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Byron D. Cannon
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Possessed of a strong regional cohesion and distinct Islamic identity for many centuries, Senegal lies just south of the westernmost part of the Sahara, today the Republic of Mauritania. Senegal is circumscribed by the arc of the Senegal River, which begins in the mountains of Futa Jalon in today's Guinea; it flows north and then to the west and the Atlantic near the town of St. Louis. The Gambia River arises in the same mountains and flows through the southern portion of modern Senegal, cutting the province of Casamance off from direct access from Senegal's Sine-Salum region.

The earliest Islamic communities were established in the Takrur district, in the central valley of the Senegal River. The term “Takrur” was eventually applied generally to West African pilgrims to Mecca. It is also the root of the term Tokolor, denoting the inhabitants of the central Senegal River region. Senegalese history was periodically dominated by a number of states, particularly the vast Mali empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and (under a different organizational structure) the locally-rooted Jolof kingdom in the fifteenth and sixteenth. Each of these gave encouragement to Muslim communities in their courts and trading centers. Muslim identity was closely tied to the vocation of trade, and Muslims lived primarily along the commercial routes and in the political capitals. Members of the ruling class frequently claimed to be Muslim, often making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Setting aside the eleventh-century movement of the Almoravids, whose main influence was just to the north and east of Senegal, the earliest known instance of Muslim scholars challenging the coexistence of Muslim and non-Muslim practices in the region occurred in the late seventeenth century, when Muslims of Berber origin sought to establish an Islamic state in opposition to both Arab lineages from the northern Sahara (Maʿqil), and local black dynasties. This movement did not succeed for long, but it did strengthen the more militant Muslim communities in Senegal and lay the groundwork for future reformist protests. The challenge was again picked up in the eighteenth century by sedentary Fulbe (Pular, or Fulani) scholars. In what is now Guinea, a group of reformers and warriors succeeded over several decades in establishing control in the Futa Jalon region. They gave a strong impetus to Islamic education and worship throughout southeastern Senegal and southward to Sierra Leone. In the nineteenth century they dominated a very large region, profited from the slave trade, and became an important center for Islamic learning.

Another group of Fulbe reformers established an imamate at the end of the eighteenth century, also in Futa Toro. Although they were not as successful politically or economically as their predecessors in Futa Jalon, the inhabitants of Futa Toro did exercise great influence on Islamic life in Senegal by their example and by the movements of reform they spawned. Their best known leader was ʿUmar Tal, who led a vast reformist mobilization (later called the ʿUmarian movement) in the entire Senegambia region in the mid-nineteenth century. Commonly known as al-Ḥājj ʿUmar, he was the foremost exponent of the Tijānīyah Ṣūfī order, which spread widely in Senegal and other parts of western Sudan under his influence. He has been regarded by many contemporary Senegalese as a hero of Muslim resistance to French rule, even though his main energies were directed against peoples to the east of Senegal. See ʿUMAR TAL.

Another militant reformer from Futa Toro was Ma Ba Diakho, who was active on the north bank of the Gambia River and in Salum in mid-century. He seriously challenged the traditional dynasties and rising French interests on the coast. But the sharpest challenge to these forces came in the 1870s from the Madiyanke (sons of the Mahdi, a prophetic figure who had been active in Futa Toro earlier in the century). A new pattern of reaction had emerged in Senegal by this date: a coalition of French forces together with local armies of Cayor and other Wolof kingdoms destroyed the Madiyanke in 1875.

By about 1890, the French had conquered most of Senegal. Recognizing their own military weakness, Muslim leaders and scholars had for some time been exploring ways to nurture the practice of Islam under non-Muslim rule. Some of the pioneers in this process were ‘white’ or Mauritanian scholars who were themselves spiritual descendants of movements in the seventeenth century but who had long since come to work within the confines of Arab warrior power and now French colonial rule. Saʿad Bu, a son of the southeastern Mauritanian scholar Muḥammad Fadhil, was an exponent of accommodation and the possibilities of enhanced islamization under the auspices of secular colonial rule. He was joined by Sīdīyā Bābā, a southern Mauritanian scholar best remembered for his assistance to the French in the conquest of Mauritania; he, like Saʿad Bu, exercised considerable influence in Senegal.

By the time of World War I, the principal leadership in Senegalese Islam had passed to a number of Ṣūfī brotherhoods based in western Senegal. The first of these leaders (called marabouts in Senegalese French, from the Arabic murābiṭ) to work within the confines of colonial rule was al-Ḥājj Malik Sy, a scholar with links to the ʿUmarian movement, but also to Tijānīyah affiliates in Mauritania and Morocco. In about 1902 Malik Sy settled in the town of Tivaouane, in the heart of the old Wolof state of Cayor. There he continued his writing of poetry and treatises on Islamic law. He cooperated with the colonial administration during the conquest of Mauritania and Morocco, the recruitment of troops in World War I, and garnering Muslim acceptance of French development of the growing peanut industry. In addition, he helped persuade another Tijānīyah leader in the peanut-producing basin, Abdulaye Niasse, to settle in the Salum town of Kaolack and relate more openly to the colonial administration. Since Sy's death in 1922, the Tivaouane Tijānīyah have been on close terms with the French government and its successors, the independent regimes led by Presidents Leopold Senghor, Abdou Diouf, and up to a point, the post-2000 presidency of Aboulaye Wade.

The most widely known of the “maraboutic” brotherhoods in Senegal is the Murīdīyah, which originally had close links to the Qādirīyah order in Mauritania. The Murīdīyah leadership, in the person of Amadu Bamba, went through a much more troubled relationship with the French regime by 1910. Bamba was exiled on three occasions: to Gabon in Central Africa, to Mauritania, and finally to a remote corner of Jolof in northern Senegal. Nonetheless, by 1914, and with French calls for loyal West African soldiers, Bamba and his followers had come to terms with the new regime from their headquarters in M’Backe and Touba in the old Wolof province of Baol. Indeed, like their Tijānīyah counterparts in Tivaouane and Kaolack, the Murīdīyah had become part of the new social and economic order that marked colonial Senegal. The maraboutic leadership of these important groups, drawn mainly from the M’Backe, Sy, and Niasse families, exercised considerable authority through hierarchies of officials, most of whom were also marabouts. They organized a vast production of peanuts for export, and monopolized the pedagogy of instruction at the brotherhoods’ various levels of operation. Although their bases remained in rural areas, they also maintained property and representatives in the larger cities, especially in Dakar, and kept close if less visible ties with the regime. Although these organizations can certainly be called Ṣūfī brotherhoods, they gave a new meaning of economic and political influence to the term.

For their part, the French overcame their earlier suspicion of the Ṣūfī orders. They realized that they had to come to terms with the overwhelming Muslim identity (perhaps 60 percent in 1900 and closer to 90 percent by independence in 1960) of Senegal. Under the leadership of the Bureau of Muslim Affairs and the Islamicist Paul Marty, who had initially been trained in Tunisia, they compiled a vast inventory of Senegalese marabouts in various regions and checked periodically on their teaching and political leanings. Gradually they reduced earlier efforts to play a supervisory role in the work of Muslim tribunals and the medersa (Ar., madrasah) or Franco-Arabic secondary school, and even supervision of the pilgrimage. This can be partly explained by the successful relationships with the key brotherhoods by the interwar years, and partly by the general success in isolating what they called the ‘Black Islam’ of French West Africa from the more ‘orthodox’ practices of the Mediterranean heartlands.

The Niasse branch of the Tijānīyah deserves special mention in this connection. While Muhammad Niasse succeeded to the leadership of the order in Kaolack on his father's death in 1922, his younger brother Ibrahim Niasse inherited the mantle of spiritual and scholarly leadership. In the 1930s Ibrahim Niasse proclaimed himself the ghawth al-zaman,(the nurturer of the age), which in Tijānīyah thinking gave him the same rank as al-Ḥājj ʿUmar and even the founder Aḥmad al-Tijāni in previous eras. He made a very strong impression on the Tijānīyah leadership in Fez, where the founder was buried, and then upon Abdullahi Bayero, the emir of Kano in northern Nigeria, in the 1930s. Ibrahim and Abdullahi probably met on the Meccan pilgrimage in 1937, and Ibrahim visited Kano a few years later, welcomed by a tumultuous reception. He became the dominant spiritual leader of the Tijānīyah of that area, which had its own tradition going back to the visit of al-Ḥājj ʿUmar in the 1830s. Before his death in 1975, Ibrahim Niasse had extended his influence into Niger, Ghana, Chad, and other parts of Africa, and indeed into Europe and North America.

The secular state that the French began to establish in the early twentieth century, maintained by the independent government of Senegal after 1960, made it difficult for Muslim interests, in the Near East or locally, to be critical of Senegalese patterns in the practice of Islam. Certainly the long leadership career of Leopold Senghor (1906–2001), the internationally known poet and politician who was independent Senegal's first president (1960–1980) was characterized by a combination of secular political and economic ambitions associated with his Parti Socialiste (PS) on the one hand and expected accommodations with the Tijani and Murid brotherhoods on the other. Senghor passed this philosophy, along with various strains that had begun to emerge in the local political and economic system, to his handpicked PS successor Abdou Diouf in 1980. Diouf's presidency would be as long as Senghor's, but many of the assumptions of compromise he inherited from Senghor, both in the secular political and religious spheres, would become subject to strains by the 1990s. Signs of a turning point in Senegal's political situation were already becoming apparent by the late 1980s. The main opposition led by Abdoulaye Wade's party, the Parti Democratique Senegalais (PDS), sought every means possible to unseat Senghor's chosen successor. In the electoral domain Wade's unsuccessful campaigns (in 1983, 1988, and 1993) emphasized the Wolof slogan sopi (meaning “change”—eventually the rubric associated with Wade's coalition movement after 2000), and sought various ways to denounce PS policies. Reactions to Diouf's election success in 1983 (a presumed 83.5 percent majority) involved charges of manipulation of the vote and widespread rioting.

There was no improvement by 1988, when more violence during the election process prompted Diouf to place Abdoulaye Wade under arrest and impose an extended curfew. Major crisis situations, such as border tensions with Mauritania (producing violent clashes between Senegalese and Mauritanians within Senegal and expulsion of thousands of Mauritanians in 1989) and, since 1982, recurring violence in ethnically and religiously distinct Casamance, provided periodic opportunities to oppose Diouf's leadership and what was seen as a virtual one-party system. By the 1990s, it was also becoming apparent that the malaise might be transferred to alternative seats of popular religious leadership, particularly in a movement known as the Dahiratoul Moustarchidina wal Moustarchdaty (Movement of those seeking the Straight Path). Popularly viewed in the early 1980s as a movement started by a grandson of the respected marabout Cheikh Tidiane Sy, its real leader was the Cheikh's son, Moustapha Sy. Apparently one reason for the new “branch” stemmed from internal rivalries within the Sy lineage over succession to the highest position (khalifa) in Tivaouane. Internal controversies aside, Moustapha Sy's organization, like the two main brotherhoods, began its operations on good terms with the secular government.

In 1991 the PS seemed ready to recognize the need for increased pluralism in Senegal's political system. To this end Diouf invited Wade and other opposition leaders to join the government and to help plan needed reforms. One key move did occur: alteration of the electoral code held at least a promise of party pluralism after decades of a virtual PS monopoly. When tested in the 1993 elections, however, the reform measure seemed flawed. Diouf's reelection was announced three full weeks after scarcely fifty percent of registered voters turned out, and cynicism over the legitimacy of the PS again set in.

The impact on Senegal of a French-initiated devaluation of the CFA franc peaked in 1994, causing the PS-dominated legislature to hand over to Diouf the authority to pass laws on economic matters by presidential decree. As popular discontent rose, the government resumed its practices of cracking down on diverse sources of opposition. Wade was again arrested and, a new turn in relations with increasingly activist religious groups, the Dahiratoul Moustarchidina wal Moustarchdaty was banned. Given such rising tensions, Diouf decided to free Wade from prison and to broker (in March 1995) a compromise that brought PS militants into the cabinet a second time. By this date, however, the political role of religiously organized groups, especially the Moustarchidine, had increased in importance. Although Abdoulaye Wade did not win a majority in the first (February 2000) round of voting, the third-place candidate, Moustapha Niasse, urged his voters to support Wade in the second round, giving him nearly 60 percent of the votes. Wade's success in the 2000 elections (which became clearer after parliamentary elections in 2001 gave the PDS a clear majority) ushered in hopes for substantial changes. A first major task, enacting a new constitution, was achieved in 2001. Wade's announcement of his intention to solve the problem of Casamance was eventually followed by some negotiations, but, by the end of his first term in office, no permanent settlement had been reached.

One characteristic of Wade's political maneuvering during his first term was a tendency to isolate challengers to his ascendancy. Moustapha Niasse, his temporary ally, became his main potential rival, and was distanced from the center of power. Significantly, by the 2007 elections, Idrissa Seck, Wade's former prime minister and protégé, had posted his candidacy against the incumbent president. Although Wade won a substantial vote of confidence in the 2007 elections, economic discontent, mainly over rising prices of basic commodities, produced popular disturbances by the end of 2007. An additional factor came suddenly to the fore. When the venerable khalife of the Murid Brotherhood, Serigne Saliou Mbacke, died in December, 2007, the entire country watched with anxious interest the public pronouncements and official acts honoring the deceased khalife and his octogenarian successor, El Hadj Lamine Bara Mbacke.



  • Cruise O’Brien, Donal B., and Christian Coulon, eds.Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam. Oxford, 1988.
  • Gray, Christopher. “The Rise of the Niassene Tijaniyya, 1875 to the Present.”Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara2 (1988): 34–60.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and Humphrey J. Fisher, eds.Rural and Urban Islam in West Africa. London and Boulder, Colo., 1987.
  • Mbacke, Khadim, and Hunwick, John, eds.Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal. Princeton, N.J., 2005.
  • Robinson, David. The Holy War of Umar Tal: The Western Sudan in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Oxford and New York, 1985.
  • Villalon, Leonardo A., and Kane, Ousmane. “Senegal: The Crisis of Democracy and the Emergence of an Islamic Opposition.” In The African State at a Critical Juncture, edited by Leonardo A. Villalon and Phillip A. Huxtable. Boulder, Colo., and London, 1998.
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