Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 190-191
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Islam and the West African Novel: The Politics of Representation
Islam and the West African Novel: The Politics of Representation, by Ahmed S. Bangura. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000. 171 pp. ISBN 0-89410-863-8.
In his monumental work Islam, Christianity and the Negro Race, Edward Wilmot Blyden describes a relatively ideal picture of a harmonious and enriching marriage between Africa and Islam. Though himself a Presbyterian minister, Blyden came close to saying that Islam was the right religion for Africa. As the Director of Muslim Education in Sierra Leone in 1902, Blyden was seeking to persuade the new British colonial regimes in West Africa that Islam was the most effective educational force i n "Negro-land." Blyden's is a good example of what we may call Islamophilia.
Over a century later, however, the scene in Africa is said to be virtually dominated by the opposite orientation towards Islamophobia. This is the central thesis that the author seeks to elucidate in his study with specific reference to African literature and its critics. He traces this tradition of hostility towards and distortion of Islam to the Western Orientalist [End Page 190] construction of the religion that has been so well-documented by Edward Said. This influence of Orientalism in the study of Islam in Africa is supposedly rooted in the European colonial legacy that has continued to determine the politics of (re)presentation in Africa to this day.
The major part of the text examines the works of a number of literary critics of West African novels of Islamic background written in Euro-languages in terms of how they betray an Orientalist bias, through a hostile voice or distortive depiction or both. These include the writings of Debra Boyd-Buggs (in her study of Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure), Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana (in her critique of Aminata Sow-Fall's La grève des Battu), Wole Soyinka (particularly in his exchanges with Ali A. Mazrui) and several others.
Two full chapters are devoted to Sembene Ousmane and Aminata Sow-Fall, respectively, demonstrating how these authors have repeatedly been misread by critics. The apostate that Sembene is often deemed to be by critics is, in fact, quite a complex writer. Seeking to reject the notion of the will of Allah, Sembene supposedly debunk s "a fatalistic and reactionary interpretation of this concept in order to replace it with a progressive interpretation, one that reconciles the idea of the will of God with social activism, a definition that is truer to Islam's acknowledged revolutionary character" (79). And contrary to what is frequently asserted of Snow-Fall as a promoter of Islam, Bangura describes her as a writer who displays no Islamic consciousness whatsoever.
The one novel that would be particularly vulnerable to Orientalist interpretations is Ibrahim Twahir's quasi-fundamentalist The Last Imam. Interestingly enough, we are told, this is a novel that has so far received no critical attention; Bangura takes the opportunity to fill this gap. In the process he compares Twahir's fiction with the works of both Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Ahmadou Kourouma to unveil the varied nature of the relationship between Islam and indigenous Africa. The review leads, once again, to the problematic question of what it mean s "to be black or African in an Africa where religious loyalties turn out to be more important than ethnic, racial and national loyalties" (129).
The author is clearly proficient in a number of languages, including English and French, the two Euro-languages that dominate the literary scene in West Africa, and Arabic, the language of Islam's main canons, the Qur'an and the Hadith. In addition, he has a deep interdisciplinary understanding of Islam. As a result of this combination of attributes, perhaps, Bangura has produced a pioneering study of unmistakable strength that will stand as a constant pillar of challenge to the pervasive hand of Orientalism in the study of African literature of Islamic inspiration.