Pilgrimage to Sheikh Bamba

Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's documentary film "Touba" is a chronicle of the largest Sufi pilgrimage in sub-Saharan Africa. A review by Marian Brehmer

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Marian Brehmer

"Let this be a holy place, one to which every believer who would like to journey to Mecca but has not the means to do so, can experience the blessing of a pilgrimage." These words in praise of his spiritual home are taken from a prayer by the 19th century Sufi saint Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke.

Touba, now the second largest city in Senegal and the destination for pilgrims on the largest Sufi pilgrimage in sub-Saharan Africa, is the place he was referring to. "Touba" is also the title of a documentary film by U.S. American director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi that follows the pilgrimage to the city 170 kilometres east of the Senegalese capital of Dakar. The film brings to life a world of Islamic ritual little known to the outside world, choosing as it does to focus on African Islam and particularly on the Maghreb states.

A Senegalese Gandhi

Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba is the spiritual founder of the Mouride Brotherhood in Senegal, where the majority of the some twelve million Muslims are followers of Sufism. The term "Mouride" is derived from Arabic and means disciple of a spiritual guide. The Sheikh, who was born in 1853, has a remarkable life story and one that is closely linked with the colonial destiny of sub-Saharan Africa. To his followers, Bamba is the Senegalese equivalent of Gandhi.

A religious reformer from central Senegal, Ahmadou Bamba's literary skills brought him fame at an early age. His Arabic poems are still read at Sufi rituals to honour the Prophet in Senegal today. In 1887, Bamba established the city of Touba, still a small village at the time, as the spiritual seat of his newly founded order. He preached non-violence and the precepts of the "greater jihad" of the Sufis, the struggle against the inner enemies of greed, hate, lies and violence. The use of weapons to fight against the ruling colonial power was something that Bamba, however, utterly rejected.

By the end of the 19th century, the Sheikh's ever increasing band of followers had become a source of some unease to the country's French colonial rulers. They saw his movement as a political threat and regarded Bamba himself as a potential revolutionary. In 1895, despite the fact that he put up no resistance, the Sufi leader was arrested by the colonial regime and sent into exile in Gabon, the colony favoured by the French for the incarceration in solitary confinement of African freedom fighters. 

Seven years of solitary in Gabon were followed by nine years under house arrest in various locations, including neighbouring Mauritania. A report by a French official assigned to oversee the Sheikh's custody recorded the following impression: "this Sheik Bamba possesses an innate power, the source of which it is beyond the ability of reason to grasp; its disarming effect upon others impossible to explain."

Spiritual inspiration and national symbol

The annual "Magal" pilgrimage to Touba, participated in by hundreds of thousands of Sufis, is celebrated in memory of Sheikh Bamba's exile and commemorates his resoluteness and faith in prayer and worship during the years of exile that ultimately brought him closer to God. The story of Sheikh Bamba's exile, a sort of Senegalese version of the 'Hijra' (Muhammad's migration to Medina), is today what unites the masses of Senegalese believers. Sheikh Bamba has become both a spiritual source of inspiration and a symbol of the nation, his life story embellished with numerous stories of the miracles he performed.

This becomes evident through the many short interviews with both pilgrims and sheikhs from the Mouride Brotherhood in "Touba". Director Chai Vasarhelyi's camera team stays close to the action, capturing much of the atmosphere; a remarkable achievement considering the fact that the crew had to get most of the film done on a meagre three-day shoot. The documentary does exhibit a few Hollywoodesque touches, however. There is the title music for one thing and numerous slow-motion and drone sequences that introduce a sense of drama to proceedings that arguably the subject matter does not require.

The overall effect is often to make the documentary more exotic than informative. Whether in the shots of sweating Rastafarian dervishes, in their whirling circles, singing at the top of their voices, or in the images of the devoted faithful prostrating themselves in the sand at the feet of a rather self-assured looking Sufi master – the tradition is often made to appear rather unsettling, thus raising the question of whether the cameras are not perhaps too ready to seek out the bizarre and the strange.

Lack of information on Sufism

"Touba" moreover provides no information on the spiritual nature of Sufism. We remain ignorant of the relationship between student and master, for instance, or of the significance of the often ecstatic rituals. Without such context, much of what we see in the film at best, cannot be completely understood – and at worst might be completely misunderstood. The end result is a film that fails to probe below the surface.

On the other hand, the selected readings from the work of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba that are dotted throughout the film are impressive. Compelling too are the scenes around the periphery of the pilgrimage that reveal that there is much of the profane along with the sacred to be encountered here: the sight of the inner courtyard of the main mosque converted to a sleeping area for the masses, for instance; the efforts of the supervisors whose job it is to attempt to impose some control on the seething throng of humanity, or the quacks and charlatans who purvey their cure-all powders and potions in the pilgrims bazaar.

What the film does make evident is the fact that the pilgrimage plays an important role in the cohesion of Senegalese society. Touba is a gathering place for families and friends, a place for the faithful from all social strata and all parts of the country to come together – and thus a symbol of the life-affirming religion of the ordinary people, with whose faith the radical religious views of the fanatics has very little in common.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de

Translated from the German by Ron Walker