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Lesson Plan: Islamism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Alex Thurston, Ph.D.
International Affairs Fellow 2013–2014
Council on Foreign Relations

Course: Islam in Africa
Syllabus Section: Political Islam in Africa
Intended Audience: Undergraduate college students


Islamism refers to efforts by Muslim activists to enact laws and government policies that reflect, promote, and enforce their understanding of Islam. Islamism differs from Muslim activists' attempts to reform society through preaching, and also from governments' incorporation of broadly construed Islamic values into constitutions or other national documents. Rather, Islamism aims to give the exercise of state power a specifically Islamic valence at the level of individual laws and policies. Many Islamists endorse, for example, bans on alcohol sales and prostitution, believing that such activities harm public and private virtue. Many Islamists seek political influence through elections and other forms of non-violent political engagement, but some have waged armed campaigns for territorial or political control.

Islamist movements have attracted substantial attention in the Middle East – the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has been the subject of numerous studies – but have received less consideration in studies of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, Islamist actors have become features of the political and religious landscape in countries such as Mauritania, Nigeria, and Sudan. Armed Islamists have temporarily controlled territory in northern Mali and southern Somalia. Islamist engagement in sub-Saharan Africa has relevance to the study of political Islam around the globe. This course provides both a thematic overview and several case studies of Islamism on the continent.


This lesson plan aims to:

  1. 1. Encourage students to discuss and debate the meaning of Islamism.
  2. 2. Highlight the range of actors and movements that fall under the rubric of Islamism.
  3. 3. Increase students' empirical knowledge of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.
  4. 4. Present important cases of Islamist political mobilization.
  5. 5. Stimulate students' interest in the international media coverage of Muslims' involvement in public life, politics, and conflicts in Africa.

I. Defining Islamism

This unit begins with introductory readings on Political Islam, in order to situate Islamism within a broader context of Muslim political activities. The unit then presents students with different definitions of Islamism and encourages them to question, debate, and debunk them.


Bayat, Asef. Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, edited by Asef Bayat. Oxford University Press, 2013. "Introduction: Post-Islamism at Large," pp. 3-34.

Burgat, François. Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change, edited by Samer Shehata. Routledge, 2012. "Islam and Islamist Politics in the Arab World: Old Theories and New Facts," pp. 23-38.

Eickelman, Dale and James Piscatori. Muslim Politics. Princeton University Press, 1996. "What Is Muslim Politics," pp. 3-21.

Fuller, Graham E. The Future of Political Islam. Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. "The Future of Political Islam: Its Dilemmas and Options," pp. 193-213.

Ramadan, Tariq. The Future of Political Islam in the Arab World. The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 2012.

Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam, translated by Carol Volk. Harvard University Press, 1996. "The Concepts of Islamism," pp. 35-47.

Shepard, William E., François Burgat, and Armando Salvatore. "Islamism," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Primary Sources

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and annotated by Hamid Algar. Mizan Press, 1981.

Maudūdī, Sayyid Abul A'lā. First Principles of the Islamic State, Fourth Edition, translated and edited by Khurshid Ahmad. Islamic Publications Limited, 1974.

Qutb, Sayyid. The Sayyid Qutb Reader, edited by Albert J. Bergeson. Routledge, 2008.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What are some examples of Muslims' political engagement? Which of these examples might count as manifestations of "Islamism"?
  2. 2. How do the different authors in this unit define Islamism? On what do they agree, and on what do they disagree?
  3. 3. What is Maudūdī's understanding of the Islamic state? How might Roy and Fuller react to Maudūdī's system and its prospects for success or failure?
  4. 4. How does Sayyid Qutb envision the role of Islam in politics? How did he view the governments of his time?
  5. 5. How do Khomeini's views, coming from Shi'ite thought, resemble or differ from the views of his Sunni counterparts?

II. Overview of Islamism in Sub-Saharan Africa

This unit provides students with an overview of trends in Muslims' political engagement in Africa, and then turns to two readings focusing on West Africa. The unit concludes with a look at the implications of America's "Global War on Terror" for Islamism in Africa.


De Waal, Alex and A.H. Abdel Salam. Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, edited by Alex De Waal. Indiana University Press, 2004. "Africa, Islamism, and America's 'War on Terror'," pp. 231-257.

Kane, Ousmane. "Islamism: What is New, What is Not? Lessons from West Africa." African Journal of International Affairs 11:2 (2008), pp. 157-187.

Miles, William F.S. Political Islam in West Africa: State-Society Relations Transformed, edited by William F.S. Miles. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007. "West Africa Transformed: The New Mosque-State Relationship," pp. 183-194.

Otayek, René and Benjamin F. Soares. Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa, edited by Benjamin F. Soares and René Otayek. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. "Introduction: Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa," pp. 1-21.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What trends do Soares, Otayek, and Miles perceive in African Muslim communities? How do these trends affect politics?
  2. 2. Do you agree with Kane's argument that much of Islamism is not new? What is new, and what is not?
  3. 3. How has America's "War on Terror" affected Islamists in Africa, according to De Waal? How might the situation have changed since 2004, when he was writing?

III. Case A: Islamism in Sudan

Sudan represents a case where Islamists, in the form of the National Islamic Front, took control of a state. In this unit, students examine the biography of a leading Sudanese Islamist intellectual, Hasan al-Turabi, and then study both the architecture of the Sudanese Islamist state and the ways in which other Sudanese Muslims have reacted to the Islamist project.


De Waal, Alex and A.H. Abdel Salam. Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, edited by Alex De Waal. Indiana University Press, 2004. "Islamism, State Power, and Jihad in Sudan," pp. 71-113.

Esposito, John L. and John O. Voll, "Hasan al-Turabi: The Mahdi-Lawyer" in Makers of Contemporary Islam. Oxford University Press, 2001.

O'Fahey, R.S. Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Louis Brenner. Indiana University Press, 1993. "Islamic Hegemonies in the Sudan: Sufism, Mahdism, and Islamism," pp. 21-35.

Salomon, Noah. Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement, edited by Roel Meijer. Columbia University Press, 2009. "The Salafi Critique of Islamism: Doctrine, Difference and the Problem of Islamic Political Action in Contemporary Sudan," pp. 143-168.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What features does Islamism exhibit in Sudan?
  2. 2. How have other Sudanese Muslims reacted to the Islamist project?
  3. 3. In Sudan, what arguments have Islamists and their opponents used to support their respective political positions?

IV. Case B: Islamism in Somalia

Somalia offers a useful case for studying relationships between Islamism and violence. Often seen as the archetypal "failed state" since the collapse of President Siad Barre's government in 1991, Islamists have bid several times for political control of the country. The Islamist militia Al Shabaab ("The Youth"), which formally joined Al Qa'ida in 2012, ruled much of southern Somalia during the period 2009-2012. In this unit, students will explore how Somalia's turbulent history has affected the nature and activities of its Islamist movements.


Abbink, John. Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, edited by Stephen Ellis and Ineke Van Kessel. Brill, 2009. "The Islamic Courts Union: The Ebb and Flow of a Somali Islamist Movement," pp. 87-113.

Hansen, Stig Jarle. Al Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012. Oxford University Press, 2013. "Setting the Stage: The Resurgence of Religion in Somalia" and "The Golden Age of Al Shabaab."

International Crisis Group. "Somalia's Divided Islamists," 18 May 2010.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What is the relationship between "state failure" and the emergence of Islamism in Somalia?
  2. 2. How does the trajectory of Islamism in Somalia differ from the trajectory of Islamism in Sudan?
  3. 3. Why were the Islamic courts, and later Al Shabaab, able to achieve temporary success in taking and holding territory?

V. Case C: Islamism in Nigeria

The case of Nigeria confronts students once again with definitional confusion surrounding the term "Islamism." In Nigeria, Muslim activists attained a goal held by many Islamists around the world: the incorporation of Islamic law (shari'a) into official penal codes (in Nigeria's case, within certain state governments operating inside a federal framework). Yet the movers in this effort were not Islamists per se, but rather grassroots activists and politicians elected as representatives of national, secular parties. In this unit, students explore manifestations of Islamism in Nigeria through readings on local, state, and national politics.


Barkindo, Bawuro M. Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Louis Brenner. Indiana University Press, 1993. "Growing Islamism in Kano City Since 1970: Causes, Form and Implications," pp. 91-105.

Kogelmann, Franz. Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, edited by Benjamin F. Soares. Brill, 2006. "The 'Sharia Factor' in Nigeria's 2003 Elections," pp. 256-274.

Miles, William F.S. "Muslim Ethnopolitics and Presidential Electionsin Nigeria." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 20:2 (October 2000), pp. 229-241.

Thurston, Alexander. "Nigeria, Islam and Politics in." Oxford Islamic Studies Online, 2013.

Walker, Andrew. "What Is Boko Haram?" United States Institute of Peace, June 2012.

Primary Sources

Gumi, Abubakar with Ismaila Tsiga. Where I Stand. Spectrum Books, 1992.

Sulaiman, Ibraheem. The Islamic State and the Challenge of History: Ideals, Policies, and Operation of the Sokoto Caliphate. Mansell Publishing, 1987.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. Should the campaign to establish shari'a in Nigeria be considered a form of Islamism? Why or why not?
  2. 2. How does Muslim political engagement in Nigeria differ from the cases of Sudan and Somalia?
  3. 3. How do these three cases confirm or qualify the trends we read about in Unit II?
  4. 4. In what ways is Boko Haram like or unlike Al Shabaab?

VI. Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

These readings offer students opportunities to explore some of the lesson's main concepts from a theoretical and global perspective, and encourage them to think about how Africa's Islamist experiences may or may not fit into the broader trends articulated in the readings listed below.

Eickelman, Dale F. "Ideology and Islam," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Feldman, Noah. The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Hefner, Robert W. Shari'a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World, edited by Robert W. Hefner. Indiana University Press, 2011. "Introduction: Shari'a Politics – Law and Society in the Modern Muslim World," pp. 1-54.

Mandaville, Peter. Global Political Islam. Routledge, 2007.

Muhammad, Salim Al-Awa. "Political Pluralism from an Islamic Perspective" in Power Sharing Islam, edited by Azzam Tamimi, pp. 67-76. Liberty for Muslim World Publications, 1993. Translated from the Arabic by Azzam Tamimi. Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

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