Colonialism and Islam: German and British Rule in West Africa (1900–1914)

By Sebastian Gottschalk

For almost two decades, Europe’s relationship with Islam has been one of the most discussed subjects in academic debates and public discourse alike. However, even though the European colonial occupation of much of the Muslim World is widely recognized as a crucial factor in the history of this relationship, research on the way the colonial powers acted towards Islam and Muslim populations in their colonies remains scarce, especially regarding the British and German empires in Africa.

Sebastian Gottschalk, Kolonialismus und Islam. Deutsche und britische Herrschaft in Westafrika (1900-1914), Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2017.

My recent book, Kolonialismus und Islam. Deutsche und Britische Herrschaft in Westafrika (1900-1914), is centered on the question of the importance of Islam for German and British colonial rule in (West) Africa. This study, examining the examples of British Northern Nigeria and German Northern Cameroon, approaches the relationship between colonialism and Islam from three different angles. Firstly, I look at the interactions between the metropole and colonies, and argue that European discourses about Islam strongly influenced the way colonial rule was conceptualized and exerted on the ground. Here, religion acted as yet another marker that allowed the colonizers to distinguish between rulers and subjects. It interacted with the category of race in complex ways, forming an ambivalent image of the African Muslim that was not only crucial for colonial rule on the ground – namely for the far-reaching integration of Muslim actors and Islamic governance structures into the colonial apparatus – but that also fed back into the metropole and, in turn, influenced metropolitan discourses about Islam. Secondly, I take Islam as a lens to examine colonial rule beyond the confines of a single colony. By making the precolonial Islamic empires of Sokoto and Kanem-Bornu the starting point for my analysis of two adjoining colonies that divided these empires, I can show the persistence of precolonial Islamic structures beyond the threshold of colonial occupation. At the same time, it becomes possible to analyze similarities and differences in the way German and British colonizers dealt with these structures and tried to fit them into their respective (and not so different) concepts of colonial rule. Finally, the focus on Islam allows us to look at border-crossing connections that were facilitated by the Muslim faith, establishing links between Muslims in different regions and continents and influencing the way the European colonizers dealt with Muslim populations on the ground.

The book starts with an analysis of European discourses about Islam in the 19th century, showing that the representations of African Muslims were doubly ambivalent. Orientalist stereotypes depicted Muslims as backward and decadent religious fanatics, who were prone to violence and likely to rebel against the Christian colonizers at even the slightest provocation. At the same time, Islam was seen as a comparatively progressive religion that had more in common with Christian Europe than many other cultures, especially in Africa. From a colonial point of view, this made Muslims ideal intermediaries in any colonial setting. Beyond that, however, the idea of Islam as a monotheistic world religion with a history dating back to the Middle Ages did not fit well with European depictions of Africa as a continent without a history, standing outside the civilized world. Therefore, it was unclear for European colonizers whether the Muslims they met in West Africa were religious “fanatics”, dangerous to the colonial course and to be handled with extreme care, or whether they – as Africans – were only “mildly Islamic” and easily incorporated into the colonial system, potentially even becoming good intermediaries.

The book then turns to West Africa and examines how these ambivalent representations influenced colonial rule in Northern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon. At first, the ambivalences played out in favor of the colonizers. They strategically employed both representations as they saw fit. Whenever they sought to make use of the Muslims and their governance structures, they referred to the image of the African Muslims as liberal and comparatively progressive. When, on the other hand, they sought to change the existing structures to make them fit their colonial needs, they invoked the image of the backward and decadent Muslim. Problems only began to arise for the colonizers when, in both colonies, Islamic uprisings sprang up that challenged the colonial order. Now the Europeans were no longer sure whether they really understood the situation and if the African Muslims might not be “fanatics” after all. At that point, the colonizers, influenced by the collaborating Muslim elite, went about readjusting their view of Islam in Africa. They finally came up with the view that local African Muslims were liberal, not fanatic, and from a colonial vantage point, good collaborators; all the fanatic tendencies came from outside the African colonies and belonged to the “real” Muslim World. From then on, this new dualistic view of Islam in Africa informed both German and British colonial strategies towards Islam. They both continued their collaboration with the local Muslim elite, but kept a beady eye on all Islamic influences from outside, and clamped down heavily on every Muslim cleric or itinerant preacher that came into the colony and raised suspicion. Even pilgrims from Mecca were seen with suspicion and became the object of colonial investigation and debate.

In a separate chapter, I analyze the German and British policies towards the pilgrimage in each colony. Whereas the Germans saw the comparatively few pilgrims from Northern Cameroon predominantly as a problem for their tariff regime, the British regarded the greater number of pilgrims from Northern Nigeria as a potential political danger. They feared a possible import of radical Islamist thinking that could threaten their colonial regime, which leaned heavily on collaboration with Muslim elites. In order to keep the radical tendencies out, the British unsuccessfully tried to establish a system that was supposed to control the flow of pilgrims to and from their West African colony. The book closes with a look back to the European metropoles. Whereas British discourses remained largely unaffected by the developments in West Africa, German academics adopted this new perspective on Islam in Africa and made it the basis for a new strand of research.

Kolonialismus und Islam is a book as much about colonialism and Islam (in Africa) as it is about the specific character of colonial rule in Africa and the entanglements between colony and metropole that have intrigued postcolonial research for more than two decades. It shows how metropolitan discourses and the practice of colonial rule on the ground interacted. It demonstrates how colonial rule on the ground was influenced by border-crossing connections on a variety of geographical scales, and substantiates the finding of a weak colonial state that drew heavily on the support of local rulers and whose agents were in many ways lost and uncertain. Above all, it shows that race was not the only category employed to draw lines between groups of people and to separate the colonial rulers and subjects. In West Africa, race became entwined in complex ways with the category of religion, which made the colonial project of creating a clear distinction between groups of people more complex and riddled with contradictions than hitherto assumed.

Sebastian Gottschalk, Kolonialismus und Islam. Deutsche und britische Herrschaft in Westafrika (1900-1914), Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2017.

Sebastian Gottschalk is coordinator for the Graduate School Global Intellectual History, run by Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In 2014/15 he also worked as coordinator for the MA program Global History. After receiving his PhD in history from Freie Universität Berlin he took up a position as curator for the special exhibition “German Colonialism. Fragments Past and Present” (14.10.2016-14.05.2017) at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

Citation: Sebastian Gottschalk, Colonialism and Islam: German and British Rule in West Africa (1900-1914), in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.06.2019,

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