Umar ibn Sa’id Tal

ca. 1794–1864
Muslim leader in West Africa

A Muslim cleric, or religious leader, Umar ibn Sa’id Tal played an important role in spreading Islam across a broad area of West Africa. Through his writing, military achievements, and his role in the religious brotherhood of the Tijaniyya, he remains a prominent figure for Muslims in West Africa.

Born in the valley of the Senegal River, Umar was the son of a local cleric and teacher in a Muslim society dominated by the FULANI people. A gifted student, Umar trained as a Muslim cleric, studying Islamic law, theology, and literature. He was also initiated into the Tijaniyya.

Between 1828 and 1830 Umar made three pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Arabia, earning the honorary title al-Hajj (“the pilgrim”). Soon after, he began spreading the Tijaniyya brotherhood in West Africa. Umar spent time in many of the Muslim centers of West Africa and by the 1840s he had developed a very loyal group of followers. During this period he also wrote his major work, Al-Rimah, which remains an important resource for the Tijaniyya today.

Between 1852 and his death in 1864, Umar led his followers and other Muslims in a jihad, or holy war, against non-Muslim kingdoms in the upper Senegal and Niger River valleys. In 1862 he conquered the Fulani state of Segu on the NIGER RIVER. However, the inhabitants of Segu soon joined forces with a powerful leader in TIMBUKTU. Umar’s army was defeated by the armies of Timbuktu and its allies, and Umar was killed. (See also Islam in Africa.)