University of California Press
Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1984. 215 p.
As with so many aspects of Cerno Bokar's life, we are able to provide only few details of his religious training. This dearth of information is especially frustrating because the influences on his religious thinking were not simply those of the standard texts which were studied by all West African scholars. Cerno Bokar had certainly studied these, but he was not particularly attached to “book learning.” He was a contemplative man, much given to seeking his own interpretations and finding his own personal path to understanding. As we have suggested in the previous chapter, perhaps his mother had nurtured these characteristics in him; certainly the oral accounts of her would have us believe this. Nonetheless, the teachers and the teachings with which he came into contact must also have been profoundly significant in this respect. We can say much more about the teachings than we can about the specific teachers who worked with Cerno Bokar. In the next chapter we trace the development of his interpretations of Tijani Sufism, not only from the basic writings of this religious order, but also through the men who seem to have been his spiritual masters. In this chapter we examine the nature of his formal religious education, but we also explore the influence upon him of a particular teaching in dogmatic theology (Arabic: tawhîd) called kaɓɓe in Fulfulde. Although based on written Arabic texts, the kaɓɓe was transmitted orally; it developed through several stages of increasing complexity, and concluded with an “initiation” into a body of esoteric religious knowledge.
Although we cannot confirm the precise channels through which Cerno Bokar came into contact with this theological teaching, its influence on his own thought seems to have been profound. His personal version of an Islamic catechism in theology, which came to be known as the mâ'd-dîn (Arabic for “What is religion? ”) was also taught orally in Fulfulde, proceeded through several stages of increasingly complex interpretation, and concluded with an esoteric initiation. The esoteric dimensions of both the kaɓɓe and the mâ'd-dîn were based on numerological analyses of words and letters, while at the same time emphasizing the essential and predominant role of the intellect in developing an understanding of one's religion. Sufism, on the other hand, while not anti-intellectual, tended to emphasize an experiential spiritual development which was acquired through prayers, recitations and various spiritual exercises. The great Sufi masters, such as al-Hajj Umar, taught that the understanding gained through these experiences transcended any gained by any other means.
We can therefore identify at least three discrete elements in the learned traditions of Islamic West Africa:
Of course, these elements constantly interacted and few Muslims would have seen them as completely separate, but it is useful for us here to examine them individually so as to see more clearly their separate contributions to Cerno Bokar's thought.
Cerno Bokar's early studies probably followed the pattern predominant in the western Sudan at that time. We have already suggested that he began Qur'anic studies at the age of six or seven with Abdullahi Jire in Segu. The number of years devoted to study of the Qur'an varied with the ability and interest of students. Those with particularly prodigious memories would memorize the entire Qur'an, which some might accomplish in their teenage years, although many would proceed to other studies without achieving this task. Arabic was not the mother-tongue of most West African students, and initial Qur'anic studies proceeded by the rote memorization of sections of the Qur'an without translation or comment; hence, recitation of the Qur'an was learned without any understanding of its content. Comprehension of the Arabic language began only in later years when the student began to study “books.” Only the more capable and interested students advanced to this second level of study; most would leave school having only learned to recite some verses of the Qur'an as well as how to perform their required prayers and rituals, such as ablution.
The study of books began with relatively small and simple volumes, usually on the subject of tawhîd, the doctrine of the unity of God. If the Qur'an, the revealed word of God, formed the foundation of Muslim religious study, tawhîd was the essential second step during which basic Islamic principles were studied. With the study of “books” began the formal study of Arabic language as well, for at this stage texts were translated and explained. Lessons proceeded as follows: a section of text was copied out of the book by the student who then read it back to his teacher to make sure that any errors were corrected. The teacher would then explain and comment on the text, which the student would repeatedly go over until he fully understood it. Only then would he proceed to copy another section of the book being studied. All books studied formally with a teacher were approached in the same way, no matter how advanced a student might become. This method of learning, so similar in approach to that used during the years of Qur'anic recitation, is responsible for the high degree of memorization which attended these traditional studies. Many students memorized large portions of all the texts they studied. At the same time, however, this teaching method was also responsible for the perpetuation of a great deal of unimaginative teaching in West Africa. In most cases, there was no supervisory control over the content of oral explanation and commentaries on books studied. Anyone who could read and write Arabic could set himself up as a teacher, and a great number of these apparently had little real understanding of, or sensitivity to, the material they taught. For them teaching was a dry, mechanical process of writing out and reciting one section of text after another, with little attention being paid to whether the student really understood the import of what he was supposed to be learning. Unfortunately, a large number of teachers were of this kind, and the low opinion which Europeans held of Muslim education in the Western Sudan was based on the great numbers of unqualified teachers.
Of course, many Africans were themselves well aware of the shortcomings of this system. Few formal mechanisms existed for testing the qualifications of a prospective teacher, and none of these was controlled by a central authority. Nor was there any institution which could directly prevent a person from teaching. Any person who could attract students could teach; and conversely, the only means to insure that one did not teach was to deprive him of students. In the twentieth century the French tried to institute controls over Muslim schools by requiring schoolmasters to be licensed. But the pre-colonial system was controlled only by the laissez-faire process of the students' choice. Whereas this system may not have been very effective in eliminating the less competent teachers, it did allow for some rudimentary religious training to be widely available to the population, and it did not prevent the academically competent from pursuing their own training as far as they wished. The choice for parents placing their young children in Qur'anic training may have been limited — a local school would invariably be selected — but for the more advanced students the choice was considerable, and the style and emphasis of teaching might vary considerably, primarly because of the intensely personal nature of Islamic academic training in West Africa. The sources of this diversity require some explanation.
The primary aim of all Muslim scholars and teachers was the preservation and transmission of the Islamic religious tradition, as expressed in the Qur'an, the hadîth, and in various standard religious texts. If some scholars in their teaching placed primary emphasis on preserving the tradition, as they understood it, trying in their explanations never to stray far from the written text, others were more concemed with the efficacy of transmission, and these experimented with various methods of facilitating their students' comprehension. Since the religious tradition itself was not subject to change, the possibilities for innovation and experimentation lay in the transmission of knowledge, in commentary and in explanation. Some of these commentaries were committed to writing, and became standard texts, but the bulk of them were oral and they were often put into verse to make them easier to memorize. Indeed, Muslim education was in effect the oral transmission of the written word. No student, however competent he might be in Arabic, was considered qualified to teach a particular text unless he had studied it with a teacher. This was because all the texts were seen to require explanation and commentary. Consequently, a teacher's understanding of a given text was composed first of the commentary of his teacher, and secondly, if he was so inclined, of his own personal interpretations.
But the personal nature of the relationship between student and teacher went much further than the transmission of commentaries. Becoming the student of a particular teacher meant almost total submission to him. The teacher could become the most fundamental and pervasive influence in the student's moral and personal development. This relationship is not to be understood as the side-effect of a particular system of religious training; for many Muslims it was the central feature of the educational process. The selection of a teacher might therefore be subject to a wide range of considerations: his piety and religious personality, his reputed expertise in a particular discipline, or his teaching ability. Of course, his family and political relationships might also be a matter of concern. Some students travelled great distances in order to work with a given teacher; indeed, those students who set out in this way to search for knowledge were held in particularly high esteem 1. The advanced student might study the various subjects of his curriculum under one teacher, or under several different specialists. In general the curriculum continued from tawhîd into other subject areas such as law, grammar, advanced Arabic language, theology, the hadîth, and commentary on the Qur'an. Only the most dedicated students would touch on all these subjects. The majority-ended their schooling after some study of tawhîd and the law. Depending on his own ability and on his teachers, the student might eventually become completely literate in Arabic and be able to speak the language as well.
Cerno Bokar seems to have followed this normal course of study as a child and as a young man. After his arrival in Bandiagara he may have continued with the Qur'an for some time, but he soon undertoak the study of “books.” No evidence exists to suggest that he memorized the entire Qur'an ' nor do we know much about his intermediate studies of “books,” but he did become extremely competent in Arabic, which enabled him to pursue advanced study. Information about his early teachers is scanty 2, but the one person with whom he studied the longest and who probably had the greatest influence upon him was Amadu Tafsiir Bâ, a Pullo scholar who had become blind by the time Cerno came to him 3. Cerno remained under the guidance of Amadu Tafsiir for about eight years and seems primarily to have studied books on Sufism with him. Whether they read any other subjects together is not clear, but the Sufi dimension of their relationship is attested to in several sources. Amadu Tafsiir was a Tijani Sufi and the student of a student of al-Hajj Umar — a scholarly pedigree carrying prestige. He is reputed to have taught Cerno Bokar a number of major Sufi texts, including books by al-Ghazâlî and Ibn 'Arabî, as well as the two most important Tijani treatises, the Jawâhir al-Ma'ânî by 'Alî Harazim and the Rimâh by al-Hajj Umar 4.
Informants also trace Cerno Bokar's personal spiritual development to his relationship with Amadu Tafsiir: “He studied with Amadu Tafsiir until he was able to bring together the truth (haqîqa) and the law (sharî'a). He was ‘opened’ [by God].” 5. This kind of description is designed to attribute to Cerno Bokar very high spiritual attainments. The language is derived from the Sufi vocabulary: to be “opened” by God refers to an individual's ability to comprehend the hidden, esoteric reality (truth or haqîqa) which underlies the manifested, exoteric world of sensual perception. According to Muslims, the religious law (sharî'a) which is based upon God's revelations (the Qur'an), has been given to man in order to direct his activities in ordinary life. Sufis believe that some persons, with the aid of God, are able to perceive the hidden realities and to comprehend their relationship to the manifested world and to, the revealed word of God 6. Such persons are considered to be “friends of God” (Arabic: walî), often loosely called “saints” in European literature of the subject. The informant quoted above, one Koola Sidi, a favored disciple of Cerno Bokar, clearly wished to attribute saintly characteristics to him. Of course, we cannot make any judgments about Cerno Bokar's spiritual achievements; certainly he does not seem himself to have claimed any of the accomplishments here ascribed to him. At the same time, this quotation is a fair statement of the goals to which he aspired. He described mysticism as the “consequence … of a lived experience in which the intuition might be activated as a result of a lengthy meditative observation byan individual predestined for the divine light.” 7. He advised his disciples:
Observe everything with the eyes of your profound intelligence and in the light of the law of analogy which connects the events and elements of the three kingdoms of nature with one another [the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms]. Once you have discovered this secret mechanism, it will aid you in implanting within yourself the truth of divine matters which are situated beyond the letter of the Qur'an. Then you will know the significance of the verse: “[He] teacheth man that which he knew not.” (XCVI, 5) 8
Although we cannot confirm Koola Sidi's spiritual attributions to Cerno Bokar, one can understand why he might have assumed such accomplishments in a man who spoke thus. But the question before us here relates not to whether Cerno Bokar had been “opened” by God, but to the content of the religious training which led him to think in the way he did.
The influence of Amadu Tafsiir is attested by another source. Amadou Hampâté Bâ claimed that Cerno was “initiated” into the secrets of Sufism by him 9. The word “initiation” should here be understood in a rather technical sense; it is the translation of the Arabic talqîn, which means giving instruction, often implying secret instruction. Sufi literature uses the word talqîn to indicate the process of instructing new disciples in the recitation of special prayers, as well as of authorizing the recitation of them. This procedure is often referred to in European languages as initiation; it is an event to which considerable import is given by the Sufis, and, it will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter. This is not the initiation to which Amadou Hampâté Bâ here refers; Amadu Tafsiir was not Cerno Bokar's initiator in this sense. What seems to be in question here is the transmission of rather specific secret knowledge. That West African Sufis communicated “secrets” among themselves is not in doubt; numerous references to them occur throughout the oral and written literature. Amadou Hampâté Bâ claims that Amadu Tafsiir initiated Cerno into the science of numbers 10, and sometimes he speaks of these secrets as if they were specific formulae or even physical objects 11. Classical Sufi sources give a very different connotation from this one to the word “secret” (Arabic: sirr). One authority translates the term as “mystery” rather than secret; another describes it as “the innermost part of the heart in which the divine revelation is experienced. ” 12.
Cerno Bokar may have been heir to both kinds of secrets, and perhaps he was initiated into both by Amadu Tafsiir, although we have no conclusive proof of this. Cerno refers in the above quotation to the “secret mechanism” of observation and meditation through which one can seek “the truth of divine matters.” This comment could be interpreted as referring to either of the kinds of secret we have just discussed: the knowledge of an esoteric science of numbers to probe the deeper meanings of written texts, or the development of an inner capacity to receive “divine revelations.” But one should be clear that these two “secrets” are of a very different nature: one results from an intellectual exercise, the other from a spiritual exercise. In Cerno Bokar's religious thought and practice we find evidence of both forms of exercise; whether they were also part of one single initiation is dffficult to say. Certainly a considerable segment of his thought is traceable to an identifiable Islamic pedagogical tradition among the Fulɓe: the kaɓɓe. We must now examine the content of this particular tradition 13.
Kaɓɓe is the Fulfulde equivalent of the Arabic word 'aqîda, meaning “article of faith;” both words derive from roots which mean “to tie.” The kaɓɓe was that part of the religious studies curriculum in which the Fulɓe introduced students to the basic fundamentals of tawhid, the doctrine of the unity of God. Early French administrators recorded the existence of the kaɓɓe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among Fulɓe of both Futa-Jallon and Upper Volta [Burkina Faso]. However, antecedents to this form of teaching go back to the seventeenth century, and the kaɓɓe as the French found it may have been the last remaining vestige of this much older tradition, or it may have been one particular part of a still active and widespread form of teaching. Because the basic characteristics of the kaɓɓe are so close to those of Cerno Bokar's mâ'd-dîn, we conclude that he was deeply influenced by this particular teaching. As we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, both teachings were transmitted orally in Fulfulde, both proceed from explanations of the elements of tawhîd through levels of more sophisticated interpretations, and both conclude with an “initiation.” In spite of these congruences and other more specific ones which will be explained below, we cannot assert with certainty that Cerno Bokar had received a kaɓɓe initiation, nor even conclusively demonstrate that he had come into direct contact with the kaɓɓe. On the other hand, even if he never learned the kaɓɓe itself, he could not have been ignorant of the broader traditions of which it was a part.
The content of the kaɓɓe, although containing different elements in its variant forms, was based on a classic treatise on tawhîd written by the fifteenth century North African scholar, Muhammad b. Yûsuf al-Sanûsî. This tiny book (extending only to ten small pages of printed Arabic) was entitled al-'Aqîdat al-Sughrâ (The Lesser Dogma or The Lesser Catechism) and often called Umm al-Barâhîn (The Source of Proofs) 14. It became a standard text in North and West Africa and was the subject of numerous written commentaries. A brief introduction to the more important elements of this text will be helpful in tracing its influence in West Africa.
The 'Aqîdat al-Suqhrâ opens with the following statement:
‘Know that rational judgment consists of three parts: the necessary, the impossible and the contingent. The necessary is that which cannot be conceived by the intellect as not existing. The impossible is that which cannot be conceived by the intellect as existing. The contingent are those things of which the existence or non-existence is acceptable to the intellect. And it is incumbent upon every legally competent adult that he know what is necessary, impossible or contingent with respect to our great and powerful Master [God]. It is also incumbent to know the same with respect to the prophets 15.
Al-Sanûsî then describes and discusses the proofs of the twenty necessary, the twenty impossible and the countless contingent attributes of God, as well as the three necessary and the three impossible attributes of God's Messengers. The treatise concludes with an explanation of how the Muslim testimony of faith, « There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God » (shahâdâ), contains all these concepts within it. He then says:
The intelligent person should recite [this testimony of faith] often, while calling to mind that which it contains from the articles of faith until it, with its meaning, mingles with his flesh and blood. Then, if God wills, he will behold some of its boundless secrets and wonders 16.
The book therefore contains a rational explication of the attributes of God and of His Prophets, as well as an injunction to repeated recitation, which through an experiential process may bring one into touch with “secrets” and “wonders.” These two strands run through the entire tradition of the kaɓɓe in West Africa.
The 'Aqîdat al-Suqhrâ may have acquired its prominent position in religious curricula as much because of the veneration in which its author was held as because of the contents of the treatise itself. Al-Sanûsî was considered a great Sufi saint; after his death one of his disciples wrote a biography of the master describing his mystical attainments and surveying his scholarly writings 17. This book was subsequently abridged by the great Timbuktu scholar, then resident in Marrakesh, Ahmad Bâbâ 18, who also wrote a commentary on al-'Aqîdat al-Suqhrâ 19. Ahmad Bâbâ, on his return to Timbuktu in 1607, was therefore probably one of the channels through whom the work and teachings of al-Sanûsî was spread to West African scholars. Since his own commentary on the 'Aqîdat is not extant, we do not know his interpretations of the text, but his abridgement of al-Sanûsî's biography suggests that he accepted the mystical view of the man put forward by its author. Two passages from Ahmad Bâbâ's book seem worthy of mention here. Both concern deceased scholars who have appeared in visions to still living former companions. One reported in the vision that he had been seriously reprimanded after his death by Munkar and Nakîr (the angels who examine the dead as to their faith) for not having read the 'Aqîdat. The second was seen, in the vision, teaching the 'Aqîdat in paradise, which he claimed to be unequalled in value as a text 20. Visions of this sort exercised great influence among mystically oriented Muslims and were accepted by some as virtually unassailable indications of divine will. Undoubtedly, the 'Aqîdat al-Suqhrâ derived much of its venerated status from this kind of testimony.
By the later seventeenth century some Fulɓe scholars were teaching commentaries of the 'Aqîdat in their own language. One of these was translated into Arabic by a Pullo scholar called Muhammad al-Wâlî b. Sulaimân (fl. 1688-9) under the title “The Peerless Method, concerning the knowledge of the science of tawhîd” (al-manhaj al-farîd fî ma-'rifat 'ilm at-tawhîd) 21. This translation, as well as other works on tawhîd by Muhammad al-Wâlî, were widely distributed in West Africa. “The Peerless Method” contains all the elements of the Sanûsî tradition already mentioned: the entire text of the 'Aqîdat is effectively quoted in full and elaborated upon; and there is a section on the saintly attainments of al-Sanûsî. The indications in this text are not only that tawbi-d is the most fundamental of all subjects which one can study, but that the 'Aqîdat is essential for all those embarking on the mystical path: “Know all those who desire to enter the company of the friends of God, you will find in the 'Aqidat al-Shuqhrâ a body of considerable knowledge which will inform you of the tenets of faith necessary for you before learning tafsîr, hadîth and fiqh. Do not abandon it after studying it.” 22. Indeed, the mystical and esoteric dimensions of this commentary are rather striking. Considerable discussion is devoted to the relationship between the outer, manifested world (Arabic: zâhir) and the inner, esoteric, hidden spiritual realities (Arabic: bâtin). An interest is also revealed in the science of letters (Arabic: 'ilm al-hurû), or the esoteric interpretation of their meaning. For example, explanations such as this are given for the letters in the name Muhammad, as well as for those in the word shaykh 23.
Whether this connection between the esoteric sciences and the Sanûsî tradition of tawhîd was first established in West Africa is not clear, but Muhammad al-Wâlî is a definite link in the chain of transmission of 'ilm al-hurû in this region. Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Fulânî al-Kashnâwî, the Katsina scholar who wrote a treatise on this subject 24, established the authority of his book on a dual isnâd (Arabic: chain of authority) passing first through one Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Fulani Bindû, a Borno scholar still remembered in local oral traditions. The isnâd then splits into two lines: the first directly to the father of Muhammad al-Wâlî, Sulaimân b. Muhammad al-Fulânî al-Mâsini, and the second to Ahmad Babâ al-Tinbuktî via two other scholars, Muhammad b. Wâkâr (?) al-Wankarî and Ahmad b. Ahmad al-Tinbuktî 25. Muhammad al-Wâlî is also mentioned in the early nineteenth century Arabic literature of the Sokoto Caliphate where his writings on the esoteric sciences (magic squares, astrology, and the science of letters and numerology) are implicitly criticized for having contributed to a pre-occupation with them by some scholars at the expense of the more orthodox religious sciences. Shaykh 'Uthmân b. Fûdî composed an angry poem on the subject in which he castigated those practitioners of the esoteric sciences who used their knowledge for personal worldly gain:
They call it secret knowledge, but they lie.
It is not secret, but evil knowledge.
Whereas the secret is in the sciences spread by
The friends of God, the possessors of discrimination 26
Shaykh 'Uthman's feelings about the alleged misuse of certain kinds of knowledge were an important factor in his efforts to reform Islamic practice; in this passage he reveals his concern about what constitutes a valid and legitimate “secret.” A similar issue would attain significance for Cerno Bokar: how to identify a legitimate Sufi shaykh.
The “Peerless Method” seems to have been a direct antecedent of the kaɓɓe as it existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The only oral text of the kaɓɓe presently available for consultation and comparison was collected in south-western Niger among the Gaobe Fulɓe 27. This version of the habbe is by no means a complete reiteration of the “Peerless Method,” but the major themes, and even the language of some passages, seem to be derived fromit. Al-Sanûsî is nowhere mentioned by name, but his influence is pervasive:
Knowledge of the sharî'a is obligatory for every legally competent adult, and they must know what is necessary, impossible and contingent with respect to God Almighty, and they must know these things with respect to the Prophets (Blessings and peace be upon them). This is so the competent adult will become a believer who has the certitude of his belief and whose heart can see into his religion 28.
The attributes of God, and their rational proofs, are presented in a manner very reminiscent of the “Peerless Method.” There seems little doubt that the kaɓɓe as recited in the twentieth century is a part of the tradition of theological teaching which began with al-Sanûsî.
In the early years of their occupation, the French encountered the kaɓɓe in Futa-Jallon, Masina and Upper Volta. Initial French reports were unclear about the precise contents of the kaɓɓe itself, but they provide important information about the characteristics associated with its transmission. One of the earliest published French accounts of the kaɓɓe appeared in 1899 in a general study of West African Islam 29. It isworth quoting in full:
It remains to call attention, in Masina, to the existence of a curious Muslim sect, the center of which is in the village of Sassa. Its founder, Khair al-Dîn, who still leads it, had sought to simplify Islam and to purify it through a progressive initiation and through the exclusive teaching of three books which summarize all the principles of the faith and which are assigned to three categories of adepts. Children are allowed to read only the first, which is apparently the Qur'an; knowledge of the second, a summary of the Hadîth is the privilege of older men. The third, which appears to be the explanation of a particular Sufi doctrine, is confided only to talibe ([Sufi] seekers) or to disciples who aspire to become such and are considefed worthy of it. Only these last perform the entire prayer, the other two categories of faithful being reduced to an abbreviated version of the obligatory prayers.
Some years later another French author, offered a much fuller discussion of this “sect” and its history. He spoke of the “rites of the kaɓɓe” in which “religion is reduced to the meditation of the mysteries of Divine Unity.” 30
This sect was born in Futa-Jallon among the Fulɓe. During the time of al-Hajj Umar, the grand master of this knowledge in this country was Alpha Mahmadou Hella. The conqueror [al-Hajj Umar] ordered him and his disciples to refrain, under pain of death, from persevering with their dangerous doctrines, but they went into hiding and their propaganda did not diminish.
One of their number, a native of Labe who knew neither how to read nor write, since these skills are useless for the predestined, set out for the pilgrimage. He stopped among the Fulɓe Jelgooji (in the region of Djibo [Burkina Faso]) and married. The power of this initiate was such, so they say, that he could kill an ox simply by pronouncing the name of Allah in front of it; the meat of this ox, although it had not been slaughtered according to Muslim ritual, was nonetheless permissible [for eating] because God himself had killed it.
When this man departed, he confided the mysteries of tawhîd to his wife, and she taught them to others who were distinguished by their austerity and by their ardent piety. One of these was called Khair al-Dîn, of the Diallo family who lived in Wouro-Saba in the canton of Jelgooji. To the meditations on Unity, he added the book of Shaykh Sanûsî, al-Burhan, which, translated into Fulfulde under the name kaɓɓe, became, thanks to him, one of the holy books of the sect. In this way Fulfulde 3l became, after Arabic, a sacred language of Islam. The dogmas of tawhîd translated into this language were learned word for word by the pastoral Fulɓe, and were then commented upon in a series of extremely abstract deductions.
Before commenting on these two passages, it would be useful to include one more quotation, this one in connection with the recorded kaɓɓe text which has been consulted for this study. Boubou Hama, who collected this version in Niger in the 1960s, attributes the origin of kaɓɓe to one Alfa Issa who had studied in Jelgooji where he became a specialist in Islamic law:
This venerated marabout had no male children, but only two daughters who learned the Qur'an and Arabic. Faced by the ignorance of his people, Alfa Issa drafted, in Fulfulde, a treatise on the laws of Islam intended for those of his compatriots who did not have the opportunity to learn the Qur'an and Arabic. The treatise was called kâbi-tawidi (the book of the knowledge of God). The word kâbi is the root of kabankobi, the term by which the Issaɓe (the Fulɓe of the group of Alfa Issa) are called. The kâbi is still employed today and the young Issaɓe may marry only after having assimilated its teaching 32.
Several other traditions about the origins and nature of the kaɓɓe exist, but they corroborate the general pattern which emerges from the three quoted here. First, it is extremely interesting that these accounts attribute the origin of the kaɓɓe to local scholars of the recent past. Even in the cases where the teaching was viewed as being introduced to an area from outside, it is not presented as a widespread or ancient text 33. The basic theme which is promoted is that it was invented by a learned marabout either to “purify” or to “simplify” the basic teachings of Islam or to make these more accessible to non-literate Muslims. Also interesting is the role which women were seen to play in its transmission; on this aspect of the kaɓɓe one can only offer the speculation that perhaps women were attracted to this teaching since literate scholarly training was not readily available to them. Another striking feature of these accounts is the sectarian qualities with which the kaɓɓe is described. These seem to be closely associated with the initiatory nature of the teaching, proceeding as it did through three stages. For many practitioners, memorization of the text became a prerequisite for general acceptance as a “full-fledged Muslim.” These sectarian practices, although condemned by the majority of Muslim scholars, were undoubtedly justified by the partisans of the kaɓɓe by al-Sanûsî's own injunction in the 'Aqîdat that the knowledge of the attributes of God and His Prophets were “incumbent upon every legally competent adult.” The point is elaborated further in the kaɓɓe: “This [knowledge] is so the competent adult will become a believer who has the certitude of his belief and whose heart can see into his religion.” Such concepts led to the conviction among some Muslims that only the masters of tawhîd (the kɓɓenkooɓe) were “true believers,” as well as to various sectarian practices: that only the kabbenkoobe recited their prayers in full; that only they were qualified to slaughter animals 34; that their members were buried in a cemetery separate from other Muslims; and that persons were not qualified to marry until they memorized the text of the kaɓɓe 35.
These sectarian practices provide yet another clue to the long history of the kaɓɓe. The same teaching, with similar sectarian tendencies, apparently flourished in Hausaland in the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Shaykh 'Uthmân b. Fûdî, the leader of the Sokoto jihâd, had himself devoted much energy to combating these teachings. To whom else but local kabbenkooɓɓe could the following reference have been made?
They spread among the people the idea that whoever did not devote himself to tawbi'd in the manner in which they themselves had determined was an unbeliever, and that the common Muslims were not legally qualified to slaughter animals, nor could they marry if they did not know tawhîd 36.
Shaykh 'Uthmân campaigned against the sectarian tendencies of the kaɓɓenkooɓe and against their exclusivity. But it is doubtful that he would have opposed the mere teaching of a book like the 'Aqîdat al-Suqhrâ, even if some of its Fulfulde commentaries bordered on the questionable discipline of scholastic theology. What he opposed was the elevation of these discourses to a central place in one's religious life and the imposition on others of any particular interpretation. Al-Hajj Umar had probably opposed the kaɓɓe in Futa-Jallon later in the nineteenth century for much the same reasons 37.
That the kaɓɓe was sometimes taught in a manner more in accord with orthodox belief is evidenced by Paul Marty's description of it in Futa-Jallon 38. By the time Marty wrote, considerable excitement concerning the kaɓɓe had been stirred up by French administrators who felt because of its initiatory aspects that it represented some form of Pullo mysticism or secret society. Marty firmly disagreed with these assertions; according to him “the kaɓɓe is very simply the Fulfulde translation of the Arabic word tawhid,” which was taught at a particular stage in the educational curriculum. Its supposed mystical and numerological aspects were dismissed as the mere “intellectual recreations” of those scholars who had acquired an arcane knowledge of the dogma. We will discuss the initiatory and esoteric aspects of the kaɓɓe in the following section; here let us examine what Marty saw in Futa-Jallon around 1920 as a rather more academically respectable face of the kaɓɓe.
According to Marty the kaɓɓe was taught in Futa-Jallon within the section of the curriculum called firugol, which means “translation” or “commentary.” He implies that the firugol was an intermediate course of study preceded by Qur'anic recitation and the fundamentals of reading and writing and followed by funûn, which he described as higher studies. Funûn comprised the study of such subjects as jurisprudence and Arabic language and grammar. Firugol began with the study of tawhîd (the kaɓɓe) and Qur'anic exegesis and continued with the study of various West African works written in Fulfulde 39 and also included the study of certain Sufi books, mainly the writings of al-Hajj Umar and the Jawâhir al-Ma'âni of Alî Harîzim, a major Tijani text. Since it is extremely unlikely that one would undertake the reading of these Sufi texts before studying Arabic language and grammar, it seems more probable that the “stages” of firugol and funûn were undertaken concurrently and were in some fashion intermingled. The distinction between them was not level of study but linguistic emphasis: firugol was aimed at training students to become literate in Fulfulde, whereas funûn was advanced studies in Arabic. Marty comments on the Fulɓe attitude to their own language:
The study of the kaɓɓe is accompanied by tafsîr, or exegesis and interpretation of the text of the Qur'an. For a long time the Fulɓe have asserted that their language was a holy language, coming true after Arabic, but preceding many of the idioms of the peoples, more often fetishists than Muslim, who surrounded them. One knows that the Qur'an can conserve its sacred character only by maintaining its Arabic form. Translation would modify its sense and composition … Nonetheless, for some time the Qur'an has been daily translated into Fulfulde, either orally or in writing. Several versions, remarkable for their precision and their elegance, circulate even today among the karamoko [teachers] of Futa. It is with the aid of these translations and interpretations that the Fulɓe give their students training perhaps less based on memory and more intelligent and more analytical than what one finds in other black countries 40.
We know from local sources that religious instruction was given in Fulfulde at least in part for strict pedagogical reasons; Fulɓe scholars in Futa jallon believed that students would be better able to learn and understand religious concepts in their mother tongue 41. And high value was placed on literary competence in Fulfulde; the course in firugol concluded with a public examination during which the student was expected to translate and comment on a verse of the Qur'an in Fulfulde.
Marty, then, saw the kaɓɓe as a respectable part of the religious studies curriculum taught in Fulfulde. Certainly in the context here described, it was but one small part of a very broad course of study. His description suggests that the kaɓɓe taught in this manner might have avoided any sectarian tendencies, which only flourished where it was the sole form of instruction, as among the Jelgooɓe pastoralists. At the same time, Marty played down the mystical and numerological aspects of the kaɓɓe which were certainly present in Futa-Jallon. These can be better discussed in connection with the ma'd-dîn of Cerno Bokar, to which we now turn.
This lengthy examination of the history of the kaɓɓe was precipitated by our discussion of Cerno Bokar's relationship with one of his most influential teachers, Amadu Tafsiir Ba. As already mentioned, we cannot prove conclusively that Cerno Bokar had learned the kaɓɓe itself, but all the circumstantial evidence suggests that he was familiar with this particular tradition. There is certainly a likelihood that he learned it from Amadu Tafsiir, since it was he who is said to have initiated Cerno into the secrets of Sufism. But many other opportunities also existed to learn of the kaɓɓe. The French discovered it being taught very near to Bandiagara, in Thioy, Barani, and Ouankore. These villages are all located in the alluvial plain below the Bandiagara cliffs, not far from Louta, the residence of the Cam family where Cerno Bokar lived for a brief period around the turn of the century. If he did not learn of the kaɓɓe from Amadu Tafsiir, he would have been able to do so in Louta.
The most convincing proof of Cerno Bokar's knowledge of the kaɓɓe tradition is his own theological teaching, known as the mâ'd-dîn, Arabic for “What is religion?” The mâ'd-dîn was the second part of an introductory Islamic catechism composed by Cerno Bokar and taught orally to students in his own school as well as to adults, especially those who could not read and write Arabic. Quite a number of women as well as older men sought this instruction 42, which must have been very welcome to many Muslims in Bandiagara who had neither the time, inclination nor ability to learn Arabic but who wished to improve their knowledge of Islam. This teaching was therefore a significant contribution to the continuing task of all Muslims to protect and extend their religion. The mâ'd-dîn was not, strictly, a version of the kaɓɓe, but the two teachings have so many characteristics in common that one must conclude that there was some relationship between them. Both were introductory teachings in tawhîd taught orally in Fulfulde; both were initiatory by nature, leading from a basic to an esoteric teaching based on numerology. The text of Cerno Bokar's catechism was his own, as apparently were the mnemonic patterns of lines and dots which he designed to be traced in the sand in order to aid his students in remembering the texts. The concepts themselves were those of Islamic dogma and Sufi doctrine.
However, important as this teaching among Muslims might have been, local Bandiagara accounts refer to a different motivation for its introduction: the proselytization of Islam among the Dogon. The introductory section of Cerno's catechism is developed around a story about the instruction of a Dogon convert in certain fundamental Islamic principles. This narrative asserts that Cerno Bokar invented this teaching specifically in order to instruct the new convert, so that whatever was the actual pattern of learning the catechism in Bandiagara, whether among young students or illiterate adult Muslims, in the minds of many people it was a teaching connected with the proselytization of Islam. The following version of this story was collated from two interviews in Bandiagara 43.
A Dogon became aware that the fetishes of his religion varied one from another. The fetishes which were placed between two villages and those in each compound were different from each other. Even those of his mother and his father were not the same. He could not understand this. He then investigated Islam. He asked someone to write the Fatiha [the first sûra of the Qur'an] for him. He then erased it and went to another teacher and asked him to write the Fâtiha. He did so and what had been erased reappeared. The Dogon found that it was the same. He erased it again and went to another person, one who had recently become a Muslim, and asked him to write the Fâtiha. As he began to write, the same Fatiha appeared. “This is the truth,” exclaimed the Dogon, “not the fetishes.” He decided to search for a teacher who could help him to understand this religion. Someone advised him, “If you are seeking religion, go to Sisse in Bandiagara; his only concern is the religion of Allah.”
Now it happened that this teacher had recently taken a new wife, a woman who had been given to him. [Women were often given in marriage to religious teachers as a pious gesture.] Just before the Dogon arrived, Sisse had asked his new wife, Hannatu, what she understood about her religion. She became upset and retorted, “Are you saying that my mother and father are unbelievers?” Sisse was unable to calm Hannatu's agitation before the arrival of the Dogon, who announced himself by saying “as-salam 'alaykum,” peace be with you [a Muslim greeting). Hannatu was silenced when she heard these words!
The Dogon said, “I am searching for my religion; I was told to come to Sisse whose only concern is helping one to understand.” He said he had never prostrated himself before God, not even once; nor could he read. Sisse told him that if he was persistent he could accomplish something; his intelligence would aid him. He told the Dogon to bring some sand, which he smoothed out on the earth between them. But he realized the Dogon could not grasp the Arabic letters he traced in the sand. Sisse pondered about what he might do, how he might teach him something of tawhîd.
Sisse remembered an Arabic proverb he had heard: “Don't tell your Bambara slave to take down the shahâda in writing; it is with his tongue that he will learn it.” So Sisse decided he might teach by making points in the sand, the pattern of which the Dogon would not forget. He explained everything without writing and the Dogon understood.
This fascinating account can be analysed from several perspectives. To what extent are its assertions literally true? What is the nature of the thinking which underlies this particular presentation of events? And what light does this account throw on Cerno Bokar himself? As we have said, this story appears in Cerno Bokar's oral catechism as part of the introductory section to the theological teaching itself. Most informants consulted believe that the Sisse in this story is Cerno himself and that the Dogon was a man who became his close friend, Ancamba Nandigi. Whether Cerno actually composed his teaching, along with its innovative mnemonic pattern of lines and dots, specifically in order to instruct Ancamba is not clear. But the fact that the origin of this teaching is placed in the context of teaching to converts is important. During this period the Dogon were converting to Islam in growing numbers, and Cerno seems to have exercised considerable influence among them. But even if Cerno had been motivated to produce his catechism by the need to teach new converts, this account is somewhat misleading in suggesting that the idea came to him from a rather derogatory proverb about teaching Bambara slaves. Similar to the traditions about the kaɓɓe, no suggestion is made that the catechism might have been based on an old and established form of religious teaching, which it most certainly was.
The basic theme of this story is not, however, the invention of the teaching; it is how the proper use of the intellect leads to true religion. The Dogon, through his own observation, reaches a conclusion about the “truth” of Islam; Sisse subsequently tells him that “his intelligence would aid him” in understanding his religion. Indeed, Sisse's “only concern is helping one to understand.” This emphasis on the importance of the intellect in leading one toward Islam recalls the significance which al-Sanûsî placed on it in the study of tawhid. Here the intellectual theme is directed toward the issue of conversion, providing an Islamic view of why and how people are drawn to their religion. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that this is Cerno Bokar's view. What we know of him from informants and from his own discourses suggests a man who was constantly in search of a deeper understanding of Islam through his own observations and personal meditations; and he encouraged those around him to pursue a similar search. One of his disciples recalls that Cerno counselled that everyone must “understand his religion… How can one follow what one does not understand? … Through understanding one is able to follow one's religion with integrity.” 44 And what is reported about Ancamba Nandigi by Bandiagara informants suggests that a close relationship developed between him and Cerno becausethey shared a deep intellectual curiosity:
[Ancambal possessed a profound knowledge of medicinal plants. From the time he met Cerno Bokar the two of them began to cure people together, Cerno from the Arabic perspective, and Ancamba from the Dogon perspective, with his knowledge of plants. They joined the two approaches to cure quite a few illnesses. In the end this Dogon converted completely and he even gave Cerno Bokar his oldest son [for religious schooling]. 45.
According to Hampâté Bâ, the informant who provided this account was himself cured of leprosy by Ancamba Nandigi ! 46 Amadou Hampâté Bâ was also able to elaborate on this medical collaboration:
Whenever Ancamba brought a plant, Cerno would search for its analogous Qur'anic verse. It was a kind of medicine at once physical and mental. Ancamba was incredible! And of course it was because of this that he became a Muslim; he had surpassed the ordinary level of things. He was constantly in contact with plants, constantly in contact with nature … constantly busy searching, meditating, examining. He would follow the animals [to observe them] in their different activities. Because African healers, in addition to the fundamental instructions they received, augment their knowledge by their personal observations.” 47
Ancamba Nandigi became one of Cerno Bokar's closest companions and was one of the few people with him when he died. Certainly we would like to know much more about their relationship and collaboration. But even the information we have offers some insight into the nature of Cerno Bokar's active mind and creative involvement with the world around him. His approach to knowledge was not based on concepts of the exclusivity of Islam, even if he accepted it as being the “true religion,” but on a desire to understand the lessons to be found in the diversity of God's creation. Properly understood everything that existed, and every event could offer to man a religious lesson. Cerno's discourses reveal the extent to which he developed this ability. His relationship with Ancamba Nandigi shows how this same attitude could encourage him to seek Muslim analogies for the non-Muslim cures of Dogon healers. No doubt this attitude accounts in part for Cerno's popularity among the Dogon as well as among other Muslims.
Let us now turn to the text of the catechism itself; it consists of three parts 48. The first, called the Primordial Pact, is presented as a closely argued appeal to devote oneself to religion. Its premises are taken from the Qur'an and the sunna, and its argument is that man has been endowed by God with a precious possession, the power of reason or intellect (Arabic: 'aql) which if properly employed can aid him to find his salvation. The specific advice given to one who has decided to tread the religious path is rather minimal: to learn eleven short sura of the Qur'an, “to learn the concepts of theology [tawhîd), which is none other than the esoteric meaning of the shahdda; this knowledge is indispensable and is largely sufficient;” to learn prescriptions of purification, and to become initiated into Sufism: “this initiation will cause you to know the true face of our Lord Muhammad.” These brief prescriptions are highly reminiscent of the kaɓɓe; they represent the basic essentials of Muslim practice centered upon a knowledge of tawhîd and culminating in a Sufi initiation. The primary emphasis is on the use of one's intellect for gaining an initial understanding of religion.
The second section of the teaching is that called mâ'd-dîn, deriving its title from the first question of this religious catchism: “What is religion? ” It is the heart of the teaching in which are described the basic tenets of Islam as well as the attributes of God and of the Prophets. The logical proofs of these attributes are not elaborated here as in the kaɓɓe, but Cerno Bokar's debt to al-Sanûsî and to the kaɓɓe is clearly indicated in his assertion that these attributes constitute the “hidden teaching” of the shahâda: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” And like al-Sanûsî, who recommended that every “intelligent person” should recite the shahâda often, Cerno said:
... the spoken recitation of the first formula of faith is … considered the best mental devotion one can perform in order to please God, whose primordial attribute is Being-Oneness … This formula exalts the emanations of the creative entity; it establishes the differentiation of the essence and plunges the soul into communion with the source of all existences in God. Being is One. The Creative Entity is endowed with anteriority, with eternity, with plenitude and with originality. Differentiation establishes that life, wisdom, hearing, sight, will, speech, and creation belong to the Being-Oneness. Meditate on the following verse:
He is the First and the Last, and the Outward and the Inward; and He is the Knower of all things. (LVII, 3) 49
The third part of Cerno's teaching (called “synthesis of the esoteric teaching”) was an initiation into an esoteric body of knowledge. As presented by Hampâté Bâ 50 this was a Sufi initiation concerned with an understanding of Sufism in general and of the Tijaniyya order in particular. These aspects of the initiation were undoubtedly important to Cerno Bokar, and we will discuss them in the following chapter. Here we will examine another aspect of this initiation which seems to have been an essential part of the kaɓɓe tradition: numerological analysis. Another quotation from Paul Marty on the kaɓɓe provides an excellent introduction to this discussion. Marty was greatly disconcerted by the numerological aspects of the kaɓɓe, and in fact he quoted the following passage in order to debunk them. No doubt he would have been able to cite numerous half-educated marabouts who employed numerology to mystify their less learned fellow-Muslims. But many scholars attached a profound significance to the study of numbers, which were seen as a medium for understanding the relationship between the inner and outer meanings and manifestations of the created world.
God has revealed 104 books to man, but 100 are unknown to us at the present time. The four which we possess are: the Pentateuch of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Gospel of Jesus, and the Qur'an of Muhammad. Moreover, the doctrines of the 104 revealed books are condensed into these last four. The last four are contained and summarized in the Qur'an.
The Qur'an is entirely contained in the Fatiha, which is its first chapter. The Fatiha is entirely contained in its opening formula, “In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate.” This formula is condensed into the name, Allah 51. The numerical value of the letters which compose the name Allah [in Arabic] is 66 (alif- 1; lâm: 30; lâm: 30; hà: 5). This number 66 is a sacred number which contains all the attributes of God (50) and of the Prophet (16). The divine attributes number 25 positive [i.e., necessary] namely: existence, eternity, immutability, etc., and 25 negative [i.e., impossible] namely: non-existence, contingency, changeability, etc. There are 16 similar prophetic attributes. Immediately after the Qur'an, children assimilate these teachings which are considered an introduction to the kaɓɓe and which are absolutely necessary, say the teachers, in order to know how to conduct oneself in life 52.
This passage is significant for several reasons. The first section of the quotation appears in a sightly different form in The Peerless Method of Muhammad al-Wâlî b. Sulaimân, thus establishing a link between the seventeenth- and nineteenth-century versions of this teaching in tawhîd. However, the more recent version of the kaɓɓe is not identical to the seventeenth-century one. Muhammad al-Wâlî , closely following al-Sanûsî, lists forty attributes of God (twenty necessary and twenty impossible) and six for the prophets (three necessary and three impossible). Whereas here we have a total of fifty attributes of God and sixteen of the prophets, totalling sixty-six, the numerical equivalent of the name Allah. Somewhere along the line of its transmission, al-Sanûsî's list of attributes was expanded into a total of sixty-six, thus conforming to a numerological analysis of God's name. Cerno Bokar's mâ'd-dîn is organized in the same manner; indeed, it is more complex. The total number of points in the mâ'd-dîn (excepting points A 7-19 and A1, B1 and C1) is ninety-nine, corresponding to the ninety-nine names of God. These are subdivided into thirty-three points of religious doctrine plus fifty attributes of God and sixteen attributes of the prophets.
This kind of numerological manipulation derived from well established Islamic concepts. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines claims that in Islam the idea of unity or tawhîd overshadows all others “and remains at every level of Islamic civilization the most basic principle upon which all else depends.” The goal of all Islamic sciences and methods, he claims, was “the demonstration of the interrelatedness of all things.” 53. In his discussion of the Ikhwân al-Safâ, the tenth-century Islamic encyclopaedists, Nasr describes this “interrelatedness of all things” as a chain ofbeing connecting God with all creation:
The chain of being essentially means that all beings in the Universe exist according to a continuous hierarchy which is ontological as well as cosmological. A particular entity has a position in the great chain of being depending upon the degree to which it participates in Being and Intelligence; or one might say, upon the degree to which it possesses the perfections and virtues which in the absolute sense belong only to Pure Being, or God, who is transcendent with respect to the chain. […] Everything exists for a purpose, the final purpose of the cosmos being the return of multiplicity to Unity within the heari of the saints 54.
Similar cosmological ideas had of course been assimilated by West African scholars, as the quotation from Marty indicates. That brief passage desribes a hierarchy of the revealed word of God; moving “upward” (or inward) through this hierarchy there are the 104 books revealed to mankind, the four books of the so-called world religions, the Qur'an, the Fatiha (the first sûra of the Qur'an), the phrase “In the name of Allah,” and finally the name Allah itself. Each successively higher level brings one closer to what might be called the pure word of God, His name, Allah. Viewed from the opposite perspective, i.e. in its “downward” (or outward) movement, the name Allah is seen as the creative source of the revealed word of God in all its various manifestations. This concept should not be unfamiliar to Christians; the Gospel of St. John begins: “In the beginning was the Word.” This hierarchy of the revealed word of God, then, is an expression of the chain of being described by Nasr. But it also asserts an analogical relationship between the hierarchical order of the revealed word and the hierarchical order of all creation, which was believed to proceed from God through different levels of spiritual reality to visible, manifested creation.
What interests us here is not so much the various hierarchies in the chain of being, but the principle of analogical analysis which was employed in their study. The methodology of analogical analysis and demonstration was a logical derivation of the Muslim hierarchical vision of the cosmos: all existence is interrelated because it shares a common source in God, the Creator. Similarly, the principles which govern, for example, the observable forces of nature are related to the principles which govern the unobservable reaches of the cosmos. By studying what is observable. and by employing the principles of analogy one can gain greater understanding of what is not observable. During the classical period of Islamic scholarship almost all the natural sciences were studied from this perspective, but the one discipline which seems to have gained and retained prominence among Muslim scholars in West Africa was numerology, because of its fundamental importance to all the other sciences. Its numerological applications were derived in part from Pythagorean mathematics, according to which numbers not only represent quantity but possess qualities as well. We can discern these aspects of numerology in the following quotation from Amadou Hampâté Bâ, in which he describes the number one as being analogous to God:
It is the source; all numbers come from 1, but the 1 does not come from any other number. It is the symbol of supreme purity. It does not accept multiplication, 1 x 1 = 1. God does not emerge from His secrecy except through revelation, that is, addition. Thus, 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 1 + 3 = 4, and so on up to 9, and on to infinity 55.
The number 9, on the other hand, represents imperfectible materiality because it cannot change. No matter what number is multiplied by 9, if one adds the digits of the resultant number they will always equal 9 56. For example, 9 x 542 = 4878; 4 + 8 + 7 + 8 = 27; 2 + 7 = 9. Amadou Hampâté Bâ's comments were offered to me in illustration of the numerological concepts taught in the kaɓɓe, but they conform closely to the views of the Ikhwân al-Safâ.
Know, brother, that the Creator, most exalted, created as the first thing from His Light of Unity the simple substance called the Active Intellect, as 2 is generated from one by repetition. Then the Universal Soul was generated from the Light of the Intellect as 3 is generated by adding unity to 2. Then … [matter] was generated by the motion of the soul as 4 is generated by adding Unity to 3. Then the other creatures were generated from … [matter] and their being brought to order by the Intellect and the Soul as other numbers are generated from 4 added to what went before it 57.
Following the same principles of analogy, many Muslims placed great emphasis upon the symbolism of letters, especially those placed at the beginning of certain surâ of the Qur'ân 58. Numerology became associated with this study because each letter in the Arabic alphabet was said to have a numerical equivalent. Consequently, words could be transposed into numbers and analyzed for analogical and allegorical meaning through the application of numerological methods. A brief example follows. The Qur'anic verse, “Say, He is God” (Qul 'huwa Allah, CXII, 1) can be translated into a numerical formula: say, 11 is 66. We have seen above that the numerical equivalent of Allah is 66. Huwa equals 11 because hâ is 5 and wâw is 6. But how could this statement be true? A numerological manipulation in which the progressive digits from 1 to 11 are added together claims to prove it: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 = 66 59.
These few examples give some indication of numerological practice; the possibilities are endless. Of course, certain applications of numerology were considered illegal by scholarly Muslims, and all of it was seen as superstitious by unsympathetic European observers. But despite the abuses to which this science may have been subjected, we should now be able to understand why it assumed a central role in West African scholarship. Numerological as well as other forms of analogical analysis were effective tools in teaching and demonstrating certain relationships and concepts contained within the doctrines of tawhîd. Another important factor, which should not be overlooked, was that mastery of the principles of analogy offered a scholar the possibility of independent intellectual enquiry which was not usually acceptable in the religious sciences of the day. No West African scholar was going to set out to develop a “new” Islamic theology; the question probably never arose. The task to which creative thought could be applied was in the understanding of how one could better transmit the received theology so that Muslims could truly comprehend it and incorporate it into their lives.
Cerno Bokar's mâ'd-dîn was a teaching with these same aims of transmission. Like the kaɓɓe, the mâ'd-dîn provided a student with a basic understanding of Muslim theology and, through its initiation, with the methodological tools which could enable him to continue his personal religious search throughout his life. The study of tawhîd is a study without end, because no one can ever fully understand the relationships which exist between the multiplicity of manifested existence and the unity of God. Initiates were apparently free to modify the format of the teaching based upon their personal understanding, their meditations and their numerological calculations. This is presumably what Cerno Bokar did when he composed his mâ'd-dîn, to which we now return in order to illustrate some of its numerological and analogical dimensions. (The following paragraphs should be read with reference to the table above.) Cerno's catechism is presented as a conversation between Sisse, the marabout, and Ancamba, the new convert; the mâ'd-dîn therefore proceeds as a series of questions and answers. Thefirst point is actually:
It is not without significance that this entry into theological discussion moves from point 9 to point 1, from a number representing extreme materiality to one representing the unity and spirtuality of God. At the same time, these nine numbers form the basis of all numerological calculations and are consequently the fundamental elements to be employed in any subsequent esoteric study of theology. The vertical lines A, B, C, are the three basic pillars of the Hanifiyya way: Islâm, submission to God, Imân, faith, and Ihsân, comportment in the sense of upright behavior. Each of these pillars is elaborated in a number of conditions or requirements. The points under D and E represent the attributes of God; F and G represent the attributes of the prophets. All these points were of course explained in detail; they constituted the elementary teaching of the mâ'd-dîn.
The three points in the lower left of the diagram (A', B', C') are the beginning of the Sufi teaching, which introduces the student to an esoteric understanding of Islam. They are: sharî'a, the Law, tarîqa, the Sufi way, and haqîqa, the Truth. These concepts are an expression of the Sufi hierarchy of religious experience. In the strictest dogmatic sense Islam demands nothing more of its adherents than outward conformity to the sharî'a; no Muslim need do more to achieve salvation. The religious experience of most Muslims, according to Cerno Bokar, would fall into this category. These are the Muslims “attached to the letter.” However, more is possible, and some Muslims — a minority — enter the Sufi way. Entry to the Sufi way is allowed only to those who have demonstrated their comprehension of and conformity to the law. If the religion of the law can be said to be directed outwardly, the religion of the Sufi way is directed inwardly: one learns esoteric interpretations of Islamic principles and one strives to apply these principles to one's inner life. The experience of haqîqa, the Truth, was reserved to very few indeed, “an élite within the élite” according to Cerno Bokar. They were the saints of Islam who “adore God in truth.” Cerno Bokar said very little about this level of attainment; he did not consider himself to have achieved it 61.
Both the kaɓɓe and the mâ'd-dîn were taught in a manner which conforms to this Sufi view of Islam. In its elementary form it was taught to children in the early stages of their educational formation or to Muslim converts or to illiterate Muslim adults. The esoteric interpretations and numerological manipulations were taught only to specially selected individuals, presumably those who showed promise in terms of both religious devotion and intellectual acumen. These persons were called “initiates;” not only could they initiate others, but they were also free to adapt their teaching as they saw fit, always of course protecting the received theology itself from change. The principles of analogical reasoning offered a creative mind almost unlimited possibilities to enrich and embellish this teaching. Cerno Bokar was a master at finding the analogical religious significance of almost every object or event which came to his attention. He may have been exceptional in this regard, but the point is that the form and structure of this teaching enabled and even encouraged marabouts to activate their minds in just this way and consequently to enliven their religious teachings. But most important of all, initiation offered an individual the wherewithal to continue his mystical journey to its highest reaches, to the perception of ultimate Reality.
Cerno must have received this sort of initiation from Amadu Tafsiir, or from someone else, because he subsequently initiated seven other persons into the esoteric sciences of analogical and numerological analysis 62. Unfortunately we know nothing about how he selected these persons nor about the precise procedures of initiation. It should be noted, however, that this initiation, although it included material about Tijani Sufism, was accomplished outside the established Tijani hierarchy itself. The Tijani hierarchy of muqaddamûn, or spiritual guides, will be described in the next chapter, but here we should briefly point out that the authorizations or “initiations” which they transmitted within the Tijaniyya order itself were a separate line of transmission to the one here under discussion. Amadu Tafsiir was a Tijani muqaddam, but he was not Cerno's muqaddam. For Cerno, other than being one of his academic teachers, he was probably an initiator into the kaɓɓe tradition described here. Cerno Bokar himself became a Tijani muqaddam, and as such he appointed four other muqaddamûn; but none of these four figure among the seven persons whom he initiated into this esoteric body of numerological knowledge. This apparently curious separation of roles may simply reflect an attitude among Muslims that the kaɓɓe and Tijani Sufism represented two separate, although related, traditions. Cerno Bokar participated in each tradition, although in somewhat different capacities. Indeed, considerable understanding of Cerno Bokar can be derived from an analysis of the various roles he performed in Bandiagara as teacher, initiator, and Tijani muqaddam. The site of all his activities was his compound; a description of what went on there may aid us in discerning the relationships between the various aspects of the man.
Cerno Bokar began teaching in about 1908, apparently after considerable hesitation 63. We do not know the reasons for his uncertainty; perhaps he was struggling with the implications of his mother's advice that one must first be capable of caring for oneself before presuming to care for another. Perhaps he was considering the pursuit of a metier other than teaching. Some years earlier, he had spent about a year in Bobo Dioulasso (Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso) working as a tailor and embroiderer 64, at which he was particularly skilled. In any case, by about 1908 he was teaching Qur'anic studies to a few young children in his compound. The school grew slowly over the years and by the early 1930s was a flourishing institution offering instruction in the full breadth of the Muslim curriculum. Estimates of the numbers of students in attendance are widely divergent. Amadou Hampâté Bâ states that at the height of its activities in the mid 1930s the school boasted almost 200 65. This number seems exaggerated, but we do not know what categories of “student” might be included in it. On the other hand, French official estimates were always very low, and we do not know how they were obtained. Three archival references to Cerno Bokar's school appear during the period 1921-4 estimating between fourteen and seventeen students in attendance 66. There are no references for the 1930s until the Hamalliyya crisis when no figures were given. If we consider as “students” all those persons who looked to Cerno Bokar as a ‘teacher,’ in the broadest sense of these terms, then something like Hampaté Bâ's estimate is probably more accurate.
The activities of Cerno Bokar's compound were somewhat broader than what a Western reader might understand by the term “school.” Instruction was offered in all levels of study from introductory Qur'an to advanced Sufi studies. Cerno directed the advanced studies himself, while elementary work was delegated to a younger man, Mamadu Taalel, a relative whom Cerno raised as a kind of adoptive son. They were the only two instructors. The teaching schedule itself was organised into specific “class” times for morning and evening instruction with time off from Wednesday to Friday afternoons. However, the goals of any actual course of study tended to be dependent upon the interests and motivations of the individual student, and for the youngsters, upon the demands of his or her family. Certain benchmarks of accomplishment were formally recognised, such as the memorizing of a section of the Qur'an, or the completion of a particular book, but these were of course individual achievements. One did not proceed even through the early years of school by grade or class. The “student body” tended to be fluid, with individuals entering and leaving the school at different times of the year. This high turnover occuffed without much impact on the continuity of study since the nature of the instruction was largely tutorial.
The activities of the school went far beyond the formal teaching of Muslim studies. Like most traditional West African religious schools, Cerno's students paid only minimal fees, if they paid any at all. However, they compensated their teacher by working for him. They collected firewood, fetched water and performed other household chores; more important, they also farmed his land. During the times of planting and harvesting, instruction was given in temporary shelters adjacent to the fields. These activities, especially the farming, not only fed Cerno and his family, but also provided the economic wherewithal to maintain the school. A number of students actually lived in the compound; these were often, but not always, students from outside Bandiagara and were almost completely dependent upon their teacher for their food. Cerno also had to be prepared to offer hospitality to visiting scholars or to others who might come to Bandiagara seeking his counsel. These callers would invariably bring gifts and thereby also contribute to the economic wellbeing of the school.
The child or young adult in school was therefore not isolated from the daily demands of life; students participated in household And other work much as they would do in their own homes. In many ways the teacher became a kind of substitute parent; the student was expected to be completely obedient to him, and the extent of dependence of a student upon a teacher was often extreme, particularly in the case of the student coming on his own from another town or village, who would often arrive with nothing more than the clothes on his back; nor would he even have the assurance that he would be accepted as a student. Once accepted he would be expected not only to work for his teacher but to treat him with extreme deference and respect. This state of dependence, although occasionally exploited by teachers, was an essential element in the educational formation of children in Muslim schools. It emerged not only from the traditional relationships which prevailed between parent and child, but was reinforced by religious teachings on humility. One was expected to learn how to be humble toward God from being humble towards one's parents, one's teachers and one's elders in general. It was in the relationship between the Sufi shaykh and his disciple that these rules of deference were most clearly articulated, but they were reflected in the rules of behaviour for students and children in general.
If the daily demands of life were not eliminated from school, a distinct separation nonetheless existed between the activities inside and outside the confines of Cerno Bokar's compound. This difference resided not only in the nature of the activities themselves, but in the approach and attitude taken toward them. Cerno often alluded to this difference in his discourses, in which he called his compound a zawiya, or Sufi study center. He also referred to it as a “sanctuary of love and charity,” 67 as a place to which one comes “hoping to find the tranquility which is lacking in one's heart,” 68 and as a centre “for the praising of God.” 69. Although only Sufi disciples would have been expected to approach Cerno's compound with some understanding of what was implied in these allusions, every person attending the school of no matter what age was unquestionably affected by the commanding presence of the teacher from whom these kinds of statements proceeded. The young children may have had little direct contact with Cerno; the older students of “books” may have been deeply engaged in their studies, but none of them could have completely, escaped the influence of the humble search for religious understanding in which their teacher engaged because it pervaded every aspect of activity in the compound.
Cerno's primary concern was to influence those around him, whether student, disciple, relative or acquaintance, toward undertaking the spiritual search to which he himself had been called. He was not heavy handed or ilisistent over this, but nor did he miss any opportunity to confront people with their own attitudes and actions. The following story illustrates his exceptional ability at seizing upon chance events to bring fundamental questions to the attention of his students. One day Cerno was speaking to a group of advanced students when a baby sparrow fell from its nest. No one moved to the aid of the squealing bird; for one thing it would have been highly disrespectful to interrupt the teacher. However, after a time Cerno Bokar halted his presentation and called for the bird to be brought to him. Concluding that it was not injured, he climbed up on a stool to inspect the nest and discovered it had become dislodged. He secured the nest, returned the bird to it and, resuminghis place, said to the group:
I must speak to you of charity, for I am distressed to see that not one of you is adequately possessed of this true kindness of heart. And such a blessing it is! If you had a charitable heart it would have been impossible for you to continue listening to a lesson when this miserable little creature was crying out to you for help and soliciting your pity. But you were not moved by his despair; your heart did not hear his appeal. In truth my friend, the knowledge of one who commits to memory all the theologies of all the religions will be but worthless baggage if one does not have charity in his heart 70.
The younger students in Cerno's school would not have been expected to face up to the question raised on this occasion, but undoubtedly they would have heard the story.
In addition to the formal training of students, Cerno received in his compound a wide range of persons who came to him for different purposes: adults who were learning his catechism, those Tijani adepts who looked to him as their muqaddam, those who were being initiated into the esoteric sciences, and ordinary inhabitants of Bandiagara seeking advice or support. On Thursdays, when no formal classes were held, a group of scholars and teachers generally gathered in his compound for the reading and discussion of various books, usually the major Tijani texts, which were commented upon by Cerno himself. Rather than lectures, these were discussions, and occasionally rather heated ones 71. The frequenters of Cerno's compound, then, included a wide range of people from all walks of life, from various ethnic groups and with differing interests. Each of them had a personal relationship to Cerno which derived from their particular orientation, as student to teacher, as Tijani adept to muqaddam, as disciple to spiritual guide. But these various categories of people were not strictly segregated from one another even if they did not participate in the same activities. Non-scholars might sit in on a Thursday discussion; younger students might be present during an advanced lesson; informality would have been the order of the day. The only exception to this would have been the initiations and transmission of “secrets” which took place in private. This meant that Cerno Bokar's attitudes and ideas pervaded the atmosphere of the compound and influenced everyone present. Although his discourses may have been directed to more advanced students and to Sufi disciples, they would have been heard by anyone who happened to be present. Their guidance and their encouragement wereavailable to anyone who desired to listen.
1. Baba Thimbely (in an interview of 25-1-1977) quoted the following couplet from a Fulfulde poem about the value of travelling to complete one's studies:
He who does not work will be poor, he will have difficulties even in finding his dinner.
He who does not pack his baggage will be prevented [from success] and will only find distress.
2. ANM, Fonds Récent, 1-G-198 (1921), and interviews with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 2-5-1978, and Koola Sidi, 20-3-1978.
3. TB, 28-30; VE, 33-5.
4. The Rimâh has been briefly described above, pp. 41-2, and is more fully discussed in Chapter 5. Jawâhiral-ma'ânî is a biography of Shaykh al-Tijani which contains extensive material on the doctrine of the order.
5. Interview with Koola Sidi of 20-3-1978 : “Omo jannga do Amadu Tafsiiru faa … mo reentinii hikkunde hakiikata e sariaata, mo laatii omtaado sanne.”
6. Most studies of Sufism would discuss these concepts. Two recent publications by 'Abd al-Qâdir as-Sûfî are particularly interesting from this point of view: Indications from Signs (Atlanta, 1979); and The Hundred Steps (Norwich, 1979).
7. Discourse 36.
8. Discourse 8.
9. TB, 29; VE, 34; interview with Amadou Hampâté Bâ of 2-5-1978.
10. Interview with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 7 - 7 - 198 1.
11. “Cerno Bokar was in Niger where his father had left some secrets for him which he had gone to look for.” Interview with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 1-7-1980.
12. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, 1975), 192; see also J.S. Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford, 1971), 211.
13. Amadou Hampâté Bâ claims that numerology was associated with all forms of Sufism in West Africa, and he does not connect Cerno Bokar's initiation specifically to the kaɓɓe tradition. Interview, 7-7-1981.
14. Translated into French by J.O. Luciani (Algiers, 1896). John Hunwick, in a personal communication, suggested that umm here implies “the firmest or most convincing” of proofs.
15. Ibid., p. 1 Arabic; p. 5 French.
16. Ibid., p. 10 Arabic; p. 17 French.
17. Muhammad b. Ibrâhîim al-Mallâlî, al-Mawâhib al-qudsiyya fîl-manîqib al-Sanûsiyya.
18. M.A. Zouber, Ahmad Baba de Tombouctou (1556-1627): sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris, 1977), 103-5, where he summarizes Ahmad Baba's al-La'âlî al-sundusiyya fil-fadâ 'il al-Sanûsiyya.
19. Sharh al-sughrâ, ibid., 121-2; no copies of this work are extant.
20. Bibliothèque Générale et Archives, Rabat, D984, fol. 125.
21. Two versions of this text have been consulted in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Arabe 5541, fols. 130-151, and Arabe 5650, fols. 111-130, the latter being incomplete at the end.
22. BN, Arabe 5541, fol. 135a.
23. Ibid., fols. 131b, 132a; also 145a.
24. Bahjat al-âfâq wa-îdâh al-labs wa'l-ighlaq fî 'ilm at-hurûf wa'l-aufâq. School of Oriental and African Studies Library, London, MS 65496.
25. Ibid., fol. 11a. See also A.D.H. Bivar and M. Hiskett, “The Arabic literature of Nigeria to 1804: a provisional account,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, XXV, Part 1 (1962), 135-7.
26. Muhammad Bello, Infâq al-Maisûr (London, 1957), 5-6.
27. Recorded by Boubou Hama in Tera cercle; neither the date nor the name of the reciter is given with the tape. See B. Hama, Contribution à la Connaissance de l'histoire des Peul (Paris, 1968), 330-1. Amadou Hampâté Bâ has collected numerous versions of the kaɓɓe in Upper Volta, and has now collated them into a single long version written in Fulfulde, but I have not been able to consult this work. Several brief versions of the kaɓɓe are to be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; see Arabe 5671, 79b-80b and Arabe 5684, 185a-186b.
28. A copy of this taped version of the kaɓɓe was kindly furnished by Boubou Hama in Niamey. Copied through the kind assistance of Dioulde Laya, Director of CELTHO, Niamey, the text was transcribed and translated with the asistance of Almamy Malik Yattara, Bamako.
29. A. Le Chatelier, L'Islam dans l'Afrique occidentale (Paris, 1899), 287-8.
30. R. Arnaud, “Islam et la politique musulmane française en A.O.F.,” L'Afrique française: Bulletin du Comité de l'Afrique française. Renseignements coloniaux et documents, 1912, 14-5.
31. In his text Arnaud uses the term Poular, the language of the Futanke of Futa Toro, but I have used Fulfulde here so as not to confuse the general reader; in any case the language in use in Jelgooji was not Poular.
32. Hama, Contribution, 330.
33. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, in an interview of 2-5-1978, attributes the origins in Jelgooji to a marabout from Futa Toro; an archival report from the Jelgooji region itself attributes its origins to another outsider, but claims he invented it himself in order to teach the illiterate Fulɓe pastoralists: ANS, AOF Série G, 15-G -186, “Islam dans la Résidence de Dori,” 31 july 1899.
34. See Arnaud, “Islam et la politique musulmane.”
35. This statement by Boubou Hama was confirmed in an interview with Diallo Aboubakar, Niamey, 5-6-1980.
36. Muhammad Bello, Infâq, 43. Shaykh Uthman made a similar attack in his Nasâ'ih al-ummat al-Muhammadiyya; this reference was given me by John Hunwick.
37. See Arnaud, “Islam et la politique musulmane.”
38. P. Marty, L'Islam en Guinée (Paris, 1921), 349ff.
39. Marty mentions works by several local scholars including Mouhammadou Samba Mombeya, for whom see Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow, ed., Le Filon du Bonheur Eternel (Paris, 1971).
40. Marty, L'Islam en Guinée, 353-4.
41. Sow, ed., Le Filon, 30.
42. Interview with Dauda Maiga, 30-9-1977, and with Baba Thimbely, 1-10-1977.
43. Interviews with Baba Thimbely, 1-10-1977 and 21-1-1978. Published versions can be consulted in TB, 96-7 and VE, 195-8. The story forms part of the first lesson of Cerno Bokar's teaching.
44. Interview with Dauda Maiga, 30- 9-1977.
46. Interview with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 2-5-1978.
48. The full text of Cerno Bokar's catechism can be consulted in TB, 96-120, and VE, 195-239.
49. Discourse 5.
50. In both TB and VE, and in interviews.
51. This same passage, with some slight modifications, appears on the first page of The Peerless Method.
52. Marty, L'Islam en Guinée, 352-3.
53. S.H. Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (London, 1978), 4.
54. Ibid., 68, 72.
55. Interview with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 3-5-1978.
57. Translated from Rasâ'il Ikhwan al-Safâ, 1, 28 (Cairo, 1928) in Nasr, Introduction, 46, note 12.
58. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 411-2 5.
59. Interview with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 2-5-1978.
60. See the full text of the ma'd-dîn in Appendix I. Some of my comments are derived from interviews with Amadou Hampâté Bâ.
61. The Sufi way itself was subdivided into three stages or degrees which were themselves analogous to the Law, the Sufi way and the Truth. (Triads abound in this esoteric teaching.) They were taqlîd, or behaviour based upon imitation of the Sufi shaykh; nazar, or comprehension of the inner meaning of religious principles; and dhawq, or the actual subjective experience of these principles. See VE, 226.
62. According to Amadou Hampâté Bâ (3-5-1978) the initiates were Koola Sidi, Samba Fouta, al-Hajj Cambal, Modibbo Karakinde, Ibrahim of Jelgooji, a young Mossi whose name was forgotten, and Hampâté Bâ himself.
63. TB, 30; VE, 36-7.
64. Interview with Koola Sidi, 20-3-1978.
65. VE, 37.
66. ANM, Fonds Récent, I-G-198, 1921, 22, 24.
67. Discourse 1.
68. Discourse 3.
69. Discourse 4.
70. Monod, “Homme,” 154-5; also related in TB, 84-5; VE, 160-1.
71. Interviews with Dauda Maiga, 30-9-1977; Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 2-5-1978.