‘Tobacco is cultivated with the devil’s piss’
While studying Islam in Central Africa, Arabist Dorrit van Dalen has discovered traces of the teachings of influential, but largely forgotten, Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Wali. Her PhD defence is scheduled for 22 April.
Terrorist group Boko Haram is currently spreading death and destruction in Nigeria and the north of Cameroon. In the ideology they are proclaiming, Dorrit van Dalen recognizes echoes of the teachings of the seventeenth-century Central African scholar Muhammad al-Wali. His teaching has become part of the strategy that Boko Haram and numerous other Islamic militants (even in the Middle East, such as IS) rely on. Essentially, that strategy consists of building a powerbase by branding other Muslims as non-believers.
Van Dalen coincidently stumbled upon a manuscript of Muhammad al-Wali while writing her master’s thesis. The manuscript of this scholar, who was relatively influential in his own time, focused on denouncing tobacco. Real Muslims don’t smoke, al-Wali argued. ‘Smoking is the work of the devil; tobacco is cultivated with the devil’s piss.’ On Judgement Day, the scholar claimed, smoke will emanate from all orifices of smokers’ bodies, and their heads will be roasted.
This manuscript was a great discovery, found by Van Dalen in the University’s library. It meant she did not have to think twice about a subject when preparing for her PhD research: al-Wali’s writings and his influence in Central Africa. That quickly took her to the region of Lake Chad, which borders to Nigeria in the west, Niger in the north, Chad in the east and Cameroon in the south. It is a region Van Dalen knows well, having previously worked there as a journalist and development aid worker.
Islam had already spread to Central Africa during the eleventh century, but as a religion for the urban elites. While traditional African religions continued to dominate the countryside, they were slowly being replaced with the Islamic faith during the second half of the seventeenth century. ‘Most people in the African countryside were slow to adopt Islam, as it involved a change in identity,’ Van Dalen explains. ‘Traditions that had been followed for centuries suddenly had to be dropped or altered, which many found difficult to do.’ But there was a powerful economic incentive behind this gradual transition during the seventeenth century. ‘Muslims were allowed to sell unbelievers as slaves; a characteristic that made it very important to distinguish “real” Muslims from the “fake” ones.’
Ordinary Muslims therefore relied on, for example, the story that smoking was of the devil: they told each other that it was forbidden to interact with smokers. However, scholars from al-Wali’s own Maliki school of religious law in both the Middle East and in Islamic Africa agreed that there was no real reason to prohibit Muslims from smoking. But al-Wali tried to meet the urge of ordinary people to draw boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and wrote a legal treatise that attacked the conclusions of his colleagues. He did the same in his editing of a text on the characteristics of God.
The trend of denouncing ‘fake’ Muslims got completely out of hand, as is evident from the efforts of Uthman dan Fodio a century later. He wrote more than fifty tracts criticizing the trend. Al-Wali’s influence throughout Africa can also be seen in the fact that his description of God’s characteristics were widely copied by other authors.
A lot of writings have been preserved in what is now Nigeria, though most of these are difficult to locate. Fortunately, a large portion of al-Wali’s heritage, as well as manuscripts by Dan Fodio, can still be found in the library of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. ‘It’s not very difficult to discover new things about Islamic Africa,’ Van Dalen reveals. ‘The problem is just that Arabists everywhere, including in Leiden, are strongly focused on the Middle East.’ But Van Dalen herself still hasn’t tired of Islamic Africa.
(16 April 2015)