Muslims make up approximately 90 percent of the population of Mali, the largest country in West Africa. The majority of Muslims in Mali are Sunni. They live harmoniously with five percent of the population that is Christian and the rest who practice traditional indigenous religions or no religion. In Mali Islam and democracy prosper together. The majority of citizens practice their religion daily.
During the 9th century, Muslim Berber and Tuareg merchants brought Islam southward into West Africa. Islam also spread in the region by the founders of Sufi brotherhoods (tarika). Conversion to Islam linked the West African savannah through belief in one God and similar new forms of political, social and artistic accouterments. Cities like Timboktu, Gao and Kano became international centers of Islamic learning.
The most significant of the Mali kings was Mansa Musa (1312-1337) who expanded Mali influence over the large Niger city-states of Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenné. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who built magnificent mosques all throughout the Mali sphere of influence; his gold-laden pilgrimage to Mecca made him an historical figure even in European history writing. It was under Mansa Musa that Timbuktu became one of the major cultural centers not only of Africa but of the entire world.
The Great Mosque of Djenné, the largest mud brick building in the world, is considered the greatest achievement of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style. The first mosque on the site was built in the 13th century; the current structure dates from 1907. Along with the city of Djenné, it was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO
History of tolerance
Islam as practiced in the country is tolerant and adapted to local conditions. Women participate in economic and political activity, engage in social interaction, and generally do not wear veils. Islam in Mali has absorbed mystical elements, ancestor veneration and the traditional animist beliefs that still thrive. Many aspects of Malian traditional society encourage norms consistent with democratic citizenship, including tolerance, trust, pluralism, the separation of powers and the accountability of the leader to the governed.
Relations between the Muslim majority and the Christian and other religious minorities--including practitioners of traditional indigenous religions--generally are amicable. Adherents of a variety of faiths may be found within the same family. Many followers of one religion attend religious ceremonies of other religions, especially weddings, baptisms, and funerals.
Foreign Islamic preachers operate in the north, while mosques associated with Dawa (an Islamist group) are located in Kidal, Mopti, and Bamako. Dawa has gained adherents among the Bellah, who were once the slaves of the Tuareg nobles, and also among unemployed youth. The interest these groups have in Dawa is based on a desire to dissociate themselves from their former masters, and for the youth, to find a source of income. The Dawa sect has a strong influence in Kidal, while the Wahabi movement has been growing in Timbuktu. The country's traditional approach to Islam is peaceful and moderate, as reflected in the ancient manuscripts from the former University of Timbuktu.
In August 2003, there was a conflict in the village of Yerere when traditional Sunni practitioners attacked Wahhabi Sunnis, who were building an authorized mosque.
Other foreign missionary groups are Christian groups that are based in Europe and engaged in development work, primarily the provision of health care and education.
Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. There is no state religion; the Constitution defines the country as a secular state and allows for religious practices that do not pose a threat to social stability and peace.
The Government requires that all public associations, including religious associations, register with the Government. However, registration confers no tax preference and no other legal benefits, and failure to register is not penalized in practice. The registration process is routine and is not burdensome. Traditional indigenous religions are not required to register.
Foreign missionary groups operate in the country without government interference. Muslims and non-Muslims may proselytize freely.
Family law, including laws pertaining to divorce, marriage, and inheritance, are based on a mixture of local tradition and Islamic law and practice.
During presidential elections held in April and May 2002, the Government and political parties emphasized the secularity of the state. A few days prior to the elections, a radical Islamic leader called on Muslims to vote for former Prime Minister Modibo Keďta. The High Council of Islam, the most senior Islamic body in the country, severely criticized the statement and reminded all citizens to vote for the candidate of their choice.
In January 2002, the High Council was created to coordinate religious affairs for the entire Muslim community and standardize the quality of preaching in mosques. All Muslim groups recognize its authority.