- Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrahim Niasse by Zachary Valentine Wright
Zachary Wright makes a beautiful contribution to the literature on the history of Tijani Sufism as represented in the teachings of the venerable Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse of Senegal who, in 1929, experienced the spiritual effusion (fayda) and therefore claimed the status of being a living saint. The divine presence, in the Tijani doctrine, emanated from Ahmed Tijani, to the Prophet Muhammad, and to God. That this knowledge of the divine flows to Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse—and therefore to his community of disciples—underpins Wright's analysis in this well-researched book. Sources include materials from the Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse manuscripts at Kaolack, which are described by scholars as among the best-preserved collections of any of the Senegalese brotherhoods. These include manuscripts of the Shaykh's travels, those inherited from his father (who was known as Islamic scholar and teacher), and many by Ibrahim Niasse, covering such topics as poetry, history, and Quranic exegesis or tafsir. Most important, Wright had the privilege of interviewing leading members of the brotherhood, including the well-respected Cisse imams.
Born in 1900 in Senegal into a prominent Muslim family, and dying in 1975, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse lived a decade past Senegal's attainment of political independence from French colonial rule. As founder and leader of the internationally respected Tijani Sufi order based in Madina-Bay and the city of Kaolack in the Saloum region, his followers recognized him as the embodiment of knowledge that permitted him to directly experience the presence of God. The author observes that Ibrahim Niasse contributed enormously to shaping the Muslim identity of his followers, not only in their acquisition of knowledge, but also in their overall disposition, which made it possible for them to engage in discourse on broad range of issues as Muslims. [End Page 146]
The emergence of Ibrahim Niasse's following as the new clerical community in the Saloum was augmented by the ability to recruit key representatives of existing clerical families, especially by discipleship of Ali Cisse, who is a descendant of an ancient Western Sudanese clerical family. Ibrahim Niasse's own father, Abdallah Niasse, represented a renowned "scholarly lineage" that dated "at least to the eighteenth century" (77). Although the older generation of scholars might be described as knowledgeable in the Islamic sciences, Ibrahim Niasse's saintly disposition made him the embodiment of the divine presence and therefore personifying such knowledge. Even more important was the claim that such cognizance could be available to his disciples.
This form of actualization required a deep understanding of what constitutes Islamic religious learning, which is characterized by a closer master–disciple relationship such as that epitomized by the relationship between Shaykh Ibrahim and his devoted disciple Ali Cisse. For this reason, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse reprioritized "the subject of learning toward the direct knowledge of God"; and "knowing God was the distinguishing characteristic of the Ibrahim Niasse community." The author writes further that "the spiritual roles assigned to the Prophet Muhammad and Ahmed al-Tijani to channel the flow of this cognizance demonstrated the community's growing grounding in Islamic and Tijani identity" (163). The desire to have unique access to the knowledge of God was the core principle of the community of the flood, and the teaching of the transmission of divine cognizance (ma'rifa) defined the meaning of master–disciple relationship. In other words, the Shaykh's "actualization of cognizance meant that the aspirant could obtain a formerly restricted type of knowledge in the shaykh's physical presence: the experiential knowledge of God" (63).
The process of transmitting such knowledge started early in the provision of the basic instruction of Quranic studies. As Wright notes, the community continued to transmit the earlier legacy of Islamic learning traditions, but the centrality of preparing the disciple to ultimately "know God" caused the community of the flood to make "slight adjustments to the content of these knowledge traditions" (213). For example, although...