Dossier 17: Cultures and Religions in Senegal

Publication Author: 
Aminata Sow Fall
September 1997
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number of pages: 
Senegal has eight million inhabitants, 95% of whom are Muslim, with the remainder predominantly Christian. There are very few animists who formally practice traditional religions. I say formally because in fact traditional practices are present in the daily life of all Senegalese, be they Muslim or Christian, because these practices are profoundly rooted in their cultures.

Soon after the introduction of Islam to Senegal, Muslims organized into Confreries*. This meant that the first religious leaders taught Islam according to the tradition of their spiritual leaders. This is why one finds in Senegal three major Confreries. The first are the Tidjanes, who are inspired by the doctrine of Cheikh Ahmed Tidjani from Algeria. The second are the Khadria, who teach the doctrine of Abdel Kadr Al Djinani who died in Baghdad in 116 of the Christian era. The heart of this Confrerie, in West Africa, is in Mauritania but it is most active in Senegal. The third Confrerie, developed during the last century, is Mouridism founded by Cheikh Ahmadoou Bamba. It is unique in that he never pledged allegiance to any Arab leaders and founded a doctrine based on obedience to the Prophet and the work ethic.

These Confreries proliferated deep inside the country, reaching the peasantry. They made adepts and became pressure groups with whom the colonial authorities had to cooperate after having first battled with them.

While Islam was introduced without really upsetting local cultures, Christianity was more aggressive for in many instances missionaries destroyed objects used in traditional cult rituals. Moreover, Christianisation was a political means of assimilation, at various levels: clothing, culture, spirituality. Christians had to adopt the same attitudes as the Western world. Even traditional first names were sacrificed, although in some ethnic groups the first names were a means of identification of the individual within his/her family and clan. Among Muslim, too, first names of Arab origin were progressively imposed over time, but this was not compulsory, and one often found parents naming their child after the first name of a Christian friend or relative: for instance Mary, John, etc…

In fact, missionaries were never able to strip away the cultural roots from the Christians, for those constituted an intimate part of their identity. Nor were the Muslim fundamentalists able to do this. In fact, all Senegalese, irrespective of their religion, are soaked in their cultures. At the spiritual level, one witnesses a sort of religious syncretism, where on the surface, religion is Islam or Christianity, but where the ancestral beliefs are lived daily and determine the behaviour of people. There are still Muslim and Christian families which offer a bowl of water to someone who died, somewhere in the middle of the night.

Cultural practices can be a balancing factor and attenuate the pressure from the fundamentalists. Tolerance has always been the rule between the different religions; some years ago, there was a difficult case when Christians wanted to build a church at Tivaouane, the fief of the Tidjanes who opposed it. The two Muslim and Christian leaders mediated with their troops.

It is also culture which renders Muslim women so visible. But until when? The question can be raised when one knows that some fundamentalist groups are on the rise and convince women who, themselves, preach fundamentalism right up to the schools. This, however, is an epiphenomenum, but the fragile nature of our world should incite us to vigilance, particularly in wake of the power of organised groups to manoeuvre and mobilise in more and more sectarian ways. I am, however, optimistic because I believe in human intelligence.

My optimism is confronted by the fact that, beyond religions, the communities agree on the same values: respect of the human person, moral austerity, ethic of work, sense of honour and dignity, respect of culture and traditions. Regarding this last point there are many conflicts related to new economic factors, technology and communications. But there is one constant element in Senegal that any observer can remark: no religion, no group preaches hatred, exclusion, or djihad against other groups.

Editors note: Confrerie is used here to denote a group of faithful to the teachings of a spiritual leader.