SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Islamic Reform Movements in Modern Africa

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 1

Islam plays a vital role in the current resurgence of religion in Africa, which has major implications for politics, development, and social relations in the continent. To casual observers the current public visibility of Islam in Africa may seem like a problematic and puzzling phenomenon, especially in its more violent forms. Often this is coupled with stereotypical perceptions of African Islam being peaceful, a-political, and culturally adapted in its Sufi forms – whereas the recent movements, with their political interests and anti-Sufi polemic are explained as incursions of an alien, Saudi-sponsored Islam.
However, this perception is much too simple and prevents an adequate understanding of present-day African Islam. As the course will show, Islamic reform movements have a much longer African history. In some cases this pre-dates the European colonial incursion into African states, and in all instances these movements have to be studied in the context of colonial history and the political configurations of early independence.
The course therefore traces various Islamic reform movements and ideas in Africa in examples from various African regions and country histories. After a brief introduction to Islam in Africa and its colonial and post-colonial history, the course provides detailed studies of various movements: from the Muslim brothers in Egypt and Sudan, and the Tablighi Jama'at in the Gambia, to Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabab in Somalia. Tracing common themes and issues in the context historic peculiarities, the course provides insight into the political and historical dynamics of Islamic reform in Africa.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this course a student will be able to:

  • Give specific examples of Islamic reform movements and explain their genesis and central ideas
  • Account for the central dynamics of Islamic reform movements in Africa, while not losing sight of the particularities of the various movements
  • Distinguish main scholarly approaches and explanations to Islamic reform movements in Africa
  • Provide a general account of Islamic history in colonial and post-colonial Africa
  • Demonstrate a good understanding of the role of Islam in current African politics and social change
  • Assess critically common media representations of Islamic reform movements in Africa


A one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar each week

Scope and syllabus

Individual topics may be subject to change in the future, for example, in response to current events.

  • Introduction: Historical overview of Islam in Africa
  • Introduction: Colonialism and its legacy on Islam in Africa
  • Egypt: Salafi thought from Abduh to the Muslim Brothers
  • Sudan: From the Mahdiyya to the politics of Shariah law
  • Libya: Sanussiyya, Gaddafi, and the Arab Spring
  • Senegal & the Gambia: Sheikhs, brotherhoods, and Tablighi Jama'at
  • Nigeria: Jihadi movements from the Sokoto Caliphate to Boko Haram
  • Somalia: Socialism, civil war, and the emergence of al-Shabab
  • Zanzibar and the East African coast: Post-colonial governments and Islamic reform
  • Common themes, central issues

Method of assessment

One 3 000 words essay (30%);one weekly journal (30%); one 2-hour exam (40%)

Suggested reading

  • Louis Brenner (ed.), Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (London: Hurst & Company, 1993).
  • Mervyn Hiskett, The Course of Islam in Africa (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994).
  • Ousman Murzik Kobo, Unveiling Modernity in Twentieth-century West African Islamic Reforms (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
  • Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (eds.), The History of Islam in Africa (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000).
  • Nehemia Levtzion, Michel Abitbol, and Amos Nadan (eds), Islam in Africa and the Middle East: Studies On Conversion and Renewal (Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007).
  • Ali Rahnema (ed.): Pioneers of Islamic Revival, new updated ed. (London: Zed Books, 2008)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules