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The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Straw Mosque, Senegal, 1995. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.


African Muslims create environments informed and dominated by the Word. A Senegalese mystic named Serigne Omar Sy (b. 1913) has designed an astonishing compound made entirely from straw because it is with a straw stylus that one writes the Word of God. Straw came to the holy man as an animated presence in a dream, asking to be venerated. Over the course of five years, Serigne Sy and his followers built the magnificent straw mosque and living quarters topped with domes and turrets seen in this 1995 photograph. Fretwork of lines and triangles are arabesque “Words of God” reflecting the rhythms, messages, and inner beauty of sacred calligraphy. The compound was designed as a magic square of nine houses, with a middle room so highly charged with spiritual power that a patient traversing it would be healed of any illness or other affliction (Roberts and Roberts 2003).