Failed Islamic States in Senegambia
Al-hajj Umar, Ahmad al-Kabir, Ahmad Madiyu and the other Madiyankoobe all tried to establish Islamic states, superior to the old model of the Almamate of Futa Toro. They drew from a long reform tradition, but they sought to apply it to societies much larger than the autonomous villages with strong Muslim identities that marked the history of Senegambia, Mauritania and Mali. By their ambition they had to resort to extensive military campaigns, extensive recruitment, and the imposition of Islamic practices, which inevitably led to resistance and the perception of the faith as something external and hostile.
Al-hajj Umar made the most conspicuous effort, and produced the most conspicuous failure, because his ambition “to destroy paganism” led to a vast campaign of recruitment and warfare which left no room for training, institution building, and the extension of Islam or the Tijaniyya Sufi order. Then he attacked the Caliphate of Hamdullahi, after condemning its support of the “pagans” of Segu and convicting them of apostasy, with disastrous consequences. I have called this the first fitna, strife or civil war, and it tarnished his whole mission among many West African Muslims. Ahmad al-Kabir was less ambitious, and succeeded to a limited extent across almost 3 decades in a holding operation, but he did not really try to spread Islamic institutions outside of his garrison towns. And on two occasions he engaged in struggles against his half-brothers, the second and third fitna of the Umarian movement, again with disastrous consequences. Amadu Madiyu and his brothers emphasized the control of people and territory, committed serious acts of killing Muslim civilians, and in the process aroused the kind of animosity and opposition that militated against the spread of the faith. All of these leaders belonged to the Tijaniyya, but none advanced the cause of their order any more than the cause of Islam in general. In fact, it was Tijani Sufi leaders who took a very different orientation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who enabled the order to spread in the region.
The failure of these three efforts, and the failure of similar experiments in other parts of the region during the 19th century, led to new Sufi forms of Islam which paid less attention to the political realm and were more prepared to accept the religious pluralism that inevitably came with French and British colonial rule. Alongside the Muslim communities emerged secular governing traditions associated with the Enlightenment and the Third Republic as well as Christian societies, the result of European missionary efforts. As long as the colonial authorities were prepared to accept Islamic institutions, and the role of marabouts and entrepreneurs in the economic, social and religious realms, Muslims were prepared for a world of accommodation, of pluralism and adaptation. Under these conditions, Islam grew in strength and depth in Senegambia, Mali, Guinea and Mauritania, and became the majority practice by the early 20th century.