Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa


The seventeenth century was a period of major social change in central sudanic Africa. Islam spread from royal courts to rural communities, leading to new identities, new boundaries and new tasks for experts of the religion. Addressing these issues, the Bornu scholar Muḥammad al-Wālī acquired an exceptional reputation. Dorrit van Dalen’s study places him within his intellectual environment, and portrays him as responding to the concerns of ordinary Muslims. It shows that scholars on the geographical margins of the Muslim world participated in the debates in the centres of Muslim learning of the time, but on their own terms. Al-Wālī’s work also sheds light on a century in the Islamic history of West Africa that has until now received little attention.
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Biographical Note

Dorrit van Dalen has published on West Africa as a journalist, before she obtained a Ph.D. from Leiden University in 2015.

Table of contents

A note on transliteration
Map of western and northern Africa

1. Preface
1. One man in his environment
2. Coordinates
3. Intellectual history and philology
4. Peripheries
5. Sources and structure

2. Dramatis loci
1. A history of Bornu and Baghirmi as Islamic states
2. The spread of Islam
3. Ethnicity, religion, slavery
4. Islam and traditional religions
5. Conclusion

3. Muḥammad al-Wālī
1. Biography
2. Works
3. Reputation
4. Education
5. Conclusion

4. The scholar’s habitat
1. Scholarship
2. Religious leadership
3. Intellectual environment: genres
4. Intellectual environment: themes
5. Conclusion

5. Method and message
1. Al-Sanūsi’s Ṣughra
2. The Kabbe
3. Between oral and scholarly text
4. Tradition with a twist
5. Conclusion

6. Demonising smokers
1. How tobacco conquered the Islamic lands
2. Al-Wālī’s point of view
3. A folktale about the devil’s piss
4. From Abgar to al-Azhar
5. Conclusion

7. On writing
1. Author and authority
2. Why did al-Wālī translate the Fulani commentary?
3. From orality to literacy
4. Knowing and the knower
5. Conclusion

8. Certainties in times of choice

Annex I. Al-adilla al-ḥisān fī bayān taḥrīm shurb al-dukhān.
An edition of the Arabic text.
Annex II. Valid proofs to proclaim smoking forbidden.
A translation.
Annex III. ʿAwsikum yā maʿshar al-ikhwān.
An edition of al-Wālī’s poem.



All interested in the history of Islam in Africa, in the exchange between the oral and literary transmission of culture and in intellectual history in Africa.