Academic journal article African Studies Review


Academic journal article African Studies Review


Article excerpt


Within Muslim Africa, Senegal has long been characterized by the striking dominance of Sufi forms of Islamic practice and social organization, with important consequences for Senegalese politics and society. While the Sufi model remains centrally important, it has been increasingly rivaled since the 1980s by reformist, or "Islamist," groups and ideologies. In the wake of the historic Senegalese democratic alternation in power in 2000, and in an international context of apparent conflict between the West and the Muslim world, the growing public discourse about religion in Senegal is resulting in reinterpretations and dynamic transformations that have further blurred the boundaries between Sufism and Islamism.

Résumé: Le Sénégal a longuement été caractérisé dans l'Afrique musulmane par une domination frappante des formes Sufi des pratiques et de l'organisation sociale islamiques, avec des conséquences importantes au niveau de la politique et de la société sénégalaises. Si le modèle Sufi conserve son importante centrale, il faut noter qu'il fait, depuis les années 80, l'objet d'une rivalité croissante émanant des groupes et idéologies réformistes ou "islamistes." À la suite de l'alternance démocratique sénégalaise historique du pouvoir en 2000, et d'un contexte international du conflit apparent entre l'occident et le monde musulman, la discussion publique croissante sur la religion au Sénégal a pour conséquences des réinterprétations et des transformations dynamiques qui ont encore plus brouillé les limites entre le sufisme et l'islamisme.

Islamism in the Land of the Marabouts?

In Africa in general, and in Senegal in particular, consideration of the Islamic "revival" has often invoked the longstanding academic and political distinction between variants of Islam: Sufism on the one hand, and reformism, or "Islamism," on the other. These terms and their precise definitions have varied in the literature, but a basic distinction between a more tolerant indigenous (African) religion and a more militant (Arab) one is frequently posited. (For a recent example, see Rosander & Westerlund 1997.) Some scholars additionally distinguish between "reformist" Islamic movements, referring to those whose primary goal is the correction of religious practice, and "Islamist" ones, which have an overtly political agenda. In practice, however, this distinction is not always clear, and in this essay I use the term "Islamist" to refer to both phenomena.

The reputed tolerant and peaceful nature of Sufism, and especially its black African forms (l'islam noir of the French colonialists) has traditionally been seen as more or less compatible with democratic change. "Islamism," by contrast, understood as a political ideology proposing the alignment of political structures with religious strictures (with consequent actions undertaken in its name), has been understood as inherently incompatible with-and indeed as a hostile alternative to-democracy.

If there had been doubts in the past, since the historic presidential elections of 2000, Senegal is unquestionably a democracy. But Senegalese politics and society are also in flux in the wake of those elections. And precisely because Senegal is a democracy, Senegalese politics have been closely intertwined with debates and issues of concern to the socioreligious sensibilities of its overwhelmingly Muslim, and highly religious, population. In this context, Sufism remains the dominant form of devotion, but its dynamic forms and manifestations are adapting in ways that have blurred, if not completely erased, the distinction between "traditional" Sufi and Islamist groups. In the significant public discussion about what it means to be Muslim in a world of apparent civilizational clashes, many Senegalese intellectuals-both the long-dominant Francophone elites and the arabisant intellectuals who historically have been marginalized-have built on the rich Sufi traditions, while reinterpreting several of their important elements and borrowing from other Muslim traditions, including those labeled "Islamist. …

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