A Suite of Sisters Are Carving Their Space as Leaders in Senegal’s Sufi Brotherhood

In one of the country’s most patriarchal structures, a family line of women scholars has upended traditional ideas

A Suite of Sisters Are Carving Their Space as Leaders in Senegal’s Sufi Brotherhood
Sokhna Saibata Aidara claims the title of “caliph” in a Sufi community in Senegal. (Andrei Popoviciu)

I am instructed to kneel and lay out the palms of my hands in front of Sokhna Saibata Aidara. Dressed in a green robe with a turban of the same color wrapped around her head, the octogenarian lies on her side. A white eyelet scarf adorned with sequins pours over her shoulders. She holds a tasbih — a Muslim rosary — in her hands, and as she recites surahs from the Quran, she shifts it in her left hand bead by bead.

Mamadou Ba, Aidara’s spokesperson, is the one orchestrating the encounter. I don’t question his orders — according to him, I am in the presence of the only recognized woman “caliph,” or Sufi leader, in Senegal and, he claims, the modern Islamic world. Before I have time to register what is happening, the caliph torpedoes spittle straight into my palms as she chants a prayer in Arabic.

“Rub it onto your face,” Ba says. I do.

When my hands leave my cheeks and brow, I’m presented with a coin — a tangible token of the caliph’s generosity — that will bring me good luck, explains Ba. The ritual, specific to the strand of Sufism that Aidara belongs to, is a kind of “baraka” (divine blessing).

I am ushered out; Aidara is having a busy morning. Several Islamic students, called “talibes,” have come to her chambers here in Thies, a large city about an hour’s drive from the Senegalese capital of Dakar, to receive a blessing from the hands of Aidara, who serves as the religious leader of the Iyakhine community.

As she attends to her students, I sit down with Ba to understand how Aidara, part of a line of women religious leaders that started when her father passed on his leadership role to her older sister and will end with her youngest sister, is perceived in what is usually a deeply patriarchal and religious Senegalese society. As we speak, he expounds on her grandeur, uniqueness and wisdom within the Mouride Brotherhood, one of Senegal’s most powerful religious orders. As a Sufi mystic and scholar, Aidara is known for her healing abilities, mystical practices and teaching of the Quran to both male and female students. She also owns land that her talibes work on, a rare occurrence for a woman in Senegal. “She’s not just tolerated; she’s respected and accepted,” Ba stresses.

Aidara and her sisters appear to have carved out authoritative positions within the country’s most influential Sufi brotherhood. But Aidara’s role as a religious leader is more complicated than what Ba claims. Experts I spoke with believe this stems from the flexible nature of Sufi Islam in Senegal, where titles and authority can differ from Shiite and Sunni interpretations of Islam around the world: The title “caliph,” for example, is used liberally in Senegal to refer to local leaders within brotherhoods, where elsewhere in the Islamic world it usually refers strictly to the successor of the Prophet Muhammad. But even in Senegal’s unique context, Aidara’s ability to claim this authority as a woman within a very strict and hierarchical Sufi structure is uncommon, even if it does not go unchallenged.

Aidara’s ascent to be the leader of her community in 2003 followed that of her sister, Sokhna Magat Diop, who succeeded their father Abdoulaye Iyakhine Niakhite Diop. Born in Mecca in 1881, Abdoulaye Iyakhine came to Senegal in 1900 claiming to be a “mahdi,” a messianic figure in Islam, or, put more simply, the reincarnation of Muhammad.

He soon became part of the Mouride Brotherhood, one of four main brotherhoods in Senegal, which also include the Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya and Layene. The Mourides and the Layene both have “general caliphs” as the leaders of the brotherhoods, a role that is passed down through generations from father to son or brother to brother. Within each brotherhood there are hundreds of subgroups and communities like the Iyakhine one, led by local caliphs like Aidara.

The Mouride Brotherhood was founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, an important figure whose only known photo is plastered onto taxis, buses, buildings, in shops and carried on charms around people’s necks across the country. Giant murals of him loom out at you from Dakar’s city walls.

Abdoulaye Iyakhine played a significant role in the economic development of the Mouride community, particularly a sub-branch called Baye Fall, which was founded by one of Bamba’s followers. Characterized by talibes dressed in colorful attire, wearing dreadlocks and beaded necklaces, the Baye Fall is particularly known for turning labor into a religious act.

When Aidara’s father died in 1940 with no male heirs, his eldest daughter, Magat, succeeded him as the head of the Iyakhine community. Magat rose to prominence and built shrines to her father, which became regional pilgrimage destinations. She lived in Touba, the home of the Mouride Brotherhood’s founding father, Bamba, where she held religious ceremonies alongside other dignitaries.

Although Magat did not lead prayers or conduct wedding ceremonies — rites reserved for male caliphs — she taught, wrote and guided her followers. She was recognized as a religious leader since she recited Mouride verses and appointed imams. Her followers pledged their allegiance to her and gave her gifts, just as they did with male caliphs. They also assisted her with her farmland, which was supported by several Sufi circles.

Under Magat’s leadership, the Iyakhine community, once on the fringes, rose to become a full-fledged branch of the Mouride Brotherhood. And her authority within the Mouride order was entirely legitimate, according to research dating to the 1990s by French anthropologists Odile Reveyrand-Coulon and Christian Coulon.

“We noticed that many of her disciples were men, for whom the fact that she was a woman posed no problem,” Coulon says.

The role of a woman leader in the Sufi Islamic world is not unprecedented, according to Coulon, as similar examples can be found in the Mirghaniya lineage in the Horn of Africa, where modern-day Sudan is found.

In 2003, Magat died in Thies, leaving the caliph position to her younger sister, Aidara. The current caliph has two more sisters who could succeed her in the event of her death, but after the daughters of Abdoulaye Iyakhine are no more, the women-led dynasty will end as only the daughters of Abdoulaye Iyakhine can inherit the role. Abdoulaye Iyakhine had no male heirs, neither sons nor grandsons.

Aidara’s leadership responsibilities encompass administrative and social roles within the community, much like other male Mouride caliphs. She serves as an intermediary with the local authorities in legal matters and addresses significant issues in the community founded by her father. But Aidara is not merely a social patron; she is also a religious leader with a deep understanding of Islamic and Sufi teachings. She guides her disciples on various aspects of their lives, offers marriage advice and supports them in times of need. She is considered a “saint” with special powers, much like her father and sister, allowing her to intercede for her followers, divine and cure illnesses, and offer spiritual guidance for the Mourides. Her leadership is rooted in her deep religious knowledge and personal spiritual practices, transmitted by her father.

Despite her obvious sway and spiritual gravitas in her local community, Aidara is not universally accepted as a caliph — even among her own brotherhood. When I reached out to Mor Daga Sylla, a representative of the Mourides at their headquarters in Touba, he told me that Aidara is recognized as the leader of the family but not as a caliph.

“She is a great, pious woman; we know her, but we can’t officially call her a caliph because in Islam the woman doesn’t command,” Sylla told me. “That doesn’t mean that women don’t have weight in Islam, but we can’t call her a caliph.”

Joseph Hill from the University of Alberta has studied the roles of authority women can hold in Senegal’s Tijaniyya Brotherhood. He thinks that in the case of the Mouride Brotherhood, women’s leadership is often “contested and ambiguous” because some people wouldn’t recognize them as official leaders.

“They do seem to exercise authority and take on leadership from one another, so in practice this might actually happen and it would contradict the official narrative that they can’t,” Hill says.

Senegalese sociologist Codou Bop thinks that while some women surpass their male counterparts economically, spiritually and in Islamic knowledge, there are things they can’t do because they’re women. (Even Ba, Aidara’s spokesperson, says, “She’s the caliph, but she’s still a woman.”) Bop describes how Bamba, the creator of the Mouride Brotherhood, was surrounded by pious women in his family who became the first prominent female figures in Senegal’s Sufi Islam — but only because they were associated with Bamba.

Sokhna Aminata Lo, one of Bamba’s wives, is considered the first female saint of the Mourides. One of his daughters, Sokhna Maimouna Mbacke, embodied virtue and intellect and was renowned as a scholar, educator and poet. She left an indelible mark on the Mouride community and, together with her sister Sokhna Mbene Ngabou, demonstrated a profound commitment to education and humanity. Bop describes how Mame Diarra Bousso, Bamba’s mother, “was a savant in terms of knowledge, and became a saint, but she was never more than that.”

The arrival of Islam in Senegal was not a singular event but a nuanced, evolving narrative. It entwined itself with the cultural tapestry of the region, fostering a rich mosaic of religious expression.

Around the seventh century, as caravans laden with treasures navigated the trans-Saharan trade routes, Arab and Berber traders introduced not just their goods but also their faith to Senegal. These early emissaries left a mark on the minds of local communities, sowing the seeds of a faith that would find fertile ground in West Africa.

By the 11th century, the stage was set for a new chapter with the rise of the Almoravid dynasty. This Berber Islamic empire, motivated by a fervor for orthodoxy, extended its influence into West Africa, including Senegal. Yet their legacy wasn’t merely one of conquest; it was a story of the melding of Islam with local customs.

Islamic scholars and missionaries, drawn to the allure of West Africa, spread knowledge about Islam. The trans-Saharan trade cities, with Timbuktu as a beacon of learning in Mali, emerged as vibrant hubs of cultural and religious exchange. Scholars and traders from these urban oases became conduits for the flow of ideas, commerce and, significantly, the teachings of Islam in Senegal, where the faith intertwined with local customs and beliefs, finding harmony with the traditional practices of the diverse ethnic groups that called the country home.

“Islam is like water and culture is the bottle,” said Selly Ba, a researcher from the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Dakar who has studied the role of women in Senegal’s Islamic system. The faith molded to fit the contours of the society that accepted it.

In the 18th century, the French began their colonial endeavors in Senegal. Senegalese Muslims responded in different ways. In cities, some accepted the French because of the opportunity to work in the colonial administration and access higher education, while in rural areas, where people were more religious, a groundswell of defiance took root as Senegalese locals gravitated toward Sufi brotherhoods, finding in them a formidable bulwark against the encroaching French colonization.

Thanks to that support from the country’s rural areas, leaders in Sufi brotherhoods became alternative sources of authority against the French. The Mourides, who had previously held great political power in the country, emerged as the leaders of the resistance, a role that was cemented by the repression of Bamba, who was arrested twice by the French.

Today, 95% of Senegal’s population is Muslim, and the vast majority belong to a Sufi brotherhood. Those brotherhoods have become the main way individuals identify in Senegal, diverging from much of the rest of the continent where ethnicity is the primary association. Mouridism is the youngest of the brotherhoods but is said to be the most dynamic and influential, largely thanks to its political influence. In local and national elections, politicians, regardless of which brotherhood they associate with, seek endorsement from the caliph at Touba, in hopes of gleaning the votes and political support of the Mourides. The last two presidents of Senegal all visited Aidara to get her blessing and endorsement.

Part of that political power is derived from Mouride’s rigid pyramid organization, headed by the main caliph in Touba, which enables leaders to mobilize members more easily than the other brotherhoods that are organized more loosely. From Touba, the order’s main caliph oversees individual clans, centered around a village or neighborhood with a mausoleum dedicated to its founder and led by a local religious scholar with the title of caliph. These caliphs are under the direct authority of the general caliph in Touba. The succession within these lineages typically follows the eldest son of the founder, then younger brothers and later, grandsons.

But succession can be contentious, and it’s not always accepted unanimously. Sons of caliphs may challenge their uncles’ authority, especially if they inherit administrative powers, leading the former caliph’s followers to pledge allegiance to the sons of the former leader.

Aida Diallo, the third wife of Cheikh Bethio Thioune, the well-known and controversial leader of the Thiantacoune community within the Mouride Brotherhood, is an example of contested female authority. After Thioune’s death in 2019, a leadership dispute arose within their community. One faction supported Diallo’s claim to leadership, while another favored her stepson, Serigne Saliou Thioune. The Mouride’s caliph general, Serigne Mountakha Mbacke, endorsed the younger Thioune as the leader of the Thiantacounes, citing the tradition of Mouride Sufism and the orthodox Islamic belief that women cannot serve as religious leaders.

Despite this decision, Diallo continued to assert her leadership over the Thiantacoune community because she was recognized as a leader and the chosen successor by her husband during his lifetime. Through videos and public appearances, Diallo demonstrates a significant public presence that confirms her influence among some of the people in her community, and even outside of it.

Diallo’s actions raised controversy within the Mouride community, especially during the Magal of Touba, an annual Mouride pilgrimage to Touba and the most important religious event for the brotherhood. She performed acts like conducting marriages, which some Mouride members criticized. She was declared a persona non grata by the general caliph in Touba.

Bop, the Senegalese sociologist, said Diallo made for a unique case. Despite coming from a poor family without social status, she “doesn’t care, she does what she wants,” Bop says. “She is using the religion and the brotherhoods to claim her space as a woman.”

Despite the controversy about Diallo, no one has publicly criticized Aidara — or her sister — as leaders of their community, suggesting a degree of acceptance by the Mourides. But Touba’s representative, Sylla, insists that “it’s not a matter of preference,” talking about Aidara in contrast to the scandals surrounding Diallo. “Aidara is in her corner and does her thing, but she can’t order like a caliph does.”

Selly Ba, the Senegalese gender expert at the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Dakar, believes Aidara is operating by appropriating the same mechanisms within the patriarchal systems she exists in.

“The practical nature of it might contradict the official narrative, which is that women don’t actually exercise religious authority,” says Hill, the academic from the University of Alberta. Although the reality is that women often play key roles nearly identical to those of their male counterparts, he says, it’s rare that they transmit that authority onto their children, as it is the case with Aidara, who obtained the position from her oldest sister and can pass it on only to her younger sisters.

He agrees with Bop that women are essentially reconfiguring the existing norms to suit their leadership rather than challenging them, as they view their approach as sufficient for doing what they need to do.

“They don’t see it as a possibility either to really revolutionize because it’s going to create a lot more problems for them personally,” Hill says.

But Bop argues that progress in gender equality can be fully realized only in the secular sphere, where it can be confronted openly and directly, instead of through innovative manipulation within the brotherhoods, which she sees as “a sign of powerlessness.”

Bop also argues that feminist Muslim theologists believe that when women have been denied social and political rights in Muslim societies, “it is because of patriarchal interpretations of the sacred texts, not because of the texts themselves.”

In the end, even if women are acknowledged to have some sort of authority, as in the case of Aidara, it is only because their father or male counterparts decided so. Their authority comes from men’s approval and is often within the patriarchal and religious system, rendering women with authority as men within women’s bodies.

Back in Aidara’s quarters, her spokesperson acquiesces to such an idea, even after his breathless assessment of his patron. “You see, she’s a woman; her behavior is that of a woman, but inside she’s a man.”

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