DAKAR (Reuters) - The special role of the Muslim “Brotherhoods” in Senegalese society was forged from Islam’s encounter with local West African culture and the tribulations of colonialism.
After Islam crossed the Sahara to arrive in West Africa from the eighth century onwards, local religious chiefs over the years secured political legitimacy as providers of vital refuge to villagers fleeing local disputes.
Despite an awkward cohabitation between Islam and French colonizers from the late-1600s, the religious chiefs, or “marabouts”, grew in stature. By the 19th century, the two biggest Brotherhoods of today - the home-grown Mourides and the Tidianes from Morocco - were firmly established in Senegal.
Revered Mouride founder Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke was seen as a threat to French rule and twice sent into exile. But in the end, the Mourides and the French found a mutual interest in something which is a mainstay of the economy today: the peanut.
“The Mourides were at the centre of a strong local economy, notably peanut cultivation. The French just could not do without them,” said Galay Ndiaye of the Brussels-based European Academy for Islamic Culture and Science.
When France needed soldiers for World War One, ties with the Mourides were such that they helped enlist Senegalese fighters. Paris in return allowed a rehabilitated Bamba to begin work on the Great Mosque of Touba, the town he named with the Arab word for “Bliss”.
When construction of Touba’s Great Mosque was completed in 1963, 36 years after Bamba’s death, the town counted barely 5,000 inhabitants. Today, it has merged with nearby Mbacke to form a conurbation of around three-quarters of a million, the second largest urban area after the capital Dakar.
As independence beckoned in the 1950s, the marabouts took on a crucial new role as local politicians such as Leopold Sedar Senghor, who would become Senegal’s first president, realized they could guarantee the vote of their rural followers.
Political historians say marabout support for Senghor - a Francophile Catholic - not only helped Senghor secure the presidency at independence in 1960 but also consolidated the religious tolerance which is Senegal’s hallmark today.
Reporting by Mark John and Diadie Ba