The world of Islam in West Africa has such a rich and interconnected relationship with the people and their culture that it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time Islam was not present. In fact it is hard to imagine Islam without also thinking of the distinctive characteristics of West African Islam. One of the reasons that Islam is so close to the hearts of West African people is because of Sufism. Sufism is a branch of Islamic Knowledge which concentrates on direct experience and the spiritual development of a Muslim. It is this area of knowledge that provides the social framework for Muslim communities in West Africa. This social framework can be seen in the Muslim communities from Senegal to Nigeria. According to Khadim Mbacke, author of Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal, Sufi brotherhoods first appeared in West Africa during the 15th Century (although there are much earlier accounts). He explains that there was a natural and necessary acceptance of the Islamic Science called Sufism, which was essential to maintaining a straight path of religious purity.
Mbacke also says that Sufi associations provided a support system for Muslims to seek guidance and religious teaching. The two components which make up this essential support for the straight path are the shaykhs (”masters”) and the murids (”disciples”). The role of the shaykh is like that of a teacher however playing a much more extensive role in the a disciples life. Shaykhs advise the murids on all matters of life and have very specific obligations that they are to uphold to lead their murids in religious and private affairs. The murid likewise has responsibilities to his shaykh which includes a code of conduct. That code of conduct is typically patterned after those Believers who were closest to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (alayhi salatu wa sallim), in the way of the traditions that have been passed down from that time.
The largest groups of Sufi associations in West Africa are the Qadiri, the Tijani, the Mouride and Sammaniyya a branch of the Halveti Order. These orders were traditionally the leading resistance to social corruption, colonial rule and tyranny, such as the case with the Sanusi Sufi Order founded by Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi and the Sammaniya, who led a revolt against Egyptian and British colonial rule in the Sudan.
Historically Sufism in West Africa has also played a significant role in the lives of women and women’s education. For example Nana Asma’u, a Fulani woman and daughter of well known Qadiri Shaykh, Uthman dan Fodio (who was also an initiate into the Naqshbandi Order), was an Islamic scholar of her own right. Asma’u was familiar with al-Ghazali’s treatise on the Duties of Brotherhood, a classic work of the highest degree. This treatise advises the devout Muslim on eight specific obligations toward his or her community members: material assistance, personal aid, holding one’s tongue, speaking out, forgiveness, prayer, loyalty and sincerity and affording relief from discomfort and inconvenience. And there were examples of the Sunnah of Muhammad (alayhi salatu wa sallim) to support these elements of society. Asma’u and her students promoted these principles in their own community speaking on the roles of women in society. By teaching women, Asma’u was by extension training whole families in orthodox Sufi practices that focused on following the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Lately, I have noticed a growing buzz of disappointment in the present status of Islam in African-American communities. African-American Muslims like Tariq Nelson and Marc Manley have expressed their disappointment on a number of important issues. And others are channeling their energies into developing a specific and unique American-Muslim identity. I would like to contrast all of these efforts by suggesting that establishing an authentic chain of transmission for Islamic knowledge and guidance is traditionally the means of success in religious reformation. Therefore, there needs to be an acceptance of authority. And a final question needs to be answered,
“From where are we getting our Islam?”
In conclusion, it should be noted that the element of Islamic knowledge which once allowed the West African communities to thrive is now nearly devoid from the Islam of their American-born descendants here in the United States. Perhaps this is partly because African-Americans are not taking their Islam from their own historical traditions but instead, the development of Islam in African-American communities is a milieu of pseudo-Islamic organizations, such as the Nation of Islam; the Moorish Science Temple of America; the Five Percent Nation, as well as course-work on Islam and the Middle East through American Universities and imported religious education through Saudi funding. Now that African-American Muslim community leaders are gathering (see MANA Conference) perhaps someone will raise this issue of authority and tradition and maybe find an answer in the near future, inshaAllah.