This is a composite of information from various sources on the life of Maam Allaaji Abdulaay Ñas (Ash-Shaykh al-Ḥājj ᶜAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad). It is intended as a general reference and a framework to plug various bits of information into as I come across them. As such, there are many holes in it that will be filled in as I continue, so it is not a complete or finished reference.
These points of genealogy are found in diverse narratives and seem to be widely agreed upon, except where I signal differences. 1was the son of , who in turn was the son of Ngàjja Ñas, whose other sons were Lamin Mati Ñas and Omar Mati Ñas. His mother was Xadijatu Caam, whose full brother was , a fact that related Ñaseen and Caameen cite today in explainaing their joking relationship.
Njolofeen accounts say that his father, muqaddam. One informant told me that their family adhered to the Qādiriyy Sufi order.2, was a Qurᵓān teacher and a holy man as Allaaji Abdulaay was, although he was not a
The question of caste
Several Western scholars (such as Coulon, 1981, Villalon, 1995, Piga, 2002, etc.) say that he was a “humble blacksmith” and that many of his followers were attracted to him because his high religious rank demonstrated the social mobility of Islam. Coulon says: “El Hadj Niass is of a very modest social origin. Son of a humble blacksmith from Djolof who left his country as the result of a famine, he is the living example of the social mobility that Sufi Islam and in particular the Tidjaniyya prescibe” (1981: 91). Using similar wording, Piga describes Allaaji Abdulaay as
. . . son of a man of humble condition, a blacksmith by status. This is an important detail because it arouses a heated polemic: how not to recall the opinion of the scholar Barham [Jóob], for many years the secretary of [Ibrahim] Niass, according to whom it was particularly the colonisers who considered him a casted man in order to minimize his importance. This detail is not negligeable because it indicates the extent to which [Ibrahim] Niass, a well known international personality and an incontestable wali [waliyy] for millions of admirers, has embodied the ideology of social mobility in the Tidjane order. (Piga, 2002: 261–262)
Although this passage does not clarify what the controversy is all about, it seems to imply that the issue is not so much whether the Ñaseen are really casted (blacksmiths) but how much one wishes to dwell on the fact that they are casted.
Klein says that Allaaji Abdulaay’s father, “descended from a line of blacksmiths, was a marabout who had migrated to Rip, probably at the time of Ma Bâ’s [Màbba Jaxu’s] retreat retreat from Jolof in 1865” (1968: 223). Thus, Klein differs from some scholars in describing Muḥammad Ñas as a marabout, not as a blacksmith by trade, although he agrees about his descent.
These scholars echo a widespread assumption in Senegal that every person has an immutable “caste” status inherited from one’s parents, and that all castes can be ranked according to a clear hierarchy, with “nobles” (géer) at the top and artisans (ñeeno), with their own internal hierarchy, underneath. The most reputable blacksmith is presumed incapable of acquiring the same status as even the lowest géer. Indeed, most people’s caste status is undisputed. Although most ñeeno give genealogies that depict their ancestors as nobles or as foreigners, the fact of having ñeeno in their presumably endogamous family tree marks them irrevocably as ñeeno, regardless of what work they or their grandparents have performed.
Yet nearly all Njolofeen oral accounts I collected categorically deny the widely held belief in their tëgg ancestry. Ñaseen’s own accounts claim that they are direct descendants of Muḥammad and have practiced religious professions and farming ever since their ancestor, the holy man Riḍḍāᶜ the second, came to Senegal from Lybia. This ancestry places themselves outside the West African caste structures. Most non-Njolofeen disciples likewise agree that the Ñaseen are not of blacksmith origin, although some Séeréer disciples from Saalum tell me that is known to have ordered some of his relatives to get rid of their anvils and to leave behind smithing and that the Ñaseen are now covering up their roots. These disciples would never make such claims in public, fearing that some would question their disciplehood.
The point is not to argue whether or not some or all of the Njolofeen are blacksmiths (tëgg) or have some blacksmith roots but to emphasize that these origins are contested, as most non-disciples and non-Njolofeen in Senegal view all Njolofeen as blacksmiths while Njolofeen themselves deny this origin. Thus, the argument that the Ñaseen’s “rags-to-riches” story increases their popular appeal is not credible, as blacksmith origin is almost solely cited to denigrate them, not to emphasize their social mobility or personal merit. This reading stems from a Western individualism and preoccupation with social mobility that is out of place in this context. The more widespread and opposite claim that Ñaseen leaders’s popular appeal has been limited by their (at least perceived) caste status is more in line with negative local understandings of caste, although it is based on a simplistic equation of a leader’s popular appeal to the number of that leader’s disciples. The spread of Ñaseen leaders’s influence was shaped by numerous factors, and of which caste perceptions have played a relatively minor role.
Migration from Jolof to Saalum
Most accounts agree that Maam, or Grandfather, and Àmmat being in some cases a contraction for Muḥammad and in others a Wolofization of ᵓAḥmad). Narratives cite numerous reasons for the Njolofeen emigration from Jolof to Saalum, including conflicts with the king (Buurba Jolof), the call to jihad by Màbba Jaxu Ba, and repeated droughts.was from the town of Béeli Jolof. He came when he was around the age of 20 with his father, Muḥammad, known today as Maa Àmmat Ñas (Maa being a contraction of
The Ñas family came from Jolof and lived in several villages in Saalum, at one point joining several other Njolofeen families in Mbittéyeen Waalo. Klein says they probably came in 1865, when Màbba Jaxu retreated from Jolof. But the Njolofeen did not all come at the same time, and some came before the jihād began and some came after it had finished. It appears that the Ñaseen were living in this village throughout the jihād led by , and Allaaji Abdulaay and many other Njolofeen men participated in fighting in the jihād. Following the end of Màbba Jaxu’s state and the strengthening of French control over the area, several of the Njolofeen patriarchs, most of them holy men who taught the Qurᵓān and practiced occult medicine, left with their families and followers to found their own villages, all within a few kilometers of Mbittéyeen. According to Mbay Jée Bittéy, village chief of Mbittéyeen Waalo, was the first of these patriarchs to leave, founding nearby Ñaseen Waalo. (The names of nearly all Njolofeen villages are composed of the nominal form of the founding family’s surname combined with another qualifier.)
Although the leader of each of these groups was a religious leader in his own right, none were practicing muqaddams in any Ṣūfī order. (Mbay Galo Bittéy had received a Tijāniyy ᵓijāzah from while in Mbittéyeen but is not reported to have used it to initiate people into the Order.) The fact that the Friday mosque serving all these villages was located in Ñaseen Waalo even though it was not the oldest village suggests that was already recognized as the main religious leader.
Several Njolofeen elders have also told me that their families were Qādiriyy before coming to Saalum. According to Mbay Jée Bittéy, Mbay Galo Bittéy had been a Tijāniyy even before leaving Jolof and had founded a village in Jolof named after muqaddam of Baay Ñas from Tayba tells us another cause for leaving his father’s village: in Ñaseen Waalo “the ground was not great for farming, that is, when they farmed they wouldn’t harvest much.”’s Algerian birthplace, ᶜAyn Māḍī, whereas the Ñaseen were Qādiriyy. He cites tension betwen Allaaji Abdulaay and other members of his family after Allaaji Abdulaay took on the Tijāniyy order as one of the reasons why Allaaji Abdulaay left Ñaseen Waalo for Tayba. One
It is important to remember that although Tijāniyy muqaddams were far less common in the area than they are today, Allaaji Abdulaay was not the only Tijāniyy muqaddam in Saalum. Mbay Galo Bittéy’s son, Allaaji Haali Laamo Bittéy, was a contemporary of Allaaji Abdulaay with many disciples in the region and founded the village of Daaru Mbittéyeen in 1904, while Allaaji Abdulaay was in Gambia. It was perhaps Allaaji Abdulaay’s absence that made room for many to follow an alternative muqaddam. Allaaji Haali Laamo’s followers were especially numerous in some of the Mbittéyeen villages and although most of his disciples have since become disciples of Baay Ñas, some of his grandchildren still maintain an independent zāwiyah in Daaru Mbittéyeen. Later in Allaaji Abdulaay’s life, another Tijāniyy village, , was formed by Allaaji Abdulaay Siise, a muqaddam of who founded his own independent branch of the Tijāniyyah. During Baay Ñas’s lifetime, Jaamal would become, and it remains, a highly reputed center of Islamic learning, drawing many disciples of Baay Ñas to study there. Since Allaaji Abdulaay, Kaolack has been the principal religious city in Saalum, whether Tijāniyy or otherwise, but it has never been the only one.
Klein says Ñas was initiated into the Tijāniyyah around 1875 by a follower of (1968: 223), probably meaning by initiation not only that he received the wird but that he received an ᵓijāzah.
In 1890, Allaaji Abdulaay officially became an “Allaaji” (al-Ḥājj), making his pilgrimage to Makkah with his oldest son Muḥammad (later known as “Xaliifa” because he became Allaaji Abdulaay’s successor) and visiting the Tijāniyy zāwiyah in Fās on the way (Klein, 1968: 224). This is an indication of his growing influence, as only leaders with many adherents could marshall the resources to make the pilgrimage, which involved supporting a whole entourage on the trip. It appears that he was not given an ᵓijāzah during this trip to Fās but rather during his second trip to Fās in 1910.
Over the next decade, Allaaji Abdulaay’s influence grew considerably and, as was the case with other Islamic leaders at the time, French and customary leaders were uneasy with his influence. This was especially the case because he and many of his followers had taken part in the armed struggle against both French and traditional authorities.
The move to
Most written academic accounts and narratives told in large meetings state that jinne as some accounts do, with the large segment of Tayba’s population who claim to be his descendants. Most interviewees acknowledged potential disagreement not over whether Saabunaax existed or whether he was human but simply over how important his role was in founding the village. I go into more detail on the various accounts about Saabunaax in my essays on history and jinnes.founded , remaining silent about any alternative accounts. Most accounts from Njolofeen in Waalo (the villages around Tayba) agree that the first to settle in what is now Tayba were those associated with , although some of these accounts say that his settlement was so brief and unsuccessful that it would not be inaccurate to say that Allaaji Abdulaay founded the village as we know it today. Yet some, especially certain descendents of Allaaji Abdulaay, insist that no one had even attempted to settle in Tayba and that Allaaji Abdulaay alone is to be credited with founding it. Although this is the more publicly known version, only a small minority of elders I spoke with agreed with this, and it is hard to reconcile an account that denies Saabunaax’s existence, or that claims that he was a
Whether or not Allaaji Abdulaay was the first to lead a group of people in settling in Tayba,3 all accounts agree that he was the moral authority and representative of the village as soon as he arrived, and his family has been the more prominent of the two Ñaseen families there since. However, the fact that members of both families have functioned as village chief, a function typically reserved in Njolofeen villages for members of the founding family, suggests either that both families are accepted as founders in their own way or that both are seen as the same family in spite of not sharing any known ancestor. Both explanations seem to be accepted in various circumstances. Although none of my informants could tell me how the two Ñaseen families are related, and some attributed to them origins in different parts of Senegal, the fact that they are both Njolofeen Ñaseen is sufficient for many to treat them as relatives.
A Ñaseen muqaddam from (INS) explained how Allaaji Abdulaay left Ñaseen Waalo to come to Tayba:
Now, in Ñaseen [Waalo], where the Friday mosque was, the ground was not great for farming—when they cultivated, they wouldn’t get very much. So then Maam Allaaji thought about it, and they cleared some fields in Tayba. As soon as they had finished the fields here, they built some huts, and when the rain came they came to live in the huts and farm and farm and farm up until time for Friday prayer, when they would go back to Ñaseen to pray Friday prayer, and after praying Friday prayer, they would return to the fields and work. During that period, which lasted 3 years, was when Baay Ñas was born. . . . When he was born there, they put him in a large calebash (téng-téng) and carried him to Ñaseen [Waalo] to name (ngénte) him there. After naming him, they came back to the fields. This was only a few days before the problems with Ñooro started, when they burned the Friday mosque, they burned the millet granaries (dàgga), spoiled, and gathered up the wealth and carried it off. That was when it happened.
The three years he is talking about during which Allaaji Abdulaay acted as village head in Tayba were around the turn of the century, probably from about 1899 to 1902, when Baay Ñas was probably born.4 Assuming that Baay was born in 1902 and, as oral accounts say, Allaaji Abdulaay left Tayba days after his birth after spending three years there, it appears that he was there from approximately 1899 to 1902.
The problems spoken of here were between Allaaji Abdulaay and the local governing officials setup by the French in Ñooro, the seat of the circle, and, by extension, the French authorities (who do not play a prominent role in oral accounts). Although Allaaji Abdulaay had apparently accepted that the armed struggle he had participated in would not succeed and therefore ceased armed resistance to the French and their appointed officials, local officials still eyed him with suspicion, especially since he commanded much more popular legitimacy than they did. Although the Ñaseen had problems with Seet Mati Ba, Màbba Jaxu’s son who wanted to compel his lieutenants to continue armed struggle, and he even burned down the mosque in Ñaseen Waalo, the problems described here are with secular officials, as Seet Mati had already fled to Gambia at this point.
From Tayba to Gambia
Interviewees have given several reasons for’s leaving Tayba and going to Gambia, where he is said to have lived for between 6 and 10 years. A common explanation holds that he left to avoid being arrested or attacked by the French, who suspected that he wished to continue the armed struggle he had participated in under Màbba Jaxu Ba. Others say he fled to remove his disciples from the threat of French military conscription (which certainly was the cause of mass exodus of Njolofeen from 1914–1918). Most oral explanations do not mention the French at all, however, and only say that the king was jealous of his growing influence and wealth, and that Allaaji Abdulaay stealthily left Tayba during the night after being warned of an impending attack by the king. These explanations reflect different subject positions of different narrators and doubtless reference real events that contributed to the situation.
Western accounts, based largely on archival research in French colonial archives, typically explain his exile in terms of French suspicions that he was still committed to armed resistance. Thus, his exile is explained for the same reasons that other religious leaders in Senegal ((Coulon, 1981). Màbba Jaxu Ba had led a powerful movement to build an Islamic state, signing treaties with the French that recognized his state but also continuing to expand his empire into the French preotectorate of Siin. He was killed in battle with the king of Siin, Kumba Ndóofeen, in the battle of Somb, and his movement lost much of its momentum at this point, but his son Seet Mati Ba vowed to continue the fight long after most of his former allies had declared the fight unwinnable and had given up resistance to French political control. It seems that Allaaji Abdulaay never became an admirer of French colonialism, although he was more pragmatic than Seet Mati and decided that armed struggle was useless., and others) either chose or were compelled to go abroad. The French did not trust charismatic religious leaders, who were the only ones with the clout potentially to organize large numbers of people in opposition. The French had learned to suspect charismatic Islamic leaders during during the nineteenth century when several of them had led armed resistance to French imposition of direct political control
Seet Mati was pushed across the border to Gambia during his continued armed struggle, which he aimed not only at the French and traditional leaders but also against his former allies who in his view had jumped ship and who were seeking independence from his rule. [Put in details later.]
Some oral narratives also attribute Allaaji Abdulaay’s flight to Gambia to the French. One of his grandsons in Medina Baay says Allaaji Abdulaay went to Gambia to remove his family and disciples from the influence of the tubaabs (Europeans), portraying the problem as a cultural conflict between Islamic and European values. The tubaabs wanted to impose their culture and traditions on Africa, and Allaaji Abdulaay did not want his followers to adopt this culture. He does not mention specific conflicts between Baay and any political authorities.
It appears that Allaaji Abdulaay had not received an ᵓijāzah by the time he became the village head in Tayba, although he was already a renowned Islamic scholar and occult practitioner.
The Tijāniyy ᵓijāzah was a novelty in the region at the time, especially the ᵓijāzah ᵓiṭlāq. had come through Kabaakoto in [year?] and had appointed 4 men: Alfaa Maayoro Si (grandfather of , founder of the branch of Tijāniyyah); Mbay Galo Bittéy, the founder of the first Njolofeen village, but who was too old to build up a Ṣūfī practice; , leader of the jihād that saw the establishment of a short-lived Islamic state; and Aamadu Jàllo Subulde, a Fulbe of the Fuuta Jàllon of present-day Guinea. Soon after these four, Cerno Alliw Dem of the village of Njaay Kunda travelled to Fuuta and received an ᵓijāzah from .
Accounts vary as to where Allaaji Abdulaay’s various ᵓijāzahs came from. Some say that his first ᵓijāzah was from Cerno Alliw Dem before his trip to Fās, while others—usually emphasizing his independence from any other Senegalese leader—say his first appointment came from Fās. But it is generally agreed that Allaaji Abdulaay’s first ᵓijāzah ᵓiṭlāq (if not his first ᵓijāzah in general) was from Fās and that he was the first from Saalum (and perhaps from all of Senegal) to receive such an appointment. Although there were several other Tijāniyy muqaddams in Saalum at the time, had only given out limited (muqayyad) ᵓijāzahs. Although rare at the time, in subsequent years the ᵓijāzah ᵓiṭlāq would become much more common over the following years. He received this ᵓijāzah from ᵓAḥmad as-Sukayrij, the Shaykh at-Tijāniyy’s khalīfah in Fās. Some say that at the same time Sukayrij appointed him as the khalīfah for West Africa.
Al-Ḥājj wuld al-Mishri5 says Allaaji Abdulaay had a total of 11 ᵓijāzahs, and he named a few, which I list in the order he gave them, although he did not say that this was the actual order. One was from a Senegalese muqaddam of Allaaji Omar Taal whose name was Caam. Two were from Morocco: one from Sayyid Al-ᶜArabiyy al-Maḥabb, and another from ᵓAḥmad as-Sukayrij. One was from ᶜAbd Allāh wuld al-Ḥājj, Muḥammad al-Mishri’s father, hence my interlocutor’s grandfather. (A reversal happened during the next generation, in which ᶜAbd Allāh wuld al-Ḥājj’s son Muḥammad al-Mishri became a disciple of Baay Ñas.) Al-Ḥājj is not sure whether this one was before or after Allaaji Abdulaay’s travels to Morocco. (My guess is that it was after, as most of his relations with the larger community happened after his return from Morocco and his installation at Lewna.)
Return to Senegal:and
When khalīfah for all of West Africa and instructed him to pass by and give and ᵓijāzah on behalf of .6 These accounts say that because an appointment must be made in person, even though the ᵓijāzah originated with ’s request, it technically had to be signed by . I have not determined whether ’ followers accept this claim, but those who recount it often imply that it means that the branch ultimately gets their authority from the Ñaseen.returned from , he stopped by . Many say that while he was in , appointed the Tijāniyy
There is general agreement that he stopped for some time in gent) if Allaaji Abdulaay were not brought back. He was only convinced to return when he was assured that he would be given land and be left alone. But Allaaji Maalig convinced Allaaji Abdulaay that tthe solution to the problem of mistrust with the French was not further isolation in a remote village but to live side by side with them in transparency.and that used his amicable relations with the French to act as mediator, requesting in a letter to the French that they facilitate his peaceful return to Senegal and explaining that he did not pose a threat to them. ’s descendants insist that Allaaji Abdulaay was no more enthusiastic about returning to Senegal than the French were to receive him, unconvinced that the French would let him practice his religion in peace. According to Maahi Ñas, Allaaji Maalig Si explained to the French that there would be a mass exodus and Saalum would be abandoned (
In 1911, Allaaji Abdulaay and many of his relatives and disciples settled within the French trading town of Kawlax) and were given a tract of land that he called , which means in Wolof “it is well earned.” This neighborhood remains the headquarters of the branch of the family that did not follow (although many who remain there have since become Taalibe Baay), and at its center are the Friday mosque and the tombs of and his older sons. Today, it has become part of Kawlax’s city center and is not exclusively a religious center.(
The predominantly Njolofeen community of Lewna (although outside of Lewna his discipleship was much more diverse) had a long history of migration, their forbears having moved within a single century from Fuuta to Jolof and from there to Saalum, and most of them had moved through several villages in Saalum before establishing stable villages. The migrations were not only generational but happened, often cyclically, on shorter periods of seasons and years: a young man very often received Islamic education in a number of villages, and teachers often taught in several villages before settling down. It was and remains common for a man to have a dry season occupation in one village or town and to farm in another during the rainy season.
Seasonal migration was especially necessary for residents of Lewna, who stayed within view of the French administration in Kaolack during the dry season but had to work fields in outlying villages during the rainy season. Part of a trading town on the banks of the salty Saalum river,’s land was too salty and spatially confined for farming. Many of its inhabitants were from surrounding villages, where their families remained, and they would spend the dry season in Lewna teaching, studying, or participating in other religious activities, returning during the rainy season to their family’s village.
Allaaji Abdulaay adopted the nearby village ofas his primary agricultural village and spent his rainy seasons there. Thus, although Lewna is often spoken of as his headquarters during this period, many of the events occurred at Kóosi, his de facto capital during nearly half the year. Many teachers of Islamic disciplines came to teach during the agricultural season, drawing students from all around, and Allaaji Abdulaay would receive his guests and teach there for several months a year.
After Allaaji Abdulaay
Allaaji Abdulaay Ñas died in 1922, the same year the khalīfah; the status Baay Ñas claimed as bringer of the Fayḍah had to do not with his position in the family but with his position in the Ṭarīqah as a whole. The fact that even Baay Ñas’s disciples refer to Muḥammad as Xaliifa, and that Baay Ñas named one of his sons (who is currently mayor of Kaolack) after Xaliifa, demonstrates that Baay Ñas did not question his brother’s status in the family and attempted to show his brother the respect due to an elder.died. His eldest son, Muḥammad Ñas, more commonly called “Xaliifa” succeeded him. It is not uncommon to hear that there was a succession struggle between Xaliifa and Baay Ñas, although this is not true. Baay Ñas never claimed to be his father’s
Semaine culturelle El-Hadj Abdoulaye Niass, 1986
One of the breakthrough events in the history of those associated with the family of Semaine culturelle El-Hadj Abdoulaye Niass” held in in 1986. It was part of a series of such semaines culturelles that included events dedicated to and . Before that point, and his family were highly marginalized in the public scene in Senegal, and disciples of Baay Ñas commonly refer to this event as the point where they became visible in Dakar.was the “
1. In many parts of Senegal, a person’s paternal cross cousin (father’s sister’s child) bears a special relationship: ego is called the master (sàng), and the cousin is called the slave (jaam), and they have certain unequal mutual obligations and often have a joking relationship. Such cross cousins are considered ideally suited marriage partners (although in reality they probably do not marry much more often than other relationships) and may sometimes refer to each other as “husband” and “wife.”
2. MJB in .
3. Accounts generally name a single individual as a village’s founder, although it is generally understood that to do so generally implies that person and the group of people led by them, including kin, disciples, and allied families and individuals.
5. Interview, May 12, 2004, in .
6. Many interviews make this claim, including , , etc.
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