Al-Hajj Omar ibn Said Tal (ca. 1797-1864) was a West African Moslem leader who started a holy war and established a far-reaching empire on the Upper Niger.
Al-Hajj Omar was born in the Futa Toro near the town of Podar on the Senegal River. His father was a Moslem teacher, and young Omar was educated by prominent Moslem scholars of the Tijaniyya brotherhood, one of whom persuaded him to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1826.
The pilgrimage, and Omar's subsequent sojourn in Mecca, was the turning point in his life. While in Mecca he completed his religious studies and was initiated into the leadership of the Tijaniyya order, earning the designation of khalifa of the western Sudan. As a result, Omar had access to the ruling hierarchy throughout the entire Sudan, which was to facilitate his later political career.
On his return journey between 1835 and 1838 Omar visited Bornu and Sokoto, married into the royal families of both states, and learned the tactics of the jihad, or holy war. After leaving Sokoto in 1837, he traveled to Macina, where he was given a less friendly welcome by the ruling family, who were members of a rival religious order, the Qadiriyya. Moving on to Ségou, he was imprisoned for a short time before being released and settling finally, in 1838, in the Futa Jallon.
For the next 10 years Omar preached and proselytized in the Futa Jallon, where he acquired a substantial number of loyal supporters. Indeed, his adherents were so numerous, well armed, and well financed that Omar's power became a serious threat to the traditional rulers of the Futa Jallon. In 1849 Omar was forced to move to the town of Dinguiray near the headwaters of the Niger River, from where he launched a series of small wars against the local non-Moslem states.
By 1852 Omar believed his forces sufficiently strong to declare holy war against all those who would not accept Islam, and later even against Moslems who would not acknowledge his teachings. During the next decade his troops, the vanguard of which were dedicated Tokolar talibes (students of religion) from the Futa Jallon, conquered the lands stretching between the headwaters of the Niger and Timbuktu, creating a unified Tokolar empire which dominated the western Sudan until it was conquered by the French in the last decade of the 19th century.
Omar's objectives during the early years of his empire remain unclear and a subject of controversy. Some scholars believe that he was simply an adventurer and opportunist who desired above all to construct a personal kingdom; others have argued that Omar's primary interests were theological and that he wished only to establish an Islamic state governed by the Sharia, or Islamic law, and dedicated to God. Some students believe that his jihad was directed primarily at the French who had begun to encroach upon his homeland, the Futa Toro, after 1852, while others argue that he was less interested in the French than he was in conquering the pagan and older Islamic states in the basin of the upper Niger. Omar was probably inspired by all these diverse motives at different times. In any event, before his death in 1864 Omar was able to unite his followers into a formidable military and political force which dominated the western Sudan for another 2 decades before being broken up by the French.
Further Reading on Al-Hajj Omar ibn Said Tal
There are solid biographies of al-Hajj Omar in John Spencer Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (1962), and Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, The Tijaniyya: A Sufi Order in the Modern World (1965). For shorter accounts and background material see Martin A. Klein, Islam and Imperialism in Senegal: Sine-Saloum, 1847-1914 (1968), and John D. Hargreaves, ed., France and West Africa: An Anthology of Historical Documents (1969).