Deep changes underway in Islam in West Africa

Islam in West Africa has undergone significant transformations since independence, including urbanization, modernization, globalization, and possibly the feminization of Islamic practices, writes Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, senior researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), in the online Bulletin de l’Observatoire International du Religieux (January). While not denying the presence of vibrant Salafi networks, the author notes that those developments may be more significant in the long term, if less visible, than the cases of radicalization that are currently receiving the most attention from observers. Rural exodus and sedentarization have had a strong impact on Muslims in West Africa. In major West African cities, it is common to see Muslim families sending their children to private Christian schools that are perceived to have a higher quality of education than public schools. More broadly, population mixing and the arrival of many Sahelians in coastal urban areas have led Islam and Christianity to blend together. Through constant interaction, Muslims and Christians have influenced each other’s practices over time. For example, Yoruba Muslims in southwest Nigeria now organize overnight vigils and missionary campaigns inspired by the success of Pentecostal church crusades, Pérouse de Montclos writes.

The Great Mosque of Touba in Senegal (source: Council of American Overseas Research Centers,

As religions contend with modernity and diversity in globalized urban settings, some liberal or “nominal” Muslims have gradually secularized. Despite patriarchal traditions, some observant women have also “feminized” Islam by occupying public roles, working in civic organizations, and sometimes emerging as spiritual guides in spaces formerly reserved only for men. The number of girls in Quranic schools has increased, and girls are reported to now make up a majority in Islamic schools in Nigeria and Senegal. Monogamy is progressing and the age of marriage is rising. West African Muslims have seized opportunities from globalization to demonstrate not only their ability to modernize and produce high-quality religious teachings, but also to have a voice and participate in global debates. Both Salafi and Sufi clerics have leveraged media liberalization to establish Islamic radio and TV stations. Similarly, Muslims have formed NGOs to institutionalize religious advocacy in a more structured framework conducive to dialogue and mediation as alternatives to armed struggle or electoral politics. This has also helped close their historical gap with Christians who traditionally used to be more active in development work thanks to international funding.

In response to growing demand, private Islamic higher education has expanded rapidly across the region since the 1970s, influenced by models from Saudi Arabia and other countries. Islamic universities and colleges have often been established through Gulf-based charities. However, these universities generally did not achieve a high enough standard to provide real professional opportunities, revealing the challenges of development through the Islamic education sector. Pérouse de Montclos points out that Muslims in West Africa have not only been at the receiving end, but that some reputed sheikhs have gone abroad. For example, Abdallah bin Bayyah first went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from Mauritania in 1981 and then moved to Abu Dhabi in 2014, where he has emphasized “middle way” Islam with the support of the Emirati authorities and became head of the UAE Fatwa Council in 2018.

(Bulletin de l’Observatoire International du Religieux,