In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islamic Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections
  • Journals
  • Think Tanks and Research Institutes
  • History
  • Sufism
  • Democracy, Civil Society, and Social Movements
  • Islamic Governance, Sharia, and Constitutions
  • Role of Women
  • Islam and Communalism
  • Islamist Reformers and Salafists
  • The African Diaspora
  • Islamism and New Media
  • Central and Southern Africa

African Studies Islamic Politics
Kenneth Menkhaus, Maren Milligan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0168


“Political Islam,” like “Islamism,” is a contested term employed in different ways by different scholars (see General Overviews). For our purposes it encompasses all dimensions of Islamic activism and organization directly focused on the public sphere, either social reform or an increased role for Islam in the state. Until recently, the study of political Islam in Africa was dominated by research on North African countries and Sudan, all part of the Arab world with a long history of Islamic politics. The rest of Islamic Africa was marginal to the analysis of political Islam, despite the fact that 270 million sub-Saharan Africans are Muslim, which is about 15 percent of the Islamic world. The Arab uprisings of 2011 have sparked even more academic interest in Islamic politics in North Africa. Islamic politics in sub-Saharan Africa is now a richer subfield as well, thanks to changes since the 1990s. Democratization across Africa created new space for Islamic associations and political expression; failed states attracted Islamic charities and missionaries introducing new, reformist interpretations of Islam; lawlessness in some regions prompted Islamic communities to turn to Sharia as a source of rule of law; the Internet globalized African Islamic identity to a new degree; and heightened communal tensions in some ethnically divided countries took on religious dimensions. Rising jihadism—first, Al Qaeda’s operations in East Africa, then homegrown Islamic extremism such as Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram—is the subject of many recent studies, mostly produced by security analysts. But violent extremism remains a small slice of a much broader story of African political Islam. The literature in this article sits at the intersection of Islam and politics: it covers religious movements that have political implications as well as political systems that shape the interpretation and practice of Islam. The bibliography is organized thematically as well as geographically. There are subsections on east Africa and the Horn, central and southern Africa, as well as west Africa and the Sahel. There are also breakout sections for “large literature” countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Egypt about which there has been much scholarship written. Several themes emerge from this collection: (1) Africa is incredibly diverse, making it difficult to generalize across the continent. As a result, most research on African political Islam has a local or national focus; (2) local context is essential to understanding political Islam in Africa; (3) African political Islam is ascendant; (4) the main political struggle in Islamic Africa is between competing Islamic movements; (5) the outside Islamic world is a powerful factor in shaping African Islamism; (6) communal tensions and violence between African Muslims and Christians are mounting but are often entangled with conflict over land and other issues; (7) the trajectory of political Islam in north African states and Sudan continues to be quite distinct from trends in sub-Saharan Africa, even though spillover from those states has powerful impact in the rest of Africa.

General Overviews

Overviews highlighted here fall into one of three categories: general introductions to political Islam that are not specific to Africa (such as Crisis Group 2005, Ayoob 2008, and Mandaville 2007); analyses of the intersection of religion and politics in Africa (Ellis and Ter Haar 2013); and introductory works surveying the specific question of political Islam across the African continent. Mandaville 2007 and Crisis Group 2005 are especially helpful for readers new to the study of political Islam who seek clarification on how one defines political Islam and the many variations it can take on. Of the sources specific to Africa, Otayek and Soares 2007 is the best analysis for integrating recent trends both on the ground and in academic research. Dickson 2005 is a short and easily accessible introduction to the topic. For a good source framing political Islam in Africa as a set of debates, see Mazrui, et al. 2013. Quinn and Quinn 2003 is an example of a qualitative comparative approach to generalizing about trends in Islamism across Africa, drawing on five cases.

  • Ayoob, Mohammed. The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

    Broad historical introduction to the many political manifestations of Islam in the political arena. Includes reference to recent developments in north Africa.

  • Crisis Group. “Understanding Islamism.” Middle East/North Africa 37 (March 2005).

    An accessible and useful anatomy of political Islam and all of its variations, designed for policymakers but indispensable for academic use. Includes evidence from north Africa.

  • Dickson, David. “Political Islam in Africa: The Need for a New Research and Diplomatic Agenda.” US Institute of Peace Special Report 140 (May 2005).

    Short introduction to the topic. Concludes that political Islam in Africa is neutral and should neither be demonized nor viewed as benevolent, that discrimination is fueling Islamism in parts of Africa, and that Saudi-backed Wahabism is a radicalizing factor.

  • Ellis, Stephen, and Gerrie Ter Haar. “Religion and Politics.” In Routledge Handbook of African Politics. Edited by Nic Cheeseman, David Anderson, and Andrea Scheibler, 121–132. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

    General essay that calls for taking spirituality seriously and emphasizes how deeply integrated African power and politics is with religious belief systems. The handbook this essay is published in also a useful general reference on African politics.

  • Mandaville, Peter. Global Political Islam. London: Routledge, 2007.

    An important general introduction to political Islam.

  • Mazrui, Ali, Patrick Dikrir, Robert Ostergard, et al. eds. Africa’s Islamic Experiences: History, Culture, and Politics. New Delhi: Sterling, 2013.

    Introductory text on Islam and Africa that includes a section on political Islam. Addresses debates about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, Islam as source of stability or extremism, and Muslim-Christian relations. Available only as a Kindle book.

  • Otayek, Rene, and Benjamin Soares. “Introduction: Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa.” In Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa. Edited by Rene Otayek and Benjamin Soares, 1–26. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    An excellent short analysis of key trends and drivers of change in political Islam in Africa, as well as a critique of conventional approaches to explaining political Islam.

  • Quinn, Charlotte, and Frederick Quinn. Faith, Pride, and Fear: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195063864.001.0001

    An introduction to African political Islam drawing on five case studies: Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and South Africa. Emphasizes the centrality of local context and the growing influence of money, schools, and missionaries from external Islamic countries.

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