Sat. May 18th, 2024

There is only one God. There can only be one religion that leads to Him, one religion of which the others are only variable forms. That religion is Truth. (Thierno Bokar, 1933)

Within the Islamic tradition, it’s always been the Sufi school that has attracted me most, for, as with mystical traditions in other religions, it transcends the religion itself and speaks to universal human values. Whether you pickup the poetry of Rumi, or indulge in the silly tales of Mulla Nasrudin, you are tapping into the inexhaustible fount of the wisdom of the ages. One of my favorite teachers from an early age was the 19th century Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna, who took his inspiration as much from Christianity and Islam as from his native Hindu tradition, and transcended them all in his teaching. To him as well, all religions were the same, and it matters not how we find our way to truth – which we inevitably will in the end, for the simple reason that it is truth.

At the other extreme it remains painful to see how religion has divided people so often, when it develops into narrow sectarianism, and serves various political ends. Especially in West Africa, an appreciation of the development of major religious traditions is in order, for during the period of slavery, people were being “converted” to Christianity or Islam at the point of sword, coming from two directions – would-be “Christians” from the coast, backed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Muslims from the east, backed by the Arabic slave trade. And then it flipflops, for people such as Sheikh Amadou Bamba, were in turn instrumental in the ending of the French colonial regime, first being opposed by the French, but later embraced by them as a constructive force in society. Mouridism (“African” Islam, based in Touba, Senegal, and run by the marabouts, who are the spiritual coaches to their community) itself has played a sometime dubious role, by on the one hand providing a home for the freed slaves at the end of slavery, when they faced uncertain choices, and walking hundreds or even thousands of miles back home was not always the most attractive option. But the Mouride marabouts have equally been criticized for exploiting former slaves, through their system of patronage and tithing, so there is always two sides to every story in this world.

On a popular level, it is the african singer Youssou ‘Ndour, who reperesents this enlightened tradition of african sufi-islam. More in the background, and certainly less known, sufi-wisdom teaching also flourished in West Africa. Thierno Bokar is one teacher whose life and teachings have become more widely known. A few years ago, a play on the life of Thierno Bokar was even performed at Columbia University (see:, written by Peter Brooks, famous, among other things for his full length production of the Mahabharata.

Thierno Bokar (born ca. 1875-1883, died 1939), a native of Segou, Mali (the city had fallen to an Islamic leader, El Hadj Oumar Tall, in 1861, thus ending the Bambara Kingdom), was a member of an influential clan but in the process of his spiritual journey he took a teacher from another family by the name of Shaykh Hamallah, and was promptly ostracized by his relatives. The French colonial regime also saw him as a problem, because his teacher’s clan was publicly involved in resistance against the French colonial regime. However, it seems that Bokar was not much of a political actor, but was active for most of his life teaching Islam to the illiterate, including setting up Islamic schools that taught in Bambara and Fulfulde. It seems he considered the issue of politics as largely irrelevant to the true religious focus of his life. His life played out around Bandiagara, Mali.

The specific Sufi tradition that Thierno Bokar belonged to, the Tijaniyya tradition, is interesting, and had a certain exceptionalism, in that its founder, al Tijani claimed that the prophet Muhammed had appeared to him directly, while he was wide awake, and he derived his authority from that instead of from a historical chain of teachers going back to the prophet. Thierno Bokar overall seems to be a person of moderation, and a-political to the extent that he viewed the only problem as religious/spiritual, and was not very focused on the idea of political “solutions.”

Sufism in general, being a mystical tradition, would focus on the experience rather than any theory of truth. While Bokar seems to have been quite an accomplished student of the Qur’an and fluent in Arabic, clearly again the essence of who he is, is one who experienced spiritual truth in a very definite way, and had an inner certainty that comes only with advanced spirituality. He was recognized as a saint in his lifetime, a “friend of God.” As an example of what he taught his followers, here is a quote of his teaching from Luis Brenner’s book, West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Salif Taal:

Observe everything with the eyes of your profound intelligence and in the light of the law of analogy which connects the events and elements of the three kingdoms of nature with one another (the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms). Once you have discovered this secret mechanism, it will aid you in implanting within yourself the truth of divine matters which are situated beyond the letter of the Qur’ an. Then you will know the significance of the verse: “[He} teacheth man that which he knew not.” (XCVI, 5) (Brenner pp.77-78)

So, once again, it seems that never mind the apparent messes of history, everywhere and at every time, people are finding their way within their respective religious traditions, or even outside of them, to their highest truth, which is within. It is in this experience of oneness, where differences disappear, and the safety and the experience of Peace is ours, where Thierno Bokar was at home and he was such a teacher of truth and tolerance.


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