Senegal: million pilgrims honor Sufi saint

From Reuters, March 8:

More than a million Muslim pilgrims packed Senegal’s remote northeastern city of Touba on Thursday as members of the powerful Mouride brotherhood flocked to “Africa’s Mecca” from across the world.

Huge crowds moved shoulder to shoulder in the sweltering heat around the marble Great Mosque as devotees from Senegal joined with Mourides returning from overseas to pay homage to the Sufi Islam movement’s founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba.

The “grand Magal”, or “great pilgrimage” in Senegal’s national tongue Wolof, commemorates Bamba’s exile in 1895 by French colonial authorities, who feared his growing influence.

“This is an extraordinary day. People have come from across Africa, from across the world,” said Abdoulaye Gueye, 39, from Senegal’s southern town of Ziguinchor. “What you have in Mecca, the prophet of Touba recreated here. It is the same thing.”

Lines of pilgrims waited hours in the dust and blistering heat to enter the vast mosque, whose 87-metre (287-foot) tower dominates the skyline of Touba, a holy city controlled by religious authorities where drinking and smoking are forbidden.

Dreadlocked disciples known as Baye Fall dressed in baggy patchwork clothes blew whistles and brandished huge wooden clubs to keep the crowds in order. Many shook silver begging bowls and demanded donations for their religious teachers, or marabouts.

All over town street hawkers sold T-shirts and necklaces bearing the one surviving black-and-white photograph of Bamba, whose doctrine of hard work as a means to reach paradise has made the Mouride order wealthy and powerful in Senegal…

Tens of thousands of pilgrims arrived throughout the night as traffic jams stretched all the way through the countryside to the capital Dakar, 200 km (125 miles) southeast.

Hotels are forbidden in Touba but residents have a proud tradition of hospitality and provide food and accommodation to pilgrims. Hundreds of beggars and cripples roam the sandy streets around the mosque in search of alms.

“Here I can earn enough to sort myself out, and then I will return next year,” said Abdoulaye, a one-legged cripple bent over his crutches, who had travelled from neighbouring Mali.

Inside the mosque, pilgrims bowed their heads against the mausoleums of Bamba and his four dead sons, slipping coins through the grating. The current Caliph of Touba is Bamba’s last surviving son.

“After the Prophet, Cheikh Mamadou Bamba has been the person who has most influenced Islam,” said Mamadou Sarr, a guardian at the tomb of Bamba’s best-known disciple, Ibra Fall, the founder of the Baye Fall movement.

Around the tomb, Fall’s followers — who substitute work for their marabout for the five daily prayers of Islam — wailed the Arabic name of God in a ceaseless chant.

The commercial clout of Mouridism extends far beyond Senegal. Many Senegalese overseas — including street sellers flogging fake name-brand goods in European capitals and New York — are industrious Mourides following Bamba’s strictures.

From a tiny village at Bamba’s birth, Touba and neighbouring Mbacke have become the second largest conurbation in Senegal after Dakar, with a population of more than half a million.

Mouridism is also a powerful political force. President Abdoulaye Wade, re-elected last month, is a member of the brotherhood and travelled to Touba the day after he won power in 2000 to thank religious leaders for their support.

The Senegal Online website provides the following short bio of Cheikh Amadou Bamba (our translation from the French):

Born in 1853 (year 1272 of hegira), in Mbacke Baol, small village of Senegal founded by his grandfather, Sheik Ahmadou Ibn Mouhammad Ibn Habib Allah, affectionately called by his compatriots Sheik Ahmadou Bamba became one of the most prestigious sons of the Moslem community. Calling men to turn towards God and preaching non-violence, the quest for useful knowledge, work, pacifistic courage, determination and faith in God, he declared: “I fear only God, I carry my hopes in God, nothing is enough for me if it is not religion and science.” The king of Djoloff [Wolof], Alboury Ndiaye, encouraged him to take up arms against the French colonizers. The hero of Senegal, Lat Dior, placed his confidence in the Sheik and received his prayers before dying under the shells of the colonial army, at the time of the battle of Dékhelé, in October 1886. A great educator, he became the greatest teacher of his country, devoting himself to this task until the death of his father (1882). In 1883 he founded Mouridism. “I took from my Lord the order to bring men towards God, the highest. Those which wish to follow this path have only to follow me. As for the others which wish no more than instruction, the country has enough well-read men. Follow those whom you will!”

After a short stay in Mbacke Baol, he left to found Darou Salam and Touba. Sheik Amadou Bamba founded the “city of peace” to teach the Koran and to apply the tradition of the Prophet, far from the attacks and criticisms of men. The local chiefs, alarmed by his growing reputation, denounced him to the colonial authorities who started to surveil him. After Darou Salam, he founded Touba in 1886, the city of his dreams. “…It is a city exclusively built to adore God, to respect the pact which men signed with God, to carry out on Earth a healthy life in the following of the Koran and the tradition of Mouhammad, the most famous of the prophets of Allah.” Touba will be the grand temple of Allah in this part of the world…

During the month of Ramadan of the year 1312 of hegira (1894), in the mosque of Touba, Sheik Ahmadou Bamba…signed the pact of allegiance which bound his life to Khidma, that is to say, to the service of God and his Prophet. He left Touba [for] Djoloff, in the north of Senegal, and continued to follow his “sacred mission”. With the influence of Sheik Ahmadou Bamba growing on the population, the colonial power imprisoned him in Saint-Louis of Senegal in August 1895. Brought before the Private Council on September 5, he was condemned to deportation to Gabon (leaving on September 20). After seven years and nine months of exile in the equatorial forest (commemorated by the festival of Magal), Sheik Ahmadou Bamba returned to Dakar in 1902.

In Darou Salam, at the house of Sheik Anta, the brother and disciple of Sheik Ahmadou Bamba, the neighbors – Mourides as well as Tidianes – made a holiday to celebrate his return. The celebrations lasted fifteen days. Each morning, a dromedary and ten goats were slaughtered to feed all their friends.

In June 1903, exiled again, Sheik Ahmadou Bamba had to leave Daroul Manaan, escorted by 150 riflemen and 50 spahis, for Mauritania. On returning to Senegal in 1907, he lived under house arrest in Tieyene, close to Louga, and was authorized to be surrounded by only fifty disciples…

Finally recogonizing Sheik Ahmadou Bamba as a saint, France decorated him with the cross of the Legion of Honor. He refused to accept this decoration, wishing to show again that his action was inspired only by God and God alone, and not by man, friend or foe. Sheik Ahmadou Bamba died on July 19, 1927. His mausoleum, in Touba, draws men and women of all peoples and all continents.

See also Khidmatul Khadim: The Official Home Page of Islam-Al-Muridiyyah

See our last posts on West Africa, Sufism and the struggle within Islam.

See our special report, “Sufism: the Midway Between Extremisms — Indigenous North Africa Between Jihad and Imperialism,” by Toufik Amayas Mostefaou, WW4 REPORT #131, March 2007

  1. JPost quotes WW4 on Sufism

    According to an article on, Sufism has been in this conflict with mainstream Islam since its inception, but it has now been thoroughly defeated by fundamentalism. “The fundamentalists today,” it says, “attack the surviving Sufis, seeing their struggle as a unified jihad against both imperialism and heresy.”