Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal: Disciples and Citizens in Fatick
Leonardo A. Villalón
(New York: Cambridge Books, 2006), 338 pp.

Reviewed by Victoria Bomba Coifman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Afro-American and African Studies, University of Minnesota

This exemplary, nuanced case study examines much more than the interaction between Islam and the contemporary African state of Senegal. Villalón demonstrates how the two legs of a three-legged vessel are mediated by and for the third element, groups of people in Senegal in general, and by groups of people in the small community of Fatick in particular. Together, according to Villalón’s study, the three elements, in shifting balance with each other, provide the requirements for stable relations in Senegal.

Through his use of written and spoken sources from many perspectives, Villalón provides Senegalese, other Africans, and their non- African associates, with a much needed guide. The path leading from the past into the future is visible here, if one looks for it, cleared of the underbrush of bias, ignorance, divisive agendas, short-sighted perspectives, and flawed academic models drawn up with little input from African realities. The cost to Africa of these, and more serious errors, has been high. One is grateful that Villalón’s study can be mined for the continuities in the Senegalese past and present, and the means of success, not always made explicit, that it contains.

Villalón provides a valuable review of the literature about Islam as well as colonial and post-colonial-era governance in Senegal. Theories and models are appropriately discussed throughout, while not obscuring what Villalón found taking place from village to central levels, with many important side vistas in between. One of the strengths of this work lies in the use of oral history, interviews with people of Fatick and elsewhere. That kind of source (as well as oral traditions), carefully gathered and analyzed, can guide researchers, as it has in this case, to keep a clear focus on the internal, Senegalese perspective. Villalón’s description of Fatick’s position in the country, shines in its nuanced brilliance, a product of the author’s knowing something of oral history, the organization of the community’s constituent groups, and the Senegalese on-the-ground perspective. One would like more information though, about the opinions of more Serer people, within whose former realm these events are taking place.

Later in the work, in his closely interwoven, beautifully narrated analysis in the chapters about the marabout (religious leader)–disciple relationship, the state-marabout relationship, and the concluding discussion of the balance between bureaucrats, marabouts, and citizen-disciples, the author clearly demonstrates the delicate relations between the elements that compose Senegalese governance today. While Villalón describes marabouts as religious elite, one must continue to remember the diversity of the composition and religious knowledge of those called marabouts.

A flaw in part of this discussion is that Villalón seems to overstate the numbers of Senegalese – described as the vast majority – who are members of Sufi brotherhoods. Senegalese Muslims who are not members of brotherhoods, are numerous and nevertheless appear to live comfortably in a milieu where these religious groups are very important.

These chapters demonstrate the enduring importance of community and representative institutions, as well as the agility of people and communities, in working for their interests in varied and fluid situations. These include having survived and managed the shocks of the collapse of an earlier political and religious system, and the later nineteenth and twentieth century imposition or adoption, followed by varied integration, of institutions and organizations developed in the Islamic and European worlds. For Villalón, this is a Senegalese phenomenon.

Since this reviewer as an historian can identify the roots of what Villalón discusses as lying in older Senegalese, Sahilian, and African institutions and their interplay, she offers an additional consideration for the author and readers. If Senegalese governance activities and solutions rest upon pre-l850 West African models (visible a thousand years ago in ancient Ghana and down to the middle of the nineteenth century in this region), she proposes that they can be and are being reproduced in a diverse array of other African societies and countries, and this, with and without many Muslim believers living in a particular place. The subject at hand, however, is a country where the majority of residents are Muslim.

With notable exceptions (e.g., the Universities of Ibadan and Dakar during certain periods, individual researchers and many anthropologists, and, more recently, those West African professors who are also firmly rooted in the oral tradition of their places), university researchers in the last forty-five years or so, have neglected the history of African institutions for managing governance, economic, religious, social life, before the last half of the nineteenth century. For most, life, for good or ill, begins with the colonial period in Africa. This untenable position (hopefully decreasingly) continues to be followed and at great cost. In early 2008 for instance, a non-African speaker was reported as saying that democracy was foreign to Africa, and the continent needed to look at another mode of governance, perhaps the “Asian” model.

Villalón’s findings implicitly and most importantly demonstrate, however, just the opposite. Dressed in Senegalese, West African clothing, firmly woven in varied patterns over the centuries prior to 1850, ideas of former Senegalese governance institutions have remained alive through major change, have managed to catch their breath, and provide the elements for stable relations, checks and balances, in Senegal today. This is an illustration and/or a model, this reviewer proposes, for other African countries, and a guide for associates of African people and polities.

Villalón captures generosity, redistribution of gifts and resources in the marabout-disciple relationship today, and the protection offered by marabouts to their talibé.(168,187-93). This reviewer has found that a fundamental feature of pre-1850 African polities, was the giving of tribute to centralized political authority in return for protection of all kinds – spiritual, military, food. Tribute and resources were redistributed to meet these ends. The striking appearance of this circulation of gifts, the expectation of help, in the marabout–disciple relationship today, seems to be at least in part, a reflection of the collapsed, non-Muslim and Muslim African, older constitutions.

Villalón writes of the limits to allegiance to marabouts. Disciples may change marabouts or reduce affiliation to a purely nominal level. In the pre-1850 period, when a group was not protected or was otherwise dissatisfied, it stopped paying tribute. If successful, they were no longer part of the polity, its boundaries shifted accordingly. In the state-marabout relationship, described by Villalón and others, Muslims have the option of limited contact with the state.

Concerning his “state, the marabouts and the citizen-disciples of Senegal,” Villalón writes in his concluding chapter, that the relations between any two of the three “can only be understood in the context of relations with the third.” The system of checks and balances of the past, the payment of tribute in return for protection, the circulation, not hoarding, of resources, and other institutions, are reflected in the relations between the three elements of the Senegalese state which Villalón so elegantly has laid out before us. They open the way to the study of further explanations for their operation.