History. Culture. Islam

Louis Brenner
West African Sufi
The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal

University of California Press
Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1984. 215 p.

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The early years

Conditions in Bandiagara

Cerno Bokar was probably born, in the early 1880s in Segu. We cannot establish the year of his birth with certainty, and dates have been proposed as early as 1875 5 and as late as 1886. Amadou Hampâté Bâ stated categorically in an interview that the 1875 date, published in Le Sage de Bandiagara, is incorrect 6; he argued that the date should be 1886 because Cerno Bokar was one year younger than his cousin, Seedu Nuuru Taal of Dakar, who was born in 1885.
However, no means has been found to confirm the date of Seedu Nuuru's birth, and in his recent publication, Vie et Enseignement de Tierno Bokar, Hampâté Bâ again proposed that the date was 1875. French estimates of Cerno's birth date range from 1878 to 1883 7. Eleven years is a long time in the life of a child, and events in Cerno Bokar's childhood would undoubtedly have had a very different impact on him according to his age. For example, his father fled from Segu at the time of the French conquest of the city (1890), never to rejoin his family 8. If Cerno Bokar had been born in 1875, he would have been a young man of fifteen at the time of the French attack; but if he had been born in 1886, he would have been no more than four years old. Of course, even if we knew his exact age at the time of his father's departure, we would still have no way of judging his reaction to this separation. But this example clearly illustrates the difficulty we have in seeking to portray Cerno Bokar's childhood. We tentatively suggest a birth date in the early 1880s on the basis of scanty circumstantial evidence.
Had he been fifteen years old at the time of the conquest, he might well have accompanied his father in flight; at that age he would have been considered a young man, and expected to fend for himself in many ways. However, he remained with his mother throughout this period, which suggests that he was somewhat younger.
Cerno apparently began his Qur'anic studies in Segu with Abdullahi Jire, a former student of his maternal grandfather, al-Hajj Seedu Hann. Study of the Qur'an would probably have begun at about six or seven years. When Cerno Bokar's father left Segu, Abdullahi Jire assumed responsibility for those in the family who remained there, including Cerno Bokar, his siblings and his mother, aunt and grandmother.
When during the reinstatement of Bambara authority by the French in 1891, Segu became unsafe for the Futanke, Abdullahi Jire removed the family to a Somono village for their protection 9. He also seems to have been responsible in part for convincing Cerno's mother, Aissata, to take her children to Bandiagara in 1893 after Agibu's installation there by the French. One might assume that such a move would have been logical, considering conditions in Segu; and many Futanke were joining Agibu in Masina at this time. Perhaps Aissata also entertained hopes of being reunited with her husband. But one account, probably apocryphal, suggests that the decision was taken at least indirectly because of Cerno Bokar himself. It seems that one day Abdullahi Jire 10 discovered Cerno playing in the streets wih his friends; he had a Bambara drum tied round his waist which he was beating avidly. Jire went immediately to Aissata to report this irreligious behaviour; he said that although he was able to care for all the family, he felt they should join Agibu in Bandiagara.
Otherwise, he feared the children would “become Bambara.” 11. We cannot place too much emphasis on this story, but it does add at least some weight to the suggestion that Cerno Bokar was a young child during this period, perhaps seven or eight years old.
Cerno Bokar was named for his grandfather, Bokar Seedu (Arabic: Abû Bakr b. Sa'id) al-Hajj Umar's older brother 12. The elder Bokar acquired the scholarly title of cerno, and the grandson received his names in memory of his grandfather, and not because he had himself earned the title of cerno. Cerno Bokar was therefore the great-nephew of al-Hajj Umar, and it would be difficult to overstate the influence on his life of his paternal heritage. It was an influence which was pervasive and yet profoundly ambivalent. Cerno Bokar was born during the twilight years of the Umarian state. His father Saalif (Arabic: Sâlih) is remembered more as a scholar than a warrior and as a close companion to Amadu, Umar's son and successor in Segu. He felt compelled to flee before the advancing French, perhaps more out of loyalty to the Futanke leadership than from fear of the advancing armies 13.
His decision to leave his family under the protection of Abdullahi Jire was possibly motivated by the desire to protect them from the uncertainty and anticipated hardships of the future. He may also have felt that Jire, a Somono of local lineage and not a Futanke, might have been less vulnerable to French oppression or Bambara revenge. We have already seen how Jire first removed the family from Segu and then how he may have been influential in convincing Aissata to take her family to Bandiagara where she might settle in the relative security of Futanke society. However, the reality of conditions in Bandiagara was far different from what had been anticipated.
Agibu was preoccupied with securing his own personal position in relation both to the French and to the people he now governed. The Futanke were divided among themselves, not only because of old disputes, but also because of deep differences over Agibu's collaborationist policies. For whatever reasons, Aissata did not join the circle of Agibu's close associates. Oral accounts claim that this was because Agibu neglected her and her family and treated them almost as enemies 14. But it is also possible, although no explicit documentation exists to support this view, that Aissata decided on her own account to dissociate herself from Agibu and his retinue.
At issue here is not only Aissata's husband, Saalif, but also her father, al-Hajj Seedu (Arabic: Sa'id) Hann. Saalif is reputed to have been very close to Amadu; if the oral accounts are at all accurate, he abandoned Segu with Madani, Amadu's son who had been left in command there, after the French Conquest of that city in 1890. The remnants of this defeated army later joined Amadu in Nioro, where another unsuccessful stand against the French was staged. Amadu and his army then moved to Bandiagara, whence they fled further eastwards in 1893. Traditions state that Saalif accompanied Amadu in his flight from Bandiagara; we do not know any of the further details of his fate, but his possible survival of the rigours of Amadu's emigration and his subsequent failure to return to Bandiagara with those who later deserted Amadu may have given rise to Agibu's coolness toward Aissata, or indeed to her own second thoughts about accepting his hospitality.
Aissata was also closely associated with Amadu through her own father, al-Hajj Seedu Hann, a Pullo (or perhaps Futanke) scholar who had probably first met al-Hajj Umar in Sokoto and had been initiated into the Tijaniyya order through him. Al-Hajj Seedu did not accompany Umar when he left Sokoto and did not participate in the jihâd, but came to Segu after the Umarian conquest of that city 15. He was one of the ten muqaddamûn, or spiritual leaders, directly authorized by al-Hajj Umar in West Africa to transmit the prayers and teachings of the Tijaniyya order 16, and as such he exercised considerable influence in Segu. His leadership seems to have been largely religious and spiritual, but he actively supported Amadu's claims to succession as Commander of the Faithful after the death of Umar and was therefore clearly associated with Amadu's political goals. Al-Hajj Seedu composed a letter in which he severely criticised those “covetous brothers” who were opposing Amadu's succession; he also asserted that not only had al-Hajj Umar named Amadu muqaddam, but also that he had gathered all the leading Futanke in Masina in order to proclaim to them that Amadu should succeed him. He then went on to cite numerous authorities and precedents for Amadu's succession including examples from 'Uthmân b. Fûdî and Muhammad Bello in Sokoto, al-Mukhar al-Kuntî, in the Qadiriyya Sufi order and Ahmad al-Tijani, the founder of the Tijaniyya order 17. It seems unlikely that Agibu was one of the covetous brothers referred to in this letter since it was written sometime during the late 1860 or early '70s when he was still very close to Amadu. But their subsequent rift, and Agibu's collaboration with the French in order to depose and replace Amadu, could not but have created some distance of feeling between him and the woman who was not only al-Hajj Seedu's daughter but also Saalif's wife.
Aissata therefore arrived in Bandiagara without husband or close kin to support her; either she was snubbed by Agibu, or she purposely avoided him, and was consequently forced to rely on her own devices to find the means to maintain her three children and her sister, who had accompanied her. She was not completely without friends and acquaintances. She found some assistance in the small Hausa commercial settlement in Bandiagara, to which she was drawn by the connections of her own parents with Hausaland. But a much more sustained source of support came from Amadu Ali Cam, a man who was to exert considerable influence upon Cerno Bokar. He took an interest in raising the young Cerno and in directing his education. Cerno became a close friend of Amadu Ali's son, Tijani, and ultimately married his daughter, Nene 18. But most important may have been the influence on Cerno Bokar of the relative position of the Cam among other Futanke. The Cam were a family of caste origins in Senegal; islamized over the centuries, many of them responded to al-Hajj Umar's appeals to join the jihâd, and one of their number was appointed muqaddam by him in the Tijaniyya 19. Despite their religious commitment and contributions to Umar's military campaigns, some of their Futanke comrades refused to forget their caste origins; they were at times disparaged and generally set apart. We will discuss below the possible implications of this fact for Cerno Bokar.
Notwithstanding the assistance Aissata received from Amadu Ali Cam and from the Hausa, her new life was difficult, and there is some suggestion that the family subsisted for a time on the edge of poverty. She was reduced to selling prepared food or milk in the market, and until the time Cerno Bokar had begun teaching and consequently was able to command a labour force large enough to construct some mud brick buildings, the family lived in dwellings of straw 20. Aissata had been given some land to farm in Bandiagara, but there is no record of how productive the fields might have been, and there seem to have been no slaves or servants to help work the land. These conditions were far different from what Aissata had known in Segu where, as the daughter of a respected leader in the Tijaniyya brotherhood and the wife of a member of Amadu's court, she had probably never been required to provide for her own sustenance. Nothing suggests that Aissata felt particularly resentful or humiliated by her new circumstances, but they could not have been easy. Indeed, she is credited by some sources as instilling in her children a respect for the dignity of labour 21. Cerno Bokar learned several productive skills including the weaving of straw mats 22, tailoring and especially embroidery 23, a métier at which he was particularly talented. Economic necessity dictated this kind of work, but at the same time Aissata refused to ignore her children's religious education. That Muslim parents with Aissata's background should have insisted on a religious education for their children was by no means unusual, but it must be remembered that an extended scholarly preparation implied economic consequences for the family.
Aissata stood to lose a certain portion of the economic productivity of her sons as a result of their studies, a loss which apparently she could ill afford. We know nothing of the possible extent of her sacrifice in this regard, but Cerno Bokar was well aware of it. He is reported to have said that his mother “nourished me with her milk and then with her sweat.” 24

The influences of family

The pattern of Cerno Bokar's familial relationships is now rather more clear: abandoned by his father and distanced from his father's family, he was raised by his mother to whom he became extraordinarily devoted. These circumstances can be interpreted as having considerably influenced Cerno Bokar's later life.
Although in Bandiagara Aissata herself was on the margins of Futanke ruling circles, her sons nonetheless bore the name Taal. Name alone did not provide a guaranteed passage to prominence and influence, but it did carry a certain social weight in and of itself. The combination of Cerno Bokar's sound scholarly and religious training with his kinship to al-Hajj Umar made it almost inevitable that he should become one of the more widely recognized leaders of the Tijaniyya Sufi order in the western Soudan. The belief among many West African Muslims that the baraka, or spiritual grace, of a holy man could be inherited led many people to enter or renew their relationship with the Tijaniyya through Cerno Bokar. Not only was he felt by blood to be “closer to al-Hajj Umar,” but his scholarship and piety were seen as proof of his spiritual inheritance. His visibility and reputation among Tijanis consequently increased, primarily due to his position in the Taal family. However, his prominence owed little to most of his relatives, or to most of the Futanke in Bandiagara, who after Agibu were becoming increasingly associated with French colonial interests, in terms of both education and politics. Cerno Bokar was not without allegiance to them (mutual relationships were not completely severed until near the end of his life), but in matters of religion he took very little notice of their views, opinions or advice. For guidance in this domain he looked to his own mentors and to his own conscience. So far as religion was concerned, Cerno Bokar's opinion was that most of the Futanke, as well as many of his own family, had gone astray. This independence of conviction was one of the primary reasons why he was able to submit to Shaykh Hamallah in 1937 in spite of what he knew would be extreme reactions from many members of his family. Cerno Bokar's submission to Hamallah was based on a number of specific religious imperatives (which are discussed below), but his freedom to act on his personal convictions must have sprung from the social conditions in which he grew up. Cerno had been isolated from the mainstream of Futanke social and political development in Bandiagara and from the growing alliance with French interests. His closest associations were with the Cam family, a faction who in general felt themselves somewhat ostracized by other Futanke; the Cam of Segu were among the first Tijanis to join Hamallah. Futanke and Taal opposition to Hamallah centered in part on his alleged usurpation of the spiritual position of al-Hajj Umar. Cerno Bokar considered these claims to be based on misinterpretations (or ignorance) of Tijani doctrine and upon misplacedfamily loyalty. He is reported to have observed:

Faith and truth, in that they are connected with God, are not the prerogatives of one individual, nor one race, nor even one country. One who believes that these virtues are the privilege of his family is as foolish as one who might say, “The sun shines only for my family; the rains fall and the streams flow only for my people.” 25

Such a statement would be completely understandable in the wake of events following Cerno Bokar's submission to Hamallah; but in fact they were spoken several years earlier, well before he knew what price his own family would force him to pay for his personal religious convictions.
The interpretations presented here, given the nature of the evidence before us, can be little more than suppositions. But even if one can accept the probability that the social distance between Cerno Bokar and other Futanke, combined with his subsequent elevated rank as a Tijani muqaddam, contributed to his particular brand of independent religious attitude, this tells us nothing about why and how he became a contemplative mystic. Here supposition can easily fade into fantasy, because even the circumstantial evidence is vague. In subsequent chapters we will trace the mystical traditions to which he was exposed, but none of these appears on the surface to be quite so introspective and personal as Cerno Bokar's own form of mysticism. Of course, a contemplative tradition is not absent from Islam, but evidence for it in West Africa is very slender. With respect to Cerno Bokar, this question is largely unanswerable, but oral accounts tempt one to look to Aissata as a significant influence. Cerno was extraordinarily devoted to his mother, which he revealed in often unusual ways. Even as an adult, he personally laundered her clothes in a local stream 26. Her counsel and advice were cherished by him, and at her death his grief was severe and extended. He isolated himself for days and reacted as if some of his own vital force had been carried away; friends and family became increasingly concerned about him 27. Eventually he emerged from this crisis and nothing more is known about its after-effects, except that in the wake of his loss some say he considered setting out on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Although this episode well illustrates the intensity of Cerno's relationship with his mother, it gives little insight into what specific religious influence she might have exercised. Local traditions imbue her with a certain piety, as well as a degree of formal religious training, which she had received from her father, Seedu Hann. And judging from her insistence on the education of her own children, it might not be unjustified to suggest that she had nurtured a spiritual quality in Cerno Bokar which became central to his own religious understanding, an interpretation implied in oral accounts. More than this, however, one cannot say.
It is from this brief and sketchy background that we must turn to an examination of the religious traditions into which Cerno Bokar was educated. In the complexity and detail of some of the explanations which follow, we might temporarily lose sight of Cerno Bokar himself, but it should be remembered that these were the sourcesupon which he drew in the development of his own ideas and teachings.

1. TB, 91; VE, 185; Monod, “Homme,” 153.
2. Discourse 44.
3. Discourse 6.
4. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, interview of 4 May 1978.
5. TB, 18; VE, 22.
6. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, interview of 2 May 1978.
7. ANM, Fonds Récent, 1-G-198, Statistique des Ecoles Coraniques, Cercle de Bandiagara, 1921-24; Fiche de Renseignement sur Tierno Bokar, 20 juillet 1937.
8. TB, 21; VE, 25.
9. TB, 22; VE, 26; Amadou Hampâté Bâ, interview of 2 May 1978.
10. Jire is not mentioned by name in this story, but the narrator identifies the person in question as a former student of al-Hajj Seedu Hann, Cerno's grandfather.
11. Sori Hamadun Bala, interview of 30 September 1977.
12. The French agent, Mage, met Bokar Seedu in Nioro during his travels; he commented on his lack of influence in the local political hierarchy; A.E. Mage, Voyage dans le Soudan occidental, 1863 - 66 (Paris, 1868), 643.
13. TB, 18-21; VE, 25.
14. Interviews with Amadou Hampâté Bâ, 2 May 1978 and Sori Hamadun Bala, 30 September 1977.
15. See Murray Last, The Sokoto Caliphate (New York, 1967), xxxix-xlii, for a discussion of al-Hajj Seedu.
16. Willis, “Al-Hajj 'Umar ... and the Doctrinal Basis.”, 196.
17. BN, Arabe 5561, ff. 66b-69b; this letter is undated but appears to have been written after 1868-9, when Amadu formally received the title Commander of the Faithful, since Al-Hajj Seedu addresses him in this manner. (See BN, Arabe 5713, f. 59a-b, for this date.) The letter was written specifically in response to questions addressed to him by Amadu. This letter was brought to my attention by David Robinson.
18. TB, 28-30; VE, 35; interviews with Sori Hamadun Bala, 30 September 1977 and with Dauda Maiga, 29 September 1977.
19. Willis, “Al-Hajj 'Umar and the Doctrinal Basis.”, 196; the person referred to was Tafsir Ali Cam.
20. Sori Hamadun Bala, interview of 30 September 1977.
21. Theodore Monod, “Homme de Dieu,” 150.
22. Sori Hamadun Bala, interview of 30 September 1977.
23. TB, 30; VE 30-1.
24. TB, 28; VE, 36.
25. Discourse 18.
26. Dauda Maiga, interview of 30 September 1977.
27. TB, 40-1; VE, 50-1; with respect to Cerno Bokar's relationship to his mother, it is interesting to note a remark by E. Caron in De St. Louis au Port de Tombouctou (Paris, 1893), 181, about Tijani in Bandiagara, whose mother had been retained in Dinguiray:
In the Soudan, the natives treat their mothers with great deference and believe themselves dishonoured if they are not near them; as a chief, Tijani suffered even more acutely the absence of his own mother, as much from filial sentiments as fromhis pride.

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