Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba was born in the village of Mbakeh in Baol, the son of a Marabout from the Qudiryaa, the oldest Sufi order in Senegal.
He was a disciple of the Qadiri Sheikh Saad. Bamba Mbàkke, Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ḥabīb Allāh, 1850–1927 also known as Khādimu ‘r-Rasūl or “The Servant of the Messenger” and Sëriñ Tuubaa, was a Sufi religious leader in SeneGambia and the founder of the large Mouridi Brotherhood (the Muridiyya).
Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba founded the Mouride brotherhood in 1883, and its capital is Touba, Senegal, which also serves as the location of the Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest mosque, which was built by the Mourides.
He founded the city of Touba in 1887. In one of his numerous writings, Matlabul Fawzeyni (the quest for happiness in both worlds), Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba describes the purpose of the city, which was intended to reconcile the spiritual and the temporal.
Bamba’s followers call him a Mujadid (“renewer of Islam”), citing Hadith that implies that God will send renewers of the faith every 100 years (the members of all the SeneGambia brotherhood claim that their founders were such renewers).
Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba’s teachings emphasized the virtues of pacifism, hard work and good manners through what is commonly known as Jihādu nafs, which emphasizes a personal struggle over “negative instincts.”
As an ascetic marabout who wrote tracts on meditation, rituals, work, and Quranic study, he is perhaps best known for his emphasis on work and industriousness.
As Bamba’s fame and influence spread, the French colonial government worried about his growing power and potential to wage war against them.
He had stirred “anti-colonial disobedience” and even converted a number of traditional kings and their followers and no doubt could have raised a huge military force, as Muslim leaders like Umar Taal and Samori Toure had before him.
During this time, the French army and French colonial government were wary of Muslim leaders inciting revolts as they finished taking over Senegal.
Fearing his influence, the French sentenced him to exile in Gabon (1895–1902) and later in Mauritania (1903–1907).
However, these exiles fired stories and folk tales of Bamba’s miraculous survival of torture, deprivation, and attempted executions, and thousands more flocked to his organization.
On the ship to Gabon, forbidden from praying, Bamba, said to have broken his leg-irons, leaped overboard into the ocean and prayed on a prayer rug that appeared on the surface of the water. So devout he was; and when the French put him in a furnace, he simply sat down in it and drank tea with the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH); and in a den of hungry lions, the lions slept beside him.
By 1910, the French realized that Bamba was not interested in waging violent war against them, and was in fact quite cooperative, eventually releasing him to return to his expanded community.
In 1918, they rewarded him with the French Legion of Honor for enlisting his followers in the First World War: he refused it.
They allowed him to establish his community in Touba, believing in part that his doctrine of hard work could be made to work with French economic interests.
His movement continued to grow, and in 1926 he began work for the great mosque at Touba.
As the founder of Mouridisim, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is considered one of the greatest spiritual leaders in SeneGambian history and of the biggest influences on contemporary Senegalese life and culture.
Mouridism is today one of Senegal’s four Sufi movements, with four million devotees in Senegal alone and thousands more abroad, the majority of whom are emigrants from Senegal and The Gambia.
Followers of the Mouride movement, an offshoot of traditional Sufi philosophy, aspire to live closer to God, in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad’s example.
Today, Ahmadou Bamba has an estimated following of more than 3 million people and parades occur around the world in his honor, including in various cities in the USA.
One such city is New York, where Muslims of West African descent have organized an “annual Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Day parade” for over twenty years.
Celebrations like these create platforms to “redefine the boundaries of their African identities, cope with the stigma of blackness, and counteract an anti-Muslim backlash”.
Every year, millions of Muslims from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Touba (known as the Magal), worshipping at the mosque and honoring the memory of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.
On one occasion during the pilgrimage, Mouride believers honor Ahmadou Bamba by facing the Atlantic Ocean, to commemorate Bamba’s legendary prayer on the water.
Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba has only one surviving photograph, in which he wears a flowing white robe and his face is mostly covered by a scarf. This picture is revered and reproduced in paintings on walls, buses, taxis, etc. all over Senegal and The Gambia.
This photo was originally taken in 1913 by “French colonial authorities”. As an art form and spiritual object, Bamba’s photograph functions as more than a mere image, rather it is also “a living presence” through which his baraka (blessings) flows.
Kemo Bojang is a youth activist, historian and political science major at the University of The Gambia