Review: Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal

Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal. Edited by Mamadou Diouf. Columbia University Press, 2013. 296 pages. $29.50.

I received this volume to review in my capacity as a blogger, and so this review will be less formal than a review you might read in an academic journal. It will also be less comprehensive; in my view, the capacity to link to the table of contents obviates the need to describe every chapter. For the sake of disclosure, I will say that I have met at least five of the contributors.

The volume’s ten chapters treat intersections of Sufism and politics in Senegal through the lenses of history, sociology, political science, philosophy, and other disciplines. Together, these contributions provide important background for understanding contemporary Senegal. The outgrowth of a 2008 conference at Columbia University, the book does not include material on religious and political trends under President Macky Sall (elected 2012). But the colonial period and the postcolonial period from 1960-2008 receive considerable attention. The volume is well organized, moving from several crucial framing chapters (Diouf’s introduction and Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s “A Secular Age and the World of Islam”) into case-based approaches, before concluding with comparative chapters by Alfred Stepan and Leonardo Villalon. The reader who is new to Senegal will find the book accessible, while specialists will encounter rich historical and ethnographic material.

One central aim of the book is to examine what Diouf calls Senegal’s “social contract,” which “has brought religious [especially Sufi] and political authorities together since colonial times” (2). This investigation involves a consideration of “Senegalese exceptionalism” – Senegal’s political stability, and its status as the only West African nation never to have experienced a military coup. Senegal’s success is sometimes attributed to the strong presence of Sufi orders there, and to relationships of partnership and negotiation between Sufi leaders and politicians.

As the word “tolerance” in the title reminds us, some media and policy commentators (and some Sufis) equate Sufism with tolerance. I often see analyses depicting a binary opposition between “tolerant Sufism” and “rigid fundamentalism.” This binary opposition, which I consider deeply flawed, creates pressures and expectations for Sufis to combat Salafism and Islamism. Some policymakers, Western, African, and others, look to (and seek to promote) Sufism as a counterbalance to these other Muslim tendencies. In the present political context, understanding Sufism in Senegal takes on great urgency; the book helps move readers beyond unhelpful binary oppositions while still highlighting distinctive features of the Senegalese case.

Some chapters in the volume, importantly, question or destabilize the image of “tolerant Sufism” and its role in facilitating “Senegalese exceptionalism.” Villalon, in the final chapter, accords a major role to “the specific social structures and organizational forms developed by Senegalese Sufism” in generating Senegal’s political stability (240). But he also advances three major caveats to the idea of Senegalese exceptionalism. First, Sufism is “multivocal” and may not always manifest “tolerance.” Second, given forms of one-party rule in independent Senegal through 2000, “a consideration of the relationship between religion and ‘democracy’ in the Senegalese case can really only be explored beginning in the 1990s – because that is the point when Senegal in fact launched itself on a process of substantative procedural democratization” (242). Finally, Villalon argues that Senegal is less exceptional than often thought, especially in comparison to Mali and Niger; since the 1990s, democratization in all three countries has created new opportunities for religious actors to participate in public life.

Joseph Hill’s contribution also complicates the image of “Sufi tolerance.” Contestation, even violence, may occur within a Sufi community. Drawing on ethnographic research among followers of the Tijaniyya affiliated with Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), Hill examines how these Sufis relate to each other and to representatives of the state. Hill finds in these interactions a “pragmatic pluralism not grounded in a supposedly neutral ‘liberal’ approach to tolerance but in the negotiated and even symbiotic existence of multiple, mutually irreducible claims to truth and authority and multiple understandings of political and moral community” (116). Policymakers and commentators keen to oppose Sufism to other forms of Islam would be wise to ask themselves whether they really understand Sufis.

Why is it important to question and complicate the image of “tolerant Sufism”? In part to ensure analytical rigor, but also to humanize Sufis themselves. Tolerance is a virtue. But two-dimensional images of traditions and communities, even if those images emphasize desirable traits, ultimately do those traditions and communities a disservice. In a world where Sufis find that some very powerful people have big plans for them, they may be thankful for this volume, which goes beyond the stereotypes and stock images.

8 thoughts on “Review: Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal

  1. Hi Alex, I’ve just started reading ‘Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal’. I’m currently researching Sufism in Senegal, particularly the Muridiyya, I had just finished reading ‘Fighting the Greater Jihad’ by Cheikh Anta Babou (which I can fully recommend) and I was looking for more work by the author, so I bought the above book. I saw your review and immediately you had my full attention! It is interesting to read your review, I agree with you that ‘In the present political context, understanding Sufism in Senegal takes on great urgency’.
    I’m interested in Etienne Smith’s chapter focusing on ‘Senegal’s peaceful, ethnic, cultural, and religious pluralism’. In the introduction Mamadou Diouf says that for Smith it is ‘kinship’ of the people that sets Senegal apart, alluding to the idea that Senegal is an exception. For Smith ‘kinship’ is the major conceptual framework…one that cuts across cleavages based on religion, language, or ethnicity’. I like this presentation of Smith’s view and shall read further.
    I have viewed Sufism in Senegal as a positive force. I was surprised by your view ‘binary opposition…’creates pressures and expectations on Sufis’. I think we need as much positivity and tolerance in this world that we can get and as Carlou D said ‘everyone must act positively for peace to exist in this world’. However, I do understand your worries about having two-dimensional images and I’d like to read more about what you think about this and your concerns about policymakers seeking to promote ‘Sufism as a counterbalance to these other Muslim tendencies.’
    Looking forward to your next installments Alex.
    Best wishes,

    • Hi Melanie, I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on other chapters in the volume. I too enjoyed Dr. Babou’s book.

      As for two-dimensional views of Sufis, I think the equation of Sufism with tolerance distorts the history of Sufism in West Africa, including in ways that Sufis might find objectionable. Turning to (present-day) northern Nigeria, should we say that Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (a member of the Qadiriyya) was “tolerant”? Many Sufis who consider him a hero would say that the hallmark of his heroism was his willingness to denounce practices that he considered un-Islamic, and to engage in violence to defend his community and establish what he intended as an Islamic political system. The stereotype of “tolerant Sufism” does not really have room, I think, for people like dan Fodio.

      • It seems the same as contemporary views of Buddhism. Because of modern circumstances and press attention, it’s considered to be inherently pacifist or tolerant when that isn’t necessarily the case. Also it helps their image in Western eyes that they’re often opposed to governments and/or groups we don’t like.

  2. Interesting topic. I have yet to read the book but, as a Senegalese, and a subscriber to the Tijaniya sufi order, and also as one whose family is linked to the Sy family, (the other major representative of Tijaniya with the Niasse family) from my mother’s side, and to El Hadj Omar Futuyi from my father’s side, I believe to be well qualified to address it.
    El Hadj Umar was to some, the direct Khalife (spiritual successor) of Shaykh Ahmad Tidiani , the founder of the order, and to others, the khalife only in west Africa. Alex’s mention of Uthman Dan Fodio is relevant here, as El Hadj Umar, also and bloodily engaged in a relentless holy war against local animists and, as it was reported, Muslim tribes. While the older Tijaniya generations never question this violent legacy, at least in public, the younger generation, including me, are struggling to reconcile it with the example of sufism that the following leaders showed us.
    ElHadh Malick Sy, a cousin, friend and contemporary of Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba, and the propagator of Tijaniya in Senegal (and who also inherited the spiritual mantle of Shaykh Ahmad Tidian, via El Hadj Umar (according to everyone but the Niasse family and their supporters), managed a policy of reluctant, resigned and fully peaceful cooperation with both the colonists and the local animists, which afforded him the leisure to spread his teachings and his base almost unchecked. Both his friend and rival, el Hadj Ibrahima Niasse and his cousin and friend Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba led the same policy, successfully for the one, not without personal trials for the other.
    So, yes, in general, sufism eschews violence. At its core, it is a more aware form of islam, one where the sufi sees God, or His hand behind everyone and every action. It therefore requests one to be patient to the extreme and allow for God’s will to happen. To sufi saints, the colonist was not the devil, he was in his position for a reason, through powers and abilities that were lent to him by no one by Allah. To them therefore, to fight him is to go against divine will by forcing the hand of destiny, and to assert one’s will instead of effacing oneself , both of which are inherently anti-sufism. With succeeding generations however, and a widening base that adopts the order’s practices but do not have access to the mystical education, coupled with the rabid fervor they show the saints, human nature, and violence, find less restraints.
    Secondly, I can ‘t but agree with Smith ‘s view that it is ” ‘kinship’ of the people that sets Senegal apart, alluding to the idea that Senegal is an exception. For Smith ‘kinship’ is the major conceptual framework…one that cuts across cleavages based on religion, language, or ethnicity’ Senegal is indeed exceptional in the sense that it offered a perfect breeding ground for the tolerant ideals of sufism. In Senegal, sufism found established social and political structures that bound various ethnicity and faith in a that “kinship” of intermingling that emphasized communication, friendly teasing and trust. That is easily seen in the fact that whether the Tijaniya, the Mouridullah, or the Quadriya, their adherents are bound to neither region, ethnicity nor social class.
    In summary, it is for sufism as it is for Islam. The message is of tolerance, assertive, adamant tolerance. But that is only in their perfect or original form. They are both as plants in the ground, whatever they grow in, ultimately dictates what they become. The same realities on the ground that allowed sufism to be tolerant, when changed, might dictate that it is less so.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! It is really nice to hear from a Senegalese, and a member of the Tijaniyya. I hope you will have a chance to read the book.

      • I am looking forward to it. I have forwarded the link to my cousin, a phd in anthropology who has written quite extensively on African Sufism and Senegalese Tijaniyya. I expect him to contribute too.

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