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1. Despite their outcome, the current evaluations on the Arab Spring seem to share

the view that this has allowed more room for radical Islam, in the sense that:

  • in the countries were the Spring has forced a regime to quit power, the new government after elections usually been influenced by radical Islam (introduction of the Sharia, return of the protests etc.). For instance, in Tunisia violence is back and the ruling party Ennahda is pushing for a theocratic State. Libya is apparently sliding towards a tribally influenced government. The political and institutional crisis is still ongoing in Egypt while President Morsi, with the strong support of the Muslim Brotherhood, is taking on emergency powers. Finally in Syria, where “civil war” continues despite rising figures in deaths and refugees, the conflict that has taken the shape of a power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites;

  • in the countries where the Arab Spring did not go beyond protests, radical Islam is on hold, ready to exploit future events.

It could also be worthwhile opening up our analysis to other Islamic countries (not only Arab ones). In Mali, for instance, weapons caches coming from Libyan post-Gaddafi stockpiles have revived ancient ethnic and territorial conflicts. Extremist groups have been able to infiltrate what were once moderate Islamic geographical areas. Here dominated the Sufi vision of Islam and Islamic confraternities (also known as Marabutic Islam, whereby Marabut identifies the head of the religious confraternities).

After the war in Mali, to the tally of questions that have somehow accompanied the different episodes of the Arab Spring (Democracy or a new dictatorship? Rights for all or Islamic drift? Etc.) we have to add a fresh query: will the moderate Islam of the confraternities be capable of halting the penetration of radical Islam in a context where Salafists and Wahabis cooperate with Al Qaeda militants?

As far as Islamic confraternities are concerned, they differ from country to country in West Africa. Their exam is extremely complex. But we can pick out two significant examples (Senegal in the positive and Niger in the negative) to deduce the current trend. Senegal and Niger both have a Sunni majority of population (90%) that practices Sufism with animist residuals and even Christian ones (cult of saints and of the dead).

In both these countries, Islamic confraternities have developed as a consequence of late Sufism, whence the Sufis, following their initial development during the first centuries of Islam (IX, X and XI century), started organizing themselves around confraternities in the XII century. These are complex structures (tariqa) built around disciples and masters (the first known as talibé, the latter as sheikh, murhid, pir, mawla etc.). The master taught the disciples the “mystic way” to a direct knowledge of God.

The roots of Sufism go back to the first centuries of mystic muslim preachers whence, through religious meditation, the study of the sacred books and asceticism, they expressed their search for divine and their will to dedicate their lives to God. The term Sufi refers to the white woolen clothes, from the Arabic “suf”, they used to wear or to their desire to live a life of purity and authenticity (whose color is white).

Islamic confraternities have played a key role in the Islamization of the African continent through their constant dialogue with local pre-Islamic cultures that have also generated syncretic forms linked to the sanctification of local lineages. The recent conflict in Mali has highlighted the plight of tombs and mausoleums dedicated to saints in Timbuktu, Gao, etc. that were the target of extremist attacks.

The confraternities, that also originate from Christian tradition, have precise spiritual tasks: access to them follows an admission procedure, they are guided by charismatic spiritual leaders known as “mahdi”, literally “well lead by God”, that have previously held political posts (in ruling or opposition parties according to the cases) and have returned to Earth to guide muslims through difficult times.

Confraternities have had a greater impact in Sunni countries because, in the lack of an intermediary between man and God, the masters fill the gap between the divine and the human. Spiritual guides usually live in the Cultural Center (zawiya) of the community that believers periodically visit. Rituals stem from the Sunni tradition, but other specific rites, like the zykr or dhikr (repetition) on the uniqueness of God repeated in chorus hundreds of times, and recurrences have been added.

At first, religious guides were tasked with spreading Islam in West Africa; subsequently they installed themselves and set up koranic schools and began educating their disciples. Then caliphates, the venue of the religious leader, were also founded. The Islam of the confraternities and marabuts has developed with both a spiritual and social role for populations in search of a guide.

Before colonization (until the end of the XIX century), spiritual leaders took care of their disciples and of their families. They would receive respect and gratitude in exchange. During colonization, the French exploited the leaders trying to obtain their collaboration, if not they were deemed dangerous and eliminated.

Even local political leaders look up to the guides for support in a sort of social contract between secular and religious powers:

  • religious guides grant the social control over the population;

  • the administrative and political apparatus allocates resources to the guides and praises them in public

This deal has given birth to what is known as “ndigel” (religious guide suggestion to voters), widely used by all Senegalese presidents, from Senghor to Diouf to Wade. They all have courted the most popular confraternities.

As far as the ritual is concerned, West African confraternities are Sunni, thereby they keep into consideration the Koran, the Sunna and the zykr (or dhikr). In this context, Koran will be referred to as “the account” of the revelations shared by Allah with his envoy, Prophet Mohammed, during a period of over 20 years and that represents for muslims the basis for public and civil law, theology and Islamic rituals. The Sunna is instead the combination of acts, words and behaviors Prophet Mohammed transmitted to his disciples through the “hadith” (the narrations); for Sunnis this is their orthodoxy. Zykr (or dhikhr) is the key ritual consisting in the repetition of the uniqueness of Allah (“La ilaha illa'Allah”).

The initiates were traditionally hermits who had given up all material life; with the rise of the confraternities, the followers went in search of God immersed into daily ordinary life. In this context, religious leaders have played a key role by adapting Islam to local cultures in a oneness with animist beliefs and practices already based on peace, tolerance and traditional values.

Every confraternity (tariqa) has its own General Caliph, its Cheick (spiritual guide), its “wird” (combination of prayers and invocations with the aid of the Islamic rosary beads), its places of worship and pilgrimage sites, its radio channel, its iconography (pictures on walls, in shops, hanging from buses and taxis).

2. In Senegal, the most important and bigger Islamic confraternities are known as: Tijaniyya, Qadriyya, Muridiyya and Lahimiyya.

a. TIJANIYYA (The way of the Koran to learn and teach).

This is a Sufi confraternity founded by Algerian Ahmed Tijani (1737-1815), a descendant of the Prophet, who received his “call” when 46 years old; Mohammed ordered him to follow him on the “right path”. The Tijaniyya founded a worship center in Fez, Morocco, where Caliph Tijany Zoubir resides.

Education and teaching are central for the Tijaniyya. The general Caliph is referred to as “Borom Daraji” (the professor). This was the title once held by Serigne Mansour Sy, who died in December 2012, and whose place has been taken over by his brother Cheik Tijane Sy.

The Tijaniyya follows “the way of the Koran” along a spiritual path based on the sacred book known as “Turbiya” that spells out the followers' main obligations including the “wird”, the plea for forgiveness to God, the prayer on the Prophet and the zykr. A shorter version of the latter is the “wasifa”, collectively recited in the mosque.

The pilgrimage site is Tivaouane, where all Tijanis converge on the anniversary of the “gamou”, the birth of the Prophet.

b. QADRIYYA (the oldest confraternity, “one way, two souls”).

It was founded by Abdel Qadir al Jilani (1077-1166), a Sufi ascetic the preached in the well known “Islamic Center” of Baghdad, Iraq. The confraternity spread from Arabia to North Africa (Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Senegal) along two lines:

  • one was lead by a descendant of the Prophet from the Fadl dynasty (99 sons scattered in the whole of West Africa), Mohammed Fadl. It was his son Cheikh Saad-Bouh that ventured to Senegal. Their place of worship is in Nimzatt (Mauritania), whilst their spiritual center is in Guéoul in the north of Senegal. The Caliph is currently Cheikh Bounana;

  • the other were the members of the Kounta family, the Qadr from Senegal or from Ndiassane, whose initiator was Cheikh Sidy Moctar al Kountiyou (1724-1811) who installed himself on the border between Mali and Mauritania. It was Cheikh Bou Kounta that first moved to Senegal and settled in Ndiassane (a few km away from Tivaouane) building a mosque, schools and establishing his Caliphate.

abdel qadir al jilani
Abdel Qadir al Jilani

As far as the rituals are concerned:

  • the wird consists in the recital (even over 200 times) of pleas for forgiveness to God and prayers to the Prophet ending with the zykr or dhyr (on the uniqueness of God).

  • every year at the end of the Ramandan the Qadr Fadl go to Nimzatt to receive the blessing of the Caliph; they return there every July 22 for the anniversary of the death of Cheikh Saad-Bouh;

  • the Gamou (anniversary of the birth of the Prophet) is celebrated by the Qadr Fadl in Guèoul, whilst the Tidjanis go to Tivaouane;

  • the Qadr Ndiassane also celebrate the baptism of the Prophet a week after the Gamou in their own village that for the occasion turns into a pilgrimage site.

c. MURIDIYYA (the most influential and well known)

The adherents to the Murid are followers of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, who fought against French colonialism. In 1883 Bamba left the Qadr confraternity to found the Muridiyya (from the word “murid”, disciple) initially in Mbacke Cayor, north-east of Dakar, and then in Touba, where he built villages for the confraternity. Touba is their holy city and home to the biggest mosque in Sub-Saharan African built with the funds of the talibé scattered across the world, from the States to Europe. Every year millions of pilgrims go to Touba for the Great Magal.

Amadou Bamba, also known as Serigne Touba (Cheikh of Touba), wrote treatise on theology, sufism, grammar, law and good manners. The wird of the Murid is based on the reading of the verses (Khasidaf) and on parts of the Koran. The Muridiyya is the largest and most influential Senegalese confraternity. It has been lead since 2010 by Cheikh Sidy al Moukhtar Mbackè.

Cheikh Amadou Bamba was opposed to colonization and was jailed and exiled for over 30 years by the French. Paris eventually gave up after having sent him to Gabon, Congo and Mauritania and placed him under house arrest in Thieyene and Djourbel. Finally Amadou Bamba was awarded the French Legion D'Honneur!

One of Bamba's disciples, Ibrahima Fall, followed his guide for years until he was eventually ordered to found his own community. This is how the Bayfall were born, where “bay” means father and “bay fall” disciple. The Bayfalls are not highly regarded in Senegal because they don't fast for Ramadan, nor to they pray five times a day. But they do practice the zykr by playing drums and moving in a circle to go in a trance. Bayfalls should represent the highest state for the Murid, their perfection: they wear large tunics known as ndiakhass (with a patchwork of colors), thiaya pants, big belts and woolen pom-pom hats.

d. LAHINIYYIA (the Prophetic cycle at the end of the Earth).

The advent of the Mahdi and the return of the Messiah characterize the doctrine of this confraternity. The majestic mausoleums of Seydina Limamoulaye and of his son Seydina Issa rise in two coastal villages, Yoff and Camberene, in the outskirts of Dakar. In the two fishermen villages (ancient caste of the Wolof ethnic group) people greet each other with “Lahi Lahi”, derived from the name of Allah, and preach humbleness, generosity and equality.

For the Layene everything is the work of God (not of chaos), hence the names:

  • Limamou, meaning guide, “al Imam”;

  • Issa, the Wolof word for Jesus.

seydina limamoulaye
Seydina Limamoulaye

Seydina was born in Yoff in 1843 and received his “call” when he was 40; he declared he was the Mahdi of Islamic tradition, but his community refused him. After being exiled by the French on the island of Gorée, he founded his Layene community in Camberene. Seydina Limamoulaye died in 1909, but his work was continued by his son Issa, then 33 (the same age of Jesus when he was crucified).

Contrary to the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ does not stand out amongst the five prophets sent by God (Noah, Abraham, Moses and, after Jesus, Mohammed). Christ is thought to have been recalled by God in the heavens and hidden there waiting to return to Earth. According to the Layene, Jesus did return in the form of Issa in 1909 to complete his mission, have a descendant and a tomb on Earth. Furthermore, Jesus is the morning star announcing the new day and will return at the end of time. If Christ had come the first time to announce the arrival of the Sun (Prophet Mohammed), his return in 1909 was to confirm, this time in the form of the Mahdi, Mohammed as his prophet and to put an end to the prophetic cycle.

The main place of worship for this confraternity is the Ngor cave, not far from Yoff. Every June the cave turns into a pilgrimage site to celebrate the “call” of Limamou Laye, that claimed he had waited 1000 years before coming to light. Today the Layene community is represented by its fifth Caliph, Seydina Abdoulaye Lahi.

3. To conclude, Radical Islam will not find adequate room in Senegal, regardless of the alarm signals sent by the Dakar government and the religious fanaticism of some religious guides. Moderate and marabutic Islam continues to play its role of stabilization of society. Following the July 2012 legislative elections, there were some fears related to the election of some religious leaders to the Assembly. They were eventually forced to step down because the Constitution bans spiritual guides from holding political posts.

There are some radical groups in Senegal, some of them host foreigners or Senegalese students who have returned home after attending Wahabi religious courses in the Mecca. But also in this case the teachings of the confraternities have proven to be stronger: traditional African values (non-violence in particular) have taken the upper hand on extremism and political Islam. Despite the rising secularism in Senegal (caused by increasing urbanization, education levels and migrations), confraternities continue to play a key role in society and cannot be marginalized.