On the Frontier of Islam: The Maverick Mystics of Senegal

On the Frontier of Islam: The Maverick Mystics of Senegal

The chanters are Mourides, members of Senegal’s most prominent Sufi order. They are celebrating the Grand Magal, the order’s annual festival which sees two-million jubilant devotees thronging the streets of the holy city of Touba, deep in the country’s dusty interior, in a three-day frenzy of feasting, worship and rapture. By MARK WESTON.

Whomp. The chanting – Allah glorified over and over by a chain of 50 dreadlocked men – is interrupted by a loud thud. My companion Abdoul, an earnest young hotel receptionist in a Yasser Arafat headscarf, continues to lecture me on the peacefulness of Islam as if nothing has happened. Whomp – again the single dull beat amid the droned dirge. After an hour listening to the same repeated chant I cannot resist looking round to find out where this new sound is coming from (Abdoul pauses in his sermonising, abiding my impoliteness patiently). Rising from the centre of the shuffling ring of closely-packed chanters I see a heavy wooden club, the size and shape of a leg of mutton. Gripped by a pair of tense-knuckled hands, it soars high above the dreadlocked heads before being brought crashing down onto its young bearer’s spine.

Abdoul notices the surprise on my face. “It doesn’t hurt him,” he says, as the chanters, palms pressed to cheeks in concentration, continue their slow orbit of the marabout’s yard. “The zikroula has lifted him to a spiritually higher level. He doesn’t feel pain.” The zikroula is the chanted remembrance of God, one of the conveyances used by Sufi mystics to lift them closer to the divine presence. The chanters are Mourides, members of Senegal’s most prominent Sufi order. They are celebrating the Grand Magal, the order’s annual festival which sees two-million jubilant devotees thronging the streets of the holy city of Touba, deep in the country’s dusty interior, in a three-day frenzy of feasting, worship and rapture.

The Grand Magal is a commemoration of exile. In September 1895 (18 Safar 1313 in the Islamic calendar), Senegal’s French colonial government deported to Gabon a diminutive holy man with a fondness for coffee and couscous whom they suspected of planning a jihad, a holy war, to drive them out of West Africa. Watching from the dock as he was led onto the steamship that would take him on the 2,000-mile southward journey, the holy man’s most devoted follower, a serene-faced giant whose matted dreadlocks were partially covered by the black hood of his cloak, announced that he would drink the Atlantic dry to keep his beloved mentor at home.

Ibra Fall had come under the influence of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba a decade earlier. He had searched for years for a marabout, or spiritual guide, to lead him towards God, working his way through a number of false prophets as he trod the sandy tracks of central Senegal. When he met Bamba, as the Mouride historian Donal Cruise O’Brien relates, he knew he had attained his goal. Entering the latter’s compound he stripped naked, walked on his knees to where Bamba was sitting, and pressed the back of the marabout’s hand to his forehead. “I submit myself to you in this life and in the next,” he said. “I will do everything that you order me. I will abstain from anything you forbid me.”

Fall would become Ahmadou Bamba’s most influential as well as his most fanatical disciple, spreading the gospel of the Mouride brotherhood that Bamba had founded and setting it on its way to overtake the older Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya as Senegal’s largest Sufi order. But while Bamba spent his days in prayer, Quranic study and the meditation that Sufis worldwide believe will help purify their souls and bring them nearer to God, Ibra Fall’s focus was on hard, physical work. “Work is part of religion,” Bamba had said, seeing in toil a means of protecting the mind from sinful impulses. Ibra Fall took this rallying cry to the extreme. Instead of praying, he went out into the forest to fetch firewood and water for his leader’s compound. When Bamba established a new village at Touba in 1888, it was Ibra Fall and a small group of fellow Mourides who cleared the land, dug the wells, built the first compounds and laid the foundation stones of the mosque. Ibra Fall’s farms would produce the millet on which the new settlement depended. Whenever he was asked why he did not pray, he would reply that prayer is a means of turning one’s mind to God, and that since his whole life was dedicated to God’s service it was therefore superfluous.

Ahmadou Bamba’s fame grew during his exile, kindled by reports of a series of miracles that his chief propagandist relayed enthusiastically to prospective recruits. When the French refused to let him pray on board the Gabon-bound steamship, it was said, Bamba rolled out a mat on the ocean and knelt facing Mecca on the waves. When they threw him into a flaming pit, he was discovered shivering with cold after the fire had burnt out. When they put him into a cell with a hungry lion, so calming was his aura that the lion lost its appetite and fell asleep beside him.

Ibra Fall also gathered followers during this period. Known as the Baye Fall, they would become a large and controversial subgroup within Mouridism. Like their mentor, these young men and women would distinguish themselves by their predilection for hard work and by the intensity of their dedication to Ahmadou Bamba. In 1913, after the skeikh had returned to Senegal, the French colonial administrator Paul Marty observed a group of devotees in his presence:

The mere sight of Ahmadou Bamba at prayer or giving his blessing with a stream of saliva on the prostrate faithful plunges some into hysterical outbursts. They roll at the feet of the saint, kiss his sandals and the hem of his robe, and hold out their hands to him. There are shudderings, fainting fits and epileptic convulsions, followed by contortions and extraordinary leaps, all this accompanied by a horrible yelling. Madness finally takes hold of everyone.”

Over one hundred years later, it was the Baye Fall’s ecstatic devotions that I was observing on the morning of the Grand Magal. The previous day I had met through a friend a Baye Fall named Almamy, who along with 60 Mouride friends had come to Touba from the capital, Dakar, in a specially-hired bus. A tall, gaunt figure in his early 40s with long, matted dreadlocks bunched up under a woollen cap, Almamy has suffered since his teens from a debilitating muscle wasting disease which he ascribes to witchcraft visited on him by a jealous relative. This has given him foot drop and makes walking difficult, but he was eager to show me around his creed, and in the evening led me through the million-strong scrum in central Touba to visit Ibra Fall’s grave.

To reach the grave we must circumvent Touba’s Great Mosque, one of the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. Brightly lit in the darkness, its seven soaring minarets clad in white marble, queues of men and colourfully attired women snake for miles around the mosque’s perimeter, waiting to visit Ahmadou Bamba’s mausoleum, which lies within. The mosque’s gates are guarded by burly Baye Fall men – members of the group may resemble a cross between Rastafarians and Indian sadhus, but they take seriously their role as Mouride religious police. As we make our way through the dense, slow-moving crowd of pilgrims and hawkers, Almamy, wearing a multicoloured patchwork cloak that recalls the garb of the pre-colonial Wolof soldier class from which Ibra Fall was descended, gently reprimands girls and young women whose scarves have slipped off their heads.

Ibra Fall’s grave is housed in a new white block surrounded by beggars. Bowing pilgrims trudge past, dropping offertory coins on the carpeted floor beside the copper-encased tomb. Chanting piped through loudspeakers floats on the warm, dust-flecked air. Around the grave kneel a ring of men and women, their lips moving silently as they seek the saint’s blessing. The doctrine that saints can act as intermediaries between believers and the divine ensures Sufism’s unpopularity among fundamentalist Muslims, and Sufi mystics have been persecuted in the Arab world for centuries. Within Senegal, too, non-Mouride Muslims have criticised the brotherhood, accusing marabouts of taking advantage of their credulous followers by dispensing fraudulent blessings and magic charms in return for cash.

The Baye Fall movement is controversial for other reasons. A number of its adherents drink alcohol and smoke tobacco or marijuana, which are banned in Touba and eschewed by other Mourides. All Baye Fall, meanwhile, have an unorthodox relationship with the traditional tenets of their religion. While other Mourides adhere to the five pillars of Islam, the Baye Fall observe strictly only the first, the profession of faith. They do not fast during Ramadaan. They are more likely to beg for alms than dispense them (dreadlocked men with calabash begging bowls, raising funds for their marabouts, are a common sight on the street corners of Senegal’s main cities). Few undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca, deterred either by financial constraints or because, as Almamy says, “coming to Touba every year is enough”. And they do not pray: “If I go to the mosque,” a wizened Baye Fall veteran told me, “it is to clean it.”

The Baye Fall,” wrote Donal Cruise O’Brien, “hold that hard work and complete submission to a sheikh are sufficient in themselves to guarantee accession to paradise after death … With beliefs such as these one is at the very frontier of Islam.”

Not all Baye Fall approve of these practices. Ibrahima, a guest house manager I had met in Dakar before leaving for Touba, had recently given up visiting his marabout and attending the weekly chanting sessions organised by the Baye Fall of his neighbourhood. “The Baye Fall have changed,” he told me. “Being Baye Fall is about working hard and helping others, about leaving a good trace. It’s not about begging for money and harassing people. Nowadays they don’t want to help anybody, they just want money so they can smoke and drink.” When I asked about the marabouts, he snorted: “Marabouts these days are nothing more than money-grabbers.”

Almamy, who has never smoked or drunk, does not share these views. Earlier in the day he had taken me to meet Sheikh Fall Ndiaye Mbengue, a Baye Fall marabout who is a grandson of Ibra Fall (while most Mouride marabouts are descendants of Ahmadou Bamba, the majority of Baye Fall sheikhs trace their lineage to Ibra Fall). We travelled through the deep dust of Touba’s back streets on a pony-drawn cart, alighting in a district dominated by Baye Fall. Taking off our shoes in a yard where a group of women sat cleaning fish and chopping onions in preparation for the Grand Magal feast, we entered a bare, shadowy room, its floor strewn with mattresses and stained carpets. A teenage boy and two dreadlocked men reclined on the mattresses. One of the men, whose green T-shirt bore a black and white image of Ahmadou Bamba, introduced himself as an English teacher from Dakar and asked me to take his picture while we waited.

At length the marabout appeared, a stooped old man in a pale blue cloak, and took his seat on a low bed in the corner of the room. Almamy and I approached, he on all fours, I on my knees. Almamy pressed the back of the sheikh’s hand to his forehead and indicated to me that this would be the appropriate moment to give our host a few francs. The marabout, grey-haired and slightly plump, with a mischievous glint in his smiling eyes and a large purple stone set in a ring on one of his chapped fingers, chatted to Almamy in Wolof while the English teacher read text messages on his phone.

When I was a child,” he began in a quiet voice, “my marabout taught me how to farm and how to act in society. It is a Baye Fall’s duty to show respect to his marabout, and in return the marabout must respect his followers and provide them with education. Sheikh Ibra Fall taught Mourides to sit humbly on the floor before their elders, as you are sitting now. That is how he himself sat in the presence of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba.”

Cups of spiced black coffee are handed round. The sound of chanting and the smell of frying onions percolate through the curtained doorway. Two women come in on their knees and hand the old man a bag of oranges. After a brief conversation they retreat, still on their knees, facing him all the time. Shortly after, it is the turn of three young men in patchwork cloaks and the obligatory thick dreadlocks, who have made the six-hour journey to Touba from Dakar to pay their respects to their mentor. They press his hand to their foreheads and kneel in a line before him, bent forward in a posture of submission, never raising their gaze from the carpet. After talking to them for a while he says a short prayer of blessing, blowing onto his hands and wafting the breath over us all. We cup our palms to catch it, and wipe it down our faces and chests.

The previous week, Islamist extremists had attacked a luxury hotel in neighbouring Mali. Rumours abound, too, that al-Qaeda, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram and the Islamic State are all attempting to infiltrate hitherto peaceful Senegal. Most Mourides I had spoken to were confident that the control exercised by the Sufi brotherhoods over their young members would continue to protect the country, but security had been beefed up for the Grand Magal, the Baye Fall and their wooden clubs reinforced by convoys of soldiers and gendarmes sent here from the capital by the government.

The marabout has no truck with fanatics. “Boko Haram are false Muslims,” he says. “Their way is not recommended by the Prophet Muhammad or by the Qur’an.” Mouridism, he believes, provides lessons for anyone thinking of joining the jihadis. “Our leader never fought and never encouraged anyone to fight for Islam. Even when the French colonisers exiled him and tried to kill him with fire and lions, he forgave them.” He strokes his tufty white beard. “It was the French who brought the violence,” he says. “It was the French who started the terrorism.”

The Great Mosque, Touba

The following morning, at the large whitewashed house built by the Baye Fall for another marabout, Almamy and a young Baye Fall woman serve coffee to the circling chanters, who have by now been intoning God’s praises for two hours in preparation for their audience with their sheikh. The thumper has been joined by three other transported young men, who walk among the singers whacking themselves on their bowed, sweaty backs.

Ahmadou Bamba’s exile did not extinguish the movement he had created, and after seven years he was allowed to return to Senegal. He came to this very spot in the Darou Marnane district of Touba, to what would then have been a much smaller house, to resume his meditations. As Donal Cruise O’Brien reports, however, his reprieve was short-lived:

Sheikh Ibra Fall, together with a large and unruly band of followers, decided to make the journey to visit him and bring various provisions. The arrival of this group at Darou Marnane, singing, shouting, drumming, shooting in the air, and accompanied by a large number of pack animals, created a sensation. The provincial chief decided that holy war was imminent, and wrote to the Governor-General to warn of the danger.”

Bamba was exiled again, this time for a two-year spell in Mauritania. When he returned he was placed under house arrest until his death in 1927. The colonial administrator Marty predicted that Mouridism would fizzle out once its founder died, but today there are at least three-million Mourides worldwide (the final victory of Bamba’s nonviolent stance). The Baye Fall, too, are thriving – my own resistance to the entrancing effects of the chanting had been weakened at a Baye Fall party the previous night, where dozens of enraptured young men and women had danced convulsively at a chanting and drumming session that continued into the early hours.

There is a moral crisis in the world,” a Mouride businessman in Dakar had told me when I asked him if he saw modernisation as a threat to the brotherhood. “Wealth is not just about money. You also need spiritual wealth, to balance material possessions. Mouridism is growing stronger, not weaker. Young people are turning to it.”

After two hours the chanting fades out, and the 50 men queue to climb the steps to the marabout’s house. As they disappear inside, Almamy stays behind to clear up the coffee-making utensils. I ask him why he joined the Baye Fall. “Many people are born into it because their parents were Baye Fall,” he replies. “Becoming a Baye Fall later can be difficult – in some cases, when they tell their families, they are thrown out of their homes. It’s not an easy choice, but I joined because I felt it in my heart.”

A few minutes later a small, middle-aged man in sunglasses and an embroidered beige robe emerges from the marabout’s house. Almamy tells me that the man, whose Wolof nickname means Shorty, has only recently reconciled with his parents, who disowned him when he became a Baye Fall as a teenager. Many years ago Shorty had been one of the team of volunteers that built this house. The marabout for whom he worked, and for whom he was forced to abandon his family, died last year and was succeeded as sheikh by his son. The old man’s passing came as a great shock to followers like Shorty, who regarded him as not just a spiritual guide but a father figure. When I ask him how it went with the new incumbent, he nods without speaking and crouches down beside me. He raises his sunglasses, and I see that his eyes are full of tears. DM

Main photo: Mourides, members of Senegal’s most prominent Sufi order. (Mark Weston)

Mark Weston is the author of The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries. He lives in Tanzania, and can be followed on Twitter @markweston19.


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