Senegal is situated on the most westerly part of main land Africa. The first WEC workers arrived in 1936 and worked among the Muslim Fulakunda in the southeast of Senegal. The work expanded to include the Jola tribe in the southwest followed by the Wolof, Toucouleur, Fula and Maure peoples in the north, the majority of whom are Muslim. Senegal became independent from France in 1960; there remains a close link between the two countries. Senegal is a republic which has a secular constitution and is democratic. The country is one of the most stable in West Africa.
The north of Senegal borders on the Sahara desert and, needless to say, it is a very arid part of the country. On the other hand, the south of the country, the Casamance, is very fertile with many forested areas. It is referred to as “the rice basket of the country”.
There are more than 12 million Senegalese who are generally very optimistic, cheerful and easy going. The Wolof word Teranga (welcome) aptly describes their attitude towards strangers.
Islam in Senegal
Islam in Senegal is a mixture of Sufi Islam and animism to produce a type of folk Islam unique to Senegal. The problem with Orthodox Islam is that it does not meet the felt needs of this life. A god that is so aloof and unknowable is not very satisfying. The average person wants solutions to the problems he faces day to day, and orthodox Islam does not provide them. Thus, almost from the start of Islam, there has been a movement which has sought intimacy with God. This mystical side of Islam is known as Sufism. The Sufi is someone seeking to come into a deeper experience of God and greater purity of life, which the rituals of Islam fail to meet. There are many Sufi sects, called brotherhoods, each with its own way of attaining communion with God. But they have much in common. Instead of emphasizing outward ritual they emphasize activities of the inner self. God is not so much a distant ruler but a close friend.
Central to all Sufi brotherhoods is the spiritual guide, or marabout, to whom the murids, or followers, attach themselves. These brotherhoods then are simply a reflection of the followings of different saints, each of whom has his own “path”. These men are usually thought to have been imbued with special powers, and have great power over their followers who are expected to follow devotedly.
These paths constitute a kind of religious rule which was set out by the founder of the order (sheikh) based on his own personal experience of spiritual search. The founder is also usually considered to be a saint or wali. These are basically mediators between God and man. He has traversed the highest stages of spiritual development, his perception transcends that of mere mortals, and he is considered to be in touch with extraordinary spiritual powers, baraka, which can be transmitted to their followers.
Ordinary people do not have baraka. It resides only in certain individuals. However, it can also reside in impersonal, material objects like the Qur’an, religious books, or objects. Baraka can be found in places or objects related to holy people such as their tombs, mosques, wayside prayer enclaves, and prayer beads. It manifests itself in one’s ability to do miracles, or in special wisdom or insight concerning life. It can be transmitted from holy individuals or objects to other people if they touch the holy person or feel the object where it resides.
Muslims who follow these practices do not look to Muhammad as the only authoritative figure, nor do they necessarily follow the doctrines of the Qur’an. Rather, they follow cult worship of the local saint, being more concerned about obtaining his blessing in the form of miracles rather than the favour of Allah.
In Senegal, membership is not just for those with a tendency towards mysticism. Adherence involves repetition of a few lines of litanies, loyalty to the leader and some obligations to fellow members.
The leaders of the brotherhoods are very important and despite the theoretical absence of a priesthood, they are not only guides, but also mediators between man and God. They are also very powerful.
There are three main brotherhoods in Senegal:
1 Tidjaniya – the largest brotherhood with over a half of Senegalese Muslims belonging to this group which is more flexible, tolerant and individualistic and appeals to the free farmers, educated elite and urban residents. There are 2 main branches of the Tidjaniya brotherhood:
- Omariya branch (essentially Toucouleur)
- Malikiya branch (mainly Wolof, but other groups also affiliated).
2 Muridiya – over a 30% of Senegalese Muslims belong to this brotherhood which is more disciplined, rigid and centralised and appeals to the disinherited.
3 Qadiriya – maybe 15% of Senegalese Muslims belong to this brotherhood.