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Islam in Senegal

Updated on January 14, 2018
The Grand Mosque of Touba
The Grand Mosque of Touba

95% of the population of Senegal is Muslim, with a small scattering of Christians, and Senegal is a devout country even if it is secular. Senegalese Islam however, has many distinct facets and elements which separate it from that which is practiced in other parts of the Islamic world, a product of unique local circumstances and a melding of Islam to traditional religious beliefs. Islam in Senegal did not simply impose itself upon Senegal, but instead it would assimilate itself to Senegal, producing a heady blending and fusion of Senegalese and Islamic spirituality. Furthermore, Senegal has produced its own Islamic elements of thought and practice.

For those interested in animism and its continuation in Senegal, I would advise checking out the below article -

History of Islam in Senegal

Islam first marked its appearance in Senegal in the 11th century, among the Fulani, but for most of the following millennia it would only slowly gain ground, so much so that at the time of the French conquest - in the second half of the 19th century - only around 50% of the population was Islamic. Resistance to Islamic domination had been meted out by various groups, such as the Serer, who resisted Islam and viewed it as a sign of Wolof tyranny and enslavement (despite this, the Serer are now principally Muslim themselves, albeit with some Catholic influence, belonging to the Mouride brotherhood).

Ironically, it would be the French conquest of the country which would result in the dramatic spread of Islam. During the colonial conquest by France, intense uncertainty and movements of peoples resulted from military action, benefitting Islam as opposed to the traditional Animist religions. Furthermore, Islam is a faith which has been effective in surviving the transition to modernity, while Animism has not. Islamic religious schools (daaras, mentioned in a previous article), were instrumental in the spread of Islam.

This Islam which arrived in Senegal has a curious mixture of Orthodox Islam and Sufi Islam from Northern Africa which brings additional mystical elements to it.

This has led to the situation today, where Catholicism - the overwhelming majority of Christians in Senegal - compose some 5% of the population, while Muslims compose much of the rest. Catholics have held some disproportionate power since independence, such as the first president of the newly-independent Senegal - Léopold Senghor - being Catholic, and many of the wives of presidents being Catholic as well, and it is part of a liberal and tolerant society, but there is no doubt that Senegal is a Muslim country.


The largest center of Islamic worship in Senegal is Touba, which is also the holy city of the Mouride brotherhood and the second largest city in general in Senegal. Touba means "bliss" in Arabic, and was founded in 1887. The completion of the Great Mosque in 1963 would mark the start of a rapid expansion of the city from some 5,000 inhabitants to the current ~750,00. This is one of the largest mosques in Africa, and marks the city as a stronghold of Mouride power, in a place where they exert total control over education, health, economics, land tenure, real estate, public works, water, law, police, and a host of other factors. Alcohol, tobacco, playing of games, music, and dancing, are all banned - good cooking is not however. In addition, all members of the Mouride brotherhood are supposed to be buried in Touba.

Tivaouane is another important city and is the capitol of the Tijaiyyah, and has similarly experienced explosive growth since the independence of Senegal.

Islamic Brotherhoods

In Senegal, there are four major Sufi brotherhoods, in which the overwhelming majority of the population is grouped. These brotherhoods are dedicated around the teaching of an initial founder, a marabout. Most of the Senegalese brotherhoods were founded by Senegalese marabouts. All of the brotherhoods uphold Islam's five pillars, but add on additional elements. Mosques tend to cater to specific brotherhood groupings, even if they are open to all Muslims. Despite being called "brotherhoods" women can play vigorous roles within them.

Together these brotherhoods constitute around 90% of the Senegalese muslim population.

Quadiriyya Brotherhood

The oldest and yet also the smallest of the Senegalese brotherhoods, the Quadiriyya brotherhood was founded in the 12th century, and currently holds the allegiance of around 10% of the Senegalese population. It promotes celibacy, poverty, meditation, and a degree of mysticism.

Tijaniyyah Brotherhood

The largest of the Senegalese brotherhoods at some 50% of the population, the Tijaniyyah Brotherhood is of Moroccan origin, being founded by Ahmed al-Tijani in Morocco between 1781-1784. From here, it would spread out across Western Africa, even while it had but a secondary position in North Africa. El Hadj Malick Sy propogated it among the Wolof in the second half of the 19th century. The Tijaniyyah brotherhood is more reformist and focused on grass-roots Islamic efforts, in contrast to the Qadiriyya brotherhood. The Tijaniyyah forbids participation in any other Sufi order when one is a member of their brotherhood.

Three principal differences from other forms of Islam distinguish the Tijaniyyah brotherhood. The first is that one must perform the Wird each morning and evening (the Wird is 100 prayers of forgiveness from Allah, and a prayer to the prophet). Secondly they must perform the same ritual in a mosque in a group, daily. Thirdly, they must chant another set of prayers every Friday at the mosque when the sun sets below the horizon.

Amadou Bamba
Amadou Bamba

Mouride Brotherhood

The Mouride Brotherhood is one of the most powerful of the Senegalese Islamic brotherhoods, holding around 30% of the faithful. Despite their smaller number than the Tijaiyyah brotherhood, the Mouride are highly influential, with a powerful degree of control over their follows and a great amount of wealth - work is sacred for the Mourides, and its centralized control makes collecting and supporting members easy. The rumor is that if the leader of the brotherhood wanted 10 billion CFA by evening, he would have it, while the President of Senegal would struggle for months.

This brotherhood dates to 1885, when it was founded by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké. Bamba did not resist French colonial rule despite his opposition to it, urging spiritual purification, work, and renewal. Growth of this brotherhood and powerful connections on the part of Bamba led the French to concerns about his power, and resultantly they would exile him to Gabon (1895-1902) and Mauritania (1903-1907). Various legends and rumors exist about his time in exile, such as when he was forbidden from paying on a ship and put in irons, he broke the irons, and jumped overboard, landing on a prayer mat that magically appeared on the water. After the failure to suppress the brotherhood, the French would later cooperate with them, with the doctrine of work preached by the Mouride brotherhood serving as an excellent tool of the French colonial state. As otherwise, this was a two-way street, and also the Mourides served French goals in such regards, they also gained in return by being legitimized and gaining influence.

This situation persists to the present day. While Senegal is a firmly secular nation, a position which will probably not soon change, the Mouride brotherhood can sometimes influence political leaders, and is essentially autonomous in its capital city of Touba. Abdoulaye Wade, the former president of Senegal, was a member of the brotherhood.

Each year a pilgrimage, the Grand Magal of Touba, is held by the Mouride Brotherhood to their holy city of Touba. This celebrates the departure into exile of Ahmadou Bamba to Gabon in 1895, and is held on the 18th of Safar, the second month of the Islamic calendar. Due to it being held with an Islamic calendar, the date changes on the Gregorian calendar.

Date Held
22 January
12 January
1 January, 21 December
11 December
1 December
19 December
7 November

Over 3,000,000 people participated in 2011, in a festival which stretches back to 1928, then just one year after the death of Bamba (at this time it was held to commemorate his death rather than his exile). When first held some 70,000 people participated, showing the vast expansion of the Mourides since then.

Layene Brotherhood

A small brotherhood, the Layene brotherhood was founded by Seydina Mouhammadou Limamou Laye in 1884. Seydina is believed to be a Mahdi, a re-incarnation of the Prophet Muhammed, by members of the brotherhood. Although technically open to all, in reality it is mostly the Lebu who compose its membership. They have increased veneration of Jesus and use the bible in addition to the Koran.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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