A Discussion with Seyda Rokhaya Ibrahima Niass, Islamic Scholar and Woman Religious Leader in the Tijaniyya Sufi Order, Senegal
February 8, 2015
Background: Cheikha Rokhaya Ibrahima Niass is part of leadership of the Tijaniyya Sufi Order, a prominent woman leader who has advocated for women’s equality throughout her life. Invited to participate in the Carter Center Human Rights Forum in Atlanta in February 2015, she met with Katherine Marshall, along with three of her sons and a daughter-in-law. Cheikha Niass followed the conversation closely and interjected remarks at various occasions, but in general her sons, Babacar Niang and two others, and her daughter-in-law carried most of the conversation. The discussion was in French. This account of the discussion focuses on her education and current activities. The views of the Niassene branch on family planning were a central element of the exchange. The international organization of the order was a further topic.
As a female religious leader you play a special role in Senegal. Can you describe your background, work, and current role?
She is the aunt of the current khalifa of the Niassenes. She is a grande dame, an intellectual, and an educator, who has written books in Arabic, and is the supporter and educator of many girls and boys. She has many people under her authority (contrôle). She provides moral support to her disciples, but she also provides much direct financial support, from her own pocket. We do not know how she does it. She takes care of orphans. Just a few weeks ago a mother died in childbirth and the baby is in her charge. She provides education free of charge. She is a model for the community.
Her base is in Kaolack. She has disciples everywhere, in almost every country, but especially in Nigeria and Ghana. There are many in Atlanta also.
Is there a good count of how many members there are of the order? Any kind of census?
No. There is no clear count. But we know that there are many, many. Some years ago the minister of interior of Nigeria, Yussuf, wrote a letter to the khalifa in which he said that 95 percent of the Muslims in Nigeria are Tijaniyya, thus his people. President Gowan wrote to the khalifa, her papa, in 1971 saying that there were more than 14 million disciples in Nigeria. The situation has evolved since then.
During the colonial era there were some letters exchanged that gave numbers. During the 1950s there were exchanges between the French and British colonialists about the numbers of converts, and the cheikh was told that some 7,000 people had converted to Islam in the British territory. But the conclusion is that there are no good numbers.
One of the sons (Babacar Niang) is writing a book about this history.
How many sons do you have?
Seven. Three are here.
What is your role in the family?
She is the older sister of the current khalifa. If she were a man she would be the khalifa.
How did you become such a prominent intellectual?
She was born in 1930. She was educated by her father, the khalifa. She first memorized the Qur’an, at an especially early age, learned Arabic, and then went on to absorb Sufi learning. In 1975, which was the international women’s year, her father asked her what she was going to do about women, almost joking. But he asked her to write about women. So she wrote a book about women in Islam. Throughout her life she has promoted and defended the rights of women. She has worked always to counter the rumor or thesis that women do not have rights in Islam. Indeed they do.
That is why President Jimmy Carter has invited her to Atlanta.
Why did your father support this unusual education?
He was a very rare, unusual marabout [spiritual guide]. He was seen in France as an author of Black Islam. He sent his daughters to school. He himself said, “Bint al ibni (In my conception a woman is equal to a man)," in terms of intellect. Thus she should be in education.
He told his daughter that she should continue always to be equal to her brothers. The criteria of what it means to be a man are defined in quite specific terms. The same qualities are valid for a woman. It is the spirit that counts. These views were rare among marabouts. It is not clear why he held these views. It is perhaps because he traveled widely and met many world leaders, including Brezhnev and Gorbachev. But he also drew on the texts to explain his views. There are clear texts that justify an understanding of equality.
Her family is a branch of the Tijaniyya order, the Fayda branch. This means divine flood. In this branch, the khalifa gives certificates to followers. In this branch (but not in most of the Sufi orders) some women, like her, have this certificate. This gives them the right to convey the teachings and thought of the order. Thus men and women alike can do it.
What was the economic foundation of the order, then and now?
They were originally farmers. Like the Mourides, they were much involved in peanuts. When the father of the great khalifa was exiled to the Gambia, the production of peanuts fell. The fields were fallow.
The order also was very much involved in trade. This was especially true for the Moors, who came from Mauritania. The situation, however, is changing. Now the order is especially involved in schools, and they run a large number of NGOs.
What was your path after your early education?
Madame’s father had a very open spirit, and he was a great visionary. He was a great Muslim, a student of Arabic, who was open to other kinds of education and thought. He visited European and other schools. He thought it was important that students be able to read French.
For her own education, it was a Muslim education. She learned the book of the Prophet, the Qur’an. She first memorized it. Then her father translated the text for her, into Wolof. Then she learned Arabic. She began to teach the Qur’an herself. She then learned Arabic grammar and Arabic literature until she mastered them fully. It was her father who gave her a diploma.
All her life she knew that her calling, her duty, was education. She travels all over the world, but especially to Nigeria and Ghana. She also travels to Niger, the Gambia, and Mauritania. She visits Europe, both England and Sweden, everywhere.
Both her father and Madame are great visionaries. Her sons are focused on education, including those who are present in Atlanta. It is an exercise in collaboration.
What characterizes the schools you run?
Madame chose the path of Franco-Arab education. In Senegal, there are the conventional schools, which tend to follow a classical modern education, and there are the Quranic schools. The Franco-Arab schools are a bridge between them. A large part of the program is what is authorized by the government, essentially what the Ministry of Education decides and sends. Another part is determined by the religious leaders and includes, for example, study of the hadiths.
There are associations that include both men and women. They promote education for development. They travel in support of their missions. There is, for example, one in New York.
How do you address the role of women in Islamic religion and culture?
Everywhere she goes, she defends women. Women’s equality is part of Islam. It is an essential human value.
How has the Tijaniyya order considered family planning? Has there been any explicit discussion?
The position of Islam is that family planning is only authorized if it affects health of the mother or the child. Otherwise, different methods are not permitted. It is not acceptable to use family planning for economic reasons. Allah will provide.
[Brief discussion of the Working Group and visit to Morocco; they were familiar with the visit and knew who went.]
In general, however, religious leaders have not been involved with these issues. They are not involved in the matter in any practical or intellectual way. The ideas about family planning are not clearly formulated. The terms of the debate are not clear.
There is a sense among some that it is an idea imposed by Europe and the West.
It is important to engage with the populations. The media, the press needs to be more involved.
[The daughter-in-law commented that things are changing. Economic forces are more and more important. What is needed is “sensibilisation, sensibilisation, sensibilisation”—that is, communication multiplied.]
The roles of religious bodies and specifically the confréries (Sufi orders) in health are very different in different countries, with Nigeria and Senegal as good examples. There has been little direct involvement by the confréries with health in Senegal or Mali, much less than in Nigeria. They do not have clinics or private hospitals. Madame tried to establish a center but could not get sufficient help. A Swedish NGO has provided some help.
What are the roles of women in these matters?
[Unclear answers. Women in Senegal are strong and have some independence. But…]
What is most important is that the topic of family planning is generally taboo. It is not discussed. Religious leaders don’t like to discuss it at all. They don’t dare to name the topic. The khalifa would not discuss it. Further, the topic cannot and should not be discussed in isolation. There are many other factors to consider, including disease and poverty.
It is a delicate topic.
There is also practical experience. Madame’s father was open. However, when after a child was born the doctor said his wife should have no more children, because it was too risky, he refused, despite his openness. He was confident that God would protect them. And several more brothers were born.
It is essentially not a topic of religious ideology. And danger to women’s health is the main issue that has a religious dimension.
[Brief discussion on Azl and the Qur’an's comments on it. Some interpretations suggest that this method is forbidden, others that it is permitted. Some ulema use this to argue that other practical methods are preferable.]
There are changes with new generations, and the health of women and children as well as family economic need to be taken into account.
What about child marriage?
Here, too, there are not clear religious positions. However, in the tradition of the Prophet, he married Aisha when she was 8 years old. Then again he married Khadija when she was almost an old woman. The Prophet did not initiate sexual relations with Aisha until she was mature. It is maturity that is the central issue. When a girl menstruates, she is an adult and can be married.
And there is recognition of the law. The group was very unclear as to what the legal age was, but finally concluded that it was 18 years old, the legal age of being an adult. But Islam has nothing clear to say about age of marriage.
[The daughter-in-law, especially, stressed that there are important changes with the new generation. There is much more thought now to the health of women and children, the time that is involved in caring for them, and economics. Things are changing.]
What has been the government’s approach to engaging with religious leaders on development issues generally?
The government has generally been very prudent, paying heed to the ethnic and religious groups and their sensitivities. They work hard not to upset any group.
Broadly, the best approach is to motivate the religious leaders and groups, to give them reasons why they should support a position.
What are the economic activities of the Niassene branch today? How far do they engage in direct activities (like farming)?
The main activity is education.
There were some activities in agriculture, some time ago. An organization was created in 1960, two to three months after independence. There were annual dues to pay, and a bank account was organized. All disciples were expected to participate, and to buy a membership card. With the money, which the khalifa directed, there were projects to create infrastructure, mosques, schools, and mutual societies.
The confrérie takes responsibility for orphans. There is an association of women, and a social arm, that also takes care of widows.
However, most of the money for the good works that Madame undertakes comes from the personal pocket of this woman. There is no government help. We have no Medicare or anything, though we need it. If need be she will sell a parcel of land so that she can support a school. She uses her money to buy clothes and jewels for people. We don’t know how she does it.
When she is in Senegal, people are constantly coming to appeal to her. In the society, work is very rare. She is like a precious stone. She helps many, many people, every day.
What kinds of relationships are there between the religious family and the government?
There are really no formal relationships. There are links in running the schools, for example a government allocation of land. President Abdou Diouf gave land for her school. But most of the relationships are purely personal and they involve some favoritism. In the time of President Senghor, he had a problem with her father, the khalifa. She had to go elsewhere and went to Ghana. Nkrumah helped her to get her book published, and Senghor was frustrated by that. He did not think that she could write a book as a woman. She also has good relations with the Nigerian minister of interior.
There were some problems with the Wade government because he thought that Madame was an opponent. But President Macky Sall has visited her. There is no noise now.
How did she come to be here at the Carter Center?
President Carter met her younger brother, the khalifa, who is now in paradise. He mentioned her several times, and Carter asked about her. That is why she was invited this year. It is her first visit to the Carter Center.
What other projects does she have?
She has published her book in Hausa and supported a mosque. She wants to establish a pre-school. She supports a boarding school in the Gambia. Next year she plans to start a Franco-Arab secondary school. Her idea is to build a university.