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Donald R. Wehrs. Islam, Ethics, Revolt: Politics and Piety in Francophone West African and Maghreb Narrative. Lanham: Lexington, 2008. 209 pp.

The texts gathered in Donald Wehrs’s Islam, Ethics, Revolt: Politics and Piety in Francophone West African and Maghreb Narrative originate from two distinct zones, the Sahel and the Maghreb, which are comprised of Arab, Berber, and Black peoples, many of whom are Muslim and all of whom were colonized by the French. All of the novels assembled in this study were written in French. This book therefore assumes the homogeneity of writers from these different regions on the basis of their shared Islamic heritages and experiences of French colonization. It tends to elide cultural differences [End Page 450] that may not seem significant to readers in Western academe but are certainly significant to those who inhabit these regions, especially those who live in the Sahel. The history of Arabic slavery and racism in Northwest Africa has indelibly marked relations between Muslims who live on both shores of the Sahara: for instance, this history continues to impact relations between Mouride and Tidjaniya Muslims in Senegal, the former who are often suspicious of the latter’s historical links to the Arab world. Long before the French colonized Northwest Africa, the Pasha of Fez destroyed the “black” Songhay Dynasty of the Askiyas, despite their shared Islamic heritage. Yet, even before this catastrophic event, the Askiyas had already instituted the enslavement of many indigenous Sahelian groups, largely on the basis of their non-Arab blood lineage. While there is certainly a case to be made for a common history linking Maghrebian and Sahelian Muslims, differences between these zones are not insignificant. In fact, scholars of the Sahel like Jean Rouch, Paul Stoller, and Thomas Hale often describe Arabo-Islam as a relatively superficial overlay on an intact and thriving culture, which they refer to as “deep Sahelian culture.”

This cultural aquifer differentiates the Islamic world of black West Africa from other Islamic zones, including the Arab-Berber culture of the Maghreb, which should also not be conflated with the Levant, Egypt, and Nubia. The resilience of ancient cultural beliefs along the Upper Niger Delta complicates Wehrs’s argument that Muslims on both shores of the Sahara are equally hostile to pre-Islamic and “pagan” cultural influences. As a case in point, it is not coincidental that Wahhabi interpretations of the Qur’an—and the militant extremism that tend to accompany them—have not enjoyed much success in Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and so on. Even Islamic militants like al hajj Umar Tall appear heretical from the “orthodox” and iconoclastic perspective that Wehrs assumes is evenly distributed throughout Northwest Africa. In short, Wehrs has not sufficiently reflected on historical and cultural differences between the Maghreb and Sahel. What his study lacks is consideration of pre-Islamic civilization in West Africa as something other than a merely “pagan” civilization, a homogenizing catachresis that is often evoked by Wehrs. This is not to say that Wehrs is oblivious to non-Islamic influences. In his reading of Ouologuem, for instance, Wehrs makes the case that Ouologuem harkens to a pre-Islamic “Dogon ethics” in his critique of Islam’s historical abuse in Northern Mali, but Wehrs does not ask why the very notion of a “Dogon ethics” is finally inappropriate. (This is a question that Barbara Hoffman has addressed in her recent book, Griots at War, but those who have studied the nyamakala have long discussed it.) [End Page 451] Similarly, Wehrs draws extensively from the Lithuanian and Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in his efforts to explicate the novels of Northwest African writers, but he seldom mentions actual Islamic thinkers from these regions like al hajj Umar Tall, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, Thierno Bokar Tall, and Amadou Hampâté Bâ. The neglect of such writers cannot be due to the fact that their texts are unavailable in English and French, but in order to render the novelists under consideration more accessible to Wehrs’s Western-based and theoretically informed audience. However, if Wehrs had more frequently consulted the texts of such local figures, it would have undermined his argument regarding the shared iconoclastic...


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pp. 450-453
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