Augustin Jomier, Islam, réforme et colonisation: une histoire de l'ibadisme en Algérie, 1882–1962, (Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020).
[This review was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]
This book shows how big histories occur in small places. It tells the story of the modernist Islamic reform movement in a compact Saharan society of Ibadiyya, a denomination dating to the early centuries of Islam. In the modern era, Ibadis live in Oman, Zanzibar, and in several places across northwestern Africa, namely, the island of Djerba in Tunisia, Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, and the Mzab Valley in the north-central Algerian Sahara. The Ibadis of the Mzab numbered only about thirty-to-forty thousand people in the first half of the twentieth century with their lives centered on several fortified oases, although a diaspora of thought and migration took them many other places. Using Berber as their vernacular, they enjoyed a hegemonic position in the Mzab Valley, which was also home to Arabic-speaking Maliki and Jewish minorities, along with Africans of color (including slaves), a handful of French colonial personnel, and Catholic missionaries. Until recently, historians had neglected the Ibadis of northern Africa, almost giving up on their story after the Rustamid dynasty that ruled in the central Maghrib from the eighth to the tenth centuries. (New publications, for example Paul M. Love Jr.’s Ibadi Muslims of North Africa: Manuscripts, Mobilization, and the Making of a Written Tradition, take Ibadi history up to the sixteenth century.) This historiographical silence left the impression that Ibadis after the tenth century lived in stasis and were no longer significant historical actors. During the War of National Liberation (1954–62), the Mzab saw few major events, and it entered the history of decolonization as a footnote, the birthplace of poet Mufdi Zakariya’ who drafted the lyrics of the “Qassaman,” Algeria’s national anthem. A few Algerian historians wrote histories of reforming Ibadi scholars in the founding fathers’ trope, which placed the Ibadiyya within the mainstream of Algeria’s Islamic reform movement (Muhammad ‘Ali Dabbuz, Nahdat al-Jaza’ir al-Haditha wa-Thawratuha al-Mubaraka, Algiers: al-Matba‘a al-Thaqafiyya, 1965–1979, 3 vols.).
A decade ago, the Ibadis were rescued from the historiographical doldrums with Amal Ghazal’s book on Ibadiyya globalization, Islamic Reform and Arab Nationalism: Expanding the Crescent from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean (1880s–1930s). Ghazal revealed links between the Omani Ibadiyya of Zanzibar and Ibadiyya elsewhere, notably the Mzab and its widely respected scholar Muhammad b. Yusuf Atfayyish (1820–1914), whose specialized work in the Islamic sciences, as well as his popularly pitched appeals to Muslim unity across sectarian lines, served the Omanis in advancing their pan-Ibadi projects. This research showed the Ibadis as dynamic actors in the modern era.
Whereas Ghazal looks at the Ibadiyya transnationally and with an eye toward their role in anticolonial nationalism, Jomier tells a centripetal story of Ibadi reform in the Mzab, where colonialism, although figuring as an important catalyst, does not stand as the story’s telos. This is an intellectual history grounded in social history. Thus, while Jomier is attentive to ideas, his focus falls on economic transformations, print culture, education, and pedagogy, as well as on new transportation and communications technologies and forms of association. The colonial context amplified the cultural stakes of such new forms of living, making it difficult to disentangle what was simply “new” from what was alien and oppressive. Such ambiguity led to struggles over fundamental questions like modernity and authenticity. Jomier shows how local reformers invested themselves in these struggles with the discourses of Islamic reform to appropriate cultural influence and political power. Such discourses provided leverage in the reformers’ efforts to displace their rivals, scholars who described themselves as muhafizun, or “preservers” (174) of cultural and jurisprudential practices that they saw as threatened by modernist reform. The first reformers occasionally called themselves mujaddid (renewer) before the better-known terms islah (reform) and muslih (reformer) achieved semantic stability as polemical slogans in the 1930s, an evolution that Jomier carefully traces in the Ibadi press in chapter 2. Working within the Mzab as well as from privileged positions in Tunis and Cairo, where they had access to the latest ideas and printing presses, the reformers sought to discredit their rivals as retrograde. By the beginning of World War II, they had gained control in the Mzab, and they were well situated to participate in electoral politics when this opportunity opened to Muslims in Algeria after 1947. Reforming scholars like Ibrahim Bayyud (1899–1981) converted their cultural capital into political power and became the undisputed leaders of their community after independence.
The reformers also took aim at longstanding vernacular practices of common people. These included visits to tombs of venerated saints (ziyarat al-awliya’), an important popular form of religious practice wherein devotees appealed to saints to help with health, marriage, and reproduction, as well as to favorably balance the desert’s volatile water cycle. Jomier devotes a richly documented and argued chapter (chapter 6) to tracing the attacks made by Ibadi reformers on the ziyarat and the stakes involved. In their intellectual aspects, these struggles resembled non-Ibadi reformers’ attacks on popular religiosity elsewhere, with charges such as associationism and paganism leading the way, along with the general sense that the cult of the saints promoted superstition among the people they saw as ignorant masses. As in other places, Mzabi women and the nonliterate lost access to an important form of religious expression: reformers decided that they lacked the proper comportment (adab) for the visits, a decision that made ziyarat off limits to all but the most educated, who in turn disenchanted the ritual and let it wither. Along with the doctrinal stakes, the ziyarat in the Mzab were the site of entrenched economic interests. Unlike other parts of Algeria, the Mzab’s religious endowments known as habus and tinubawin (the latter being a Berber name for a type of Mzabi endowment) escaped confiscation by the French and they represented a significant economic resource. The fact that many of the endowments were tied to the cemeteries and tombs, and that local people directed alms (sadaqa) to the cemeteries to pay for graveside recitations and communal meals added to the economic dimension to Mzabi struggles over the cult of the saints. The ziyarat put wealth in motion, a process of redistribution that remained in the hands of conservatives. Thus, when reformers took aim at the cult of the saints, they targeted their rivals’ pocketbooks and relationships with their clients.
The book is the fruit of a 2015 doctoral thesis, and it includes an impressive amount of pioneering research in Mzabi archives and libraries. Jomier works primarily from periodical print sources, along with records of the colonial administration. The book draws heavily from three journals representing Ibadi reform that span the 1920s and 1930s: Al-Minhaj (printed in Cairo, 1924–32), Wadi Mizab (published in Tunis and Algiers, 1926–29), and Al-Umma (1933–38). For their part, conservatives eschewed print technology, meaning that their voices are less well represented in this book, although Jomier does go to manuscript sources, an effort that allows him to see the conservatives as dynamic and innovative in their own right. Finally, Jomier has uncovered a substantial archive of rare historical photographs from the Pères Blancs library in the Mzab, which his editors have wisely agreed to publish in the book. These include rare portraits of important notables, including a full-length, carefully staged studio photograph of Shaykh Bayyud taken about 1940, which shows up how reformers mastered modern visual media, reworked into their own idioms, to amplify their message, artifacts that can be read fruitfully alongside Leor Halevi’s Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865–1935.
This book is a major accomplishment. Jomier sweeps aside the stagnancy trope for northern Africa’s Ibadiyya, but his argument’s significance is wider-ranging. For one, he shows up a much different type of “stasis,” one connected to the original Greek meaning of “faction” and “civil war.” The reform movement produced new social cleavages in Mzabi society and widened existing ones (including between Ibadiyya and the Mzab’s Malikiyya minority), and these played themselves out with agricultural sabotage, defamation, excommunications, physical assaults, and even assassination attempts (Bayyud survived five attempts on his life), all the stuff of the “contentious politics” studied in other places by Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow. The reader should not look to this book for major insights into the Algerian Revolution, however. Apart from showing that Mufdi Zakariya’ had an intellectual career that went well beyond the Qassaman lyrics, the book gives little attention to the 1954–62 period, perhaps a small sign of revolt on Jomier’s own part against the hegemonic position of these years in the current historiography. Within the field of Algerian and Islamic history, Jomier finds that Ibadi reformers’ goal of rapprochement (taqrib) with mainstream Sunnis was largely met at the national level, even if it proved impossible locally. The Ibadi reformers distanced themselves from their controversial Khawarij origins and formed common cause with mainstream reformism in Algeria (Association of Algerian Muslim ‘Ulama’) in adopting much of its thinking and applying the Islamic principle of unicity (tawhid) to make a place for Berberophones in the Algerian nation. Jomier’s book also has important insights for colonial historians. He seeks to understand the history of colonialism “from the inside,” using Arabic sources. In the process he successfully threads the needle of properly weighing the important and transformative impact of French colonialism on this society without seeing it as the be-all and end-all of modern Mzabi history. In sum, Jomier’s exhaustive research and sophisticated arguments have produced valuable new perspectives for northwest African history that historians in other fields will read fruitfully.