Linguistic Resistance in the Murid Speech Community in Senegal
Department of French
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA
The Murids form a community in which Islamic beliefs, linguistic behaviors, and patterns of conduct are associated with resistance against colonialism. The use of European-like linguistic or behavioral characteristics (especially French) are disapproved of in the community as they are equated with imperialism, while the use of pure Wolof or Wolof with Arabic influence are highly desired as they represent symbols of belonging to the community. This paper examines the religious and linguistic behavior of the Murid brotherhood in Touba, Senegal. It argues that the patterns of behavior found in thecommunity are idiosyncratic of the brotherhood, and set apart Murids from other religious groups.
First, this study discusses the history of French colonization in Senegal, and underscores theideological, political, and economic motives used to justify colonization. Second, the paper examines the birth context of Muridism, and shows how Murid practices, and way of life have been used as means of anti-colonial resistance and assertion of Murid African identity. Finally, the paper argue that, unlike other forms of resistance against French assimilation and domination in Africa, Muridism represents one of the few non-violent resistance movements, which have survived the sundry traps of the French colonial authority in sub-Saharan Africa.
1. Historical background
Senegal is one of the oldest French colonies in West Africa. The country came into contact with France in the early 17th century, when French commercial companies started trading at the mouth of the river Senegal, first entered by Europeans in 1445 (Crowder, 1962:7). The systematic colonial economic exploitation of Senegal dates back to the first half of the 19th century. The history of Senegal from the 16th to the middle of the 19th century was essentially characterized by slavery, which disorganized the structure of the existing kingdoms and created a state of anarchy in the country. The abolition of slavery resulted in the development of modern economic infrastructures in the country as the trading of agricultural products such as groundnuts in Senegal replaced the slave trade. Thus the production of groundnuts has remained the principal economic product for France in Senegal since 1840 (Niang, 1999:3). By 1960 (independence date of the country), Senegal has become the major French commercial and industrial colony of West Africa as French companies from Bordeaux (specializing in exportation of modern goods from the metropole such as textile, cars etc.) and from Marseilles (specializing in groundnut business, oil production, soap etc.) settled in the Island of Gorée and Saint-Louis, Senegal. Given the geographical location of Senegal in West Africa, the country was considered to be a crucial geo-political and economic point for the economic exploitation and political domination of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus a pivotal place that could benefit the French assimilation agenda in sub-Saharan Africa. Although Senegal was the most industrialized and more economically prepared country in French speaking Africa in the1960s, ironically there was not one locally owned industry. And, with the exception of a few Senegalese who were given minor positions as negotiators in commerce (such as Galandou Diouf, Sourang Massourang etc.), no Senegalese national was given a position with responsibility for the economic or industrial management of the country. These positions were in the hands of the French and their principal collaborators: the Lebanese immigrants in Senegal. Consequently, the industrialization of Senegal was essentially geared to meet the economic needs of the metropole. Due to the acknowledged importance of Senegal in the colonization of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the objects and the means devised by the French political system for the success of the so-called ‘French civilization mission in Africa’ (a justification of a politically and economically motivated action) were diverse and multidimensional in Senegal.
Language, politics, ideology and culture have played a fundamental role in the overall planning and implementation of the direct assimilation agenda in Africa in general, and Senegal in particular. The majors political goals of the French assimilation agenda in Senegal can be summarized as follows: 1.To enter the minds of the colonized people via French language and culture through the creation of French schools such as ‘l’école des fils de chefs’ (the school for the children of chiefs). 2. To encourage the settlement of missionaries for the preaching of the Bible in French, and close Muslim schools which existed before the French colonization (as their teachings were believed to be contrary to the agenda of the French colonial government) (Diop, 1989:23). 3. To destroy local ‘primitive’ cultures and ‘dialects’. 4. To control the land, the manpower, the political power, and finally alienate culturally and linguistically the local people. These objectives were reached to a great extent, since in 1886 Senegal was almost completely conquered, most traditional chiefs defeated, but some of them maintained in power for the service of the French authority (Babou, 1999: 4). This situation created a gap between some Africans and their own Afrosyncracy (their identity) as they developed an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the French. The achievement of such goals of the French assimilation agenda in Senegal has resulted in the expansion of the French political domination and economic exploitation of the country.
The methods and attitudes of the French colonial government in Africa and the political and linguistic history of France in Europe and in Africa show that the belief of the cultural, linguistic, political and civilizational superiority of France constitute some of the underlying motives that account for the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. Language was seen as a crucial means for the achievement of the goals of French colonization in sub-Saharan Africa. The recognition of the importance of language as a means of social, political, ideological and economic domination is well illustrated in the political and linguistic history of France. In fact, the prescribed French variety (the prestigious dialect of the Island of France) was for long regarded as the language of the ‘best people’, ‘the most powerful’, ‘the smartest’ in the 17th century, namely the king and his court. This belief ultimately led to the creation of the French Academy in 1639 for the preservation of the so-called ‘purity’ of the prestigious variety: standard French.
However, during the revolution in the 18th century, there was a conceptual shift of these mythological beliefs associated with standard French as it was considered to be the language of ‘reason and logic’ (Lodge,1999:236). Despite these slight semantic shifts in the beliefs associated with standard French from the 17th century to the 18th century, the myth associated with French is that of the ‘brightest culture’ and ‘civilization’ in the world. Hence the French saw it as their moral duty to spread it in the world. Such an ideological, linguistic and cultural loyalty of the French political system vis-à-vis standard French accounts for the various political measures adopted by the French political system to monitor the French language, preserve its ‘purity’ against potential corruption, and to promote its status in the world, especially in the colonized areas since the 17th century. Thus the biased view of standard French as ‘the best language’ in the world (which implies that French people and their culture are the best in the world) represents one of the major reasons which have motivated French political system to conduct the so-called ‘civilization mission’ of Africa which should actually have been termed the ‘Planned African Glotto-Cultophagia mission’ (a well planned mission for the destruction of African languages and cultures). African languages were regarded as sub-languages (inferior), unable to express deep philosophical thoughts in opposition to French, a supra-language (superior), the ideal language for the expression of logical thoughts and abstract constructs (Ngom,1999:33). It is obvious that such ideological assumptions associated with the French language and culture purposefully undermined the complexities and intricacies of African arts, religions, architecture, textile productions, cultures and civilizations that existed (in Egypt, Timbuktu, Songhai, Ghana, Mande Empire etc.) thousands of years before the Europeans ‘discovered’ Africa.
Thus various African intellectuals disagreed with such unscientific mythological thoughts associated with the French language. Following are some Senegalese intellectuals who remarkably reacted against such views of the superiority of French culture, language and people as a justification of colonization. Professor Sheikh Anta Diop’s translation of the Theory of Relativity into Wolof, and Professor Sakhir Thiam’s translation of mathematical programs into Wolof (Bokamba, 1987:2) are evidence of the ability of African languages to convey not only African cosmogony, but also modern western scientific and mathematical thoughts. Similarly, the journalist Ahmed Bachir Kunta avoided using French words in his discourse, preferring to use pure Wolof, or coining new Wolof lexical units to express new constructs in the modern world (Swigart, 1994:179). These reactions of African intellectuals against the ideology behind the French language imposition in African countries are evidence of the adverse response against French authority in Senegal by certain social groups.
The fight against French imperialism has taken two major forms in Senegal:
Active (military) resistance and Passive resistance. The active resistance was the method used by certain kings (Lat Joor Ngone Latyr Diop, Alboury Ndiaye etc.) and religious leaders (Cheikh Omar Foutiyou Tall, Maba Diakhou Ba etc.) who used military forces against the French colonial government. Due to the military and technological superiority of France, most of the proponents of this form of resistance were defeated. The passive resistance was used by Aline Sitowe Jaata (the queen of the Joola ethnic group of the southern part of Senegal known as Casamance) and Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba (the pathfinder of the Islamic brotherhood of Muridism in Senegal). Of all the passive resistance against imperialism, Bamba’s resistance can be said to have been the most successful in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the French culture has tremendously penetrated the Senegalese society today, Touba (the holy city of the Murid brotherhood) is the only city in the country in which the French language is the least prestigious of the linguistic varieties spoken in the city. The following section provides a clear analysis of the speech community of Touba and demonstrates the successful use of language and religious behavioral patterns of Muridism as a means of resistance against the French colonial forces.
2. Muridism as a means of anti-colonial resistance
Muridism as a Sunni Islamic brotherhood was born in a context of anti-colonial struggle against French authority in Senegal. It is derived from the Qadriya Sufi brotherhood of Sheikh Abdul Quadre Jaylaani. Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba (who was born in 1850 and died in 1927) was known as a spiritual guide under the name of Xaadimu Rasuul also spelled as Khadimu Rassoul (the servant of the prophet in Arabic) or Seriñ Touba (the marabout of Touba, the holy city of Muridism). The etymological meaning of the Arabic word ‘Murid’ refers to someone who is yearning for something. Thus, while in the ordinary language, ‘murid’ signifies one who is yearning for something (a disciple or a student), in the spiritual and mystical sense ‘Murid’ refers to a particular type of disciple who is heading straight to God. Muridism consists of a body of religious tenets, morals, behavioral and cultural practices that characterize a group of Senegalese Muslims. As a Sunni religious brotherhood of the Maalikit branch of Islam, Murids respect the following five core dogmas of Islam and the Sunna (patterns of behavior of the Prophet) (Mbacké, 1995). 1. Belief in One God and prophet Mohamed, 2. Pray five times a day, 3. Zakaat (give alms to poor people), 4. Fast the month of Ramadan, and 5. Go to pilgrimage to Mecca (at least once if possible in one’s lifetime).
However, two key philosophical tenets set the Murids apart from most Islamic brotherhoods in Sub-Saharan Africa: the pivotal importance of the philosophy of Work and Worship as the sole goal of human existence. This belief is based upon the teachings of prophet Mohamed, and represents a central pillar of the Murid faith, Muridiyah. This belief is summed up as follows: ‘Work’ as if you will never die, and ‘worship’[God] as if you will die tomorrow’. In this line of thought, ‘work’ is believed to be one of the highest forms of worship as it helps one be self-sufficient, productive and enables one to help feed not only oneself, but above all the needy. This component of the Murid faith is embodied by Sheikh Ibrahima Fall also known as Lamp Fall, the closest disciple of Bamba, known for his devotion to work for the benefit of the community and his rejection of material acquisition (Wade, 1991:135-40). The ‘worship’ component signifies that one has to love all beings including one’s enemies, avoid lying, hatred and constantly be reminded of the greatness of God (Allah) through the use of Zikr (the Arabic word for the glorification the God) as a way of purification of the soul exposed to the constant temptations of the Nafs (the earthly world of fleshly pleasures and instincts). In fact in Muridism, the war to be fought must be individual and internal. It is the war against one’s instincts, one’s attraction to worldly desires, hatred, greed etc. In a word it is the war against negatives and devilish forces that operate in the earthly world. This internal war is referred to as Jihaadu-nafs (the Arabic words for the war against desires). Thus Muridism advocates the return to God, non-violence, the quest for useful knowledge, courage, determination and faith in God. As such Muridism aims at taking away the hatred from human hearts, to break the chains of slavery and bondage, and to take away the evil temptations of the worthless things of this world without shedding blood. These Murid teachings tightened Murid social bonds and account for the spiritual strength and religious and cultural pride of the Murids today. These teachings have helped Muridism survive the sundry traps of the French colonial authority.
The context in which Muridism was born in Senegal is characterized by a political anarchy which resulted from the French colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ as a means of achieving political domination, cultural assimilation and economic exploitation. The jealousy of some religious leaders under the service of the French authority who feared to lose their authority, and often complained to the French authority about the quick growing influence of Muridism and its koranic schools, the Murid cultural affirmation and pride swiftly triggered the hostility of the French administration against Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba, as his teachings were found to challenge the very foundational base of the colonial authority (complete assimilation, political domination, economic exploitation and above all destruction of African culture, languages and pride).
Consequently, the French colonial authority subjected Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba to various hardships as they feared that his teachings would incite rebellion. His defiance of the French administration is illustrated by his following response to the French colonial governor in Saint-Louis, Senegal, where he was summoned for trial in 1895 (Babou, 1999:6): No human being deserves to be feared, no matter how powerful he is. The only being that deserves to be feared is God, for he is at the beginning and the end of everything. This statement was followed by prayers in the office of the governor. This daring behavior shocked and stupefied the audience. Today, the Murid community celebrates these historical prayers every year as a symbol of Murid anti-colonial resistance. His seven years’ deportation to Gabon which followed his summoning to Saint-Louis (from September 1895 to November 1902) also represents one of the biggest events in the anti-colonial struggle of Muridism in Senegal (Dieye,1985). Nowadays, the entire Murid community celebrates his deportation as a symbol of Murid pride in the struggle against French imperialism, and in recognition of the spiritual power which enabled him to survive the hardships of the deportation. Thus in the Murid community, the deportation as well as the hardships that Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba has undergone are believed to have been predestined in return for his spiritual growth and the liberation of African Muslims in general.
Thus, unlike other means of resistance (such as military resistance) against the colonial authority in Senegal, Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba used his faith in God, and rootedness in African values as a means of struggle against French colonizers. Unlike many religious leaders of his time, he claimed no kinship with prophet Mohamed. Instead he proudly assumed his black African decent as his identity. The importance of his attachment to the Negro African culture is seen in the central place of African values and morals in his writings and his day-to-day conduct. While criticizing the pagan practices associated with traditional African societies, he also rejected the Western influence (Babou, 1999:2). Thus as a spiritual leader, Bamba can be regarded as one of the first defenders of African values (prior to the Negritude movement). His actions suggest that he supported the anti-colonial struggle of Senegalese warriors of that time, but disapproved off their methods. He became one of the greatest educators and moralizers of his time. An example of his accomplishments can be seen in his Xasaayid (plural form for the Arabic word Xasida, poem) which are spiritual poems written in classical Arabic. These poems cover a broad range of themes ranging from glorification of God, morals of prophet Mohamed as a role model, Bamba’s experiences of exile and hardships, to diverse theological, sociological, and educational themes for the Murid community. One of the merits of Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba is to have introduced a system of mandatory education for both men and women. The essence of his system was not only to help disciples ‘feed’ their intellect, but above all to fill their soul with positive energy for the betterment of their life in this world and in the after-life. In Muridism, the development of these two components constitutes mighty anti-colonial ‘weapons’ and means of restorating the cultural, ideological identity and pride of Senegalese black Muslims distorted by the French colonial ‘plight’.
Another merit of Muridism besides the resistance against the French colonial authority and assimilation agenda is its successful restoration of pure Islam in Africa subjected for long to local innovations, corruption of morals and blind influences of Arab culture which denatured the essence of the Islam in Senegal. Therefore, Muridism stood as both a means of resistance against any form of assimilation, domination, and exploitation from a secular power, a way of affirmation of a sub-Saharan Islamic ideology, a means of restoration of African pride, a gateway to spiritual and temporal freedom, and a means of education (through classical Arabic) for the illiterate masses. The brotherhood promoted social and behavioral patterns as symbols of their sub-Saharan identity clearly distinct from that of Arabs or French. The use of traditional clothes such as Baaylaads (big and large African garbs), Turki-Njaareem (a Wolof typical undershirt), Njaxas (patchwork cloths), the use of a particular greeting system distinct from that of the French, Arabic or Wolof, the use of constant Sikër (from Arabic: [zikr], glorification of God), the respect of the Ndigël (from Wolof: recommendation or order from the Sheikh) are idiosyncratic patterns of Murids and constitute symbols of Murid identity in the world today.