Senegal's powerful Mourides build 'biggest mosque in West Africa'

Dakar (AFP) - Senegal's influential Mouride Brotherhood on Friday will inaugurate a 30,000-capacity mosque in the capital Dakar, touted as the largest in West Africa and rivalling its opulent peers in Arab nations.

Work on the Massalikul Jinaan ("The Paths to Paradise") mosque began a decade ago on a swampy six-hectare (14-acre) site in the poor area of Bopp, on land donated by the government of the 90-percent Muslim nation.

The name is derived from the title of a poem by Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, the 19th-century founder of the Brotherhood, who is revered by followers as a Sufi saint.

Headquartered in the city of Touba, where Bamba is entombed, the movement is a pillar of Senegal's reputation for religious tolerance.

The Mouride philosophy -- the name derives from the Arabic word for "one who desires to learn" -- preaches service to humanity in addition to upholding the principles of Islam.

The movement also wields considerable economic and political clout in Senegal and in neighbouring Gambia.

With a Carrara marble exterior and boasting five minarets -- the tallest 78 metres (255 feet) high -- the mosque has a capacity of 15,000 worshippers inside, and another 15,000 on an outside esplanade.

On Wednesday, spectators were already gathering for the opening, some sleeping on the floor, while on scaffolding, painters worked on the oriental-style decorations of the main door.

Uniformed police were also already visible. On Thursday and Friday, around 1,600 officers will be posted around the mosque site as tens of thousands of visitors are expected to clog up the streets.

- Symbol of influence -

The massive building embodies the Brotherhood's rise, said researcher Cheikh Gueye.

The Mourides "dominate trade, import-export, agriculture and even the media," he said. The mosque is a "symbol of this economic power, which will help reinforce their political and cultural influence."

The lavish interiors include a gold-leaf dome, giant chandeliers and decorations hand drawn by Moroccan workmen.

"With this jewel, we are on a par with what we see in Arab countries and other places in Africa," said Mbackiyou Faye, who coordinated the construction work.

The cost exceeded 30 million euros ($33 million), all of which came from donations, he said.

The government has additionally provided 10.5 million euros for lighting, sanitation and road works, according to Infrastructure Minister Oumar Youm.

The mosque is smaller than Casablanca's Hassan II -- which is spread over nine hectares, can accommodate 105,000 worshippers and has a minaret spiralling 210 metres.

Another mosque being built in Algiers is sprawled over nine hectares with a 265-metre minaret. It will be able to accommodate 120,000 people.

The Mourides are one of four important Sufi brotherhoods followed by Senegal's Muslims, who overwhelmingly practise a moderate version of Islam while following the teachings of local spiritual guides.

Bamba, a peaceful opponent of French colonialism, was exiled by the French authorities to Gabon from 1895 to 1902 and then to Mauritania from 1903 to 1907 before being allowed to return to Senegal, where he was placed under house arrest at his home in the north of the country. He died in 1927.

The holy city of Touba, founded by Bamba in 1888, has grown to be Senegal's second-largest after Dakar, with some 1.5 million inhabitants.

The mosque will be inaugurated at 1400 pm (local and GMT) in the presence of President Macky Sall.

An Islamic institute, residence and museum are scheduled to be added to the complex in the future.

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