ʿUmar Tāl

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ʿUMAR TĀL (1794/71864), known in Fūta as al-ājj ʿUmar ibn Saʿīd ibn ʿUthmān of Gede, was an intellectual and military leader in the central and western Sudanic region. Born in Fūta Tōro, a Fulbe state in the middle valley of the Senegal River, ʿUmar first achieved prominence during the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which he completed three times in the years 18281830. At the same time he obtained an appointment as the chief representative (khalīfah ) in West Africa for the Islamic order called the Tijānīyah, which had been founded in North Africa in the eighteenth century. With these credentials ʿUmar returned to West Africa, visited the capitals of the principal Islamic states, attracted a following of disciples, wives, and slaves, and established a reputation as a brilliant scholar, miracle worker, and military strategist. Much of his reputation emerged during a stay of seven years in Sokoto, the capital of the Islamic confederation of northern Nigeria. In 1839 ʿUmar traveled through the inland delta of the Niger River, where another Fulbe-dominated Islamic state called the caliphate of Hamdullāhi held sway. In 1840 he settled in Fūta Jalon, yet another Fulbe polity in the mountains of Guinea. In the small town of Jegunko he taught, formed his growing community, and completed his major work, Rimā, which serves an an important guide for Tijānīyah clerics today.

Beginning in 1846 ʿUmar moved in the direction of a military jihād, or war against unbelievers. He recruited in his original homeland of Fūta Tōro. He moved his rapidly expanding community to Dingiray, a settlement east of Fūta Jalon under the control of the Mandinka king of Tamba. In Dingiray the Umarian forces collected arms, built fortifications, and created the conditions of conflict with the Mandinka. Their victories over Tamba in 18521853 launched the jihād, established ʿUmar's reputation as a military leader, and attracted thousands of new recruits.

ʿUmar subsequently directed his forces to the north, to the upper valley of the Senegal River. With an army of about 15,000 he defeated the Bambara kingdom of Kārta, which had dominated the upper valley for decades. In 1857 ʿUmar laid siege to Medine, a new post established by the expanding French, but he suffered heavy casualties when Governor Louis Faidherbe arrived with new troops from the coast. ʿUmar then led his survivors to the east to regroup, then back to the west in 18581859 in a bold recruiting campaign along the river valley. With his predominantly new army he defeated the renowned Bambara kingdom of the Middle Niger, Segu, and made the city of the same name the capital of his far-flung but poorly organized state.

In 1862 ʿUmar led most of his troops against the caliphate of Hamdullāhi in retaliation for Hamdullāhi's assistance to Segu against the jihād. He achieved an initial victory, but the Hamdullāhi Fulbe, aided by the Kunta clerics of Timbuktu, revolted in 1863, destroyed the Umarian forces, and killed ʿUmar in 1864. The Umarian jihād ended at this point, but the fragile polity it created endured until the French conquest some thirty years later. The principal leader of the state was ʿUmar's oldest son, Amad, commonly called Amadu Sheku, and its principal capital was Segu.

The basic structure of the Umarian jihād consisted of recruitment of men and weapons in the west, in the regions of Senegal and Fūta Jalon, to wage war in the east, against the Mandinka and Bambara. ʿUmar relied particularly on the Muslims of the west who, like himself, were dissatisfied citizens of the Fulbe states of Fūta Jalon, Bundu, and Fūta Tōro. He fought against people who could be generally classified as non-Muslims and who blocked the emergence of Islam in the western Sudan. The Segu Bambara were regarded as particularly notorious "pagans." The campaign against Hamdullāhi was not part of the original design of the jihād. When ʿUmar decided to undertake it he wrote a long apologia to justify his actions, and the dissension produced by the conflict of Muslim against Muslim, and Fulbe against Fulbe, helped produce the revolt of 18631864.

The basic structure of the Umarian jihād contrasts with the experience of earlier Fulbe-led jihād s and the states (Sokoto, Hamdullāhi, and the two Fūtas) that resulted from them. The earlier pattern consisted of internal revolutions against "pagan" or nominal Muslim ruling classes, followed by expansion to the exterior. This pattern was codified in the writings of the Sokoto leadership and adopted by ʿUmar himself in his own writings. ʿUmar could not, however, lead a second internal revolution in his native land, and he decided to recruit in the west and fight to the east. He was highly successful militarily, but he laid little basis for an Islamic administration or for the incorporation or conversion of his new subjects. His twelve years of war have left decidedly different impressions in today's Senegal and Mali: In the first he is the crusading Islamic hero; in the second he is the invader who used Islam as a pretext.

ʿUmar left one lasting precedent to Muslims of all persuasions in West Africa: the example of emigration (hijrah in Arabic, fergo in Fulfulde) away from European expansion. In his desperate recruiting drive of 18581859, he called on Senegalese Muslims to leave a land that had become "polluted" by French expansion. His son Amadu followed his example in the 1890s at the time of French conquest of the interior, and other Muslim leaders, such as the caliph of Sokoto in 1903, did the same thing. They journeyed to the east, along the old pilgrimage routes, in search of places where the faithful could preserve Islamic state and society.


The most complete work on the holy war of ʿUmar Tal is my own book The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1985). The most complete account of the state after ʿUmar is B. O. Oloruntimehin's The Segu Tukulor Empire (London, 1972). Sidi Mohamed Mahibou and Jean-Louis Triaud have produced an excellent annotated translation of ʿUmar's apologia for his campaign against Hamdullahi in Voilà ce qui est arrivé: Bayān mā waqaʿa d'al-āgg ʿUmar al-Fūtī (Paris, 1983), while John Ralph Willis has studied ʿUmar's earlier works in "Jihād fī sabīl-Allāh: Its Doctrinal Basis in Islam and Some Aspects of Its Evolution in Nineteenth Century West Africa," Journal of African History 8 (1967): 395415.

New Sources

Hanson, John M. Migration, Jihad and Muslim Authority in West Africa: The Futanke Colonies in Karta. Bloomington, Ind., 1996.

Oumarou Watta. Rosary, Mat and Molo: A Study in the Spiritual Epic of Omar Seku Tal. New York, 1993.

Robinson, David. The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford and New York, 1985.

Willis, John Ralph. In the Path of Allah: the Passion of al-Hajj Umar: An Essay into the Nature of Charisma in Islam. London, 1989.

David Robinson (1987)

Revised Bibliography