A Discussion with Sheikh Saliou Mbacke, Continental Coordinator of IFAPA
With: Saliou Mbacke Berkley Center Profile
July 3, 2014
Background: Saliou Mbacke is a religious leader within the Senegalese Sufi tradition, and a member of the Mouride family and leadership. He has extensive experience in African interreligious dialogue. In this discussion with Katherine Marshall, Lauren Herzog, and Christopher Riley in Dakar, he describes his unusual education and career path, one that saw him living in several countries but also receiving spiritual training from the Mouride khalifa. He explains how he came to focus on African interfaith dialogue and his work with IFAPA. And he discusses the distinctive roles that the Mouride confrérie plays in Senegalese life and politics as well as in the diaspora community in other countries.
You are a member of the family of the khalifa of the Mouride Confrérie. Can you explain how that works?
I was the third son of my father by my mother (there were many other brothers and sisters by different wives). I was named for the second youngest son of Sheikh Amadou Bamba, Saliou; he died in 2007. Five of Bamba’s sons served as khalifa. The current khalifa of the Mourides is the oldest grandson of Sheikh Bamba (he is in his 80s). There are 15 or so grandsons (thus the third generation) still living; the youngest are between 15 and 20. The number of living sons in the fourth generation is far larger. In the Mouride family, the succession normally passes through all sons in a generation before moving on to the next. The khalifa does not name a successor, but to date it has followed age among sons of a generation. I (and my older brother—another brother died) are thus part of the fourth generation, which will inherit the leadership after all from the third generation have died.
How were you raised in this tradition?
In the tradition within the confrérie, I was separated from my mother when I was 5 years old and sent to a daara that teaches the Qur’an. The idea obviously is that in this way the training starts to shape you and separate you from your mother. At first I was in a daara in the same village where my mother lived and where I was born, but I was living at the teacher’s house.
Do you remember that?
No, not really. I was too young. A year later, my father sent me further away, between Touba and a village called Darou Minam, where I also studied in a Quranic school. It takes about two years to learn the Qur’an from beginning to end. To memorize it takes four to eight years—that means to be able to recite it from beginning to end, and then to write the whole book without seeing it. I have not written it but I have read it through and studied it three times and have memorized it. After learning the Qur’an, you move to religious studies. Religious studies mean Islamic science and the books dedicated to Sufism.
After that, I entered an Arabic school to learn the Arabic language. The Qur’an, as you know, is in Arabic. You can read the Qur’an without understanding the meaning. You have to learn Arabic in order to understand it. My father had started an Arabic school in Porokhane, and I went there with some of my siblings.
Did the school include girls?
After I had studied at the Arabic school, my father sent me and some of my siblings to the formal French school [run by the government]. Many others of my siblings did not go to school. My father married them off and gave them land to work on, with talibes [followers] who work on the land for them—they are expected to train them. My father told me and my two or three brothers who went to school that “Life will change at some point. Since life is going to change, it’s better that you go and learn some skills that you can use later on.” That was his vision.
When I entered school, I was over the normal age for my class. They had to show me as having a lower age—thus my official age on the official records is not my real age. The papers say I was born in 1969, but I was actually born in 1963. That was not a difficult change to make; it was done easily in the court.
How old were you when you went to the French school?
I was around 12. I started late. But then, in primary school, I jumped classes. I jumped three or four classes. And then I went to high school. I started in Mbacke, but then I went to a place called Gossas, in the south near Kaolack. And then I went to high school in Tunisia.
Why is that?
Because of the Arabic. My father wanted me to not lose the Arabic. He wanted me to have training not only in religious studies, but in the Arabic language also, so that I could master the meaning of what I was studying.
Who took care of you when you went to Tunisia?
The Senegalese ambassador was a friend of my father and I stayed in his house. His successor was also a friend of my father so I stayed with him also.
I started university in Tunisia. My father wanted me to continue both with Arabic and French. I developed my interest for languages there. That’s why I went to the Bourguiba school and began to train as a translator.
In 1991, after I graduated, I went to Spain because I wanted to learn Spanish. I enrolled in a course in the University of Salamanca in Spanish language and culture.
What did your father think of all of this?
He was okay up to the time I finished in Tunisia. He was less keen about the decision to go to Spain, seeing it as a personal decision. But then he said okay. At that time, he was getting quite old. I spent almost 10 years in Spain. After I finished my courses I began to teach English there. I enjoyed Spain. There is something African in the Spanish culture, very different from the French. In Andalusia, especially, I liked the language and the people. They are easygoing and very friendly and there is something of the Sufi spirit.
I left Salamanca and went to Madrid, and later to Barcelona. I had various jobs, for example with putting together an exhibition (Universal Exhibition of Seville in 1992), and I worked for the government of Senegal as a translator and on public relations of the Pavilion of Senegal.
You were pretty independent. You were allowed to follow the path that you chose?
Yes, and that was an exception. My father never did that for anybody else, but he had a lot of trust in me. He had his doubts, obviously, because he feared that I might be influenced by Western values, bad values, whatever that might be, for example that I might be drinking alcohol or going with women or whatever.
During this long period in Spain, how did you stay in touch with the Confrérie or your relatives? Was there a community in Spain?
By telephone, letters, and periodic visits to Senegal. I came back to Senegal once a year or every two years through the period, from 1992 to 2001.
There was a Mouride community in Spain, which helped ease my father’s suspicions or fears. The Mouride diaspora spread out during those years in most European countries. In the 1980s and especially 1987, a large number of Mourides migrated to Spain and Italy because no visas were needed for Italy then. Some of them went into Spain. The 1980s was when the bulk of the Mouride migration started to Europe and the U.S. But I shared rooms with Spanish and other nationalities; it was a good experience for me.
What brought you back to Senegal?
In 2001, I was working in a good school, with a solid, well-paid contract. But then my brother died (of diabetes) and I decided to break the contract and return to Senegal, not knowing that that was the end of Spain for me. I was very close to my brother, who was the oldest son of my mother. We looked alike physically and he was also very intellectual, a very brilliant man. He was also very international. He was in business as well as religious affairs.
After my brother died, I stayed on in Senegal. Then Serigne Saliou, my namesake, the khalifa at the time, called me. He said to my father that he wanted me to come for more religious, spiritual training in Touba.
What did this spiritual training involve?
It was a new phase in my life. I had been living in the Western world and I had gotten many things from this experience. But then I came to a new context, with a Sufi master. Apart from the fact that he was the khalifa, he was a very profound Sufi master. I could sense that he wanted to share that with me and redirect me to spirituality. I think he saw some predisposition in me for that, because it is not easy to take somebody who has spent so many years in the West and put him in the very hard conditions that are required: solitude and things like the spiritual exercises of solitude and meditation. He did it consciously to reshape my way of thinking and, perhaps, to get rid of some of the negative influences of the West that I had not been able to withstand. That could be part of the reason for his approach. But it was a unique experience.
When you are close to the spiritual masters, you also learn about life in general, but from a different angle. An example is lessons in how to deal with anxiety and any manner of difficult contexts. I saw him demonstrate these skills as the khalifa of the Mouridiyya. The role is a complicated one. And it is more difficult if you want to detach yourself from earthly matters on occasion, and to dedicate yourself to spirituality and so forth. You need to face the difficulties but retain the spiritual approach.
One day in 2002, the party leaders put the khalifa on the list of the PDS, the ruling party, as the main candidate for the locality of Touba for the upcoming elections. They did it deliberately and it presented the khalifa with a hard decision. It had been announced everywhere that he was the head of the PDS list and it was accepted. The issue is that the khalifa decides the list for Touba. He usually puts someone at the head of the list, but the PDS, Wade’s party, put him at the head of the list. I saw the way he overcame this and many other challenges. In difficult contexts, he attributes everything back to God. In some cases he does not even act at all. He just bears it until it disappears. This is the kind of thing that I learned from him—how to deal with difficult issues and rely on spirituality. Sometimes you don’t have the means to find a logical solution. It’s just there and you have to know.
How did you become involved in IFAPA [Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa]?
When the first IFAPA summit was called, in 2002, they invited the Mouride community to participate and the khalifa sent me to South Africa to represent the community. After that, he judged that I was ready to go back to the world. Ishmael Noko [founder and leader of IFAPA] had asked me to work for him. I had said that I was not free and that he would have to write a letter to my grandfather. Noko wrote the letter and some months later, my grandfather said that I could go and work for IFAPA in Geneva. So I went to Switzerland in 2003.
How long did you stay in Geneva?
For four months. Ishmael’s idea was to start building the IFAPA constituency there. IFAPA was based at that time at the Lutheran World Federation [Noko was the head at the time]. Ishmael gave me the office of his deputy next to his office (they were then in the process of recruiting a deputy for LWF). IFAPA was his baby; he had started it. The experience was excellent for me, because I learned what interfaith dialogue was on a practical level. I found it very congenial because the principles we followed were what it involves to be a Muslim in action. The LWF and IFAPA teams, though they were Christians, were very tolerant of me. I could go to the bathroom to do my ablutions and pray in my own office without any problems. They did not object to any of that and they showed no antagonism. It was the first time that the team there were exposed to Muslim practices and thus it was an interesting learning experience for them. At one point, Ishmael told me that I had helped them to be better Christians.
What did the work involve during those first months, as IFAPA was being created?
After the first IFAPA meeting in Johannesburg, we spent about four months starting to put together networks of leaders and to launch the implementation of the follow up, the plan of action. This included especially delegation visits. The first delegation visit was to Liberia. One week after the departure of Charles Taylor, I put together the delegation of five, led by Ishmael that included a male pastor from Ghana, a Muslim man from Sierra Leone, another Muslim lady from Guinea, and another Muslim man from Nigeria We were hosted by the Religious Council of Liberia. We met with the interim president and the UN Peacekeeping Mission. It was a very good, successful first mission. I remember that when we went to the Parliament we saw the marks of bullet holes in it; it was just one week after the end of the war.
We had a further summit in South Africa that year. And then I moved to Nairobi in January 2004 because we thought that IFAPA should be based in Africa. They decided to relocate me to the Lutheran World Federation headquarters there (the organization is involved in development delivery). I had met my wife at the Johannesburg summit, as she came as a delegate with a youth organization of Kenya. We got married one year later in August of 2003 in Nairobi.
Was the khalifa interested in the interfaith work?
Since IFAPA was dealing with peace, the khalifa was okay with it. He also was glad that I had a good job. Thus his support was both for the cause and for my own growth. From that point I kept in close touch with him. Even when I was in Nairobi, I would visit him every year and he would ask me many questions, so I would report on the whole process.
When did he die?
He died in 2007. My father died before him, in August, and he died in December of the same year. When my father died, I was in Libya for a meeting. It took me two days to find out. They were trying to get ahold of me, but in Libya, communication was very controlled. Finally, I was able to open an email from a friend and that’s how I found out about it. I came home to Senegal a week later.
Did those deaths change your situation significantly?
Not really. When my father died my brother said that I should just carry on with my life and work. I was still under contract with IFAPA. In 2009, they started struggling with funding. They couldn’t afford to keep me in Nairobi because it was expensive, so we agreed that I would return home and continue to work for IFAPA from Senegal. Thus I moved to Senegal. For two years it was a hard struggle. The working conditions were really unclear. In 2011, I wrote a proposal to Trust Africa, a grant-making organization, and we got a small grant. That made things clearer, but then the grant ended and that was about it.
You said that outside of your IFAPA work, you also help people. Is that in the context of the Mouridiyya?
As a religious leader, helping people is part of our mission. Even if I go broke, that is my mandate. And I am constantly engaged. When I am in Japan for a meeting of the Niwano Peace Prize Committee, I see the Mouride community. They come to the hotel to get blessings from me and I talk to them. They have anxieties, lots of problems. I try to ease their tensions and their troubles, calm them down, and refer them back to God. The Japanese society is confusing for them, but I try to show them the connections between Japanese society and Buddhism and Mouridism. These connections include admonitions not to show anger, to bear difficulties, to be patient, and to work hard and make that work meaningful. Anger should not drive you; you should control it. The Mouride community in Japan is not large but there are some migrant workers and students. In Japan, the main problem they have is getting papers. Almost all of them are married to Japanese and there are problems when they have children. They may have wives at home so they have to hide their marriages. Culture shock comes in. They face a series of problems on a daily basis. When I come, they tell me about it and we find ways to meet the problems.
Everywhere I go where there’s the diaspora, and I meet the Mourides. It’s a network. You call the leader and the leader gets in touch with the others. They come to visit you if you’re in the same place or you go to them. Helping people involves spiritual assistance to overcome their problems. It’s part of our responsibility, anyone in the family. I have to be a substitute for my brother. There are places where he cannot go because he’s very busy. So I try as time allows. He lets me do my work, but he asks me when I’m free to assist him to go to places where he cannot.
Can you tell us about the role of the spokesperson?
The spokesperson of the khalifa did not exist when the sons of Sheikh Amadou Bamba were alive. The first khalifa of the third generation decided to have a spokesperson, who is a family member. The current spokesperson is a young, brilliant, well-spoken person. He’s very open-minded and very diplomatic. He has many responsibilities and those include relationships with the government. There is also an unofficial spokesperson whose work is more informal and who deals with the khalifa’s personal affairs. He is also a family member. The person who is now in that position was with the current khalifa even before he became the khalifa.
How do you see the Mouride networks working in the cities as opposed to the rural areas? In the rural areas, many issues center around the land and agriculture. How does it work in the cities?
The migration phenomenon began with the drought. The Mourides had focused on agriculture and peanuts, with an economy entirely based on cultivating groundnuts. But with the droughts starting in the 1970s, people started to come to the cities to look for jobs. Some of them stayed in the cities, but some continued and moved abroad. In Dakar, you see many Mourides in the markets and in retail and tailor shops that sell all sorts of devices. It’s rare to find people from Dakar in the markets. It’s Mourides, from our area. Outside Senegal, Italy was the main destination because no visas were needed in 1980s. They keep their relationships with the community in the city.
Was that pattern of migration planned or did it just happen?
It just happened because people had to look for alternatives to peanuts. Normally, in our traditional training, you finish the daara and then you go work either on the plantation or whatever. You have to go work. That is how you begin your life.
How did so many Mourides settle in New York?
It was also not hard to get visas at that particular time. New York was the first stop, and then they moved on to other cities like Cincinnati and Chicago. In New York, there’s a little Senegal with shops. When I or other members of my family visit, we do religious missions in visiting the diaspora. Whenever I go, I contact them.
How do you see the structure changing? How are the senior leaders thinking about what it means to be a Mouride, both from the spiritual and the practical vantage points? What are the debates? What are the challenges?
Many family members and leaders are aware of the changes taking place in Senegal and the world, and the need to adapt. But they are very keen on keeping their values while being open to the world and modernization. They say that every day in the ceremonies on the radio. My uncle who has a charge linked to anything dealing with the spiritual aspects of the community, assigned by the khalifa, always reminds people to go back to Allah. He urges them to be content with the minimum and not to be too greedy. He’s aware of the changes and stresses them constantly. Life is changing and we should not forget about our foundations. They also have their fears and sometimes express them openly. But they carry on. As I said earlier, they also have formulated plans for the future. They foresaw the changes that are now taking place. That’s why they sent members of the family to school to prepare for this. But they want everyone to keep to the premises of the faith while adapting to the changes.
How is Touba, now a huge Mouride city, run? What is the structure?
Back in colonial times, when the khalifa returned from exile, the French titled Touba to him as his private property. The khalifa has a say in everything, whatever is happening. There is now a debate about the national law on parity that highlights the dilemma of Touba’s special status. The government is acknowledging that at the end of the day it must recognize that Touba has a special status. It has not yet been formalized, but they are moving towards formalizing it.
Though Touba is Senegal’s second largest city, it still feels like a big village. We could claim more funding if we claimed it as a city, but we’re not doing that.
How do the Mourides handle the money and the contributions that come in? There are decisions to be made, such as how much goes toward construction on the mosque. Who decides?
It’s the khalifa. The money is sent by the dahiras and organizations and it goes to the khalifa. He decides what to do with it, but often he has aides and advisors. But the ultimate word comes from him. In general, the priority is the extension of the mosque. That’s spiritual. Then the hospital and roads; the roads have improved a lot.
There are commissions with administrative responsibilities, for example education and health. Each tends to be assigned by the khalifa to a branch of the family (there are 12 families). Each is responsible for a different area. One of the grandsons travels within the diaspora. He’s like the minister of foreign affairs. We all do it. We all travel, but he’s the main one.
How well is it known how many Mourides live outside Senegal?
We are seeing the same phenomenon of migration in the neighboring countries. Côte d’Ivoire was the first because of the prosperity there. That was around the time of the droughts. Côte d’Ivoire has the largest Muslim Mouride community. South Africa comes next, with migration that has grown since the transition from Apartheid in 1994. And then Togo, Guinea-Conakry (to a lesser extent), and Mali. In some places some locals have become Mourides, but not very many.
From your Mouride spiritual training, how would you describe the approach to health? Is it personal health? Is there a specific spiritual tradition?
Both are relevant. My grandfather, the khalifa, used to say that it was important to combine both modern medicine and spiritual healing, prayers. He would tell people, “Come to me for prayers and then go to the doctor.” Here you have also the cultural approach to medicine. Some people will go to traditional healers. People come there and then they go to their sheikh for prayers. And then they go to their doctor.
How are schools and hospitals run?
Formally they are the responsibility of the khalifa, because government schools are still not allowed. There are integrated programs. The educational structures are run by sheikhs and marabouts themselves. We don’t have an official setup. The community-run schools are individual. They are trying to start a university where all the students will be taught, but to date the financing plan is not clearly defined.
How do African religious traditions fit with the Mouride approach? Are there griots in Touba?
Yes, but they’re not allowed to be very loud. The griots go to baptisms and weddings.
Can you explain the terms used to describe the various leaders?
Khalifa is in Arabic; it’s someone who succeeds someone. Sheikh is a title. I’m a sheikh. It can also be because of knowledge, like a scholar. Serigne is Wolof for sheikh. Marabout is the French name of a bird. It is not a term I like; serigne is better.
The imam in our context is usually nominated by the marabout. His role is to lead the prayers and the marabout can ask him to settle disputes. He just looks at the law, which is the Islamic sharia law, and applies it.
What other titles are used?
Sokhna is a Wolof word, the female equivalent of serigne. It is usually for someone who is a member of the family. So instead of serigne, she would be sokhna. She can also be given the title to note seniority, maybe age.
Can you give a sense of the hierarchy, especially now that you’re in the fourth generation with so many players?
Yes, this generation has many people. But there are no disputes about position: we don’t fight over it. Some of the generations didn’t have IDs, but they knew amongst themselves who is who and who is the elder. We now have IDs (and thus an official identity and birthdate), but we don’t need to use them because there’s consensus. We know the person.
The Mourides are known as being “king-makers,” meaning that they are very important politically. How are political roles changing?
As Mourides, we do not believe the situation has changed, in that we still have an important say in political matters. It is not formalized or direct, however. There was only one time that a khalifa gave direct instructions to vote for any specific candidate. But from the beginning, the Mouride khalifa has in some manner influenced the coming to power of a person. And the Mourides still believe that if you want to be president, you have to get the Mourides’ favor; to be liked by the Mourides. That’s what they believe. Politicians here, either those in power or those seeking it, always court the Mourides and seek their support. That’s what makes people believe that they are still very influential. They know of the discipline in the community; if the khalifa says something, everyone will listen. He doesn’t give instructions directly, but people can sense his will. If he is for someone, they can sense it. Obviously the most clear indicator would be whether that person was a Mouride or not, and pays his allegiance. However, there are many divisions among the Mourides, and in the last elections it did not go well. We missed the former khalifa, Serigne Saliou.
Can you summarize how the judicial system works within the Mourides?
There are sharia judges. It is usually the imam who plays that role. The khalifa can cancel any judgment because he puts the imams there. The imam is tasked to read the law. Touba is distinct. In the jurisdiction of Touba, the khalifa has the ultimate word on everything.
Can he condemn someone to death?
No. He won’t do that. He can’t. Because sharia law is not applied in those terms—just when it comes to civil disputes, like marriage. Either he can play the imam role himself or delegate to the imam. But it doesn’t come to cutting hands and killing people.
In the Senegalese constitution, there are qadi courts. They differ from the system in East Africa. They call it customary or religious courts or judges. People can resort to that system if they want. But the qadi can’t make a decision. If there’s consensus and they agree it’s okay, he can solve it with mediation. Otherwise, if the plaintiff agrees they can resort to the lay court.