Monday, December 31, 2007

Religious leader's death offers insight to Mouride brotherhood

From Reuters:

The leader of Senegal's powerful Mouride Muslim brotherhood has died at the age of 92, throwing into mourning a movement that holds huge influence and whose trade networks span the globe.

The brotherhood is the biggest centre of religious, economic and political influence in the mainly Muslim country in West Africa, and counts among its followers octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade.

Caliph Serigne Saliou Mbacke died on Friday in Senegal's holiest city Touba, known to some as "little Mecca".

The Mourides
There are a couple takes on Mourides who follow the teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese mystic and spiritual leader who died in the 1920s. This “Servant of the Prophet,” as he is known amongst his followers, led a pacifist struggle against French rule while “renewing” Muslim traditions through a series of poems, writings on meditation, work and Koranic study. His main beliefs include that one does not fight with weapons, but through submission to marabouts – Islamic teachers – and hard work.

More orthodox Muslims claim the group’s hazy teachings and veneration of Amadou Bamba, sometimes to the neglect of the Prophet Muhammad, skirts the fine-line of heresy. Also, some of the Mourides’ minor sects worry believers. For example, the group Baye Fall whose members wear dreadlocks, dress in rags and can be exempt from Muslim edicts of praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Social reformers in West Africa have begun questioning the increase of talibés (garabouts elsewhere in West Africa), young male Koranic students who spend their days walking with large tomato paste cans begging for food and money, which go directly to their marabouts. As population (and poverty) increases in rural Sengal, more families send their children to these marabouts, some of whom are not interested in teaching koranic verses, but earning a livelihood through the talibés’ money through begging.

Anti Colonial
While he never engaged the French militarily, the colonial rulers wearied of Amadou Bamba’s growing power and exiled him to Gabon and later Mauritania. Eventually he was allowed to return home, after the authorities realized Bamba was not interested in fighting their power (he eventually helped enlist followers in the French cause during World War I).

Many commentators note that the group’s insistence on hard work allowed them to control many aspects of economic life in Senegal, where believers make up nearly one-third of the population. For example, much of the country’s groundnut market was controlled by Mourides for decades. When prices of the crop bottomed out, followers left the countryside for Senegal’s cities (and some went abroad).

However, the group keeps its faith in hard work, leading one news organization to claim that the group is financially supported by followers selling fake Prada bags from Hong Kong to Rome to New York. This dedication to work and commerce has turned Amadou Bemba’s birthplace, Touba from a dusty village into the capital of a global business network. Each year, an estimated one million people make a pilgrimage to Touba.

Mourning period
Caliph Serigne Saliou Mbacke was the last living son of Amadou Bemba. His body was buried in Touba before his death was announced. President Abdoulaye Wade called for a three-day mourning period, which ends today. The Associated Press reports that an estimated four million people will visit Mbacke’s grave.