While French colonialism was at its zenith, the first quarter of the twentieth century in Senegal saw the emergence of charismatic Sufi leaders. Among them, one in particular, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, made a profound impact on Senegalese culture. Founder of the Murid Tariqa (Murid spiritual path) and of the holy city of Touba, he dominates contemporary imaginaries in Senegal, and the movement he founded is an economic and political force. Its cultural influence is so present that one could argue that Senegalese identity is becoming Murid. Touba is now the second largest city in Senegal, a place where millions of pilgrims gather annually. Khadim Ndiaye, himself a follower of the Murid way and author of a recent book on Cheikh Anta Diop, shows in this piece how the late scientist, politician and thinker was a product of the Murid mould.
Translated by Mamadou Diallo
Every so often Cheikh Anta Diop recalls in his writing the figure of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, the holy man who, according to late professor Amar Samb, once the director of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique noire (IFAN), “is the most famous Senegalese of his time, the most prolific writer of the Arab-Islamic literature of Senegal, the marabout who has most imprinted his century through his work, his thought and behaviour.” The colonial establishment, while recognising his great erudition, saw in him a “permanent danger” and twice resorted to expatriating him – first to Gabon, from 1895 to 1902, and then to house arrest in Mauritania, from 1903 to 1907. In 1915, the colonial administrator of the Diourbel circle, Antoine Lasselves, described him in laudatory terms that nonetheless displayed the racism of the times: “Everyone agrees that for a black he is remarkably well educated in Arabic language and literature, and possess an astonishing knowledge of Arabic authors’ texts, for a citizen of Senegal who has hardly ever left his country.”
Like Cheikh Anta Diop, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba was born in the Baol region. Cheikh Anta Mbacké, half-brother of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, is an in-law of Cheikh Anta Diop, who bears his name. Diop spent the first years of his childhood in a Murid milieu. In his book, Precolonial Black Africa, he writes: “I was sent, for four years, to Koki, brought back to Diourbel-Plateau [at Ker Gumag – the great house, that of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba] and again to Ker-Cheikh (Ibra Fall).”
Cheikh Ibra Fall is remembered as the most devout follower of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. He is at the origin of the Baay Fall movement, a strand in Muridism characterised by its negligence of the cultural aspects of Islamic practices, such as fasting and the five daily prayers, and its insistence on work at the service of the marabout.
There is a story, reported by linguist and historian, Pathé Diagne, in Cheikh Anta Diop et l’Afrique dans l’histoire du monde, telling how as a child, Cheikh Anta was going to fetch water from a remote well in the village of Caytu and had lingered there when he saw Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. All the children scampered at the sight of the holy man who, like in the glass paintings of him, was dressed in a white boubou and scarf, with mules at his feet. He addressed Cheikh Anta, who saluted him with deference. He enquired about his mother, gave him news about his father, who died a few years before. Then he filled his kettle for ablutions, helped Cheikh Anta to draw water from the well, filled the boy’s calabash to the brim, blessed him and raised the calabash to the child’s head while telling him: “You! I want you to go to the limits of knowledge.”
From the Qur’anic School where he was taught moral rigour, Cheikh Anta went on to the French school in Diourbel. There he stayed at the concession of Cheikh Ibra Fall, the great disciple of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. His fellow pupils included Doudou Thiam, who became Senegal’s minister of foreign affairs, and Momar Sourang, a renowned Murid dignitary.
Diop maintained his links with the Murid leadership. He had a special relationship, in particular, with Serigne Cheikh Mbacké (1913-1978), nicknamed the “lion of Fatma” and a grandson of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. “Cheikh Mbacké,” writes Pathé Diagne, “though slightly his elder, is seduced by Cheikh Anta Diop’s personality and will long remain his fierce supporter. When Cheikh Anta returns to Africa, it’s that old and influential friend who will be his mentor.” Both were opposed to President Senghor’s policies. When Mbacké died in 1978, Taxaw, the newspaper of RND (National Democratic Rally), Cheikh Anta Diop’s party, published a front-page homage to him. To Diop, Serigne Cheikh Mbacké represented the progressive side of Muridism. In Precolonial Black Africa, Diop describes him as follows: “Cheikh Mbacké is, by far, among all the religious, the most extraordinarily opened to philosophical thought; his bilingualism, French and Arabic, allows him to be initiated even to Marxism.”
Cheikh Anta Diop also knew Serigne Bassirou Mbacké, son of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba and the author of a biography of his father. Diop admired his erudition. After a meeting they had, he wrote, in Precolonial Black Africa: “Bassrou Mbacké is today, in all likelihood, the marabout that is the most initiated to modern scientific trends. It emerged from our conversation, in the summer of 1950, that even the field of atomic physics is not unknown to him.”
Diop was well versed in Murid literature. He knew the thought of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba and praised its impact in Senegal and on Islamised Africans. In Nations Nègres et Culture, he pointed out that “the teaching of Ahmadou Bamba remains now, more than ever, of value on a national level.” According to him, the Murid organisation created its own holy places locally and was considered by the colonial administration as “an integration of Islam by local nationalism”.
According to Pathé Diagne, Cheikh Anta Diop “had kept the essentials from a childhood deeply marked by a Murid education that professed an autonomous black Islam, with its literature and poets in Wolof.” He felt that in order to be lived in a harmonious way, religions must be reclaimed and read within a people’s own terms of reference. Otherwise, they lead to alienation that contributes in turn to what he called “the floating” of the African personality.
However, religion can also weaken a people’s consciousness of its historical continuity. Cheikh Anta Diop castigated the attitude of Islamised blacks from the Sudan who, because of religion, had a hard time recognising themselves in the ancient and bright past of Méroé. That’s why Diop appreciated that Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba claimed his black identity and autonomy regarding the Arabic Islamic world. In one of his numerous literary works, Masâlik al-Jinân (The Paths of Paradise), Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba tells the reader not to “let my black skin lead you to discard my book. The man most esteemed by god is he who fears him the most. The black colour of my skin is not synonymous with idiocy and lack of wisdom. Do not grant pre-eminence to the ancients alone, you’ll be lost. A contemporary author can grasp secrets that slip through old ones.”
In Nations Nègres et Culture, Cheikh Anta Diop devoted ample passages to the study of Murid religious poetry. He sketched the study through excerpts of the works of Serigne Moussa Kâ, Serigne Mor Kayré, and Serigne Mbaye Diakhaté. For him, their poetry constitutes “the literary foundations of our language and thus the foundations of our national culture.” Those poets, although they had a perfect mastery of Arabic, chose to write in Wolof. Serigne Moussa Kâ, one of the greatest, said that “any language will remain beautiful, as long as it enlightens minds of people and awakes in them a sense of dignity.” And added, in a defiant tone, “and we even manage to craft what the Arabs cannot”.
In addition to Murid religious poetry, Cheikh Anta Diop was influenced by the scientific work of the school of Guédé, in a village in the region of Diourbel, led by Serigne Mbacké Bousso, a relative and great disciple of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba,. That school, he noted, “was interested in mathematics, applied mechanics, to some problems of thermodynamics and especially to the measurement of time, in relation to the sky, which is linked to the necessity of praying at a precise time. That school, in the 1930s, was on the verge of creating a scientific school of the same quality as that of the Renaissance, from exclusively Arabic documents, without any direct influence from Europe.”
This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.
The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?
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