A Discussion with Imam Chérif Mballo, Founder of the Ali Yacine Association

With: Chérif Mballo Berkley Center Profile

March 27, 2015

Background: In March 2015, Lauren Herzog of WFDD met with Imam Chérif Mballo, the president and founder of the Ali Yacine Association, to discuss the organization’s work. In this interview Mballo shares recounts his discovery of Shi’a Islam and provides an overview of the Shi’a community in Senegal. He also describes the areas in which the Ali Yacine Association is active, including free medical consultations, food distributions, and educational support. Mballo stresses the harmony and understanding that exists between members of the Shi’a and Sufi communities in Senegal, with a particular emphasis on the elements that unify them. He outlines his views on politics, global issues, and the importance of education.
Can you tell me about yourself?

My name is Chérif Mballo. I grew up in Senegal and did bilingual studies in French and Arabic until the DEA (diploma of advanced studies). After that, I went and studied in Iran and Lebanon. I studied philosophy and Islamic law as well as Arabic. I concentrated on Islamic rights, philosophy, and Arabic equally.

Since 1985, I’ve been in the Senegalese Islamic Movement with Sidy Lamine of Walf Fadjri, feu Latif Guèye, Bamba Ndiaye (former minister of religious affairs), Dame Ndiaye, and many others. I was always very active in the group, even though I was the youngest. From there, I became an activist for the Senegalese Islamic Movement as a Sunni, but the leader was Shi’ite.

From that point, I began taking on more responsibilities. In 1989, I created the first Shi'ite association with Senegalese intellectual brothers here at the University of Dakar. That’s when I became the president and founder of the Association Ali Yacine.

What about the history of Islam in Senegal?

Islam came to Senegal in 1040 CE from Morocco. Senegal should acknowledge and highlight these religious, political, and social accomplishments before others, but unfortunately colonialism, assimilation policies, and slavery contributed to the Senegalese burying their culture so that they no longer know or understand their culture or their history.

The Islam that was introduced in Senegal is an Islam tainted with mysticism, with Sufism; we received Islam with a Sufi flavor. That is what has prevailed. Also all of the founders of the States were cheikhs and marabouts, and they put their mystical stamp on Senegalese Islam. That’s why 90 percent of Senegalese are affiliated with Sufi sects or orders.

When did Shi’a Islam come to Senegal?

Islam, as it is practiced here, is inspired by Shi’ism, so Shi’ism is not new in Senegal. This mysticism is inspired by Shi’ism because the Idrissides, the founders of the Kingdom of Morocco, were the descendants of the Prophet—Shi’ites who fled Mecca and the Middle East, in the middle of the second century of hegira, to establish a kingdom because they were persecuted for belonging to the family of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH).

They came with their Shi’ite beliefs. In Senegal, the people did not understand. They learned little of the history of Islam; they were content to listen to tales in their family or by preachers not well versed in history and Islamic literature: “I was born like this, I saw my father…I listen to my father, etc.” In doctrine, in the fiqh (jurisprudence), in the tawhid (monotheism), in general theology, the Sunnis of Senegal are not different from the Shi’ites. They believe in the same things; they believe in the Prophet and in Ali. The Wahhabites are different because they are against the confréries and the Shi’ites. They fight against the confréries, while we, the Shi’ites, we are not against them because it is the same thing.

We say that it was in 1802 that Shi’ism—the Shi’ism of the Middle East and not Moroccan origins—was introduced by the Lebanese. The French brought the Lebanese in order to create a buffer zone between the local Senegalese populations and themselves. Since the Senegalese population was Muslim, the French brought another Muslim sect so that there would be no affinities between the Lebanese and the Senegalese, and so the Lebanese could play an intermediary role in the sale of peanuts, while forbidding them from mixing with the native population.

For example, in Dakar, the Lebanese could not conduct their activities outside of the city past Malick Sy Avenue—and also in the regional capitals—for fear that they would mix with the local Muslims. They could not go to the same mosques, participate in religious ceremonies, or marry native Senegalese, to diminish the risk of creating problems with the colonizers. They stayed here until the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, without ever proselytizing or preaching. They kept to their own affairs, in their very closed community.

What attracted you to Shi’a Islam?

In 1979, when the imam came, the boys like us, students—you know that youth are always receptive to everything revolutionary and changes because they are in perpetual change themselves; when you become old you don’t change anymore—the students, said, “Ah! That’s good, someone who defies the West, especially America, brings America to its knees—we’re happy with that!” There were no powerful countries capable of facing the United States at that moment.

We were born, grew up, and were educated according to the rites of Islam. It’s because of that that we supported the Islamic Revolution and that we began to study the revolution, its nature, and its objectives. Who were its leaders? What did they want? We began to ask ourselves: “What is this based in, the ideologies of this revolution?” We understood that it was Islam but also Shi’ism. What is Shi’ism? The Lebanese never told us or taught us what it was, but through the radios, television, and newspapers, we began to understand.

It is from there that we began to create study circles, as students. We became interested in the philosophies and the history of Shi’ism, their understanding of the Qur’an—because the text is the same everywhere—as well their understanding of the character of the Prophet, Islamic law, theology, monotheism, and many other domains. Our research on Shi’ite philosophy and philology helped us to grow in our convictions. It’s like the Protestants and the Catholics. It was the Christians who first spoke about predestination.
There are Shi’ite brothers who went to Touba, to Tivaoune, to Medina Baye, etc., to participate in ceremonies, Friday prayer, and do ziarra [greeting or visit to a religious leader]. You see, we other Shi’ites, we don’t have problems with the confréries because it is the same thing. We studied books and had dialogues, conferences, and public debates.

What methods do you use to share the message of the Shi’ite community?

How to increase the number of Shi’ites to share their knowledge? There are two principle methods, among others: biological growth and education. Especially the sharing of knowledge that is our knowledge. That is why I am available for Americans, Europeans, and others who come see us; it is because they enjoy sharing their knowledge.

I will give you an example: biological growth of the community. Before, I had not built a family. Now, I have a wife and kids. They are all Shi’ites and that has increased our numbers. Other methods to share our faith include books, the television, the radio, journals, because I write, and others also write. I participate in television shows and write articles that interest intellectuals.

The second and best possible method is to share the Islamic message through education, instruction, culture, and media. By education, I mean school. Education is at the base of everything, and it’s through education that you can create a generation and model it as you wish. Through education, you transmit social and cultural values. We have several types of schools here in Senegal. The types of schools correspond to the number of philosophies, religions, and policies in the world. There are three main types of schools here: daaras (Qur’anic school), the intermediary French-Arab school, and the French colonial school. It is by these three types that we share the message, in schools, high schools and universities.

I am here at the university as a researcher, but we are also going to host a conference on the hot topics of the country. That is also a form of transmission. There is formal transmission, which is school, and informal composed of discussion, debates, and conferences that share ideas. Thankfully, in Senegal, there are spaces for exchanges and dialogue between different people who make up our Senegalese society.

Is it through these dialogues and exchanges that you have enriched your knowledge?

Indeed. I have been to Iran, more than 15 times, because I am also a cheikh; I wear the title of “Hojatol Islam.” I am not yet a doctor of law, but I am close. I studied in Qom, the holy city of Qom, and in Lebanon. I can show you photos with the presidents, the high officials of Iran and Lebanon, with the secretary general of Hezbollah. In Lebanon, they asked me questions about television. I told them that they, the Arabs, had a lot to learn from us, the Africans. You must learn to know us.

In Senegal, there is diversity, which is a source of richness and fulfillment in all religions without exception—between Muslims, Christians, or Jews. In Senegal, it is not a matter of dialogue, but the reinforcement of formal relationships and friendliness between the different communities and entities, which is difficult to find where you live. Even among you, you have problems. It is the same among the Arabs, as well. It is said that Arabs have agreed to disagree. There are always conflicts among them.

But I understand them because there is Israel next door—they are in a state of war, and you cannot talk about dialogue or calming given what is happening in the Middle East region. I say that we have our own particularities, and it is not normal that we, Senegalese, must be Shi’ites like the Iranians, Lebanese, or Iraqis. We must have our own local Shi’ism because if we want Senegalese to accept Shi’ism, it is necessary to respect the sociocultural values of the environment in which we live.

It is like American Protestantism, which is a bit different than European Protestantism, while it is the same Protestantism. But you have created Calvinists, evangelists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. One cannot be docile and follow 100 percent of what the Persians, the Arabs, or others say. They know us very well. We are free-spirited and we say what we think.

Is the Shi’ite community developing and attracting people with its conferences and debates?

Naturally. Like in every society, there are people who say that they are Jesus, that they are God. People come even if they know that you have not created the heavens and the earth, like the gurus. If you advertise, as the leftists say, with agitation and propaganda, the people will surely come to listen.

Do you believe that the information that you share dispels the myths surrounding Islam and Shi’ism?

Exactly. There were a dozen or so Americans who came about two or three years ago to do research. I helped them with their research on Islam as I always do and as I’m doing with you. One of them asked me, “But Islam is archaic! How come Muslims can’t modernize it?” I told him, “You are incorrect, you are mistaken, Madame. The Judeo-Christian civilization was inspired by whom? Moses, Jesus, and Plato, ancient Greece. These sources of Judeo-Christianity and ancient Greek civilization are much more ancient than Islam, and you reference it often. Why wouldn’t you not want us Muslims to refer to this civilization that is even more recent, just 1,400 years?" They ended up saying I was right.

You said that you do media shows. On what subjects?

Usually when I’m invited, I speak on Islam. I speak on philosophy, theology, and Islamic philosophy, on social questions—societal and cultural—as well as political, such as the Palestinian issue, or more broadly in the Islamic world. I discuss social and religious issues. Islam is a comprehensive and all-encompassing religion that does not separate religion from the temporal, and the Shi’ite is, by nature even, political. Even the Shi’ite dogma is political.

You said that many people begin to understand Shi’ism from the social and charitable works that you do. What are these works?

As you know, Senegal has a mostly poor population in need of aid, and “empty stomachs do not have ears.” It’s necessary to know how to manage those who are hungry because there are two types of nourishment: nourishment for the body and nourishment for the spirit. The French have understood this well in their meaning of culture.

The first meaning is education, culture. The second is the culture of food, agriculture, or crops. The French gave content to the word “culture,” which is at the root of their policy of assimilation. The person who dominates your spirit, necessarily dominates you culturally, exerts influence on you and will always rule over you.

How do the Americans currently dominate the world? Like it or not, it’s through culture. How did it get that way? Currently, USAID and Peace Corps come to the villages to help people. Why help them? Is it so that they have sentiments toward them and accept them. Why are they involved in charitable works, the NGOs, why are they connected to the Pentagon? It’s a policy for good visibility for the United States. That’s normal; it’s legitimate for a group, like a state, to want to develop its influence in the world.

Therefore, the social aspect is very important in order to develop an idea, an ideology, because the Prophet said: “Give amongst yourselves, exchange gifts to better love each other.” What do you say to someone who is hungry? Materialism and Marxist theory are founded on the economy. Protestantism is based in the economy and commerce. The surfs, the bourgeoisie—how do they manage their interests? The papacy, Catholicism, had monopolized everything, hoarded so much. No one had the right to be rich. They were way ahead and had a lot more riches, more means than the rest of the royalty in Europe. This is why Luther rose up and opposed them, why Gutenberg invented the printing press, and why Calvin fled to Switzerland. One should be seen through their social and charitable works.

What are the activities of your association, Ali Yacine?

Our association organizes free medical consultations. We distribute rice and foodstuffs during the month of Ramadan to marginalized populations. We actually have a school with more than 700 students. In this school, we have social projects for 30 percent of the children from poor families. It is the others who pay for them. What interests us is to share ideas. We have the same program as the Senegalese schools, but also provide Islamic instruction. For schools, we have only one formal school in Dakar, but we met with the mayor of Keur Massar to get land to construct a large school. We are Shi’ites, but we are also open to cooperate with other partners and with those who wish to come to our aid in our noble task of sharing knowledge.

Are women very involved in the community?

Indeed. Just yesterday I was telling one of the members: “We must involve women more in our activities because they are the ones who are the guardians of our cultural and religious values. They are the ones who are always in contact with the children—who are the future. So tell the women to always come and participate en masse in your activities.” Women bring warmth to cultural and religious activities, everywhere. In the United States too, it is the women because they are generally more intelligent and more engaged than men.

Are young people also involved?

Youth make up nearly 90 percent of our members. It’s the youth who will guarantee the future of the community. Those of my age are no longer there, or they are in decline; they are not able to play the same roles as before. It is the young people and the women who will carry the message. The majority are intellectuals because they are more receptive to messages destined for intellectuals.

What are your other activities?

I’m also the secretary general of the Committee for the Support of Palestine in Senegal. I organize demonstrations against Israel. Fortunately, President Obama has joined me, Alhamdoulillah, with his administration, saying that a Palestinian state must exist in Palestine. Mr. Obama and his administration know very well that the future comes from dialogue and that, without dialogue, Israel has no future.

Before, there were only stones, but gradually there were missiles. What will there be in a few years? The end of Israel is inevitable if we don’t pay attention. They must prove their intelligence and listen to what Obama is saying. I say that Senegalese Shi’ism must have its own particularities and specifications. We bring together intellectuals, artists, and men of culture for them to constantly reflect upon the forms and the colors that are artistically important to adopt. What artistic forms must we have as ways of explaining our culture, our civilization, for passing along ideas? What colors must we adopt?

This is very important, and we are very advanced in this regard. On the anthropological and ethnological level, what is it that the Senegalese want? There is a rhythm. The African wants rhythm. How do we pass along the message? Besides education, there is also folklore. We are trying to act in such a way that there is a Senegalese Shi’ite identity.

To return to your responsibilities as an imam, can you explain how you became the imam in a Mouride mosque? How did that relationship come about?

I am an imam not of a Shi’ite mosque, but a Mouride one, because Mourides accept Shi’ites. There are no problems here between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. I speak about the generalities and the principles of what unites us, and not what differentiates us. The base is the same. Why uselessly create problems that are going to destroy everything? It is interesting to “learn to keep reason.”

In the United States and everywhere else, you always speak of what unites the sons and daughters of the United States and not what differentiates them. You speak of the importance of the flag, the symbols of the state, the institutions, and others. At my level, I am trying to adopt the same well-directed and intelligent political stance. As a researcher, given my level in Arabic, French, and the Persian culture, it's normal for the intellectuals to write about what one thinks. I prefer writing and talking because I can write for intellectuals. Talking is for the population; they listen and then forget, but writing lasts.

How would you describe interreligious relations in Senegal?

In Senegal, I say that that we should not use the word dialogue between Muslims and Christians because there was never a conflict between the two communities. There is a dialogue when there is a conflict. In Senegal, what we need to cultivate are the words friendliness and harmony, and the reinforcement of family ties. Why would the Qur’an allow us to marry Christians or Jews, if we don’t treat them properly? If you have kids with them, with Christian or Jewish wives, how would you act toward them? Are you going to ask them [wives] to die or have problems, as well as the children born from the marriage? Their problems naturally become your problems. Islam preaches peace and stability. When we submit to the teachings of Islam, we must always and constantly search for peace, truce, submission, and stability.

I encourage you to continue the work you are doing, to keep exchanging experiences and knowledge. This creates development, and when there is no dialogue, there is no development. Real development is dialogue; this is what perpetuates scientific, philosophic, religious, moral, and artistic development. Dialogue is a political term, but the better term for economic and commercial dialogue is really exchange.

You mentioned that you have a lot of exchanges and dialogues. What are your fields of dialogue?

I speak mostly about religion, philosophy, and sociology. Also history and politics, but I’m not a politician. I told you that were it not for the politicians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all be in agreement because they have the same God, the same symbols, the same foundations, the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. But, sadly, the politicians oppose each other. How do you say raisin [grape] in English?


In Arabic, it is inab. An American, a Frenchman, and an Arab meet somewhere. They are hungry. Each wants to buy something. They can’t understand each other, but one of them says to the others: “As long as we’re together in a caravan, I’d like to buy for everyone.” Each says what he wants in his own language. And the most intelligent says, “I’m going to the market, I’ll buy something and then return.” He goes and brings back a piece of fruit. And the others say: “Ah! That’s what I meant.” They don’t understand each other linguistically, but if they understand each other and discover each other, they will automatically become brothers, sisters, friends, and sincere collaborators. That is Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which need to reinforce the ties that unite them, far from the policies that create the problems and are there only for the most negative social and material interests.
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