, Latin and Tifinagh, each of which is associated with a number of ideological stances. I first presented work on this topic at the Linguistic Landscapes 6 conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in April 2014.

Affiliated Activities

Islam and Africa Working Group – Center for African Studies 

Sahel Research Group – Center for African Studies and Department of Political Science