Islam and Social Change in French West Africa. History of an Emancipatory Community.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Klein, Martin A.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Hanretta, Sean
Accession Number: 254405157
Full Text: Islam and Social Change in French West Africa. History of an Emancipatory Community. By Sean Hanretta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xv plus 311 pp.).

Yacouba Sylla was the leader of a branch of the Hamallists, a radical sufi community that formed within the tijaniya during the inter-war period in French West Africa. Even more than Hamallah, Yacouba rallied the poor and marginal among the Soninke of the upper Senegal river, particularly former slaves and members of artisan castes such as blacksmiths and leather-workers. In 1930, as a result of a local conflict in Kaedi, a Mauritanian town on the Senegal river, 22 people were killed. Though Yacouba's followers were more the victims than the perpetrators, the French used the opportunity to intern Yacouba and many of his leading followers in the Ivory Coast. When they were freed, the French expected Yacouba and his followers to return to the Western Sudan. They decided to stay in the Ivory Coast, where economic opportunities were better and there was no stigma to slave or artisan origins. They created an egalitarian community where work and wealth were shared and invested first in agriculture, then in trucking and the development of a chain of cinemas. As a result of their discipline, their enterprise and their work ethic, they became wealthy, and after 1945, were key supporters of Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

Hanretta lays out the narrative clearly. After an introductory chapter that discusses their Islamic heritage, he tells their story in two chapters. The most interesting analysis is in the subsequent five chapters. Part II consists of two chapters on historical methodology, one on the archival evidence and a second on Yacoubist oral materials. Hanretta is able to pull crucial data from the archives. For example, of the 22 killed in the 1930 disturbances, 15 were slaves or former slaves. The discussion of the archival sources, however is more interesting as a picture of the fragility and paranoia of French administration, staffed by men who rarely spoke the languages of those they governed, had limited understanding of their cultures, and thus depended heavily on self-interested intermediaries. These came largely from the dominant "twelve bead" branch of the tijaniya, which saw the "eleven bead" Hamallists as enemies. The French were thus used by their allies and clearly exaggerated the threat dissident clerics like Hamallah and Yacouba posed.

The virtue of the archives is that they lay out the way the French saw the Yacoubists and the logic of their actions. The problem with the oral data is that the Yacoubists have a strong sense of their own history and want to control the information others have about it. Hanretta was invited to present written questions and then received a formal response to those questions. Only with time was he able to get different histories and to develop a more nuanced view of the community's development. One result, however, of the skewed images he received from both of his sources is that he frequently has to read between the lines. From these traditions, Hanretta argued that among the Yacoubists, as among other West African suns, suffering and martyrdom were crucial to the community's self-definition. He also is able to describe an evolution from a suffering and persecuted group to a self-confident and wealthy one.

The next four chapters play with different themes. The first was women. According to French sources, two thirds of Yacouba's early supporters were women. Many of Yacouba's reforms involved women: reduction of bride-price, prohibition of gold jewelry, authorization of marriages between nobles and slaves, and prohibition of revealing clothing and erotic dances often required of slave women. In some cases, it is not clear why the particular reform appealed to women, though the sexuality issues were clearly an effort to assert their honor and self-respect. Hanretta is convinced that the crucial question for slave and casted women within Soninke society involved the barriers to creating their own households. The Soninke had been very successful in keeping slaves in a dependent position, which meant that many were concubines and all were expected to act in ways that would have been dishonourable for free women. Hanretta argues persuasively that with many of the men interned, women provided much of the leadership of the community during the early years. With time leadership became more patriarchal, though women are still allowed to participate as equals in Yacoubist worship.

As with the role of women, the Yacoubist narratives recognize the importance of slave origins, but tend to emphasize more the role of artisans. While Hanretta is skeptical of this picture, I think that he understates his case. Artisans tended to be better off than many freeborn, particularly blacksmiths, whose services were always in demand. Artisans would also not have had the difficulty constituting their own families, though they were stigmatized and seen as lacking honour. Nevertheless, caste women would not have been taken as concubines because caste involved a prohibition of sexual relations. They married other caste members. If he is right about the tensions in Soninke social structure that produced the Yacoubists, they were tensions that were felt mostly by slaves. This, however, shapes our understanding of the Yacoubists. Sufi movements like the Yacoubists, the other Hamallists and the Murids played a major role in enabling former slaves to become effectively free.

Equality remains crucial to the Yacoubists. The defining features to this day are "collective organization of work, the sharing of all property and the successful accumulation of wealth." (P. 217) Every member of the community works at different tasks, both in the fields and in such enterprises as the cinemas. Everyone also shares in the profits of different enterprises. Though they have taken on new members, they do not seek them. They marry within the community. The prohibition of high bride price would make it difficult to do otherwise.

This is a subtle, insightful study, a major contribution to the study of Islam, slavery, colonialism and gender.

Martin A. Klein

University of Toronto
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.