Senegal's history and culture are mainly known through oral data transmitted by specialized families or concerned amateurs. However, some Arab travelers and writers provide some hints on this truly interesting history.
Senegal is continuously inhabited for more than 150 000 years, but it is quite impossible to track down the relationship between the earlier settlers to the present population.
The first political structure to be established on the northern bank of the Senegal River is believed to be the Soninke kingdom of Ghana/Wagadu from the 4th century. Islam reached this country as early as the end of the 8th century followed by the settling of a Muslim trading community within the kingdom. Eventually Muslim warriors would destroy its power from the end of the 11th century. The core of Ghana's population seems to have kept its traditional religion. The contrary of the kingdom of Takrur established on the southern bank on the wake of Ghana's retreat.
Takrur identified itself with Islam as early as the end of the 11th century. It took over the traditional role of Ghana as the market for grains, gold, slaves and salt traded between Maghrib/Europe and Black Africa ("Bilad As-Sudan" for the Arabs and Berbers) while being the entry door for Islam.
In fact, the introduction of Islam provoked a major political crisis which led to the destruction of Ghana, the weakening of Takrur, and to political fragmentation. Various small political entities began to emerge, including the first Wolof state to exist, the kingdom of Waalo, set on the lower Senegal, by the end of the 11th century. One of these states, Jolof, achieved to dominate the whole central and northern Senegambia through an empire dominated itself by the successive Sudanic Empires (Mali and Songhai).
From the mid-15th century, the development of the Atlantic trade placed new opportunities (horses, fire arms, better terms of trade) into the hands of coastal peoples which emancipated themselves from the dominant inland empires. For example, at the beginning of the 16th century Waalo, Baol, Cayor and Fuuta Tooro broke ties with Jolof and became independent. English, French, Dutch and Curlanders followed Portuguese sailors and traders in a fierce competition for slaves, hides, cotton fabrics, gold and ivory. The forts and ports of Goree, Saint-Louis, Albreda and Saint-James were the main centers of the transactions.
Such competition prevailed also between Senegambian kings. Slave raiding and trading are the major source of revenue, leading to a militarization process which promoted widespread violence in the region. The Muslim leaders were the sole defenders of the common people. When they failed to influence their community's aristocracy, they established separated communities, and went on further to try to topple the discredited traditional regimes. They succeeded in Fuuta Tooro, Fuuta Jallon and Bundu, but failed elsewhere. Islam was, nevertheless, more and more perceived as the only alternative, on the first hand to the failing traditional religions which were not capable to maintain a coherent social order, on the second hand to the rampant colonial domination. Not surprisingly, when Europe launched the conquest of Senegambia, the Muslim leaders were the fiercest resisters it had to fight. From that time, Islam was identified with nationalism and resistance to external domination.
The introduction of Islam in our area was a major phenomenon. It has profited from the background of local religions. Traditional Africa identified a unique or paramount God associated with some other lesser deities. God is not involved in everyday life, that is why, often, there is no need to have a distinct name for him. The Sereer called him ROOG and the Wolof NGEEJ ("The Immensity"). They believed in the immortality of the soul whose life is eternal as long as it is fueled with energy through reincarnation and sacrifices.
All events resulting from a shift in the balance of energies, thus, men can alter or reverse events by acts. In this optimistic vision, facts and faith are inseparable and religion is a contract. Masks and statues are merely mediums of energy only when activated, they are not sacred by themselves. Thus, only the ultimate form of energy, life, is sacred. Except the Joola at some extent, Senegambian peoples did not put emphasis on the production of cult objects. They preferred more spiritual forms of adoration. If we add to that picture some common social features such as polygamy, circumcision, community oriented political economy, etc., we can understand how easily Senegambian would contemplate to convert to Islam.
Islam offered an alternative contract when Senegambian peoples discovered that the traditional religions had not protected them from State violence and colonial aggression. The slave trade period was particularly violent, but the abolition era, in the first half of the 19th century, was even more violent. The aristocracies were left with raiding rural people as almost their sole means of living. From the 1850s, Muslim brotherhoods proposed more appropriate forms of protection. On the economic ground, they associated themselves with the fast growing groundnut production. Groundnut provided revenues and direct access to imported goods such as fire arms.
The vigor of the new economic and social conjecture backed the marabouts claims to the leadership of most rural communities. Even the colonial authorities accepted the situation, happy to have credible interlocutors. Independence regimes had no way to subvert the deal, and sometimes reinforced it on a national level. Meanwhile, Islam started to influence modern politics under the colonial rule. But since Independence, it became the main political factor, threatening to subvert the lay and democratic system as all western oriented values. But, before the divisions of the Muslim community, the rejection of foreign influences and, perhaps, the perception of a predictable failure of Islamic solutions, the brotherhoods will contain such ambitions.