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'Being as Good Muslims as Frenchmen': On Islam and Colonial Modernity in West Africa

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In contrast to many previous studies that follow the perspective of colonial administrators and portray Muslim religious leaders or marabouts as essentially political actors who seek political and economic advantage, this paper proposes a new perspective on marabouts under French colonial rule. Focusing on three prominent representatives of the Tijaniyya Sufi order, Seydou Nourou Tall (d. 1980) and Ibrahima Niasse (d. 1975) from Senegal, and Sidi Benamor (d. 1968) from Algeria, the present study shifts the emphasis to the religious motivation behind marabouts' activities. Against the dominant perspective that reduces their activities to mere reactions to colonialism or strategies to gain followers or resources, we show how the three Tijani leaders engaged with colonial modernity. They worked to spread Islam and toward other specific religious objectives within the Islamic sphere. After accepting the reality of French rule and having established a good rapport with the administration, they were able to pursue some of their own religious agendas beyond the purview of the colonial state, French colonial attempts to control their activities notwithstanding.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religion, Northwestern University, 1860 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208-2164, USA;, Email:; 2: Afrika-Studiecentrum, P.O. Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands;, Email:


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