A Discussion with Imam Oumar Diene, Secretary General of the National Association of Imams and Ulama in Senegal
March 4, 2015
Background: Imam Oumar Diene serves both as an imam and a dental prosthetist. His main focus is Senegal’s community development. He serves as the secretary general of the National Association of Imams and Ulama and the spokesperson for the Working Group of Religious Leaders on Health and Development. Lauren Herzog (WFDD) met with him in March 2015 to learn more about Senegal’s religious landscape. Imam Diene outlines his upbringing and training; why he chose to practice dental prosthetics alongside his religious duties; his thoughts on the confréries (Sufi orders); the National Association of Imams and Ulama work in the domains of women, youth, child welfare, education, and interreligious dialogue; and his own experience working on family well-being and reproductive health in Senegal. He speaks eloquently about Senegal’s strong traditions of interreligious harmony, emphasizing above all the key roles that schools, and especially private Catholic schools, play in the traditions of tolerance and mutual respect. He emphasizes the need to adapt religious thinking to the true benefits of modern life and technology and cites among other areas women’s roles and reproductive health techniques and technologies. 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.
Where did you grow up in Senegal?
I grew up and went to school in Dakar, and did all my studies there. I still live in Dakar; it’s my home. However, I went to Montreal, Canada, to finish my graduate studies, in denturology. Outside of my religious duties, I am a dental prosthetist.
Your title is also “Imam” Diène. Can you tell me about your religious training?
My father was the Grand Imam of the Grand Mosque [of Dakar], just like his father and all of our family before him. Quranic schooling runs in our family. This means that at a very young age we learn the Qur’an—even before starting school. Then even at school, until CM2, which is what people call seventh year [equivalent to fifth grade], we continue to learn the Qur’an each day that we don’t have class. Due to the circumstances and chance, I was able to become an imam. My other profession didn’t stop me from being an imam; it actually facilitated it since I had some resources [financial] already, thanks to my graduate studies.
In terms of my career, I have two labs for dental prosthetics. I’m experienced in the field, so now I can work independently in the profession. This makes it almost as if I am retired, for I am devoted to religion and to the management of the Association of Imams and Ulama. I have been promoted to secretary-general and coordinator for administrative matters, since not everyone knows how to write or send mail.
In Senegal, our government uses French as the written language, so you can’t always write in Arabic [the language of choice for many imams]. You have to write in French, which simplifies correspondence. This means that, in a lot of the areas where we work, we speak French with the government, but the people and neighboring countries read Arabic and read the Qur’an [in Arabic]. Thus several factors caused me to occupy this strategic position. We also work with the Catholic Church towards interreligious harmony. So, we’re pretty close to each other in addition to sharing everything in the social sphere.
Why did you decide to pursue your study of dentistry despite the tradition of religious leaders in your family?
My father, and even more so my mother, wanted me to stay in school so that I could have a career after graduation—such as becoming a judge, doctor, nurse, or pilot—because with Quranic instruction, you can only become a teacher in Senegal. My parents didn’t want me to go to the Arab countries to study at their universities either; they believe that they’re expensive and often teach more religion than science. So, my mother insisted that I stay in school with my brothers.
After my studies in Canada, I came back to Senegal to do the job that I had been taught and to give it back to other young people who now work in my laboratories. They simplify my work; they free up my time and allow me to focus on my religious duties. I don’t go to work anymore unless it’s for something technical that requires my presence, so that I can use my experience to teach them more about dental prosthetics and I work less and less. Now, they’ve grown up and they’ve learned; they understand and practice the craft that I taught them, and they share it with others because it’s a profession that’s not taught in Senegalese universities.
Can I ask if you are part of a specific confrérie in Senegal?
Personally, I respect all of the confréries, but I am 100 percent Muslim. I do what my religion tells me to because I realized that I may be more educated than whoever I would have chosen to follow. I know more than they do. I can’t go back and become a slave by limiting myself. I have no roadblocks. I respect everyone, but I’m not tied to one specific sect. I support religious progress, meaning the respect of religion but the respect of others as well.
Have your Arabic and Quranic studies ever taken you abroad, or did you do it all in Dakar?
No, I studied under my father. I did all my Quranic studies in Dakar at the Quranic school that was in the neighborhood. I learned the Qur’an there by the grace of God. My father improved my understanding of the Qur’an. In our free time, he taught me and explained things to me; he made me understand. Then, one of his nephews replaced him; his name is Maodo Sylla. He replaced him in the Grand Mosque from 1976 to 2001. He was the son of his sister, and my father had also taught him the Qur’an. He had trained him as if it was his direct nephew and he assured him of his succession after his own retirement. They didn’t have the chance to go to school like I did. I had the chance to learn religious terminology, and so I’ve even further evolved in that sphere.
After my father’s death, I succeeded him at the mosque, and, since there aren’t many scholars, people trusted me from an early age. They trusted that I wasn’t going to leave, and so I have progressed until today. That’s how it all happened.
Can you explain the story of the National Association of Imams and Ulama of Senegal, and its purpose and objectives?
It’s a national organization that works in all areas. It was founded in 1981, and we organized the first National Congress in 1985. It will be 30 years old in September of this year. It’s made up of nearly 4,600 members; that’s a lot. Each mosque has maybe four or five imams. We all have primary and secondary activities. Our primary activities are to organize conferences, work with our Quranic schools, host religious shows on television or radio, and organize debates on subjects—such as maternal mortality, child welfare, or unwanted pregnancies. Each debate is organized around a subject that relates to Islam. For these debates, we put together a lot of conferences and shows. The shows focus on debates as well, debates to which we invite politicians and religious leaders, and we discuss in depth social life and education. The government works with us since we are present and active across all of Senegal, being such a big organization.
We also deal with life at the mosques. For example, if there are problems or if there are nominations of imams, then we organize such matters. We work with the government to improve the social life of mosque attendees since we’re located in poor neighborhoods. People don’t have easy access to a hospital so, for example, if there is a death, they can bring the body to the morgue at the mosque. The doctor comes to verify if it was a natural death, and he procures the death certificate and the burial permit. This lets people focus on their mourning without having to take a trip to the hospital. We got this facility from the government in order to ease social life. It’s something that we have had since 1981.
Can you talk more about the Quranic schools and the role of the National Association of Imams and Ulama in education?
The association’s role is to avoid the situation where children don’t go to school and never learn to read or write because their parents don’t have the means to send them to school or because their parents are uneducated. Also, our role is to avoid a situation where the child is older and has been excluded from school. We created high schools. We are against the politics of non-learning. If you don’t know how to read French, you should learn at least to read Arabic so that you can read and write something.
So, when the child doesn’t have the opportunity to go to school because he’s too old, his father can bring him to a Quranic school, where he can study both religion and Arabic. He will then be able to read and write; he will be literate in Arabic. There are also parents that want their children to go to school to learn Arabic. The government is in charge of public schooling so, at specific hours, it offers Arabic classes for children who want to study the Qur’an and religion.
After colonization, a lot of people didn’t want their kids being taught French only. They wanted their kids to be taught in Arabic, because they didn’t speak French! This led to a lot of regrets, because when you don’t speak French and the television, newspapers, and everything is in French, you become illiterate with respect to Senegalese society. So, those who have the opportunity to go to school must know how to read and write.
Even checks are only accepted in French, so if you only speak Arabic, you have to ask someone for help. So, the French language and French translation are very powerful, because it facilitates dialogue at the national and international level. National because you can talk to everyone like we are; international because, if I go to Abidjan, Cameroon, or France, I have to talk to other people. It’s a powerful language in the region for work and for administrative purposes. The Arabic language isn’t as powerful in this part of the world. If you go to France, you need a French translator. Arabic is only dominant in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and maybe in Algeria; but even if you go to Tunisia, it’s French.
So, French is a really powerful language, and it means that those who haven’t gone to school don’t have much of a chance. The imams took charge of this group of people to help them and to permit them to become literate alongside their children. Now, everyone brings their kids to school. Nevertheless, during infancy and even in kindergarten, the government has organized kindergartens and daycares that have Quranic teachers so that a child can learn his religion while still managing to attend university later on and be in tune with global education.
It’s a national effort. For example, in almost every mosque, there’s a small Quranic school. Even during the long vacations, it’s not like Europe where everyone leaves for vacation. The kids learn about religion and the Qur’an. They go to the mosque or to Quranic schools in general to learn their religion.
Does the National Association of Imams and Ulama work in the domain of child welfare?
We are currently working with the government on a program to modernize the daaras. The goal of the program is to take children out of the street, and offer a new, more modern curriculum at the daaras. Now in 2015, people are just starting to participate in the program that we’ve been offering since 1981; there are a lot of children in the street, but the street doesn’t educate anyone. The children aren’t responsible for this; they’re at the mercy of those who have put them on the street, who don’t have a job, and who live off of the scraps that the children bring them to maintain their families. We’ve been talking about children for a while.
Now, the government just adopted this program using ideas from nearly 30 years ago. It’s a process that’s both very difficult and very sensitive, but the administration can always find other solutions. The government still has to enforce compulsory education to get children off the street and to pay the teacher his salary at the end of the month; the children will go to school and then go home. Such would be the program in the major cities [of Senegal]. Each child, from the age of 4 or 5, would read the Qur’an until the age of 8 and simultaneously learn French so that he could enter his sixth year, pass his baccalauréat [high school exit exam], go to university, and have his chance at life.
Does the National Association of Imams and Ulama work with youth in Senegal?
Yes, we have programs for youth between the ages of 9 to 16, but only during school holidays since many of them go to school. During holidays, there are classes on religion and the Qur’an in conjunction with sport or cultural clubs. Sports are meant to keep them busy during vacation; the cultural activities include theater or games. For the religious part, the programs are in French and Arabic.
What is the objective of the youth program?
There are three parts: culture, sports, and religion. In general, there are matches all the time and parents aren’t okay with this. It makes the children too distracted; they forget about everything else and then don’t have time to learn their religion. Then they grow up without understanding their religion, and they practice without understanding the rituals or its foundation. To be good Muslims, they have to have some training.
Since we are transitioning from the colonial era—when we didn’t share the same religions—to the discovery of things from our ancestors, we want to avoid a generational vacuum. We’re trying to avoid having youth that are apathetic about faith and neither go to church nor to the mosque. Religion educates them, teaches them, and gives them self-control so that we don’t move away from liberty.
The substance of religion is the things that it permits and recommends, so youth have to be able to identify what is permitted and what is forbidden. They have to accept and invest in this code of conduct. They have to balance the recommendations of religion with the civic values and duties taught at school, which improve the behavior of a person in relation to institutions and society.
How does the National Association of Imams and Ulama work with women?
We don’t really have many programs for women because traditionally women are seen as mothers. They have a woman’s training. For boys, there are Arabic teachers, there is social and familial education, which prepares you to have a spouse and a child and to manage your family. Before, that was that.
But schools have intervened. For example, for my sisters, my mother insisted that they attend school. They said that you learn modern professions at school; women are trained accordingly there. At the same time, socially in Africa or in Senegal, women are trained by women because men can’t necessarily train women in every area. At a French school, the male teacher can teach the student, regardless of gender, and there is no difference between him and the female teacher.
There is a social or maternal learning that prepares women for their future. This training is generally taught by women, so apart of our religious organization, we intervene only when we are obligated. We are more knowledgeable about religion than women; we can teach them about how religion relates to their life.
Is the National Association of Imams and Ulama involved in interreligious dialogue?
We’re in a secular, democratic, and religious country. We deal with policy with politicians. In Senegal, the majority of the population is Muslim and a small part is Christian, but we share our social lives, schools, cities, villages, and sometimes even the same house with Christians. We live together amicably; we need to maintain these relations because the world is rattled each time we take a step backwards, like when the jihadists put sand in the rice, so to speak. If there isn’t an intervention, then it could lead to fighting, hatred, discrimination, and even verbal or physical aggression. To avoid all of that, we need to live together and respect barriers that govern religion—promoting mutual appreciation, being good neighbors, and respecting the dignity of each religion without provocation of the other.
It’s through this structure of Muslim-Christian dialogue, or interreligious dialogue, that we preserve that. What makes us socialize with each other is that we meet each other in ceremonies or we exchange messages of peace on our holidays. For example, on Easter we’ll share ngalax, [the Easter meal]; every Christian invites a Muslim friend to this meal. Muslims don’t drink alcohol, but they can still share ngalax; they don’t eat pork, but they can eat chicken or fish. We share in our celebrations. It’s made possible by the fact that we share schools. In general, the Catholic schools are the largest in the city because Catholic education is rigorous, strict, and produces good results; but it is private education.
With all of the strikes at present [among public school employees], parents prefer to enroll their children in private schools. There are unions in the private system, but they know how to limit themselves respectfully. Classes are taught continuously because the parents are paying. This facilitates the harmony between our children. Every Muslim child has a Christian friend. At Christmastime, there are balls and dances, and that’s what children do at that age. So, they socialize with each other at these occasions in order to share in the festivities.
Senegal is considered a model of Muslim-Christian relations. How do you think this happened?
People see religious leaders going to church; when I attend church, I meet Christians, I talk to them, and they invite me places. We see the interreligious exchanges on television and we work to maintain these relationships. We write to the Vatican through a church intermediary, and the Pope comes to Senegal sometimes. I recently visited Rome to meet the Pope, and then I was in Jerusalem to meet rabbis. When I was in Bethlehem, I visited the Mount of Olives and the empty tomb of Jesus. I’ve visited the Holocaust Museum; I saw many things in Israel where the revealed religions intersect.
Are your international trips within the framework of your work with the National Association of Imams and Ulama?
Yes, they are done in an interreligious framework so that people can see how we all live together. For example, I met with President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary when they were visiting the mosque; if there wasn’t interreligious dialogue, we wouldn’t have allowed them to visit the mosque. We would have thought, “What’s he going to do? If he isn’t going to pray, it’s not worth the visit.” But it was good that he came, that he discovered, learned about, and understood our religion. It’s tourism, but in a religious and cultural realm. His wife, Hillary, covered herself to enter the mosque; it’s a sign of respect. It’s like me, as a Muslim and an imam, going to meet Pope Francis or seeing President Reuven Rivlin with the rabbis of Jerusalem to talk about religion. We talk about how we can live together; in Jerusalem, it’s not a problem of religions, but of territory.
Muslims also have to understand that we need peaceful cohabitation in order to have good relations with our neighbors and to avoid the devastating effects of extremism, hatred, and bloodshed. If there had been a dialogue like that during the Apartheid [South Africa] years, the next generations would have been more tolerant and they could live together; thus progress will be made, like in America. So, in order to avoid hatred and war, you have to create peace through society and culture; you have to provoke peace and make concessions. You have to establish mutual respect and friendliness in order to have peaceful spirits and lives.
You are a member and spokesperson of the Working Group of Religious Leaders on Health and Development. How did you become involved with the group?
Serigne Saliou Mbacké invited me to join the group since I’m the president of the International Council of Human Rights of the Red Cross (Conseil consultatif international des droits humanitaires de la Croix Rouge). When I saw who Serigne Saliou had invited to participate in the working group and its purpose, I realized that it was a rich initiative questioning us on what we had done in 1996 with the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), except that now it was about contraceptive methods that hadn’t existed before.
Through what we had done with that initiative, I got to know Serigne Saliou better, and so we thought that it was a good initiative that would develop in its own time. It prioritizes the welfare of mothers and children, birth spacing, and family well-being, all of which we’ve previously written books about and organized meetings around. We were subject to a lot of criticism and maliciousness for that work, but we got results.
The Ministry of Health and Social Action understood that religious leaders have to be active participants [in family well-being efforts]. We sacrificed ourselves in order to attract others to join the efforts because it was taboo to discuss contraception. As a result, you couldn’t talk about maternal welfare. A woman could not go to school and learn about issues that affect her. Metaphorically speaking, we gave her a bayonet, but she could not see anything else; she just had children and a husband.
As for us, we rejected this practice. We created the Family Code, which emphasizes women’s rights that need to be recognized. A woman is just as valuable as a man despite gender differences. She has eyes, a nose, a mouth, and she can think. Women must be given a chance because they should participate in the workforce, as opposed to simply being treated as the womb of the house, relegated to having babies without spacing the births and thus destroying her life through an elevated risk of maternal mortality and child sickness.
We confronted this problem because I discovered things when I traveled to Canada and saw that protecting maternal health is not forbidden in our religious texts. Religion doesn’t outlaw, religion accepts things in their conditioning. For example, yesterday I took part in a televised conference about in vitro fertilization, which Islam permits but people find taboo. If it’s the sperm of the husband that helps his wife, then it’s normal. You have to do this; if not, the wife is a victim of infertility despite the development of medical techniques that could help her have a child. You have to give her this chance. The dialogues are creating an openness of mind that people didn’t used to have.
Why do you think that it’s important to have a group of religious leaders who are united in improving family well-being?
In Senegal, there is a separation of people. Each person is affiliated with a Muslim sect and a religious leader. In order for the message to spread, the religious leader must accept it and give his endorsement, and then a representative can tell the followers if there is a misunderstanding. But thank God! Scholars have already written about this; even our president has written about this. He has mastered this subject better than everyone else and has written more than anyone else. He has had religious shows and he is a judge of the Muslim court; so, he can answer questions better than some religious leaders, who are often only religious leaders because they’re replacing their father, who, along with their mother, was a part of the confréries.
Then there are people like us who understand law, medicine, and family health, among other things; who have read and mastered religious texts; and who participate in debates and seminars in order to understand life in general. We don’t put up a barrier by saying “It’s taboo!” Instead, we ask questions like, “Why is it taboo? Have you read the religious texts? What’s allowed? What’s forbidden?”
In order to have tolerance in the modern world, there needs to be dialogue between cultures, languages, speech; the religious sphere must do the same as the political sphere. You must know how to provoke debates and when to make concessions. Everything that our religious texts don’t explicitly mention is permitted. The world is developing and, with the passing of time, religion has to be a part of the evolution of the lifestyle of modern man, which is science, and science is all about discovery. Right now, we operate [surgically] by robots; we’re doing extraordinary things in medicine, even in veterinary medicine. With such progress in the world, we can’t afford to lag behind; we have to be involved in the discovery of the world so that we understand the world.