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SENEGAL. Possessed of a strong regional cohesion and distinct Islamic identity for many centuries, Senegal lies just below the westernmost part of the Sahara, which constitutes today the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Senegal is circumscribed by the arc of the Senegal River, which begins in the mountains of Futa Jalon in today’s Guinea; it flows north before turning increasingly to the west and entering the Atlantic Ocean near the town of St. Louis. The Gambia River arises in the same mountains and cuts through the southern portion of the region; it is partly for this reason that the region is often called Senegambia. The climate is primarily Sahelian, but the increasing rainfall in the south produces a more dense vegetation.

The earliest Islamic communities are identified with Takrur, an area, a state, and possibly also a town that can be correlated with the middle valley of the Senegal River. The term Takrur was eventually applied to West African pilgrims to Mecca of whatever provenance; it is also the root of the term Tokolor, the ethnic label that came to be applied to the inhabitants of the middle valley of the Senegal River in the nineteenth century. Senegalese history was subsequently dominated by a number of states, particularly the Mali empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the Jolof kingdom in the fifteenth and sixteenth. Each of these larger confederations, and the smaller states they comprised, gave encouragement to the practice of Muslim communities at the courts and in the trading centers. Muslim identity was closely tied to the vocation of trade, and Muslim communities lived primarily along the commercial routes and in the political capitals, where they might exercise considerable influence over the courts. Members of the ruling class often claimed to be Muslim, and a few went quite far in their expressions of piety-making the pilgrimage to Mecca, for instance. But more frequently they were “mixers” of religious practices because of the complex roles they played in relation to their subject constituencies.

From time to time some Muslim scholars challenged the coexistence of Muslim and non-Muslim practices and the general weakness of Islamic identity. Sometimes they organized their dissatisfaction in the form of military movements that sought to take power. Setting aside the eleventh-century movement of the Almoravids, whose main influence was just to the north and east of Senegal, the earliest known instance occurred in the late seventeenth century, when the zwdyd or Muslims of Berber origin sought to establish an Islamic state in opposition to both the Arab Ma’qil lineages, who had moved in from the northern Sahara, and the dynasties of the black regimes in northwestern Senegal. This movement, called the toubenan (probably from the Arabic tawbah, “repentance, conversion”), did not succeed for very long, but it did strengthen the more militant Muslim communities in Senegal and lay the groundwork for future protest.

The challenge was picked up in the eighteenth century by sedentary Fulbe scholars. In Futa Jalon, at the headwaters of the Senegal and Gambia rivers, a group of reformers and warriors succeeded over several decades in establishing their control of this very fertile region. They called their regime the Imamate and gave a strong impetus to Islamic education and worship throughout southeastern Senegal and down to Sierra Leone. In the nineteenth century they dominated a very large zone, profited from the capture, sale, and use of slaves, and became an important center for Islamic learning. The scholars of Labe, in particular, established a new pedagogy for writing and teaching in their language, Pular, which they considered second only to Arabic in importance.

Another group of Fulbe reformers came to power at the end of the eighteenth century in Futa Toro, the middle valley and floodplain of the Senegal River and the supposed location of Takrur. They adopted the title of Imamate as well. Although they were not as successful politically or economically as their predecessors in Futa Jalon and could not maintain cohesion after their first imam was killed in the early nineteenth century, the inhabitants of Futa Toro did exercise great influence on Islamic life in Senegal by their example and by the movements of reform they spawned. The best known Futanke leader was `Umar Tal, who led a vast mobilization in Senegambia in order to wage war in the area of the old Mali empire in the mid-nineteenth century. Usually known as al-Hajj `Umar, he was the foremost exponent of the Tijaniyah Sufi order, which spread widely in Senegal and other parts of the Western Sudan under his influence. He has been regarded by many contemporary Senegalese as a hero of Muslim resistance to French rule, even though his main energies were directed against peoples to the east of Senegal. [See the biography of `Umar Tal.]

Another militant reformer of Futanke origin was Ma Ba Diakho, who was active on the north bank of the Gambia River and in Salum in midcentury; he seriously challenged the traditional dynasties and French interests along the coast. In many ways the sharpest challenge to these forces came in the 1870s from the Madiyanke (sons of the Mahdi, a prophetic figure who had been active in Futa Toro earlier in the century). A coalition of French forces and the armies of Cayor and other Wolof kingdoms destroyed the Madiyanke in 1875.

By this time Islamic identity and practice in many areas had become synonymous with protest against the vio-lence and demands of the traditional courts and the growing intrusion of the French, particularly into the peanut basin of west central Senegal where most of the Wolof and Serer ethnic groups lived. This protest echoed earlier statements against the enslavement of Muslims in conjunction with the Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades, but it now took sharper form and singled out the ceddos or slave warriors associated with the traditional courts.

Some Muslim scholars, including those cited above, voiced their protest in the form of militant movements that took the form of jihad. Others confined themselves to the practice of hijrah, of moving away into less populated and less well-controlled zones where they might establish more fully the practice of Islam. These critics of violence, European intervention, and the oppressive status quo usually made little distinction between the so-called traditional dynasties and the supposedly Islamic regimes of Futa Jalon and Futa Toro.

By about 1890 the French had conquered most of the territory of Senegal and the British had established their domination of the slender river valley which constituted colonial Gambia. Recognizing their own military weakness, Muslim leaders and scholars had for some time been exploring ways to survive and nurture the practice of Islam under non-Muslim rule. Some of the pioneers in this process were “white” or Mauritanian scholars who were themselves spiritual descendants of the zwaya movement of the seventeenth century, but who had long since come to work within the confines of Arab warrior power and now French colonial rule. Sa’ad Bu, a son of the southeastern Mauritanian scholar Muhammad Fadhil, who had pioneered multiple affiliation to Sufi orders, was one of the foremost exponents of accommodation and the possibilities of enhanced islamization under the auspices of secular colonial rule. He was joined in this approach by Sidiya Baba, a southern Mauritanian scholar best remembered for his assistance to the French in the conquest of Mauritania; he, like Sa’ad Bu, exercised considerable influence in Senegal.

By the time of World War I, the principal leadership in Senegalese Islam had passed to a number of Sufi brotherhoods based in western Senegal and tied to the strong French interests in peanut cultivation. The first of these leaders (called marabouts in Senegalese French, from the Arabic murdbit) to settle in the peanut basin and work within the confines of colonial rule was al-Hajj Malik Sy, a scholar with impressive links to Futa Toro and to the Umarian movement, but also to Tijaniyah affiliates in Mauritania and Morocco. In about 1902 Malik Sy settled in the town of Tivaouane, a railroad transshipment center in the heart of the old Wolof state of Cayor; there he continued his writing of poetry and treatises on Islamic law and conduct along with the teaching of his community. After 1910 he cooperated more actively with the colonial administration in matters dealing with the conquest of Mauritania and Morocco, the recruitment of troops for World War I, and other issues involving Muslim acceptance of French rule. He had close ties with the communities in the important urban centers of St. Louis, the capital of the colonial territory of Senegal, and Dakar, the capital of the whole French West African Federation. In addition, he helped persuade another Tijaniyah leader of the peanut basin, Abdulaye Niasse, to settle in the Salum town of Kaolack and relate more openly to the colonial administration. Since Sy’s death in 1922, the Tivaouane Tijaniyah have been on close terms with the French government and its successors, the independent regimes led by Presidents Leopold Senghor and Abdou Diouf.

The best studied and best known of the “maraboutic” brotherhoods of the peanut basin is the Muridiyah, which had closer links to the Qadiriyah order and some of its shaykhs in Mauritania. The Muridiyah leadership, in the person of Amadu Bamba, went through a much more troubled relationship with the French regime in the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century. Bamba was exiled on three occasions: to Gabon in Central Africa, to Mauritania and the care of Sidiya Baba, and finally to a remote corner of Jolof in northern Senegal. Nonetheless, well before the eruption of the First World War and the emergence of French needs for loyal West African soldiers, Bamba, his brothers, and his lieutenants and followers had come to terms with the new regime from their headquarters in M’Backe and Touba in the old Wolof province of Baol.

Indeed, like their Tijaniyah counterparts in Tivaouane and Kaolack, the Muridiyah had become part of the new social and economic order that marked colonial Senegal. The maraboutic leadership, drawn mainly from the M’Backe, Sy, and Niasse families, exercised considerable authority through hierarchies of officials, most of whom were also marabouts; they organized a vast production of peanuts for export, and monopolized the pedagogy of instruction at the brotherhood’s various levels of operation. While their bases remained in rural areas, they also maintained property and representatives in the larger cities, especially in Dakar, and kept close if less visible ties with the regime. Although these organizations can certainly be called Sufi brotherhoods, they gave a new meaning of cohesion and economic power to the term. The transformations of these brotherhoods, and the more traditional societies of the rural areas that produced their followers, are well described by the British sociologist Donal Cruise O’Brien in Saints and Politicians: Essays in the Organisation of a Senegalese Peasant Society (Cambridge, 1975).

For their part, the French overcame their suspicion of Sufi orders-even the Tijaniyah, which they had demonized in the late nineteenth century when fighting against `Umar, Ma Ba Diakho, and the Madiyanke. They realized that they had to come to terms with the overwhelming Muslim identity (perhaps 6o percent in igoo and closer to 9o percent by independence in 196o) of Senegal and other countries in the Sahelian belt of French West Africa. Under the leadership of the Bureau of Muslim Affairs and the Islamicist Paul Marty, who had initially been trained in Tunisia, they compiled a vast inventory of Senegalese marabouts in the peanut basin and the hinterland to the east, and they checked periodically on their teaching, number of pupils, and political leanings. Gradually they reduced their effort to establish Muslim tribunals, the medersa (Ar., madrasah) or Franco-Arabic secondary school, mechanisms of Qur’anic school control, and even some of their supervision of the pilgrimage. This can be partly explained by the successful relationships with the key brotherhoods in the peanut basin by the interwar years, and partly by the general success in isolating what they called the “Black Islam” of French West Africa from the more “orthodox” practices of the Mediterranean heartlands. One of their key Senegalese intermediaries during this period was Seydu Nuru Tal, a grandson of `Umar Tal who had been introduced to the French through the auspices of the brotherhood in Tivaouane and who, from his base in Dakar, performed innumerable missions of representation and reconciliation among Muslims of French West Africa during the forty years prior to independence.

The Niasse branch of the Tijaniyah deserves special mention in connection with the ties it developed in northern Nigeria. While Muhammad Niasse succeeded to the leadership of the order in Kaolack on his father’s death in 1922, his younger brother Ibrahim Niasse inherited the mantle of spiritual and scholarly leadership. In the 1930s Ibrahim Niasse proclaimed himself the ghawth al-zaman, “the nurturer of the age,” which in Tijaniyah thinking gave him the same rank as al-Hajj `Umar and the founder Ahmad al-Tijani in previous eras. He made a very strong impression on the Tijaniyah leadership in Fez, where the founder was buried, and then upon Abdullahi Bayero, the emir of Kano in northern Nigeria, in the 1930s. Ibrahim and Abdullahi probably met on the Meccan pilgrimage in 1937, and Ibrahim visited Kano a few years later to a tumultuous reception. He became the dominant spiritual leader of the Tijaniyah of that area, which had its own tradition going back to the visit of al-Hajj ‘Umar in the 1830s; from this point onward he began to receive numerous Nigerian disciples at his lodge in Kaolack. Before his death in 1975, Ibrahim Niasse had extended his influence into Niger, Ghana, Chad, and other parts of Africa, and indeed into Europe and North America. Among others, his deputy Shaykh Aliyu Cisse has sustained much of this influence up to the present day. Some of the writing and teaching of the “Niasse school” and of the other principal Muslim scholars of twentiethcentury Senegal can be found in Amar Samb’s Essai sur la contribution du Senegal d la litterature d’expression arabe (Dakar, 19’72).

The secular state that the French established in the early twentieth century and that the independent government of Senegal has maintained, and the great influence that Muslim organizations such as the brotherhoods have exercised for many decades, have made it more difficult for Muslim interests of the Near East to exert influence and to mount serious critical challenges to local patterns in the practice of Islam. It is nonetheless true that petrodollars and other funds have been channeled into Senegal for some time to build mosques, to support schools, and in many ways to challenge the cozy relations of brotherhood and government. Large numbers of Senegalese have made the pilgrimage, and an increasing number have studied in Mediterranean Islamic communities ranging from Morocco to Iran. Some of the brotherhood leaders, however, have been quite alert to the need for renewal and the breakdown of the artificial relations between “Black Islam” and the heartlands, and they have distanced themselves from an increasingly paralyzed government and economy. While it is difficult to see what form solutions to Senegal’s considerable dilemmas will take, it seems unlikely that specifically Islamic solutions or political parties will play the crucial role.

[See also Murid-1yah; Tijaniyah.]


Barry, Boubacar. La Sinigambie du XVe au XIXe siecle: La traite negriere, Islam et conquete coloniale. Paris, 1988.

Curtin, Philip D. Economic Change in Pre-Colonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade. 2 vols. Madison, Wis., 1975. The author gives extensive treatment to defining the region of Senegal in this seminal work.

Cruise O’Brien, Donal B. The Mourides of Senegal: The Political and Economic Organization of an Islamic Brotherhood. Oxford, 1971. Cruise O’Brien, Donal B., and Christian Coulon, eds. Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam. Oxford, 1988.

Gray, Christopher. “The Rise of the Niassene Tijaniyya, 1875 to the Present.” Islam et Societes au Sud du Sahara 2 (1988): 34-6o. Provides a useful summary of the influence of the Niasse branch of the Tijaniyyh.

Harrison, Chris. France and Islam in West Africa, 1860-1960. Cambridge, 1968.

Klein, Martin. Islam and Imperialism in Senegal: Sine-Saloum, 18471914. Stanford, Calif., 1968. Includes information on the militant reformer Ma Ba Diakho.

Klein, Martin. “Social and Economic Factors in the Muslim Revolutions in Senegambia.” journal of African History 13 (1972): 419441.

Levtzion, Nehemia, and Humphrey J. Fisher, eds. Rural and Urban Islam in West Africa. London and Boulder, 1987. Also published in Asian and African Studies (Haifa) 2o (1986).

Robinson, David. “The Islamic Revolution of Futa Toro.” International journal of African Historical Sources 8 (1975): 185-221. Robinson, David. The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Oxford and New York, 1985.

Sow, Alfa Ibrahima. Le filon du bonheur eternal. Paris, 1971. Sow is the main source on the development of the new pedagogy for teaching in the Pular language.


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