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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Part II
The religious heritage and spiritual search of Cerno Bokar

The preceding chapters have explored certain aspects of the general social and political conditions in which Cerno Bokar lived. As we turn to the man himself, our attention must shift to a much more specialised field of investigation, the indigenous West African traditions of Islam from which Cerno Bokar developed his own thought and teachings. This exploration will lead us into subject-matter vastly different from that already discussed; we will be examining the rich fabric of West African Islamic belief and practice with the purpose of understanding Cerno Bokar's personal interpretations of his religion and his mysticism. These chapters may often give the impression that religious preoccupations insulated Cerno Bokar ftom a concern about the conditions which surrounded him, but this would be misleading. It would be more correct to say that Cerno's response to the contemporary malaise was religious rather than political; he did not look for political solutions to man's contemporary problems because he did not view them as political problems. His primary concern was to establish Islamic principles firmly within his community, because he believed that man's highest priority should be his personal salvation.
From a political perspective, the few documented comments Cerno Bokar offered about the French reflect inconsistency and even naiveté. He feared, for example, that West Africa's own cultural heritage might be lost through an “infatuation” with foreign manners and mores: “We see our Sudanese children becoming more or less inexact copies of Arabs or Europeans, depending on their training 1.” He encouraged people to respect and meditate on their own traditions, implying by this term not only the Islamic hadi-th of the Prophet, but also that corpus of local oral literature which is imbued with moral and spiritual content 2. However, he seemed to welcome technological innovation as evidence of what man can achieve when he draws upon “divine strength.” 3. In addition, and perhaps more surprisingly, Cerno did not, in principle, oppose attendance in French schools by young Muslim children. As evidence on this issue we have Amadou Hampâté Bâ's account of his own entry into French school. In the first decade of the twentieth century many Muslims saw French schools as insidious institutions: “to go to French schools was to become an unbeliever.” 4 Hampâté Bâ was initially placed in school against the wishes of his mother, who subsequently sought to get him out by offering a payment for his release. But Cerno allegedly intervened, advising her not to interpose herself “between Amadou and his God.” Cerno does not seem to have perceived that both modern technology and Western schooling would be major factors in undermining the very traditions which he hoped to preserve.
But even if Cerno Bokar's perception of his world was inconsistent, he could never be charged with swerving from the principles he set for himself. He consistently refused to engage in political confrontation even when, after his submission to Shaykh Hamallah, his enemies were intent on destroying him. The issue for him was not winning a political battle but clinging to the principles of his faith. His personal religious considerations had led him to the conclusion that Hamallah was his spiritual superior and that Tijani doctrine dictated submission to him. That decision thrust Cerno Bokar into the political arena, but all his life had in a way been a preparation for this tragic dénouement. Being the man he was, with the status he enjoyed, he could not avoid pronouncing a definitive opinion about the crucial issue of Tijani leadership. His willingness to endorse Hamallah and thereby invite the extreme displeasure of both French and African authorities was entirely consistent with the direction his life had taken. Cerno Bokar was the great nephew of al-Hajj Umar; he was therefore a Futanke and a Taal, a member of the leading Tijani family in West Africa. But the conditions of his childhood and youth had separated him from the mainstream of Futanke social and political development in Bandiagara. Cerno Bokar's future was committed to traditional religious scholarship rather than to the French schooling received by many of his relatives early in the twentieth century. When he later became a muqaddam in the Tijaniyya order he performed the duties of his office as he saw fit, refusing to conform to contemporary practices which he considered deviations from Tijani doctrine. His insistence rankled with some other muqaddamûn, but this issue was minor in comparison to his submission to Hamallah, which elicited extreme and immediate reactions.