Islam and Sufism in West Africa

November 15, 2007 § 24 Comments

Saifuddin and a fellow Fulani from Senegal.

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.

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§ 24 Responses to Islam and Sufism in West Africa

  • Irving says:

    Alhamdulillah! Excellent and informative post 🙂 As a point of information, the Nimatullahi Sufi Order also has khaniqahs in West Africa, in Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. They also built and manage two medical hospitals that are free to the poor.

    Ya Haqq!

  • Saifuddin says:


    as-salaamu ‘alaikum Irving! Thank you for your kind words. I was wondering how are the Nimatullahiyya’s relationships with other tariqats in those areas?

  • Marc says:


    Therefore, there needs to be an acceptance of authority. And a final question needs to be answered: “From where are we getting our Islam?”

    Excellent point. A very important question that if you ponder on all the banter that going on in the Muslim blogosphere, especially from Blackamerican brothers like Tariq and myself, you’ll see this as the very same question. But to take it a step further, we are working out not only asking where are we getting it from but are working on establishing that authority so that can move beyond carrying sahih Bukhari and Muslim in our backpacks and starting living a bit more of our lives as Muslims.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Aaminah says:

    Asalaamu alaikum.

    “…but are working on establishing that authority…”

    That authority is already established and in existence. It has never not been here, it is only a matter of us listening to it. The authority has existed through the Shaykhs who have been descended in teaching from previous generations going back in direct lineage to the Prophet (salalahi alahi wa salaam). We have never been without the blessing of such learned and exemplary teachers, but we have abandoned them in our search for something “American”. While I will never dispute that we should have home-grown scholars as well, such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Zaid Shakir, we should not disregard the living authority that has already been present all this time. Shaykhs like Hamza and Zaid have never disagreed with that either: where do we think they got their learning from? As brother Saifuddin says, the problem is accepting that authority.

  • […] significant period that we can identify and answer the question asked in a previous post entitled, Islam and Sufism in West Africa. The question I am asking is directed at the Muslims in America of African origins […]

  • Saifuddin says:


    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. Marc what do you mean here:

    “we are working out not only asking where are we getting it from but are working on establishing that authority so that can move beyond carrying sahih Bukhari and Muslim”

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “we… are working on establishing that authority…”. What does this mean?

  • storbakken says:

    An interesting group of people I encountered in Morocco are known as Gnawa. They blend classical Islamic Sufism with pre-Islamic African traditions. They originated in Mali and today are flourishing throughout Morocco and even in the U.S. and Europe.

  • abdul-halim says:


    I hope you don’t mind but I just put this entry up also on Third Resurrection ( Also, would you be interested in participating in the group blog. (Actually Marc and Tariq are also members)

  • Musa Abu Bakr Tikari says:

    Assalamu Alaikum Sidi,

    Excellent post. About 10 years ago I took the Darqawi tariqa at the hands of Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller (famous American scholar and munshid), and now follow the Maliki madhab with a strong personal interest in Islamic West African association. I can definately attest to the positive affect that sufism has played in my life (after being Muslim for over 32 years), and the way that tassawuf seems to be so natural, beautiful, fulfilling. I would definately say that more African American Muslims (and all African Americans for that matter) should explore the rich heritage that is Islamic Africa (from Morocco to Egypt, to Mali to Nigeria, Sudan, etc.). There is no need for wahabism, salafism or other borrowed harsh rigidity which runs counter to the way of the Sahabahs and their Successors.

  • Saifuddin says:


    wa ‘alaikum as-salaamu Uncle Musa and welcome. Thank you for stopping by. I pray you become a regular commenter and share you insights with us here.


  • Kathrin says:

    Assalaamu ‘Aleykum

    I recently came across an article about Islam in African and it contradicts everything I have ever read and heard.

    Thank you for a great post and a great blog!


  • Tanvir Ahmed says:

    As Salaat o Was Salaam o Alaika ya Rasool Allah (SAWS) .

    As Salaam o Alaikum Wa Rahmat ul Laah i Wa Barakatahu .

    Dear Brothers & Sisters it is so nice to hear of you people in Africa walking on the path of Sufism , we pray to Allah swt that Everyone reaches his/her Goal , may we learn from our mistakes and act as per Our Holy Prophets (SAWS) Sunnah which is the most powerful and easiest guiding FORCE for our long and difficult journey , the Sunnah are like a Oasis in a dry and harsh deserts of our intellect , like Light in the deep and darkness of the caves of our heart , like the vision of the unimaginory thoughts of our eyes of our soul .

    Please also pray for me i am just a small amount of dust below the feet of our master and masters ( Pir & Grand Pirs and so on ) , we are just dust PARTICALS below the FEETS of the People of a Big CARAVAN which started in Mecca & Medina , Oh Allah please forgive us for the sake of this CARAVAN . May our parents , Grand parents , their parents , their Grand Parents and our coming generations SINS be forgiven for the sake of these RIGHTEOUS souls the Torch Bearers of Islam and Sufism . We pray to Allah (swt) to let us live in the LOVE and let us die in their LOVE . Aameen .





    As Salaam O Alaikum ( w r b T H )

    Tanvir Ahmed Qadri .
    Bombay , India .

  • Abdullah says:

    As Salaam Ailaikum

    He focused on the Nation of Islam when talking about Muslims in America, but that is a small organization compared to the followers of Imam W. D. Muhammed who taught Al-Islam to black Muslims in America. There are over 1 million black musims in this organization so we are practicing true Islam. Google it

  • FUAD says:



  • abdurrazzaq says:

    I agree with the statement, the muslims in my african-american communities are very lost (new york, new jersey). We are doing nothing with our lslam. The gangs have taking over the mosque and the elder (brothers/sisters) sit and watch with fearful hearts.


  • irfan says:

    i am happy with this true islamic path sufism

  • 'Amar_Jr' says:

    Saya senang karena ada saudara-saudara muslim saya di Afrika..
    ALLAHU AKBAR . . .

  • riyaz says:

    In sub cotinent, all non wahabib are mostly hanafi. As such most of hannafi like noble way of Sufism. After reading the article i understand wahabis speak lie by saying sufi tariqa only exit in sub continent.

  • Auwal Abdulquadir says:

    i’m indeed very happy that sufism had its origination and facts in both the holy Qur’an and Sunnah.and had became the framework by which islam spreads all over the world by way of purifying once mind which reflects the basic concepts of islamic fundementalism by showing love and concern about human problematic.thereby making it cleared to the entire humanity that islam those not spreads by swords rather it does spreads by Love and understanding.

  • mcdreamie says:

    Inspiring write-up. Though I must correct dat when the name of the prophet muhammed is called, the appropriate uttering is “salla lahu walaeyhin wa salam”. Alae salatu wa salam as used in this write-up is wrong and it only applies for all other prophets except Muhammed (salla lahu walaeyhin wa salam”. Astag furullah. Amin

  • Aslam.u.Alikum,

    So good to see that ISLAM & SUFISIM in Africa.

  • Mohammed Azam Mirza says:

    Sufism is the heart of Islam … Living, breathing Islam.
    Where I come from it was the ways, conduct and character of the sufis that won over the hearts and minds of the people – Forgiveness, charity and an ever presence and belief in the community’s welfare.

    Centuries later, those who sung about Allah’s tauhid are themselves celebrated – Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz, Ali Hajveri, Khwaja Nizamuddin R.A etc

    I am so pleased to hear Islam flourishing

  • jamiir-ali says:

    apparently the brother(s) who made the statement about the nation of islam , 5% and other psuedo islamic groups need to get out more. those account for a small minority of the african american community. african americans are represented in all islamic communities from shia, sufiyyah , ahmadiyya and even the salafi/ wahabbi persuasions. all one need do is utilize the internet to find out.

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