Amir Syed

Assistant Professor

NAU 238
Office Hours: TR, 12:00-1:00PM

Field & Specialties

West African History, Islamic Intellectual History, Atlantic History, Anthropology of Religion, and Arabic Manuscripts


Ph.D. (Anthropology and History) - University of Michigan, 2017

M.A. (Anthropology and History) - University of Michigan, 2012

M.A. (History) - University of British Columbia, 2009

B.A. (History) - University of British Columbia, 2004


I am a cultural and intellectual historian of Muslim communities in Africa, with an emphasis on the Sahel region of West Africa. My broader research interests focus on the transmission and circulation of knowledge, shifts in epistemology, and the changing social, political, and intellectual roles of Muslim scholars over time. I am also interested in questions related to the construction of different forms of authority, the function of various writing practices, as well as placing and investigating the connections between West Africa and the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds.

I am completing a book on the construction of religious authority and political imagination in West Africa through a historical ethnography of the teachings, actions, and political thought of one of the most important nineteenth century West African Muslim intellectuals, ʿUmar Tall (d.1864). ʿUmar Tall studied numerous Islamic religious sciences, including jurisprudence and theology, and became one of the most significant representatives of the nascent Tijāni Sufi order. Beginning in 1852, he took up arms to initially defend his community of followers and subsequently established a large polity in Western Sahel and the Middle Niger Valley. My book challenges teleological approaches to ʿUmar Tall, as well as established narratives that only analyze him as a traditional temporal ruler or a state builder. Instead, by focusing on his mastery over Islamic knowledge and the changing nature of his community in West Africa, I focus on the different layers of his authority and highlight how ʿUmar Tall’s religious authority became the site through which he worked out his own political authority and a new vision of sovereignty. The methodological and theoretical approaches of my book on political theology and sovereignty will provide a framework for new studies on the relationship between religion and politics in the precolonial African history.



Sovereignty and Sainthood: ʿUmar Tall, Islamic Knowledge, and Political Imagination in West Africa (1800-1864) (in progress)

Jihad of the Pen: The Sufi Literature of West Africa. Co-authored with Rudolph Ware and Zachary Wright (American University of Cairo Press, 2018).

Articles and Chapters

Introduction to “Le Califat de Hamdallāhi: Une histore de l’intérier” co-authored with Mauro Nobili, Afriques, 12 (2021).

“Political Theology in Nineteenth-Century West Africa: Al-Ḥajj ʿUmar, the Bayān mā waqaʿa, and the Conquest of the Caliphate of Ḥamdallāhi” The Journal of African History 62:3 (November 2021), 358-376.


“Between Jihād and History: Re-conceptualizing the Islamic Revolutionary Movements of West Africa” The Palgrave Handbook of Islam in Africa, edited by Fallou Ngom, Mustapha Kurfi, Toyin Falola, Palgrave Press (2020), 93-116.


Introduction to “From Texts to Meanings: Close Reading of the Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa,” co-authored with Charles Stewart, Islamic Africa, 9:1 (2018), 1-8.

“Poetics of Praise: Love and Authority in al-Hajj ‘Umar Tal’s Safīnat al-saʿāda li-ahl ḍuʿuf wa-l-najāda, 7:2 (2016), 210-238.

Co-edited Special Journal Issues

Le Califat de Hamdallāhi: Une histore de l’intérier, A special Issue of Afriques: Débats, méthodes et terrains d’histoire, 12 (2021).

From Texts to Meanings: Close Reading of the Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa, A special Issue of Islam in Africa, 9:1 (2018