Industrious Senegal Muslims Run a 'Vatican'

TOUBA, Senegal — A few years ago this West African nation's government built the first public school here in Touba, a Vatican-like enclave that belongs to the Sufi Muslim brotherhood called the Mourides. But the school, financed by the World Bank, never opened, because the Mourides' grand caliph objected to secular education in French.

"The caliph did not want strange habits to be imported here," explained Abdoulahat Mbacke, 27, director of a Koranic school that has taken over the unused public school.

At the school recently, dozens of boys and girls speaking Wolof, Senegal's main language, were learning the Koran by rote, a practice followed by most Koranic schools in this part of Africa. But unlike religious schools elsewhere, Mr. Mbacke's is planning to add other subjects.

"We saw that most of our graduates went into business," Mr. Mbacke said. "We think that if they learn how to use computers, or if they learn another language, like English, it would help them in their business. Learning only the Koran is not enough for business nowadays, although, of course, the Koran contains everything."

The Mourides have become known as small-time international businessmen, conspicuous on the streets of Paris, Rome and especially New York, where they peddle fake Rolexes or operate stores selling goods from a vast network of suppliers. In West Africa they are famous for their entrepreneurship as much as for their moderate, essentially African, vision of Islam.

Unlike most other Muslim brotherhoods, which have their roots in northern Africa or the Arab world, the Mourides trace their origins to Sheik Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese Islamic cleric who resisted French colonialism and was forced into exile to central Africa in 1895.

He was later allowed to return and settle here in Touba, in the country's hot, barren interior, which proved a prosperous spot for the movement he founded in 1887.

Touba became the Mourides' holy city, an autonomous municipality considered the private home of the brotherhood's leader — a place that still does not pay taxes or answer to the federal government.

Every year, to mark Sheik Bamba's departure into exile, hundreds of thousands of Mourides make the pilgrimage to Touba, which to many is more significant than going to Mecca. This year the event begins on May 2; it lasts two days.

As the Mourides have grown in population and power — they now number about two million — Touba is said to have become the country's second-biggest city, after the capital, Dakar.

At first, Touba looks like any other West African city close to the Sahara: brown and dusty. But its great mosque, with its imposing minarets and domes, can be seen from miles away. Inside, European marble adorns its walls and archways, and thick new carpets cover the floors.

Nigeria's oil-rich government is the one other in West Africa to have erected such lavish mosques, but Touba's has been built on the money raised by individual Mourides, who toiled for decades as peanut farmers and then began traveling outside Senegal in search of business.

"If an Arab or an Indonesian built us a mosque, he would force us to pray the same way he does," said Atou Diagne, an influential Mouride businessman here. "Our independence is important to us. That is why we worship work."

Indeed, through a work ethic that some of them describe as Protestant-like, the Mourides have retained their financial and religious independence. Here in Touba, rules are set by the current grand caliph, Serigne Saliou Mbacke, an old man with arthritic hands and a toothless smile who is one of Sheik Bamba's two surviving sons. No alcohol, no smoking; there is not even a hotel here.

Women work, and they can be seen everywhere. Touba has none of the socially oppressive rules, for example, of northern Nigeria, where a sometimes brutally strict interpretation of Islamic law has filled the void left behind by years of military misrule.

Just before Friday Prayers recently, the grand caliph was receiving guests at his modest house next to the mosque. He sat in an armchair in an inner room and spoke, through a small window with bars, to the faithful who kneeled before him. He spoke so softly that an aide had to repeat his utterances.

Asked about the Mourides' travels, the grand caliph said, "Some go to seek knowledge; others go to seek material wealth." As many clustered before the window and craned their necks to catch his words, he said, "We go where we find generosity, pity and tolerance."

Asked whether the attacks on Sept. 11 had changed the Mourides' relationship with their favorite destination, the United States, he said, "I have not reflected enough on that question."

Like his predecessors, the grand caliph is politically cautious. His father, Sheik Bamba, who is remembered for opposing colonial rule, established a pattern of collaboration with the French after returning from exile. The French, benefiting from the stability that the Mourides provided, allowed them to thrive.

After independence, Senegal's presidents also relied on the Mourides for political backing and gave them great autonomy in return. In 2000, the day after his election, President Abdoulaye Wade, himself a Mouride, paid a high-profile visit to Touba to receive the grand caliph's blessing.

Mr. Wade, who said in an interview that the grand caliph had never asked him for any favors, comes here every few months.

In few places in West Africa is Islam so well organized and politically powerful as in Senegal, a country at the same time considered the region's most open and Western-oriented.

There are four Sufi Muslim brotherhoods in Senegal, each led by a cleric called a grand marabout. It is through the marabouts that the faithful — most of Senegal's 10 million people — practice this mystical form of Islam.

The brotherhoods have had friendly relations with the state and, as essentially moderate groups, have helped provide it with an unusual degree of political stability.

"It is only in Senegal that brotherhoods dominate to such a degree, where they are inseparable from Islam," said Khadim Mbacke, a Mouride who is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Dakar.

Perhaps more than other Muslims in Africa, Mr. Mbacke said, the brotherhoods have adapted Islam to African culture. Brotherhood members follow a strong leader, in keeping with African tradition, and leadership is passed down through sons. Among the Mourides, because many of their early leaders were peanut farmers or traders, those practices became essential to their way of life.

Yet the Mourides engage in other practices denounced by traditional Islamic scholars. One of them is prayer facing the Atlantic Ocean, away from Mecca, a practice that has its origins in Sheik Bamba's voyage into exile. Because he was said to have been denied the right to pray aboard the ship that took him away, the faithful developed the belief that he unfurled a carpet on the sea and prayed on the water.

Many longtime Mourides suspect that new members are attracted less to the faith than to its association with financial success. For even though they rank second of the brotherhoods in size, the Mourides are generally viewed as the most powerful economically and politically.

All over the country people name their shops and businesses after this city, whether or not they are Mourides: "Touba Tire Shop," "Touba Travels."

Many newcomers seem to have gravitated to Touba because they do not have to pay taxes or water bills.

Dame Diakhate, 32, who owns a small grocery, recalled that Touba was once a small, quiet town. He said he had lived here his entire life, except for four years spent working in New York City.

"Touba was better before," Mr. Diakhate said. "Now some people drink here. Some people smoke cigarettes. Some people become Mourides because they want to do business, maybe 10 percent of them."