Living Knowledge in West African Islam

The Sufi Community of Ibrāhīm Niasse


Living Knowledge in West African Islam examines the actualization of religious identity in the community of Ibrāhīm Niasse (d.1975, Senegal). With millions of followers throughout Africa and the world, the community arguably represents one of the twentieth century’s most successful Islamic revivals. Niasse’s followers, members of the Tijāniyya Sufi order, gave particular attention to the widespread transmission of the experiential knowledge (maʿrifa) of God. They also worked to articulate a global Islamic identity in the crucible of African decolonization.

The central argument of this book is that West African Sufism is legible only with an appreciation of centuries of Islamic knowledge specialization in the region. Sufi masters and disciples reenacted and deepened preexisting teacher-student relationships surrounding the learning of core Islamic disciplines, such as the Qurʾān and jurisprudence. Learning Islam meant the transformative inscription of sacred knowledge in the student’s very being, a disposition acquired in the master’s exemplary physical presence. Sufism did not undermine traditional Islamic orthodoxy: the continued transmission of Sufi knowledge has in fact preserved and revived traditional Islamic learning in West Africa.

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Zachary V. Wright, Ph.D. (2010), Northwestern University, is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at Northwestern University in Qatar. His previous publications have been in the field of African Islam, Sufism, and Islamic education. He translated a number of West African Arabic texts, and was the leading translator for Ibrāhīm Niasse’s renowned work on Sufism, the Kāshif al-ilbās or Removal of Confusion (Fons Vitae, 2010).

'Wright’s close reading of those sources is a particular strength. As an excellent arabist, he offers a fascinating and deep analysis of the doctrines and views of Ibrahim Niasse by looking at his collections of poems, theological treaties, and letters to disciples. Especially Niasse’s poetry is a useful source for the study of this Tijani community as acknowledged by many, however nobody before Wright has undertaken such a deep and systematic reading of Niasse’s poetry'.

Ousmane Kane, Harvard University, in Islamic Africa8 (2017), pp. 229-231
List of Illustrations
Note on Orthography

Theoretical Considerations
Embodiment and Subjectivity
Literature Review
Narrative Structure of the Book

Chapter 1: Clerical Communities in West African History
Enduring Learning Practices
Islamic Jurisprudence of the Mālikī School
Qurʾān Learning
Esoteric Sciences
Muslim Scholars in West African Social History
The Jihad of Ma Ba Diakhou
The Social Appeal of the New Marabout Communities

Chapter 2: A New Senegambian Clerical Community
The Niasse: Social and Intellectual Background
Ibrāhīm Niasse and the ‟Community of the Flood”

Chapter 3: Honored Disciples: The Cissé of the Saloum
ʿAbdallāh Niasse and the Cissé of Diossong
ʿAlī Cissé and Paradigmatic Discipleship

Chapter 4: Knowing God
On Spiritual Training
Being Filled with God
The Prophet Muḥammad, Mirror of God
Aḥmad al-Tijānī and Divine Cognizance

Chapter 5: Understanding Sufi Discipleship
Assuring the Aspirants
Conduct of the Disciple
Qualities of the Spiritual Guide
Disciple Perspectives

Chapter 6: The Adaptation of Traditional Learning Practices
Maintaining the Sanad Tradition
Adopting the Madrasa
Maintaining the Learning Circles
Strategies of Structural Adaptation

Chapter 7: Cognizance and the Revival of the Islamic Sciences
Qurʾān Learning and Knowing God
Sufism and Mālikī Jurisprudence in Medina-Baye
The Esoteric Sciences and Shaykh-Disciple Relations
Divine Cognizance and the Sufi Orders in West Africa

Chapter 8: Islam and African Decolonization: Community Solidarities and Distinctions
Islam and African Liberation
Islam and the Postcolonial Nation-State
A Vision of Global Islamic Solidarity


Bibliography and Sources

All interested in Islamic intellectual history in West Africa, and traditional Islamic learning and revival more broadly. Also: anyone interested in contemporary Sufism, or in the community of Ibrāhīm Niasse.

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