What is it?
Muslim tariqah (Sufi religious brotherhoods) are one of the main organizing forms of West African Islam, and with the spread of Sufi ideas into the area, the marabout’s role combined with local practices throughout Senegambia, the Niger River Valley, and the Futa Jallon. Here, Sufi believers follow a marabout, elsewhere known as a murshid “Guide”. Marabout was also adopted by French colonial officials, and applied to most any imam, Muslim teacher, or secular leader who appealed to Islamic tradition.
Today marabouts can be traveling holy men who survive on alms, religious teachers who take in young talibes at Qur’anic schools, or distinguished religious leaders and scholars, both in and out of the Sufi brotherhoods which dominate spiritual life in Senegambia.
In the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal, marabouts are organized in elaborate hierarchies; the highest marabout of the Mourides, for example, has been elevated to the status of a Caliph or ruler of the faithful (Amir al-Mu’minin). Older, North African based traditions such as the Tijaniyyah and the Qadiriyyah base their structures on respect for teachers and religious leaders who, south of the Sahara, often are called marabouts. Those who devote themselves to prayer or study, either based in communities, religious centers, or wandering in the larger society, are named marabouts. In Senegal and Mali, these Marabouts rely on donations to live. Often there is a traditional bond to support a specific marabout that has accumulated over generations within a family. Marabouts normally dress in traditional West African robes and live a simple, ascetic life.
The spread in sub-Saharan Africa of the marabout’s role from the 8th through 13th centuries created in some places a mixture of roles with pre-Islamic priests and divines. Thus many fortune tellers and self-styled spiritual guides take the name “marabout” (something rejected by more orthodox Muslims and Sufi brotherhoods alike). The recent diaspora of West Africans (to Paris in particular) has brought this tradition to Europe and North America, where some marabouts advertise their services as fortune tellers. An eshu of Quimbanda, Marabô, is believed to have carried this esoteric and shamanic role into Brazil. Contemporary marabouts in Senegal advertise on television, on the Internet and have hot lines.
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