Track Persia – May 30, 2017
Five times a day the call to prayer echoes around Dakar. Thousands of men and women migrate to the nearest mosque wearing largely printed boubous and multicolored scarves. Adulations are done in unison, a shared faith that has an exceedingly large influence on Senegalese culture.
The majority of Senegalese people are Sunni Muslim, but a small part, roughly 50,000 people; align their faith to the Shi’ite sect of Islam, a form of Islam many consider to be imported.
Traditionally, Senegalese Islam has been principally Sunni Muslim. The oldest brotherhood is the Qadirīyya, which originated in the 12thcentury while the largest is the Tijäniyya. However, the most well known of all the Sunni orders are the Mourids, or Murīdiyya which began after an anti-colonialism movement.
Shi’ism has had an institutional presence in Senegal since the late 1970s, though some say Shi’ism was a practice in the country long before that, with the wave of Lebanese diaspora that began emigrating to the country as early as the 1800s, but for most, the real impact of Shi’ism in Senegal was after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
“Shi’ism is not very well known in West Africa, but thanks to the Revolution of Iran, Shi’ism has become somewhat of a global attraction. Khamenei changed the game and shook the global epistemological order to its core,” said Cherif Mballo, the president of the Superior Council of Shi’its in Senegal.
According to historian Macoumba Diop, The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran drew support from a number of Senegalese, particularly those who sought out a deeper, purer connection to Islam, but also for those who felt Senegal’s first President Léopold Senghor, a Catholic, did not embody the same religious values of the rest of the country.
“When the revolution came about a lot of religious leaders here who knew what was going on adapted to the change and they supported it. Not support in the sense that they applied the practice, but accepted the Islamic Revolution and accepted the man who was heading the revolution because he was a religious man like them. But there is little difference in the way Shi’ism and Sunnism are practiced here in Senegal. Because you know that Shi’ism was born in a climate of contestation. With the death of the Prophet and the conflicts between leaders, that’s what brought about Shi’ism in the political plan. Those were always looming factors that questioned power. So when Shi’ism came to Senegal a lot of religious leaders liked it because they liked the name Khamenei, even aside from the political aspects because they saw everything else,” Mballo added.
As a small percentage of Senegalese like Mballo self-identify with the Shi’ite order of Islam, though the majority of the country, despite not being avidly against it, feel there is little to no representation of ‘that form of Islam’ in the ‘real’ Senegalese religious society.
“Of course religion is a huge part of our society. I’d say 98 percent of what we do is influenced by religion,” said Mouhamed Diakite, legs crossed on his prayer mat. “The Islam we have here in Senegal is peaceful, that’s why we don’t have problems like other Islamic countries; we keep politics out of it,” he added.
Institutions dedicated to Shi’ite Islamic education are few in Dakar, but their influence is growing. Al-Mustafa University and the Institute Mozdahir in Dakar are two of the most prominent institutions in the capital that hold courses on Shi’ism as well as other subjects. Each year roughly 150 students attend Al-Mustafa University where tuition and meals are free. Though university staff refused to comment on where financing for the Dakar-based program comes from, a special report from Thomson Reuters indicated that the university received over $70 million from Iran in 2016.
These institutions organize religious ceremonies, conferences, and debates and use social media to reach prospective students, and according to their websites, the mission of each institution is purely educational with no agenda to convert students to a specific religion or order.
At Dakar’s public university, University Cheikh Anta Diop, a Mourid student-led religious congregation convenes once or twice a week to discuss Islam, read the Koran and prepare for the next maagal, or religious pilgrimage. After singing the religious texts one student shared his thoughts on Shi’ism as it affects Senegalese culture.
“Serigne Touba taught us to respect ourselves and others, but sincerely I don’t think that form of Islam has a place in real Senegalese culture. It’s not what we know. How can you be Senegalese and do what they do — when they only come here to separate us or rob our country?” Law student Ousmane Faye asked.
Despite Shi’ism originally stemming from Arab nations, Shi’ites like Mballo hope that one day more people from his community will embrace the same order of Islam he holds dear.
“We want Shi’ism to take on the color of Africa. We want to embrace Shi’ism as our own. Iran will always have their differences, whether it be their way of speaking or how they wear their clothes, but we need to adapt Shi’ism to be for Africa, too,” said Mr. Mballo.
Iran’s influence through propagating its version of Shi’ism in places of worships and educational institutions in this African country is growing, this is clearly reflected in the attitudes of Khamenei’s admirers there like Mr Mballo and the high payments the Dakar-based Al-Mustafa University receives from the Iranian government.