Muslims of Senegal

The discussion of culture, faith, and identity got heated in Senegal. No, really it did and I had to mediate at some point. I was invited to iftar at ATSA, an interfaith dialogue organization. Below, I highlight some of the Muslims I met in Senegal. Their point of views on Islam, identity, and culture.

I promise you at the end of this post, there is a gift. A surprise.

Dr. Mesut Ates. One of my two guardian angels in Senegal.

Dr. Mesut Ates. One of my two guardian angels in Senegal. (Aminata being the other)

Mesut is the director of ATSA, a civil service oriented organization. This year, they managed to raise enough funds to feed 10,000 individuals for the whole month. ATSA is a member organization of the Turkish Hizmet movement. He has been working with Hizmet in West Africa for over 12 years, eight of which were in Mali and the remaining in Senegal. In-fact, he has been able to complete his PhD in Education in Senegal.

For Mesut, Islam is the name of a contract with God obliging the believer to do their homework and live their role of serving and helping people in this life. He remembers his grandmother warning him, “you gave God a promise, Mesut!” He is a product of Hizmet. The movement allowed him to complete a college education and opened up many opportunities for him.
Mesut with his vibrating energy being the soul of the party ... and starting trouble

Mesut with his vibrating energy being the life of the party… and starting trouble.

What Mesut loves the most about Islam is the service and helping of others. He said that “the Prophet only fought for a few days in whole his life. It is a religion of peace.”  He believes that his culture is his faith, because culture can change, and he must vet it through Islamic principles. He is proud to be a Turkish Muslim and appreciates some of the unique Turkish cultural aspects that are very much in-line with Islam such as respect of the parents and elderly.
This started an intense argument. That I found myself needing to mediate.

Jilani respectfully and firmly disagreed with Mesut.

Jilani respectfully and firmly disagreed with Mesut

Jilani deeply disagreed with the notion that respect of parents and elderly is unique to Turkish culture. He said that the Senegalese culture values and respects parents immensely.
Jilani himself is the result of a French-Senegalese marriage. He does not really care for nationalism or titles, though he likes to have this rich cultural background and finds it to be an advantage. He considers himself a Sufi, though he believes it is not for everyone. And, that is okay because Islam came to unite everyone and their differences.

In the spirit of honest Spanish culture, she thought it is weird and awkward that I keep taking photos

In the spirit of honest Spanish culture, Maryam told me she thought it was weird and awkward that I kept taking photos

This is Maryam. She is from Barcelona, Spain and her husband is Senegalese. She studies in Senegal as an exchange student. Ironically at the time, her husband was in Spain while she was in Senegal. Maryam disagreed slightly with Jilani. As a new Muslim, she found it very difficult to practice Islam given all the differences between the groups in Senegal; it’s confusing and not constructive to her spiritual enrichment. At the same time, Maryam acknowledges that she embodies the Spanish culture of honesty, transparency, and single-faced attitude which does not really help her navigate the many differences between the tariqas in Senegal.



At this point, Analisa jumps in and adds that when it comes to culture she’s really diverse. She’s quarter french, quarter Senegalese, and quarter Cape Verdean. She agrees with Jilani that it gives her a rich background, but at the same time she does not like the confusion of identity. She tries to take the best of all cultures, but she is never really sure where she is from despite having grown up in Senegal.
Yusufali - an Arabic teacher with whom I spoke in classical Arabic

Yusufali, an Arabic teacher with whom I spoke in classical Arabic

Yusufali is an Arabic teacher and considers himself a follower of the Tijani Tariqa. When I asked him about some of the puzzling practices I have seen, (for example, putting the imam at such high levels and mentioning his name along with the Prophet and God) and he attributed to some misunderstandings of Sufism and malpractices basically. Yusufali thinks that imam Ahmad Bamba himself was a great Sufi. However, the Mouridiah Tariqa was not exactly a Sufi Tariqa and the followers of Ahmad Bamba created an institution and organization rather than a Sufi Tariqa. On the other hand, he admits that many self-proclaimed followers of the Tijani Tariqa don’t fully understand it. He says that Imam Tijani, the founder of the tariqa, encouraged everyone to double-check anything he says with the Quran and hadith before accepting it.
Mustapha Deattra

Mustapha Deattra

Mustapha Deattra is the head of the library at the Touba mosque complex. He was a teacher for years before given this responsibility. When he knew that Sadiq, my Turkish friend, was part of the Hizmet movement, he announced how fond he is of its leader Fethullah Gulen and how much he appreciates his principles of service. Mustapha appreciates the rich African cultural heritage. His favorite cultural aspects are the respect for the leaders and elderly as well as the strong sense of brotherhood and love for others that Senegalese have. His favorite hadith is “none of you a believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself”. And, when I asked him what it means to be a Senegalese Muslim, he said “I love Senegal. This is home.”

Prof. Ka. In our discussion, he told me that the white teeth were the subject of early African themed Arabic poetry by African poets

Professor Ka during our discussion, he told me that white teeth were the subject of early African themed Arabic poetry by African poets.

Professor Mohammad Ka is a professor of Arabic and religion at the Islamic Institute in Dakar (IID). We talked for a long time and he was extremely helpful in fully understanding the Islamic landscape of Senegal. An interesting issue we talked about is the relation between Senegalese culture and Arab culture. He said that the love of Arab culture came for two reasons: the Prophet was Arab, and therefore love and admiration was extended to all Arabs. The Arabic language itself was a favorite for its poetic capabilities of which Senegalese were fond.

For him, Islam is an inheritance. He found himself in Quranic schools pursuing a path of studying religion and Arabic. Although he was more interested in the literature aspect of the language, society pushed him into a religious role upon his return from Sudan where he completed his higher education. He remains a strong believer and finds in his faith resolutions to many life conflicts. He feels honored to be Senegalese Muslim, and really appreciates Senegal’s peaceful history and tolerance for discussion. His favorite teachings of Islam are those that encourage forgiveness and discussion.

Ousmano. He promised me to rap. And, he did.

Ousmano. He promised me to rap. And, he did.

Ousmano was an English major in his undergraduate studies and now is pursuing his MBA degree. When I asked him if he wants to leave Senegal, he said he prefers to stay and serve, unless he’s forced to leave. For him, his faith means peace with himself and peace with everything around him. He appreciates the hospitality and good nature of the Senegalese people. He feels blessed to be in Senegal for all the imams and scholars from whom he can learn.


Maryam works as a marketing manager for a computer science company. She really wants to travel and work in the US, Canada or an English-speaking country so that she can perfect her English. Her faith is “her essence,” and being a Senegalese Muslim is to be driven by a Sufi Tariqa. She appreciates the strong social network afforded to her in Senegal and loves the rule of woman in Senegal. When I asked her what that is, she said: “to be a Senegalese woman is beauty, character, strength, and strong family ties. To be a Senegalese woman is to run the house and raise the kids!”

Her favorite verse of the Qur’an is the Fatiha, the first verse, because it recites like a beautiful poem.

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This is Lancei. He works with ATSA and has been with them for three years. He’s an aspiring journalist and hopes to pursue his PhD somewhere abroad. He does not consider himself a Sufi. Lancei is a practicing Muslim and believes he does not need a Sufi Tariqa to be a good Muslim.

Taher Fa

Taher Fa

This is Taher Fa, the head of Quranic Schools Federation in Senegal. I was fortunate to meet him and I truly appreciate his honesty and time. He’s the closest it comes being the single Islamic authority for Senegal. For him, Islam is a system of rituals to groom the individuals to be serving and good members in society. And, that is his favorite thing about Islam; to be of service to others. He didn’t really like my question of what it means to be Senegalese Muslim. He smiled and reminded me that Arabs were against the Prophet at first and conspired to kill him. Though, he loves the big heart of a Senegalese person and their sense of humor. “I enjoyed my time when I visited Turkey, but I seriously missed my people and missed a good joke. I felt Turks led more of a machine-like life.”

And finally, your gift. below you can find a video clip of Ousmano rapping. He is quite talented if I do say so myself.

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.