Sufi Symbolism and the State in Senegal, 1975–81

  • Donal B. Cruise O’Brien


The strength of the Senegalese state, its connection with social networks and institutions, has been assured above all by Sufi Muslim intermediation. If Senegal does not, like some of its neighbours, exist in the shadow of state collapse, if the state makes some acceptable sense to a large enough number of its citizens, then the reason lies above all in the existence of a recognized symbolic language of the political. This language of power is devotional, holy talk, and it is also about power, here and now. Those who speak the language with most authority, those to whom people turn for guidance, are those who count in the political process. City sophisticates may look on the holy talkers with a Voltairean curl of the lip, but the marabouts 1 are more trusted than are the sophisticates, by a very comfortable margin. The dimension of trust is of course critical to patronage politics (the commonplace of Africanist political study) and the people’s trust of maraboutic leadership in Senegal is the bedrock of the state. Beyond that basic trust, however, as Leonardo Villalon elegantly demonstrates, the Sufi idiom allows a variety of aspirants and contenders to play out their hopes on a Hirschman repertoire; holy exit, holy voice, holy loyalty, from or to the state.2 That repertoire is widely enough understood, by those in political power in the capital, as well as by the relatively powerless across most of the country,3 to allow a viable process of symbolic negotiation, helping to hold the state together.


Muslim Community Colonial Rule Islamic Republic Colonial Government Acceptable Sense 
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    For Momar Coumba Diop this is the Islamo-Wolof model, although applicable beyond Wolof territory. See M.C. Diop (ed.), Sénégal. Trajectoires d’un Etat, Paris/Dakar: Karthala/ CODESRIA, 1992Google Scholar
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© Donal B. Cruise O’Brien 2003

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  • Donal B. Cruise O’Brien

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