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The competition for dominance between Islamic Salafism and Tassawuf Sufism as identities within Africa is gaining momentum

Fatoumatta:The struggle for dominance between Salafism and Sufism (Tasawwuf) within African Islam is a complex and intriguing battle, delving into the ideological clash and its consequences. In this contest for supremacy, the future of African Islam is at stake, influenced by ideological conflicts, historical legacies, and the changing religious and Islamic populism terrain.

The interactions and divisions between Salafism and Sufism in Africa are complex and dynamic, leading to discord among the same people. This discord is reminiscent of the colonial scramble for Africa, which colonized and divided Africans into diverse groups, disrupting a unified identity and culture by introducing religious sects that further divided the people. Historically, most African Muslims followed Sufi traditions, which are syncretic, mystical, and emphasize experiencing God through cultural practices considered Bidah in Islam. In contrast, Salafism is a fundamentalist movement that advocates practicing Islam strictly according to the ways of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions. Despite its ultra-exclusivist worldview and foreign cultural associations, which seem unsuitable for the African context, Salafism is spreading in some parts of the continent, often replacing Sufi practices with its own form of Islamist populism. This spread is driven by local dynamics favorable to Salafi ideology and the support of wealthy Arab benefactors. The rise of Salafism often comes at the expense of Sufism, resulting in tension and sometimes outright hostility between the two groups.

While some communities have experienced periods of Salafi-Sufi tolerance and cooperation, disrupting the typical antagonism, both movements have profoundly influenced the religious, economic, and political aspects of Muslim societies in Africa. Sufism, which prioritizes spiritual purity, has traditionally kept a distance from politics, yet it has begun to engage in populist politics in some West African nations such as The Gambia, Mali, and Senegal. However, there have been cases where it has escalated into violent radicalism, as evidenced by the jihadist Sufi movement in West Africa. Certain states have approached the issue by countering Salafism—often perceived as both violent and politically active—through supporting Sufism, which is regarded as tolerant, peaceful, and politically inactive. Ultimately, the interaction and conflict between Salafism and Sufism in Africa mirror the larger battle for the direction of African Islam, a battle characterized by the tension between fundamentalist and moderate interpretations of the religion, with significant consequences for the continent’s social and political landscape.

Salafism is a fundamentalist movement within Sunni Islam that aims to emulate “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ), often associated with the first three generations of Muslims, across many aspects of life. It advocates for a revival of the practices and beliefs of the early Islamic community. In Africa, Salafism has become prominent, influencing the religious landscape, including groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which operate across northern, eastern, and western Africa. It draws support from vulnerable and aggrieved populations.

Tasawwuf, also known as Sufism, is the mystical and spiritual dimension of Islam in Africa, emphasizing inner experiences, devotion, and closeness to God. Sufism, with its deep historical roots in Africa, has played a significant role in spreading Islam across the continent. African Sufis often integrate Islamic teachings with Bid’ah, local cultural elements.

African Sufis are devoted to intense spiritual practices, seeking direct communion with God, focusing on love, devotion, and self-purification. Various Sufi orders (tariqas) in Africa each have their unique practices, rituals, and teachings. African Sufism holds saints (wali) in high regard, believed to have attained spiritual closeness to God. Pilgrimages to their shrines and the practice of Bid’ah are common, contrasting with the strict adherence to Sunnah by Salafists. Sufi gatherings frequently feature music, dance, and poetry, facilitating a connection with the divine. However, African Sufism is currently facing challenges due to modernization, political instability, and external influences.

Some Sufi practices have evolved to fit local contexts, merging with indigenous beliefs and customs. In essence, African Sufism is a vibrant mosaic of spiritual devotion, cultural expression, and community engagement, continuing to influence the lives of millions.

Fatoumatta: Salafism’s impact in Africa is complex, affecting regional stability, counterterrorism, and governance. Comprehending this influence is crucial for tackling the issues arising from extremist groups on the continent. In contrast, Sufism embodies a diverse blend of spiritual dedication, cultural practices, and community development. It remains influential among numerous African Muslims, enhancing their bond with their faith and ancestry.

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