Background: As a descendant of the Grand Serigne of Dakar, Cheikh Djibril Diop Laye grew up in a family steeped in Islamic tradition and has dedicated his life to sharing Islamic teachings and culture with the next generations. In November 2014, Lauren Herzog of WFDD met with Cheikh Djibril Diop Laye in Rabat, Morocco to discuss his responsibilities as a teacher, an imam, and a member of the Layene tariqa (Sufi order), which has a long history of social involvement in Senegal. Laye reflects on his long career as a teacher of religious studies and his role in aiding the street children of Senegal. He specifically highlights the delicate balance he aims to achieve in promoting family planning to improve the welfare of Senegalese families, while protecting the youth in his community. This discussion is part of a series of interviews conducted during a visit to Morocco with Senegalese religious leaders, as well a broader effort to map the roles that religious ideas, institutions, and leaders play in development efforts in Senegal.
Can you introduce yourself? In what part of Senegal did you grow up?
My name is Cheikh Djibril Diop Laye. I grew up in the suburbs of Dakar in a traditional village called Yeumbeul. My father was born there, and my grandfather founded the village. The village was also built by the Diop family, who were descendants of Dial Diop, the Grand Serigne of Dakar. I am his descendant. Some of my ancestors were also Serignes of Dakar. The current Serigne of Dakar is my older brother, and the former was as well.
I studied Arabic and the Qur’an in Yeumbeul, first with my grandfather, Ibrahima Lo, and then with my uncle, El Hadj Mamadou Sakhir Gueye. I completed all of my studies there. I didn’t pursue my higher education in an Arab country, like a lot of Arabisants (those who have extensively studied Arabic and Islam). I received my bachelor’s degree in Arabic and literature. I then began teaching, and I’ve been in the teaching profession for more than 30 years. I’m also the third imam at the Grand Mosque of Yeumbeul, which follows the teachings of the Layene tariqa (Sufi order).
What level do you teach?
I teach at the primary and secondary level in the private sector. In 2000, I returned to the public sector to teach Arabic and religious studies in Senegal’s public schools. The Qur'an, hadiths, and Islamic tradition are at the core of that instruction. We have many university professors in the Layene community. I sometimes participate in various religious and educational activities.
Can you tell me more about the Layene tariqa?
The Layene tariqa is perhaps not well known at the national and international levels. It’s a community centered in Dakar between Yoff and Cambérène. We have followers in the south in Casamance, as well as in the north and west of Senegal. Fundamentally, Layenes believe first and foremost in God, like all Muslims, as well as the Qur’an, the sunnah, and all the teachings of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him).
There aren’t any differences between Layene beliefs and Islam. Layenes believe in the Mahdi and the return of Jesus. In the hadiths of the Prophet and Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon Him) says that the world will not be finished until the Mahdi comes to perfect Muslims and return them to the right path. He also says that the Mahdi must be accompanied by Jesus (called Issa Ibn Mariama or Issa Rouhou Lah by Layenes). When the Mahdi came to Senegal, his eldest son was Issa Rouhou Lah. After the Mahdi, Issa became his replacement and the first khalife. In comparing the Mahdi and Issa in Yoff to the Mahdi that the Prophet foretold, it is exactly as the Prophet described.
There are many people in other countries who try to say that they are the Mahdi or that Jesus has appeared in such or such place. But, here in Senegal, the Mahdi appeared in 1883. He was a man named Limamou Mahdi. He said, “I am the envoy of God, I am the awaited Mahdi, and my mission is to return the people to righteousness.” The Layenes are 100 percent Muslim, but they follow the teachings of the Mahdi and Issa.
Can you explain the family structure? What are the responsibilities of the family members?
The responsibilities are shared and diverse. For example, the khalife is the head of the community. Before ascending to the throne, he was involved in community activities, whether economic or social. But after, it is his brothers who continue that work. They represent him in family ceremonies like baptisms and marriages.
The other members are involved in ceremonial and family activities, but they also host religious talks. There’s someone in the family who’s in charge of the eastern zones of Senegal, another for the western zones, and another for the central zones. Some of them are also involved at the local level, while others are involved at the international level. Each one works in their own domain to educate the people. There are some in the family who work in administrative affairs, others in business, etc.
What are the values of the Layene community?
I should specify that Layenes celebrate marriage very early in order to protect children against perdition. The Layenes value purity from childhood until adulthood. The teachings of the Mahdi begin with educating children at a young age about purity, sincerity, non-violence, and even non-discrimination. Layenes don’t fool around, they are serious, and they pronounce the name of God frequently.
As a matter of fact, “Layene” signifies many things. It’s a global integration of races and colors. With Layenes, there are no distinctions between people. For example, my name is Cheikh Djibril Diop Laye. Diop is my family name, but why do we add Laye? It’s because we want to integrate everyone and show that we are all equal. There are no differences among men. We come from God, and we return to Him. We give the name Laye to replace family names in order to better integrate and love one another. It’s also to bring more tolerance to us and to not put ethnic barriers or other differential barriers between us. And that’s the secret of the Layenes.
We have a big annual ceremony, like Gamou (the Tidiane community’s pilgrimage) or Magal (the Mouride community’s pilgrimage). For the Layenes, it’s called the Appel (the Call). It’s to remember the call of the Mahdi in 1883. We’re now at the one hundred and thirty-fifth edition. It’s a huge ceremony, and the minister of the interior or the prime minister represents the government. We organize official ceremonies.
What are your responsibilities in the community?
I’m responsible for religious and Quranic instruction, as well as the cultural organization of the Layene family. I’m also the imam of a large mosque. We have an organization called the scientific commission. This group works scientifically on the cultural aspects in the organization of the Layene community during important ceremonies, such as the Appel. We do programs for the television, radio, newspaper, and the Internet so that we can better inform people.
Do you do any media shows?
Yes, I do both radio and television shows. I deal with many different subjects. Each year, we a central theme as well as sub themes. For example, in previous years we have chosen the Mahdi’s teachings on facing global challenges. Other times, we’ve discussed the Mahdi’s teachings on facing cultural challenges or economic crises.
What types of challenges do you discuss?
In terms of social challenges, there are many. We can, for example, cite the education crisis. Quite a few of the parents lament the loss of values among our children. There are many children on the streets. Why? Because a lot of parents have abandoned their roles. Among the Layenes, the Mahdi (PBUH) recommended early on to teach parents about their responsibilities.
In the Layene context, it’s rare to see talibé children, children begging, or people asking for alms. It’s very rare because their leaders have already taught them to take responsibility for women and children. The Mahdi gave many recommendations concerning the responsibilities of parents.
You mentioned that equality is very important for the Layenes. What do you think about the parity law in Senegal that aims for women to be more involved in the government? What is the role of the woman in the Layene community?
We don’t have a particular vision concerning that, but we have an Islamic vision. In the Qur’an, there’s an entire sura in which our God says that there are no differences between Muslim men and women. There are not differences between those who pronounce the name of Allah, whether man or woman. There are many verses that raise this question. The conclusion is that there are not distinctions between men and women. That means that He doesn’t distinguish between the actions of men and women toward him. He keeps track of all their actions whether they be those of a man or a woman.
As for parity, people’s underlying understanding is that parity is not possible because the man is different than the woman. Everyone accepts this. When, for example, I say that you are a man, you won’t agree with this. If you told me that I am a woman, I won’t agree. So, there is a difference. There isn’t total parity, but there is parity in certain things, and there are differences in other things. There are things that are typically feminine, and others that are typically masculine. However, in regards to responsibilities in development or religious activities, there are no differences. There are maybe some aspects that we spare women from for reasons that are maybe natural and acceptable.
With the Layenes, the problem of equality doesn’t arise because we were possibly the first in Senegal to integrate women and children in religious chants and even in the mosques. In each Layene mosque, there is a space reserved for women. Before, this didn’t exist. We integrated women in worship services and activities. Even in regards to children, before the Layenes, children didn’t perform ablutions, prayers, or fasts. But among the Layenes, children begin to fast and perform ablutions at a young age—even before they are 5 years old—and they do it in a dignified manner.
In the economic domain as well (among the Layenes), when the men go into to the fields to farm, the women accompany them. The men’s work stops after the harvest. The women manage the rest. They manage the sale and distribution. Even the important leaders, like Seydina Issa and others, helped the Layene women themselves to organize the large markets of Dakar. In certain markets, there are spaces reserved for Layene women who come from the outskirts of Dakar to the neighborhood with vegetables from their husbands. Regarding the economy, women and men work towards socio-economic development. And regarding religion, we are together in the same place, and we follow the same teachings.
You mentioned that the Layenes are very involved in education, and also in the economic domain. Which issues are the Layenes interested in?
For the Layenes, the economic challenge is truly complicated. The Layenes live next to the ocean. Aside from the coasts, they have their farms. But with the rapid demographic changes in Dakar and the occupation of different areas, the Layenes have a lot of territory. Some have lost their fields and their work. The Layenes are both fishermen and farmers at the same time, and they’re involved in our country’s economy through these activities. Currently, though, the fishermen have problems because they lack equipment and boats. They still use only traditional pirogues (a type of canoe). The farmers are also beginning to lose their land to homes and floods. Even up to today, they haven’t gone beyond family farming.
Among the Layenes, each family has its land that is worked individually using traditional methods. They don’t realize a lot of harvests, though. For example, all the plots of Parcelles Assainies—from the first to the last—were in the Layenes’ domain. The third khalife général of the Layenes gave those plots to the president of the republic, Léopold Sédar Senghor, for free. Between the Layenes and the state, there has always been a disadvantage for the Layenes because their community supports the state more than the state supports the Layene community.
The biggest problem is really the loss of space in farming and in fishing. There are also some who seek to build private schools, private clinics, and community development associations—but with very limited resources. There aren’t really big economic organizations.
How did you become a member of the working group?
It was thanks to Serigne Saliou (Mbacké). We had met through our different activities. For example, I am a member of a group called PARRER (The Partnership to Get Children Off the Streets), in which I represent the Layenes and the Lébou community with the Grand Serigne of Dakar. Serigne Saliou called me to tell me that he was very interested in my participation in this working group. As soon as he felt the need to visit the Layene community, he called me to request an audience with the oldest son of the current khalife, Seydina Issa. And I told him that it wasn’t a problem. It was after this encounter that Seydina Issa asked me to join the group. So my entry into this work group was made possible thanks to Serigne Saliou and the oldest son of the khalife general of the Layenes. I came here in the name of Seydina Issa Laye.
Did your participation in this group change your opinions on family planning?
Maybe a little bit, but not really. At present, my convictions regarding family planning are those of an open-minded and cultivated Muslim who seeks truth everywhere. The Layenes are very open and tolerate all the religious families. I can study the Mouride teachings, and I can study and learn the Tidiane teachings. I can attend their religious activities. It is because of this that I became of member of the working group on family planning. Before this group, I had already worked with other organizations on family planning. But through the trip to Morocco and other work that we’ve done in Dakar, I have more interesting tools now because I have a lot of religious arguments and justifications to help me to perfect my discourses on and understanding of the subject.
My only concern with family planning is that we are of course in total agreement with the benefits of family planning with respect to the wellbeing of mothers and children; but the problem that we have concerns distribution of condoms, for example, to youth. This is what sometimes impedes religious leaders—the unmarried youth to whom some people openly distribute condoms. When we talk about the family and family planning, it’s about the couple and the children, but not about just the child. There’s the father, the mother, and the children. We are all for the wellbeing of the family, and the health of mother and child. But when it comes to young children, girls as well as boys, we must lean heavily on preventive education so that they don’t fall into the trap of sexuality and so that we don’t offer them opportunities to know sexuality.
In your opinion, what benefits could family planning bring to communities in Senegal?
I could say that it will allow families to organize better. Family planning doesn’t meaning handing out condoms. No, it’s about equipping fathers and mothers with tools so that they can have family wellbeing within their marriage. For example, I have the tools to go out and teach men and women what to do to ensure that their children are born in a healthy manner.
It’s necessary to space births so that the mother can rest a little, so that she can breastfeed normally, and so that she can educate her children. It is also necessary to talk to parents, more specifically to fathers or husbands, so they can better understand women, and not force them to have many children who will end up being poorly educated and in a precarious state of health. On the other hand, if there is a couple that desires a child and doesn’t meet with success, family planning can also help them.
You mentioned that you are a member of PARRER. What are the objectives and activities of this group?
This working group was born following a ministerial council organized by the former president of the republic, Abdoulaye Wade. He noticed that there were a significant number of street children. This is widespread in Senegal. The talibés, beggars, and street children—because there are street children who aren’t talibés—they are homeless and orphaned. Occasionally in Dakar, we find them near the ocean. They beg but they aren’t talibés.
The inter-ministerial counsel resulted in the creation of PARRER. We organized a framework of partnership that brings together state actors, civil society, religious and traditional groups, and development actors. We created a synergy around the working group to reflect on the way in which we should act to collaborate to form a working group so we could reflect on what to do to make sure that children are off the streets and on how to integrate them into family life. This group is presided over by the former minister, Cheikh Hamidou Kane.
Do you have any other comments on the Layene community?
It is also a community that believes in the Qur’an, prays, fasts, and gives alms. But beyond everything that Muslims do, the motivation of the Layenes is to enhance and perfect all of the beliefs and practices, as well as to try to keep them up to date. They do not belittle anyone and they put everyone of equal footing. The Layenes are concerned only with what is essential, their consideration for others, and their total concentration on God.
I would just like to clarify what I said about the belief that there will be no prophets after the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The Layenes believe that there were no others but him. However, as it was the Prophet (PBUH) himself who said that the Mahdi would come with the mission of strengthening relationships and putting people back on the right path, I don’t see that there is anyone apart from the Prophet (PBUH) who could have this role without being a messenger.