One of my favorite singers is bidding to run his native country. Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, a titan of world music, has announced his candidacy in his country’s upcoming presidential elections.
Singing most often in his native Wolof, N’Dour has become a global icon, collaborating with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Tracy Chapman. Indeed, one of my biggest regrets in life is that I did not attend a 1988 Amnesty International concert that N’Dour performed at in New Delhi along with all of these rock stars.
But what endears me more to N’Dour than his mesmerizing voice or his captivating rhythms is the message of his music. Through his life and work, N’Dour has made it his mission to showcase a soft, tolerant version of Islam. In his quest, Sufism has been a guiding star for him. In tribute to Sufi mystics, he composed an album, “Egypt,” in 2001, which bagged a Grammy.
“I’d like people to understand my life’s work better—my music and especially what Islam means to me,” he told The Progressive’s Matt Pascarella in 2010. “Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.”
N’Dour’s affinity for Sufism is not surprising, since this is the version of Islam that most prominently displays nonviolence and tolerance. Westerners often see Sufism as a curious anomaly—something as almost extraneous to Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Sufism traces its origins back to the Prophet of Islam and takes inspiration from the divine word as revealed through him in the Qur’an,” writes Sufism scholar Professor Annemarie Schimmel.
To the two major aspects of Islam delineated in the Qur’an—“islam” or surrender to God and “iman” or faith—the Sufis have attached a third dimension, said to be added by Muhammad himself. This is “ihsan,” the principle of doing beautiful things through the constant awareness of the presence of God. “The mysticism of love and suffering—which teaches man to live and to die for a goal outside himself—is perhaps the most important message of Sufism today,” writes Schimmel. (I have a chapter on Sufism in my recent book on Islam and nonviolence, " 'Islam' Means Peace.")
N’Dour’s attraction to Sufism is natural in other ways, too, since Sufism is the dominant strain of Islam in Senegal. The Sufi order that N’Dour is an adherent of—the Mouride Brotherhood centered in the holy city of Touba—is a major one in the country.
"In the West, you read all about terrorism … we're all lumped together,” N’Dour told the BBC. “But those of us who understand that it's a religion of peace, love and sharing mustn't give up.”
N’Dour has tried to live his life by these precepts. He has been involved with human rights causes and organizations like Amnesty International for decades. He put together a concert for Nelson Mandela in the mid-1980s. And he has tried to help his native land by choosing to stay at home base rather than emigrating, as many stars of his stature do.
At the same time, his holdings in the country (including extensive media properties) have come under scrutiny, with some critics citing these as the major reason for him stepping into the political fray. And, of course, he lacks a political resume.
His main opponent, incumbent octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade, comes with his own baggage. Wade is trying to do an end-run around a constitutional two-term limit, sparking rare protests in this general oasis of calm in Africa. His purported plans to hand power to his son and his profligate spending on vanity projects such as one of the world’s largest statues have cost him popularity, too. (When I saw Wade at a journalists’ conference in Chicago in 2008, his speech was constantly disrupted by hecklers.)
Along with other Sufi performers such as Pakistani-American rock star Salman Ahmad and Oscar-winning Indian composer Allah Rakha Rahman, N’Dour has made it his aim to build bridges between the West and the Muslim world and to spread a message of peace and tolerance. (The documentary “I Bring What I Love” focuses on N’Dour and his work.) For dedicating himself to such wonderful ideals, N’Dour deserves our admiration, regardless of his political future.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "The Year the Protester Took Center Stage."
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