Zachary Valentine Wright. 2015. Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrahim Niasse. Leiden: Brill. 333 pp.
The increase in popular Islamic education by the Salafi reformists and the spread of Aqeeda books from Saudi Arabia created a scene in West African understanding of Islamic knowledge, which seems to have become popular over the traditional method. Zachary Valentine Wright unearths the situation in West Africa where a persistent form of knowledge seeking and understanding silently gets momentum and influences the lives of many followers of the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975). Wright provides an analysis of the Sufi community of Ibrahim Niasse as one of the most successful twentieth century Sufi movements in West African Islam, which present a special form of approach to knowledge with the aim of transforming the individual into a better Muslim (p. 4). Thus, "the one who has learned the Qur'an becomes the Qur'an" in terms of practice (p. 16). This form of knowledge provides the self with a special connection to God. The significance is being endowed with textual meanings and adab (disposition), different from the reformists' approach which is text-based and ideological (p. 27).
The Sufi community of Ibrahim Niasse emphasizes the Maliki School, one of the four schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, through personalized knowledge transmission from master to disciple leading to the concept of serving teachers (shaykhs) i.e. khidma (p. 34). Wright emphasized that Shaykhs are the custodians of the curriculum of learning and are responsible for decoding religious texts for disciples and if adored and respected, the disciple acquires systematic knowledge, faith and compliance with the sunna. Al-Khidri for instance stressed that the student should "ask the people of knowledge and imitate those who follow the sunna of Muhammad." The most important aspects of this process according to Wright are: understanding the sacred law (shari'a), knowledge of the correct interpretation of the Qur'an and knowing the secrets of esoteric sciences (ilm al-asrar), which is only embedded in master-disciple relations (p. 41). The spiritual authority of the Sufi shaykh provides the disciple with guidance towards solidifying the Sufi training that is entrenched in the West African Sufi tradition of learning through the bodily presence of the master (60). Wright raises an important point concerning the Sufi Shaykhs' engagement with litanies as part of their investment with spiritual power. Some of the Sufi Shaykhs make their expressions in metaphorical terms not quite understood today, a form of knowledge that is often accompanied by unveiling (kashf) of spiritual experience (jadhb) only relevant to a number of Sufi masters. Shaykh Al-Kunti believed that "cognizance, the knowledge of God's reality (ilm al-haqiqa), could be obtained only through the help and guidance of a shaykh" (p. 62). Therefore, Wright stressed that direct knowledge of God is emphasized by the community of Ibrahim Niasse as an existing habitus of personalized instruction, which established a specific West African Sufi identity, thus Sufi scholars become an icon of knowledge and disciples gather around them from far and near.
Disciples were made to understand that the best form of knowledge is ma'arifa, i.e. experiential knowledge of God that was introduced by Ibrahim Niasse. According to Niasse, this knowledge is necessary and Islamic scholars should be able to provide spiritual guidance in addition to textual understanding. This was exemplified by the relationship of Ibrahim Niasse and his closest disciple and successor Ali Cisse that goes beyond blood relations, as in his saying "the true disciple becomes the shaykh" (p. 105). Ali Cisse was always around Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse; praying behind him, performing dhikr with him, studying and reading the Qur'an as well as teaching on his behalf. Ibrahim Niasse used to praise Ali Cisse that he was to him, the way Ali was to the Prophet, an indication of spiritual choice by God (p. 121). Wright concludes that this attitude to knowledge "provides unique insight into the logic and potential of shaykh-disciple relationships at a crucial juncture in the development of new scholarly communities" (p. 122).
Ma'arifat Allah or experiential knowledge of God is considered the depth of mystical aspiration, which according to Niasse's followers; Niasse has excelled above other West African Islamic scholars in this regard. The Sufis believed that knowledge of God leads its possessor to the recognition of divine truth as a result of primordial covenant of the souls of entire human creation before fixing them in corporal bodies. Therefore, the presence of the soul in the body indicates that all humans have the intrinsic ability to know God. Thus, the purpose of human creation goes beyond worship to include awareness of God, a complimentary quality to worship (p. 133). Otherwise, how can a person worship God without knowing Him? "The purpose of human creation was to know God, and everything distracting humans from that necessity was a fleeting illusion." Ma'arifa is thus the true understanding of the divine Oneness of God (tawhid) (p. 135).
This form of knowledge ought to be transmitted through master-disciple relationship under special spiritual training called tarbiya. The Shaykh help the disciple to move from one rank to another like grades in a modern western school. According to Wright, the Prophet is seen as the "paradigmatic actualization of divine knowledge," which was transmitted to selected companions and which continued by means of person-to-person transmission (p. 148). The shaykh must also have the spiritual ability to bring the disciple into the presence of God therefore, entitled to the disciple's service and obedience (khidma) (p. 178). Although some Sufi shaykhs like Ahmad Tijani claimed direct initiation from the Prophet through dream or waking encounter (p. 156). On the other hand, the disciple must rely and accompany the shaykh because knowledge is in the bodily presence of the shaykh and there is need to internalize it as well as become the spiritual child of the master. The disciple should hope to in the future become a spiritual master himself, and his physical companionship with the shaykh indicates his sincerity in seeking God.
However, despite the persistency of the Sufi form of knowledge for many centuries in West Africa, there are other forms of Islamic knowledge in the West African scene, which I called popular Islamic knowledge at the beginning of this review and Zachary Valentine provided an analysis of it in the last part of the book for better understanding of the situation in West Africa. Another important point, is that the Sufi understanding of knowledge is only restricted within the fold of particular believers in the community of Ibrahim Niasse and other Sufi Orders, which restrict its popularity.
Dauda Abubakar, University of Jos