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By David Robinson
Umar Tall hailed from the village of Halwar, in western Fouta Toro.
He studied with and married into some prestigious Muslim families of the region, then accomplished the overland pilgrimage to Mecca, and became a leader of Islamisation in West Africa, particularly in the form of the Tijaniyya Sufi order. He acquired a considerable reputation as a scholar, writer and teacher in the 1840s, from a base in the almamate of Fouta Djallon. He then embarked on a military jihad, framed as a “jihad against ‘paganism’”, in 1852.
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Umar’s travels and credentials
Umar became affiliated with the Tijaniyya Sufi order by his twenties, and embarked on an overland pilgrimage in the late 1820s. This journey, exceptional at the time for someone from West Africa, took him across the Western and Central Sudan and the Sahara. On the way to and from Mecca he visited each of the areas where Islamic states, dominated by Fulbé or Haal-Pulaar people, had already been established: Fouta Djallon in today’s Guinea; Masina or the Middle Nigerwhich went by the name of the Caliphate of Hamdullahi, its capital, in today’s Mali; and Sokoto the capital of the caliphate of the same name, in the northern Nigeria of today.
Umar stayed in the Holy Lands and accomplished the pilgrimage in three successive years (1828-30). One of his main purposes was to acquire a more thorough knowledge of the Tijaniyya order at the feet of the order’s representative in Medina, the Moroccan Muhammad al-Ghali. When Umar returned to West Africa in the 1830s, he carried the designation as khalifa of the Tijaniyya order for West Africa as well as the title of al-hajj “pilgrim”. Both titles were unusual at the time. They gave Umar considerable distinction wherever he went and threatened some of the more established Muslim interests of his day.
On his return journey he sojourned in Sokoto for about five years and acquired a following there. He had considerable access to Muhammad Bello, the caliph at the time, and gained invaluable military experience. The other significant stay was in Hamdullahi, where again his prestige attracted a considerable following and gave birth to a Tijaniyya community. But he also attracted the ire of some members of the ruling lineage as well as the Kunta, Muslim clerics and traders who were based in the north (especially around Timbuktu) and had considerable influence in Masina (featured last Friday in this column). The Kunta saw themselves as the dominant authorities on Islamic politics and law in the Western and Central Sudan at the time, and Umar represented a considerable threat.
In several places – and especially in Sokoto – Umar received wives, gifts of the rulers in acknowledgment of his Islamic distinction. The Umarians, that is the followers of Umar and their descendants, are widely dispersed today across Senegambia, Mauritania, Guinea and Mali.
An intellectual leader
On his return from the pilgrimage Al-Hajj Umar, settled in Fouta Djallon, where he had gotten some of his first exposure to the Tijaniyya order. He stayed there for most of the 1840s. Fouta Djallon was a hub of economic and religious activity, set at the origins of the main river systems of West Africa: the Niger, the Senegal and The Gambia. Aspiring Muslim students came to its schools from a wide swathe of West Africa, from Liberia and Sierra Leone in the south to Senegambia in the north and Mali to the east. Umar was one of these magnets, and he gained widespread prestige as a writer, scholar and Sufi authority. His main work, ar-Rimah, was written during this decade, and summarised his pilgrimage and initiation, his understanding of Islam, and his take on the Tijaniyya order. It is still widely used by leaders of the Tijaniyya today.
Umar as leader of the jihad
But in the late 1840s Umar began to think of a different mission, of spreading Islam through military means – waging the jihad of the sword. This was the main thrust of the reform movements and the main form of Islamic distinction at the time. His shift in mission may have begun with his trip through Senegambia in 1846-7, and the acclaim he received from Muslim minorities and majorities in the different areas. In 1849 Umar took the important step of movingjust to the east of Fouta Djallon, to a Mandinka kingdom called Tamba, and establishing a new centre called Dingiray with the permission of the king.
The king of Tamba accepted the new Umarian community but he had the reputation of being resistant if not hostile to Islam. The growing settlement and its increasing militancy produced the predictable conflict and declaration of jihad in 1852. Umar was victorious against Tamba, and he immediately became an important figure in the spread of Islam. He styled himself “The Destroyer of Paganism,” and took on the task of attacking the leading non-Muslim regimes of the day. He then set his sights on two much larger Bambara kingdoms, Kaarta in the northwestern part of today’s Mali, and Segu along the Middle Niger. Kaarta had played a role in the downfall of Almami Abdul Qader of Fouta, and it was not difficult to recruit thousands of disciple soldiers in Fouta Toro and adjacent areas to wage campaigns, which culminated in the capture of the capital of Nioro in 1855. Segu was a more difficult problem. Stronger militarily than Kaarta, it controlled a considerable portion of the Middle Niger and had significant influence in the West Africa.
Set between the campaigns against Kaarta and Segu were a series of encounters with the French (1855-60). Under Louis Léon César Faidherbe (Governor of Senegal 1854-61, 1863-5) the French were advancing up the Senegal River, establishing several posts in Fouta Toro and the upper Senegal.
The sharpest clash occurred at Medine, the fort furthest east in present day Mali, in 1857. The mujahidin laid siege to the post at the height of the dry season, and it was only when the rising river allowed Faidherbe to get gunboats and troops to relieve the siege that a stinging defeat for the colonial forces was staved off. Umar recovered and led a massive recruitment drive in Fouta Toro in 1858-9, securing the men necessary for his Segu campaign. He stigmatised Fouta and most of Senegal as occupied and polluted by the French, who now became the enemies of Islam. The French responded in kind by calling Umar and his community fanatic, anti-Western Muslims.
While the Umarian jihad was directed primarily against the “pagan” enclaves of the Western Sudan, and particularly the Bambara states of Kaarta and Segu, it depended upon recruiting large numbers of Senegalese Muslims to emigrate to the east as members of the Umarian army. This brought Umar’s recruiters into Fouta Toro and other parts of the Senegal River valley, to enlist Haal-Pulaar and other Muslim soldiers, and brought them into conflict during the period 1855-60 with the French. Sheikh Umar mobilised more than 40,000 people, mainly men, for his wars in the east.
In 1855, Sheikh Umar wrote to the Muslims of Saint-Louis, the French colonial centre at the mouth of the river, warning them against collaboration with the “infidel” Europeans. He used the term muwallat, “association,” to describe that collaboration and summoned a number of Qur’anic verses to buttress his argument. He described Faidherbe as “the tyrant,” a designation similar to “pharaoh,” someone to be opposed.
Massive recruitment in Fouta Toro and Senegambia
Umar’s failure to take Medine and his determination to march against the formidable Bambara kingdom of Segu intensified his recruitment campaign in 1858-9 in his original homeland. If he wished to continue the “jihad against paganism” against the “arch pagan” regime of Segu, he must recruit massively in Fouta Toro, march his men across the vast territory between the Upper Senegal and Middle Niger basins, and organise them into effective fighting units. He confronted the mobilisation task head on. His enormous prestige provided substantial security – from indigenous opponents and the French – as he moved downriver to the ceremonial capital of Fouta Toro, Hore-Fonde, and made it his base of operations for several months. The “establishment” of the almamate could not oppose him openly. They argued that Fouta was already a Muslim society and that its inhabitants did not need to leave home in order to find “true” Islam. Umar countered their claims by showing the failure to practice Islam fully, the “pollution” which came from “association” with the French, and the greater urgency of the “jihad against paganism” in the east.
Triumph: the conquest of Segu
Sheikh Umar succeeded in his massive recruitment. Against great odds, he conquered the mighty kingdom of Segu in a series of battles between 1859 and 1861. He then entered the capital and the palace of King Ali, who had already fled to the caliphate of Hamdullahi. He organised a public burning of the “fetishes” of the chief priest and king – as a way of identifying Segu as “pagan” and marking the advent of Islam. The Segu triumph was the culmination of the “jihad against paganism.”
Segu had been a powerful force for almost two centuries, extending its influence to the south and the west, with a deep involvement in slavery and the slave trade in several directions. It contained Muslims and non-Muslims of various stripes, and enforced no particular religion, but its ruling class adhered to traditional Bambara customs. For Umar and other Muslims this was paganism, indeed arch-paganism, and must be eliminated as the Western Sudan became a “land of Islam.” This was the mission which Umar, pilgrim and leader of the Tijaniyya, now leader of the jihad, had given himself.
The jihad that became fitna
As we have said, Umar’s emphasis throughout the “jihadic period” was not resistance to the Europeans but the “destruction of paganism” in the Western Sudan. Or at least it was until he conquered Segu in 1861, and discovered fully the complicity of the Hamdullahi regime and the Kunta Muslim network in the support of Segu against the Umarian jihad.
From the time of his campaigns against Kaarta in 1855, Umar became aware of the opposition of Hamdullahi, now led by a young caliph Amadu mo Amadu. Masina sent an occasional army to slow Umar’s advance, and by the late 1850s prepared a more concerted resistance, in conjunction with the Kunta and their leader, Ahmad al-Bakkay. This resistance included an arrangement for the conversion of the Segu king to Islam. On this basis Hamdullahi and the Kunta could claim that Segu was now Muslim and not a suitable target of the Umarian jihad.
Umar discovered in the palace of King Ali a considerable correspondence between Ahmad al-Bakkay, Amado mo Amadu and the Segu king. This proved his contention about the complicity of these ostensibly good Muslim leaders – the Fulbé caliph in Hamdullahi and the Kunta scholar in Timbuktu – with an obviously pagan ruler of the Western Sudan. Umar was furious, and spent the next year corresponding with Hamdullahi, demanding an apology and the surrender of King Ali, and composing a text which showed the complicity and how it contradicted the norms of Islam. He went so far as to invoke the concept of takfir, “excommunication” or apostasy, and applied it to the caliph and his court. This meant that in his eyes Hamdullahi was no longer Muslim, in which case it was a suitable candidate for jihad. The document, bristling with references to the Qur’an and Muslim authorities over the centuries, was called the Bayan Ma Waqa`a d’al hajj Umar, and served as a justification for the military campaign against Masina launched in 1862.
When Hamdullahi refused the apology and the surrender of the king, Umar mobilised most of his army and embarked on a campaign against Hamdullahi. The campaign pitted Fulbé Muslim reformer against Fulbé Muslim reformer, and provoked great controversy among Muslim communities across West Africa. Umar worn initial victory in 1862, against both Hamdullahi and Timbuktu and was on the verge of creating an Islamic regime in the Western Sudan comparable to the one Sokoto dominated in the Central Sudan.
But things rapidly fell apart, beginning with the defeat of the main Umarian army near Timbuktu and a revolt and siege of the Umarian forces in Hamdullahi itself. Early in 1864, Umar and a handful of supporters escaped to the cliffs of Degembere to the east, but there they succumbed to the Masinanke pursuit. He was killed. Umar’s nephew, Ahmad al-Tijani, did survive, and from his centre in Bandiagara managed to resume the recapture of Masina – at great cost in lives and livelihood – over the next 25 years.
The Umarian-Masinanke struggle put Muslim authorities throughout the Western Sudan in a very awkward situation: here two Muslim Fulbé regimes, both ostensibly reform-minded, were pitted against each other. The campaign to “destroy paganism” was forgotten, as well as the mission to spread the practice of Islam. And it left Umar’s oldest son and successor, Ahmad al-Kabir, with a huge set of problems over what the French called “the Tukulor Empire” until they dismantled it in the early 1890s.
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