Freedom-Fighter Saint of Senegal:
Cheikh Aḥmadou Bamba Mbacke
By Kamran Haikal
When it comes to West Africa, or even Africa for that matter, few know where (or what) Senegal is. Below Morocco, a country that needs no introduction to the countless mystics and luminaries it has produced, and below the now famous Mauritania of Murābiṭ al-Ḥajj and Imām Muḥammad Mawlūd, lies Senegal: a country known by historians more for the Atlantic Slave Trade than the beacon of traditional Islamic scholarship that it became. The whole of Africa was a colonial chessboard less than a century ago, and the French moved pawns and rooks in Senegal. There would be a man, by the name of Aḥmadou Bamba Mbacke who would come to revive the love of Allāh and His Messenger (ﷺ) , and his (ﷺ) example in the hearts of the Senegalese.
A Saint from Birth:
Cheikh Aḥmadou Bamba Mbacke, or ‘Amadou Bamba’ was born in 1270 AH (1853) into a family of Qa’dirī scholars from the line of Shaykh ‘Abdu’l-Qādir al-Jīlānī. He was the child of a Sayyid father and a Sayyid mother. Senegal, at the time, was under French colonial rule governing smaller kingdoms throughout the country. His father was the most well respected Qā’dī in his kingdom, erecting several Islamic schools and his mother was known for her effortless service to the community as well. As a child, he preferred imitating his father in his devotional acts while having no desire to play with other children. He spent the entirety of his youth in worship, studying the various Islamic sciences and teaching others. With his father’s passing in 1882 and the end of the armed resistance against the French, Amadou Bamba founded the Mourīdiyya brotherhood/order focusing on the Qurʾān, Sunnah, and tenets of Ṣūfīsm; a calling of society back to traditional Islam. This movement would slowly become the most effective weapon in battling the devastating social effects of imperialism.
The Might of The Mourīdiyya:
Shaykh Amadou Bamba’s newly-founded group calling to traditional and prophetic Islamic ideals, The Mourīdiyya, united the Senegalese under a common banner of faith with emphasis on spiritual rectification and love of Allāh and The Messenger (ﷺ). He also stressed the importance of earning permissible incomes in the lives of Muslims, to counter the beliefs of some of the Muslims of the time who deemed working for an income unnecessary. The Senegalese began to flee in larger and larger numbers every year to take from Amadou Bamba. Being a luminary and spiritual visionary, Shaykh Amadou Bamba noticed the failure of the majority of military resistance against the encroaching European powers seeking control of Africa. Like all the major Ṣūfī luminaries of the past, he found the oppression of the Senegalese as a symptom of the spiritual diseases that were present among the Muslims. As the Shaykh’s Mourīdiyya brotherhood continued to attract large numbers, it emerged as a formidable resistance to French imperialism. The Mourīdiyya were no longer just a religious revivalist movement, but a social revolution.
The Senagalese Madīnah Munawwara: Touba
In 1887 Shaykh Amadou Bamba founded Touba (Arabic for Felicity and the name of a tree in Paradise) in a state of transcendence while sitting under a lone tree in the desert. He envisioned a pilgrimage of his followers to this city that would mimic the hijrah of the prophet’s ﷺ followers to Madīnah so that Islam could flourish. Here, the return to traditional Islamic life from colonial alienation and centralization of the Mourīdiyya movement would occur. With the principles he established, Touba soon became a flourishing spiritual and financially-bustling city, exporting crops and the now-famous Cafe Touba coffee. It would be from this West African Madīnah that the Shaykh’s teachings would spread to the rest of Senegal.
The Muslim Gandhi of Senegal:
Shaykh Amadou Bamba Mbacke is most well remembered by his “Ṣūfī Resistance,” against the French. While some of the Tijānī leaders of Senegal were calling to arms against the intruding French, Shaykh Amadou Bamba maintained an ‘unfazed’ approach where he continued inviting the people to Allāh, rather than struggling for ‘independence.’ The Mourīdiyya were to focus on their worship, reading of sacred texts, and Amadou Bamba strongly emphasized grudge-less and prophetic interactions (ihsan) with the colonizers. Finding Amadou Bamba’s followers growing at an alarming rate, the French considered Amadou Bamba a threat to their rule over Senegal. They feared a rebellion.
In 1895, The French took Shaykh Amadou Bamba to trial on accounts of raising an army against the state. Although adamantly against violence, Amadou Bamba made his desire for a Muslim Senegal clear. As a result, he was exiled to Gabon in Central Africa in hopes of quelling the growth of the Mourīdiyya. The French believed that doing so would help the Senegalese forget the impeccable service of Amadou Bamba. However, his exiles only fueled legends of miraculous survival stories of escaping torture, deprivation, and attempted executions at the hands of the French. He returned in 1902 only to soon be exiled again for another four years to the deserts of Mauritania where he was honored by the ascetics and scholars. During his exiles, he continued composing poems in praise of God and the Messenger (ﷺ) and writing books on fiqh, ‘aqīdah, tafsīr, and the like. The French, realizing their attempts to destroy Shaykh Amadou Bamba had backfired, brought the Shaykh back to Senegal in 1907. To their dismay, his popularity, influence and amount of followers were greater than ever. Still considering him a threat, the French kept him under house arrest for the remainder of his life, away from his family and the city he created. In 1919, he was accepted by the French administration and given award of “Knight of The Legion of Honor.” He refused to wear the medal on account of materialism.
The Legacy of Serigne Touba (Holy Man of Touba)
Shaykh Amadou Bamba passed away in 1927 without having seen the French leave his country. He was successful, however, in his pacifist revival of the Senegalese Islamic identity. He was buried in Touba where the Great Mosque of Touba was built.
Today, the city of Touba is home to nearly a million inhabitants. All avenues of sins are prohibited in the city. The city attracts millions more during the Grand Magal, a celebration of the beginning of the Exile of Shaykh Amadou Bamba, that helped the Senegalese Islamic revival to boom. During this several-day celebration, lectures are given, Qurʾān is read, and group recitations of his poems are performed, similar to Mawlid celebrations.
A large portion of Senegal follows the Mourīdiyya order and Mourīdiyya communities exist all around the world today.
In a poem dedicated to Touba, Shaykh Amadou Bamba wrote: “My lord has blessed me with a place that rid me with all obstacles the minute I entered it.”
Senegalese Ṣūfī (The Miracles)
It is a part of traditional Sunni ‘aqīdah to believe in the miracles of the awliyā’. While some are provable, others are not. Here are a few of the numerous miracles of Shaykh Amadou Bamba that his murīds accept. Nevertheless, such stories are worthy lessons in themselves, whether true or not.
1. In what is reported to be his greatest physical miracle, Shaykh Amadou Bamba was in chains in transit on a boat to Gabon. When requesting to pray, he was denied. He broke through his chains, and jumped off the boat to find a prayer mat floating on the water. He began praying on it and returned to ship when he finished. French accounts of this event even exist, similar to the account of Jesus walking on water. He was said to survive being thrown in a furnace by the French, and drank tea with the soul of the prophet (ﷺ) in it, similar to the story of Abraham, and when thrown into a den of hungry lions, was able to make the lions fall asleep, similar to the powers of Solomon.
2. His light was considered so radiant, that he often covered his face as to not overwhelm others.
3. As he said himself, his miracles, were to be found in his poems praising Allāh and the messenger (ﷺ). His poems weighed in total about seven tons. He ascribed virtues to certain poems. Some poems are said to have powerful habit-altering effect when recited frequently.
4. Touba has become flourishing city of remembrance of God which also is the most financially stable city in Senegal. The city’s administration has even been asked for financial assistance from the country’s government.
5. Within a hundred years, his tarīqah (spiritual path) has become one of the largest in West Africa with several more communities throughout Europe and America.
6. His mother reported no pain during pregnancy, and would find him sitting in his dad’s prayer area as a child. His parents said he would cry when hearing impermissible musical instruments.
7. He was well known among the traditional scholars of the Ummah at the time including Imām Yusūf al-Nabahani in Lebanon and the scholars of the Hijāz who asked him to make du’ā when the House of Sa’ud took power in the Arabian Peninsula.
8. Imām Yusūf al-Nabahani dreamt he was told that Shaykh Amadou Bamba was the greatest of poets alive. The Imām composed a poem in praise of Shaykh Amadou Bamba: The following is a line: “Whosoever has missed [the chance, opportunity to meet] Ahmad al-Mukhtar ﷺ and also the khādim of the mukhtāri (“Amadou Bamba”) is someone who has lost.”
من فاته أحمدالمختار من مضر وفاته خادم المختار مغبون
9. While he previously took ijāzah and allegiance (bay’ah) with scholars of the other spiritual paths, those same teachers ultimately gave him allegiance; a classic case of the student surpassing the teacher.
What did others say about him?
Muḥammad Ibn Mualla, an eminent Moorish mystical poet, said about him: “There is but kindness in his sayings, but peace and nobility in his dwellings (Touba).”
Shaykh Sidia Baba, one of the premier scholars of Mauritania, said after his death: “This man is an ocean. God has given him as much science and knowledge as He gave foam to the sea. His kindness resounds deeply in the world. He has no shortcoming, if it is not to always do good. When he appears, wisdom can be seen.”
Antoine J.M.A Lasselves who initially wanted to destroy Shaykh Amadou Bamba, said in 1919: “Sheikh Bamba certainly holds an inner power whose source cannot be grasped by reason and whose capacity to arouse sympathy cannot be explained…
It would appear that he possesses a prophetic light and a divine secret, similar to what we read in the history of Prophets and their people.
This one however, distinguishes himself by purity of heart, by kindness, by magnanimity of heart and soul and by love of good for both friend and foe;
These are qualities for which his predecessors could have envied him, irrespective of their great virtue, piety and prestige.”
Luminous Enlightenments of Le Cheikh
“My religion is the love of God.”
“Allāh led me to Muḥammad ﷺ so Muḥammad ﷺ can lead me back to Allāh.”
“When they put the chains on me, Allāh opened the doors of mystery for me.”
“The only weapons I will use to fight my enemies are the pen and the ink that I use to write my poems in the glory of the Chosen One ﷺ.”
“ The fact that I was granted the privileged rank of servant of the Prophet and the book is a true bounty from Allāh (the bestower) and not my will.”
“If you call me anything else except Abdullahi or Khadim al Rasul ﷺ you have insulted me.”
“If you really aspire to attain lofty spiritual degrees, follow closely these recommendations of mine: I advise you to strive hard for knowledge, show gratitude towards Allāh, be sincere in worship and generosity. I recommend you to practice silence, patience and abstinence. Do avoid wordiness and excessive sleeping, stay aside from aught that entails immorality and corruption.”
“The motive of my departure to exile is the will of God to elevate my rank and to make of me the mediator between my people and the prophet ﷺ.”
“I have spoken to you, you have heard my words. I have left written scripts to your attention, I have acted under your eyes; My life is my message.”
Why is Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba so important?
Shaykh Amadou Bamba was able to single-handedly set up a self-sufficient city to emulate the city of Madīnah at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. He turned his colonizers into friends. He was a mujtahid and was given the title of the mujaddid of Western Africa. He was a mystic and a brilliant poet who founded an influential and powerful Ṣūfī order that continues to grow today. Not many are capable of emulating every aspect of the sunnah as Shaykh Amadou Bamba did. He wanted the best for not only the Muslims, but for all humanity.
He authored countless books, and thousands of poems in praise of Allāh and the Messenger, with each poem having specific spiritual virtues. He preferred obscurity yet was soon referred to with privilege as ‘Khadim al Rasul” (the servant of the Prophet ﷺ) by scholar and layman alike. He emphasized a daily life surrounded around one’s prayer, awrād (litanies), recitation of the Qurʾān, seeking knowledge, prayers upon the Prophet, being in the humble service of others, giving charity, receiving halal income, embodying all acts of worship in the sunnah, and inculcating prophetic character in one’s self, and in one’s interactions with one’s enemies. His impeccable character, brilliance, and piety made him the most prominent scholar of West Africa in his time. Such defined his spiritual station, which cultivated in his exile that ultimately lead to a spiritual victory over imperialism.
In his poem, “The Quest for Healing”, he writes:
“O you the Just, the Good by excellence, the Preserver! O You who heal and who hold man’s destiny in Your hands! Let Your blessings descend where harm exists And let there be good where evil prevails. And let there be generosity where avarice prevails. Let wealth be showered in poor places and let there be gratitude where ingratitude prevails…”
The above summarizes the message of Shaykh Amadou Bamba.
May Allāh be pleased with Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacke, allow us to benefit by him in both worlds, and may we all be servants of the messenger ﷺ.
Abdul Hakim Murad on Shaykh Amadou Bamba: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03bg6286Y5Y
Sheikh Amadu Bàmba’s Murīd Resistance to French Colonial Oppression: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/sheikh-amadu-b-mba-s-mur-d-resistance-french-colonial-oppression
Here is a link to one of the rigorous wird the Mouridiyya recite morning and evening that was compiled by Amadou Bamba, and given to him by the prophet ﷺ. http://www.daaraykamil.com/Wird-Mouride-tr.pdf
Here is one of his most widely recited poems in the traditional Mouridiyya style of recitation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUcnp-x2zwc
Du’ass requested for my beloved brother: Abdoul-Ahad Thiam who introduced me to Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba and the Mouridiyya. He is a khadim of the khadim al-rassoul.
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