116th Street in Harlem, New York is aptly named Le Petit Senegal. It abounds in aromas of stewing mafe and yassa wafting out of restaurants, sidewalks turned into mosques and businesses stocked with merchandise right out of Dakar. Behind a number of these enterprises are the Mourides, a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of Sufi Muslims who mostly come from Senegal and The Gambia. July 21 began a week of celebrating the 19th anniversary of Mouridism in the United States and culminated in a parade on Saturday, July 28, which has been dubbed Amadou Bamba Day.
Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacke founded Mouridism in 1883 in the city of Touba, Senegal. The teachings of Bamba, a marabout: a religious scholar and leader, spread across West Africa, and has now been exported into many cities outside Africa, especially New York and Paris. His message was salvation through hard work and submission to the marabout.
The word Mouride in Arabic means "one who desires" and Bamba's instruction and leadership entreated a return to the Prophet Mohammed's teachings. During the late 19th century while most religious leaders in the region waged all-out wars against the French, Bamba's message was "jihad al-akbar," a greater struggle through learning and fear of God. As Bamba gained more followers the French perceived this as threatening their control and exiled him first to Gabon in 1885 and then to Mauritania in 1903. His exile only amplified his legendary status and stories such as Bamba praying atop a mat spread on the ocean when the French forbade him to pray on the ship to Gabon, were not unusual.
Followers of Mouridism are known for their enterprising natures, which is said to have come from Bamba's "you can do and should do for yourself" work ethic. The "Mecca" of the Mouridiyya, as the community is called, is situated in Touba. The city boasts a mosque with an 86-meter high minaret, the highest in West Africa, and domes that can be seen for miles in the Sahara. Unlike many mosques in Islamic Africa that were backed monetarily by Saudi Arabia, Bamba and his followers built the mosque with funds members raised.
Being self-contained is the way of life in Touba, the second largest city in Senegal. The city doesn't pay taxes to the federal government, and residents don't pay water bills. Many, both women and men, own businesses. Likewise, in Harlem, the Mouride's businesses and presences have been recognized as a boon to the quality of life in the area.
At a recent reception welcoming Cheikh Mame Mor Mbacke, a descendant of Bamba, who was in the United States in time for the week-long celebration, the invited guests included Ted Jacobsen, the secretary of the New York City Central Labor Council; Annie B. Martin, the president of the New York branch of the NAACP; a representative of the Manhattan councilwoman's office; John Stone, the president of the Church of Latter Day Saints and Father Tom Fenlon, of St. Augustine's Church in Harlem. They all gave congratulatory remarks to the Cheikh as well as to Balozy Harvey, president of the Murid Islamic Community in America, MICA.
Harvey said in his speech: "The teachings of Chairman Bamba give us opportunity as black people to see beyond our color and collaborate with other people."Women in the Mouride community are also forces to contend with. Khady Gueye Serigne Abdou, a supervisor of the women's wing of MICA and an import-export business owner who has been in the States for 13 years said, "We organize all Muslim women from the Murid Islam Community to work together, for spirituality. The Islamic Community is a family. Women contribute to family by taking care of baby and of the house. [Likewise], women are here to aid, to take care of marabout and take care of everybody."
Theirs is not a submissive role, and a lot were at the reception clad in rich cloths, gold bracelets and huge rings. They are very much in the forefront of business running and owning. Aisha Sy, for instance, a recent convert to Mouridism, who is American and married to a Senegalese man, runs two businesses with her husband, based in Dakar, Mashallah Boutique and Royale Sy International.
At the reception, John Stone said his church and the Mourides have the same goal of friendship, love and respect for good and righteous living, adding that with the current perception of Islam, the message of the Mouride community is important.
To be sure, Mourides are not accepted by many in orthodox Islam. Some of their practices are perceived as blasphemous. Touba is just as--or even more--important than Mecca. Also, their adoration of Cheikh Amadou Bamba and his male descendents raise a lot of brows. Most Muslims believe no other prophets should take the place of The Prophet Mohammed, while Mourides believe Bamba was another prophet of God.
This veneration was discernable in the voices of Harvey and many who gave welcome speeches:
"We love him with all our heart," Harvey said, "He brings the spirit here, Cheikh Mbacke brought in the light." As Harvey said this, a dreadlocked man, clad in a white suit and yellow tie, broke into song.
The story goes that Ibra Fall, one of Bamba's disciples found Koranic studies somewhat difficult, so the Cheikh decided that he should show his dedication to God through manual labor. Ibra Fall founded the Baye Fall brotherhood. They are allowed to drink and smoke, and are usually distinguishable by their dreadlocked hair. The most famous Baye Fall is musician Cheikh Lo.
Apart from the parade, a meeting was held at the United Nations. The Cheikh visited other states where Mourides are highly concentrated: Washington DC, Los Angeles and Kansas City, and returned to New York in time for the parade.
Photo: Women at Amadou Bamba Day
Photo Credit: John Oko Nyaku