Nationalism and Ummatic Solidarity: Reflections on a British memo (1917) from colonial East Africa

The impacts of colonial machinations, including but not limited to those of the World War I era, continue to rip through the umma. We see these impacts in particular places—Palestine, Sudan, and elsewhere—but also in wider themes, such as nationalism.

In 1917, two British colonial officers serving in East Africa wrote a memo based on their conversation with Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919), one architect of the infamous British-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The Agreement represented a plan to divvy up the Ottoman Empire after the conclusion of World War I. The 1917 memo, meanwhile, offers insight into Sykes’ thinking about the Caliphate and nationalism in the Muslim World.

The three-page memo, entitled “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” was an appendix to a longer colonial intelligence report.1 In the memo, the authors described the political situation in Britain’s East African colonies in terms of the relative balance of Islam, Christianity, and “paganism”:

A general survey of the area under consideration shows two large Mohammedan [sic] populations separated by Uganda, where there is a considerable Christian population and a number of pagan tribes, extending in all directions beyond the limits of Uganda, whose tendency is to adopt Islam with ease and enthusiasm. There is therefore a considerable field for Mohammedan propaganda, and the possibility of a wide movement towards Pan-Islamism in the near future makes it desirable to define the Government policy towards Islam in these parts and to take steps to adopt suitable measures in anticipation.2

Colonial fears of “propaganda” were widespread during this time, partly because of World War I itself, but also, in the African context, because of anti-colonial rebellions in Sudan (1881-1898), Somalia (1896-1925), Libya (1911-1931), and elsewhere. After World War I, events contributed further to colonial authorities’ anxiety, for example the 1919 revolution in Egypt. The British also feared individual institutions, above all al-Azhar University, regarding them as epicenters of dangerous pan-Islamic influences.

A heavy dose of racism informed British attitudes toward “Pan-Islam” in Africa. The British tended to view African Muslims as susceptible to outside influences and easily agitated to violence and “fanaticism.” As the authors of the 1917 memo wrote, in one grotesque line, “The negro turned Mohammedan [sic] is a fiercer and more fanatical upholder of the faith than the more educated Arab.”3

The memo’s authors, after surveying East Africa’s basic religious demography and conversion trends, stated, “In respect to Pan-Islam the British Government is confronted with a dilemma: either to pose as a Great Mohammedan power herself…[or] to counteract the Pan-Islamic propaganda by suitable measures.”4 The authors concluded that the first option was awkward and had already been tried (one might add that France, too, had experimented with this approach even at the time of Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798). The authors thus endorsed the second option, which brought them to the question of the Caliphate and nationalism.

For the authors, Islamic unity and nationalism were effectively in a zero-sum competition: “It is a characteristic of Islam to attempt to unite different nations under the one religious flag as if they were a single nationality.” A strong sense of unity and “a strong guiding hand at the head of Mohammedan [sic] affairs,” meant that nationalism(s) would be weak, while strong nationalisms would close off space for Muslim unity. The authors recommended, then, two lines of effort: first, establishing “a weak central Government, with no more than a spiritual ascendancy over Mohammedans [sic] outside its territories.” More specifically, they continued, this weak central Government should take the form of an “Arab kingdom.” In bluntly racist terms, the authors argued that Arabs were ignorant, conservative, lazy, and inbred, and thus that the “Arab kingdom” would be a poor and backwards place with little leadership potential beyond mere custodianship of the Holy Mosques.5 In the context of 1917, as “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire was underway, the authors likely had in mind for the role of an “Arab kingdom” a Hashemite kingdom under the leadership of Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca (1854-1931), rather than the emerging Saudi state, which would not reach Mecca and Medina until 1924 and 1925, respectively.

The second line of effort the authors recommended was to cultivate “a strong national feeling in every Mohammedan [sic] country, which would make the population more interested in the political and commercial development of their own country than in the Pan-Islamic principle.”6 Interestingly, Sykes and the memo’s authors appeared to be looking far ahead, gesturing even towards independence – which would not come for Britain’s African colonies until the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Sudan’s independence in 1956 and Ghana’s in 1957. The authors cautioned that nationalism needed to be handled with care – a certain dose of nationalism, they implied, would counteract “propaganda,” but too much nationalism could cause anti-colonial uprisings. The authors also feared pan-Africanism and, in particular, the fusion of pan-Islamism and pan-Africanism into a jihad: “Although admittedly a Turkish Jehad would find few followers, an African Jehad would be widely acceptable and would be likely to spread in a very alarming manner.”7

The authors felt, then, that it was worth experimenting with “giving certain quasi-judicial and administrative powers to some selected natives” on a basis that would reinforce their national feeling. At the same time, the authors argued, British authorities should focus on “insulating” large African Muslim populations from the Arab world and from each other in order to prevent the dissemination of pan-Islamic or pan-African ideals. The net effect would be to foster nationalism – indeed, in the context of Sudan, a combination of grudging British respect for Muslims and severe British racism for the “primitive” and “pagan” peoples of the south pushed the authors to conclude that educated Muslims were better candidates to act as the bearers of nationalist sentiment than anyone else in the colony.8

The 1917 memo was neither an isolated document nor was it merely a set of ideas on paper: British policymakers indeed moved, throughout the 1920s and beyond, to constrain linkages between African Muslim populations and Egypt, and to set up schools that would train Africans (including African Muslims) in a mold acceptable to British conceptions of Islam. Three examples of such schools are Gordon College in Sudan, and Katsina College and the Northern Provinces Law School for Arabic Studies in colonial Northern Nigeria. The products of those schools conformed to British expectations in some ways and subverted those expectations in other ways: for example, the prominent Katsina College graduate Ahmadu Bello (1909/1910-1966), who served as Premier of the Northern Region of Nigeria from 1954-1966, was a staunch pan-Islamic activist but also oversaw a reform that sharply curtailed the scope of shari‘a application in Nigeria.

Colonial policymakers were not able to simply make master plans and enforce them, as is amply demonstrated by Britain’s reluctant exit from India and France’s even more reluctant departure from Algeria and Vietnam. Yet colonial machinations had, and continue to have, profound effects, including when it comes to the question of the Caliphate and nationalism. As African countries gained independence in the 1950s and after, departing colonial powers were often able to powerfully influence which leaders took over. Often, these were graduates of colonial schools with largely conservative instincts and with substantial deference to the former metropole, especially but not only in former French colonies.

The question of colonialism, nationalism, and decolonization is complex, to say the least, and a rich academic literature has sought to address it. Most famous within this literature is Benedict Anderson’s understanding of nationalism as forging and speaking to an “imagined community” constituted in part through newspapers, novels, and other manifestations of what Anderson calls “print capitalism.” For Anderson, nationalism is “modular” and can be adopted and adapted outside its original European context. Yet he also argues that the nationalism of states achieving independence from the mid-20th century onwards was qualitatively different from nationalisms elsewhere:

So often in the ‘nation-building’ policies of the new states one sees both a genuine, popular nationalist enthusiasm and a systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist ideology through the mass media, the educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth.9

For Anderson, the Machiavellian, top-down component of nationalism reflects the somewhat arbitrary nature of inherited colonial borders, which placed diverse populations within the boundaries of a single unit. Moreover, he continues, such units were ruled over by “bilingual intelligentsias poised precariously over diverse monoglot populations” – bilingual in the sense of speaking their own tongues in addition to the language of the former metropole.10 For Anderson too, it should be noted, nationalism stands in direct contrast to religious worldviews, in multiple senses: in nationalism’s conception of the community, in nationalism’s conception of time as desacralized, and in nationalism’s relationship to language.

Anderson’s ideas have been heavily critiqued, for example by Partha Chatterjee, who argues that Anderson’s conception of nationalism’s “modularity” leaves no room for colonized peoples to do the imaginative work Anderson describes. For Chatterjee, anti-colonial nationalism is first and foremost a spiritual endeavor: “[Anti-colonial] nationalism declares the domain of the spiritual its sovereign territory and refuses to allow the colonial power to intervene in that domain.”11 Chatterjee draws evidence from India to make this argument, but I find the evidence from Africa to be quite mixed: one can certainly find examples of “spiritual sovereignty” among African Muslim communities suffering under colonial rule, but one can also find numerous examples of colonial power and influence reaching deep into the spiritual domain – and again, at independence the leaders who took power were often those marked (although not controlled) by colonial spiritual influences. And sometimes the same dynamics can be observed in a single phenomenon. Did Senegal’s Sufi orders, for example, carve out spaces of spiritual sovereignty amid French colonialism? Absolutely. Yet were those same orders also fundamental, particularly from the 1920s onward, to the structure and maintenance of colonial rule12 – and then postcolonial rule, with rulers picking up strategic relationships with Sufi leaders right where the French left off?13 Again, absolutely. Spiritual sovereignty is possible to demarcate, but difficult to protect.

A century after the memo discussed here (and many others like it), what are Muslims to make of these colonial inheritances? On the one hand, nationalism remains a powerful force and a powerful idiom that Muslims invoke both consciously and unconsciously – it is difficult to speak of Palestine, or Kashmir, without using a nationalist framework. Nationalism provides a language that can denounce oppression and call for rights and freedoms. On the other hand, nationalisms continue to act as a significant obstacle to ummatic unity. The equation laid out by the authors of the 1917 memo is stark but still convincing: the stronger the national feeling is in various Muslim-majority (and even Muslim-minority) territories, the weaker the potential for a “strong guiding hand” at the center – and vice versa. Even as Muslims around the world fight for increased sovereignty at the national level (whether physically, economically, or spiritually), nationalism can at most be a temporary tool in the hands of Muslims, and a sharp-edged one at that. Anderson’s famous phrase, however, points to a path out of nationalism: other solidarities and communities can, and indeed must be, imagined into being.


Suggested citation:

Alexander Thurston, “Nationalism and Ummatic Solidarity: Reflections on a British memo (1917) from colonial East Africa,” Ummatics, November 13, 2023,



  1. C.A. Willis and J.E. Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 1917, available in the papers of Frederick Lugard, MSS. Lugard 91/1, Folios 132-136, held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.
  2. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 7.
  3. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 8.
  4. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 7.
  5. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 7.
  6. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 7.
  7. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 8.
  8. Willis and Phillips, “Religious-Political Situation in the Sudan and East Africa,” 8.
  9. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition (London and New York: Verso Books, 2006 [1983]), 113-114.
  10. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 114.
  11. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 6.
  12. See David Robinson, Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880-1920 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000).
  13. See Leonardo Villalón, Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal: Disciples and Citizens in Fatick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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