Sudanic Africa 1, 1990.

Recent Books

Sufi Mystics of the Niger Desert

H. T. Norris, Sufi Mystics of the Niger Desert. Sidi Mahmud and the Hermits of Aïr. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1990.

H. T. Norris has brought out a study of the Mahmudiyya tariqa in Aïr. The Mahmudiyya was created by Sidi Mahmud al-Baghdadi al-Sharif, who died, apparently at the orders of the Sultan of Agadez, in the first half of the sixteenth century. The book is built around the translation of a manuscript, Qudwat al-mu'taqid fi siyar al-ajwad, attributed to a student of Sidi Mahmud, Ahmad al-Sadiq b. Uways al-Lamtuni. The manuscript, which Dr. Norris was given access to in Aïr, consists of some seventy folios; of these about a third are reproduced as plates in the book.

Sidi Mahmud came, as his name indicates, from the east to Aïr. He was considered by his followers as a mujaddid, renewer, of his time and region. Apparently, he was also considered by some a mahdi, as the work makes the point that this was not a status he claimed, nor was entitled to. He set up a community there, and probably had a connection with the Kulumbardo community in Borno.

The tariqa has been connected to the Khalwatiyya, and recent Khalwatis of Aïr trace their chain to Sidi Mahmud, but al-Lamtuni himself was a Suhrawardi.

The manuscript is sketchy on the biography of Sidi Mahmud, and its main emphasis is on the disciples and doctrines of the community. A special chapter also describes the rules to be applied by the fuqara`, the procedure of the dhikr, the wird and the khalwa. However, the work does not seem, according to Professor Norris, to be mainly a manual for students. It seems that the community was in decline at the time the work was written, and that it is rather a somewhat nostalgic retrospect of Sidi Mahmud's Way.

The Qudwa was apparently known in the region. Professor Norris demonstrates that the chapter on Sidi Mahmud in Muhammad Bello's Infaq al-maysur shows very great similarities to the Qudwa. Thus Bello probably had access to the manuscript in some form.

While the life of Sidi Mahmud is to some extent shrouded in hagiography, his pupil and the author of the Qudwa, Ahmad al-Sadiq al-Lamtuni (d. c. 1090/1680) is better known. He taught for some time in Agadez, and he is mentioned in the biography of the Sudanese/ Moroccan scholar Ahmad al-Yamani (d. 1113/1712), who travelled through Bornu and Aïr twice. Al-Yamani apparently also studied with the Kulumbardo community of 'Abd Allah al-Burnawi, thus further indicating a link between the two communities.

Two books on the Sanusiyya in Chad.

Jean-Louis Triaud, Tchad 1900-1902. Une guerre franco-libyenne oubliée?, Une confrérie musulmane, la Sanûsiyya face à la France, Paris. 1987;
Glauco Ciammaichella, Libyens et Français au Tchad (1897-1914), La Confrérie senoussie et le commerce transsaharien. Paris, 1987

There has recently been published two works presenting the history of the Sanusi order and its confrontation with the French colonial forces in Chad.

One is written by Jean-Louis Triaud, and is a presentation of a collection of letters to the Sanusi lodge in Bir Alali. It spans the time the lodge was founded in 1898 until it was conquered by the French in January 1902.

The Bir Alali lodge was the southern extreme of Sanusi organized expansion in the Sudan. The material can thus inform of the intentions of the order in its ventures outside the Cyrenaican heartland. One conclusion Triaud feels confident to draw, is that the order did not seek out a confrontation with France; it was ill prepared for the encounter when it occurred. He also contrasts this with French policy over the matter, which was also divided on the correctness of attacking.

The thirty-eight letters partly stem from the Sanusi capital at Guru in the northern part of Chad, partly from Sanusi contacts to the south. The former include letters from the head of the order, Muhammad al-Mahdi, from his young cousin Ahmad al-Sharif (who did not at this time take much interest in the politics of the region) and from the venerated scholar Ahmad al-Rifi. They discuss the practical affairs of the lodge, but also relations with the French, as well as with the various factions who opposed each other in the area, including the Tuareg and various groups of Awlad Sulayman Arabs. It also appears from the letters that the lodge, and its head, Sidi Barrani, had as its main function the gathering of intelligence about events in the region. However, the replies from Bir Alali to the centre have not been preserved, so what intelligence was dispatched does not appear.

The five letters that come from the south also throws light on the close relationship between Sanusi and the rulers of Baguirmi to the south, showing how they tried to adapt Sanusi leanings with the French dominant presence in the region.

The letters were found in the French colonial archives, and are given in the translation made by the then interpreter, Joseph Neigel, revised and annotated by Triaud. The original Arabic letters are also reproduced photographically.

Glauco Ciamaichella covers some of the same period in his study, Libyens et Français au Tchad. However, his topic is the role of the Sanusi in the transsaharan commerce in Chad, and the effects of the war upon it. It spans the period 1897-1914, thus from when the French first arrived until they were masters of all of northern Chad. Ciamaichella sees the order mainly as a trading enterprise, and discusses the expansion of the order and its contacts with the rulers to the south of Sahara in that light. Thus, his view is that political expansion was not the driving force, as long as the political order in the south could provide the stability necessary for trade. This evidently clashed with French aspirations, which were mainly political, and also saw the Sanusi in the same light.

Ciamaichella includes about twenty telegrams and letters from the French archives in Aix or at the Institut de France in Paris. They include correspondence between Largeau and other French officers on the ground and the Sanusi. Among the topics taken up are the possible cooperation or delimitation of the region between the French and the Sanusi in 1913. The latter claimed to have received an affirmation by the French consulate in Cairo that a division could be drawn between the two forces near Arada, leaving the Sanusi centres at 'Ayn Galaka and Guru in their hands. This would have allowed them to pursue their trade with Waday. However, the French at this time had no reason to give concessions to the Sanusi, and denied that any such agreement was made.

Together, the two volumes enhance greatly the amount of documentary evidence we have for Sanusi activities south of the Sahara.

Knut S. Vikør

Home Contents Index

© The author and Sudanic Africa. Archived 8.4.95