African and Black Orientalism

Ahmed S Bangura. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 4. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, is the harshest critique to date of Western scholarship on the Muslim orient. However, its focus is almost exclusively on the Near and Middle East. The policy statements of William Ponty, the French governor-general in Senegal (1907–1915), quoted below suggest a link between Orientalism, as understood by Edward Said, and colonial scholarship on Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is our duty to study the Muslim society of our colonies in the minutest details.… It presupposes special studies of Islam which the great Orientalists of France and of Europe have now virtually succeeded in establishing.… [The study] will seem very attractive to many because of the scientific interest attached to it. But above all it is interesting for political and administrative reasons. It is almost impossible to administer an Islamic people wisely, if one does not understand its religious faith, its judicial system and its social organization, which are all intimately connected and are strongly influenced by the Coran [ sic ] and the prophetic tradition. It is this understanding of native society which, alone, will enable a peaceful and profound action on the minds of the people. It is, therefore, in this study … that we will find the surest bases and the most suitable directions for our Muslim policy. (Harrison, p. 107)

Writings such as these have prompted scholars to explore the links between Orientalism and European-language scholarship on Africa, produced notably during the colonial period.

Africa and European Colonial Scholarship

European governments commissioned much of Western scholarship on African Muslim societies produced in the colonial period. The most influential writers on African Islam were scholar-administrators, or at least closely linked with colonial administrations. Britain, Germany, Holland, and France commissioned the most respected specialists on Islam to study the Muslim societies that were coming under their rule. The scholarship therefore studied Islam as a focus of resistance to colonial rule. Sometimes the scholars sought to justify the colonial undertaking.

For example, the writer of the apology of British occupation of Northern Nigeria, A Tropical Dependency (1905), was Flora Shaw, the colonial correspondent for the London Times, who eventually married Lord Luggard, the first high commissioner of the British protectorate of Nigeria. Lady Luggard argued that African Islam had lost its initial grandeur and had betrayed its own ideals. Britain could, therefore, no longer ignore her historic responsibility to take over.

An anthology of works on African Islam by colonial-administrators would be encyclopedic. François Clozel, Maurice Delafosse, Jules Brévié and Paul Marty, Lady Luggard, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, and C. H. Becker, to name a few, all adapted their writings for use by the colonial establishments that they served. Other scholars, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, were missionaries, who by and large saw Islam either as an obstacle in their bid to Christianize Africa or else as a temporary and intermediary stage in the black African’s journey from “paganism” to Christianity.

The image of African Islam that emerges from these writings is not consistent. Islam is revolutionary; it is fatalistic. It is misogynist; it elevates the status of the African woman. It is egalitarian; it allows a small clique of religious men (marabouts) to live at the expense of their gullible followers. All these perceptions and more had a lot to do with the concrete experiences of the scholars, the diversity of the societies studied, and the changing priorities and political landscapes of the colonizing countries. In consonance with the essentialism that Edward Said decries, writers tended to explain the behaviors of individuals and communities by evoking the single, universal, and unchanging reality of their being Islamic.

Not all of the images about African Muslim societies in colonial scholarship are, therefore, negative. Moreover, one has to acknowledge the great contributions made by some of the Orientalists to our knowledge of the societies they studied. For example, it was Octave Houdas, a French Orientalist, who studied and translated into French, over a hundred years ago, two of the most significant histories of West Africa, the Tarikh el-Fettach and the Tarikh es-Soudan. He was aided in this by Maurice Delafosse, a French linguist and ethnologist, who also a French colonial administrator. It is the view of some modern commentators that many of the Orientalist approaches to African Islam have been carried over into contemporary scholarship on Africa and African literature.

Orientalism, African Literature, and Criticism

George Lang is likely one of the first scholars to draw attention to Orientalist features in European-language African writing. Lang explores the effects of the reductions of Islam’s complexity upon Africanist writing. The denial of the complexity of Islam impedes the understanding not just of Islam but of Africa. In the area of literary criticism, very frequently one or other dimension of Islam is either missed by Western critics or cast out of context. This also leads to significant mis-interpretations of African novels of Islamic inspiration. Similar arguments are developed in Ahmed Bangura’s book Islam and the West African Novel: The Politics of Representation (2000).

Edris Makward acknowledges a new shift in the African novel from a linguistic (English-French) to a religious polarity based on writers’ attitudes to Islam. The thought was impressed upon him by an address given in 1979 by Wole Soyinka in which Soyinka praises Sembène Ousmane, a Senegalese writer, for being critical of Islam in his work while denying Cheikh Hamidou Kane, another Senegalese writer, the merit of authenticity for depicting Islam as part of Senegal’s heritage rather than as an alien religion that was imposed through violence and other coercive means.

Similarly, in the early 1990s Ali Mazrui and Wole Soyinka were locked in a debate pertaining partly to the question of African authenticity and the Islamic factor. Ali Mazrui wrote the article “Wole Soyinka as a Television Critic: A Parable of Deception” in response to Soyinka’s negative critique in Index to Censorship of Ali Mazrui’s television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage. In his article, Soyinka accuses Mazrui of denigrating indigenous African culture in the series. Perhaps more significantly, he alludes to the fact that Mazrui is not only culturally Arabized, he is also by both blood and vocal identification part Arab. In both the address alluded to by Edris Makward and the debate between Soyinka and Mazrui, Soyinka repeats some of the negative opinions about Islam that one finds in colonial writings: Islam is a seductive superstition that was imposed on the Africans through the sword. Perhaps more significantly, Soyinka is ready to discredit an African scholar’s interpretation of African history on the bases that the scholar is a Muslim and has allegedly Arab-Islamic sympathies.

Wole Soyinka’s critique of Islam is part of an intellectual current that some commentators would consider to be Orientalist. It is related to the issue of Islam and African or black identity. Some African and black scholars assert that black Americans and black Africans who profess or advocate Islam are committing a form of cultural apostasy. They are critical of all “alien” ideologies such as Islam, which have allegedly brought havoc to Africa and the Black Diaspora.

Black America and Black Orientalism

Ali Mazrui was probably the first person to use the term Black Orientalism in his critique of the PBS documentary Wonders of the African World, produced by Henry Gates, an African-American professor. According to Mazrui, Gates is a Black Orientalist because he made condescending, paternalistic, ideologically selective, superficial, and uninformed depictions of Africa. He also suggests that Gate’s emphasis on black Africans’ participation in the Atlantic slave trade ends up exonerating the West. Just as Western Orientalist scholarship was used to justify and promote colonialism, Gate’s work is an apology for European colonization and domination of the African continent.

Mazrui’s use of Orientalism is very unconventional. He does not focus on Gate’s attitudes toward Arabs, Muslims, and Islam, although Gate’s documentary made what could be construed as negative and problematic portrayals of Arabs in the segments on Egypt and East Africa. Moreover, it is not clear why Mazrui calls Gate’s alleged Orientalism “Black” and not African-American or just American.

Black Orientalism and “Immigrant” Islam

Sherman Jackson’s article on “Black Orientalism” helps one to see Orientalism in the context of the African-American experience. Jackson detected a major shift in black American responses to Islam and the immigrant Muslim community in America. Prior to the wave of Muslim immigration to America in the 1970s, Islam was by and large perceived in the black community as an authentic expression of African-American spirituality and identity. The gains of Islam that resulted from this perception constituted a loss to other African-American religious denominations and movements.

Then the new immigrants came with historical Islam from the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. The center of Islamic religious authority started shifting away from its erstwhile black core to new forms of orthodoxy that did not always manifest an understanding of African-American religious and ideological aspirations. “Real Islam” came to be perceived in segments of the African-American community as the religion of Arabs and foreigners, and black Americans who professed Islam increasingly faced the criticism of being cultural heretics, “self-hating ‘wannabees’ who had simply moved from the back of the bus to the back of the camel” (Jackson, p. 22).

Jackson makes a distinction between a critique of Islam, Arabs, and Muslim societies based on experience and sound knowledge and criticism based on imagination, ideology, and projection. It is the latter that can be called Orientalist. Black Orientalism seeks to undermine the popularity of Islam among African-Americans by highlighting the alleged race prejudice of the Muslim world. Jackson singles out for particular criticism the Afrocentric movement as it is best articulated in the writings of Professor Molefi Kete Asante, notably in Afrocentricity and The Afrocentric Idea. While Jackson reveals the problems in Black Orientalism, he also cautions immigrant Muslims to be sensitive to African-American Muslims’ historical experience and to be active in building bridges with indigenous American Muslim communities. A failure to do so will alienate African-American Muslims and provide evidence to Black Orientalists, who are all too eager to portray Islam as a foreign and racist religion.

Jackson’s study indicates that Black Orientalists are critical of Islam mainly on racial grounds. It would have been more helpful had it addressed the interlocking issue of Islam and the black American Muslim woman’s experience. After all, Islam is more commonly perceived as holding women in subordination. This perception is, however, at odds with the enduring attractiveness of Islam to many accomplished black American women. The illustrious life of the late Betty Shabazz is worth citing, and so are the endeavors of other African-American Muslim women such as the professors Aminah McCloud and Carolyn Moxley Rouse, as well as many others, who are making their mark in different spheres of life.

Incidentally, Rouse’s book Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam (2004) seeks precisely to clarify what Islam may mean to some black American women who have accepted it as their faith.


Based on the foregoing analysis, one can see that Orientalism, as it applies to Blacks and Africa, describes realities that are not necessarily in consonance with Edward Said’s original use of the term. In Said’s usage, Orientalism is place-bound. It refers to scholarship on the Muslim orient. George Lang, Sherman Jackson, and other scholars have focused on the central targets of Orientalist discourse—Arabs, Islam, and Muslims—regardless of the geographical location.