Sufi States Inside The State

April 6, 2008

A state is a political body which has well defined boundaries of its sovereign territories. A state must also have effective administration to rule its citizens, legal and defense structures to apply its laws as well as a taxation system to cover its expenses. In opposition to tribes and chiefdoms, states are the only sociopolitical systems which are not based on kinship but on citizenship. Archaic and modern states have different models, which have specific structures.

Some Sufi orders for religious and historical reasons succeeded in founding autonomous states inside other sovereign states. In Senegal for instance, many clerical city-states and Jihadi villages emerged as independent beings following some particular historical events. These city-states in Senegambia enjoy total autonomy from the central state, and run their territories as independent structures in all fields. In Kurdistan, the Sufi Derwish in Boiveh has a total control over their religious ceremonial lives and autonomous running of their administration and services. Yet, the Boiveh Derwish brotherhood can’t be considered fully as a state because it is still undergoing many pressures by the Iranian state and has no historical impregnation in time.

This paper will examine the characteristics of two main Senegambian autonomous regions: Touba and Pakao. The fist is a Sufi city-state of the Mouride brotherhood; the second is a region were autonomous Jihadi villages that run themselves in a local kind of organization. It would try to see if Touba and Pakao can be called States. Then, it would try to analyze the features of the Boiveh Derwish community with regards to modern state characteristics. This paper would focus mostly on the ceremonial, the economic and the administrative aspects of autonomy in the three studied cases.

The Example Of Touba

In 1206 Senegal was already a state under Sundieta Keita. It has a 44 points constitution an army and administrative structures. The first mention of a state in Senegal was in the early 9th century (Chronology, Sahel / West Africa). Therefore, the Senegambian has an important heritage from archaic states.

Touba is a very interesting case study in modern Senegal, as it is one of the rare deeply organized autonomous city-states in the world. “Touba is a Muslim holy city, and it is brand new. The city was founded in 1887 by Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké, the Sufi who established the Mouride brotherhood. Its construction was initiated in 1926, and its great mosque was inaugurated only in 1963” (Ross 2005, pp: 243). What is interesting about Touba, is not its being Senegal’s second largest city or its spiritual importance for million of followers of the Mouride brotherhood, but it is its status as an autonomous rural community, functioning as an independent state under the rule of the Khalifa General.

The phenomenon of the appearance of “autonomous Muslim towns” in West Africa and Senegambian history is mainly due to the introduction of Islam in the region. Educated clerical lineages appeared by the 17th century, and occupied important functions in royal courts and magical services. Thus, in exchange of their services, the clerical lineages obtained land where they established schools for Islamic education. Sufi brotherhoods rose only during the 19th century. Enjoying a special status under occupation, they started building their own private towns with the expansion of Islam in Senegal (Ross 2005).

Ceremonial life is very important in Touba as a holy city for the Mouride brotherhood. We may call Touba a Theocratic city state, because of the religious nature of the leadership system. The Khalifa General is a direct descendent of Ahmadou Bamba and is supposed to rule from a divine inspiration due to his position as the sheikh of the Sufi brotherhood. Ceremonial life is totally independent from the Senegalese Government, as the Mouride developed in Touba their own religious structures and infrastructures as it is the case in their other cities like: Darou Karim, Porokhane, and Touba Bagdad… The brotherhood designed a whole religious urban design to consolidate its power among its followers. The great central mosque, mausoleums, houses of the sheikh, religious schools and other buildings are there to remind of the holiness and religious autonomy of the town.

Touba is legally an independent city like the city of Madina-Gounass. “In Touba’s case the special status is base on conditions during the colonial period, when the French authorities came to an accommodation with the Mouride brotherhood… Since 1976 it has the status of communauté rurale autonome, or “autonomous rural community”” (Ross 2005, pp: 258). According to Dr. Ross’s research, for the Mourides it is obvious that Touba must be autonomous because of its spiritual value, but legally it is thanks to a 1928 lease proving that the city is constructed on a private property. As a result of this special status, Touba has its own administration, provides its own services and has nothing to do with state taxes or the intervention of government authorities, even if the president of Senegal is a Mouride follower. Touba also has its special laws imposed on all residents and visitors. The city’s law is a moral code inspired from the Islamic Chari’a and the teachings of the spiritual leaders, like: banishing songs, cigarettes and other practices, which are seen non-Islamic. Thus, punishment can be imposed on whom violates this moral code by the judiciary body of the city.

Economically, Touba was initially an agrarian town like other Jihad states in the region “where students paid their “tuition fees” by toiling their masters’ fields during agricultural seasons” (Ross 2005, pp: 250). Nowadays, agriculture is still important for Touba’s economy, but it has more of a tertiary sector based economy, as it provides mainly schooling and religious services. Touba don’t get any loans of financial support from the state. It gets its resources from the important contributions of the followers of the Mouride brotherhood in Senegal and other countries of the region. Consequently we can say that Touba is economically independent.

As we’ve proved, Touba can truly be considered as state. Touba benefits from the historical heritage of the Senegambian other city-states, and has developed under the French regime a special status. Therefore, Touba enjoys nowadays total independence in terms of religious practices, administrative and legal institutions as well as economic welfare.

The Example of Pakao

Ha Pulaarim is the social cast of fighters in the Senegambian region. The Pulars, who fought for Islam in the name of Jihad, moved to Futa Jalon after the defeat of Casamense, conquered the Mandinka and became the dominant social class in the Pakao villages since the 17th century. Therefore, many religiously based “Marabout states” raised on the region of Pakao since that period.

The Mandinka region of Pakao includes fertile lands and 160 miles of the Casamence River where many autonomous villages lays. In terms of administration, we can’t say that the Pakao villages are autonomous. “Administratively, Pakao lies in the department of Sédhiou, named for its capital. The department is divided into five districts. The one administrated from Djendé, near Sédhiou, subsumes Pakao. Karantaba, lying in Suna on the south bank, is the Tanaff district. The head of a district supervises the census and tax, provides identity cards, and some instances resolves disputes” (Shaffer & Cooper 1980, pp: 27). Hence, politically and administratively the Pakao can’t be called an autonomous region, since it pays taxes to the central state and even benefits from the state’s services like schooling and healing. Yet, “the idea that villages are independent of each other is very much a part of social ethic of Pakao” (Shaffer & Cooper 1980, pp: 44). The villages run themselves as autonomous unities since Islam destroyed the kinship system during the 19th century.

Ceremonial practices are impregnated deeply in the Mandinka people, as the villages were found first of all upon Islamic values. The Marabouts are the Islamic clerics, who claim to have supernatural powers of healing and predicting the future as oracles. Each Pakao village has its Marabouts, who maintain the link with orthodox Islam by going to pilgrimage. Islam, is present is a local form in all aspects of life like marriage, prayer or death (Shaffer & Cooper 1980, pp: 39-41).The Imams enjoy a very important role in the Pakao system as a leader of the prayers and a holy man, whereas a secular chief is designated to rule administrative and daily life issues of the village’s populations.

“Pakao is primarily a sedentary agricultural society dependent on a good rainy season for successful harvest” (Shaffer & Cooper 1980, pp: 28). Farming and agriculture are the main activities of the Pakao economy. Pakao villages were organized in cooperative associations to keep their autonomy and improve the incomes of their people, but in was a weak experience. Pakao villages aren’t totally independent from government programs and subventions.

Pakao villages are autonomous as small communities, but can’t be called States because they depend in many fields on the central state like: education, administration, taxation…

The Example Of The Boiveh Derwishs

Kurdish people never had a real state. The Kurdish people were most of their history living between the borders of other dominant countries, even if they repetitively claimed their right to a sovereign Nation State. Yet, The historical complex about not having a state was translated in the construction of autonomous Sufi communities like the Kaderi Derwish community which lives in Boiveh in Iran today.

Many Kurdish Sufi Derwishs moved from Iraq, during the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, to Iran. The Iranian government gave the communities lands in Boiveh where they could grow corps and practice freely their religious activities under the shelter of their sheikh.

Administratively, the situation of Boiveh is very problematic. The pilgrims from Iraq come every year to the town to visit their Sheikh, and the allegiance to the spiritual leader and kinship relationships goes beyond the borders of Iran and Iraq. However, Boiveh population has to follow the Iranian government in terms of the implementation of the Iranian educational system and compulsory military service as well as other administrative formalities (Moser 1987).

The administrative and other aspects of life seem very mild for the Boiveh Darwishs, who believe that “faith goes in daily work not only in ceremony” (Moser 1987). In fast, ceremonial life is at the forefront of the life of this community. Daily Dhikr ceremonies take place every day and auto-flagellation actions are administrated by adults and children in presence of the Sheikh Koha Mohammed, using snakes, electricity, swords, fire… The Sheik and his offspring are seen as holy people, who are in contact with the prophet and god, so they follow the path of initiation since their early years to get closer to god through the Sheikh. The sheik has also the authority to build mosques to consolidate the position of his tarika, as people come and work voluntarily and without payment following the words of their spiritual leader. A strict religious education and initiation is also one of the aspects of the autonomy of Boiveh. Yet, people in the town aren’t all obliged to assist to ceremonies and don’t get punished for that, since according to the Sufis religion is a personal practice (Moser 1987).

Economically, Boiveh is an agrarian town. People are farmers and merchants and work at the same time in the lands of the Sheikh and his sons without getting paid, as a sign of love for the Sheik. One of the men in the documentary even said: “We work for the Sheikh, because the Sheikh works for god” (Moser 1987). In the documentary we didn’t have enough proves about the economic autonomy of Boiveh (Moser 1987).

The Sufi Darwish brotherhood of Boiveh can’t be called a state, because it doesn’t have the powerful administration of economic system a state should have. In addition, Boiveh depends on the Iranian government in many ways like in military service and education despite its strong religious autonomy.

In this article we’ve seen three different autonomous regions that try to run their issues independently from the central state. In the case of Touba, it is very interesting to notice how notorious a Sufi brotherhood can be to benefit from all legal, religious and economic autonomy from the Senegalese state. Pakao which inherited the autonomous aspect of the Jihadi states can’t be considered as a full state because of the economic problems and the strong administrative presence of the state in its structures. As regards the Boiveh Sufi brotherhood, we noticed the prevalence of religious ceremonies over all other aspects of life. Consequently, Boiveh can be seen as a highly religiously autonomous town in the Shia state of Iran. Yet, the sate of refugees doesn’t allow the Boiveh people to claim more administrative autonomy.

As Dr. Ross noted in his article, we can say that maybe these forms of autonomous city-states provide natural examples for the success of a Globalized world where the Nation sate has less authority over its regions, which have specific needs and historical heritage.


– Ross, Eric. (2005). From ‘marabout republics’ to ‘autonomous rural communities’: autonomous Muslim towns in Senegambia. in African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective, edited by Steven J. Salm & Toyin Falola. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.
– Morsen, Brian. (1987). Dervishes of Kurdistan. Disapearing World. Discovery Chanel. With anthropologist André Singer.
– Shaffer, Matt & Cooper, Christine. (1980). Mandinko. The Ethnography of a West African Holy Land. Waveland Press. Illinois.


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