Sufism

Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, has had a profound influence on the beliefs and practices of Muslims in Africa. Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula first brought Islam to Africa in the A.D. 600s. By the early 1200s various orders, or schools, of sufism had emerged in North Africa, based on the teachings of influential religious leaders.

Sufism reached its peak in Africa during the 1800s. At that time many new Sufi orders sprang up in northern and eastern Africa, such as the Sanusiyya founded by Muhammad ibn Ali-Sanusi. The new orders, led by the families of their founders, adopted different ideas and patterns of organization from the older ones. Instead of being based on a local tribe, the new orders drew members from various groups. They were the first to teach Islam in indigenous languages instead of Arabic. They insisted on strict faithfulness to the Qur’an—the Islamic holy scriptures—and devotion to the prophet Muhammad.

Sufism

During the colonial era some Sufi orders helped organize local resistance to foreign rule. The Sufi leader Umar al-Mukhtar led the forces fighting Italian power in LIBYA until his death in 1931. Two Sufi orders of SUDAN, the Mahdists and the Khatmiyya, formed political parties that supported Sudanese nationalism. But not all Sufi leaders opposed the colonial powers. The Muridiyya in SENEGAL worked with colonial officials, despite government mistrust of the group.

Over time the Sufi brotherhoods grew more urbanized and became active in business. They valued Western education, and today a large percentage of educated Sudanese are members of Sufi families. Since independence Sufi groups such the Wahhabis in MALI and the Izala in NIGERIA have emerged to challenge the dominance of the established orders. The growth of African cities and the spread of modern systems of communication have helped new forms of Sufism to replace the traditional Sufi orders in many parts of the continent. (See also Islam in Africa, Religion and Ritual.)