The Religion & Culture Web Forum
Undoing the Mahdiyya: British Colonialism as Religious Reform in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1914"
by Noah Salomon (University of Chicago Divinity School)
This month, Noah Salomon of the University of Chicago Divinity School analyzes the interaction of British colonial authorities with Islam in the Sudan.
Studies of missionization during colonial periods have generally limited their focus to the importation of foreign religious systems into local cultures. Much less attention has been paid to the ways in which colonial administrations have sought to reform local religions themselves. Drawing off theoretical contributions made by scholars working in South Asian studies, my essay will explore the ways in which such religious reform and control were asserted by the British administration in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from the fall of Khartoum in 1898 to the beginning of the First World War.
Through an exploration of historical records from the British administration in Sudan, I will discuss how the British became patrons and advocates of a certain type of Sunni “orthodoxy,” which they hoped would curb the influence of messianic and Sufi movements among the local population. It was the Sufi orders that had been the soil for the rise of the Sudanese mahdi, who overthrew the previous colonial overlords of Sudan, the Turco-Egyptian regime, beginning in 1881. The British felt that these movements might pose an equal threat to their own colonial project, and therefore engaged in a campaign to reform Islam among the Sudanese away from Sufism and toward a scholastic model that served their religious sensibilities as much as their political goals. Through exploring the types of religious reform that the British administration instigated in Sudan, I will attempt to complicate our understandings of the avowed “secularizing” goals of the colonial enterprise as well as take a closer look at the interaction between movements of Islamic reform and the colonial contexts in which they arose.
While the following essay concerns British colonial practice in a very specific period of time, I truly hope that it will be of interest to the student of other historical eras and imperial endeavors. In particular, it is my hope that this essay might spark the reader to think critically about America's enagements with religion in the Muslim countries it now occupies, so that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of those who have gone before us.
Early in May, invited responses to Mr. Salomon's essay will be offered by Cassie Adcock and Jeremy Walton, both of the University of Chicago. Invited responses may be found in the archived discussion board for this Forum (pdf).
The commentary will run through the month of May, after which it will continue to be accessible through the Web Forum archive.
The Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life.
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