Senegal: The Passing of the Khalifa of the Niassene Tijaniyya

On August 2, a key leader of the Tijaniyya Sufi order in Senegal and in Africa more broadly, Shaykh Ahmed Tidiane Ibrahima Niasse, passed away in Dakar. He is set to be buried in Kaolack, Senegal today (August 6). President Macky Sall is scheduled to visit Kaolack on August 8 to offer his condolences.

Niasse was the son of the extraordinarily influential Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), who transformed, revitalized, and expanded the Tijaniyya not just in Senegal, but throughout West Africa (especially northern Nigeria), into Chad and Sudan, and beyond. His community’s epicenter is Kaolack (map) and specifically the area known as Medina Baye; it is one of three main spiritual centers in Senegal alongside Touba (for the Mouridiyya Sufi Order) and Tivaouane (for another branch of the Tijaniyya). Watching the condolences come in from different parts of the world – Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Chad, etc. – one gets a sense of the map of Niasse’s enduring influence.

In Senegal as in many other parts of the Muslim world, major Sufi leaders are succeeded by their descendants. In this sense the term “Khalifa” does not indicate a claim to the Caliphate whatsoever, but rather operates in its root meaning of a “successor.”

Another note is that Shaykh Ahmed Tidiane Niasse was named for Ahmad al-Tijani (d. 1815), the founder of the Tijaniyya as a whole, who lived in North Africa.

The new Khalifa for the Niassene Tijaniyya is the late shaykh’s brother, another son of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, Mohamoudul Mahi. Succession within Senegal’s major religious families typically proceeds laterally through one generation before proceeding to the next generation.

It is worth noting that there are multiple poles of spiritual authority for the Niassene Tijaniyya in Kaolack and worldwide. Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse’s grandson Hassan Cissé (d. 2008) became a highly influential figure in his own right, and his brothers have continued to act as major leaders for the community.

There is a vast scholarly literature on the Niassene Tijaniyya. Here I will mention two works: Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse’s early life and career was the subject of a meticulously researched book by Rüdiger Seesemann. And the community’s approach to knowledge and spiritual training was the topic of an excellent book by Zachary Wright.