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ʿUmar Tal

By:
John Ralph Willis
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ʿUmar Tal

ʿUmar Tal (c.1794–1864),more fully al-Ḥājj ʿUmar ibn Saʿīd, was a Senegalese Islamic militant leader and thinker.  Al-Ḥājj ʿUmar ibn Saʿīd deserves recognition as one of the towering figures of West African history in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is to his efforts that we can ascribe the success of the Tijānīyah brotherhood that, with the ʿUmarian brand of militant Islam, swept like a flame over much of modern-day Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and Mauritania—an area of some 150,000 square miles at its widest geographic extent. Never before and never since did so much territory in this region submit to a single Islamic authority.

For al-Ḥājj ʿUmar, the model of Muḥammad presented the perfect frame in which to pattern his jihād fervor. The peaks and valleys of the Prophet's life were imitated with pious frequency in the career of Shaykh ʿUmar. He broke off relations with his kinsmen around 1849 or 1850 and referred to this action as hijrah in imitation of the Prophet's move under similar circumstances. In 1852, he launched his jihād at the same age at which Muḥammad had commenced his struggle for the diffusion of Islam. Indeed, the shaykh was to state explicitly:

"I was faced with enmity as he [Muḥammad] was faced by it during his difficulty at al-ḥudaybīyah.… I had suffered harm in Allāh's way, and yet I had stood patiently—the same way that the Prophet had suffered harm and had stood patiently in the face of it.… Religion, in its infancy, begins as a stranger; and during this phase it will be maintained by hijrah, as had happened before. For in most cases no prophet has been supported by his people."

Even in a century of so many great individualists as the nineteenth, ʿUmar Tal was no ordinary figure. Indeed, western Sudan of this period was profoundly stirred by his views. As the Qādirī movement of the first quarter of this period failed to clothe its senile form with any new attraction, excitement passed to the Tijānīyah brotherhood. Coming as it did between the jihād of Shehu Usuman dan Fodio in northern Nigeria and that of Muḥammad Aḥmad (the Mahdī) in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the movement of al-Ḥājj ʿUmar maintained its rank absolutely. The mystic shaykh was the peer of the Sudanese Mahdī in his capacity to raise controversy. For his detractors, his struggle in the path of God was a pretext to sanctify political and economic expediencies: jihād and the excessive claims of charisma made dangerous allies. The reputation of al-Ḥājj ʿUmar gained in scope what it had lost in definition as he assumed the guise of an apocalyptic figure. Through a primary inspiration the mystic shaykh became the momentum of Islamic revival, leaving the path of an edifying imitationabī (imitation of Muḥammad) as the guidance of his mission was subsumed under a beatifying principle. Having lifted himself onto this exalted plane, the shaykh, perceptibly, was in a position to create the taste by which he was to be relished—to rule not by the sharīʿah alone, but by divine inspiration.

The Senegalese militant is no less regarded for his role as a writer and thinker, as one who shaped the content and direction of Tijānī thought during his lifetime and left on it an indelible imprint for posterity. His Rimāh ḥizb al-Raḥīm ʿala nuhūr ḥizb al-rajīm (composed in AH 1261/1845 CE) stands in near parity to the Jawāhir al-maʿanī (Cairo, 1927), and together these two great works constitute a complete body of laws for the order and a guide to conduct for its members.

Al-Ḥājj ʿUmar brought to his writings a perspective rich in experience gained from travel throughout much of the Muslim world and study in many of the leading centers of Islamic thought. He made the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places in 1825, remaining away from his homeland until the late 1830s. On his return, his preaching and teaching culminated in a jihād effort, the effects of which are still evident in his theater of operations.

See also SENEGAL and TIJāNīYAH.

Bibliography

  • For literature on this subject, see Willis, John Ralph, In the Path of Allāh: The Passion of al-Ḥājj ʿUmar, an Essay into the Nature of Charisma in Islam (London, 1989). For a highly detailed account, consult Robinson, David, The Holy War of ʿUmar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1985). See also Hanson, John H., Migration, Jihad and Muslim Authority in West Africa: The Futanke Colonies in Karta (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996).
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