Title: Islamization from below: Mobility and the making of Muslim communities In rural French Sudan
Name: Brian J. Peterson
History Department
Union College
Schenectady, New York
Year: 2004
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary: With an eye to the ways in which rural social actors transformed their religious practices and communities, my dissertation tells the story of how one important, but neglected, region in France’s vast colonial empire became Muslim over an eighty-year period. As a story that unfolded in many rural localities across the world, it was the process through which Islam went from being the minority faith of urban elites to the religion of the rural majority in the countryside. As scholars have long pointed out, one of the unexplored conundrums, and unintended consequences, of colonialism in Africa was that it ushered in a more rapid expansion of Islam than during the previous one thousand years. Even in the regions where Muslim states had previously reigned, Islam made remarkable progress, reaching increasingly remote corners. In French West Africa, while the colonial state sought to discipline Africans into paying taxes, and serving as colonial soldiers or forced laborers, colonialism as a cultural project of control went awry, inadvertently producing what it had sought to prevent: the expansion of Islam. My dissertation provides a new perspective on “Islamization,” which I use as a covering term to describe processes of religious change occurring in specific historical, social and cultural contexts leading to the emergence of Muslim majorities. In contrast to the extant literature on Islam in Africa, which focuses mainly on Muslim elites and states, my book approaches such processes “from below.” In the case of southern French Sudan, it demonstrates how ordinary people were important agents in the transmission of Islamic cultural forms and practices to previously non-Muslim rural regions. It shows how ordinary people fashioned their own Muslim identities through gradual changes in religious practice. But, rather than presenting “elites” and “ordinary people” as necessarily opposed social groups, or embracing class-based explanations, this book analyzes long-term conversion processes across the entire social spectrum in order to assess the various modes of entry of Islamic practices into communities. It explores the ways in which power relations at the village level influenced religious identities, as chiefs and village holy men often determined the shape of Muslim communities. Broadly, it argues that scholarly understandings of religious change might be expanded through a reconsideration of the social bases of such processes. By way of contrast, my book shows how earlier attempts at forced conversion “at the point of the sword” failed in this region, and how only very rarely Muslim chiefs or foreign preachers “converted” people forcibly to Islam. Thus, it suggests the limitations of jihâd-centric explanations of Islamization, while calling into question models that restrict the agency of religious change to elites. In the end, as the case of southern French Sudan shows, the expansion of Islam owed its success to the many thousands of former slaves, migrant workers, farmers and homegrown preachers who gradually, and usually peacefully, adopted the new religion. This grassroots approach, with its emphasis on ordinary peoples, represents a new departure in the writing of Islamic history in colonial Africa.
Bibliography: Peterson, Brian J. Islamization from Below: Mobility and the Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan (under contract with Yale University Press).

Peterson, Brian J. “History, Memory and the Legacy of Samori in Southern Mali, c. 1882-1898.” Journal of African History 49(2008): 261-279.

Peterson, Brian J. “Slave Emancipation, Trans-local Social Processes and the Spread of Islam in French Colonial Buguni (Southern Mali), 1893-1914.” Journal of African History, 45(2004): 421-444.