Religion and business – The Mourides of Senegal

If you’ve ever visited a big European or American city, you have probably seen the African street vendors selling fake bags, sunglasses, belts and more. These sellers are often misapprehended as poor, desperate migrants trying to scrape up a living. Actually, most of them are part of a Muslim, Sufi order called the Mouride Brotherhood. Based on Muslim spirituality, ethics of hard work and solidarity, the Mourides are a well-organized economic institution and significant contributors to the Senegalese economy. How does the Mouride brotherhood model work and can the Mourides teach us something about our perception of Islam and capitalism?

In Senegal, about 28% of the population devote themselves to Mouridism, the Islamic following of Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), a spiritual leader basing his teachings on meditation, rituals, and study of the Quran. Amadou Bamba described Mouridism as “a return to Islam’s roots”. Mouridism mainly focuses on hard work, self-reliance and solidarity. The world famous musician, Youssou N’Dour, a Mouride himself, describes the teachings; “Mouridism is for me two paths – one is the way to God, the other path is the doctrine of work and dignity. Because if you don’t work, you hold your hand out and lose your dignity.”

The only remaining photo of Amadou Bamba, founder of Mouridism. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The work-ethic and strong bond of trust are seen as two reasons why the Mourides have become one of the most successful African communities, both back home in Senegal and in doing business abroad. When leaving Senegal, a Mouride becomes part of a complex network of international commerce. They can count on help with visas and loans to get started. The goods sold in the West are often bought from stores run by other Mourides, imported from Senegal and Asian countries like China, India and Indonesia. A Mouride mosque is often built in the Western cities from Mouride money. There, they meet once a week to pray and to coordinate the business. They see who is in need of money and organise purchases of goods that they export back home to Senegal to be sold in markets run by other Mourides. The system is built on the deep trust that unites the Mourides, which has made banks unnecessary. If a trader needs something, he calls another trader to fix it, relatives in Senegal then transfer the money owed. The Mourides are not only street-sellers in the West; they are also involved in many different businesses. “Work and don’t complain much. That’s the only doctrine they have, the only network they have is workaholic” says Moustapha Diao, a Mouride living in New York. It seems as the Mourides have found a way to adapt to the modern, globalized world by skipping banks and other economic institutions, instead, basing the business around religious trust and emphasising the collective rather than the individual.

Senegal, a country which is 95% Muslim, is one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Saudi Wahhabism receives a lot of media attention today due to the uncompromising legal-system. The Swedish foreign minister has even condemned Saudi courts for using “medieval methods”. Despite the existence of other forms of Islam like Mouridism, the Saudi version is what many westerners perceive as the quintessential Islamic faith. While Mourides pray to the same God as Wahhabis, the practices are quite different. For example, Mouridism includes a tradition of saints and tombs, which is not allowed by Saudi Wahhabism. Cheikh Sene, a Mouride scholar, says that “They (Arab Muslims) think we are nothing, they think we are crazy. They think they are superior.” Some Muslim communities criticize Mouridism for their worship of the brotherhood’s founding father, Amadou Bamba, and leaving the Prophet Mohammad shadowed. The Mourides are however unconcerned; because of their strong economy they have no need of Saudi’s or others economic contributions.

The Great Mosque in Touba, the holy city of Mouridism. The city was founded by Amadou Bamba. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The reputation of Islam in the West concerns many Mourides. The events of 9/11, more recent terror attacks and the large influx of Muslim refugees in Europe has led to anti-Muslim political movements in Europe and in USA. “In the West, you read all about terrorism… we’re all lumped together. But those of us who understand that it’s a religion of peace, love and sharing mustn’t give up.” says Youssou N’Dour. In addition to the Mouride doctrines of Islamic faith and hard work, a Mouride virtue is to “provoke no one”.

When creating our image of Islam, we need to remember that it is diverse and includes both Saudi Wahhabism and Senegalese Mouridism. The good reputation of Senegalese politics partly has Mouridism to thank for building a strong economy, providing the country with a strong base to set up health care and schools. Mouridism could be called a liberal Islam success story. So, next time you travel in the West and see that seemingly destitute street vendor, you can bet you are really looking at a successful story of Islamic trust, capitalism and peacefulness.

Vilhelm Fritzon

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