Islam in Burkina Faso: The long search for peace

A flag map of Burkina Faso (image: courtesy of Pixabay)

Burkina Faso is one of the countries where religious affiliation cannot be seen as a bone of contention among people. History has never recorded a case in which Muslims and non-Muslims clashed there. The current Al-Qaeda backed terrorist attacks are not to be mistaken for an effort to convert more people to Islam, or any form of Jihad. That geopolitical conflict has deeper roots and many scholars refute the fact that the violence perpetrated can be attributed to the exigencies of Islam and the Holy Quran. A case in point is the Boko Haram Islamic sect founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf in Maidiguri (northern Nigeria) which allegedly translates and is popularly interpreted as “Western education is a sin” and aims at creating a ‘pure’ Islamic state ruled by Sharia law. The contrast between the prescription of that sect and Islam lies in the fact that the Holy Quran encourages Muslims to seek knowledge regardless of its location, not to relent in the search for knowledge, even if it is situated in an area as distant as China. Knowledge is highly cherished and valued in Islam and Islamic scholars repeatedly state that “religion brings light and light is knowledge”, and conclude that Islam and ignorance or lack of knowledge are, therefore, incompatible. Several scientific rules are to be found in the Islamic texts: the conception of human beings that starts from a kind of fluid mixture (spermatozoa and egg) that evolves into a clot of blood which matures into a fetus and later, a human being. Noise pollution and the destruction it can cause is elucidated when it is said Almighty Allah wiped off the surface of the earth a population of sinners with supersonic sound. My intention is not to preach here or pose as a scholar of Islam. This scanty information comes from my reading of the Quran.

One, therefore, wonders where the ideology behind Boko Haran emanates from, to such a point that it has become a strong faction that wields power and causes terror in the world, especially in certain parts of Africa. In the specific case of Burkina Faso, which is the focus of this reflection, solid and healthy interaction and cohabitation, intermarriages (spouses from different religions) are very common, not anything surprising. A 2010 census estimates that Muslims make up 63.2 per cent of the population in Faso, and the country is generally known to be a religiously diverse society where approximately 63 per cent of the population adheres to Islam and 26 per cent practice Christianity, with 9.0 per cent following traditional African religions, while 0.9 per cent are said to be unaffiliated or follow other faiths. The truth is that statistics on religion in Burkina Faso are not totally accurate because Islam and Christianity are often practiced in tandem with traditional African religions. As the saying goes, almost every African is a polytheist. Other details are: the majority of Muslims belong to the Sunni branch (very close the Tijaniyah Sufi order) while a small minority adheres to the Shi’a branch. Out of the 26 per cent of Christians, 20 per cent are Roman Catholics and 6 per cent are members of various Protestant denominations. Nine per cent practice traditional indigenous beliefs such as the Dogon religion, 0.2 per cent have other religions, and 0.7 per cent have none, so atheism is virtually nonexistent.

A look at the genesis of Islam in Burkina unearths a confluence of religious practice, trade, and defence of one’s territory. Until the end of the nineteenth century, Upper Volta (today’s Burkina Faso) was dominated by the Mossi Kingdoms, who are believed to have come from central or eastern Africa around the eleventh century. The Mossi initially defended their religious beliefs and social structure against Islamic influences from Muslims who were hailing from the northwest. In the fifteenth century, the Upper Volta region attracted Muslim merchants as well as settlements by the opening of the Akan gold fields. That phenomenon was motivated by the opportunity to trade in gold (as initially mentioned), kola nuts, and salt. Some of these merchants were Soninke-speaking peoples from Timbuktu and Djenné (cities in today’s Mali) who later adopted Malinke dialect and became known as Dyula or Dioula, a group whose main activity is trade. They settled in the towns of Bobo-Dioulasso (in Burkina), Kong (in today’s two Congos and Angola), Bunduku (in Côte d’Ivoire), and other places leading to the goldfields. This reiterates the thesis that trade was one of the main instruments through which Islam was introduced into West Africa, and Burkina Faso in particular.

French colonial rule was imposed on Upper Volta in 1919 and French rule was characterized by a promotion of secular elites selected from the indigenous population, but it also aided the peaceful spread of Islam. The colonial administration indirectly favoured the spread of Islam by creating peace and order and by stimulating trade. They also tended to regard Muslims as culturally and educationally more advanced than non-Muslim Africans, and appointed Muslim chiefs and clerks as administrators in non-Muslim areas. In Upper Volta, at the end of the nineteenth century, there were only some 30,000 Muslims, but by 1959 there were 800,000, approximately 20 per cent of the population. Many scholars write that by historical coincidence, Francophone West Africa is in majority Islamic. That practice and policy explains the current religious configuration of Burkina Faso where, unfortunately, terror has been reigning since 2014, launched by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

It is  human reflex to turn to spirituality or religion during hard times, so this year, Burkina Faso is practicing  and celebrating one of the biggest pillars of Islam, the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, and the end of the month of fasting is marked by a special combination  of merrymaking  and prayers,  the Eid al-Fitr  (the earlier of the two official holidays within Islam) which is celebrated this year on Friday 21 April. The theme of this year’s religious festivity is “the restoration of peace in the country”.

The main Islamic institutions of the country, the Center for Islamic Studies, Research and Training (CERFI) and the Association of Muslim Students of Burkina (AEEMB) devoted their prayers on one of the special days of Ramadan, “the Night of Destiny” held on 17 April around the theme, “The Quran, Solution to all our Challenges”. On that occasion, El Hadj Hamid Yaméogo, President of CERFI stated that beyond its religious, theological and spiritual dimension, the Quran contains the solution(s) to all the difficulties that Burkina is currently facing. The spiritual leader exhorted men, women and children to pray for the sustenance of social cohesion in the country (a factor whose absence most often leads to armed conflicts). He also urged Muslims to read the Quran well and interpret exactly the words of Allah for those prayers to be answered. I find the latter recommendation to be weighty, since many spiritual leaders tend to interpret the Holy texts in ways that suit them and support their personal interests.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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  1. Very exhilarating read. I have learned something on the Quran that I have never known as a reader of the Quran. The connection between environmental pollution and the sound or supersonic sound used to destroy a population of sinners (the people of Ad).

    I see the connection and more light on the meaning of the Quran and how each of the stories are connected to our modern issues.

    Well the cordial existence of the religious people in Faso is to be encouraged too. Long must it continue.

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