By Zakariya Wright
The prodigious scholar and righteous saint al-Hajj Malik Sy (1855-1922) was one of the key figures for the renewal of Islam and spread of the Tariqa Tijaniyya in Senegal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along with contemporaries Ahmadu Bamba and al-Hajj Abdoulaye Niasse, al-Hajj Malik played an important role in preserving and adapting the transmission of the traditional Islamic sciences in Senegal in the aftermath of French conquest. His followers are today found mostly in northern Senegal, although important communities exist from the Gambia to the Futa region of southern Mauritania.
Al-Hajj Malik was born in Gaya, in northern Senegal, of mixed Fulani and Wolof ancestry. His father was Ousmane Sy, but his most significant early teacher seems to have been his maternal uncle Mayoro Wale, from whom he took the Tijani wird at the age of eighteen. Mayoro was himself an accomplished Tijani scholar, having received initiation at the hands of Shaykh Mawlud Fal and later from al-Hajj Umar al-Futi Tal. After memorizing the Qur’an and completing his early education, al-Hajj Malik traveled throughout Senegal studying with some of the most prominent scholars of his time. He spent a short time studying in Trarza, Mauritania, where he renewed his Tariqa affiliation under Muhammad Ali who was closely associated with the legacy of Muhammad al-Hafiz al-Shinqiti and the influential Idaw Ali shurafa’ of Mauritania.
He accomplished the Hajj in 1889, passing en route to Mecca through Marseille, Alexandria and Jeddah. Upon his return, he opened schools in Saint Louis, Dakar and in Marné before settling permanently in Tivaouane in 1902. There his zawiya attained great renown as one of the premier centers of Islamic scholarship in the Senegambia. Al-Hajj Malik trained an elite cadre of Islamic intellectuals in the entirety of the Islamic sciences, before sending them throughout Senegal to teach others.
Al-Hajj Malik maintained active relations with the important branches of the Tijaniyya of his day, including the Tijani scholars of Fes and those of Ain Maadi, Algeria; both of which he remained in correspondence through letters. He also married his daughter Khadia to Saidou Nourou Tal, the grandson of al-Hajj Umar Tal and whom the French had named the “Grand Marabout” of West Africa. His relations with al-Hajj Abdoulaye Niasse were particularly close. Al-Hajj Abdoulaye visited al-Hajj Malik in Tivaouane when returning from one of his trips from Fes, and it was through him that al-Hajj Malik received the coveted ijaza mutlaqa from Shaykh Ahmad Sukayrij of Marakesh.
Many of his poems in praise of the Prophet have attained great renown and are still recited by his followers, especially during the Mawlid season. Some twenty of his Arabic works were published, most of them in Tunis. Aside from poetry, his writings included treatises on theology, law, Sufism and biography of the Prophet Muhammad.
Since the death of al-Hajj Malik, the Tivaouane zawiya has been headed by Abu Bakr Sy (d. 1957), Abd al-Aziz Sy (1957-1997) and Mansour Sy who is the present leader of the Sy family. Shaykh Mansour is usually represented by his official spokesman, Abd al-Aziz Sy. The most prominent representative of the Sy family in America is Shaykh Ahmad Sy, a grandson of al-Hajj Malik who currently lives in Maryland.
Sources: Paul Marty, Islam en Mauritanie et au Senegal (Paris: Revue du Monde Musulman, 1915-1916); interview with Shaykh Ahmad Sy, December, 2005; interviews with Shaykh Hassan Cisse.