Monday,22 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)
Monday,22 April, 2019
Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Paths of the sublime

Gamal Nkrumah traces the history of the Sufi orders in Africa south of the Sahara and the challenges they now face

Al-Ahram Weekly

Keeping your tongue moist with zikr, the Arabic Muslim equivalent of the Christian rosary, even in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a tenet of most Sufi orders. Sufism or tasawuf is Islamic mysticism and contrary to received wisdom is not an Islamic sect, but rather a specific dimension of Muslim devotional worship.

As such, Sufism has been the primary force of propagating Islam in Africa south of the Sahara for centuries. The invocation of Allah’s names, zikr, was the conduit through which Africans who neither spoke Arabic fluently nor even understood the language were introduced to Islam.

Sufism came to Africa out of a clear blue sky. Islam was spread peacefully south of the Sahara by the Muslim merchants of North Africa. The caravans not only brought coveted goods from the Mediterranean Basin, but also a new religion, Islam. And Sufism was the aspect of Islam that appealed most to Africans south of the Sahara. It was reminiscent in many respects of the religions of their ancestors, and particularly of rites such as the hypnotic incantations and the expression of devotion through dance and music.

So it has remained. Sufi Islam metamorphosed into the primary cultural characteristic of African peoples south of the Sahara, spanning a sprawling territory from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east. Sufism is often expressed in a particular phraseology that appeals to African Muslims. A saying of the Prophet Mohamed that sounds mysteriously sublime is that the purest of deeds is the “sight of your Lord”. In such esoteric pronouncements lies a cryptic, almost Delphic, definition that denounces the static polarity created by the theoretical distinctions between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

Sufism in Africa simultaneously made Islam more pragmatic and less tribal. And the blurring of the lines between orthodoxy and heterodoxy elucidated a new religion in a curiously cabalistic sense that Africans south of the Sahara with an emotional attachment to the religions of their ancestors found especially entrancing.

Taking this sort of unconventional approach to Islam, Muslims in Africa south of the Sahara discarded the dogmas of the Salafist Islam of the Middle East. Sufism is widespread in many Middle Eastern cultures, both Arab and non-Arab, and yet it does not quite have the colourful, provocative aspect, in its unique esotericism and the strangeness of its lyrics, that it has in the political and social status of Sufism in Africa south of the Sahara.

Sufism in West Africa: In most predominantly Muslim African nations south of the Sahara the relationship between rulers, or the state, and religious leaders, invariably Sufis, are inextricably intertwined. Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal, and a Roman Catholic, was famed for consulting the Sufi leaders of Senegal before embarking on any political enterprise. On a more personal note, my own father, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was devoted to certain Sufi leaders, soliciting advice and supplicating them on political and mundane matters.

Sufism was Islam as I understood it. As a six or seven-year-old impressionistic child, the Sufi leaders’ regular visits to the Presidential Palace of Flagstaff House in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, with their colourful turbans and billowing robes and the mesmerising sonorous incantations that reverberated in the grounds, were rapturous affairs that left an indelible mark on my memory.  

The Sufi orders of Senegal were for centuries, and still are, a haven for fiduciary religious responsibilities throughout West Africa. Islam has had a presence in Senegal for the past millennium. 92 per cent of contemporary Senegalese are Sunni Muslims. The Sufi leaders who regularly visited my father were mostly, but not exclusively, from Senegal.

Acutely conscious of their powers, religious and mundane, the leaders of the Senegalese Sufi orders exercise tremendous influence both politically and culturally. The major Sufi orders in Senegal are the Tijaniya and the Muridiya, or Mourides.

The founder of the Mourides, Cheikh Amadou Bamba (1850-1927), a freedom fighter against French colonialism, is still venerated as a saint in Senegal. Two million pilgrims visit the holy city of Touba, the final resting place of Sheikh Bamba where his mortal remains are buried, during the Grand Magal, a religious occasion. Touba literally means “felicity” or “bliss.” Touba is also the name of the fabled Tree of Paradise and is considered a sacred city by the Mourides.

In Africa south of the Sahara, Sufis are not exclusively devoted to spiritual endeavours. Sufi leaders know that they must enlarge the productive powers of their followers. The Mourides control health, education, public works, real estate development and land tenure in Touba. The prestige of women in the Muridiya Sufi Order is particularly esteemed, and the Mourides have even had one woman marabout, or holy figure, Sokhna Magat Diop.

From its inception, the crystallisation of the doctrines of the Sufi orders has been a highly politicised enterprise. The other major Sufi order in Senegal, apart from the Muridiya, is the Tijaniya, popular across Africa south of the Sahara even in countries as far afield as Sudan. Al-Hajj Omar Tall (1780-1840) introduced the Tijaniya Sufi order to Senegal. The Qadiriya Sufi order made inroads in Senegal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but lost many of its adherents to the Tijaniya order.

Endowed with spiritual authority, the Sufi orders of Senegal do not view themselves as rivals. And this aspect of mutual love and tolerance is a significant feature of Sufism in Senegal and other West African countries that have survived slavery, colonial conquest, the rise of the contemporary post-colonial bureaucratic state and modern politics. The social success of Sufism in Senegal and other West African nations may be measured by its political resonance.

Sufism in West Africa has led to the philosophical reformation of cultures that have withstood the unspeakable cruelties of slavery, colonialism and more recently neo-colonialism. Moreover, Sufism has had a great impact on the moral sovereignty of the predominantly Muslim states south of the Sahara. The Layene Sufi order does not have as many adherents as the Tijaniya and the Mourides. Yet, the important point is that no particular Sufi order has a monopoly of Sufism, not even the Mourides.

Yet, an analysis of the discourse on morality and its relationship to African traditional customs is the Sufi starting point. International Senegalese-born superstars have incorporated Sufi themes into their artistic outpourings. Artists such as Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour have had a major impact in propagating Sufism in Africa and the world through their music.

N’Dour’s album Egypt has a decidedly Sufi theme, for example.

Music and religious incantations are an integral part of Senegalese Sufi traditions. N’Dour stresses the cultural links across Africa north and south of the Sahara, cemented by Sufism. In Egypt, Sufi orders have historically had a special social standing, especially among the poor and socially disadvantaged. The same theme is crucial to the understanding of West African Sufism. The onus is on social security and a sense of community as well as on the hidden meanings and spiritual import of the Qur’an.

In Mali, too, Sufism is a critical aspect of Islam. The mediaeval Malian king Mansa Musa who reigned from 1312 to 1337 CE was famous for his fabulous wealth and ostentatious lifestyle. When he visited Cairo on his way to perform the hajj in Mecca, the wealth he displayed so enamoured the Egyptians that some suspect that the very Arabic term “mall,” or wealth, originates from the word Mali, or perhaps Mali was thus named after its enormous wealth, especially its gold.

Yet, along the way Mali grew into an impoverished state in the Sahelian belt of Africa. As elsewhere in Africa south of the Sahara, irritation with democratically-elected civilian governments has long been flowering among the majority of the Malian population. In recent years, however, Salafist groups who disapprove of Sufism have become active in Mali, feeding on the disgruntlement of the poor. Salafist militias affiliated with Al-Qaeda have also mushroomed.

The Malian government failed to play a spoiling game, and huge swathes of territory in the northern parts of the country fell under the spell of the Salafists. The Sufi orders lacked the political will to do battle with the Salafists, and Mali lost precious cultural heirlooms when the Salafist militias sacked the libraries of Timbuktu in recent years. Thousands of books and texts were lost or deliberately destroyed.

The spiritually-oriented Sufi orders were unable to muster enough strength to keep the Salafists off their backs. In August 2003, violence erupted between the traditional Sufi orders and members of the Wahhabi groups who strongly disapprove of Sufi Islam. The parameters of the debate on Sufism in Mali had shifted.

The Salafists regard Sufism as anachronistic. While the rise of the Salafists in West Africa can only be understood from a host of political perspectives, it is still too early to determine whether Sufism will withstand the Salafist onslaught. As in Senegal, more than 90 per cent of Malians are Muslim, and Islam has deep roots in the country. Traditionally, the Sufi orders have had the upper hand, but Mali has a long history of militant jihadists determined to reform Islam.

Alimamy Samouri Toure (1830-1900) launched a jihad in what is today Guinea and Mali, for example. The proliferation of western firearms changed the notion of tribal wars in the region, and the jihadists have made the most of modern weapons. They were, so to speak, the forerunners of the contemporary Salafist militias.

Yet, Samouri Toure was considered to be an anti-colonial freedom fighter, a liberator of his people, as well as a religious reformer. He died in captivity after the French colonial forces routed his forces. His mortal remains are buried in the Conakry Grand Mosque, and his tomb is in the Camayanne Mausoleum. His great-grandson Ahmed Sekou Toure was elected the first president of Guinea.

Al-Hajj Omar Tall (1797-1864) hailing from neighbouring Senegal, another historical jihadist leader who conquered much of what is today Guinea, Mali and Senegal reaching east as far as Timbuktu, would be regarded as a Salafist in contemporary parlance. His jihad is also considered to be a West African political milestone.  

Whether the defeat of these early jihadists by the French colonialists led to a more passive, spiritual conception and the supremacy of the “greater jihad,” the jihad of the self as opposed to the jihad of conflict, is an open question. The Sufi mystics championed the greater jihad, and it is no surprise that Sufism spread rapidly under French colonial rule. The legacy of mediaeval Islam in Mali and other West African nations is palpable. The Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali is one of the world’s architectural wonders as it is constructed almost entirely of wood and mud.

Sufism in East Africa: In East Africa, Sufism is not as pronounced a feature of Islam as it is in West Africa, with the notable exception of Sudan. Islam was first introduced to Ethiopia in 615 CE. Followers of the Prophet Mohammed crossed the Red Sea from Arabia to seek a safe haven in Christian Ethiopia from the pagan Meccans who were persecuting the Muslims. The Muslim Adal Sultanate in what is today Ethiopia was among the first Muslim states in East Africa. There is little information about the position of Sufism in the Sultanate, however.

In much the same vein, in the sixteenth century Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, known historically as the “left-handed,” an ethnic Somali imam and a general in the army of the Adel Sultanate, led a jihad against the Christians in Ethiopia. To this day, he is remembered throughout the Horn of Africa as a tyrant by Christians and as a hero by Muslims. Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, mentions him in his memoirs as a “terrorist.”  

Today, Al-Ahbash is an influential Sufi order in Ethiopia founded in the mid-1980s, and its members consider themselves to be followers of the Ethiopian religious scholar Abdallah Al-Harari. It is a charitable organisation that runs schools in conjunction with Egypt’s venerable Al-Azhar University, one of the largest Sunni Muslim institutions in the world. Indeed, many African students at Al-Azhar have been introduced to Egyptian Sufi orders.

Al-Ahbash also has an affiliation in Lebanon where it took root in Burj Abou-Haidar in Beirut. It soon spread to the Sunni Muslim regions of northern Lebanon, such as Akkar in the vicinity of Tripoli. By the 1990s, there were some 250,000 members of Al-Ahbash in Lebanon.

Ethiopian opposition groups charged the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi with championing the cause of Al-Ahbash. Being a primarily Sufi sect it opposed the doctrinal beliefs of the Salafist and Wahabist groups. In 1995, members of the Salafist group Osbat Al-Ansar assassinated the leader of the Al-Ahbash Sufi order sheikh Nizar Al-Halabi.

Last, but not least, are the powerful Sufi orders of Sudan. The mystical or so-called devotional path of Sufism developed as a reaction to the strictly legalistic and textual orientation of the prevalent strands of Sunni Islam in Sudan, as it did elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The roots of Sufi Islam in Sudan run deep, and they first appeared in the country in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century had become commonplace. A peculiar feature of Sudanese Sufi orders are the dancing dervishes who perform in public and who often become delirious in a state of ecstatic abandon.

The Tijaniya are influential in western Sudan, and particularly in the regions of Darfur and Kordofan. The Khatimiya Sufi order spread in the nineteenth century and is sometimes known as Al-Mirghaniya, an appelation deriving from its founder, Mohammed Othman Al-Mirghani. It is especially popular in eastern Sudan and the Red Sea littoral. Al-Mirghaniya’s main rival is Al-Ansar, in other words, Ansar Al-Mahdi, the Awaited Guide of the Righteous Path. It was founded by Mohamed Ahmed Al-Mahdi (1844-1885).

The various Sudanese Sufi orders have their own particular rites. The vast majority of African Muslims adhere to the Maliki rites of Sunni Islam, even though in certain parts of eastern Africa Shafei and Hanafi rites are predominant. The Malikis tend to be the most tolerant of Sufism and Islamic mysticism.

Sufism in Africa south of the Sahara is not oblivious of developments in the wider Islamic world. Nor is it impervious to political modernity and democracy, and it is subject to secular critique. Even though most African Sufi orders are Sunni, they share certain aspects of Shia Islam, including the veneration of Ahl Al-Beit, the members of the family of the Prophet Mohamed through his daughter Fatma and her husband the Prophet’s cousin Ali.

The threat of Salafism: The Salafists consider the Sufis to be their enemies. Nigeria offers a cataclysmic glimpse of what the future may herald. Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa and the country with the continent’s largest economy, is also host to motley Sufi orders, most notably the Qadiriya and Tijaniya. However, there are several points of interest raised by the relative demise of Sufism in Nigeria in recent years that could have serious ramifications for the rest of the continent.

Given all the talk about Salafist, anti-Sufi militias affiliated with Al-Qaeda such as the notorious Boko Haram, an observer of African affairs might be forgiven for thinking that the Salafists are cleaning up at the expense of Sufism. First, in 1978 the Izala Society was founded specifically to target Sufi orders. This society, the Jamaat Izalat Al-Bidaa wa Iqamat Al-Sunna (Society of the Removal of Innovation and the Re-establishment of the Sunna), aimed to combat, “eliminate” or “remove” innovation from the practice of Islam in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria. Ominously, the “innovation” in question was Sufism.

For the Izala, Sufism was viewed as a form of shirk, or idolatry. This is a serious charge with even more serious implications for Sufism and Islam in Africa south of the Sahara. The Izala is not geographically confined to Nigeria, but has spread to neighbouring countries such as Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

The aim of the Izala is not to cow the Sufi orders, but to annihilate Sufism in Nigeria and Muslim Africa. If it succeeds, it will change the face of African Islam forever. The Salafist dust needs to settle before one can ascertain whether the Sufism that has given Islam in Africa south of the Sahara its specific characteristics and cultural identity is threatened to disappear once and for all.   

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