Benevolent lecturer and scholar who was an authority on Islam in Africa The Irish Times August 4, 2012
DONAL CRUISE O’Brien, who has died aged 71, was Emeritus Professor of Political Studies (Africa) at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and a leading authority on Islam in Africa.
His interest in Africa was sparked by holidays he spent as a student in Katanga, where his father Conor was the UN representative. When his father served as vice-chancellor of the University of Accra, he visited Ghana.
He chose for his PhD thesis the political situation of the Sufi Muslims in Senegal. He was attracted by the idea of dealing with religious communities, with believers, and reaching people whose organisation had little or nothing to do with European principles.
Also, since the leadership of Senegal’s Sufi communities, marabouts, had established their hierarchies in parallel with the structure of the colonial state, he saw the possibility of a comparison with the role of Christian monasteries in Ireland.
And, in terms of nationalist politics, he was intrigued by the question as to whether the marabouts were lackeys of colonialism or defenders of their own turf.
In Paris he outlined his ideas to the eminent anthropologist Georges Balandier, who suggested that he confine his study to the Muridiyya (Mouride brotherhood): “They are the most interesting ones.” O’Brien adopted Balandier’s suggestion; it made his career, he later said.
The thesis was published as The Mourides of Senegal: a descriptive and analytical study of a Muslim brotherhood (1971). It focuses on the origin and development of the order among the Wolof peoples, the largest and most powerful of Senegal’s “tribal groups”. It examines its structure as well as its economic and political significance.
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