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Sufism as Political Islam in Africa: Recent Developments – Mawlana Dr Muhammad Ashraf E Dockrat

November 9, 2017


Sufism as Political Islam in Africa: Recent Developments

By Mawlana Dr Muhammad Ashraf E Dockrat

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 22 (November 2017) 

Political Islamism in Africa is well documented. Ali Mazrui coined the term “Shariacracy” to speak of the phenomenon as it appeared in Nigeria and other scholars from the continent and beyond have identified tendencies of Wahhabi-Salafi expressions of the faith in other parts of Africa. Researchers have also recently identified the link between Sufism and politics in the faith and practice of African Muslims.

Sufism has been described broadly as the tendency among Muslims to strive for a personal engagement with the Divine Reality. Frequently Sufis and Sufi tariqahs have come under attack due to the social and political influence that Sufi teachers wield for a number of reasons, including the fact they often threatened the power and privileges of the jurists and even the rulers. Religious opponents of Sufism were happy to claim that their excesses represented Sufism’s true nature. The rivalry and controversies between Sufism and its legalist and conservative detractors go back to the early epochs of Muslim history. The rise and spread of Islamist political movements have been topics of focal concern for scholars and analysts in recent decades. Scant attention has been paid to the reactions generated within the larger Islamic community toward the Islamist groups and their militant offshoots. There are real problems and instabilities in many regions with majority Islamic populations and the nature of these problems largely emerge out of the current political, economic and strategic situation of these societies. An unnoticed source of reaction to political Islamism is the nebulous confraternity of Sufi orders (turuq) whose mysticism and esoteric beliefs and practices have set them apart from the exoteric revivalism and political activism of the Islamist societies. The study of Sufi Islam in 21st century politics asks what has made Sufism successful and effective at managing religious pluralism and ethnic and regional diversity in places as varied as Senegal, the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, and India. Studies in pluralism in Sufi thought and practices have taken regional foci such as Senegalese Sufis – both in Senegal and in the West – and how they have occupied an alternative political space and developed a discourse on democratization and political involvement that is both different from and a response to radical Islam. A more recent development is the initiative of King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

The significance of Sufi brotherhoods on the continent may be gauged by the fact that in 2013 King Muhammad VI of Morocco convened a meeting of Muslim scholars (ulama) from Africa in Casablanca and launched the Council of African Ulama (religious scholars). This project of the Mohammed VI Foundation was established by the King of Morocco. Over two hundred participants drawn from twenty eight African countries were invited. Nigeria and Senegal and Mauritania had the highest number of participants drawn from the Tijanniyya brotherhood, academia, diverse Islamic organisations and accomplished imams and intellectuals of some strategic institutions and mosques around the country. On arrival in Morocco, participants were taken to Fez where they spent five days networking with diverse groups, visiting mosques, famous Islamic institutes, sufi zawiyya (retreats) and a nearby city of Ifram. The Muhammad VI Foundation for African Ulama, which was launched by HM King Muhammad VI has links with the Qarawiyyin University who is represented by the Vice President Dr Fassi Fihri Driss, who is a direct descendant of the founder, Fatima al-Fihri and Shaykh Mortada al-Boumashouli who is the Imam of the Qarawiyyin Masjid.

The Muhammad VI Foundation for African Ulama was established to showcase the efforts made by African scholars in literature, custom, teachings and the maintenance of Islamic values and tradition which was built over centuries through a legacy and relationship between Morocco and thirty African countries. One of their projects was dedicated towards empowering women across Morocco through a project of reciting, memorizing and understanding the Quran. This mammoth project produced 70 000 female graduates each of whom produced a unique handwritten copy of the Qur’an.

The mission of the Foundation is that it should serve as an institution for cooperation, for the exchange of experiences and for the Ulama to make concerted efforts to “fulfill their duty and turn a spotlight on the true image of the pristine Islamic faith as well as on its open-minded values, which are based on moderation, tolerance and coexistence”.

“My decision to create this institution has nothing to do with transient circumstances or narrow, passing interests,” the Moroccan monarch underlined. This initiative is rather in line with an “integrated policy to promote constructive cooperation and respond to the requests from a number of sister African nations in the religious domain,” he noted. It is envisaged that the Foundation will play its role in disseminating “enlightened religious precepts and in combating extremism, reclusiveness and terrorism – which our faith does not embrace in any way – but which are advocated by some clerics, in the name of Islam.”


Mawlana Dr Muhammad Ashraf E Dockrat is a teacher of Qur’anic Studies, Arabic lexicography and the Muslim intellectual heritage at the Jami’ah al-Ulum al-Islamiyyah; an institute for graduate Islamic studies in Johannesburg. He is also the Director of the Dar al-Salam Islamic Research Centre. 


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