On May 3, a group called the Movement for the Liberation of Masina partially destroyed the tomb of Seku Amadu in Hamdallahi, Mali (Hamdallahi is some 37km south of Mopti). The attack came just days before the scheduled ceremonial visitation by the shaykh’s admirers (May 9).
Since 2012, a number of such mausolea have been destroyed in Mali, especially in the context of jihadist rule in northern regions in 2012-2013. Regarding motive, the short answer for why jihadists destroy tombs would be that the jihadists see the tombs as manifestations of polytheism – not as respect for a major Muslim leader or a particularly pious saint, but as dangerous symbols of devotion toward a figure other than God. Another answer might be that destroying tombs is a way to physically and symbolically reshape the political and religious landscape, to project power.
This incident in particular struck me, though, because of the clash it represents between pre-colonial and post-colonial models of jihad in West Africa. Seku Amadu (ca. 1776-1845) was not just known for his piety or scholarship: he was one of the Muslim scholars who led jihads in nineteenth-century West Africa. Around 1818, he built an empire called Masina (or Macina) in present-day Mali, with Hamdallahi as its capital. He originally fought in the name of Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), founder of the more famous Sokoto Caliphate located in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs, but Seku Amadu subsequently acted in his own name. Masina fell in 1862 to the armies of another pre-colonial jihad leader, Al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall (ca. 1794-1864).
There are a few things to note about the pre-colonial jihads and how they differ from the kinds of jihads we see now. First, the theological orientation and worldview of these pre-colonial leaders was heavily shaped by Sufism, by the Maliki legal school of Sunni Islam, and by the classical model of Islamic knowledge in northwest Africa – in other words, by all the institutions that today’s jihadists reject. Dan Fodio was a Sufi of the Qadiriyya order, and Seku Amadu had close ties to the Qadiriyya as well; Tall was a Sufi of the Tijaniyya order. Second, the pre-colonial jihad leaders often had considerable learning and scholarly achievements under their belts before they turned to jihad – unlike today’s jihadists, who often lack any significant training in Islamic scholarship. The list might go on, but the point is that the theological and intellectual make-up of today’s jihadists is so different from that of the pre-colonial jihad leaders that the pre-colonial leaders would likely feel almost nothing in common with today’s jihadists.
This stark difference is worth bearing in mind when we assess how today’s jihadists talk about the pre-colonial jihads, or about pre-colonial Muslim polities more generally. For example, when it comes to northern Nigeria, I read a lot of analyses now about how Boko Haram is trying to “resurrect” the Sokoto Caliphate or the Empire of Kanem-Bornu (a polity in the Lake Chad region that was Islamized starting in the eleventh century, and successfully resisted incorporation into Sokoto). Maybe it’s true that Boko Haram seeks to do so, although I am skeptical. But in any case, Boko Haram’s understanding of Sokoto or Kanem-Bornu has been fed through some heavy filters and a good bit of selective re-imagination. Boko Haram didn’t start that process of re-imagination – for forty years and more, Salafis have worked to portray dan Fodio as (strictly) an activist who fought heresy, and to sand away his Sufism and Malikism – but they have taken the process several steps further. In any case, amid this misleading rhetoric, the outsider needs to keep in mind how someone like dan Fodio or Seku Amadu understood himself.
This is critical as one assesses the Movement for the Liberation of Masina, which has reportedly committed multiple acts of violence in central Mali, in a worrying trend that extends northern Mali’s conflict into new areas. If the reports are accurate, then the Movement features many of the same characters who played a role in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013: a preacher named Hamadoun Kouffa (possibly dead) formerly associated with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJWA; and possibly even Iyad ag Ghali, leader of Ansar al-Din.
Some have read the Movement for the Liberation of Masina as an ethnic movement – specifically Fulani/Peul, and indeed Seku Amadu himself was Fulani. Yet the goals of the Movement seem to be ideological. In the Malian press, we read that the Movement hopes to “restore” the Empire of Masina. When the Movement attacked Tenenkou, Mopti Region in January, they reportedly used similar language, including about bringing back the “old order.” But it is apparent that what they are “restoring” would bear little resemblance to what Seku Amadu built. They, of course, would likely see no irony in their destruction of Seku Amadu’s tomb – they would say that he himself would not have tolerated tombs or visitations to them. But what I see is the contrast between the Sufi-infused, intellectually sophisticated jihads of the nineteenth century, and the anti-Sufi, crudely ideological jihads of the present.