For centuries, most African Muslims observed their faith according to Sufi practices. Syncretic, mystical, and emphasizing experiencing God, Sufism was well suited to thrive on a continent where traditional religions often had a flexible cosmology that emphasized the supernatural. The fact that illiteracy or a lack of formal theological training was no barrier to fully participating in, or even leading, Sufi rites likely contributed to the practice’s popularity as well.
With its insistence on adherence to the written precepts of certain Islamic holy texts, its ultra-exclusivist worldview, and its strong association with foreign cultures and traditions, Salafism appears as ill-suited for the African context as Sufism is well-suited. Yet today, Salafism dominates the practice of Islam in parts of the continent. In some cases, it has displaced the centuries-long observance of Sufi rites in the span of a few decades.
A confluence of local dynamics that made parts of Africa amenable to Salafi appeals, and the rise of a global Salafi movement supported by wealthy Arab benefactors, explains much of the phenomenon. Those dynamics remain largely the same today, suggesting that Salafism will continue to grow, often at the expense of Sufism. Its expansion will likely follow the same pattern it has followed so far: irregular, falling well short of dominance in many areas, and at times taking on the flavor of the surrounding culture even while the core ideology remains exclusivist and Islamist.
This is notwithstanding the tentative episodes of Salafi-Sufi toleration and even cooperation that in a few communities has interrupted the hostility that usually exists between the two groups. Those episodes becoming more than an occasional exception would require an unlikely rethinking by Salafis of foundational beliefs that reject any deviation from a narrowly defined conception of correct Islamic practice, and that view correction of those deviations as imperative.
Salafism and its Benefactors
Salafism is a fundamentalist movement that believes true Islam consists of practicing the faith only in the manner of the Prophet Mohamed and his companions (the Salaf). For Salafis, a literal reading of the Quran, Sunnah, and certain hadith (collections of sayings and stories from or concerning Mohamed, as narrated by his companions) are the only reliable guides for how to live in this way. Any rites or beliefs that stray from that standard are heretical innovations that must be expunged.1 Salafis’ narrow definition of “true Islam” excludes virtually all other Islamic sects, such as Shi’a, Ismailis, and, most relevant for the African context, Sufis, whose syncretism and elaborate rituals generally provoke Salafi contempt.
Salafism sprang from the Islamic modernist and revivalist movements that emerged in the Arab world and South Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries largely as a response to the Muslim world’s decline and the simultaneous ascendance of the non-Muslim world, especially the West. These movements offered an explanation and remedy for the decline that was evident, in their eyes, in non-Muslims ruling Muslims, and by the perceived decadence of the Islamic community. There is no consensus date for Salafism’s emergence as a distinct movement, but by the post-colonial era it was well established with a diversity of form that reflected its predecessor movements’ growth, evolution, and splintering.
While doctrinal rigidity is generally a defining feature of Salafi belief, some African Salafis have made accommodations towards other sects that hint at the spectrum of belief and practice within the community.2 In Senegal, the Jama’at Ibad al-Rahman eventually reached out to other Muslim organizations, even participating in Sufi celebrations.3 Several prominent ideologues that are widely regarded as Wahhabi4 or Salafi, such as Mahmoud Dicko of Mali and Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew of Mauritania, have been pragmatic enough at times in their relations with non-Salafis that one scholar has dubbed them “post-Salafis.”5
Divergence on esoteric theological matters is common among Salafis as well. Quietists, for instance, abjure politics—until, in some cases, they don’t,6 —while other Salafis believe the way to establish the Islamic state they seek is through vigorous political activity. The Salafi-jihadi group Boko Haram in Nigeria famously hates Western-style education, yet the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was mentored by the country’s leading Salafi cleric, Ja’afar Mahmud Adam, who embraced Western-style education.7 In Ethiopia, the Takfir wal Hijra faction emerged from the broader Salafi community and agitated for stricter Salafi practice, even declaring some fellow Salafis kuffar (non-believers).8 In the mid-1990s a group of Sudanese Salafis in the same way denounced Hassan al-Turabi—a radical Islamist and supporter of Osama bin Laden who was for years a key figure in Sudan’s fundamentalist government—as a heretic and called for his death.9 Temporal concerns can divide Salafis as well: Cote d’Ivoire’s national Wahhabi organization became moribund for much of the 1980s because of a dispute between factions divided by class and nationality.10
African customs and beliefs have also forced Salafi adaptations. In Ghana, Salafis can allow an unusual amount of freedom for women to operate publicly, and there was such resistance to the first-generation Salafis’ intolerance and attacks on local customs that later Salafis adopted a less stringent approach.11 In Cameroon, converts to Wahhabism abandoned some Sufi rituals, such as dancing, but continued others, including the elaborate funerals typical of Sufis.12
These adaptations are rare and limited, however. Salafism is, on the whole, much less accommodating of theological diversity than is Sufism, which has evolved in Africa in line with local conditions and preferences over hundreds of years. In that sense, and even though there were African Salafi-style reformist movements that predated the global Salafi movement, Salafism is much more of an “imported” product in the African context than is Sufism.
Despite this, Salafism has spread dramatically across Africa over the past several decades. The reasons behind its gains are many, but primary among them are the shrinking nature of the world thanks to globalization, an international educational-religious-NGO complex fueled by Arab petrodollars (particularly from the Gulf states), and local conditions in many African countries that have been favorable to those who would challenge traditional religious elites.
The world’s increasing interconnectedness gave Salafis more, and more powerful, ways to deliver their message. Salafi radio and television broadcasts exposed a wider African audience to Salafi ideas.13 In the last half of the twentieth century, more efficient and available global travel and the relative increase in prosperity on the continent made the hajj far more accessible to African Muslims,14 who were often exposed to Wahhabi teachings and sometimes converted while on pilgrimage. Hajj returnees were important vectors of Salafi practice in countries such as Burkina Faso,15 Ethiopia,16 Ghana,17 Mali,18 and Sudan.19
Similarly, the worker-hungry, booming Gulf state economies drew many Africans,20 some of whom eventually returned home imbued with Salafism. Some helped transform Somali society, for instance, from one that generally resisted Salafism to one that today is majority Salafi.21
Arguably no returnees were more instrumental in spreading Salafism in Africa than students. In Cote d’Ivoire, returning scholars, including the country’s first doctor of Islamic theology (Moustapha Sy, who lived in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades), revitalized the Salafi movement in the country after internal squabbling had paralyzed its foremost national association.22 Salafism first entered The Gambia in the 1970s thanks to returning Gambian scholars educated in places such as Egypt, Kuwait, and Sudan.23 So too with Uganda, where several hundred University of Medina graduates first introduced Salafi doctrine to their home country beginning in the 1970s.24 Scores of young Ethiopians who traveled to Saudi Arabia in 1962 eventually returned with advanced degrees in Islamic studies and helped cement Arsi, Bale, and Robe into Salafi strongholds.25 The first wave of Tanzanian graduates of Saudi universities established the sprawling Ansar Sunna movement in Tanzania that remains active.26
Studying overseas did not inevitably confer a Salafi worldview on African students. The Ansar movement in Tanzania is frequently at loggerheads with the state-sponsored National Muslim Council of Tanzania (better known as BAKWATA), yet both are stocked with graduates of Saudi universities, as are other Muslim organizations without any kind of reformist agenda.27 Some Africans who studied in Saudi Arabia rejected Wahhabism entirely, off-put by racism they experienced there as well as what they perceived as the religious hypocrisy of some Saudis.28
Nonetheless, the spread of Salafism within Africa would not have been nearly as strong or widespread as it is today without Gulf-funded Salafi education. African Salafi clerics and adherents with foreign links—especially to the Middle East—are ubiquitous on the continent. Even many indigenous reformist movements eventually received a boost from the global movement.29
This was by design. Saudi Arabia’s third king, Faisal, established the University of Medina in 1961 with the explicit charge to train foreign students as Wahhabi missionaries. The university’s by-laws mandated that 75 percent of the student body must come from overseas,30 which contributed to the rise in the foreign share of enrollment in Saudi universities from 18.6 percent in 1970 to 23.9 percent in 1980. Many of these students focused their studies on Islam.31 Under the tenures of Faisal and his successors, the House of Saud established a complex of NGOs, programs, and educational centers to promote its brand of Salafism and preach a (Saudi-centered) call for global Islamic solidarity, making Saudi Arabia the ideological center of the Sunni Muslim world and giving rise to a form of fundamentalist Pan-Islamism over the course of the 1970s and 1980s.
The resources poured into these efforts to propagate Salafism by countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are staggering. The latter has been the most prolific. A former U.S. official estimated in 2004 that the Kingdom had spent more than $75 billion proselytizing Wahhabism; in 2005, former CIA director James Woolsey estimated the number to be $80 to $90 billion.32 If those funding trends have continued until today, a safe estimate of how much Saudi Arabia has spent spreading its version of Salafism would be well over $100 billion.33
Glimpses of these proselytization campaigns from around the world give a sense of what all this money has bought:
- Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd claimed that he financed the building of nearly 2,500 Islamic learning centers and 1,500 mosques in Muslim- minority countries alone. The King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran, based in Medina, had by 2000 distributed 138 million copies globally.34 Additionally, some estimate that the Saudis have built thousands of mosques and Islamic centers in sub-Saharan Africa.35
- The Kuwaiti Africa Muslims Agency (AMA)36 claims that over the course of 35 years it has built 6,000 mosques and more than 800 educational centers across the continent while distributing 20 million Qurans and providing over 700 scholarships for post-graduate studies, among many other initiatives.37 There are numerous other Salafi-affiliated aid agencies operating in Africa, some of which are larger than the AMA.
- By 2016, the Saudis had financed dozens if not hundreds of Islamic educational institutions in Kenya.38 In neighboring Ethiopia, a scholar noted new, Gulf-funded mosques in about 20 towns and villages in the Wollo Province of Amhara state in 2013.39 Another report notes that in one year in Ethiopia, the Saudi embassy funded construction of 36 Wahhabi mosques.40 Between 1999 and 2004, the number of foreign-financed mosques grew from around 35 to over 100 in Djibouti.41
- Just one of the numerous Salafi-oriented NGOs in Ghana built 91 mosques and 89 schools in less than a decade in the 2000s.42 The founder of an NGO in Cote d’Ivoire claimed that his organization built hundreds of mosques and madrasas with help from Saudi funders.43 In Burkina Faso, the number of Islamic education institutions, mostly built with money from Arab countries, swelled from 12 in 1984 to nearly 200 twenty years later.44
- In Mali, the head of the Salafi Al-Farouk charity said his organization—fueled by $3 million a year from donors in the Middle East, Turkey, and the UK—built over 300 mosques while also managing the Sahel University, which has 400 students.45 Al-Farouk is just one charity, though a prominent one, suggesting that another claim that thousands of Wahhabi mosques were recently built in southern Mali could be accurate.46 In the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali, Wahhabis opened 16 mosques in just 3 years,47 at a time when the city had a population of only about 35,000.48 In Senegal, a single Salafi organization financed by Middle Eastern donors built hundreds of mosques across the country.49
The proliferation of Salafi-oriented worship and educational centers does not prove there has been a proportional uptake in Salafi belief, but the extraordinary sums spent have given the movement an obvious competitive advantage in Africa. The new mosques and madrassas, the provision of scholarships, and all manner of social services for Salafi constituents were powerful inducements in poor African countries. Sufis, whose Quranic students often had to make do with writing on wooden slabs,50 could not begin to compete.
In addition, African Salafis sometimes received—in exchange for continuing to preach Salafism—a salary from foreign NGOs or endowments,51 giving them a degree of financial security clerics from other sects generally lacked. There are reports as well of Salafi organizations offering cash or other benefits to Muslims in exchange for conversion to Salafism or adhering to certain Salafi practices, such as veiling women,52 though it is unclear how widespread or effective such measures have been.
Being plugged into the global movement also gave African Salafis the advantages of association with a wealthy, worldwide network. Leading Salafi figures in Nigeria facilitated introductions between Gulf and Nigerian businessmen and vouched for certain Nigerian entrepreneurs to receive visas to Saudi Arabia.53 Embracing Salafism gave Malians entrée to a particular merchant class.54 In Sudan, the Faisal Islamic Bank, stood up mostly with Saudi funding, helped create an Islamist middle class by providing loans at favorable rates to those associated with the community.55
No other sect in Africa could marshal nearly as many resources as could Salafis. That already formidable advantage was further bolstered by certain realities specific to Africa that made parts of the continent truly amenable to the Salafi worldview.
Local Drivers of Salafi Growth
Long before petroleum became the engine of the global economy and allowed the Gulf Arabs to spread their brand(s) of Islam far and wide, Salafi-like reformist movements were already shaping Africa’s religious landscape. In the late 1400s, Muhammad al-Maghili and like-minded clerics incited massacres of Jews in modern-day Algeria by claiming that Muslims who tolerated Jews’ insufficient subordination to Islamic rule had strayed from Mohamed’s teachings.56 The famous jihad led by Usman dan Fodio and his Fulani ethnic group that began in 1804 conquered Muslim states across the Sahel. Scholars debate dan Fodio’s motivations, and his followers joined for diverse reasons. Yet he and his son and successor, Muhammed Bello, claimed their jihad was required because of the corruptions practiced by the nominally Muslim rulers they targeted,57 a typically reformist justification.
There have been other, less dramatic reformist movements throughout African history as well. Several have been documented in Tanzania, which produced indigenous reformers who continue to inspire Salafis today.58 A study of Malawian Islam notes a spontaneous reformist movement within the country’s third-largest ethnic group, the Yao, that manifested beginning in the 1930s.59 Salafi-style movements in Ghana60 and Burkina Faso61 predated those countries’ encounters with global Salafism as well.
Despite the relative frequency and strength of indigenous, Salafi-style reformist movements in Africa, Sufism remained the dominant practice of Islam. Today, it may still be the plurality practice, but the balance appears to be shifting—and has already decisively shifted in some parts of the continent. There is no comprehensive data capturing the extent of Salafism’s spread in Africa over the last 100 years, but the fragmentary information that is available gives a sense of the phenomenon.
- In East Africa in the 1990s, Salafism was a “fringe off-shoot of Islam,” but it is now mainstream.62 In Kenya, three eastern counties that comprise the former North Eastern Province and the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, each dominated by ethnic Somali Muslims, have between them a lone Sufi madrasa with few adherents after the others shuttered. Wahhabi mosques and madrasas prevail.63
- In Ethiopia, Salafism may have first taken root in the ancient Muslim city of Harar in the 1940s, then intermittently spread to other towns such as Bale and Arsi in the Oromia region.64 Decades later, U.S. diplomats visiting the same region fretted about the ubiquity of Salafi-style practice and dress. 65
- Wahhabism arrived in Ghana around the 1940s. By the mid-1970s, perhaps more than a third of Muslims in Ghana’s major cities and their environs were adherents,66 likely displacing a Sufi brotherhood, the Tijaniyyah, from its perch as Ghana’s majority Islamic order.67 Scholars estimate that a decade later, Wahhabis comprised at least half of Ghana’s urban Muslims, with similar rates in neighboring Burkina Faso.68 By the early 1980s, over two million Ghanaian Muslims identified as Salafi.69
- In Cameroon, Wahhabis have grown to about 10 percent of the Muslim population since the 1960s. The percentage is higher in some important towns such as Foumban, where Wahhabis make up around 20 percent of the Muslim population.70
- The number of Sufi adherents, who formerly dominated Nigerian Islam, has experienced a “radical decline” since the 1990s because of Salafi growth. A Salafi imam in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, estimated in 2014 that 60 percent of the Muslim youth in the city followed Salafi precepts, though he noted the diversity of practice within that group.71
- By the time of his death in 1998, the Saudi-trained Salafi Imam Basharr Sanko Yillah’s “Basharia” movement in Sierra Leone boasted over 100 branches, established in just 13 years.72
- A scholar estimated in 2007 that around 150 Salafi graduates of Egyptian and Saudi educational centers had settled in the Cape region of South Africa alone.73
Salafism’s growth in Africa is part of a global trend, but some of the reasons behind it are rooted in the peculiarities of the continent itself. No region on Earth has a greater collection of underperforming states: 18 of the world’s 25 worst-ranked countries on the most recent Fragile States Index are African.74 Similarly, governments that mistreat their citizens abound in Africa. In Freedom House’s most recent Freedom in the World report, 23 of the 54 countries classified as “not free” were African.75 These state failures may make the continent uniquely fertile territory for Salafis who promise an explanation and solution for a country’s ills, and who often deliver tangible benefits in the form of food, education, and other types of support.
No state better illustrates these dynamics than Somalia, the country that has arguably experienced the biggest shift from Sufism to Salafism. Its failed experiments with socialism, persecution of Islamists in the 1970s, and eventual violent collapse in 1991 contributed to many Somalis embracing Salafism. The explosion in the use of the veil among Somali women, for example, may have been in part an effort to protect against the extreme sexual violence that accompanied the country’s meltdown in the 1990s.76 Later, the Islamic Courts Union, in which the Salafi-jihadi group al-Shabaab incubated, rose to prominence in part because it provided a level of predictable justice and enforcement that had been long absent from Somalia.77
To enhance Salafism’s appeal, state failure did not have to be as spectacular as in Somalia. Governments that entrenched poverty and imposed authoritarianism and kleptocracy provided ample opportunity for Salafis to demonstrate the case that their practice of Islam was the blueprint for properly managing all elements of human existence. In Tanzania, Salafism grew as the failure of President Nyerere’s dalliance with socialist agricultural schemes deepened.78 Economic turmoil in the 1990s in Cameroon contributed to Wahhabis’ gains as they slid neatly into the role vacated by the government by building health and religious infrastructure and responding to local requests for development projects.79 Wahhabi and similar sects gained in Mali and Burkina Faso for the same reason.80
Resentment of these abusive and neglectful governments was strong enough to taint the Sufi establishment in countries where it was aligned with the government. Senegal’s early reformist movement took aim at the Sufi leadership not just because of its contempt for Sufi practice, but because of Sufi clerics’ cooperation with the French colonial power.81 In 1991, 1,000 young Islamists of the Salafi-adjacent Tablighi Jamaat movement violently seized the headquarters of the state-recognized and Sufi-led Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, decrying its coziness with the government.82 One of West Africa’s most prominent Salafi movements, the Nigerian-born Yan Izala, was likewise animated in part by disgust with Sufi clerics’ closeness with authorities in the north of the country.83
Association with government can be so toxic that it has even compromised some Salafi movements in the eyes of other Salafis. Senegal’s government so effectively coopted the country’s original reformist organization that its chief founder, Cheikh Touré, defected in the late 1970s to start a separate organization, the Jama’at Ibad al-Rahman.84 In Mozambique, a group of Salafis who went on to start the Ansar al-Sunna movement split from the Islamic Council of Mozambique (known by its Portuguese acronym, CISLAMO), a Wahhabi organization. The differences between the two emerged partly because of the latter’s domination by an older generation of leaders of Indian extraction from the south (whereas the younger Salafis were primarily northern indigenes) but also because CISLAMO was officially recognized by and worked closely with the government, while Ansar’s young supporters hailed from opposition strongholds.85
State insufficiencies likely enable Salafism in subtler ways as well. The prestige enjoyed by clerics who study in Saudi Arabia—home of Islam’s two holiest sites—or other venerable Islamic institutions such as al-Azhar in Cairo may be more pronounced because of how few people can achieve an advanced degree, much less from a renowned overseas university, in poorly governed countries that inevitably have sub-par education systems.86 As has already been discussed, returnees from overseas studies also regularly maintain ties to the broader Salafi movement that they can tap for funds. Those funds go even further in the oftentimes indigent contexts in which Africa’s Salafis operate.
Finally, violence may have played a role in spreading Salafism on the continent, though there is no comprehensive data. Salafis have forcibly taken leadership of mosques in places like Tanzania and Kenya,87 and Salafi-Sufi clashes have erupted in numerous African countries.88 While both sides appear to believe mosque leadership is important given how frequently conflict over the issue breaks out, violent tactics may be counterproductive because of their potential to repel average Muslims and trigger resistance to Salafism.
State failure was a major facilitator of Salafism’s expansion in Africa, but sometimes the practice spread simply because of the unique dynamics of a given area’s society or history. East Africa is arguably the region of Africa most affected by Salafism’s spread, which is likely in part because of its proximity to and long exchange with the Middle East. In this case, an accident of geography helped shape a region’s experience with Salafism.
Iconoclastic movements like Salafism also often appeal to young people. That makes Africa, the world’s youngest continent, fertile territory, particularly among aspirational youth chafing at the dominance of what they see as an obstructive and anachronistic older generation.89 The fact that many Salafis value religious, and some secular, education (literacy, for instance, is important to a movement that emphasizes reading the Islamic holy texts as the surest way to inculcate “pure Islam”) made the schools they established appealing to youths seeking broader educations than the rote memorization of the Quran often offered by Sufi schools.
Ethnic or ideological tensions at times splintered Salafi movements, but they could also provide an opening for Salafi thought. Muslims from Cameroon’s south embraced Wahhabism in part as a reaction to the traditional dominance and high-handedness of the northern Fulani Muslims.90 In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reformers in the eastern city of Kisangani were drawn primarily from a non-Arab community considered indigenous, while the Sufi establishment was primarily descended from those associated with Swahili Arabs who had once colonized the area.91 In Malawi, doctrinal disputes between Sufi orders and the already-mentioned indigenous reformist movement among the Yao left an opening for Salafis linked to the global movement to establish a strong position among Yao youth.92 Many South African Muslims, unsettled by a post-Apartheid constitution legalizing practices such as abortion and prostitution that they found abhorrent, embraced practices associated with reformist Islam.93
Conclusion: The Future of African Islam
Salafism’s past gains across the continent do not guarantee future success, and some areas of the continent, despite being subject to the same influences and pressures as other regions where Salafism now dominates, remain largely non-Salafi. In Ethiopia, the general Muslim population, apart from Salafi strongholds such as Arsi, Bale, and Harar, have bristled against the paternalism and foreignness of the practice.94 This is despite Ethiopia’s proximity to the Middle East with which it has an ancient history of engagement, and despite its neighbors such as Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya being significantly affected by Salafism.
Other African Muslim communities have similarly rejected Salafi overtures. Nigerian Igbos trained in Saudi Arabia now lead much of Muslim life among the Igbo in Nigeria’s southeast, but shari’a law—a cherished standard for Salafis—remains unpopular in the community.95 Some Nigerians viewed the Izala movement so dimly that when a new generation of Salafis took up proselytizing in the northern Nigerian city of Kano in the 1990s, they avoided the Izala brand in favor of promoting themselves as Ahlus-Sunna.96 Resistance to reformist or fundamentalist movements is not exclusive to the post-colonial era either. In the 1840s, a Salafi-like sect waged a purification campaign from its base in Baardheere, Somalia, against Sufi practices; the effort ended when other Somalis razed Baardheere to the ground.97
Ultimately, however, the Izala and Baardheere examples demonstrate the Salafi movement’s vitality. Parts of northern Nigeria, and much of Somalia, are today strongly Salafi. In the Somali case, this is despite initial spirited resistance to fundamentalist movements not just in Baardheere but in many other parts of Somalia.98 Other areas of Africa that have thus far largely rejected Salafism could likewise eventually come to embrace it, as the factors that facilitated Salafism’s initial rise are extant. There is no indication, for instance, that the state insufficiencies in Africa that give Salafis fodder for their proselytizing are going to improve in the near term.
Similarly, the globalism that facilitates exchange between Africa and Salafi strongholds is here to stay. Middle Eastern states aggressively exporting Salafism to Africa have only become more deeply involved with the continent over the years, while Turkey, which promotes its own brand of Islamism, is influential in countries such as Ethiopia, Libya, and Somalia. Iran’s traditional promotion of Shi’a Islam in Africa has faltered largely because of an effective counter-campaign by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but it still proselytizes on the continent. It has inspired and supported a number of African Shi’a communities, perhaps most prominently the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which may have several million supporters.
There are indications that some of the Middle Eastern states that promoted Salafism are re-thinking their approach. The Saudi government recently issued a royal decree banning the financing of foreign religious infrastructure that promotes intolerance or incites violence,99 and Riyadh has also taken steps suggesting it is trying to rein in extremist organizations and preaching.100 Consider the case of the Muslim World League (MWL), Saudi Arabia’s premier, quasi-official charity begun in 1962 which lavishly funded divisive and intolerant organizations and preachers, including a number of terrorists, in Africa and around the world.101 The MWL’s new leader, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, vows that the organization will spread tolerance,102 and has thus far, in his public-facing comments at least, made good on that vow.103
Yet the Saudi royal family’s enthusiasm for proselytization stems in part from the fraught domestic politics of its country, which are unlikely to grow any less difficult in the foreseeable future. Spreading “pure” Islam is a crucial way for the House of Saud to placate the country’s Wahhabi religious establishment, upon which it has relied since the mid-1700s to provide the family’s rule with religious legitimacy, and to signal to its people and Muslims everywhere that it is a worthy custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
It is also unclear if the Saudi government, despite being a monarchy, can long resist pressure from the large portion of its population that has sincerely held Salafi beliefs. Drying up the demand for proselytizing Salafism will require many Salafis to reconsider core doctrines like tawhid, i.e., the oneness of God, a central tenet of Islam that for Salafis compels an exclusivist stance towards other sects. Even if the reform efforts that Riyadh has launched—and the progress made on stripping textbooks of incendiary material is encouraging104 —are sincere, it will be many years before they can erode the support for the chauvinistic elements of Salafi belief.
Furthermore, the Saudi government may not resist the temptation to again use Salafism as a geopolitical tool if it believes the national interest demands it. One of the initial reasons Riyadh began proselytizing Wahhabism was to try to contain Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arab nationalism and later Iran’s Shi’a revolution. Nasser no longer imperils Riyadh, but Iran does. If the Saudis feel further threatened by Tehran, they may calculate the Iranian danger outweighs the risks associated with Wahhabi radicalism and reach again for the proselytization tool.
Genuine religious conviction has at times motivated members of the Saudi royal family as well. King Faisal reportedly believed that proselytization was necessary to return Islam to its “true” practice and away from the heretical departures of Sufism105 and other sects. The Saudis also wanted to protect Islam from the spread of atheist communism during the Cold War106 and from the corrupting decadence of Western culture and lifestyles.107 It is impossible to accurately gauge the depth of the Saud family’s commitment to Wahhabism, but some of its members are likely devout and could influence government policy towards continued proselytization.
Furthermore, even if governments like Saudi Arabia’s wish to reorient the global Salafi network away from aggressive proselytization of intolerant practices, they lack the power to do so (even though they helped create the network). This network is simply too massive and has operated too purposefully for too long. Similarly, it is unlikely such governments have the capacity to ensure the funds flowing from their countries will not support extremist education and teaching overseas, given the complexity of the funding networks and the relative ease that technology gives for clandestinely moving money about. This all suggests that while extremist preachers and organizations in Africa might currently or in the future have more difficulty accessing funds, money will still flow to Salafi causes on the continent.108
Other factors will help determine the movement’s future in Africa. Salafism has its own constituency and momentum on the continent that is likely now self-sustaining.109 The financial advantage that Salafis have enjoyed for decades has contributed to them capturing the commanding heights of Muslim life in a number of countries, even in some where they are, at least for now, a minority. Salafis control a significant number of national Muslim councils and many of the continent’s most lavish or important mosques,110 giving them powerful platforms from which to spread their message.
The occasional demonstrations of limited tolerance by Salafis for other sects in some parts of the continent raise the question of whether the accommodations represent a re-thinking of core Salafi beliefs that promote exclusivism, or if they are simply a recalibration of tactics in recognition that Salafism’s astringency is sometimes counterproductive. For now, the inter-sect comity is rare, fragile, and irregular. It should be cheered, but it probably does not portend a larger shift, especially as there are recent examples of African Salafis temporarily softening their confrontational approach to try to win greater political power.111
What the evidence does suggest is that Salafism is likely to continue spreading on the continent. The possible consequences of such a development are mostly shrouded in mystery, just as are the full effects of the larger shifts in Africa’s religious landscape that have occurred over the last century. Whatever the consequences may be—Africa’s increasing orientation towards the Middle East, perhaps, or continued or increased social conflict of the kind that has frequently flared between Salafis and other sects—in the context of the world’s fastest growing population, they are going to reverberate for decades to come in Africa and far beyond.