Reading Post: The Rise of the State System in Africa by Carolyn Warner

Reading Journal

Carolyn Warner, The Rise of the State System in Africa

Carolyn Warner displays a rare eagerness to engage with massive questions about the structure of human society and how it applies in Africa. Many of the systems of societal organization she examines probe deeply into the origins and utility of an institution modern thinkers often take as a given: the state. The concept of the nation-state, popularized in sixteenth century Europe and globalized by colonization, is a relatively new one, which explains some of its shortcomings outside of Europe.

While scholars certainly debate precisely what a nation-state is, its general definition is perhaps best provided by the European examples that spawned it. Colonial era France, Britain, and Germany may appear anything but similar at first, but at their hearts each possessed a fairly uniform culture, racial populous, territorial boundary and agreement that they were one people. There was an understanding and agreement that the structure of society would work towards benefitting this (generally) unified citizenry’s best interests and that it would provide security against any and all external physical threats. This very broad concept of a nation-state seems to have a fairly universal application to any human society, and this is reflected in Europeans’ attempts to project it upon those they conquered. Many of the qualities this nation model is built on however take very different forms in African societies.

Unity is critical to a nation-state, as all those governed have to generally agree on common interests to work towards and must, at a fundamental level, think together. This level of cohesion is essentially a necessity in the geographically cramped conditions of Europe, but for a vast variety of reasons does not appear as commonly in African societies. North African Islamic states did not have the same degree of centralization the Catholic church afforded some European states. Indeed, the multiplicity of cultures that follow Muslim teachings complicates just what qualities a Muslim state needs to succeed.

The nature of Islam and its teachings on how to govern draw no significant lines between the ruler of the society and the head of the religion. Merging the roles of political and religious leadership into one (often referred to as a Caliph) has a multitude of implications that made pre-colonial North African societies largely unfit to meet the definition of a “nation.” The separation of church and state was integral to the European concept of the nation and typically came in the form of the Pope/Church’s authority vs that of the King. The duality of a Caliph’s role put them in charge of not just a state, but of an entire religion. Islam’s interpretation of this role was that this authority meant the Caliph ruled all Muslims, not just those within the physical territory he controlled. This view subverted the European idea that a state was defined by its physical borders. More importantly however, this world perspective made the head of Islam responsible for a vast and diverse array of cultures, local political systems, and concepts of governance.

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