The Soft Islam

@Christian Bobst
Serigne Cheikh Seye Baye @Christian Bobst
While radical Islam spreads in the Sahel, Senegal is spared from terror. Is this due to its special brand of Sufism?

The city has its secrets. They hide where you least expect them.
Dakar, capital of Senegal. Take the street that leads to the beach bars, where the chic drink their cocktails and the surfers ride their waves. See the painted face, black on a white wall?
Turn off there. Go towards the sea. You will spot a steep ladder leading down into the earth. Descend into the sacred grotto.
Down there it is dark and cool. Bare feet glide over damp stone. Hands grope along rock walls, moss covers the cliffs. A young woman, completely absorbed and dressed in white, whispers her prayers into the stone. She is so beautiful that one can hardly turn away. A few steps further on, the grotto opens up to the Atlantic; seawater washes around your feet, a fishing boat passes by in the distance.
For more than a thousand years, they say, the Prophet’s soul waited here for its return after he died in Medina in 632. Night after night, the soul travelled around the world as a light to return home to the grotto in the morning.
Until the Prophet rose to renew Islam.
Above the grotto, in the shade of the cypress trees, Abdullay Laye, 60, sits in the circle of believers. Laye is the marabout, an Islamic cleric, guardian of the holy grotto. Like almost all Senegalese, he adheres to Sufism, a variety of Sunni doctrine.
There are four Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, four religious communities; Laye belongs to the smallest, the Layene. The Sufis are less concerned with an exact interpretation of the Koran; rather, they strive to merge with God. „It is a mythical pilgrimage in search of the Creator,“ says Abdullay Laye. The Layene are the poets of Sufism, at times Laye’s words are reminiscent of those of a Taoist in China. „We love nature. We preach tranquillity, serenity and community,“ says the marabout, looking out to sea. „All life comes from the water. All life comes from the light. And the light still lives in this grotto.“ When Abdullay Laye talks about his faith, it has little to do with the image of Islam that radical Islamists propagate; narrow-minded, ready for violence and intolerant. „They have not understood Islam,“ Laye says. „They have abused it.“
Is it because of this attitude, shared by most Senegalese, that the country has never experienced a terrorist attack in this age of international terror?

15.7 million people live in Senegal, 95 per cent of whom are Muslim. The country is located in a troubled area of the world: Islamists are active in the Sahara and in 2012 overran the north of neighbouring Mali. Nigeria, Cameroon and Burkina Faso are terrorised by Boko Haram, Somalia by al Shabab.
In Senegal, too, many young men live without jobs and prospects; nevertheless, the country is considered an anchor of stability. There has never been a coup or civil war, people of different ethnicities and religions live peacefully together. Christians and Muslims celebrate Christmas and the Feast of Sacrifice together, and sometimes they marry each other. This stability has much to do with the role of the Sufi brotherhoods, which fight against extremist currents and preach peace and tolerance.
Sufi missionaries brought Islam to Senegal as early as the 11th century. Over the centuries, Islam had become interwoven with Senegalese traditions and beliefs. Sufism proved to be particularly permeable to this, leaving much room for the inexplicable, the mystical, the fantastic. It appealed to many people for precisely this reason. It gave them the possibility to carry over parts of their tradition into a modern world, to be rooted and still be part of a world religion. It was like a sponge that absorbed many things. It became an African religion. And in a way, the legend that Imam Laye tells could be understood as a parable of this history.
For a long time, Islam remained a religion of princes; it was only in the resistance against French colonisation that the masses turned to it. The year 1843 fell in turbulent times; France tried to bring all of Senegal under its rule. Clergymen called for a holy war against the occupiers, and many were killed.
In 1843, what Sufi clerics had long predicted came to pass, says Abdullay Laye: the Prophet returned. „In the form of Seydina Limamou Laye, a fisherman, peasant and illiterate who had never attended a madrassa.“
It was only at the age of 40 that the Prophet revealed himself. „After his proclamation, he walked the alleys for nine days,“ Laye recounts. „One half of his face was black, the other white. It was a miracle! But one that the Arabs could never accept: a black prophet.“
He shrugs.
„If someone thinks his skin colour makes him more intelligent, we’ll let him. But God is not a racist!“
Prophet Limamou Laye called for peaceful coexistence with the occupiers. Yes, his followers simply adopted elements of their foreign religion into their own. They celebrate their founder as Mahdi, the reincarnation of Mohammed, and his son as Messiah, the reincarnation of Jesus. They want to make out a cross in the shadow on his forehead. Islam, Christianity, Senegalese traditions, they are all united in the Layene.
Where in the West there would be an „either-or“, in Senegal you often find an „and“. A person can believe in science and progress, Islam and magic at the same time without perceiving this as contradictory. Things do not have to be mutually exclusive, they are allowed to interweave.
Like Cheikh Seye Baye, 69.

Rufisque: in the healer’s herb garden
In the middle of Rufisque, not far from the capital Dakar, there is a small paradise, the garden of Cheikh Seye Baye. Huge baobab trees provide shade, there is a smell of grapefruits and lemons. Baye presents his plants as if they were relatives, most of them he planted himself. And as he walks there, in flowing white robes, his dreadlocks greying, his face soft and open, he looks like the epitome of a herbal doctor. He is also a cleric, a marabout of the Baye Fall, which belongs to the Mourid brotherhood.
„The Koran has many applications,“ says Cheikh Seye Baye, „you can also heal with it.“ Finding great love, escaping misfortune, Baye’s arts are holistic. Parents and grandparents introduced him to it; he comes from a family of healers. He learned the Koran, read the books of secret knowledge, studied black and white magic. „You have to be able to do both. I know how to heal a snake bite, but also how to send a snake on a human. Not to do it. But to make the black magic harmless.“
Cheikh Seye Baye learned French, English and German, travelled the world, taught himself IT and computer programming. The bookshelves in his house bend under medical textbooks, herbal primers, religious scriptures, dictionaries. „The thought of ever being finished slows you down. We are like the trees, every day the roots get deeper and the branches get higher.“
He now has patients all over the world, in the US, Sweden and Mexico. „Once one of my patients asked me to travel with the djins, the spirits. I asked him: What for? That’s what planes are for today.“

Islam is much more than a religion in Senegal, it is a lifestyle. You can find it everywhere. In the verses of rappers, on the lettering of brightly painted buses, in the names of boutiques, insurance agencies and department stores. Yes, even the cardamom-spiced coffee available on almost every street corner is named after the holy city of the Mourids: Café Touba.
Each of the four brotherhoods is a little different. There are large ones and small ones: About half of the Muslim Senegalese belong to the large Tijianiyya, a third to the Mourids, Qaddriyah and Layene are much smaller. There are indigenous and imported: Layene and Mourids originate from Senegal, the Tijianiyya was founded in Morocco in the 18th century by an Algerian, the Qaddriyah sprang from 12th century Baghdad.
In each brotherhood, you will come across surprises all their own. For example, a Tijidianid like Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye, 58.

Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye (Credit: Christian Bobst)

Dakar: the mighty Muhadam
At Friday prayers, Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye sits at the very back. A woman in a white headscarf among the other women. Hidden behind a screen. Through the wooden slats, she can make out the praying men, watch their backs being weighed up and down. On that side, according to traditional Islamic ideas, is the publicly important world, the place where decisions are made. While on the quiet, hidden side she lives.
But then the prayer is over and the men rush to her. An assistant pushes a chair towards her. Powerful wealthy men go down on their knees before her. One after the other. Grasp her hand, whisper in her ear. And she listens, offers comfort, advice and blessings. They are scenes full of intimacy. She is like a mother to him, says one of them later, the company director Ibrahim, 38, whose wealth can be seen in the fine cloth of his boubous.
The relationship between spiritual teacher and disciple is essential in Sufism; he guides the disciple on his spiritual journey. Ibrahim was 20 when he chose Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye, a woman, as his muhadam, his spiritual guide – to the astonishment of his family. Admittedly, the Tijianiyya brotherhood has always been popular with women because it allows the initiation of women. And because the Senegalese great leader Ibrahim Niasse had demanded the emancipation of women. But women had always taught other women.
That changed in Senegal in the 1990s and 2000s, when male high school graduates and students like Ibrahim suddenly chose women as their muhadam. „It was destiny. Her spiritual depth attracted me, And because she is a woman, I feel more connected to her. More protected. I can tell her things I would never say to a man.“
Meanwhile, Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye is the patron of Dahira, the religious association of students of her faith community with more than 600 members. And because many students of yore have become senior doctors, politicians and managers, wherever Mbaye goes, „she meets a familiar face.“ She has become a powerful woman.
Yet she was once far from that.

Zeyda was 14 when her family married her off to a distant relative, a stone-rich diamond merchant. He was 26 years older than her, and she was very afraid of him. „He didn’t want you to love him, he wanted you to fear him.“
In all, her husband fathered 26 children with six women. More than a third of married Senegalese live in polygamous marriages. Both Mbaye and her husband are Muslims, but their views of Islam could hardly be more different.
He is a Wahabi of Saudi school, of which there are very few in Senegal. She is a Tijianid.
Mbaye bore him seven children and raised six more of his ex-wives. She did what he asked of her. When her mystical dreams became more and more urgent, she decided to be initiated secretly – knowing that her husband was strictly against it.
„When I finally confessed to him, he went into a rage. He moved the furniture out of the house, turned off the water and electricity. For nine years he didn’t speak a word to me. But the more he confronted me, the more determined I became.“
Mbaye borrowed a sewing machine, sewed clothes until she had the money to open a studio with six machines. She later set up six beauty salons where she employs 58 people. She farms and raises livestock, sits in the chamber of commerce in her hometown of Kaolack, and has founded a transnational network for businesswomen. She has divorced and found a new husband, one with whom she can laugh and whom she calls a friend.
Mbaye explains her rise with her role as a mother of many. „I have raised so many children in my life. Even today, friends and relatives bring me the offspring they cannot cope with. All mothers know about housekeeping. About money. All mothers are educators. That is why we are ideal religious leaders. We are the source.“
Mbaye’s case is exceptional. Most women live differently; religion, tradition and family law assign them a subordinate status. And yet they move more freely, sensually and confidently than in many other Muslim societies. You meet ardent feminists wearing hijabs, working mothers of six children, but also girls who dream of becoming the second wife of a rich businessman. You meet the intellectual in the tight dress who struts into the café on high heels to assure you with profound knowledge of Islam that the Prophet was in fact a promoter of women. The role of women in Senegalese Islam is complex. In Porokane, for example, there is a mausoleum that a brotherhood dedicated to the mother of the founder of the religion. This is the Mourids, the brotherhood that was able to rise to become the most politically and economically influential in Senegal.
Because work is sacred to them.

The Sandaga market in Dakar: the centre of the enterprising Mourids
A quarter of breathtaking business activity. A neighbourhood of breathtaking business activity. Shopping malls, market stalls and itinerant traders. On offer: Handbags, fake brand trainers, mobile phones, sexual enhancers, creams for bigger breasts, sexy underwear, computers, rat poison, human hair from Brazil and India, fabrics of every kind. Religion and business go smoothly together here. A picture of a caliph hangs in every room. At prayer times, the traders spread out their carpets in the hustle and bustle of business. Praying between car wrecks, mountains of textiles, on the pavement between hurrying passers-by, in every free corner of this universe of business. Almost all economic activity here is informal, 97 percent of entrepreneurs in Senegal have no licence.
Sandaga is the economic centre of the Mourides and the hub of a global empire based on the intermingling of business and religion. If you see an African selling sunglasses on the street in New York or Rome, he is probably a Mouride. Mourids buy container loads of clothes or electronics in China or Dubai to send to Senegal. They drive used European cars to West Africa. Organise the import-export business.
Mourids prefer to do business with fellow believers, without a contract and with a handshake. Whenever Mourids find themselves in a new town, they set up a dahira, a learning and networking circle that also serves as a social security. When a newcomer arrives in Paris or Bremen, the long-established people provide him or her with information, sometimes also with accommodation, start-up financing or a job. If someone falls ill or has a wedding or funeral to attend, his fellow believers pool their resources.
„Never become employees, but entrepreneurs,“ the founder of the religion, Amadou Bamba, had taught his disciples. „This will give you freedom.“ And freedom had always been the point.
Like Limamou Laye, Amadou Bamba was born at the time of colonial expansion, in 1853; he too saw no point in fighting the French occupiers. But to submit to them? Not at all. Let the French rule as long as they allowed him and his disciples religious freedom!
At first, the French occupiers had fought Bamba, exiled him. Then they learned that he and the other clergymen could be useful to them. The French sought indirect rule and had initially relied on princes and chiefs.
Soon, however, they sought the cooperation of the much better organised clergy. It was an arrangement that benefited both sides. The marabouts translated the orders of the occupiers and received extensive autonomy in return – as well as a share in the profits of the colonial economy. The French administration mainly cultivated peanuts in its West African colonies, which were processed into soap, wax and animal feed in France.
The Mourids, who knew how to organise the faithful into work brigades, soon supplied two-thirds of the harvest. A very particular social contract between the colonial administration and the Sufi brotherhoods developed, parts of which still exist today – although after independence in 1960, the colonial rulers were replaced by a government that strictly separates religion and state. It, too, allows the brotherhoods great freedom; after all, it knows about their enormous influence on the electorate. Before the elections, all candidates, regardless of denomination, make pilgrimages to the faith leaders to secure their goodwill.
The groundnut crop, on the other hand, soon could no longer feed most farmers. When world market prices collapsed in 1978, many of them moved to Dakar, mostly to earn money as small entrepreneurs. And from there they swarmed out into the world. But regardless of whether one of them becomes filthy rich or remains a poor wretch, he will always donate a large part of his earnings to Touba.
The holy city of the Mourids.

Touba: the Marabout with the Rolls-Royce

Visible from afar, the great mosque towers over the city, with three quarters of a million inhabitants the second largest in Senegal, to which the state granted autonomy. The mosque is the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. If you want to see how rich we are, visit our mosque, say the Mourids. The grandiose minarets, the blue and green domes, the exquisite mosaics and glasswork. Financed by a huge redistribution from the bottom to the top, from the periphery to the centre, because every street vendor, bus driver and metalworker gives a part of their earnings to Touba week after week. To increase the glory of the holy city. Year after year, millions make the pilgrimage here in the great Magal, in hastily packed buses and adventurously lurching companions. And all the inhabitants of Touba will open their homes to the pilgrims, to celebrate God and the great community.

Serigne Cheikh Abdou Karim Mbacke (Credit: Christian Bobst)

Only a few kilometres from the mosque lives one of whom his followers report fantastic things: Serigne Abdou Karim, 52, marabout. Landowner. Son of the second caliph, grandson of the founder of the religion, Amadou Bamba. His disciples say that he can make it rain or lightning flash with a wave of his finger.
And doesn’t divine grace show in his fabulous wealth?
The villa, a dream in white marble. Four luxury cars, including a Rolls Royce, wait in front of the entrance. Peacocks, wild geese and crowned cranes stride through the courtyards, an antelope hops past, the court walks between them. Visitors and disciples crowd the corridors and waiting rooms, expecting a little of the divine grace to fall on them, the poorer also hoping for a mild offering or at least a warm meal.
After hours of waiting, Serigne receives Abdou Karim for an audience. In the shade of a canopy, he is enthroned on an armchair while hundreds of disciples sit at his feet. A scene reminiscent of the ancient kingdoms of West Africa.
Behind him stands one who fans him with air, in front of him stands one who drives away the flies, beside him crouches one who balances silver cans on his knees. Finally, a griot, a herald, approaches and begins to proclaim the greatness of the marabout. Disciples approach Serigne Abdou Karim on their knees, slipping him money as he praises the value of the work. „She is the greatest treasure. It is what made Touba, this nothing in the forest, the second largest city in Senegal!“
After our audience, we are taken to a suite worthy of a Saudi prince, where a feast of lobster, mussels, quail, chicken, sheep and beef is served. In the hours of waiting, we talk to disciples of the marabout. For example, the young chauffeur who was a criminal and drug addict until he found faith. „The Marabout has given me a second life.“ Education, driving licence, health care. If he doesn’t find a woman to marry, the Marabout will introduce him to one and then get them a house.
An all-round carefree package in a country where there is virtually no state social provision.
Night has almost fallen when the marabout receives a second audience, in a noble salon bathed in white and gold. Once again, two heralds praise his kindness and generosity. „You can’t even count what he spends every day helping people! God chose him to help the poor.“
He himself, says Serigne Abdou Karim, does not even have a bank account. Everything he gets, he distributes. „God,“ he says, „has arranged it this way. Some get rich, others get poor. That is the divine order. It’s good that the rich exist. It creates stability.“

Pah, groans a clergyman a few hundred kilometres to the west. „They squeeze people like lemons! Sliding around on your knees in front of someone else: That’s not true Islam.“ He had gathered enough material to write a book, he said. About how the government grants business licences to powerful clerics and just waves the goods they or their middlemen deal in through customs. „They are like a mafia, they have the government in their pockets.“
He prefers not to read his real name in the press, as does everyone else who has critical things to say about the coexistence of government and business-minded clergy. There is the expolitician who explains how Mourids enriched themselves with illegal logging and money laundering while the law enforcement agencies strained to look the other way. The scientist who suggests that they encouraged illegal migration. Strong accusations, but they remain completely unproven, given that in a country often hailed as a model pupil of African democracy, there is virtually no research into these issues, which are rumoured by many. With such work, one scholar admits, one would make „two powerful enemies at once: the brotherhoods and the government.“
But it is not only the country’s ability to reform that suffers from the lack of public critical debate, it is also the weakest of the weak: Children.

Mbour: the madrassa of abused children
The city lies on the coast. In it, a new building district, aged before its time. One shell of a building follows the next, dreariness, sand and dust, the paths are lined with rubbish, a sheep eats its way through the rubbish. Here lies the Daara, the madrassa of the Tijianiyya cleric Ousman Cissé, 40.
No one has bothered to finish the shell. An unfinished ground floor, the stairs to the first floor lead straight to heaven. Bare concrete walls, no electricity, no running water, no furniture, except for the three chairs Cissé pulls up. A few dark rooms are covered with straw and thin mats, in between lie a few dirty mattresses, of one only the springs remain. Here, 200 children crowd in at night and one cannot imagine for the life of one how they all fit in.
Their parents sent them here to learn the Koran. This is what they are doing now, standing in a crowded classroom, mechanically moving their upper bodies back and forth as they recite. Their clothes are tattered, some have skin rashes. Cissé claims they are between 8 and 20 years old, in fact some of them look like five or six.
The parents have paid neither school nor housing allowances, says Cissé, so the children have to pay for it themselves. „In the rainy season they work in my fields, in the dry season they go begging. Everyone has to provide their own meals.“ What they scrounge for in addition, they have to give to Cissé.
You can see the begging Koran students on many street corners in Senegal, torn figures collecting their alms in plastic buckets. According to estimates by the organisation Human Rights Watch, there are at least 50 000 of them living all over the country. There are few good madrasas where the children learn something for life and do not have to beg. But most of them look like the one in Cissé. The children hardly learn arithmetic, writing or the official language of the country, French; many of them will probably one day join the huge army of day labourers. Until then, they live far away from their parents, exposed to the inexorable law of the strongest.
„For an Islamic education, you need a bit of strictness,“ says Cissé. In concrete terms, this means that the children are beaten with cables if they make mistakes when reciting the verses. Yet Cissé is still a relatively good marabout, social workers assure us; there are many worse ones than him. Those who lock up their children, chain them, sexually abuse them, chastise them to the point of unconsciousness if they don’t beg enough.
Running a daara can be a fantastic business. If you supervise 200 children who beg 200 West African francs a day – and that is usually the minimum a marabout demands from his pupils – you get 40 000 West African francs a day, the equivalent of 60 euros. In a country where the average income is around three euros a day, this is considered a phenomenal turnover.
„The traditional attitude is: the children should feed the parents. In many families and daaras, the children are exploited for economic purposes,“ says Madame Corumba Ndiaye Ndoye, who looks after abused children at Mbour City. No one knows how many daaras there are in the country, she says. „Anyone who wants can open a daara. It’s practically not monitored.“
Whenever Ndoye investigates a suspicion of abuse, she encounters the same argument: „They then say: we are against Islam.“ The government, too, has so far failed in its attempt to find solutions because of the lack of concepts and the lobbying of the brotherhoods, which demand the greatest possible autonomy for themselves.
Light and shadow, they are sometimes close together.
The great freedoms, the unregulated spaces granted by the state to the brotherhoods thwart important reforms that impede the country’s progress. Thus, in a state where people rely on family and fraternities for their social security, few taxes are collected. Consequently, the state has no money to build a social system.
At the same time, the brotherhoods provide stability and social cohesion. They mediate between tradition and modernity, offer economic networks and social security. They preach peace and tolerance.

Dakar on the morning of Korité. The day when Lent is broken. The streets are deserted, yet it is that day of the year when the city’s taxi drivers do not charge adventurous fancy prices, but the actual amount.
„Today we stick together,“ says one, smiling gently. „Tomorrow it’s back to business.“
The clouds hang heavy in the sky. The rain everyone here is waiting for after months of drought is in the air. You think you can feel it on your tongue. In the Yoff district, the Layene are making their way to the mausoleum on the beach where the founder of the religion, Limamou Laye, is buried.
An entire neighbourhood is on its feet, a fantastic sight. Their faces black, their bodies dressed all in white, they walk along in their most beautiful robes. The women smell of perfume and mint. They have put on their most elegant sunglasses, some quickly take a selfie before praying.
The faithful settle down in the sand. For hours the imams have been chanting their laylaylay, it carries you away, into a meditative state. Thousands of bodies move as one, back and forth, up and down. Sand crunches under bare feet. Waves roll in with great momentum. Children run to the beach, jumping into the water, whooping.
What had the marabout at the holy grotto said?
„From here, Islam will be renewed. And it will bring peace.“

Published in Geo, March 2019, translated by deepl