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Religion and Transnational Migration in the Sahel

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Religion and Transnational Migration in the Sahel

A project led by Abdoulaye Kane

Human mobility in the Sahel

The Sahel as a region faces a very difficult socio-economic situation. It is therefore not surprising to see growing human mobility, involving less skilled as well as highly skilled workers, as people search for greener pastures in Africa and in Europe. In fact, most migration in the Sahel takes place within countries between rural areas, secondary urban centers, and capital cities. But the mobility between Sahelian countries is also very important and is often a step in the trajectory of West African migration from capital cities to other African countries, and then on to Europe or North America. The globalization process has deeply affected the Sahel; like all major world areas of outmigration Sahelian societies are now connected through continuous flows of people, money, goods, and ideas to major destinations of international migration.

Religion and transnationalism

From a religious perspective, however, transnationalism is hardly a new phenomenon in the Sahel, a region which has historically been a crossroads and a meeting place of various cultures, languages, and nationalities. Transnationalism has been experienced in the Sahel since medieval times, when major African empires brought small political entities into larger political assemblages integrating various ethno-national identities. The arrival of Islam broadened the transnational spaces beyond the Sahel to the rapidly growing Islamic territories in North Africa, Southern Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean. The creation of Islamic education centers along the border areas between the Sahel and the Sahara, as well as the waging of jihads and development of trade made the Sahel a cosmopolitan Islamic space with constant flows of scholars, students, traders, goods (including slaves), and along with these the exchange of ideas and religious influences.

The major Sufi orders in the region, first the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya and Mouridiyya later, have established themselves as genuine transnational religious organizations with followers across the Sahel and beyond. All of these orders have established learning centers, sites of pilgrimages, and matrimonial alliances that cut across the Sahel, North Africa, and the Middle East. With the growing presence of followers of these Sufi orders in Europe and North America, the transnational networks and circuits—and especially those of the the Mouridiyya and the Tijaniyya–have been extended to these places.

Religious practices and new technologies

The use of new technologies of travel and communication have redefined the relations between followers in the West and their religious leaders in the Sahel, as well as their connections to symbolic religious sites such as Fez in Morocco, or Tivaouane, Kaolack, Touba, Mbour, or Nioro in Senegal. Annual religious events in Senegal, such as the Magal of Touba, the Gamou of Tivaoune or of Kaolack, and the Daha of Medina Gounass, are streamed live to followers around the world through the internet. At the same time, religious leaders travel regularly to meet their followers in the West, where they have established annual religious events which parallel the major annual events within their communities in Senegal. The celebration of Cheikh Amadou Bamba Day in New York, the annual Tijani Gamous across the United States and Europe, and the celebration of the Daha in Mantes-La-Jolie France are perfect example of the reproduction of Sahelian—notably Senegalese—religious practices in host country contexts.

Our objectives

The Religious and transnational migration research project aims to explore both the continuities and the transformations in the practice of transnationalism through Sufi religious networks in the Sahelian region, with a particular focus on Senegal. The project builds on over a decade of research by Abdoulaye Kane on Senegalese transnational communities in Europe and the United States. With support from (Codesria and UF FEO), it has entailed multi-sited/translocal and transnational ethnographic work, traveling with religious communities from Senegal, to Morocco, and on to Europe. His research highlights the importance of transnational religious circuits in the building of Sahelian diasporic communities in the West and their enduring connections to local religious places in the Senegal.

Our findings

Research to date suggests the importance of transnational connections in the resistance of the Sufi Orders to Islamic Fundamentalisms, both at home and abroad. In the Western context, the frequent visits of Sahelian shaykhs to their followers are part of a strategic effort to “immunize” their followers against Salafi ideas and influences, precisely in the places where they tend to blossom. At home, meanwhile, followers are called upon to provide funding for religious activities and the construction of Mosques that are intended to counter the influence of Saudi and other Gulf state funds that may buy religious influence in poor Muslim countries.

Tijani Transnationalism in Fez: A Case Study

As part of Abdoulaye Kane’s larger project on the transnational religious circuits of the Tijaniyya, the case study on Tijani transnationalism in the Moroccan city of Fez, where the tomb of the Sufi order’s founder is located, is of particular relevance to the Sahel Study group. Fez is the most important meeting place for thousands of Tijani followers from around the world. The Tijani disciples from the Sahel, especially Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger are by far the most important group of pilgrims in Fez around the year. Increasingly, different branches of the Tijaniyya in West Africa organize collective pilgrims to Fez under the leadership of Sahelian shaykhs, their deputies, and disciples in both the Sahel and the Diaspora. Kane’s research in Fez has focused primarily on the significance of Fez in the building of transnational religious circuits by Tijani Sahelian shaykhs and their followers in the diaspora.

The research project explores the various practices by Sahelian pilgrims in Fez around the three sources of baraka (blessings) in the Tijani Zawiya. The first source is of course the tomb of the founder of the tariqa (Sufi order) which is always surrounded by pilgrims respectfully reciting the ritual 70 “Salatul Fatiha,” one of the major litanies of the tariqa. For the pilgrims organized around a shaykh and his deputies, the prayers around the tomb can linger for an hour after each daily prayer. The Senegalese Shaykh Baro and his group, for example, recite 1000 Salatul Fatiha around the tomb after each prayer. The tomb is also a place for personal communion between the founder and each pilgrim, who can offer special prayers for himself and his family in the saint’s presence. He can formulate demand of divine intervention through the Baraka of Ahmad Al Tijani in his personal or family problems (Health, professional, migration, etc…)

The second source of baraka, is through the bloodline of the founder, Ahmad Al Tijani. Pilgrims to Fez come to request prayers and give hadiya (monetary gifts) to the descendants of the founder in the hope of harnessing baraka. The grandsons of Ahmad Al Tijani are usually seated in different parts of the Zawiya to offer blessings and prayers for pilgrims. The relations of pilgrims to the Tijani family are an ambivalent combination of hope, fear, and defiance. Although most pilgrims give hadiya freely, some pilgrims feel pressure to give money especially from the younger Tijani descendents. Clearly the hadiya is a very important source of revenue to the Tijani family, although some of the grandsons reject the practice of positioning themselves in the Zawiya to collect money The shaykhs who organize the collective pilgrimages from the diaspora maintain a very important relationship with the Tijani families. They are crucial in mobilizing important sums of hadiya money by convincing—and sometimes forcing—their disciples to give more, reminding them that the more you give the more baraka you receive.

The third source of baraka is water from the well that was dug by the funder of the Tijaniyya, and is likened by pilgrims to the zam zam water in Mecca. Pilgrims interviewed in Fez have claimed that a special pipe connectted Shaykh Tijani’s well with the zam zam spring in Mecca. For pilgrims, this water is of course blessed and unlike other sources of baraka has the advantage that it can be transported home from the Zawiya, and used in a variety of occasions to heal, protect, and bring success to the pilgrims and their families and friends. There are a number of practices for the materialization of baraka that pilgrims engaged in. One of them is to put the water from the well into bottles that are then placed next to the tomb of Ahmad Al Tijani for a night. Other pilgrims bring their bottles filled with water from the well to the Friday Hadarat rituals, during which Tijani believe the prophet Mohamad, his companions and Shaykh Tijani are in attendance, thus intending to capture the blessing flowing from these distinguished guests. Other practices include students placing their books next to the tomb of Ahmad al Tijani in hopes that they will be inspired to understand their contents more easily.

Another important element examined by the field research in Fez is the performance by Senegalese shaykhs of what amounts to “karamat,” (miracles) by revealing their visions of the founder of the Tijaniyya in a state of wakefulness. To increase the admiration of the deputies and disciples, the shaykh can triangulate the visions so as to have someone confirm their spiritual gifts and abilities. Thus, during the annual pilgrimage of the Baro Senegalese religious family in Fes in 2011. Cheikh Baro, the caliph of the family, proclaimed to his deputies and disciples that they had been welcomed to Fez by Shaykh Tijani himself. He started to appear to him in a state of wakefulness since their arrival in the Casablanca airport. Then adding to the mystery, he pointed his finger at an old deputy in the group and said “Tierno Aly has seen Shaykh Tijani.” Surprised, Tierno Aly admitted this, but wondered how Cheikh Baro was informed of his visions since he had not revealed them to anyone. The crowd cheered the exceptional abilities of their religious guide. Such performances are crucial to reinforcing the religious authority of Senegalese Shaykh in the eyes of his followers, and hence to the strengthening of the transnational networks sustained by the order.


Kane, A., Leedy, T. H. (eds) (2013). African Migrations: Patterns and Perspectives. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Kane, A. 2012. “Haalpulaar Migrants’ Home Connections: Travel and Communication Circuits.”. In H.P. Hahn & K. Kastner (eds) Urban Life-Worlds in Motion: African Perspectives, Transcript Verlag: 187-206

Kane, A. 2010. “Global Connections in a Sufi Order: Roots and Routes of the Medina Gounass Tijaniyya.” International symposium on “Religion and Migration.” Institute of African Studies. Rabat, Morocco, 25-27 November.