Lecturer touts African Islam’s progressivism

Guest speaker Souleymane Bachir Diagne, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, delivered a presentation in the New Library Auditorium on Feb. 13 titled “Islam in Africa,” specifically about the state of Islam in the African nation of Senegal.

“Islam in Senegal,” Diagne said, “seems to me to be a good vantage point towards a larger and more connected issue,” which was whether Islam and modernity could coexist.

Diagne spoke about Christianity and Islam and how they both have similar objectives. They both “realize the will of God” as well as “the fraternity of humans through justice for all,” Diagne said.

The speech focused on Senegal’s first president, philosopher and poet Leopold Sedar Senghor. Though Senghor was Catholic with Anglo-Saxon ideals, he had much invested in Islamic pluralism.

According to Diagne, Senghor’s view was that “Christianity and Islam, hand-in-hand, should be playing the role of lifting the nation towards development and modernity.”

Diagne also spoke about Islamic mysticism, called Sufism, which is practiced in Senegal and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Sufism is like none of the religious schools of Islam. It is about spirits,” Diagne said. “There is a moment in eternity where all souls exist, see God, recognize him and are sent down to Earth.” On Earth, they forget the sight of God, but there is still a stamp on each soul from being in the presence of God, according to Sufism.

“Every single desire is that desire of God knowingly or unknowingly. We are moved by that primordial moment where we say ‘yes’ to God,” Diagne said.

Sufism is commonly associated with pluralism and peacefulness, and Diagne stressed this was due to the followers’ tolerance for others.

Sufism also supports progressive ideals. It is “sociologically more open to the kind of gender equality that is advocated in the Quran,” Diagne said. “Women can have positions of leadership in Sufi orders.”

This sect of Islam is also unsusceptible to Islamic radicalism, according to Diagne. “When it comes to pluralism and tolerance, the fact that sub-Saharan Islam is mainly Sufism makes it particularly immune from the most extremist forms of Islam that we have seen,” Diagne said.

In addition to being a professor at Northwestern, Diagne recently joined the faculty at Columbia University. Diagne has published numerous works on the history, literature and philosophy of African societies.