And if their baraka I’ve not achieved
I’ll mention it at length and frequently
There's joy in ‘membering them repeatedly
It spurs the rider on and gives him speed
If after them, I’m left alone, enough for me
Is that I cling to them dependently– Shaykh Dan Tafa
Two major theses, now mostly discredited, have implicitly structured the study of Islam in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first is the thesis of decline, specifically intellectual decline from the so-called golden age of sophisticated and creative medieval philosophical, scientific, and metaphysical thinkers such as al-Farābī, Ibn Sīnā, al-Ghazālī, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Ibn Rushd, Ibn ‘Arabī, and Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī to a simpler, pietistic, anti-rational ‘mystical’, magical, and legalistic intellectual activity of the sixteenth century onwards. Characteristic of this thesis is the assertion that Islamic philosophy ended (or ended in the Islamic West) with Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) (an assertion which, ironically, many twentieth-century Arab intellectuals adopted on the basis of these European sources) being eclipsed by dogmatic philosophy (kalām) and the mysticism of Sufism (taṣawwuf). In reality, the disciplines of falsafa (philosophy), kalām (theology), and taṣawwuf (Sufism) each took up theoretical discussions and arguments that would be considered ‘philosophical’ by almost any measure, and by the thirteenth century onwards, these disciplines had significantly interpenetrated each other.
More recently, this thesis has been updated to acknowledge the thriving traditions of falsafa in the Ottoman and Persianate Islamic lands after Ibn Rushd, and the significant philosophical activity of certain works of logic, theology, and Sufism in the Islamic West. However, it is still generally believed that falsafa, as an independent discipline, more or less died out in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab heartlands by the thirteenth century. Furthermore, while the study of and works on logic and philosophical theology in the Maghreb are beginning to receive the scholarly attention they deserve, the tradition of theoretical or philosophical Sufism is also supposed to have more or less migrated east in the thirteenth century along with figures such as Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240) and Ibn Sab‘īn (d. 1271).
The second structuring thesis, Islam noir, posited a racial and geographic divide between the ‘pristine’ Arab, rational, militant Islam of North Africa and the Middle East, and the magical, mystical, more peaceful ‘black Islam’ in which illiterate sub-Saharan Africans worshipped wonder-working marabouts.