When the Ismaili Shi’ites were looking for an accepting, protective tribe distant from Baghdad’s central power, they found it in the Kutama tribe of Berbers. With this base, they took over the Mediterranean strip of North Africa, and on across Egypt into Palestine and Syria. But when, eventually, a counter-reaction to Ismaili evangelicalism developed, it came from the very same place.
Unlike Persia, North Africa did not have a deep tradition of either scholarship or tolerance. If Islam’s first mutation came from settling into Persian culture, its second and third mutations came from Berber intolerance. After the eastern Berbers took up Ismaili-Fatimid evangelicalism, the western Berbers were left discontented. What was left for them? A Puritanical, fundamentalist, legalistic reaction that was just as fervent and even less tolerant.
Sunni Islam had mostly been focusing on interpretation of the Quran and Sharia law during the past few centuries. Each of its competing schools of thought was dominant in some region, so that the customs of this theological interpretation turned into cultural norms. It was one of these movements, the Maliki school of thought, that now came to the western Berbers.
Sheikh Malik, the founder of Maliki theology, was a Yemenite whose family moved to Medina when they converted to Islam. He lived in Medina during the 700s, the period when Islamic conquest was expanding rapidly. The Companions of Mohammed had died by then, but they were still close enough in time that some of young Malik’s teachers may have known the Companions. Their interpretation of the Quran leaned heavily on “original intent,” as we call it in constitutional studies. What was written mattered, but what the original Muslims of Medina believed and practiced mattered *more.* The Maliki school questioned every hadith, custom or issue by asking: What Does Medina Do?
By the 1000s, when Maliki Islam spread to North Africa, there was a tradition of legal books in Medina. The huge library at the trading city of Timbuktu was the African base for Maliki scholarship. However, the use of Medina as a conversation-stopper meant that Maliki Islam lent itself well to illiterate use and dogmatism. A scholar might know what the competing legal philosophies thought about a question, but the right answer was all that really mattered. One of the founding principles of Maliki Islam was “Closing the Door,” a step where once the right things had been looked at (Mohammed’s life, Sheikh Malik’s books, Medina custom), the question had to be closed. It was not at all a value to keep a question open just for discussion.
Maliki Islam also preserved Mohammed’s Medina-era determination to conquer Arabia for the faith. Where Ismailis were looking for conversions to esoteric belief, Malikis were told to go out and conquer. After Ismaili faith moved eastward to Cairo, Maliki faith settled in its place and firmly became the dogma of North Africa. As far as I know, it still is. There’s a Sufi mystical branch associated with it.
Marrakech in Morocco was built as their ruling capital. Then Maliki Tuareg fighters fanned out across northern and western Africa. Over the 11th century, they conquered all of the desert tribes in modern Mali, Chad and Sudan. They defeated the Kingdom of Ghana, forcing its conversion in 1075. Along the West African coast, in the thick jungle, traditional African religions persisted, but inland, where the Maliki warriors could reach, they were all converted to Islam. That’s why northern Nigeria is the Muslim part.
Islam in most parts of Africa, then, took the form of a dogmatic, unscholarly (excepting Timbuktu), expansive and aggressive faith. Islam in Nigeria is Maliki, and it still is dogged by illiteracy and aggression. For this reason, ISIS has found recruiting in Africa very easy.
Ansar al-Dine was affiliated with Al Qaeda when it destroyed saints’ tombs in Timbuktu, in 2012. Al Qaeda is not Maliki but Salafi; but AQ’s vision of true Islam matched the original Maliki customs very well. Boko Haram in Nigeria was also founded by AQ-related Salafists, and now considers itself part of “the Islamic State.” The anti-intellectual, anti-liberal beliefs of Arabian Salafists found an easy connection with the traditional Malikis. They may have felt ashamed for neglecting the Medina mandate of jihad and expansion. AQ and ISIS gave them outside money and weapons, recharging the mission.
At the same time, to the traditional Maliki imams in Nigerian towns, the loss of their young men to Salafism is also a crisis. Salafism has its puritanical narrowness and aggression in common with the original Malikis, but it is not based in Medina customs. They must have very mixed feelings about this new school of thought and its costly jihad. But without a scholarly tradition, they can’t really challenge it.