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Reviews of Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal

Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal is the English translation, or, as the book’s editor put it, the ‘interpretive translation,’ of a work that first appeared in the form of a brochure, then an edited volume in French in 1995. The book’s author, Dr Khadim Mbacké, is a researcher in Islamic studies at the Institut fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) at Universite Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar. Mbacké has done extensive work on Islam in Senegal, especially the Muridiyya. His earlier work consisted largely of editing and translating books, poems, and correspondences authored by major Senegalese Muslim-learned men. This work was critical in making important materials originally written in Arabic accessible to the wider scholarly community. Mbacké has also published research on the Islamic ‘reform’ movement in Senegal, a movement in which he himself has played a role of some consequence as a public critic of some Sufi practices.

“In Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal, Mbacké offers what he termed ‘an objective study of the state of Islam in Senegal and the factors that influence it’ (p. iii). The book presents a synopsis of the different Sufi orders in Senegal with an emphasis on their historical evolution and current social, political, and economic influence. Like the researchers who preceded him, Khadim Mbacké sees Sufism as a fundamental dimension of Islam in Senegal. He attributes the popularity of mystical Islam in Senegal (while its hold has considerably weakened in North Africa and the Middle East) to its ability to accommodate local beliefs and customs. He also insists on divides between the urban and the rural, the educated and the less-educated, as major structuring factors of Sufi tariqas in Senegal. Throughout the book, Mbacké looks critically at the religious practices of followers of Sufi orders in Senegal and the involvement of the Muslim leadership in national politics. At times, for example, in Chapters 1 and 2 where he discusses the doctrinal foundations of Sufism, his argument reads like a fatwa. He describes what he conceives as unlawful practices and invokes the relevant hadiths (prophetic traditions) and Qur’anic verses to validate what he sees as the orthodox way of doing things.

“Mbacke is at his best in the first two chapters of the book where he deals with the emergence of Sufi thought and doctrine. Here his familiarity with original works by Sufi masters and his understanding of Islamic hermeneutics allows him to provide a fresh approach that is a welcome contrast to the works of Orientalists such as, for example, Spencer Trimingham. The following chapters on Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal cover more familiar ground and it is unfortunate that the author did not make full use of his vast knowledge of the internal literature of these brotherhoods and of the rich secondary literature in English and French. The use of such sources would have provided a more balanced view and a platform from which to critically review previous works. The last two chapters, Chapters 7 and 8, constitute perhaps the most innovative of the book. In Chapter 7 Mbacké analyzes the relationships between the different Sufi orders and their impact on the cultural, political, and economic landscape of contemporary Senegal. Chapter 8 looks at the future of the Muslim orders, especially as they relate to what the author calls ‘normative Islam.’ Mbacké makes the interesting remark that the attitude of the state towards the different orders in Senegal is still informed by the colonial concepts of Islam noir and official Islam. In his view, the Muridiyya continues to be seen by successive Senegalese governments as a sort of local Islam. Its relevance in internal Senegalese politics is acknowledged but Murids are excluded from some key positions of state-sponsored Islamic authority such as ambassadors to Muslim countries, representation in Muslim institutions, or head of the National Pilgrimage Commission.

“Exploring the future of Islam in Senegal, Mbacké makes the intriguing observation that Sufi orders ‘have reached the inevitable point of exhaustion’ that they are ‘condemned to a slow death’ unless they reform along the lines suggested by some enlightened disciples steeped in normative Islam. Since these lines were written, over a decade ago, this prediction has not begun to materialize; Sufi orders have become even more powerful and are gaining ground in urban centers and among the middle class where they were less influential in the past. This trend is also visible in the wider Muslim world. Sufism is experiencing a resurgence in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco and is growing in Kuwait where it has never achieved popularity until recently…

Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal constitutes a welcome addition to the growing literature on mystical Islam in Senegal. It is a useful and easy read that offers a short but complete summation of the recent history of Muslim orders in Senegal.”
— Cheikh Anta Babou, International Journal of African Historical Studies