Vitality in diaspora: Cheikh Anta Babou on Senegalese Murid communities

In his new book, the associate professor of history captures the spirit of the Senegalese Murid diaspora.

Since the 1970s, the neighborhood from West 116th Street between Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X boulevards in central Harlem—known as Little Senegal, or “Le Petit Sénégal” by its francophone residents—has been a hub for the Muridiyya, a Sufi Islamic order founded in the late 19th century by Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba, a Senegalese poet and mystic who preached peaceful resistance to French colonialism and cultural assimilation. Far-flung from the order’s holy city of Touba, Senegal, it’s one of many vibrant Murid communities associate professor of history Cheikh Anta Babou highlights in his new book, “The Muridiyya on the Move: Islam, Migration, and Place Making.”

Group of Senegalese immigrants on the street.
Image: Courtesy of OMNIA

“The first time I visited Little Senegal, the streets were so lively, I believed I was in Dakar [Senegal’s capital],” says Babou, who joined Penn in 2002 and teaches African history and the history of Islam in Africa. “I was fascinated by what I saw—the shops, the restaurants, the festivals, the hair-braiders in salons, the way of dressing. How could these people, who came here without a penny and knowing no English, make themselves such an extraordinary life in a city where they should have gotten lost?”

Babou’s resolve to answer that question turned into “The Muridiyya on the Move,” in which he explores what it is about Murid culture that enables migrating disciples to thrive no matter where they settle. Murids make up one-third of the population of Senegal but account for more than half of the Senegalese diaspora—an estimated 2 million people living in established communities across Africa, Europe, and North America, and now spreading into South America and Asia.

As a master’s student in contemporary history at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar and a doctoral student in African history at Michigan State University, Babou discovered that the Muridiyya often went unmentioned in academic programs—and that when they did surface, it was in archives written by French colonialists and books authored by Western scholars. The stories they told did not match the ones Babou had heard from custodians of Murid oral history and his father, a Murid who knew Ahmadu Bamba personally.

For his new book, Babou also conducted 130 interviews with Murid men and women on three continents. As he’d expected, their insights varied from those in Western archives. For example, he found that the traditional economic theories of migration, maintaining that people emigrate primarily for financial reasons, do not apply to the Muridiyya, whose movement involves members of all classes, even the well-off.

“The Murids are not looking to turn new cities into their shop or their office. They are turning space into place, replacing the Senegalese society the French destroyed,” Babou says. “Space is generally perceived as a geometric reality defined by size and shape. Place, on the other hand, appears as a site of accumulated biographical experiences, a product of human agency that grows its significance from infused meaning and values.”

This story is by Karen Brooks. Read more at OMNIA.