Aminata, an amazing Senegalese friend, and I were walking down the street near the city center of Dakar. Suddenly, she shouted, “OMG. That’s my mother’s sister.” Coincidentally, her father drove by the minute she embraced her aunt for a hug. You have to understand. The Arab in me was preparing to flee the scene. Generally speaking, in Arab communities a strange man walking around the city with a female alone is a big no-no. My first instinct was to escape the crime scene.
My route from Sao Paulo to Dakar was a long one. However, the final leg, the flight from NYC to Dakar was full of, what airline geeks like myself call VFR, which stands for visiting family and relatives. So the flight felt like a mini-Senegalese community in the air. People were talking, laughing, and complaining in French and Wolof (I assumed it was Wolof, though it could’ve been any of the other native tongues).
Meeting all the Senegalese people on the plane, I remembered why I was going to Senegal. A majority Muslim country in Africa must have clear examples of culture and faith interacting differently than the Arab world. Senegal is a 92% Muslim country. “Kind of like Jordan,” I thought to myself to put things in comparison.
Islam in Senegal goes back to the early 11th century. I don’t know the history of how Islam got to that region first and how it spread. However, I have learned that three main, critical aspects of history affect Islam now in Senegal; the Arabic influence, French colonization, and the native cultures and religions of tribes.
Native cultures and religions contained many things that were affirmed in Islam such as polygamy and respect for elders. This allowed for easy transition to Islam for many tribes and the continuation of existing practices. For example, having multiple wives is almost expected from sheikhs, imams, and persons in positions of power.
Mentioning Islam in Senegal can’t take place without mentioning the Sufi tariqas of the country. There are two main, prominent tariqas. The Tijanya, which originated in Morocco, is the most popular and common Sufi tariqa. The Mouridiah, the second, is perceived as the richest and most politically powerful Sufi tariqa in Senegal (more about that in another post). For example, the first thing the current president did when he became elected was to visit Touba, the headquarters of the Mouridiah, in order to receive their leader’s blessings.
I met with the amazing Aminata. She had moved back to Senegal almost seven months ago after approximately seven years in New York where she attended Hamilton College and later worked as a writer. We talked about the merit of moving back to our home-countries and shared our experiences. I similarly moved back to Jordan after 8 years in the U.S. We both had a similar experience of being home-sick and wanting to rekindle and explore home and our cultural roots.
Aminata’s favorite TED talk is The Danger of a Single Story. Though she was born Muslim, she shared with me that she found God as a teenager. She was helped significantly in that pursuit through the Sufi tariqa she adopted and the spiritual guidance of her Moukhadem, or spiritual mentor.
Over food I showered Aminata with questions. I was enjoying the conversation, and she was a trooper answering all my questions. Though, shortly after our conversation, we agreed that Aminata will write a guest post on this blog about the experience of Muslim Senegalese Women. So – I will leave it to her to speak about that.
It was after eating as we were walking down the street that her father and aunt suddenly appeared and my fight or flight instinct hit. Rest assured, I didn’t flee. I stayed put. And, met her aunt and father. Luckily, minutes before that happened Aminata had explained to me that her parents know she has a boyfriend. She and her boyfriend respect the Islamic boundaries of such a relationship. But for all purposes and intentions, they are an “item”. Yes, her parents may have not been okay with this when she was fifteen years old. But now, they are okay with it. They know him. They like him. They are waiting on them to seal the deal! Come on, hurry-up!
This struck me as very different culturally than the Arab world. I didn’t meet my now fiance’s parents until we were ready to be engaged. And, that is generally the norm in Arab culture.
This didn’t strike me as an individual incident. I noticed that gender relations are more accepted. A few days later, Aminata invited me to iftar, breaking the fast in Ramadan, with her group of friends at her spiritual mentor’s house. We spent most of the night praying. Close to midnight, we all walked out and walked around the neighborhood. When it was time to get a taxi, it was Maryam who hailed a taxi and negotiated the price for me.
This set-off a great 5 days of exploring the intricacies of Islam in Senegal. A few more posts to come. More discussion about women in Senegalese society. And if you stay tuned, Ammar goes head to head against a Senegalese goat.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.