Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Friday, May 7, 2021

 The Female Scholars and Saints of Senegal - Mustafa Briggs -

When talking about the history and legacy of Islam in West Africa, many people are now discovering the vast scholarly legacy of the Islamic tradition in the region, from the ancient universities of Sankore and Djenne in Mali, to the intellectual and spiritual centres in Sokoto and Kano. One of the main pillars that has lead to the strength and spread of Islam in West Africa, and the continued power and positive influence it has over millions of people in the region, is the essential role that women do, and must have, within this scholarly tradition. 

Looking through the history books we see the names of many illustrious scholars and saints such as Nana Asma’u Dan Fodio, Khadija bint Muhammad al-Daymaniya, Tut bint al-Tah, Khadijah al-Shinqitiya across places like ancient Mali, Mauritania and northern Nigeria, and countless others who have been the backbone of the Muslim community in Africa, responsible for teaching and training of thousands, both male and female. However in this article I want to focus specifically on what I feel is a very understudied portion of the West African Islamic narrative, and at the same time, the one that moulded and shaped my own personal experience of Islam and journey in spirituality and scholarship: the female scholars and saints of Senegal.

Senegal, which lies on the westernmost coast of Africa, has a 92% Muslim population, and Islam has been in the region for over a thousand years, becoming the official state religion of the Takrur Empire in the north of the country in the 1030’s prior to colonisation. Sufi brotherhoods then expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries with French colonisation, as people turned to religious authority rather than the colonial administration after the breakdown of their traditional kingdoms and empires. This gave rise to an interesting semi-theocracy of these sufi brotherhoods, which maintained vast amounts of power and authority in the country after independence.

Amongst the most prominent of these, the Muridiya movement, started by Shaykh Ahmad Bamba (1850–1927), and the Tijaniya movement, with Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900–1975) being the most widely recognised and influential leader within the latter movement internationally, stand out. In this article, I want to take a look at the female scholars and saints who formed the backbone of these two movements in the country (playing vital roles in the lives of these scholars and their communities) to show the influence female scholarship and sainthood had (and continues to have) within West African Islam.

Female scholars and saints of the Muridiya movement

Shaykh Ahmad Bamba Mbacke was born in 1853 in the village of MbackéBaol, the son of Mame Mor Anta Saly Mbacke, who served as the qadi in the court of Lat Dior Diop, the Damel (King) of Cayor, a Wolof state that is today in south central Sénégal. His mother, Mame Diarra Busso came from a scholarly and prestigious family, and was the daughter of a woman called Mame Asta (Aisha) Waalo, the first female scholar and saint we will look at.Mame Asta was a renowned expert in the science of Maliki fiqh and had her own madrasa which  hosted hundreds of students, both male and female, who she taught herself. The curriculum for her school began with complete memorisation of the Noble Quran, and then went on to an intense programme focussing on the primary texts of the Maliki school. The crops she produced on her farm, ensure the madrasa was self sufficient, and In Shaykh Ahmad Bamba’s youth, the young future Shaykh was sent to live with his grandmother in order to be initiated into the Islamic sciences. He began his Qur’an studies with his grandmother before completing it with his maternal uncle Muhammad Busso and then his grandmother’s brother Tafsir Mbacke Ndumbe.

Mame Asta, aside from being an expert in the outward sciences, was also a Shaykha in the Tijani spiritual path. She helped contribute to Shaykh Ahmad Bamba’s spiritual development, instilling in him the love for dhikr and seclusion from a young age. Her grave in the city of Nawel has become a place of ziyara (pilgrimage), alongside that of her daughter, Mame Diarra Busso in Porokhane.

The grave of Mame Diarra Busso (1833–1866) attracts hundreds of thousands of people annually at her magal (annual pilgrimage). It is the only such event dedicated to a female saint in Senegal, and possibly Africa as a whole. She was one of the top teachers at her mother’s madrasa, and it is reported that over 50 students memorised the Noble Quran under her guardianship at the school before her marriage to Shaykh Ahmad Bamba’s father. She was known for her advanced expertise in the Maliki fiqh text Mukhtasar Khalil.Shaykh Ahmad Bamba, having growing up in such an environment and being raised by such women, continued the tradition with his own daughters, all of whom memorised the Quran, and many going onto become scholars in their own right.  Amongst them is Shaykha Muslimatou Mbacke, commonly known as Sokhna Mously, who memorised the Quran at a young age and later became a scholar, poet and businesswoman. She specialised in the Sira of the Prophet (saw) which she taught to both men and women, and is famous amongst her father’s community for authoring a hagiographic poem detailing his life.Another famous daughter of his is Shaykha Maimouna al-Kabir who wrote close to twenty copies of the Quran from memory and offered them as a gift to her father. Her life had been interconnected with the Quran to such a level that she married her first husband as a result of them both offering a Quran, written from memory, to the Shaykh on the same day. Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba saw this as a testament of their similitude and, as such, married them as a result of the common love and attachment to the Quran they both shared. On another occasion, as she was presenting one of her handwritten copies of the Quran to her father, someone entered the room and informed him of the birth of his youngest daughter. In Senegalese society, one of the greatest ways in which you can show your esteem for another person is by naming your child after them, and so, due to his appreciation of the Quran that he received from his daughter, he named the new baby Maimouna, and she grew up being known as Maimouna as-Saghir (small Maimouna).

Maimouna Saghir grew up to love the Quran, master it’s sciences and, later in her life, found her own small town on the outskirts of her father’s city of Touba, where she built a mosque and madrasa which was attended by thousands of students. She is, however, mostly known for establishing and annually sponsoring the celebration of Laylatul Qadr on the 27th night of Ramadan in Touba, which grew to attract hundreds of thousands of people from across the country. Until her death in 2000, she would feed all the guests who came to celebrate on this night, and host Quran and qasida recitations in her village.

Female scholars and saints of the Tijani movement

Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, of Kaolack, Senegal, who once stated in a public address in his native language of Wolof that, “Women are something great and magnificent in the sight of God.. so we should not neglect our female children, we should respect them, because these girls will grow up to become the women who raise and train mankind tomorrow” also instilled similar values in his daughters and ensured that all of them memorised the Quran and mastered the Islamic sciences.He once stated that there was no book that he had studied in his youth that his wife Asta Daoud Niasse had not also studied, and their eldest child Fatima Zahra Niasse, who was trained along with her sisters in all of the major Islamic Sciences after memorising the Quran, stated that she remembers her father and teacher, Shaykh al-Islam Ibrahim Niasse ordering her and the other women of the community to leave household chores and instead study works of classical history, poetry, and Arabic grammar with him, alongside her brothers. This pedagogy is well reflected in her children, the late Shaykh Imam Hassan Cisse, Shaykh Tidiane Alioune Cisse (awarded by Muslim 500 a position in the top 20 most influential Muslims in the world) and Shaykh Mahy Cisse.Shaykha Ruqayya Niasse, Shaykha Fatima’s immediate younger sister, is a known scholar and author who has worked with The Jimmy Carter Foundation on projects regarding female empowerment in Africa. Her books ‘Primary Education of the Muslim Children’, ‘Motherly Advice for the Muslim Girls’ and ‘Rights of Women in Islam’ have been spread across Africa and used as textbooks in curriculums at traditional Islamic schools across West Africa. They have also recently been translated from Arabic into French and English. She was sent on missions by her father to teach communities of men and women across West Africa in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and in one letter that he wrote, he told her “I forbid ignorant and greedy people to travel. As for you, you are authorised! Wherever you step foot shall be a blessed place” and in another, he prayed “May God bless anybody who takes knowledge from her, even if it is a single letter!” Shaykha Maryam Niasse, another daughter of Shaykh Ibrahim,  is also known in Senegal for her famous Quran School in the Capital city Dakar, which opened in the 1950’s and has seen tens of thousands of students from all over West Africa and the Arab world, studying and memorising the Quran and other Islamic sciences. She was very close to her father Sheikh al-Islam Ibrahim Niasse who used to take her along with him on his travels, which allowed her to build strong relationships with many kings and presidents in the Arab world, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Hassan II of Morocco. Al Jazeera also interviewed and made a documentary about her, which can be viewed .

Full Paper PDF:


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home