For the last two centuries, the Muslim societies of Africa, Asia and other parts of the world have had to confront Western domination, of one variety or another, and forms of the modernity which the West has practiced and championed as universal. In their adaptations these societies have developed original institutions and "alternative modernities" that enrich our understanding of Islam and of the contemporary world. West Africans have been no exception to this general rule, even though Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be neglected by "orientalists" as well as Muslims from the "heartlands" of the faith. In this portal we show West Africans as resourceful, original and yes, "modern" practitioners of Islam; they are important examples for teachers and students of world history.
The expression "alternative modernities" focuses attention on the embrace of modernity by societies in Africa and Asia that became colonies of European imperial powers in the 19th century. Modernization theory does not capture the multiple paths to modernity, and we stress the vitality and creativity of West African Muslims in colonial and post-colonial contexts. These alternative modernities developed within the framework of colonial domination by the British and French.
In much of the Sahel, the dry belt below the Sahara in which Senegambia falls, Muslims had only recently become part of the Dar al-Islam, the Islamic identity which linked them with societies from Morocco to Indonesia. This identity was partly demographic, in the sense of a Muslim majority or plurality, partly political, in the sense of rulers who were Muslim, and partly ideological. By the end of the 19th century the whole region had come under European rule, consisting of the British province of Northern Nigeria, including the vast Sokoto Caliphate, and French West Africa, which controlled the rest of the Sahel and had its federal capital in Dakar, Senegal.
The forest and coastal zone to the south, where Ghana falls, was labeled non-Muslim in the religious ethnography of the time. It contained important Muslim minorities who had long coped with "pagan" chiefs and now with secular colonial powers. Since this zone was labeled non-Muslim, Christian missions could be introduced and encouraged. We seek to explore these alternative modernities in one area in each zone: Senegambia (including Senegal, Gambia and the southwestern portion of Mauritania), which has a majority Muslim population, and Ghana, where Muslims are still in the minority. In this we build upon our previous collaboration on West African Islam, especially under an NEH Collaborative Research grant, "Pluralism and Adaptation" (2008-11), and an earlier one from the TICFIA program of the Department of Education, "Diversity and Tolerance in the Islam of West Africa" (2005-8).