Sufi Orders in West Africa: Social Contexts and Political Roles

2 March 2022

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies released a new book on 1 March 2022, entitled At-Turuq as-Sufiya fi Gharb Ifriqiya: As-Siyaqat al-Ijtima’iya wa al-Adwar as-Siyasiya (Sufi Orders in West Africa: Social Contexts and Political Roles), authored by a group of researchers and edited by Sidi Ahmed Ould Lemir, researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies specialised in African affairs.

The book’s approach seeks a number of objectives, including the examination of the formation of Sufi paths, orders, sheikhs and murids in their historical, geographic and political context in West Africa as well as their interaction with the neighbouring Maghreb region. It also presents the features of Sufi orders’ interaction with the dynamics of social and political change in this region.

Additionally, the book explains the manifestations of the ties established by Sufi orders between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa without neglecting the role that Sufism could play in West Africa as an alternative to “extremist” Islamist movements.

The chapters of the book are divided into three main parts: Sufism in West Africa: The Historical and Social Context, Sufi Orders in West Africa: Internal Mainstays and Regional Stakes, and The Future of Sufi Orders in West Africa.

After it presents aspects of the life of Sufi orders in Maghreb and West African countries, the book argues that Sufi orders have strong ties to the history and traditions of these countries and a decisive effect on the lives of their populations. In fact, it argues that they have contributed to education and economic, social and cultural development, and continue to play the role of mediation in social and political life regardless of the challenges they face. The most prominent of these challenges are the need to develop its leadership and educational system, the miserable conditions experienced in the regions they spread to, and the relationship between these regions and international partners with liberal capitalist ideology as well as the deteriorating security conditions.

The book also maintains that Sufi orders in the regions covered in its study are experiencing a crisis manifested in their outdated traditions, methods that do not correspond with the times, and inability to present an alternative on which a new social contract that can resolve the complex burdens of life can be built. The Sufi orders, it asserts, are in dire need of rectifying themselves with a sense of revival that combines authenticity and modernity.

Furthermore, the book stresses that Sufi orders are called upon to play a role in the advancement and economic reform of the countries in which they are located in order to create a viable environment for investment and overcome the defects inherited decades ago. They could also play an effective role through Sufi economic values in the public space to diminish corruption, the greatest hindrance to development, and rebuild humans in these states through self-accountability, ascetism, keenness on lawful earning, abstemiousness in expenditure, avoidance of extravagance and waste, self-reliance, the denouncement of the misuse of public funds. This is because warning against bribes, corruption and unlawful earning, and treating these fatal diseases, according to the book, are enough to create a comprehensive developmental renaissance; and this is a mainstay in the path of reform in countries where the majority of the population is Sufi and sheikhs are revered and obeyed.

Similarly, the book stresses that “Sufi media” can play various educational and spiritual roles in light of the media models and experiences in Senegal, Mali and, to some degree, Mauritania as Sufi orders in these countries have invested in media and modern media technology in pursuit of influence on the points of view of decision-makers, individuals and other political and religious groups that have perturbed them for decades.

Among the challenges the book delves deep into is the challenge of Salafist groups and groups of “political Islam” that confront Sufi orders in the areas of their influence. It contends that it is still possible to bridge the gap and build trust between Sufi orders and these groups if the groups adopt an inclusive political approach and the orders are able to push new generations of sheikhs that look beyond their immediate interests and realise the need of their countries and societies for a Sufi approach in which it adopts positions that sway towards national constants instead of partisan political conflict or a professional political position that is not accompanied by control from outside, as all of this is a condition for the development of the democratic experience in these countries.

Finally, the book presents a vision of how Sufi orders can endure, adapt and renew themselves and how their leaders can contain the aforementioned challenges and negotiate with other social components on the impact of this new situation and its players so that it does not lose the role it had played in the political field.

The book can be downloaded and read (in Arabic) here.