The Sufi Brotherhoods of Senegal

Christian Bobst

2014 - Ongoing

Senegal; Touba, Diourbel, Senegal; Dakar, Senegal

In Senegal, 95 percent of Muslims belong to a Sufi Brotherhood, more than in any other Muslim population in the world. For Sufis, peace and tolerance are important values, spirituality and closeness to God are more important than dogmas and strict adherence to religious rules. Senegal has never experienced an attack in this age of international terror. The West African country is regarded as an anchor of stability. This has a lot to do with the role of the Sufi Brotherhoods. The families of their founders have gained much power and wealth since the French colonial period and have passed on both for generations. The Senegalese engage in an strong personality cult around the founders of their four largest Sufi-brotherhoods and also their descendents. While saints are a taboo in most Islamic countries, the names and portraits of the founding fathers of the Sufi brotherhoods can be found on the lettering of colourfully painted buses, as posters in shopping centres and textile factories, on almost all taxis. Although Senegal has a secular form of government, Islam is much more than a religion in the country. It is a lifestyle that permeates the entire society. This photo essay aims to explore over a timeframe of 10 years how the Sufi Brotherhoods and their religious leaders shape Senegalese society and how they maintain power and wealth, but also peace and stability in the country by relying on a tolerant form of Islam instead of dogmatic rules and opposition.

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  • November 08, 2017 – Bats swarm out, while thousands of people gather for evening prayer in the Great Mosque in the holy city of Touba on the evening of the Grand Magal Festival. Every year, 2-3 million people gather in Touba for this pilgrimage to commemorate Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacké (1853-1927), who was the founder of the Sufi order of the Mourids and is worshiped as a saint by the Senegalese. Bamba is interred inside the mosque. After his death, his eldest son Mamadou Moustapha Mbacké was appointed as his successor as the first Caliph General of the Mourid Brotherhood. 1932 he laid the foundation stone for the Great Mosque, which was completed 1963. 2013 two minarets were added, they are still under construction. With almost one million inhabitants, the holy city of Touba has grown to become the 2nd largest city in Senegal.

  • September 25, 2018 – Serigne Cheikh Abdou Karim Mbacké (52) gives an audience to his followers In front of his palace in Touba. He is one of the most wealthy and powerful spiritual leaders in Senegal and a direct descendent of Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), the founder of the Mourid brotherhood. Abdou Karim prays with his followers and blesses them. In return he receives financial gifts. His followers praise him for being beneficent and generous and assert that he spends most of their contributions to the needy or in order to expand the Mosque in Touba. The Grand Mosque of Touba is the Mausoleum of Amadou Bamba and is regarded as the spiritual center of Senegal. Touba, which was built around the mosque, has become the second biggest city in Senegal.

  • June 9, 2018 – Women of the Layene Sufi brotherhood gather to chant at the house of their highest spiritual leader in Yoff, Dakar. Once a year they visit him to sing, pray, pay financial contributions. Spirituality and emotional closeness to God play an important role in Sufi practices in general. Chanting energetic, repetitive sermons is a form of meditation which is practiced by the Layenes regularly. Every week they hold a ceremony called the "chants religieux", which they begin on Saturday night and continue until the dawn prayer on Sundays. The Layenes are the smallest of the four major Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal. They can be recognized by their flawless white dresses which they regard as a symbol of purity.

  • June 13, 2018 - Textile workers pass by a picture of the Saint Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacké (1853-1927) at the Touba Commercial Center in Dakar. Serigne Touba, as Bamba is also called, is the founder of the Sufi Brotherhood of the Mourid. There is only one photograph which exists of him. This image is painted on countless street corners, shops and taxis all over Senegal and protects millions of people who wear his picture on amulets. The saint encouraged the Senegalese to be peaceful, to seek the guidance of a spiritual leader and thought them that hard work is equal to prayer. Many say that his doctrine has much contributed to making Senegal one of the most stable countries in Africa. But critics argue that the unconditional submission of the Senegalese to the religious elites hinders the country's development.

  • September 27 2018 - Textile workers bow at the evening prayer on a balcony of the so called "Touba Commercial center" which is located in Sandaga, Dakar´s busy commercial district. At the "Touba Commercial Center" there are many shops and sewing studios where the traditional Senegalese garments are produced. Many of the textile workers here belong to a Dahira, as the religious communities who follow certain spiritual leaders are called. The workers all pay a seventh of their wages to their Dahira. Half of the money is passed on to their spiritual leaders, the other half flows into a fund which provides social security for the depositors. If someone wants to get married or has a serious problem, he can ask for money from the Dahira's fund.

  • October 1, 2018 - A girl walks between workers who reassemble buses from used metal parts in an open-air garage in the centre of Dakar. With these buses, hundreds of thousands of people will be transported to the Grand Magal in Touba at the end of the month. The spiritual leaders, called marabouts, are omnipresent in Senegal. Stickers and inscriptions with their portraits are applied on the windows of almost all buses and taxis, and many wear them as amulets for protection The 400 kilometre journey from Dakar to Touba is not without danger due to the large volume of traffic. Every year there are dozens of deaths. Senegal has one of the lowest crime and HIV rates,. but the accident rate is just as high as almost everywhere on the African continent.

  • November 08, 2017 – In the night before the Grand Magal Festival, women cook traditional Senegalese food in the streets of Touba. According to Amadou Bamba‘s will, every believer who travels to the Grand Magal in Touba should receive free food and lodging. At the same time they are asked for a donation to the community within their means. Sharing is considered one of the most important principles in the philosophy of all Sufi Brotherhoods.

  • November 8, 2017 - On the first morning of the Grand Magal in Touba, a group of women retreat into the house of the Ndiaye family while the men gather to pray in the courtyard. The Ndaye family commits to the Dahira of Serigne Fallou Mbacké, who was the second son of Cheikh Amadou Bamba.. The Grand Magal is the largest pilgrimage in Senegal and also the most important reunion of the Dahiras and the families of the Mourid Brotherhood. The women are regarded to be the center of the family in Senegalese society. The mothers are honoured as the glue that holds the family together. They are also responsible for the education of the next generation of good Muslims.

  • July 3 2014 – A member of the Baye Fall Brotherhood collects donations at the city center of Dakar. Traditionally, members of the Baye Fall brotherhood prove their devotion to God through hard labor in the fields of their Marabouts. In modern times, some Baye Fall members replace manual work with roaming the streets asking for donations for their marabouts. Many Senegalese think the Baye Fall should rather work in the fields of their Marabouts then beg for money.

  • June 10, 2018 - A son of the Tijianiyya Marabout Ousman Cissé plays in a 20 square meters sized room in which at night over 40 children have to sleep at night. The cildren have been placed in the Koranic school by their parents. While wealthy parents can send their children to good Koran schools under the patronage of influential marabouts, poor parents often give their children to the Koran schools of low ranking marabouts, who have little education and money themselves. These Marabouts often send the children to the streets to beg in order to be compensated for the lessons and to be able to feed them halfway. Many of these children are reported to be beaten and abused physically and psychologically abused. Even though many Senegalese feel shame about it , little is done to finally end the systematic exploitation of these children.

  • September 30, 2018 – Disciples of the Baye Fall brotherhood work in the fields of their master Serigne Cheikh Seye in Keur Ndiaye Lô. The Baye Fall brotherhood is named after their founder Ibrahima Fall, who was one of the first and closest disciples of Amadou Bamba Mbacké, the founder of the Mourid Sufi brotherhood. In order to be able to nurish the vast numbers of followers of Amadou Bamba, Fall proclaimed that hard physical labour was a higher level of prayer and devotion. Therefore the Baye Fall traditionally emphasize on farm work in the service of their marabouts. In return they receive spiritual guidance, food and lodging.

  • November 8, 2017 – Serigne Cheikh Seye Baye, 69, poses for a picture at this house in Touba during the Grand Magal 2017. He is a Marabout, as tthe spiritual leaders and shamans in Senegal are called. Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Sufi brotherhood of the Mourds, tought that every believer should submit himself to the guidance of a spiritual leader to be successful in the strive to be close to god. Cheikh Seye is the spiritual leader of a group of Baye Fall followers. The Baye Fall are a sect within the Morid brotherhood. Cheikh Seys is also a renowned shaman doctor and healer. He claims to have inherited his spiritual wisdom and healing power from his father, who was a Marabout, too.

  • September 30, 2018 – Followers of the Baye Fall community of Cheikh Seye Baye in Keur Ndiaye Lô perform a religious ceremony, during which the men and women are drumming, dancing and singing. While in other countries fundamentalists may prohibit music, it is an integral part of the religious practice in Sufism, which also integrates many rituals and social structures of the tribal culture in Senegal. Influences from animism such as ancestor worship, rituals, lucky charms or amulets still play an important role in the daily life of most Senegalese muslims. While elsewhere these kind of things are forbidden by Islam, the spiritual leaders themselves often consecrate amulets and practice shamanism.

  • February 22, 2018. Thousands of believers gather once a year for a pilgramage at the mausoleum of Sokhna Mame Diarra Bousso (1833-1866), the mother of the founder of the Mourid Sufi-brotherhood Amadou Bamba. Mame Diarra is the only woman the Senegalese dedicate a pilgrimage. Women in Senegal are generally regarded as the center of the family and the educators of the next generation of good Muslims. Many followers of the Mourid brotherhood refer to Mame Diarra as "the source", because she was responsible for Amadou Bamba's education. Close to her mausoleum in Porokhane there is a fountain which springs holy water. The faithful are hoping for healing, strength and blessing from the water of this fountain.

  • February 22, 2018 – Disciples of the marabout Serigne Touba Khouma in Porokhane prepare big quantities of Thiebou Yap, a traditional dish with rice and lamb, in order to cater for a large number of guests and family members during the pilgrimage of Mame Diarra Bousso Sokhna (1833-1866), the mother of Cheikh Amadou Bamba who was the founder of the Mourid Sufi-brotherhood. At mame Diarras mausoleum thousands of believers gather once a year, and they all need to be nourished. Everyone who goes on a pilgrimage in Senegal receives free food and accommodation. In return the pilgrims should make a contribution to the community within the means of their ability, may it be a chicken, a mutton or a cow. Malicious tongues claim that many pilgrims only make the pilgrimages to Polokhane or Touba to work their bellies.

  • On June 17 2018, a follower of the Layene Brotherhood enters the washing room at the house in Ngor in Dakar, where allegedly holy water springs from the ground. Another follower of the brotherhood fills pots with the water from a copper pipe. On the wall over the pipe is a painting of the face of Seydina Issa Rouhou Laye (1909-1949), who was the son of Seydina Limamou Laye (1843–1909), the founder of the Layene brotherhood. The personality cult around the founders of the Brotherhood and the Marabouts plays an important and unifying role amongst all Sufi orders in Senegal.

  • September 21, 2018 – A group of young Senegalese women turn the sandy streets of Dakar to a fashion catwalk, wearing dazzling, colored, bright dresses while they are heading to a pilgrimage of the Mourid brotherhood at the beach in Yoff. Senegal is a nation which is proud of it’s fashion culture. Before Tabaski, the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, several fashion shows will take place. They present the latest fashion trends that many women proudly wear in the mosque during the highest Muslim festival. Even though the majority of Senegalese society conforms to patriarchal principles, women have more freedom than in many other Muslim countries. Whether they wear headscarves or veils, wigs or natural hair is up to them. But even if they may be revealing their hair and skin, many Senegalese women are very religious, following the Koran strictly.

  • June 15, 2018 – Nga La Ndou Sidoine (28), a member of the Layene brotherhood, poses for a picture at the beach of Yoff after after the morning prayer at the masolueum of Seydina Limamou Laye on Korité, the end of Ramadan in Senegal. The Layene claim that it is written in the Koran that the Prophet Mohammed would rise again in a place where two oceans come together. According to the Layene, this is the case in Dakar. Seydina Limamou Laye (1843–1909), the founder of the Layene brotherhood, claimed that he was the Mahdi, the reincarnation of the Prophet Muhhamed. He also claimed that his son I Issa Rouhou Laye (1909-1949) was the second coming of Jesus Christ. Therefore the Layenne brotherhood unites elements of Islam and Christianity in their beliefs.

  • Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye, 58, prays together with her disciples on November 28, 2018 at the Mosque of Cheikh Islam Baye Niasse in Castor, a quarter of the Senegalese capital Dakar. She is a Muqaddam, as the spiritual leaders of the Sufi brotherhood of the Tijianiyya are called. At the same time Zeyda Moussoukoro Mbaye is a successful entrepreneur with 58 employees and a member of the Chamber of Commerce of her hometown Kaoloak. As a Muqaddam she leads on a religious community of 600 man and women who follow her spiritual guidance. The Tijianiyya Brotherhood, which was founded by Ahmad al-Tijani (1737–1815) in Marocco, has always been popular with women because it allows the initiation of women as spiritual leaders.

  • September 25, 2018 - At the courtyard of Cheikh Abdou Karim Mbacké's palace, numerous expensive cars are parked, such as the Bentley on the right side of this picture. The cars are said to be gifts of his followers, among whom there are many rich and successful Senegalese businessmen who are spread and settled around the globe. Although Senegal has a secular government since its independence in 1960, the highest spiritual leaders rank among the most wealthy and influential men in the country. Since generations they pass on their religious authority to their sons, together with their wealth. Their followers see the wealth and splendour of their religious leaders to be proof for their power and their proximity to god and to have even more reason to adore them.

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