There have been Muslims in West Africa since the XIth century, if not earlier. The region that is now Mali was the center of several famous Islamic empires, notably the Ghana Empire (VIIIth-XIthcentury) (Dieterlen & Sylla, 1992) the Songhai Empire (1464-1591) (Cissoko, 1996), and states established by a succession of jihads led by various Muslim armies.
TarîqâhTîjâniyyah in Senegal
Islam arrived in Senegal a thousand years ago. Of the 90% of Senegalese who are Muslim today, most follow one of the Sufi orders – congregations formed around marabouts (spiritual guides) and with their own religious practices – that were established after the seventeenth century. In each case, a hierarchical structure allows Sufi leaders to exercise substantial social influence. Almost all brotherhoods have links across West Africa and into North Africa. Shaykh Ahmed at-Tîjânî (1737-1815) established the Tîjâniyyah in Algeria. He later moved to Morocco, where his mausoleum in Fez became an important place of pilgrimage. A Senegalese member of the brotherhood, Umar Tall (1797-1864), launched a jihad that spread the Tîjâniyyah from Senegal to Segou in Mali. Malick Sy (1855-1922) created the main (ethnically Wolof) branch of the brotherhood, based in the Senegalese town of Tivouane. Another branch was created by Abdulaye Niass (1850-1922) in Kaolack, Senegal, and spread to the Gambia and as far east as northern Nigeria (Mbacke, 2005).
Ahmadou Bamba (1850-1927) created the Murîdiyyah (Mulago, 2005). [i] This brotherhood, typically Senegalese, emphasizes work, success, discipline, and absolute obedience to marabouts. Less numerous than the Tîjânîs, the Murîds nevertheless boast superior organization, discipline, and economic commitment, which gives them enormous influence. And they have a special affinity with the largest ethnic group, the Wolof. Based in Touba, the Murîds dominated peanut production – a major source of income for the French – during the colonial period. One of its branches, Baay Fal, reflects the diversity of West African Islam (its dreadlocked followers drink alcohol, dance, and are known for their art).
Originating in Baghdad, the Qâdiriyyah was the first Sufi brotherhood to settle in Senegal as part of a series of reforms imposed by Moctar al Kabir Kounta, an XVIIIth century Islamic leader in Timbuktu, Mali. Several branches were created, notably, in the city of Ndiassane, the center of the Kounta Qâdiriyyah in Senegal is still deeply linked to northern Mauritania, Mali, and eastern Niger. Finally, the Layene is the smallest of the brotherhoods and is popular among the Lebou ethnic group. Centered in Yoff, it probably represents about 1% of the Muslim population (Ryan, 2000).
Despite early resistance to the French incursion into Senegal – which began in the late XVIIth century and culminated in the creation of French West Africa in 1895 – the leaders of the brotherhoods developed a close relationship with the colonial state and its successor after independence. By 1910, brotherhood leaders and the French saw the political and economic benefits of a more cooperative relationship (Grandhomme, 2004). In exchange for the religious leaders’ pacification of the population and acceptance of colonial rule, the French allowed them to reap immense benefits from trade, particularly from the production of peanuts, which remains one of Senegal’s most important exports (Nobili, 2021). The brotherhoods became guardians between the population and the state, and conferred legitimacy on the latter. Thus this state of affairs has become a symbiotic relationship that has built peace and security in Senegal, as well as economic growth. [ii]
Relations between the State and religion did not undermine the deep attachment of the leaders of Senegal’s independence to secularism. As president, Léopold Senghor (1960-80) reinforced the dividing line between the secular and the sacred, as did a strong tradition of left-wing intellectualism. Yet Senegal’s international ties have also been marked by a certain duality (Cooper, 2010). History links him to Europe and its former colonizer. The sense of independence and belonging to the global Muslim community has led it to play an active role in multilateral international organizations (it hosted the United Nations General Assembly twice), in multilateral Islamic organizations (it twice hosted the OIC summit) and to cultivate ties with the Arab world (Cellar, 1995).
Indeed, over the past decades more Salafist organizations have funded mosques and Islamic institutes. The latter are generally located in peripheral urban areas, such as Koloba, in Dakar. The NGOs funding these religious and educational institutions have recruited teachers from Togo, Benin, Guinea, and elsewhere in the region, and have been described as working like “sects”, supporting a range of other services, including health, well construction, burials and cemeteries.
The Salafists have asserted themselves more in Sufi homes (Østebø, 2015). In Tivouane, the heart of the tîjâniyyah, a Salafist mosque was recently built. Salafist influence has also increased in Touba, home of the Murîdiyyah. Many people in Senegal are concerned that funding for Salafist influence comes from Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A prominent Murîdiyyah figure said his brotherhood was fighting an “uphill battle” against the Salafists.
However, the separation between Sufis and Salafis is not always clear. Some Salafist imams come from Sufi backgrounds. Some Sufi leaders, rather than resisting Gulf-trained imams, adopt Salafists, (Meservey, 2021) such as crossing their arms when praying instead of keeping them to one side or ending prayers with “Amin. Allahu Akbar!” “. And the discourse of the “neo-brotherhood” organizations (new brotherhood), which ensure the security of the brotherhoods, may closely resemble that of the Salafists. This is the case of the Mustarshidîns(for the Tijâniyyah) and the Thiantacuns (for the Mourîdiyya).
On the silent clash of concepts between African Sufism and Salafism (Meservey, 2021) writes:
‘’For centuries, most African Muslims observed their faith according to Sufi practices. Syncretic, mystical, and emphasizing experiencing God, Sufism was well suited to thrive on a continent where traditional religions often had a flexible cosmology that emphasized the supernatural. The fact that illiteracy or a lack of formal theological training was no barrier to fully participating in, or even leading, Sufi rites likely contributed to the practice’s popularity as well.
With its insistence on adherence to the written precepts of certain Islamic holy texts, its ultra-exclusivist worldview, and its strong association with foreign cultures and traditions, Salafism appears as ill-suited for the African context as Sufism is well-suited. Yet today, Salafism dominates the practice of Islam in parts of the continent. In some cases, it has displaced the centuries-long observance of Sufi rites in the span of a few decades.
A confluence of local dynamics that made parts of Africa amenable to Salafi appeals, and the rise of a global Salafi movement supported by wealthy Arab benefactors, explains much of the phenomenon. Those dynamics remain largely the same today, suggesting that Salafism will continue to grow, often at the expense of Sufism. Its expansion will likely follow the same pattern it has followed so far: irregular, falling well short of dominance in many areas, and at times taking on the flavor of the surrounding culture even while the core ideology remains exclusivist and Islamist.’’
Tijâniyya in Mali
There have been Muslims in West Africa since the XIth century, if not earlier. The region that is now Mali was the center of several famous Islamic empires, notably the Ghana Empire (VIIIth-XIthcentury) (Dieterlen & Sylla, 1992) the Songhai Empire (1464-1591) (Cissoko, 1996), and states established by a succession of jihads led by various Muslim armies. In towns and villages bordering the Sahara – including famous centers of worship and learning such as Djenné, Gao, and Timbuktu – Sunni Islam, often associated with the Qâdirî Sufi brotherhood, was predominant. The XIXth century jihads brought the Tîjânî Sufi brotherhood in force to Mali (although not all of them were led by Tîjânîs), introducing a tradition marked by avowed attempts to reform and renew Islamic practice while helping to create states that claimed to govern according to Islamic law, the sharîcah. However, since Mali was far from being uniformly Muslim at this time, jihad states clashed with those oriented towards traditional religious practices, as well as with each other (Clarck, 1999).
France began its gradual colonization of the region that is now Mali in the mid-nineteenth century and largely completed the project by the early twentieth century. Although French officials initially worked with their favorite Muslim leaders, particularly in Senegal, France eventually adopted a policy of limiting the spread of Islam. French military and administrative officials were constantly wary of potential uprisings by Muslim groups.
Yet the popularity of Islam spread rapidly in Mali during this period, as did debates over the proper forms of religious practice and leadership. In the early twentieth century, a breakaway strain of the Tîjâniyyah emerged in a region that spanned present-day Mauritania and Mali, led by a man known as AhmedouHamahoullah (1881-1943), also known as Sheikh Hamallah, the Marabout of Nioro or the Sheriff of Nioro. (Hames, 1983). He tried to settle in Nioro du Sahel (then a trading town), but French officials deported him several times for opposing their authority. He died in France in 1943. One of his sons, now called the Sheriff of Nioro, now heads the branch of the Tîjâniyyah founded by his father,hasg helped expand the group’s political and economic power in Mali (Soares, 2005).
The 1930s and 1940s saw the growth of another tradition of Islamic thought and practice, partly influenced by developments in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in the Muslim world in general. This tradition was characterized by a strong desire to reform educational and religious practices, to spread the teaching of Arabic, and to return Islamic practice to its roots in the Qur’ân and Sunnah – the teachings and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his companions, the Salaf as-Sâlih (pious ancestors). Various groups of Salafist or otherwise reformist Muslims in Mali adopted this tradition beginning in the mid-1940s (Soares, 2004). While followers of different traditions and French authorities have often called them “Wahhabists” (referring to the religious practice that originated in the eighteenth century in what is now Saudi Arabia), these Muslims most often describe themselves as “Sunnis” (Creevey, 1985).
At the same time, other reformers emerged within the Sufi brotherhoods, notably the Tîjâniyyah. One of these figures, Saad Oumar Touré, established a modernized Islamic school in the city of Ségou in 1946 (Bourdarias, 2009). This school focused on teaching Arabic and religion without breaking with Sufism – a tradition that the Salafist community largely rejected (Lebovich, November 1, 2019).
Shaykh Ibrahima Niasse and the Education of Tîjânî Women
The prevalence of Sufism throughout West Africa has allowed women to take on leadership roles not usually afforded to them by their societies or other more orthodox forms of Islam. Specifically, the Tîjâniyyah order, primarily located in Senegal and Nigeria, has played a key role in expanding women’s access to the practices of this religious movement (Ahmed, 1992).
One of the main characteristics of Sufi teachings is the master-student relationship, in which the master is known as the muqaddam (ah), or spiritual guide. For most of history, this position was reserved for men, but with the teachings of Shaykh Ibrahima Niasse (1900-1975) (Mokhtar Ba, 1983) many women were appointed to serve as muqaddamah within the Tîjâniyyah order. However, in assuming these leadership roles, women must adopt characteristics that keep them inherently subordinate to their male counterparts (Badran, 2004).
Women’s voices indicate that anyone with a true connection to the higher deities does not see a separation between the masculine and the feminine. There is a conscious resistance to the Western liberal feminist view of gender relations, and Sufi women of the Tîjânî order express their willingness to create gender relations in their own way, which often reflect indigenous cultural values. The actions and words of these women reveal a type of feminism that ultimately liberates and empowers women who participate in leadership roles within the Tîjâni order in Senegal and Nigeria (Frede, 2019).
In the early twentieth century, gender roles were rapidly transformed with the ideas and messages advocated by Shaykh Ibrahima Niasse. Unlike the messages of other Sufi leaders and brotherhoods of the time, Niasse advocated accessibility and acceptance of all people. His movement, called fayḍa, or ‘’the flood’’, brought about incredible changes for women and the less educated in society (Huston, 2001).
The beginning of his movement took place in 1929 when the Shaykh announced to his followers that through a new system of education, tarbiyyah, any person, woman or man, of high or low status, educated or not, could acquire the spiritual knowledge of God, or macrifah (Ndiaye, 2019) through a new system of education. Shaykh Niasse appointed many women to become muqaddamahs, or spiritual guides, during his movement, but many remain unknown due to their adherence to isolation from public life (Hill, 2010: 386).
Ndiaye Saliou introduces Chaykh Niasse’s pedagogical philosophy as follows (Ndiaye, 2019:105):
[”In order to identify its semantic evolution and its use in the history of ideas, a preliminary analysis of the etymology of the concept “al-fayḍa” is necessary. This word is a distant derivative of the verb fâḍa, which means to overflow, to afflux or to flood. It thus plunges us into a maritime environment where the first derivative, maṣdarfayḍ, refers to a powerful gush of water that cannot be contained. On the other hand, in a figurative sense, the dictionary suggests the overflow or flow of sirr (secret) from the heart. This meaning is much closer to the Sufi usage. From a second derivation, from fayḍ, the word al-fayḍa is of rare use outside of the mystical context where it has been referred to, in a famous quotation attributed to Shaykh Ahmad At-Tijânî. Thus, it carries the same meaning (flow, overflow, emanation…) with a grain of insinuation to generosity, power, large volume or a large quantity.”]
[‘’Afin de cerner son évolution sémantique et son emploi dans le domaine de l’histoire des idées, une analyse préalable de l’étymologie du concept « al-fayḍa» s’impose. Ce mot est un dérivé lointain du verbe fâḍa qui signifie déborder, affluer ou inonder. Il nous plonge ainsi dans un environnement maritime où le premier dérivé, le maṣdarfayḍ, fait état d’un puissant jaillissement d’eau qu’on ne peut pas contenir. Par ailleurs, au sens figuré, le dictionnaire propose le débordement ou flux du sirr (secret) du cœur. Ce sens est beaucoup plus proche de l’emploi soufi. D’une seconde dérivation, à partir de fayḍ, le mot al-fayḍa est d’un emploi rare en dehors du contexte mystique où il a été fait cas, dans une célèbre citation attribuée à Cheikh Ahmad At-Tijânî. Ainsi, il est porteur de la même signification (flux, débordement, émanation…) avec un grain d’insinuation à la générosité, à la puissance, au volume important ou à une grande quantité.’’]
Many of these women are being revealed, and their experiences are becoming understandable as second and third-generation women now occupy positions of power within the Tîjâniyyah order (Huston, 1937:736). However, many others have a very different view of women as leaders, and Shaykh Niasse has pointed out that the “inherent” traits of women are clear indicators of their position as muqaddamahs (Gray, 1998).
Some women may believe that they do not possess the qualities considered “inherent” to women, but in many areas of society, women must act within the law. Shaykh Niasse’s appointment of women as spiritual guides was not to break down barriers but rather to maintain the gender separation that already existed. Furthermore, women’s inclination to be mothers made them the perfect candidates to serve as muqaddamahs, as the person must be a faithful caregiver who is able to teach others about the spiritual process, according to Shaykh Niasse (Hill, 2010: 382).