Senegal: An Imam in Saint Louis

senegalA former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a country where a Muslim majority and a Christian minority live peacefully together and pride themselves on interfaith harmony. Several UW-Madison faculty and staff members visited Senegal in January, 2009, to find out what makes Senegal a model for interfaith peace. You can read an overview of the trip and its results here.

The UW-Madison group interviewed a prominent Imam in Saint Louis. Following his father’s footstep, the 83-year-old Imam became a scholar and teacher at age 16. He started running a school well before Senegal became independent. Because his school was not involved in political activities, just in Qur’anic teaching, the colonial power left it alone.

For the Imam, “Islam” means “peace.” He pointed out that the Qur’an not only mentions but accepts many prophets in the Bible such as Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. In his community, Muslim and Christian leaders often invite the other side to official events. For example, when the Cardinal came to Saint Louis for a visit recently, the Imam was invited and, because he was too frail to go, he sent a representative.

The main challenges facing the Muslim community are poverty and the preservation of shrines such as mosques. Although the country has one of the region’s more stable economies, according to the BBC, poverty is widespread and unemployment high. Funding for restoring and maintaining historical mosques is tight. But it helps that Saint Louis is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

What role can religious leaders, Muslim or Christian, play in promoting interfaith harmony? Will Senegal’s model work in your community? We welcome your comments.

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