Music and Performing Arts

Islam and the Creative Imagination in Senegal

In few other places in the creative traditions of sub-Saharan Africa is the factor of Islam more prominent and influential than in Senegal. Manifested on the level of form and subject-matter and spanning a wide cross-section of talent in both the traditional and modern media of creative expression, this prominence and influence can be attributed to a number of factors ranging from the artistic maturity, religious sensibility, intellectual astuteness and ideological orientation of individual artists to the more general impact that Islam, as a dominant religious force, is perceived to have had on secular life in Senegal. These factors, to a large extent, determine the various ways in which individual Senegalese artists define themselves and their art vis-a-vis Islam, in particular, and society, in general, definitions which creatively translate into formal choice, thematic focus and, to use a cliche, “message”.

Two opposite sets of equally militant attitudes constitute the polar extremes that bracket the range of Senegalese artists’ creative response to Islam, thus paralleling or ‘reflecting’ similar patterns that obtain in the society at large. This is hardly surprising, given the conception that Senegalese, and indeed, most African artists, have of the nature and function of art in society. On one pole is that ensemble of attitudes shaped by a zealous embrace and vigorous advocacy of the primordiality of Islam as the most, indeed, the only, legitimate and effective vehicle for the totalization of the individual and the society. Art in the hands of individuals on this end of the creative spectrum becomes an instrument of propagation of religious ideals, in this case Islamic religious ideals.

But beyond this religious vision or in conjunction with it, cultural and artistic canons of the language of Islam, i.e. Arabic, are appropriated wholesale or adapted in the name of authenticity and put to the service of secular ideals with roots deep in the religious ethic. Total assimilation, to use Fanon’s terms, constitutes the most pronounced trait of this category of creative enterprise undertaken by Senegalese Muslim clerics and griots writing and performing in Arabic, Wolof and Peul. Poetry, both oral and written, is the privileged genre here, and among the more celebrated practitioners figure El-Hadji Abdoul Aziz Sy, El-Hadji IbMima Niasse, Moussa Ka, El-Hadji Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, Khali Madiakhate Kala (see Diop, n.d.: pp. 66-70 and Samb,
1968, 1971, 1972).

Moving left, a nudge away from this first category, is another group of artist believers, different from the first group only in language and form of expression. Instead of Arabic and the indigenous languages, French becomes the principal medium utilized, and the novel replaces poetry as the vehicle for setting up Islam as the most secure shield against Western individualist/materialist decadence, as exemplified in Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s L’Aventure Ambigue (Ambiguous Adventure), and as the most solid foundation on which to predicate the human and moral development of Senegal, as conveyed in Aminata Sow Fall’s La Greve des Battu  (The Beggars’ Strike).

The central point on the spectrum of creative responses to Islam in Senegal is occupied by works belonging to that sphere of creativity generally referred to as oral traditions. These represent creations in the indigenous languages and forms as well as translations and recreations of these into French. The series of renditions in French of the narratives of Amadou Koumba by Birago Diop (1958,1961,1963) stands out in the latter category. Their median position on the spectrum is a function of a somewhat ambivalent response to Islam, characterized by a constant alternation between reverence and mockery. In the oral traditions, the pietistic zeal and aura of the first two groups are tempered by an attitude of mild irreverence which reveals and pokes fun (in ways that may appear sacrilegious to the devoutly religious) at the humanness of that most pious earthly symbol of Islam, the Serigne/Marabout. Yet, this attitude goes no further, that is, belief in the ideals of Islam still regulates behavior and life.

It is only among the next two groups of artists toward the left end of the spectrum that the mild irreverent attitude of the oral traditions begins to acquire radical traits which in their extreme, border on apostasy. Professing different degrees of belief or disbelief, and working in fiction in French and cinema in the indigenous Senegalese languages, these artists utilize forms (and in some cases, language) whose origin is essentially non-African to expose and contest what they regard as religious distortion, particularly, the crafty exploitation of Islam at all levels of society as a mask to hide self-centered secular interests of the kind that are inimical to the creation of conditions likely to foster the totalization of individual and society.

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