A Discussion with Bou Khalifa Kounta, Kounta Family of the Qadiriyya Order of Senegal
June 7, 2016
Background: In June 2016, Lauren Herzog and Wilma Mui of WFDD sat down with Bou Khalifa Kounta, a member of the Kounta family of the Qadiriyya Sufi order. Kounta recounts the long history of his family and the Qadiriyya in Senegal and describes his own role within the family. He highlights the religious teachings and practices that are particular to the Qadiriyya. The Qadiri of Senegal have continuing links beyond the country, especially with neighboring Mauritania. In addition to his responsibilities within the family, Kounta is also an Arabic teacher and actively involved in interfaith work. He explains the importance of his interfaith work with the Association of Religious Leaders for Health and Development (Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement), and in particular, why positive interfaith relations are significant in Islam and the Senegalese context. Bou Khalifa Kounta also reflects on the importance of religious education and transmitting religious knowledge to younger generations to maintain a peaceful society and to counter the recruitment efforts of those bent on terror.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Bou Mouhamed Kounta, but most people know me as Bou Khalifa Kounta. I come from the Kounta family, a family that’s found in Ndiassane, but also throughout Senegal. I studied in the daaras [Quranic schools] here in Senegal, after which I went to Morocco.
It was in Morocco—in Fez, to be exact—that I did my secondary education. I passed my baccalaureate exam at the El-Kharouid High School there. After the baccalaureate, I went to Marrakesh to study law at Cadi Ayyad University. I spent four years there and left with a master’s degree. Then I returned to Senegal, where I studied to become a teacher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure here. I have worked as a teacher in a high school here in the suburbs of Dakar for several years now.
Could you tell us a little more about your family and the history of the Qadiriyya here in Senegal?
The Kounta family is a family found pretty much throughout Africa—here in Senegal, in Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. But we came from Algeria. Our great-grandfather, Cheikh Bounama Kounta, came to Senegal in 1800. He came with the help of his cousin, Cheikh Sidy Moctar Kounta, who was a very well known Sufi. He is the one who ordered our grandfather to cross the Senegal River to spread Islam and established the Qadiriayya order. That was in 1800, during the reign of the king of Cayor, whose name was Damel Amary Ngoné.
What was the relationship between your family and the king of Cayor?
Damel Amary Ngoné was the king of Cayor. After his death, there was Birima Fatma Thioub, another king. He had a close relationship with Cheikh Bounama. Since Cheikh Bounama was a sheikh, he prayed for Birima. This was a time where there were battles, so Birima asked Bounama to attack other areas, like Baol.
When Cheikh Bounama prayed for Birima, God accepted the prayer. So Birima attacked, and he won. He became a damel-teignes. You see, the king of Cayor is called a damel. When you say teignes, you are referring to the king of Baol. He had both kingdoms. He was the king of Cayor and the king of Baol. Birima Fatma Thioub was now both the king of Cayor and the king of Baol.
Cheikh Bounama asked Birima for an area where he could settle. So Birima Fatma and Cheikh Bounama took a trip throughout Cayor. They passed through Meckhe, which is after Tivouane on the way to Saint-Louis. After 6 or 7 kilometers, Cheikh Bounama asked Birima to give him that particular area of land. Birima accepted and gave him the land. So Cheikh Bounama settled there.
What did he do after he settled there?
He settled in and married Senegalese women. Even though he wasn’t Senegalese, he knew that he needed to marry. He had to choose among the Senegalese women. He married a woman named Rokhaya Coumba Chérif, Peuyeu Faye, Thioro Diouf, and others. He settled in Ndankh, a village seven kilometers from Meckhe. He established a large family there. That family then spread to other areas. His younger son was named Cheikh Bou Mouhamed Kounta. He was born in 1840. That’s the same year that Cheikh Bounama passed away, just before the birth of his last son. A few months later, Cheikh Bou was born.
Your ancestor, Cheikh Bou Mohamed Kounta, is well known. What are his contributions to the Qadiriyya?
After 16 years, Cheikh Bou left Ndankh—he’s the one that constructed the village of Ndiassane in 1883. After, the Qadiriyya began to spread in Senegal and even beyond, like in the Gambia, Mali, and Guinea. We accomplished all this with the blessing of God, but also with the work done by Cheikh Bou Kounta and his older brothers, who did the same thing. They built other villages.
When Cheikh Mouhamed Bou Kounta built the village of Ndiassane, Malians began coming to Senegal to see him—but also to embrace Islam. This is what we call karama. Karama is in Sufism. God put karama in him. Cheikh Bou Kounta never went to Mali, but the Malians came.
Why did they come?
You see, one night, people saw Cheikh Boun Kounta in their dreams, and he called to them. He said, “You must come see me in Ndiassane.” This is karama. These are extraordinary happenings. After they saw Cheikh Bou Kounta in the dream, they got up. Some came by horse, others on foot, but they used any means possible to cross the border to come to Ndiassane. They didn’t know Ndiassane, but they went there. When they arrived, Cheikh Bou Kounta gave them Muslim names. The men shaved their heads and then accepted that God is Unique and that Mohammed is the messenger of God. When they accepted, they became Muslim. They studied the Qur’an there to learn Islam. After this, they were asked to return to their country to build daaras to teach Islam and the Qur’an.
There were others who never returned to Mali. Instead, they stayed in Ndiassane. Their grandsons are still here, among us. Others are in elsewhere in Senegal. There are Bambaras here whose ancestors came from Mali. These are disciples of Kounta, which is why they stayed in Senegal. This was the work of Cheikh Bou Mouhamed Kounta. There are also others who came from Burkina Faso. Their grandsons are still here in Senegal. All this is just to show how much work the Kountas did in Senegal—not only in Cayor, but also in Saloum, Casamance, etc. As his grandsons, we are here to continue that work.
What distinguishes the Qadiriyya from the three other orders here? Are there teachings that are particular to the Qadiriyya?
Yes, there are. First of all, we are grounded in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Secondly, in the principles and teachings of the Qadiriyya, there is what we call wird. This is something you have to do after each of the five daily prayers. This is perhaps the main difference between us and the other orders. I don’t think that they do this after every prayer. In terms of this wird, there is a certain number to respect. Sometimes you might find that you are traveling. In this case, Islam allows you to reduce the number of rakats that you usually do. For example, during the 2 p.m. prayer, instead of doing four, you do two.
Even during Ramadan, when I am traveling, I am allowed to not fast. But after Ramadan, you have to make it up. In the Qadiriyya order, in the wird, when you are traveling, you are also allowed to reduce that. This is part of our principles. In our order, there are also prayers during nighttime. When I’m asleep, for example, at 2 or 3 a.m., even at 4 a.m., I get up, do my ablutions, and pray. There is a certain number of prayers to do. This is to purify man and bring him closer to his Creator.
What is the philosophy of the Qadiriyya?
The Qadiriyya order targets the heart. When you have a good heart, you yourself are good. You will never do evil. When someone does you wrong, it will be okay. Like in Christianity, when Jesus said that when someone strikes you, you should turn the other cheek. That is tolerance. That tolerance is also in Islam. God told this to our Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)—that you must be tolerant. You must ask for forgiveness. You must pray for the one who has done you wrong. Not forgive him necessarily, but pray for him so that he will do no more evil.
To arrive at this level, you must have a good heart. A good heart takes work. This work is called tarbiya. In Arabic, tarbiya means education. When you educate a person, you teach him how to look, how to eat, walk, sit, speak to others, etc. But you are also educating his heart. When the heart is educated, it knows how to When a person is taught right, his heart knows what God wants for it, how to pray, but also how to love other human beings.
We are all human beings created by God. He created us so that we will form relationships. This is what the Qur'an has said. God said, “I have created you and have made for you tribes, different families, and different colors, but I have done all this so that you may know each other.” You know—not know as in I know someone named Aïda, but know what to do to befriend another, even if you are a Muslim and he is a Christian or a Jew. But what unites us is God. This is being human.
To do this, you must educate the person. But to do this, you must work on his heart so that he will accept all this. This isn’t easy to accept. There are those who will never accept a non-Muslim because they don’t understand Islam. When you understand Islam, you accept everyone. This is a principle of the Qadiriyya. Cheikh Bou Mouhamad Kounta, our founder, said in one of his poems, “You must not make distinctions.” You must not distinguish between human beings. He didn’t say between Muslims. This is the principle of Islam, and this is one of the fundamental principles of the Qadiriyya. This is the principle that has allowed the order to spread throughout the world.
The Kounta family maintains close ties with Mauritania. You studied in Morocco, but have you also studied in Mauritania?
No, I have not, but my brothers, cousins, uncles, and father all studied in Mauritania. In a lot of Kounta villages, this was a tradition. At the age of 5 or 6, the child would be sent to Mauritania, to the village. He would stay there to learn the Qur'an. After memorizing the Qur’an, he would return to Senegal to continue his studies, either in the French schools or in Arabic. I myself did not have this opportunity. I studied in Mbour with my paternal uncle. And later, I studied in Morocco. I have visited Mauritania but never studied there.
You are currently a teacher in a high school here. What do you teach?
I teach the Arabic language. Arabic is considered a third language in Senegal. There is French, then English. After, the student chooses Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, etc. I am a language teacher in a public school. I have been here for several years, as an Arabic teacher.
Do you only teach language, or is there also Islamic education?
Unfortunately not. It’s just the language. But we’d like to, and we have shared this with the leadership. We asked to include Islamic education, or more specifically religious education, into the educational system in Senegal. This is very important. It’s so that we can teach the child. Among Muslims, we do this according to the principles of Islam. For the Christians, there’s Christian education. I think that one day this will happen.
But religious education can be taught up to four hours a week in public schools. For you, is this sufficient?
I think that this is in primary schools, in elementary education. It is not sufficient. If you leave a child with a whole lot of free time, he is going to occupy that time with other things. You must keep him occupied first. You can’t just leave a void. You must occupy his time by teaching him in this way, with this kind of Islamic education. Four hours a week is not enough. There is math, and other subjects that they do during the day, for example, for two our three hours a day. Why only four hours a week for Arabic? This is not enough.
We know very well that we are not in an Arab country. We also know that we are not in an Islamic country. The Senegalese government is a secular government. Secular means accepting of all religions. And this is a good thing. But what we are asking for is not Islamic education. We are asking for religious education. This religious education is something you have to give the maximum amount of time to.
For you, why is religious education in schools so important?
I think it is. And I view it as an obligation. Do you know why? There is this terrorism we see nowadays. And this terrorism takes advantage of our children. They take them away in the name of Islam. They tell them, “You are going to fight non-Muslims.” And when they say "non-Muslims," that’s us. They consider us non-Muslims because we don’t have the same principles. And these children who go along with them, they believe these words.
So now, why do I say that this in an obligation? When you educate the child and you teach him the principles of Islam—the love that is in Islam, brotherhood, loving one’s neighbor—he is not going to go kill some innocent person. During the time of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), when he sent his soldiers to war, he gave them strict orders to not kill women, children, or the elderly, and to not cut down the trees. This is Islam. You must fight the man who wants to fight you and who is armed. But if he is not fighting you, you must leave him alone. That’s Islam.
For the child who has grown up with these principles, if terrorism comes to Senegal or elsewhere and tells him, “We are going to fight non-Muslims because they are not Muslims,” the child is going to understand that these words have no validity. True Islam is what he has learned in school. But unfortunately, here, Muslim children don’t know their religion.That’s the sad part. It’s why it’s so easy to influence them and bring them into other groups. They become Jihadists, but that is not Jihad. Jihad means fighting an enemy. But the enemy is not he who is not Muslim. An enemy is he who is preparing to kill you.
For example, in the Qur’an, God says that when non-Muslims, Christians and Jews prepare a meal, we—as Muslims—have the right to eat that meal. This is in the Qur'an. God also says that we have the right to marry a Christian. If Christians were our enemies, the Qur'an would not say this! Don’t you think? But unfortunately, children don’t understand this. They are enlisted through words alone, but sometimes with money. A Senegalese who has never seen 100,000 francs, let alone a million, will accept anything. This is why I am telling you that we must increase the amount of time dedicated to religious instruction. We must emphasize the principles of Islam in this instruction.
You are a teacher, but you are also part of the Kounta family, which has its own responsibilities. What responsibilities do you have as a member of this religious family?
These last seven years I have responsibilities that increase daily. This is thanks to God, but also thanks to my uncle, who is the General Khalifa. He calls me his spokesman. I speak on his behalf in many places. He also sends me to various ceremonies. He consults me on many issues. When he wants to write or send correspondence, he often calls on me. He asks me to do this in his name, but in Arabic. If it’s in French, there are others that do this. I didn’t look for this position. Perhaps he saw in me something that made him want to approach me about this.
You are a member of CRSD, the Association of Religious Leaders for Health and Development. How did you become a member of this group, and what is the importance of your involvement as a representative of the Qadiriyya?
In 2015, Cheikh Saliou Mbacké called me. He introduced himself and we greeted each other. He said, “Adja Arame Seck gave me your number. We formed a group, and we would like to work with you.” I asked him, “What does this group work on?” And he explained to me, “It’s a religious group that brings together all the religious families, and we work together on health and development.”
So Cheikh Saliou came here. He spent many hours here with me during a religious ceremony. He asked me to work with them. We talked, and I read the group’s principles. I accepted, because the principles and the objective of the group, that’s Islam. Therefore, I don’t really have the right to not join. Since then, we have been working together.
CRSD has Christian and Muslim members. Is it important that CRSD be interfaith?
Very important. When Cheikh Saliou explained this to me, I said, I don’t really have the right to not accept. Islam allows us to eat with Christians and with Jews. I’ll come to eat what you, as a Christian, have prepared. I’ll eat the meal that a Jew has prepared. I’ll come to your house, I’ll marry a Christian woman, I’ll go visit the Jews, I’ll marry a Jewish woman. This is brotherhood.
This is why working in this framework feels so normal, especially here in Senegal. We have this custom, Alhamdulilah. We are very proud of that. Here, in the same Senegalese family, you’ll find both Muslims and Christians. It’s not a problem. The Muslim goes to the mosque, the Christian goes to church. They come home and eat together. During Tabaski [Eid al-Adha], too, we Muslims share with Christians. During their Christian holidays, they share with us. Others serve ngalakh (a porridge). We have grown up with these interfaith relationships. We are accustomed to them. Working with them doesn’t bother me a bit. I even enjoy it.
The Qadiriyya is involved in education and health. What are its other community activities?
Yes, the Qadiriyya is involved in other development activities—for example, in agriculture. The current Khalifa, and other Khalifas before him, are farmers. There are agricultural fields, and I would say that 90 percent of our disciples are farmers. In Ndiassane, there used to be a river. It is said that this is thanks to the prayers of Cheikh Bou Kounta, the founder of Ndiassane. He prayed to God. They used to grow rice there. There were vegetables, mangoes. There was all that in Ndiassane. But this was before the 1970s. After that, drought set in in Senegal. The river started to disappear. But for the last three years, water has begun to return, little by little.
Another activity is education. In the Qadiriyya, one of our great-grandfathers, whose name was Cheikh al-Bekkai, insisted on education. He said that the Kounta family doesn’t have the right to not learn and to not teach. We must learn, and afterward, we must teach what we have learned. After taking, you must give. This is why there are daaras. We created daaras in Ndiassane, in Ndankh, and elsewhere.
Up to this point, a lot of Kounta children have gone to Mauritania to learn the Qur’an, as well as Islam. Others are in Arab countries. They study the Qur’an and Islamic teaching. There are also others who are here, at Cheikh Anta Diop University, and also in Saint-Louis, as students. Others still are high school teachers and university professors.
There are also other aspects. What are they? Developing relationships. Ndiassane has worked to unite Africa. Like the United States of America, we could have had a United States of Africa. The Kounta branch of the Qadiriyya order played a big role in those efforts. Like I told you, a lot of Malians come to Ndiassane. As do Burkinabes, Guineans, and Mauritanians. Especially during Gamou [commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet] in Ndiassane. This is the brotherhood that exists among Africans. We are all African. We are all Muslims, or we are all human beings.