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Shurafā’ as Cosmopolitans: Islam, Genealogy and Hierarchy in the Central Sahara

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 6)

Abstract

Scheele’s study focuses on Muslims in southern Algeria and northern Mali. People in this part of the Islamic world underpin notions of difference and value with respect to social status through the writing, recitation, and display of geographically expansive tawârîkh (histories). Such notions and practices however have recently been challenged by the establishment of modern nation-states in the area. Scheele’s paper charts the ways in which state policies have gone to reshape traditional understandings of personal worth and to impede the use of ‘histories’ in the pursuit of cross-border connections.

Keywords

  • Moral Worth
  • Universal Framework
  • Islamic Revelation
  • French Army
  • Universal Order

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For examples of this, drawn from a wide geographic range within the Western and Central Sahara, see Clauzel (1962), Bonte (1989), Casajus (1990) and Villasante-de Beauvais (2000).

  2. 2.

    This is not to claim that Islam is inherently hierarchical: on the contrary, it has often been seen as fundamentally egalitarian, within or beyond the state (see for instance Lindholm 1996). Rather, it allows for both tendencies, as it provides a language to express universality adapted to local preoccupations (see also Messick 1988). As seen below, the notional egalitarianism promoted by regional nation-states from the 1960s onwards hence brought with it its own reading of the Islamic revelation, one that as ‘true’ (and as locally recognisable) as older versions.

  3. 3.

    This paper is based on 16 months of fieldwork in southern Algeria and northern Mali in 2006–2008, archival research in France, Algeria and Mali, and local manuscript sources. Research was financed by a Junior Research Fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford, and a British Academy Small Research grant (no. SG-47632). The paper was written up while holding a post-doctoral fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.

  4. 4.

    After taking the city of Algiers in 1830, the French army extended their conquest gradually along the coast, and south to the city of Laghouat, gateway to the Sahara, in 1852. They entered the Sahara proper with the annexation of Ghardaia in 1882. The Touat, the area we are mainly concerned with here, was not taken until 1901. Meanwhile, the French navy had started to push north from the Niger bend, reaching Timbuktu in 1893.

  5. 5.

    On the fruitlessness of all attempts at ‘scientific’ racial classification, see Boëtsch and Ferrie (1993); for more recent examples of such attempts, see Coblentz (1967) and Chaventré (1983).

  6. 6.

    See for instance the Note on the Tidikelt district, by Simon, 21/05/1900, and Census of the Tidikelt, 12/09/1901, both kept at the French Centre d’archives d’outre-mer (CAOM) in Aix-en-Provence, box 22 H50; Annual Reports of the Tidikelt, Census of 1906, CAOM 23 H102; Population Census of the Touat, 1911–1950, 23 H91; Census of the Touat in 1933, CAOM 10 H86.

  7. 7.

    All signs taken to be important, as ‘God will always find ways of making his chosen ones known to man’. Local manuscripts stress especially the ‘fragrance’ by which shurafā’ can be recognised, even if they themselves are ignorant of their identity; dreams play a similarly important role (see e.g. Muzīl al-Khafā, manuscript communicated to me by the Bakraoui family in Tamantit). Again, much of this is about public recognition, or as Dakhlia (1988: 754) put it: sharifian genealogies can only provide an ‘increase in legitimacy’, not legitimacy in itself (see also Touati 1992: 20).

  8. 8.

    Manuscript no. 2407/97 of the de Gironcourt Collection, held at the Institut de France in Paris. Shaykh Bāy was a Kunta scholar settled among the Tuareg Ifoghas in the zāwiya Téléya near Kidal. His influence extended throughout what is today northeast Mali, northwest Niger, and southern Algeria, especially the Hoggar mountains (see Marty 1920: 119–37, de Gironcourt 1920: 147–9, and the collection of documents kept in the Malian National Archives in Bamako (ANM), Fonds anciens, box 1D305).

  9. 9.

    This of course does not mean that Islam ‘invented’ the genealogical genre, and the universalising and relationist vision of the world it expresses: in most areas, genealogical reasoning seems to have predated Islamicisation. In the contemporary Central Sahara, however, they are inextricably interwoven.

  10. 10.

    For more detail on the wider intellectual context in which Muhammad Mahmūd was operating, and the importance of racial and genealogical distinctions within it, see Hall (2011).

  11. 11.

    This does not mean that such kinds of history were unknown in Timbuktu at the time, or had never been produced there: witness the Ta’rīkh al-Sūdān and the Ta’rīkh al-Fattāsh, of whose prestige Muhammad Mahmūd was certainly aware. Inspiration might also have come from the French historical and ethnographic notes, with which Muhammad Mahmūd was familiar enough to help produce some of them, see for instance his reports on southern Algeria kept in the French military archives in Vincennes (SHAT), box 1 H4754/3, and his close collaboration, in the 1950s, with the French administrator Marcel Cardaire (see Lecocq 2010: 52–8). Moreover, he clearly took at least some of the information compiled in his Kitāb al-turjamān from Paul Marty’s (1920) extensive treatise on the region.

  12. 12.

    The copy consulted is held at the Centre de documentation et de recherches Ahmed Baba (CEDRAB) in Timbuktu, MS no. 762.

  13. 13.

    The title of the Ta’rīkh al-Sūdān is perhaps best translated as the ‘History of the Blacks’ rather than as the ‘History of the Sudan’, as is now common; this conceptual shift from an emphasis on people to an emphasis on place is reflected in northern Mali by parallel political developments closely connected to French colonial ambitions, see e.g. Grémont (2005).

  14. 14.

    Some of the names used by Muhammad Mahmūd are still recognisable as contemporary ‘ethnic’ categories, such as the Bambara. Others are now used as family names or diamou, encompassed within larger ‘ethnic groups’, such as the Wangara, who today define themselves as shurafā’, although the term probably initially meant ‘Muslim trader’: see Lovejoy (1978), Saad (1983), and Lydon (2009: 63–5). Other terms seem utterly obscure to me and others whom I asked. It is obvious, however, that the terms used by Muhammad Mahmūd to refer to ‘tribes’ (qabā’il) today refer to a whole variety of levels on which and ways in which people can be distinguished from each other.

  15. 15.

    See Boilley (1993), Lecocq (2010: 52–8), CAOM AffPol 2258/5 and the French Military Archives in Vincennes (SHAT), box 1 H4754/3.

  16. 16.

    This insistence is partly rhetorical: the manuscript can be consulted quite easily at the CEDRAB, as Bruce Hall clearly did (see Hall 2011).

  17. 17.

    See also Dresch (2009). This vision is perhaps most familiar to European readers from the biblical vision of the world; for a discussion of its gradual replacement by ‘racial’ thinking in the very different context of India, see Trautmann (1997).

  18. 18.

    This is often glossed as ‘reformist Islam’ (although claims for ‘reform’ of Islam as practiced at any given point in time seem to be as old as the Islamic revelation itself): for its history in Algeria, see Merad (1967) and J. McDougall (2006); for Mali, see Kaba (1974) and Brenner (2000).

  19. 19.

    In the Algerian south, the struggle for independence (1954–1962) was largely one of equipment and transport facilities, rather than one of guerrilla fighting; and those families who controlled most resources then were able to convert these into political prestige that in many cases lasts until today.

  20. 20.

    The Kunta have attracted considerable scholarly interest, too much to be summed up in a simple footnote, but see especially Marty (1920), Batran (2001), and Hūtiya (2007).

  21. 21.

    Compare, for instance, the genealogies recorded by Marty (1920) and de Gironcourt (MS 2407/90 of the de Gironcourt collection held at the institute de France) with contemporary oral versions, and Hūtiya (2007).

  22. 22.

    On the successive droughts, see Comité d’Information Sahel (1975), Ag Foni (1979), Ag Baye and Bellil (1986), Ag Ahar (1990) and Giuffrida (2005a, b). On subsequent political and military upheavals in northern Mali, see Maiga (1997), Ag Youssouf and Poulton (1998) and Grémont et al. (2004). For the rather scant literature on northern Malian migrants in Algeria, see Bellil and Badi (1993, 1996) and Badi (2007, 2012).

  23. 23.

    Bani w-Iskut translates as ‘build and shut up’. Very little has been published on Bani w-Iskut, but see Bisson (2004: 129–32).

  24. 24.

    For debates over the legitimacy of such practices in Mali itself, see Soares (2005a).

  25. 25.

    In northern Mali, nationalism has had much less impact than in southern Algeria, and many northerners, especially those who would see themselves as ‘white’ feel excluded from the Malian nation-state and have indeed repeatedly rebelled against it (see e.g. Lecocq 2010).

  26. 26.

    Most Arabs in the Tilemsi in the north-east used to be classified as ‘clients’ of the Kunta, while independent tribes are either descendents of famous Mauritanian or Algerian saints and scholars or claim sharifian descent.

  27. 27.

    Such a strong overlap between what we would call ‘religious’ and ‘ethnic’ identity is common throughout West Africa, see e.g. Bazin (1985), Amselle (1990) and Launay (1992).

  28. 28.

    Such redefinitions are plausible because of the high degree of intermarriage in the area. Bilateral descent is also generally drawn on to explain such ‘slippages’: folk wisdom has it that, even if the non-Arab mother of a child is of exemplary morality, one or two generations later, the ‘blood’ will show: ‘it’s magic, sihr’ as women say with a knowing smile, pointing to the veins in their forearms.

  29. 29.

    For a more detailed description of trans-border trade and the moral quandaries it leads to, see Scheele (2009).

  30. 30.

    For a description of some such more recent developments, see Soares (2004, 2005b) and Schulz (2006, 2007); for a more historical perspective, see Sanakoua and Brenner (1991), Brenner (2000) and Kavas (2003).

  31. 31.

    There is a history to these missionary endeavours (see e.g. Kaba 1974; Brenner 2000), which people locally trace back over centuries – the fifteenth-century Tlemcen scholar al-Maghīlī is a favourite example here.

  32. 32.

    For discussions of this, see, for instance, Keenan (2005) and Lecocq and Schrijver (2007). Notions of a more tolerant ‘black’ Islam that would be fundamentally opposed to its ‘fanatical Arab’ counterpart go back to colonial times (Brenner 2000), but have proven to be extraordinarily resilient until today.

  33. 33.

    This ‘attachment’ has also allowed local Islamict groups to establish a fragile alliance with Tuareg rebels in the area, and, with their help, to take over the three major cities of northern Mali in spring 2012.

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© 2012 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

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Scheele, J. (2012). Shurafā’ as Cosmopolitans: Islam, Genealogy and Hierarchy in the Central Sahara. In: Marsden, M., Retsikas, K. (eds) Articulating Islam: Anthropological Approaches to Muslim Worlds. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 6. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4267-3_2

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