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The Wolof

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Introduction

The Wolof is an ethnic group in Senegal that makes about 80% of Senegal’s population. The Wolof manifests a highly ethnic pride as well as a high sense of conscious ethnic identity. Nearly all of the Wolof people are Muslims and are organized into two Sufi orders, the Muridiyya and the Tijaniyya. Although the main doctrine of Islam is generally adhered to, the Wolof’s version of Islam has an emphasis on social relations rather than just abstract theology. However, along with Islam there are some traditional beliefs and practices (most of which are pre-Islamic). This paper will aim to discuss the religion and religious aspects and culture of the Wolof people of Senegal.

Using my limited knowledge of the Wolof history, I will use this term paper to answer a line of questions that will help me understand better aspects of Wolof culture, be able to describe key features of Wolof culture and be able to explain language use in social settings and the Wolof interaction. On a broad discussion, I will touch on general aspects of the Wolof people especially on their religion and Islamic belief in general.

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Key Features and Aspects of Wolof Religion Culture

One area where the supremacy of the Senegalese society is well established is on religion. Religion is the language of the largest Sufi order not only among the Wolof but in Senegal as a country especially for energetic and vibrant orders known as Tidianes and Mourides. The two have established their religious centers in the Wolof speaking areas and they are known to control the religious power of Senegal. It should be noted that the Sufi order followers consist of about 90% of the Senegalese population and nearly control the country’s economy (Diallo p.166). The Wolof’s population is about 43.3% of the total Senegalese population.

According to Sallah (1996; p.24), the Wolof religion is a mixture of traditional religion with that of Islamic teaching. Most of the Wolof are however Sufi Muslims that grew up in the 20th century with their leaders exercising a huge cultural and political influence among the Muslim people. The Wolof through the Islamic religion put emphasis on spirituality and meditation. Traditionally, the Wolof leaders first converted to Islam first before it could spread to other powerful members of the community. Islam was originally brought by Mauretanian teachers with Islamic ideologies like praying to Allah five times a day, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan or distribution f the gifts to the needy, observing Ramadan and if possible taking a trip to the holy city of Mecca. That is why many Wolof people belong to the old Islamic brotherhoods like the Quadiriyya and Tijaniyya. 

Religion has overtly entered into politics especially fuelled by the creation and recognition of faith based parties including that of President Wade. One of Senegal’s most well known political party is that created by the Mouride Sufi order, Serigne Kara Mbacke, a charismatic religious leader who is said to be very close to Wade. This has resulted to competition among the different religious groups mainly because the Sufi orders relies on very devoted and enthusiastic followers from each political divide in order to improve party visibility and influence. Clearly, religious discourse has a deep and resounding impact on its believers. This continues to be delivered in Wolof to ensure that as many followers as possible are reached. The Wolof has private televisions and some of them (including national television) as well as radio stations dedicate more than two hours of shows known as Goudi Adjouma that precedes Friday. The sermons are done in Wolof and may be translated or interpreted to other national languages like French (Diallo, p.167).

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In major religious gatherings and mosques, religious discourses and sermons are conducted in the Wolof language except a few selected conservative areas that conduct sermons in their own languages like the Jola or Pulaar. The association of language like the Wolof to religious beliefs is deeply ingrained in Senegal. Some scholar, Gal and Irvine (1995), attribute this to the ideological differentiation that was put forward by the Europeans linguists who described the Wolof language and other languages in Senegal.  Although the Wolof language speakers are not seen as ‘higher’ in race because of their Islamic orthodoxy like the Fula speakers, Wolof is seen as the lingua franca and is used in religious sermons in local churches even though churchgoers may not be Wolof speakers (Diallo, p.168). It is argued that during the 10th century, the Wolof embraced the Islamic religion and a Christian mission later had little impact on them. Along with the Islam religion, other pre-Islamic religions still do exist; traditional religious belief system that still believes and puts emphasis on malevolent spirits (called the Jinn) and the need to protect themselves from the bad spirits.

According to Sallah (1996; 24), the Wolof initially resisted Islamic teachings and at first the best Wolof religion can be described as a traditional religion in which natural phenomena like thunder aand lightning are communication from higher spirits. However, with time it can be argued that the dominant religion of the Wolof is Islam. As disused earlier, nearly all of the Wolof people are Muslims and are organized into two Sufi orders, the Muridiyya and the Tijaniyya (Searing, p.4). Although the main doctrine of Islam is generally adhered to, the Wolof’s version of Islam has an emphasis on social relations rather than just abstract theology. However, along with Islam there are some traditional beliefs and practices (most of which are pre-Islamic).

According to Mbithi (1990; p.239), young Wolof boys are given Islamic teachings to initiate them to the Islamic religion. The boys are given passages to memorize from the Quran, learn religious Islamic prayers and be able to write in Arabic. However, the Wolof combines both traditional and Islamic divination and the use of traditional almanacs. Some people however are known to be Islam adherents but still belief in the existence of spirits of the living dead that deviates from Islam. The spirits are divided into good, bad, evil clearly deviating from Islamic teaching. This implies that some locals have still observed traditional rites through mixing them with Islamic teachings. An example is when during a drought, women are allowed to pray to perform a traditional rain dance while their men pray at the mosque for rain. The women perform traditional dances by dressing up in rags and wearing ornaments made of rubbish and get out of the village in procession. The Wolof marriage follows a traditional mixing with some Islamic religious ceremonies although funeral ceremonies are more of Islamic than tradition to (Mbithi 1990; p.239).

The Wolof observes all the major Islamic activities and festivals among them being the end of Ramadan, Korite, and the feast of sheep sacrifice. Other religious activities include the circumcision ceremony although many argue that it is a pre-Islamic Wolof custom because the Wolof practice both Islamic and non-Islamic activities. 

Conclusion

The Wolof is predominantly Islamic. However, in spite of Islamic impact, traditional religious ceremonies play a bigger role in their religious activities. The Wolof have adopted several Islamic practices in conducting their religious activities including funerals, circumcision, and in observing religious ceremonies like Ramadan. Young Wolof men are taught Islamic religion and all that it pertains. Although other religions do exist, the Wolof are predominantly Islamic and carry out Islamic activities as well traditional activities and beliefs. 

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