Islamophobic Narratives: Meccan and Medinan Resistance

It is common to find polarizing descriptions of Shaykh Bāy al-Kuntī and his nephew ‘Abidin al-Kuntī in colonial literature – two men who confronted French expansion in northwest Africa during the early twentieth century. They would become examples of two dichotomous forms of resistance: pacifist and activist. 

The Kunta federation played an important political and economic role in Maghribi history. Shaykh Bāy al-Kuntī founded a great number of zawiyas (religious schools) and sent missionaries to preach Islam in the Middle Niger and Western Saharan regions. Bāy al-Kuntī called people to jihad against the carnal soul, which the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ designated the greater jihad, as well as the return to the fundamental sources of Islamic jurisprudence. He believed he was the mujaddid (one who brings renewal) of the thirteenth century whom Allah called upon to restore the umma to its glorious past not only in West Africa but throughout the whole Muslim world. [1] The wide range of territories that encompassed his influence is said to be the largest area ever to come under the wing of an African Muslim without military conquest. 

‘Abidin al-Kuntī had a knack for the lesser jihad, and was known for his physical resistance against colonization of the Niger Bend and southern Maghrib. When Timbuktu was captured, he sought refuge in the Ahaggar region of Algeria. When the French followed him there, he took up arms.

The French arrived in Tuareg territory and met Musa ag Amastan, the amenokal or chief of the Kel Ahaggar in Algeria, where the Tijaniyya and Sanussiya turuq (orders) took different approaches. Bāy al-Kuntī, the face of the Tijaniyya at the time, strongly advocated for co-operating with the French. On the other hand, his nephew ‘Abidin al-Kuntī, who Jeremy Keenan called “fanatical” in his book The Lesser Gods of the Sahara: Social Change and Contested Terrain amongst the Tuareg of Algeria. [2] He diametrically opposed such views and was backed by the Sanussiya. It is unclear why Bāy al-Kuntī gave the Sokoto jihad [9] led by the Fulani scholar ‘Usman dan Fodio a big thumbs up but shook hands with the French when it came time to defend his own land. Commercial interests, however, are a strong hypothesis.

For this reason, Musa ag Amastan, influenced by Bāy al-Kuntī, is far from revered in popular memory. Yet, despite the fact that Bāy al-Kuntī is remembered among Muslims for being on the wrong side of history in this instance, he is categorized as representing the “pious route” in some Western readings. In this way, his decisions can be interpreted as being inspired by the Prophet ﷺ’s approach to the Armistice of udaybiyya during which he sought the welfare of his enemies. Though very different situations, historians would be drawn to making this comparison. In other words, diplomatic reconciliation was praised and establishing justice through militaristic means shunned— even if out of defense. 

Keenan falls into this trap by reducing the Sanussiya method to simply a “politically expedient means of achieving their own ends” (as if this was not also the case with the Tijaniyya) and one that had “little penetration of Islamic values.” The logical conclusion of this perspective? An approach that befits foreign domination is admirably religious, in line with France’s reductive “maraboutic versus puritanical” understanding of faith in the Maghrib – and one that challenges colonial rule derives itself from an undesirable “political strand” of Islam. This framework continues to be in use and with the rise of terror groups, it has been increasingly weaponized. Militancy in the Muslim world today is only understood as a byproduct of a “literal interpretation of the Quran”, and any fingers pointing to underlining, external motivations are ignored. Sufism is even romanticized as Salafism’s Trojan horse. 

Although people have a rather whimsical image of Sufism, in history we see that Sufis were more than mystics. ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, founder of the Qadiriyya order, gave ‘Usman dan Fodio “The Sword of Truth” to use against those who opposed Islam, a metaphor for his approval of Fodio’s spiritual and military mission to establish a polity based upon Islamic principles of governance. John Glover writes in Sufism and Jihad in Modern Senegal: The Murid Order, “In a single and very significant vision, Usman dan Fodio’s status as a Sufi shaykh is confirmed by the highest authority and a sense of militancy is added to his work symbolized by the Sword of Truth.” [7] 

It goes without saying that the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS could never be on the same footing as jihad in North Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. There is still a problem when some Western historians refuse to acknowledge the healthy marriage between a spiritual and militaristic form of leadership that existed at many points in time. In Kabylia, present-day Algeria, this is depicted through Shaykh Ahaddad and Shaykh Muhammad al-Moqrani’s partnership. In 1871, al-Moqrani was able to spark a resurrection against the French by getting permission from Shaykh Ahaddad who had major spiritual influence on disciples of the Rahmaniyya order in the region. By Shaykh Ahaddad’s declaration of war and al-Moqrani’s expertise in combat, they were able to demonstrate a symbiotic effort to protect one’s homeland from non-believers.

This was not the case with ‘Abidin al-Kuntī and Shaykh Bāy al-Kuntī because they were not on the same page. ‘Abidin al-Kuntī was stubborn in his activist tactics, which were equally imbued with Islamic motivations as the dual force Shaykh Ahaddad and Shaykh Moqrani represented. Muhammad al-Said al-Sahnuni in Kabylia told his compatriots that French wax was mixed with pig fat, that their sugar was rumored to be made from the bones of dead human beings, oils spoiled from alcohol and other fatwas that rejected their enemies in order to incentivize an uprising. ‘Abidin enacted similar strategies by urging the Kel Ahaggar to attack all French or allied convoys. He persuaded them to break off all ties with Tidikelt and Tuat, cities squeezed under France’s heel, by “declaring that their dates were haram.” [2] 

Keenan cements the interplay between pacifism and activism by introducing two other key figures in the Sanussiya revolt, Muhammad al-‘Abid (head of the tariqa in the Fezzan, modern-day Libya) and Kawsen. Keenan writes that “we can see the battle between these two ideologies being played out” in their attempts to persuade Mussa to “join the jihad against the infidel.” [2] It is not uncommon to pick up on a bitter sentiment held by  French historians who describe the militaristic side of religious movements during this time. In La Mort de Charles Foucauld, Antoine Chatelard writes about Kawsen saying, “In the hopes of rallying them all to his command, he is the ultimate carrier of the Islamist cause.” [4] It is worthy to note how the word islamiste was employed and not islamique (Islamic). It is this depiction of the Sanussiya resistance that has informed Keenan’s claim (in his eyes a cordial one to make) that Tuaregs in the region held a “nominal attachment” to the tariqa.

Shaykh Amud represented the Sanussiya in Djanet, modern-day Algeria. Despite his prestige, reputation as a generous man, and continuous efforts to resist French control, he was forced to take refuge in the Fezzan near Oubari after failed attempts to get Musa ag Amastan on his side. [5] Of course, the historical details are much more complicated, and the re-telling of these legendary stories often hinge on boxing leaders into two mutually exclusive categories: hermits or warriors. In reality, we can observe a pendulum swing between activism and pacifism in the life of a single man. We also have plenty of examples of revolutionaries who were both spiritually centered and militarily tempered such as Shaykh Bouamama in El Bayadh, Algeria. 

The Islamophobic narrative of a Meccan versus Medinan dichotomy

The infamous ex-Muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who made an appearance on a Jordan Peterson Youtube video, claims that mainstream Islamic law gave precedence to “Medina Islam” over “Mecca Islam”.  She describes “Medina Muslims” as those who “see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad [ﷺ] when he was based in Medina. They exploit their fellow Muslims’ respect for sharia law as a divine code that takes precedence over civil laws. It is only after they have laid this foundation that they are able to persuade their recruits to engage in jihad.” [6] On the other hand, “Mecca Muslims”, Ali purports, “are loyal to the core religious creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence or even intolerance toward non-Muslims.” [6] This contrived division mirrors the many forms of juxtaposition utilised by non-Muslims in the past: activist vs pacifist; marabout vs puritan; hermit vs warrior; and Sufi vs Salafi.

This false dichotomy illustrates an incoherent understanding of Meccan and Medinan surahs in the Quran. Meccan chapters, such as Al Mudaththir and Al Qamar, are distinguished by their sternness. They addressed people who were blinded by arrogance. Allah’s assertive commands and reminders of the horror that could await us on the Day of Judgement suited the state of the audience when it was first sent down. Meccan verses are also usually shorter, making the calls against the deniers or idolaters more poignant – take At-Toor for example. The Medinan verses provide perfect balance – Al Mā’idah, for instance, is gentler in approach. Additionally, they are usually longer, like Al Baqarah, and provide an outline for certain laws. 

Yet it is “Medina Muslims” who Ali qualifies as those who “embrace the militant political ideology adopted by Muhammad in Medina.” Omar al-Mukhtar, the Libyan leader of the Sanussiya order who led a resistance against Italian occupation, forbade his constituents to torture captives, reminding them that they did not follow the same ethics as their enemies. In Medina, detailed instructions on the rules of jihad were revealed because of what had unfolded in the city. They include “forbidding the predation of civilian populations, the wanton destruction of lands and livestock, and the use of fire, flooding, and poisons that kill indiscriminately.” [8] Modern militant groups hardly meet these parameters. Famous ex-Muslim preachers are, however, uninterested in the nuance of Islamic history and fiqh, and much less in consistency. 

Attempts to defame the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ by looking for contraditions in character through assessing his choices in Medina and Mecca come from, first and foremost, the perspective that he is a fallible man and not a Messenger of God. His prophethood is an important foundation to consider— divine will was the primary motivation of his actions. Ex-Muslim public speakers like Ali are also engaging in  a post-9/11 discourse that suspiciously regards Islam’s status, either as a religion of peace or violence (yet another dichotomy). 

Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s paper “Mercy: The Stamp of Creation” perfectly exemplifies the importance of stepping away  from conversations that limit us to a framework decided by outside influence. He explains that while peace is, of course, an important tenet to Islam, it would be more precise from a theological perspective to call Islam a religion of mercy. He writes, 

“Islamic revelation designates the Prophet Muhammad [ﷺ] as “the prophet of mercy,” and Islam’s scriptural sources stress that mercy—above other divine attributions—is God’s hallmark in creation and constitutes his primary relation to the world from its inception through eternity, in this world and the next.” [8]

This point alone redirects the debate.  A “peaceless war” is evidently redundant, but a merciless war is not — and it is a merciless war that defies Islamic jihad. Like Moses and other Biblical prophets, it is no secret that Muhammad ﷺ took part in battle. Dr. Abd-Allah illustrates that saying,

“Although he engaged in war, he waged peace, and his inclination toward amnesty and diplomatic solutions is unmistakable. Above all it was the attitude of perpetual mercy that enabled him ultimately to forge for the first time in history a pax islamica in the Arabian Peninsula. That same attitude combined with masterly statesmanship enabled him not only to rescue the city of Medina— which had invited him for that purpose—from generations of civil war between its feuding clans but to create an island of stability in a sea of chaos and then extend that island gradually until it claimed the sea.” [8] 

Muslims can learn from both pacifist and activist forms of resistance, keeping in mind that the application of those lessons today will not precisely mirror the history of Islamic perseverance. It takes a level of wisdom to discern how Muslims should navigate residing in tyrannical states or living as minorities in prosperous countries in the modern world. In particular contexts, immediate protest is the answer, and for others, it is slow and steady socio-cultural reform. The path to moral rejuvenation has always been unique to context and a combination of different methods. Misplaced dichotomies pushed by different groups are rooted in the desire to control and produce a palatable Islam, rather than one that exists on its own terms. They allow those in power to choose which side of the coin they’d like to keep, and which side to discard.

Notes & Works Cited

  1. Batran, Abdal—Aziz. “An introductory note on the impact of Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1729-1811) on West African Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 6, no. 4 (1973): 347-52. Accessed December 22, 2020.
  2. Keenan, Jeremy. The lesser gods of the Sahara: Social change and contested terrain amongst the Tuareg of Algeria. Vol. 7. Psychology Press, 2004.
  3. Touati, Houari, and Aïcha Belabid. “En islam malien. Shaykh Bāy al-Kuntī (m. 1347/1929) et ses Nawāzil.” Cahiers d’études africaines 224 (2016): 775-798.
  4. Chatelard, Antoine. La mort de Charles de Foucauld. Karthala Editions, 2000.
  5. M. Gast, « Imenân », Encyclopédie berbère [En ligne], 24 | 2001, document I47, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2011, consulté le 25 décembre 2020. URL : 
  6. A. Ayaan, “The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It”, Hoover Institution, 2017.
  7. Glover, John. Sufism and jihad in modern Senegal: the Murid order. Vol. 32. University Rochester Press, 2007.
  8. Abd-Allah, Umar. Mercy: The Stamp of Creation. A Nawawi Foundation Paper. 
  9. The Sokoto jihad led to the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate in central Bilad al-Sudan, or present-day Nigeria. ‘Usman dan Fodio began to assert independence from Haussa authorities in 1804 and enjoyed support from Bāy al-Kuntī. Fodio aimed to govern by sharia and his empire officially rose to power in 1814.

Photo by Ryan Pradipta Putra

About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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