A Discussion with Chérif Mohamed el Moctar Sy, Member of the Omarien Family of the Tijaniyya of Senegal

With: Chérif Mohamed el Moctar Sy Berkley Center Profile

November 18, 2014

Background: Imam Chérif Mohamed el Moctar Sy is the second imam of the main Omarien mosque in Dakar and an active member of the Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement (Group of Religious Leaders for Health and Development, CRSD). In November 2014, Lauren Herzog and Katherine Zuk of WFDD sat down with Imam Sy to learn more about his work with CRSD and within the Omarien community. In this interview, Imam Sy highlights the importance of CRSD’s approach, which promotes family planning in accordance with religious teachings, and describes his work as a religious media host. He also talks about his role as a coordinator for the World Islamic Call Society and points to the many activities of the Omarien community, including free medical consultations and construction of Islamic schools. 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 tell me about yourself? 

At the beginning, I attended Qur’anic school. As a Muslim—in fact, all Muslims here, especially the sons of marabouts (religious guides)—we begin by first learning the Qur’an. After that, there’s Islamic sharia and then Arabic. I learned the Arabic language and studied in Libya. I have a bachelor’s degree in law and a high school diploma in Arabic. The bachelor’s in modern law that I received—not in Islamic law—is a degree in the Arabic language. I then returned to Senegal, where I worked for myself doing different commercial activities. After that, I worked with Islamic NGOs. I’m currently an imam of the great mosque of Dakar, which is an Omarien mosque. It is the largest mosque in Dakar. I’m the second imam there. I’m married and I have five children: four boys and a girl. 

How did you become an imam? 

To become an imam here, you must have good conduct. One must also be a decent man. The person must be well educated in Islam and the Qur’an. Beyond that, the community makes the selection. It was the Omarien community that chose me to be the second imam of the great mosque. 

You mentioned that you worked with NGOs. What types of NGOs were they? 

Islamic NGOs. I worked with the largest social and Islamic NGO of the Middle East and Africa: the World Islamic Call Society. Everyone knows this organization. It’s never been involved in non-religious activities. It is an association that is found throughout Africa: Mali, Senegal, and also the Middle East. When I was there, I was the coordinator of the Qur’anic schools, Arab-Islamic schools, teachers, and Arabic instruction. My first language is Arabic, I don’t have a great command of French. I’m the host of a religious show on the radio and on Télévision Futurs Médias. 

Could you tell me a bit more about your work as a host? 

It’s a big Islamic show, and I go and do my recordings every Monday. We discuss Islamic news topics: prayer, fasting, ablutions, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. But sometimes, we also discuss current events. From time to time, we invite scholars. For example, I’ll invite two or three scholars to the show to get the Islamic point of view on a certain subject or problem. We record our show at the great Omarien mosque. 

We also invite questions from our listeners. For example, listeners can call in with questions about birth spacing in Senegal. They want to know the position or point of view of Islam on this matter. We know that all scholars are against birth limitation, but what Islam permits is birth spacing in the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH). People want to know what the Qur’an says on the subject, as well as what scholars think about it. The show is 50 minutes and is aired every Thursday at 2 p.m. 

Could you speak about your work with the Arab-Islamic schools? 

I am a coordinator at the World Islamic Call Society and have an office there. My work is not just on one school. Rather, it’s on all the Qur’anic schools in Senegal. I have the right to go into any [Qur’anic] school and ask or look into whether there are any problems. For example, I look to see if the program is functioning and if the teachers have any issues. I also check if the students have any problems and calculate how many classes we need each year or issues and decide how many classes are needed based on our staffing.

I propose solutions and I provide feedback to my bosses by submitting a report that shows that such and such a school is experiencing an issue—for example, if a school needs books or has another need. The role of a coordinator is broad. It’s not just limited to teachers or students. 

How is the Omarien family different than the other Tidiane families?

The Omarien family is the oldest of the Tidiane families in Senegal. It is the mother order of the Tijaniyya. All of the Tidiane families [in Senegal] come from the Omarien order. Why? Because the person who brought the Tidiane order to Senegal was El Hadji Omar El Foutiyou Tall. Foutiyou from the region of Fouta. He is the founder of the Tijaniyya in West Africa, not just in Senegal. Cheikh Tidiane was the great founder of the Tijaniyya. El Hadji Omar El Foutiyou Tall was his first talibé (disciple) in West Africa. 

The khalifa who is there at present isn’t the original khalifa, but he’s the son of the khalifa who passed away. He passed away young. He was maybe only 40, and so it’s his son who is the president of the Ligue islamique des oulémas du Sénégal (Islamic League of Ulama of Senegal). The Omarien family is very strong order in Senegal. There are also [Tidiane] orders in Tivaouane and Kaolack. They have talibés all over, even as far as Nigeria and Niger. But the mother order is still the Omariens.

Are there differences between the order Tidiane and the other orders in Senegal?

No, there really aren’t any differences, but it’s just the names that are different. We speak about the Tidianes of Kaolack, such as Baye Lamine Niasse, the Tidianes of Tivaoaune, like Serigne Abdoul Aziz Sy, and the Omarien Tidianes. However, there are’nt any differences. We have the same rituals and models, and we have the same struggles. In Senegal, even the other orders that aren’t Tidiane don’t have any differences. It’s just that each order operates with different models of work. 

What are the activities of the Omarien family in Senegal? 

So many! We have a lot of activities. The first activity is to educate people. We also build Islamic schools and Qur’anic schools, but also modern schools where all the languages—like English and French—are taught, as well as the sciences. The second activity is to cultivate ourselves. The third activity involves social concerns: it’s about helping those who are impoverished. It’s imperative to help the poor. 

When you go to the religious leaders, you see the talibés that sleep and eat for free. We feed the sons of the poor, close to 100 people, and we don’t ask them to pay for anything. Every day, there are people that come from all over to ask for something to eat. This constitutes a very important social act. We also help those who are ill and have prescriptions they need to pay to fill. It’s the marabout that distributes the donations. 

We also have cultural and religious activities that we organize every year in January. For example, every January you will see thousands of people coming from Europe, Asia, Mali, Mauritania, and elsewhere; everyone will be together at the great Omarien mosque for six days of discussions, lectures, and conferences. 

We educate people on many subjects. Every year, beginning with the month of January there is the congress of the Ligue islamique des oulémas (Islamic League of Ulama), who president is the marabout. He invites scholars and marabouts that come from Europe and Mali for discussions. There are even doctors and Islamic scholars who come from Burkina Faso each January. 

Are there also activities on health? 

Yes, there are health activities. For six days, we seek support from the Ministry of Health in order to bring doctors, nurses, and medication to provide free treatment for people. We do this each year. The consultations are free. They provide expensive medications that the poor are not able to afford. 

Can you explain the hierarchy within the Omarien order? 

It began with Cheikh Omar. After Cheikh Omar, there was his grandson, Thierno Seydou. After Thierno Seydou, there was his son Thierno Mountaga. Following him, a fourth was chosen, named Thierno Madar. But the Omarien order does not only exist in Senegal; there are also Omarien orders in Mali, Nigeria, Mauritania, and Niger. You can’t forget that Cheikh Omar had his headquarters in Mali. It’s the same order, but it’s in Senegal that you find the largest Omarien order. 

How did you come to participate in the working group on family planning? 

That is an important question. When the group was being put together, Serigne Saliou [Mbacké] was contacted. Then, with two or three people, they formed the group and contacted the marabout. He welcomed them into his home and listened to them carefully. They explained that the project was not in opposition to Muslim principles. After a long discussion, he was convinced of the project. He confirmed that the project didn’t run counter to the principles of Islam, and he consequently agreed with the project. 

If the project aims to protect women and children, that’s part of God’s divine recommendation and Islam’s divine recommendation. Islam is here to protect human life. It’s not just Muslims, but it can also be Christians or atheists. In our order, we believe this and that’s our aim. We don’t make distinctions with human lives. A human is a human. 

I agreed to participate in this group. I was told that from then on, they considered me a part of the group. Since then, they call me whenever there’s a visit of a meeting. We’ve gone together to Tivaouane, Ndiassane, and Kaolack, and we’ve been to many religious communities together. 

After that, a trip to Morocco was proposed. I consulted with the marabout because before doing anything, it’s imperative to first consult with the marabout. He gave his approval that it would be a good thing to go. “You’ll gain a great deal from the Moroccan experience because they’ve done a lot in this area.” My marabout, he’s someone who has a degree in the Arabic language. He studied at Al-Azhar Univeristy in Cairo. And so, I called the head of the television station and explained that I needed to travel to Morocco. 

Has your participation in this working group changed your opinion on family planning? 

No, it hasn’t changed anything. Everything that we’re learning here in Morocco, I’ve already learned. I haven’t learned anything new at this point. However, what is interesting is having the support of the scholars so that I can say, okay, I myself know this or that, but I’ve also been to Morocco and met with the great Moroccan scholars. What I learned transforms their understandings and makes me stronger. It gives me the strength to speak with others and I can now say that I was in Morocco and exchanged with Moroccan scholars, especially the Moroccan league of ulama (Rabita), which is a very respected association throughout the world and especially in Senegal. 

In your opinion, how will your participation in this group benefit your community? 

It’s easy on one hand, but it’s difficult on the other hand. Why is it easy? Because the marabout himself got me involved in the program, I can say that I’m able to speak about it anywhere and in any way without being afraid of talking about it. When I tell the talibés that I’ve come on behalf of the marabout to speaker to them, they’re all happy. When I tell them that it was the marabout himself who encouraged me to participate in the program, they’re all happy. On the other hand, if it was me as an imam coming to speaking to them, they would tell me that they’d go speak to their marabout to see if he agrees. But with it coming from the marabout himself, there won’t be any problems. 

It is true that there will be difficulties because there will always be those who are against. Even if what you say is true, they’re going to be against it. But to me, this is nothing because you can never say something that everyone will agree with. What’s important is that the majority of our society accepts. But if the minority doesn’t accept it, that’s too bad for them. But you can never have unanimous agreement. That’s not possible. 

Do you have anything else you would like to share regarding religion and development in Senegal? 

Islam is first and foremost the religion of peace. Maybe you currently see tensions throughout the families, but that’s not Islam. That has never been Islam. Islam is a religion that is for development. Islam is a religion that encourages. That is what we’ve understood, and that is what we’ve learned. There isn’t racial segregation in Islam. If you look closely, at the beginning of Islam, there were blacks, Persians, and Africans around the Prophet (PBUH). He never distinguished between Arabs and blacks. Islam never distinguished between the races and said this person is Arab and that one there is black or African. Bilal was black, Salman was Persian, and Souhayl was Malian. 

All this means that Islam is for development. It’s a religion of peace and health—all of this is part of Islam’s objectives. It’s good to have created this working group, to go see the religious leaders and gather their opinions on the project. 

In general, I’ve seen NGOs like yours in Senegal that come at the beginning to at least gain the trust of the marabouts. They do some interviews and publish them, saying, “Look, all the marabouts of Senegal agree with this program.” And then, they stray and leave the marabouts to go see the artists that are in Senegal who want to create offices. They start to work with them. They have all failed. It’s been a total failure. The religious leaders will see that at first they came to us, they asked us questions, but now they want to stray; that’s why they left us to go to others who don’t know Islam, who don’t know the community, and who are rejected by society. What they’re looking for is something to put into their pockets.

That is why those who work for NGOS are building big houses, driving nice cars, and writing reports. They do these campaigns, call on people who don’t understand anything they mean and then take photos and write reports sayings, “Here are all these people who agree with the program.” But that’s false. It’s critical to steer clear of this. 

If you want to succeed, you need to work with the religious leaders in Africa. This is not just in Senegal, but throughout Africa. If not, you will fail just as the other NGOs in Senegal. 

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