This piece is specifically from my view; from my specific experience here in my village of Mbolo Aly Sidy, Dept Podor, Region San Louis, Senegal, West Africa. My view is based on what I have seen and how I have experienced the surrounding culture of which I live. I do not claim that it has any weight anywhere other than outside of my personal experience. I also do not claim to know very much about Islam and please forgive me for any slight misinterpretations or gaps of knowledge. I am reporting everything as honestly and accurately as I have experienced them.
Batane munal fof ko alhamdullilahi – the future of every patience is thanks to God.
If an American student were to be asked to name a pertinent Muslim, they would probably name Osama Bin Ladin, maybe Sadam Hussein, Mouammar Kadhafi, or Jihadi John. These are the ones we see on TV, they are the only Muslim faces and names that are shown to us and without further research into the religion they would be all that we know. This is a terribly one-sided story, however. What do these people have in common? They are misconstruing Islam and the Qur’an. They are using their power, in the name of Allah, to push an understanding of Islam that is not supported by Islamic scholars. The majority of Muslims do not consider these people as practicing in the correct way in which the Qur’an teaches. A piece of literature by some of the most prolific Islamic scholars, (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/) Open Letter. identifies how, in many ways, these dictators and terror groups have violated some of the deepest teachings and practices of Islam, going against what most Muslims know to be correct. The Islam that we Americans see in the media is an Islam of violence, of hate, and misunderstanding, but the Islam that I have experienced for the past year has been one of peace, love, and generosity.
“Avoid conversations about religioun. Avoid conversations about politics,” said Peace Corps Administration. This seemed like a valid and simple suggestion, as religion and politics are topics I rarely discussed and previously felt I have very little standing to take sides in. However, religion and politics in Senegal (especially Northern Senegal) are so tightly intertwined with daily life that they have become one in the same. Avoiding discussing these things is avoiding daily life: impossible.
‘Ada julat?’ (Do you pray?) They ask. Answering this is not simple for me. It is hard to say that I was raised Christian, but if I were to define my faith, I would claim Christianity. Religion to us is such a personal matter. It is something that we know or meditate on inside of ourselves, and we know personally where we stand whether or not we openly admit or discuss our beliefs (or lack of). Here, however, I have been forced to look deeper inside of myself to define, in Pulaar, my religious identity. Do I pray? I answer “Yes, I pray like the Christians pray.” This is often quite confusing because typically the view is that Christians don’t pray, or pray much too infrequently (compared to the five times a day prayers of every dutiful Muslim, an opinion which I cannot at all argue). They often then ask for me to recite ‘our’ prayers, which is where I stumble. Should I recite the Hail Mary? Our Father? Or should I say a prayer that I might say in my head? In the end, it all would be English and therefore incomprehensible for the most part. I explain that ‘our’ prayers are not necessarily recited but more of a dialogue with Allah (or God – same thing). They then ask how he responds. Difficulties arise also when the public schools take time off for ‘our’ holidays such as Ascension, which I know nothing about, or when asked why I am not fasting during lent. They’ve got a point: I am ignorant to my own religion, let alone theirs.
Even though religion is a personal matter to those of us in our American culture, the Christian teachings still push us to worship together in a communal place at least once a week. This could really simply be seen as a less extreme form of the Islamic teachings of communal worship. Islamic prayers are done five times a day, if possible, in a communal area, in solidarity and usually in unison. This is obviously speaking specifically from a predominantly Muslim country where public prayers are commonplace and expected. The location is irrelevant; you pray where you are/can.
Side story: I was in a night bus to Dakar and sunset was falling as we drove across the Fouta towards the capitol. We had stopped at one village for longer than seemed necessary and there seemed to be nothing happening, so one man decided to take the opportunity to get out of the bus to pray his evening prayers. He washed his hands, arms, feet, and head and proceeded to pray outside of a closed-up boutique. The bus, on it’s own agenda of course, began to pull out of it’s stop. The man, deep in his prayers, did not at all react, his attention fully upon his meditations. The passengers on the bus, however, all came to his defense and every single one of them was up in arms shouting as soon as the bus began to move. The bus of course stopped and waited for him to finish his prayers, and the passengers began to joke about him. “Oh, he who is praying there? He must be a Ba (last name).” Upon which all of the Diallo’s (joking cousin of the Ba’s) agreed. The Ba’s, however, had different rationalizations. Then the Sy’s/Sow’s/Ly’s/Thiams got into it, placing their own bets against each other until finally the man got back on the bus, his prayers and meditations complete, to the entire bus interrogating him about his last name. He was a Niang. Everybody was disappointed about the lack of ability to tease him about that as well as for making everybody wait for him, but no one was mad. Prayers are acceptable and expected anywhere, anytime.
The communal focus on prayers goes further than that; the communal focus extends to life. Life is better if it is shared with others. Houses are large with many family members. Boys in the family have designated rooms or sometimes houses of their own within compounds where their eventual wives move into to live with their family (hope you like the in-laws!). Everyone eats together and if there are ever guests or even passers-by, they are invited and included as well. Food, no matter how much of it is available, is always better when shared, and there is almost always more than enough to go around. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the culture – sharing. It is assured that no one is ever in need; no one is lacking something that another may have in excess.
Sharing, in the Islamic context, goes farther than just sharing between families, friends, etc. It extends to giving. Giving to the poor and needy is not just important, but one of the 5 pillars of Islam. The needy, it is said, are obvious. The ones truly in need (those not looking to do bad things or buy drugs with what they are given, etc.) are apparent. There is also a group called Talibe, or students, who begin as young boys, sometimes as young as 4 and 5 years old. They are sent to a Koranic school with an imam, or teacher/professor of the Qua’ran who they live with and learn from for sometimes many years until they either leave or master the Quran. These boys, to learn humility, are sent to beg for alms and sometimes for their meals. This is all very dependent on the conditions of the Dara, or school, and the imam himself. These boys, as seen through the eyes of a Westerner (aka me) seem at first to be a huge problem! A human rights issue! From our eyes it seems horrific that these children would be sent, shoeless, penniless and dirty, out on the streets of often busy, dangerous cities to beg for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and alms to bring back to their Maribou/imam. These boys, however, play a large part in the religion and are an important part of the community. They provide an outlet for alms. I have even found myself looking for them at times when I have leftover bread or food that I don’t want, I find myself thinking, “ok, where is a Talibe, I need to give this to them.”
I realized that religion was something I could have real meaningful discussions about, openly and honestly. My first eye-opening conversation was one I had quite some time ago, when my language skills were not great. A Chierno, or Islamic Imam, came to our house and stayed as a guest. He was a friend of my host father’s and very well educated in the teachings of Islam. I was very intimidated speaking with him. I knew there were similarities between our religions so I ventured to ask him to explain them. I realized that asking questions is not offensive; quite the opposite. I asked him so many questions; we ended up some of the last few awake that night, discussing our religions with complete mutual respect. By admitting my complete lack of knowledge about religion, I have been able to learn so much by being open and nonjudgmental. By humbling myself to the level of a student, or Talibe, I have been able to have so many interesting conversations and gained so much respect though my increasing levels of understanding.
The culture of Islam in Senegal is that of peace. It is that of love. It is that of solidarity. I have found it thousands of times more accepting and inclusive than any culture I have ever experienced (in my limited experiences). I feel accepted, included, and well-fed at all times in this culture. I have yet to see a fight get violent, yet to see anyone get beat or maimed, yet to feel completely disrespected as a woman.
This is a culture of peace.
Jam tan, santé Allah