Varieties of Selecting Muslim Leaders in West Africa

When it comes to Sahelian countries such as Mali and Niger, I tend to think of strong national-level, top-down Muslim clerical bodies as a phenomenon of the period before liberalization, and especially as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. There are still bodies like the Islamic Council of Niger, but they don’t seem to have the monopoly over religious decision-making that their predecessor organizations enjoyed.

That’s why this link from Ghana caught my eye, especially the role of the National Chief Imam:

Sheikh Abdul Wadud Haruna, a Kumasi-based Islamic cleric, has been appointed the President or Zaeem of the Tijaniyya Sufi sect in Ghana.

The conferment of the title and the presentation of a certificate of honour were performed by the National Chief Imam, Sheikh Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, during the 47th annual birthday of Prophet Mohammed held in Kumasi last weekend.

Until the elevation, the appointee was the regional head of the Tijaniyya sect in the Ashanti Region.

The appointment was done with the consent of clerics responsible for such decisions and based in Madina Kaolak, Senegal, according to a release.

President John Dramani Mahama, who was the guest of honour at the activity, promised to promote religious tolerance in the country after making a presentation of GH¢12,000, 50 bags of rice and 10 bags of cooking oil to the organisers.

Also present were Sheikh Tijani Aliyu Cise, the Grand Imam of the Tijaniyya sect worldwide, who is also the Imam of Madina Kaolak.

The Tijaniyya is one of the most important Sufi orders in West Africa. Although founded in North Africa in the early nineteenth century, the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975) was responsible for much of the order’s spread in places like Ghana. Kaolack was Niasse’s home and is the seat of his successors. Worth mentioning is that Ghana’s Chief Imam is himself a member of the Tijaniyya. So it’s interesting that the selection of a new representative of the Tijaniyya in Ghana is a decision made jointly by the National Chief Imam and the shaykhs in Kaolack (presumably with some input from other Tijanis, but nevertheless presented as a top-down selection).

I’ve been strongly influenced by Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori‘s notion of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world, a concept Ousmane Kane uses quite effectively in his book on Nigeria. But this Ghanaian example reminded me that top-down selections of new Muslim leaders are not always a thing of the past. On the other hand, some Ghanaians are worried that when the current National Chief Imam passes (he is over ninety years old, and has served since 1993, when he succeeded his cousin), the Ghanaian Muslim community will divide bitterly over the question of succession – not all Ghanaian Muslims are Tijanis, to say the least. So perhaps further fragmentation is in store.

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