Senegalese politicians court leaders of age-old Muslim sect

Sufi brotherhoods provide key support for Senegalese presidential candidates, but fragmentation within the groups could spill over into politics, writes guest blogger Alex Thurston.

Joe Penney/Reuters
A mural of Senegalese Mouride Brotherhood's figurehead and spiritual guide, the late Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, adorns a wall in Dakar, on Jan. 19.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Sahel Blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Senegal's presidential elections are scheduled for Feb. 26, and politicians are courting the leaders of the country's large Sufi brotherhoods, also called "marabouts." They are one of four main Muslim communities who have contributed to shaping Senegal's democracy, reports ReutersPresident Abdoulaye Wade says he has never hidden that he is a Mouride, a 129-year-old order of Islam which counts millions of devotees within the West African country.

Wade’s affiliation with the Mouridiyya is definitely salient for many Mourides, including youth. When I was in Senegal in 2006-2007 I heard several young Mourides repeat with pride a prophecy that Senegal’s first president would be Christian (this was Leopold Senghor), the second Muslim but not Mouride (this was Abdou Diouf), the third Muslim and Mouride (they saw Wade as the fulfillment of this part of the prophecy), and all of the rest Mouride.

This feeling was not, however, universal. Even before the 2007 elections, many young Mourides were already dissatisfied with Wade’s performance, particularly with regard to the economy, and a shared religious affiliation did not seem to dilute their opposition to the president.

Another wrinkle in the relationship between Wade and the Mouridiyya is the growing complexity of the marabout “field” in Senegal. The key lines for me in the Reuters article were these:

A heavily-set figure in a pristine white robe and with an earpiece connected to his Apple iPhone, Cheikh Abdoul Ahad Mbacke Gainde Fatma has seen more Dakar politicians in the last 24 hours than most Senegalese will see in a lifetime.

Ahad Mbacke is the great-grandson of revered Mouride founder Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke and heads the organizing committee for the “Grand Magal,” the annual Mouride festival which draws millions to Touba for a week of praying, eating and revelry.

Why did I bold “great-grandson”? Let’s do a little math. Sheikh Amadou Bamba died in 1927. The Sheikh had a number of sons. In Senegalese Sufi brotherhoods the system of hereditary succession works laterally – ie, leadership typically passes from one brother to another inside the same generation before passing to the next generation. In polygamous families, the number of descendants can multiply rapidly, to the point where there can be dozens of potential male heirs. As political scientist Dr. Leonardo Villalon wrote in 1995 with regard to Senegal (see his book Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal, p. 137),

Marabouts each face the thorny problem of legitimating their influence and maintaining the cohesion of the saintly lineages in the face of a large and ever-growing number of heirs…In the first generation, that of the founder’s sons, it has frequently been possible to achieve such legitimation. Every indication, however, points to the potential for fragmentation in the next generation.

Such fragmentation spills over into the political realm. One way that young marabouts, disgruntled about having to wait for their “turn” as brotherhood leader (or doubting that their turn will ever come), can make a name for themselves is by entering politics. A few have flirted with running for office, and some have become prominent public backers of candidates and politicians. This fragmented arena also includes rising religious stars who don’t come from the families of the founders; rising stars who build mass youth followings can become serious political actors.

All of these developments threaten the centralization of political influence in the person of the brotherhood leader or khalifa – a process that has been going on for decades now. Politicians must therefore navigate a more complicated field than before when they are trying to court support from the brotherhoods. In the 1960s, Senghor built a strong relationship with the Mouride khalifa Sheikh Fallou Mbacke (a son of Sheikh Amadou Bamba – see a photograph of Senghor and Mbacke here) and his successors, and therefore enjoyed a considerable degree of political support from Mourides throughout much of his twenty years in office. In 2012, Wade, and everyone else, will have to court a larger number of religious leaders.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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