A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Muslim preacher Nāir-al Dīn waged a jihad against his desert overlords and then against the part-Muslim rulers of African kingdoms south of the Senegal River. The jihad set a pattern for popular uprisings against lax Muslim rulers and established a precedent for future Islamic reform movements across much of West Africa.

Summary of Event

Senegambia, long a focus of economic and social development in West Africa, became an early center of Islam Islam;West Africa and of trans-Saharan trade. By the seventeenth century, Senegambia also became a center of trade Trade;West Africa —including the slave trade—with Europe. Three major ethnic groups dominated the region: nomadic Moors Moors north of the Senegal River and agricultural Wolof Wolofs and cattle-herding/farming Tukulor Tukulors south of the river. All three societies were stratified, consisting of warrior-nobles, free farmers or herders, artisans, and slaves. [kw]Jihad Is Called in Senegambia, A (1660-1677) [kw]Senegambia, A Jihad Is Called in (1660-1677) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Religion and theology;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Government and politics;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Economics;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Africa;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Mauritania;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Senegal;1660-1677: A Jihad Is Called in Senegambia[2000] Senegambia, jihad in

Largely or partially Muslim, these societies also included clerical, or maraboutic, communities, which included specialists in Islamic education, preaching, and commerce; the marabouts Marabouts were ranked between the nobles and the freemen. Because of their control of literacy, the marabouts also served as bureaucrats and scribes. The jihad of Nāir al-Dīn Nāṣir al-Dīn represented an attempt by the marabouts to seize power from the traditional elites, creating in the process a theocratic state

Nāir al-Dīn was a scholar and a teacher of one of the maraboutic, or Zawiya, clans of the Moors. Following a classic Islamic reform pattern, he sought to build a Muslim theocracy that would transcend ethnic and class divisions and would resemble the ideal community of the Prophet. To accomplish this, Nāir al-Dīn established a jama’a (community) among the Mauritanian Zawiya clans, free of tribal and blood allegiances. He called his community and its followers Toubenan Toubenan , from the Arabic root tabwa (initiation). The Toubenan were united by adherence to sharia (Islamic law) and by loyalty to Nāir al-Dīn, who took the title of imam. Though at first most of the Toubenan were Zawiya Moors, Nāir al-Dīn also promoted his reform agenda south of the river, accepting Wolof and Tukulor initiates, including N’diaye Sal N’diaye Sal , a leading marabout of the Wolof kingdom of Kayor.

Nāir al-Dīn began the preaching phase of his movement in the 1660’. First he sent his agents throughout southern Mauritania to spread the word, asking people to support his calls for reform. Having established a secure desert base, he expanded his propaganda campaign to the sedentary kingdoms south of the Senegal. He sent his talibes (students) to preach to the nominally Muslim deniyanke satigi (king) of Futa Toro, asking him to pray more regularly, to limit himself to four wives, and to embrace the Toubenan. After seeing his envoys rebuffed four times, politely at first and finally in chains, the leader of the Toubenan came to preach in Futa Toro Futa Toro . Nāir al-Dīn argued that the deniyanke satigi was an unfit ruler because he exploited and enslaved his (Muslim) people, failed to defend Muslims from attack, and because he was a “lax Muslim.” Going from town to town and raising a mass following, Nāir al-Dīn succeeded in driving the satigi into exile and installing an emir (governor) in 1673, thus establishing a foothold south of the Senegal.

That same year, the marabouts of the Toubenan followed up their successes in Futa Toro by carrying their preaching campaign to the Wolof kingdoms of the Lower Senegal—the Kayor and Walo—where they were welcomed by local clerics, including N’diaye Sal of Kayor. The damel (king) of Kayor, Detye Maram N’galgu Detye Maram N’galgu , tried to resist Toubenan pressure for Islamic reform, but N’diaye Sal killed him and replaced him with his brother Mafaali Gey Mafaali Gey , who converted to Islam and declared his allegiance to Nāir al-Dīn. However, N’diaye Sal killed Mafaali Gey for violating sharia, and then declared himself viceroy within the framework of the Toubenan theocracy. The brak of Walo, Fara Kumba Fara Kumba , also resisted, but he, too, was defeated and killed by the Toubenan, and a puppet brak was installed. Nāir al-Dīn thus laid the groundwork for the military phase of his jihad through systematic propaganda campaigns—supported by dynastic intrigue—that resulted in the overthrow of the Senegambian kings.

The military phase of the jihad began in earnest in the mid-1670’. Nāir al-Dīn moved north into the desert to confront his old patrons, the Moorish noble clans, or Hassani Hassani , demanding that they pay him the zakat (Islamic tax) owed him as imam. He regarded the Hassani as fair game for jihad because they also were lax Muslims, and were “cutters of the road,” that is, they interfered with trade. The Zawiya clerics fought and won three battles with the Hassani, but the third battle, in 1674, cost the life of Nāir al-Dīn. Most of the Zawiya, despite their grief, remained loyal to the movement and carried on under a succession of five imams until 1677. The Hassani overcame the Toubenan in the desert, and dynastic resurgence reversed them in Walo and Kayor, as a new brak and a new damel, who were not clients of Nāir al-Dīn, seized power. The remaining Toubenan clerics congregated in Futa Toro, where the returning deniyanke satigi ultimately defeated them.

Economically, Nāir al-Dīn’s jihad can be considered a form of resistance by traditional merchants who plied the old desert side trade in grain and slaves north to Mauritania. With the support of Zawiya marabouts, the merchants tried to reorient trade to the new east-west axis. This east-west trade, supplied by European merchants, attracted slaves and grain to the French port of St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River in exchange for European trade goods. This trade then fed into the growing transatlantic slave trade. Tukulor and Wolof rulers south of the Senegal were seizing their own subjects, many of them Muslim, and selling them to French traders in exchange for tempting trade goods, including firearms. Nāir al-Dīn was able to add revolutionary luster to his jihad by undermining the legitimacy of rulers who pillaged and sold their own subjects.

Politically, the movement of the Toubenan into sedentary areas was an attempt to seize power by the local maraboutic class under the leadership of Nāir al-Dīn. The political ascendancy of the marabouts was feasible because they had the ideology (monotheism and sharia) and the infrastructure (teachers, jurists, scribes) necessary to sustain a viable state. Nāir al-Dīn’s rule was rigorous and ascetic. He demanded initiation (tabwa) into the Toubenan and conformity to Islamic law, and he forbade the pillage and enslavement of one’s own (Muslim) subjects. He also introduced classic Islamic taxation, including zakat, which he collected under his authority as imam and used to support his community


The defeat of the Toubenan resulted in a permanent reimposition of Hassani dominance over the Zawiya clans, as well as the restoration of the Wolof and Tukulor kings. Nonetheless, Nāir al-Dīn’s jihad continued to have an important political and ideological impact in West African history. Lines of reform tradition stretch from the Toubenan to the later Senegambian jihads of the eighteenth century. Nāir al-Dīn established the Muslim-style imamate as the standard form of government for all of them. He preached reform, returning to the ideal Muslim community of early Islamic times, and he also established the tradition of jihad as a means of prosecuting a reformist agenda. Though he failed to overcome the Hassani, he did temporarily establish Islamic rule over much of the Lower Senegal.

Many Tukulor clerics of Futa Toro who supported Nāir al-Dīn fled to other parts of Senegambia when the deniyanke satigi returned to power in 1677, carrying the institution of the imamate and jihad and reform traditions with them. Nāir al-Dīn’s jihad was, therefore, the first in a series of Islamic reform movements leading up to the great West African jihad states of the nineteenth century. Some scholars argue that the jihad of Nāir al-Dīn laid the political, social, and religious foundations upon which much of modern West Africa was built.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barry, Boubacar. Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Barry examines the economic impact of Nāir al-Dīn’s movement, especially as it relates to the transatlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Andrew Francis, and Lucie Colvin Phillips. Historical Dictionary of Senegal. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A good reference to Senegal’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtin, Philip. “Jihad in West Africa: Early Phases and Interrelations in Mauritania and Senegal.” Journal of African History 12 (1971): 11-24. Curtin gives a brief account of the movement and its role in developing the jihad pattern in West African Islam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harmon, Stephen. “Islamic Reform and Community in Senegambia: c. 1660-1800.” Afrika Zamani (1997): 55-85. Harmon examines the jihad, with a focus on its Islamic dimensions, and places it in the broader context of West African Islamic history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norris, H. T. “Znaga Islam During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 32 (1969): 496-526. Norris discusses the evolution of Islam and Islamic reform in Mauritanian society during the time of Nāir al-Dīn.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Northrup, Daniel, ed. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. A collection of documents touching on the various issues relating mainly to trade’s underlying economic factors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, Charles. Islam and Social Order in Mauritania. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Stewart explains the clan and class structures of Moorish society and the role played in those structures by the Zawiya, or maraboutic clans.
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Categories: History