Wolof - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs.

Nearly all Wolof are Muslims; they are mainly organized into two Sufi orders or brotherhoods, the Tijaniyya and the Muridiyya. Men become members of an order upon circumcision, whereas women become members upon marriage, joining the same order as their husbands. The main tenets of Islam are generally adhered to, but the Wolof version of Islam clearly shows an emphasis on social relations rather than on abstract theology. Along with Islam, there is continuing adherence to many traditional (i.e., pre-Islamic) magicoreligious beliefs and practices. This traditional system emphasizes belief in malevolent spirits (jinn) and witches and the need to protect oneself from them.

Religious Practitioners. Among Muslims, the basic complementary religious roles are those of taalibé, a disciple, and marabout (seriñ), a religious leader. There is a hierarchy of marabouts ranging from those who have only an elementary knowledge of the Quran and little influence, up to the powerful heads of the Sufi orders. There is also the mnqaddam, who has authority to induct new members into a order, and the imam (yélimaan). Within the traditional magico-religious system, there are a variety of ritual specialists, including the jabarkat, who is a combination shaman and sorcerer; the lu gakat, who magically cures victims of snakebite; the ndëpukat, usually a female, who performs the ndëp ceremony to cure the mentally ill; and the botai mbar, who is in charge of newly circumcised boys.

Ceremonies. The Wolof observe the major Muslim festivals, the most important for them being Korité, the feast at the end of Ramadan, and Tabaski, the feast of the sacrifice of sheep. The principal life-cycle ceremonies include the naming ceremony ( nggentée ), and the circumcision ceremony for boys. It is likely that circumcision was a pre-Islamic Wolof custom, given that the key ritual specialists and practices are non-Islamic.

Arts. There is a striking lack of emphasis on art. Most notably, the Wolof do not carve wooden sculptures or masks as many other West African peoples do. Dancing is performed mostly by women of the praise-singer group. Several musical instruments are played, especially drums and a type of guitar called xalam. Wandering actors occasionally perform in the villages at night, singing and dancing satirical skits that become more and more lewd as the night deepens. Smiths make filigree jewelry.

Medicine. The Wolof make use of most available medication and medical practitioners—modern, Muslim, or traditional. Nearly all Wolof wear numerous amulets that are believed to have the power to protect the wearer from illness, evil spirits, witchcraft, or other harm. The most common function of marabouts at the village level is to make these amulets, which consist of passages from the Quran written on slips of paper encased in leather packets. The shaman (jabarkat) may also be hired to make amulets, in which case the leather casings contain pieces of magical roots or leaves.

Death and Afterlife. After the death of a person, the usual Muslim funeral ceremonies are followed. Burial is within a few hours unless the death occurs at night. Formerly, members of the praise-singer group were "buried" in hollow baobab trees, so as not to contaminate the earth. Suicide is rare, and it is believed that the soul of a suicide goes straight to hell.


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