Cheikh Amadou Bamba, The Untold Stories of an African Legend & his Legacy

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

Touba Mosque, Senegal

If you have ever read Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth, and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space,” then you understand the common traits of all heroes. Campbell reported on the synthesis he found while comparing the myths and legends of many cultures. The Hero’s Journey was his all-embracing metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation that heroes in every time and place seem to share, a path that leads them through great movements of separation, descent, ordeal, and return. It is a familiarity with the common injustice heroes usually face. Heroes or anyone who has ever stood for something, are oftentimes ahead of their time, misunderstood, relentlessly faced with mighty opponents who are either, too slow to understand their cause or better yet, refuse to even make an effort to understand their cause. Ignorance they say is bliss, however, there’s no bliss in ignorance but rather, it’s trivial. The story of Cheikh Amadou Bamba is the story of a hero who was blatantly misunderstood and refused to be bitter by the brutality he faced but most importantly, never doubted the love and believe in his master, God. It is a story we all ought to learn from and the wisdom of forgiveness and unshakable faith and believes in one's cause. “I have forgiven my enemies whatever they did to me for the sake of the ONE (ALLAH) who cleansed me from their accusation,” he lamented, after his exile.

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is the spiritual founder of the Mouride Brotherhood in Senegal and a proponent of Sufism in the likes of Rumi etc. Today, there is said to be over twelve million Sufi Muslims and followers of Sufism. Sufism according to Dan Merkur in an article titled, “Mysticism,” defined Sufism as the “belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. It consists of a variety of mystical paths that are designed to ascertain the nature of humanity and of God and to facilitate the experience of the presence of divine love and wisdom in the world. Islamic mysticism is called taṣawwuf (literally, “to dress in wool”) in Arabic, but it has been called Sufism in Western languages since the early 19th century.” The term "Mouride" on the order hand, is derived from Arabic and means disciple of a spiritual guide. Cheikh Ahmadou Bambas students are call Mouride, hence the term Mouride Brotherhood. Born ca 1854 in a small village called Mbacke Cajoor in the internal regions of Senegal, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba since his early childhood was said to display some profound qualities of wisdom, sainthood and spiritual knowledge that earned him respect and consideration from his community. It was said that when Cheikh Omar Foutiyou went to hajj in Mecca, on his way back, he was guided by a light, Arabic word noor that led him to the village and compound of Cheikh Ahmadou Bambas parents. And he told his parents their son will be Muslim Scholar. Cheikh Ahmadou Bambas mother, Mame Diarra Bousso, was said to be a virtuous woman.

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba showed at an early age, a limitless love of his creator and started composing Arabic poems to the glory of the prophet Muhammad. Extremely gifted in poetry writing, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba composed wonderful poems in such rare style with beauty, eloquence and innovation that became the pride of the Mouride Brotherhood (his disciples) today. Moreover, he undertook versifying most religious science books written by early scholars dealing with religious legislation and rules and made them more accessible and understandable to ordinary people. His uncommon knowledge of these sciences and a boundless patience, wisdom and generosity towards his contemporaries earned him the love of people from all corners of Senegal and The Gambia, and they started joining him to become his disciples.

While living in the village called Mbacke Baol for some years he got a revelation from his LORD that bid him to leave the village and seek for a place called TOUBA. Talking about this very place, he once wrote in one of his poems: “The LORD has blessed me with a place that rid me with all obstacles the minute I entered it." His remarkable life story is not only a gift but a seer inspiration that is also linked with the colonial destiny of sub-Saharan Africa.

As a young scholar, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba will spend the rest of his life preaching non-violence and the precepts of the "greater jihad" of the Sufis, the struggle against the inner enemies of greed, hate, lies and violence. The use of weapons to fight against the ruling colonial power was something that Bamba, however, utterly rejected. In 1895, despite the fact that he put up no resistance, the Sufi leader was arrested by the colonial regime and sent into exile in Gabon, the colony favored by the French for the incarceration in solitary confinement of African freedom fighters. Seven years of solitary confinement in Gabon were followed by nine years under house arrest in various locations, including neighboring Mauritania. While under house arrest, it was reported in 1919 by Antoine J. Henry Lasselves, the Administrator of the District of Diourbel a French official who was assigned to oversee the Cheikhs custody and role was to observe the Sheik at any time of the day and send regular reports to his superiors, recorded the following impression:

This Cheikh Bamba is gifted with some innate power whose origin the human mind cannot understand so as to explain his befriending capacity. The way people give up themselves to him is extraordinary and their love of the Cheikh is unconditional. He seems to have some divine light and secret similar to what we read in the stories of the great prophets and their people. But this one (the Cheikh Bamba) differs from them by his purity of heart, his generosity and his wishing good to friends and enemies alike. These are qualities his predecessors would have envied him, whatever the virtuousness, their piety or prestige were. The most unjust and ignorant people of human realities are those who accused him on false grounds, alleging that he was interested in temporal power. I am sure that the prophets and saints who waged holy war did it without having half the forces that he has got.

This report was of tremendous political and religious importance as it proved the sincerity of the Cheikh and his lack of temporal power ambition. It proved that whatever motivated his exile and the persecutions he was submitted to was done out of ignorance and on false pretense. “There are some facts during my exile that I will never reveal because of my reverential fear of my LORD." It is commonly believed that he was referring to some ill treatments he was submitted to during his years of exile on the Island of Mayumba in Gabon. In exile for seven years in Gabon and five years in Mauritania and placed under house arrest in Diourbel, Senegal for fifteen years, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba nevertheless did not cease to defend the message of Islam until his death in 1927.

What the colonizers would come to realize more than 14 years later was that the only enemies Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba ever taught his disciples to fight were the enemies within every individual, that is greed, hatred, passion, violence and deceit, that stand in the believer’s way to salvation. The Sheik taught them how to get rid of these vices that prevented them from gaining the agreement of their LORD and his satisfaction. He also taught them the love of work as it permitted them to maintain their dignity. In this respect, work is a central dimension in Mouridism (the brotherhood founded by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba based on prayer and work). The Cheikh used to tell his disciples: "Work as if you will never depart from this world and pray as if you were to die tomorrow." Although the colonizers started seeing in his personality another freedom fighter who was just trying to gain time to raise an army big enough to attack them.

It is noted that despite the Cheikh's efforts in sending them letters declaring that he was not concerned about anything that belonged to this perishable world did nothing to ease the mind of the colonizers. As a result, the Cheikh was arrested in August 1895 in a place called Diewol. By that time, his only offense towards the colonizers was his being a popular religious guide who only recognized God as a master. The day he got arrested all his disciples offered to take weapons and fight the white people. But the Cheikh ordered them not to. He declared that he alone could do the fighting without shedding anybody’s blood. He asked them to go back to their homes, declaring that he would be back soon. At that time little did the disciples know that seven years would go by before they saw their spiritual guide again. Many of them believed that they would never see him alive again. But the Cheikh knew he would be back in Senegal. He told this to his disciples and even trusted one of his poems with a virtuous woman of his family, asking her to keep it for him till he came back. Some two or three years later, when the disciples started to believe that the Cheikh was dead, that same woman showed them the poem and said: "The Cheikh will be back. Don’t you ever doubt that. He gave me this poem and asked me to keep it till he is back. He always keeps his words."

Saint Louis, Senegal

After arresting him, the French authorities sent Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba to St. Louis, the colonial capital city of Senegal at that time. A month later they took him aboard a ship bound for Gabon, which was at that time a dense tropical forest where all the people who resisted the colonizers' supremacy were deported to and kept in total isolation. This was the case of Samory Touré the Guinean and many other freedom fighters who found death in this forest. Before the appearance of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba on the Senegalese religious and political scene there had been freedom fighters like Lat Dior Diop, Alboury Ndiaye, El Hadji Oumar Tall, all who opposed the invasion of their country by the French colonizers. They raised armies, brandished their weapons and took a stand. But all of them were defeated by the military and technical superiority of their adversary. Describing this painful period of the meeting of two opposed worlds, the European world of technicity and modernity and the dark African world of emotion, Cheikh Amidou Kane, in his book entitled, The Ambiguous Adventure, wrote: "Some brave villagers like the Diallobes pointed their spears and brandished their machetes, the French soldiers let them come near, then they fired the cannons. The defeated Africans never understood what happened."

While Samory Touré and others never made it out of the forest Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba became the only person to make it alive. Certain miraculous events happened that are worth noting. According to his disciples, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba encountered bullets in the hands of the colonizers, however, not a single bullet was able to penetrate through him instead, the bullets reversed back to the ones firing.

Mayumba Island in Gabon

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba spent 7 years in exile. Seven long years during which he was totally isolated and separated from family, friends, disciples and Touba, his beloved city. He spent all the years of his exile praying to his lord harder than ever, recognizing no other authority than that of ALLAH. He also spent his time writing poems dedicated to the prophet Muhammad, his guide and master. During these years of trials and hardships he wrote: The only weapons I will use to fight my enemies are the calam (pen) and the ink that I use to write my Khassaids (poems) in the glory of the Elected (the prophet Muhammad)." This non-violent and peaceful attitude finally defeated the French authorities who took him back to Senegal on November 11, 1902, after seven years in exile. During his exile, he was deported to an island where there was no other human being. He survived two years of isolation on this island, addressing the buoyant sea of Mayumba, the name of this Island in Gabon, in these terms: "O thou Sea, if you have to be agitated, be so for fear of thy LORD and creator, and be witness that I am a sincere believer."

God will send renewers of the faith every 100 years (the members of all the Senegalese brotherhoods claim that their founders were such renewers). Cheikh Abdoul Ahad Mbacke, the third Caliph (Mouride leader) and son of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, declared that Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba had met the prophet Muhammad in his dreams, a tale that has become an article of faith for Mouride believers. During the month of Ramadan 1895, Muhammed and his companions appeared to him in a dream in Touba to confer upon him the rank of mujaddid of his age, and to test his faith. From this, Bamba is said to also have been conferred the rank of "Servant of the Prophet."

Serigne Saliou Mbacké

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba departed from this world on July 19, 1927, after a life fully lived serving ALLAH and his Prophet Muhammad, producing more than 7 tons of khassaids (religious poems dedicated either to ALLAH or to the prophet Muhammad).

Today more than half the population of Senegal are Mourides, disciples of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. His virtuous son Kalif, Serigne Saliou Mbacké, is unanimously recognized as a saint, who is visited by people from all over the world.

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba has only one surviving photograph, in which he wears a flowing white robe and his face is mostly covered by a scarf. This picture is venerated and reproduced in paintings on walls, buses, taxis, etc. all over Senegal. This photo was originally taken in 1913 by "French colonial authorities". As an art form and spiritual object, Bamba's photograph functions as more than a mere image, rather it is also "a living presence" through which his baraka (blessings/ gift) flows.

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