Book Review: Guy Martin, African Political Thought

I recently read African Political Thought by Guy Martin, Professor of Political Science at Winston-Salem State University, USA. An astute Africanist, Martin proudly surveys Africa’s transformation from the ancient to post-colonial. A short <150 pages, Martin has done the amateur reader of African political thought a great service in writing this book. I wrote some reflections of the book along the way. Chapter 1 & 2 below.  apt

The resulting reflection is an inquiry into the spread of Islam from Arab lands into Africa and its impact on indigenous society from the eleventh century and forward. Chapters one and two of Guy Martin’s African Political Thought offers insight into the continuity and change occurring in African societies from Morocco to the Western Sudan as Islam swept across the continent, ingraining and cross-fertilizing in some lands more than others. Supplemental sources, primarily involving Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta are briefly referenced for the purpose of presenting their points of view in support or in contradiction of information already presented by Guy Martin. Martin make’s the argument that indigenous African societies were organized politically at the lineage level, whereby the chief or leader made decisions with the informed consent of his people. This was achieved through three mechanism: the privy council, or those who were friends and family of the leader, acting as the Aristocracy; the council of Elders, who made up the eldest and thus wisest of the village; and the village assembly itself, where “major decisions concerning the society were adopted and ordinary people were able to express their opinions…and actively participate in a political decision-making process based on majority rule” (Martin, pg 12). I think Martin is rather uncritical in his assessment of indigenous leadership as immaculately benevolent and showing no signs of authoritarianism.

Nonetheless, African tribes did have the ability to “vote with their feet”, abandoning a leader en masse under dire circumstances. I found this to be a noteworthy contrast from early Arab society. In a desert society, a tribe must choose its land carefully. There may be no other land where they are welcomed. In African society the people are everything, the land means little, the village can move. In Arab society, the land means everything, and to move could mean to perish in the desert. Therefore Arab society has less ability to check the power of a ruler who has the force to simply throw his enemies off the land.

The comparisons become more pronounced once Islam moves into Africa. In fact “Islam had, by 1100, ceased to be an exclusively Arab religion” (Martin, pg 21). The transition of Islam into indigenous Africa proved to be quite easy in some realms, for example the notion of communal agreement. While I maintain that Martin’s interpretation of participation in popular affairs to be quite rosy, it does create a portrait of a governing structure responsive to the calls of the people. In Islamic jurisprudence (Fikh in Arabic) there is the concept of Ijma, whereby consensus of the Muslim community is sought, generally on religious issues. Islam early on and still in some schools of thought is adaptive to the dominant culture. Therefore local customs and traditions can be accepted by the faithful Muslim. This explains why Islam was able to spread to Africa without seeking to dominate indigenous people’s belief or value system. In addition, the treatment of women indigenous and Muslim had similarities. In fact, the first female monarch in the world was in Africa. Women had in Egypt “naturally inherited political rights” and “Manika women enjoyed a high social status and a high degree of freedom” (Martin, pg 17). Muslim women, too, “have enjoyed a legal status far superior to that enjoyed by women in other religious systems but equal to that enjoyed by women in indigenous Africa societies” (Martin, pg 23) from Ancient Egypt and Kush. The role of women acts as another example where the transition from solely indigenous to cross-fertilization was complementary in Africa.

Conversion to Islam wasn’t considered a necessity, but a means by which Africans could communicate their desire to trade and enjoy a high political status with Muslim rulers. Many traders converted to build relations with merchants to the East. I found it noteworthy that Islam acted as a unifying moral code for the movement of goods and the security of credit and transit for Africans and Arabs alike that cooperated.

I did, in my own supplemental research find readings which contradicted this depiction of equality and tolerance between North African and Arabic Muslims and Sub-Sahara Africa Muslims. To put these into context, In North Africa, Islam was spread by Arab conquest, but in the rest of Africa “Islam was spread peacefully by first Arab then Berber and other indigenous African traders” (Martin, pg 28). Therefore many of the particulars of Islam were not picked up on in the process of peaceful conversion, preferring to keep indigenous values. For Ibn Battuta according to Ross E. Dunn on page 299 of The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century:

            …the inclination of the Sudanese to combine Islamic practice with regional custom was no end of irritation to him. His prejudice, if he were to try and explain it, had nothing directly to do with race. It was a matter of the failure of the Malians to conduct themselves according to the normative standards of the pious Muslims from North African cities might expect from of virtuous officers of state…Ibn Battuta…would find the Sudanese coming up short in their attention to moral and legal niceties.

This included relations between the genders, where in some African societies women would mix freely with men, and even go about uncovered. So I did find contradictions in the neat configurations set by Guy Martin and my own research. Overall, the ability to Islam to cross into Africa was more a product of increased commercial and cultural contact between Africa and the Arab lands, as well as the Arab conquest of North Africa and its resulting geopolitical effects on the rest of the continent. Ibn Khaldun states in The Muqadimmah that “…a nation dominated by another, neighboring nation will show a great deal of assimilation and imitation.” (Ibn Khaldun, pg 116). This held true for North Africa more than the Sub Sahara, but both regions still managed to maintain indigenous culture, traditions, and values, and even combine it with Islam.


Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. With ed. U of California, 2012. Print.

Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History. Ed. N.J. Dawood. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.

Martin, Guy. African Political Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

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