University of California Press
Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1984. 215 p.
The two previous chapters have explored Cerno Bokar's Islamic
world: his religious training and his teaching. This world was centered on his
own compound, as a school or Sufi-zâwiya, and upon the mosque; its goals were spiritual
and its attitudes toward ordinary life somewhat disdainful. The over riding concern
for people in the zâwiya was eternal life after death; the pleasures and material
rewards of ordinary life were seen as Satanic temptations to divert mankind from
its real need to move closer to God, which could be accomplished only by religious
devotion. This kind of world exists best in isolation and anonymity, because if
it begins to exert strong and popular appeal it can become a severe threat to established
authority. The tragic crisis which marked the final years of Cerno Bokar's life
resulted from the fact that he could not to his own satisfaction fulfil his religious
search within the confines of near anonymity demanded by French colonial authority.
In 1937 he submitted to the spiritual leadership of Shaykh Hamallah of Nioro. He
did this in complete accordance with Tijani doctrine as he understood it; al-Hajj
Umar had strongly emphasized the need to attach oneself to a shaykh. Cerno
had submitted to Hamallah only after lengthy fasts and prayers for guidance; he
experienced indicative visions and he even personally travelled to Nioro in difficult
circumstances to meet the man before he made his decision.
But this submission to Hamallah, no matter how religious in its motivation, thrust Cerno Bokar into a maelstrom of political turmoil. For Cerno Bokar, Hamallah may have been a Tijani shaykh; to many other Tijanis he was the proselytizer of a heterodox and unacceptable doctrine; to the French he was a threat to colonial security. Hamallah was anything but anonymous! In 1937 he had only recently returned to Nioro from ten years' exile for alleged anti-French activities; for the previous twenty years he had been viewed with suspicion and growing animosity by many leading Tijanis, especially the Umarians and certain members of the Taal family who saw his expanding following as a threat to their own spiritual authority. In selecting Hamallah as a shaykh, then, Cerno Bokar touched upon some raw nerves. The reactions reflected the severe tensions which gripped the Soudan of the 1930s on all levels of the social and political hierarchy: French policy toward Islam and especially toward Hamallah, rivalries within the Taal family, political disputes among the leadership of Bandiagara and the general unsettling effects of social and economic change.
In 1937 Cerno Bokar submitted to the spiritual
authority of Shaykh Hamallah; in other words, he renewed his Tijani wird with him
thus becoming an advocate of the “eleven
beads.” This event shocked the entire West African Tij ani community, both “elevens” and “twelves,” and
greatly disturbed the French; a prominent and respected member of the Taal family
had become a Hamallist. Certain Umarian leaders feared that this act would strengthen
the Hamallist forces, and consequently undermine their own position. Those French
who were convinced of the subversive nature of Hamallism feared some sort of political
explosion in the Bandiagara region, and the overwhelming influence of the proponents
of these views ensured that Cerno Bokar's act would be engulfed in political turmoil.
All the available evidence, however, suggests that Cerno Bokar himself harboured
no political aims in submitting to Shaykh Hamallah; for him, it was a purely religious
act. Of course, Cerno could not have been so ingenuous as to be unaware of the
political implications of his submission; the oral accounts of this episode are
replete with warnings given to him, even by Hamallah himself, that his submission
might result in reprisals. But our argument here is that Cerno Bokar took his decision
for motives as purely religious as one is likely to find or be able to document
in historical research.
This assertion rests upon several themes in the evidence. First is the absolute necessity, as asserted in the Rimâh, for Tijanis to find and to submit to a spiritual shaykh or walî. Second is Cerno Bokar's insistence, under the most difficult of circumstances, that he travel personally to Nioro to meet Hamallah before making any public pronouncements about the man or his teachings. Considerable pressure to comment on Hamallah must have been brought to bear upon him long before 1937, when he went to Nioro. Finally, although his submission to Hamallah became public knowledge in Nioro during his visit, and although Cerno Bokar re-initiated some of his former followers into the “eleven” after his return from Nioro, he never publicly proselytized the “eleven” and was content to practice it in the privacy of his own home. No conceivable social, economic or political gain could have accrued to him as a result of his adherence to the “eleven;” indeed, his persistance in practicing it in the face of enormous pressure resulted in attacks upon him which left his ordinary life in ruins and probably led to the illness which caused his death.
In Cerno Bokar's view, his submission to Hamallah as his spiritual superior was in strict accordance with Tijani doctrine. Both the Jawahir al-ma'âni' and the Rimâh provide extensive discussions about the necessity for the Sufi seeker to attach himself to a shaykh, because only thus could he possibly attain his goal 1. These discussions also suggest that every age is provided with specially elevated individuals throilgh whom spiritual benefits are transmitted to mankind from God and the prophets 2. Of course, even having understood and accepted this doctrine, one is left with the daunting task of identifying a shaykh. We saw that the appearance of Hamallah as a shaykh was intimately connected with the problem of the succession of spiritual leadership in West Africa after the death of al-Hajj Umar, and that acceptance of him was affected not only by religious considerations, but also by social and political pressures. Cerno Bokar's own decision with regard to Hamallah could not have been free from all these same pressures, but in the end, we would argue, he submitted to Hamallah because of his personal conclusion that he was indeed a shaykh. Other esoteric considerations may have affected his decision, such as his understanding of the numerological significance of the numbers eleven and twelve, but the central theme of his acceptance was his evaluation of Hamallah as a “man of God.”
Unfortunately, Cerno Bokar left no personal account of his relationship with Hamallah, so that our understanding of how he came to his decision must rely on external evidence. Hampâté Bâ's account of this process places Cerno Bokar's submission into the same framework as al-Akhdar's original discovery of Hamallah. According to him, in about 1927 Cerno Bokar received a letter from Alfa Hashimi b. Ahmadu (nephew of al-Hajj Umar, then resident in Saudi Arabia) describing the various characteristics by which one would be able to recognize the expected khalifa or qutb who would spiritually rejuvenate the West African Tijaniyya. He also proposed to Cerno certain spiritual exercises which would aid him in avoiding error in this identification, including a fast of three years' duration 3. In the course of these exercises (circa 1933, according to the reckoning given by Hampâté Bâ) 4 Cerno had a vision in his sleep which confirmed for him the spiritual authority of Shaykh Hamallah. The major shortcoming of this version of events is its failure adequately to assess the chronological development of Cerno Bokar's interest and concern vis-à-vis Hamallah himself. If a letter arrived in 1927 from Alfa Hashimi about the expected khalîfa, it could not have been written or read without specific reference to Hamallah, who by this time had been exiled to Mauritania and made the centre of deepening religious and political dispute. In addition, one must give some credence to the 1922 report, alluded to above, that Cerno and other leading Umarians had at least tacitly accepted Hamallah as a legitimate muqaddam. It seems possible that by the early 1930s, when Cerno experienced the visions which convinced him of Hamallah's status, the pressures would have become intense for some kind of public statement on the issue. To accept Hamallah as muqaddam was one thing; to accept the claims that he was khalifa was quite another.
There was also a personal factor operating upon Cerno during this period in the form of a Hamallist who became his close friend in Bandiagara, a Moor named Muhammad al-Amîn ould Rashîd. The case of ould Rashîd not only illustrates the way in which the influence of religious orders spread through personal contacts; it also offers a glimpse into the vast social and economic network which supported Shaykh Hamallah. Ould Rashîd was a young merchant who came to Bandiagara sometime in the early 1930s to trade in cattle 5. His activities were financed by another Moorish merchant who operated in Upper Volta, the Gold Coast and the Ivory Coast in this period, and who managed to slip some of his earnings to Shaykh Hamallah who was then in Adzopé 6. As a Moor, he was able to operate on the Ivory Coast during this period only incognito; he was allegedly very black in complexion. Ould Rashîd was also a relatively well-trained scholar, and a respected chanter of the Qur'an; perhaps these interests formed the original basis of his acquaintance with Cerno Bokar. But ultimately the two men became close friends; they spent a considerable amount of time together and Cerno even helped ould Rashîd find a wife in Bandiagara when he decided to marry. Of course, the oral accounts are not unanimous on the details of their relationship. Some say that ould Rashîd was a Hamallist muqaddam; others that he kept secret from all Bandiagara, including Cerno, his Hamallist connections until 1936 when Hamallah returned to Nioro, at which time he revealed his affiliation to Cerno. But all agree that it was ould Rashîd who provided Cerno with his most detailed and his only first-hand reports on Hamallah, his personality and his spiritual attainments.
The visions which convinced Cerno of Hamallah's status therefore occurred amid increasing pressures for an opinion on this man's claims, in the context of a lengthy search for religious guidance on the issue, including an extended fast, and probably under the direct influence of his friend ould Rashîd. The first vision occurred as a result of performing an istikhâra, a request to God, in the form of a prayer accompanied by fasting, for insight into a given problem 7. Shaken by this vision, Cerno performed a second istikhâra several days later as a result of which al-Hajj Umar appeared to him in his sleep to reassure him that the first vision was valid 8. We reproduce here in full Hampâté Bâ's account of Cerno's vision, which is presented in his books as if Cerno were recounting it to Shaykh Hamallah:
I saw eleven men who were walking in a forest at twilight, and among them I recognized Sharîf Muhammad al-Mukhtar [Tijani muqaddam in Nioro and former teacher of Hamallah who opposed his succession to al-Akhdar]. They were all covered with mud and suffering from an atrocious itching which had turned them into madmen. They were staggering in the sand, tearing their clothes and scratching themselves until they bled. I joined them and also contracted their malady. We reached the top of a hill and we saw below a vast plain in which a pond extended as far as we could see. The water of this pond was white like milk. One of us said that now we could wash and drink. We quickened our pace, but a winged man emerged from the water, extended his arms and said to us:
— “It is forbidden to enter this water”.
— “But we have a sharîf among us. Let us drink.”
— “I know this better than yourselves, but still you may not enter the pond until its owner arrives.”
Suddenly a strong wind arose and a shimmering cloud appeared on the horizon. A chant was coming from this cloud; we recognized the formula of the dhikr, the first part of the shahada. Frozen with fear, we watched as this strange cloud came closer to us. It moved across the sky like a galloping horse. When it reached its zenith it disintegrated. It was composed of a crowd of winged men and the movement of their wings caused the shimmering which had struck us. The men entered the pond and disappeared. In one motion, the twelve of us moved forward to follow them; but the guardian stopped us with a gesture. Another gust of wind brought us a second cloud of winged men who repeated the same actions as the first. Then a third. Each cloud was more sparkling than the last and the voices which chanted the sacred formula became, with each renewal of the cloud, more harmonious. Behind the third cloud a mounted rider appeared. He was veiled and held a rosary in his hand. At the head of the horse, al-Hajj Umar held the bridal. … His name was inscribed in letters of fire on his chest. The horse reared in the wind, but al-Hajj Umar clung to the bridle. A gust of wind blew up the horse's mane which caused the cloth to slip from the face of the rider. I swear before God that the face which I saw was yours [i.e. Hamallah's]. The rider said to the guardian:
— “What do these people want?”
— “They want to drink.”
He dismounted and advanced toward the pond. At that point a wind of such violence arose that compared to it the previous gusts were like light breezes. The twelve were dispersed in the dust. The man who had your face took some of the milky water into the hollow of his hands and sprinkled me with it. My thirst and itching ceased. I heard a voice above the noise of the wind:
— “You will drink and you will wash, but later, not today.” 9
The explicit nature of the symbolism of this vision leaves little room for doubt
about its meaning. Hamallah's role is legitimized through the agency of al-Hajj
Umar himself, who is leading the shaykh's horse no less. Even Muhammad al-Mukhtar,
Hamallah's detractor in Nioro, is recognized among the “twelve” sufferers,
whose travail can be relieved only by the milky white water which is Hamallah's
to dispense. Although we have no means of confirming the specific contents of this
vision, there is no reason to doubt that Cerno Bokar would have sought guidance
through performing istikhâra, and that he would have placed great store upon
his own visions. We also know from his discourses that visions were not unusual
for him. But no matter how convincing this vision may have been to him, Cerno still
made no public pronouncement about Shaykh Hamallah; apparently he refused to make
a final decision until after he had met the man personally. The opportunity for
such a meeting occurred in 1937 when Cerno's elder brother, Amadu, imâm of
one of the Bamako mosques, died. Cerno travelled to Bamako to offer his condolences
to the family, and while there arranged, without official permission, to travel
to Nioro by lorry. He made this trip against the advice of friends and family,
who warned that Hamallah was still under heavy French surveillance, but Cerno was
insistent, and he made the trip alone 10.
How long Cerno had nursed a desire to see Hamallah is unknown, but June 1937 was certainly the first opportunity he had to make the trip. Hamallah had returned to Nioro only in the early part of 1936 from the Ivory Coast. Cerno spent two weeks in Nioro, often meeting Hamallah. In the end he renewed his initiation with him, thereby accepting him as his spiritual superior. Hamallah also re-appointed him muqaddam, but with the restriction that he could not appoint any new muqaddamûn into the “eleven beads,” although he could reinitiate those he had already appointed. Hampaté Bâ is vague about the authorizations given to Cerno Bokar at this time 11, although this seems an important issue. A letter from Hamallah to Cerno, written late in 1937, suggests that Cerno was seeking a broader set of authorizations. Hamallah wrote to him, “As for what you asked me concerning the matter of appointment as muqaddam (taqdîm), I am seeking the authorization from God Almighty, which I will send you if I obtain it. Be patient.” 12 This exchange, if we have interpreted it correctly, seems rather conclusive proof of the centrality of religious issues in the entire affair for both Hamallah and Cerno Bokar. In his submission to Hamallah, Cerno had accepted a limited spiritual role; Hamallah would not modify it without some divine signal that this was appropriate. The signal would undoubtedly have been a vision of some sort.
Ironically, yet understandably, the last three years of Cerno Bokar's life, from
1937 to 1940, are more richly documented than any others. It has not been possible
to consult all the relevant documentation, because Hamallist files in Mali are
still not available for public scrutiny. Nonetheless, references in scattered reports,
plus material from the Dakar archives, provide a fairly full view of French attitudes
and activities relevant to Cerno Bokar during this period. Although these data,
despite their relative abundance, do not allow us to present a definitive description
of the course of events, they certainly offer an unusually clear view of the complex
political interactions both between the French administrators and their subjects,
and among the Africans themselves. From 1937 the French viewed Cerno with suspicion
and even feared that he might bring unrest to the Bandiagara region as a Hamallist.
The African agents who fed the French with much of their information were able
to encourage this view. One of them had Cerno announcing on his return to Bamako
from Nioro that “the time of the French has passed, and the time of Shaykh
Hamallah has arrived.” 13 Cerno's Tijani disciples, on the other hand, insisted
that his motives in becoming a Hamallist were religious and that he never uttered
a word in condemnation of the French. Most of them eventually followed him in his
adoption of the “eleven beads,” and some stood by him even when it
had become highly dangerous to do so. Some of the leading Umarian Tijanis, especially
Seedu Nuuru Taal, saw Cerno Bokar's adherence to Hamallah as a personal affront
to the family and wanted him disciplined; others, notably Muntaga Taal in Segu
and Tijani Agibu (chief of Bandiagara to 1938), ranged from neutrality on the issue
to supporting Cerno in his religious decision.
Naturally, the interpretations of Cerno's own role during these tragic years vary according to the source. The only references to his active proselytization of the Hamalliyya or to agitation on his part are in French reports. Oral sources, drawn solely from his supporters, depict him as a withdrawn man of religion, the passive victim of political forces. Whether Cerno did in fact publicly proclaim his adherence to Hamallah must remain an open question, which we will examine in due course. Now let us try to trace the development of events from the time of his submission to Hamallah in June 1937 until his death in 1940. In so doing we will try to highlight the differing factions and their respective interests and points of view.
Cerno Bokar returned to Bandiagara by the same route by which he had departed, with stops in Bamako, Segu and Mopti. As mentioned above, the French were convinced that he had been proselytizing for the Hamalliyya, especially among his own family, since his departure from Nioro. A confrontation between him and Muntaga Taal certainly occurred in Segu 14. But the role of Muntaga in this entire affair, was ambivalent; we shall return to him below. It was in Mopti that Cerno Bokar had his first official encounter with the French, who had decided he should not return to Bandiagara unless he renounced the “eleven beads.” All accounts agree on the nature of this first meeting. The commandant de cercle insisted that Cerno Bokar should abandon the Hamalliyya; Cerno steadfastly refused. An excerpt from the French report claims:
In the course of interrogations on 17 July, Bokar Salif confirmed that he had become a convinced partisan of Shaykh Hamallah and that he had taken the rosary of eleven beads. But he refused to furnish any precise details to explain his conversion and would only say that he was free to choose his religion and that no threat or action could cause him to revoke his decision 15.
A rather more colourful oral account from one of Cerno's former students corroborates the French report. It is presented in the form of a dialogue:
— Commandant: Either you leave the eleven, or I will send you to Kidal [the
infamous French prison in the Sahara desert northeast of Timbuktu].
— Cerno: Take me to Kidal.
— Commandant: Hunh?!
— Cerno: Yes.
— Commandant: I should take you to Kidal?
— Cerno: Take me to Kidal.
— Commandant: You had better think about that, first.
— Cerno: Even if you ask me one hundred times, I will say that I will not abandon the eleven until I die. Take me to Kidal. Take me wherever you like. 16
The commandant dismissed Cerno, presumably so that he himself could consider what to do. At this stage, according to the oral accounts, the commandant's own chief interpreter, one Umar Sy, actively intervened in the affair in order to work out a solution acceptable to all parties. Although differing in detail, these accounts agree on the broad outlines of events. Nor do the French reports contradict the oral claims, although of course they make no mention of Umar Sy. Umar Sy advised his commandant that the French could only do harm to their own interests by disciplining Cerno Bokar. He advised that they should summon Tijani Agibu, the chief of Bandiagara and a relative of Cerno, to intervene and regularize the affair. This was done; Tijani came to Mopti with at least two other marabouts, one of them Alfa Ali Sek, a close friend of Cerno. Tijani was not interested in challenging Cerno Bokar's religious convictions; but he was concerned to maintain peaceful relations in Bandiagara. An agreement was reached among the gathered marabouts that the next day they would go before the commandant and claim that the entire matter was resolved. Cerno Bokar agreed not to speak or to contradict what was said; he was willing to do this because Tijani Agibu was prepared to turn a blind eye to his continued adherence to the “eleven” so long as he did not publicly proselytize. Some accounts attribute this entire plan to Umar Sy; but by whatever way it was concluded, it worked. The French were given the impression that Cerno had renounced Hamallah, although the oral accounts claim they were only told that there would be no trouble if Cerno was allowed to return to Bandiagara. The commandant in Mopti duly reported:
Tijani [Agibu] Taal did what was necessary; Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal has solemnly dedared before the Muslim notables of Mopti and Bandiagara that he has renounced his relationship to Shaykh Hamallah, and that he recognized his error and was re-adopting the rosary of “twelve beads.” 17
One thing is absolutely certain. No matter what the French or anyone else were
led to believe, Cerno Bokar did not sever his relationship with Shaykh Hamallah,
to whom he wrote after his return to Bandiagara, the reply to which we have already
discussed. The tone of Hamallah's reply in no way suggests any break in relationship
between the two men 18.
Cerno Bokar upheld his end of the bargain with Tijani Agibu and allowed everyone in Bandiagara, including some of his own disciples, to believe that he had renounced Hamallah. Undoubtedly some people close to him knew the truth of the matter, and had received the “eleven” from him, but they were enjoined to secrecy. This is evidenced by the testimony of Baba Thimbely, then a relatively young scholar and disciple of Cerno Bokar in the Tijaniyya. He did not realize that Cerno had retained the “eleven” until mid-1938, and on learning that this was so, he asked to be given it. Cerno Bokar agreed, but directed him to keep his new affiliation secret: “You must hide yourself. You will be with those of the “twelve,” and you must resemble them. You will simply omit one recitation [of the Jawharat al-kamâ]. No one will know the difference.” 19. Thus Cerno's religious affiliation was kept quiet; perhaps it was an open secret, but Tijani Agibu was true to his word to the French. There was no trouble in Bandiagara over the “eleven beads.”
However, in May 1938 Tijani died. He was succeeded by his younger brother Mukhtar who was manoeuvred into exposing Cerno Bokar's loyalty to Hamallah, resulting in a ruthless purge of Hamallists in Bandiagara. Mukhtar was appointed through the direct intervention of Seedu Nuuru Taal in Dakar, although not without local opposition. The French considered him a “mediocre” candidate for the office but were not much concerned since his responsibility was “limited to the town of Bandiagara … and to two insignificant villages.” 20. In fact, Mukhtar was a man of no political experience or aptitude, and French opinion of him declined from “mediocre” in 1938 to “very bad” by 1948. Ironically, although he had apparently been personally devoted to Cerno Bokar before his appointment as chief, he was easily manipulated into believing that his own reputation and position would be damaged if Cerno were allowed to continue practising the “eleven.”
Hampaté Bâ attributes the origins of the moves against Cerno Bokar to one Agibu Usman, who not only opposed Mukhtar's appointment but also carried a grudge against Seedu Nuuru. His alleged motive was to render Mukhtar unpopular by persuading him to attack Cerno Bokar 21. But this seems a rather obtuse method of discrediting Mukhtar, and it also would have served the interests of Seedu Nuuru, who made no attempt to hide his dislike for the Hamallists. One cannot of course completely reject the possibility that Agibu Usman acted in this way, but other factors also seem to have been at play. In about June 1938, Seedu Nuuru visited Bandiagara to offer his condolences to the family of the deceased Tijani Agibu. During this visit he openly stated his opinion that he did not consider Shaykh Hamallah to be a “great man.” He also allegedly let some persons know of his concern that if action were not taken against Cerno Bokar then he feared that trouble would erupt in the entire area, with more and more people beginning to follow him 22. These statements are attributed to Seedu Nuuru by only one informant, Baba Thimbely, who also claimed that it was only through Seedu Nuuru's public comments that he came to realize that Cerno Bokar had retained the “eleven.” Perhaps, then, it was that Agibu Usman calculated that he could discredit Mukhtar by taking up Seedu Nuuru's lead in moving against Cerno:
Whatever the intrigues behind the scenes, it seems fairly clear that the first public disclosure of Cerno's continued recitation of the “eleven” came from persons who concealed themselves in his compound with the sole purpose of exposing his activities 23. And it was Agibu Usman himself, on behalf of Mukhtar, who first confronted Cerno Bokar on the issue of the “eleven.” Knowledge of these facts is essential to an understanding of how events developed, because the French in Mopti and Bandiagara, on learning that Cerno was reciting the “eleven,” immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was preparing a campaign to spread Hamallism. No doubt Mukhtar encouraged them to interpret events in this way. Their first reports, at the end of October 1938, claimed that Cerno was “preparing” to agitate in favour of the Hamalliyya 24. A week later, after an interview with the commandant de cercle, Cerno was reported to be resolute in his intention to continue his religious practices. Confronted with his promise the year before to leave the “eleven,” he is reported to have replied, “The word one gives to a chief is not the same as that which one possesses in one's heart.” 25. The French also claimed that Cerno and his followers had begun to recite their prayers publicly: “gathered in a circle, they recite their litanies for hours while Cerno, also praying, continually walks around them.” 26. They added that Cerno had also begun to appoint muqaddamûn for the further spread of the “eleven.” No local evidence exists to support the claim that he had appointed new muqaddamûn in the Hamalliyya, but he does seem to have taken the veil of secrecy from his affiliation. Perhaps he did this because Mukhtar had failed to uphold the agreement concluded by his predecessor, Tijani, to tolerate his practice of the “eleven” so long as it was kept secret. The evidence leaves no doubt that it was Mukhtar who first broke this agreement.
Local French authorities were anxious to nip this affair in the bud. They advised that Cerno's school should be closed, his students returned to their home villages, and he himself “isolated.” They were particularly concerned about those of his followers who worked in the French administration, of whom only three were named 27, and about his influence among the Dogon, who boasted a long history of resistance to colonial authority. But Bamako was never able to convince the Governor General in Dakar that Cerno Bokar should be officially punished or disciplined. They feared that any French action might only enhance his prestige and that of the Hamalliyya 28. The best that Dakar could produce was a warning to Cerno that if his activities exceeded religious bounds, he might suffer disciplinary action 29.
This warning was transmitted in January 1939; it could have had little impact on Cerno, because what the French could not effect officially, Mukhtar had already accomplished for them in his position as chief of Bandiagara. Toward the end of November 1938, Cerno Bokar and his followers were publicly banned from using the Bandiagara mosque. Cerno's school was closed, he was in effect placed under house arrest since he could not walk through the town in safety, and he was placed under such close surveillance that only the most courageous of his friends dared to continue to visit him. In addition, pressure was brought to bear on susceptible families, especially the Taal, to force women married to Hamallists to leave their husbands. Dauda Maiga lost all his four wives in a matter of days 30. All these events are reported both in oral accounts and in French reports 31, but none of them resulted from official French action. For their part, the French transferred out of Bandiagara any of Cerno's followers who were in their employ (like Dauda Maiga) and increased their surveillance of the movement.
The severity of these actions may well have exceeded the original expectations of any of their perpetrators. Perhaps no one had anticipated the kind of defiance they actually encountered, first from Cerno Bokar and later from some of his more fiery followers. Cerno Bokar had no intention of compromising on an issue he considered to be his own personal affair. Nor could those who had chosen to follow him into the “eleven,” especially those who stood by him after the October disclosures, be expected to back down. A situation laden with emotion was transformed into a dangerous confrontation in which all the forces of family anger, religious self-righteousness, and political power were ranged against Cerno Bokar and his small band of followers. In the face of all this, Cerno retreated to his own compound, virtually never to emerge from it again; he lived the remaining months of his life almost completely secluded from the community. The motives for this retreat are nowhere explained. Fear could have been a factor; some evidence suggests that at the height of the affair he might have been attacked if he were seen in public. He may also have been despondent over the fact that his fellow men and his relatives could act in such a way, although his discourses suggest that he had never laboured under an over-optimistic view of human nature. Perhaps he was unwilling or not sufficiently interested to carry his beliefs into the public domain, especially in the charged political atmosphere which had been created. Certainly his life betrays not the least interest in politics. For eighteen months he had been content to pursue his Hamallist recitations in the privacy of his own home. Perhaps he withdrew with the intention of continuing that policy, resting content in the conviction that his religion was a matter of concern only to himself and to his God. Such a withdrawal could also be interpreted as a kind of defiance; he had been publicly humiliated, but he continued to practice the “eleven,” and no one could force him to desist from it.
Cerno's withdrawal may not have been politically motivated, but it was not without political impact. Some of his followers continued to defy their adversaries. And it is probable that physcial violence did not erupt only because the French managed to defuse the situation by expelling some Hamallists from Bandiagara and by imprisoning others. Two of the more active agitators were Dauda Maiga and Koola Sidi, a cousin of Cerno Bokar and a long-time disciple. Unlike Cerno, who had retreated in the face of pressure, these two men were defiant. Relatively young and of tempestuous temperament, they not only took a stand for what they considered their religious integrity, but they were angered by the political machinations which had created the crisis. Their backgrounds were very different. Dauda Maiga was of servile background, French educated with only the briefest introduction to Qur'anic studies. Koola Sidi was descended from the local Futanke aristocracy and a well-trained religious scholar. Dauda, an employee of the French school system, tended to look to French administrative authority for the redress of his grievances; he referred every incident to the commandant de cercle, and there were quite a number: expulsion from the mosque, public abuse of his mother in the Bandiagara market, and the forced dissolution of his four marriages 31. He even wrote an article in the monthly journal, Le Soudan, in which he defended the Hamallists 32. The French simply transferred him out of Bandiagara. Koola Sidi posed a rather different kind of problem to the administration. He was allegedly “recruiting and instructing” new Hamallists from a widespread area, who passed through Bandiagara, or who had specifically come there for religious instruction. Many of these were Mossi. Ejected from the mosque, he intended to build another exclusively for Hamallists, and even though Cerno Bokar had withdrawn from public view, Koola Sidi continued to conduct public processions and prayer meetings. The French finally imprisoned him for a time, which seems effectively to have put a halt to his activities.
This policy of suppression was not without its critics, even among staunch Umarian Tijanis. Muntaga Taal of Segu provides one of the more interesting cases in this regard. He was not happy with Cerno Bokar's submission to Shaykh Hamallah, and presumably told him so; but at the same time, he was prepared not only to tolerate Cerno's personal decision 33, but also to support him at the height of the crisis. At some point after Cerno's expulsion from the mosque, Muntaga visited Bandiagara. He refused to pray in the mosque, and on Friday even went to Mopti so as to avoid the necessity of praying that day in the Bandiagara mosque 34.
But neither tacit support from Muntaga nor express criticism from other quarters in West Africa could change the situation in Bandiagara. Cerno Bokar had been isolated and the local Hamallist organization crushed.
Cerno died in February 1940 after a prolonged illness which in its final stages
must have been particularly painful 35. If death brought Cerno release from the
tribulations of the last months of his life, the rituals attending his funeral
were not allowed to proceed in peace. Mukhtar quickly intervened to bar Cerno's
former students and disciples from having any part in the burial. Some, who had
begun to prepare the corpse for interment, were chased from the house; Alfa Ali
Sek, a friend of Cerno but also a supporter of Mukhtar, was allowed to perform
these functions 36. Nor were Cerno's people allowed to accompany the body to the
cemetary 37, although one witness described the funeral in miraculous terms: “In
the bush [surrounding the cemetary] there were many people, though one could not
tell if they were human or not … All the bush had become as people to attend
his corpse.” 38
After Cerno was laid to rest, a formal interdiction was proclaimed against visiting his grave. Most of those who dared to defy this ban did so only at night. Dauda Maiga was, as usual, unbowed by these prohibitions. After learning of Cerno's death, he took the first opportunity to come to Bandiagara to pay his respects. He found most of his friends too afraid to accompany him to the cemetery; only one person went with him, and when they discovered no headstone had been placed to mark the grave, Dauda explains what he did:
Nothing had been placed on the grave. [Amadou Hampâté Bâ] had promised to send a headstone in cement, but it had not yet arrived and while waiting for it one could find good stones here which could be engraved. So I told Yusuf, the son of Ancamba Nandigi, to find us a good stone at Dukombo [a village near Bandiagara]. Only they were afraid to bring it. “You are affaid?” I asked. “Then leave Dukombo at dusk, around 6 or 6:30. You bring it to me after dusk.” He brought the stone … and I summoned the blacksmith Hammaci to engrave it. … When it was completed we formed a small delegation to go and set it up.
When I was about to leave to return to my post, my comrades said to me, “That's not the end of it. You are going to leave, but we are certain they are going to pressure us and start asking questions. I answered, “It is simple. If they ask you who placed the stone, just say ‘Dauda,’ that's all.” And in fact no one asked. Because in those days I was really hot-tempered. I didn't let anything pass, not anything 39.
The French reports make no mention of the emotion and tension which surrounded Cerno's death. They were apparently unaware of the alleged “miracles” which attended his funeral, and of the extraordinary efforts and courage required of his devotees who wished to pay their last respects. Their primary concern was the fate of the Hamallist “sect” in Bandiagara. Their observation in the 1940 Annual Political Report for the Soudan was succinct:
In the subdivision of Bandiagara (Mopti cercle), the death of Cerno Saalif Taal has deprived the Hamallist clan of its chief in the region. He does not seem to have been replaced; none of his disciples has become the titled representative of the sect, which in this country seems to be dormant 40.
The official French opinion of Cerno Bokar might well be summed up in a notation
entered into his dossier after he was released from Mopti in 1937 and allowed to
return to Bandiagara: “to be placed under close surveillance because of the
weakness of his character (his successive conversions prove it).” 41
These few comments serve only to emphasize the tragic nature of Cerno Bokar's death. Cerno was not an ambitious man, and had he not been the great-nephew of al-Hajj Umar he would undoubtedly have been even less well known than he was. Even as a Taal, he could count only a very small number of truly devoted disciples who were so firmly convinced of the soundness and sincerity of his example that they were prepared to follow wherever he led. Not that he had any desire to lead; the discourses which follow reveal something of his humility in his repeated comments to those around him about his own limitations. These disclaimers were only necessary, of course, because some people insisted upon attributing to him spiritual achievements which he refused to admit. Given the nature of Muslim society and belief described in this book, such attributions are not surprising. Nor is it surprising that after his submission to Shaykh Hamallah some Umarian Tijanis viewed him as a religious deviant and some French administrators saw him as a political threat. But none of this predictability reduces the ultimate tragedy of Cerno Bokar's life which was that the political forces which destroyed him were incapable of comprehending what he was actually trying to teach, and uninterested in doing so. The tragedy was therefore more than personal; it penetrated deep into the West African society of which Cerno was a member. It was not only the French who failed to understand what Cerno Bokar was about; very few Africans could see beyond the political conflict to the man himself. His stature as a religious leader in Bandiagara, founded upon a lifetime of study and reflection, seems to have vanished almost overnight.
The idiom of West African Islam practiced by Cerno Bokar may seem strange and superstitious to many readers, preoccupied as it was with “secrets,” visions, esoteric manipulations with numbers, and so forth. But an appropriate judgment of Cerno bokar as a man should not rest so much on any evaluation of the validity of the beliefs of his society, but upon a consideration of his own personal confrontation with these beliefs. Cerno Bokar took seriously the doctrines of his faith and sought honestly to put them into practice. His contemplative inclinations were intimately related to the sincerity of his religious belief; in order to strive toward his self-imposed goals, he had constantly to reassess both his goals and where he was in relation to them. This was his essential message, and this was the simple yet extraordinarily demanding task which he set before his disciples. Only his own words can communicate the immediacy with which Cerno Bokar was able to express this appeal to religious search; we therefore turn now to his discourses.
1. See especially chapters 13 - 19 in the Rimâh
2. Rimâh, I, 96.
3. TB, 41-2; VE, 52.
4. VE, 94.
5. One account asserts that ould Rashîd first came to Bandiagara in order to try to buy young girls to sell as “servants” (Sori Hammadun Bala, interview of 30 September 1977). This account is interesting because it connects the availability of children for sale to the necessity of finding money to pay taxes during “the years of the difficult tax.” No other references to these years of heavy taxation or to any related sale or pawning of children have been found.
6. See Traoré, Contribution, 184-5. This merchant's name is variously given as Sidi Muhammad (Sori Hammadun Bala, interview of 30 September 1977) and Sidat ould Babana (Amadou Hampaté Bâ, interview of 2 May 1978).
7. For a description of istikhâra, See R. Dozy, Supplément aux Dictionnaires Arabes, 2e Edition (Paris, 1927), I, 415.
8. TB, 56; VE, 94.
9. TB, 54ff; vE, 92, ff.
10. VE, 86-7.
11. TB, 59; VE, 97.
12. Undated letter from Hamallah to Cerno Bokar from the library of Baba Thimbely, Bandiagara.
13. ANM, letter from Koulouba to Governor-General, 30 July 1937.
14. See VE, 100-2; also Amadou Hampaté Bâ, interview of 2 May 1978.
15. ANM, letter from Mopti to Koulouba, 21 July 1937.
16. Sori Hammadun Bala, interview of 30 September 1977.
17. ANM, letter from Mopti to Koulouba, 21 July 1937; for oral accounts see TB, 61 and VE, 102-7; also interviews with Sori Hammadun Bala (30 September 1977), Baba Thimbely (29 September 1977), Dauda Maiga (29 September 1977) and Amadou Hampaté Bâ (2 May 1978).
18. Cited above, note 12.
19. Baba Thimbely, interview of 1 October 1977.
20. ANM, Fonds Récent, 2-E-11, Fiches de renseignement de Chefs de canton, Bandiagara.
21. VE, 108ff.
22. Baba Thimbely, interview of 1 October 1977.
23. ANM, letter from Mopti to Koulouba, 22 February 1939. This information comes from oral depositions recorded in Bandiagara on 6 November 1938.
24. ANM, telegram from Mopti to Koulouba, 31 October 1937.
25. ANM, letter from Koulouba to Governor-General, 16 November 1938.
27. Including Dauda Maiga, one of my informants.
28. ANM, letter from the Governor-General to Koulouba, 3 January 1939.
29. ANS, 2-G-39/8, Soudan, Rapport Politique Annuel, 1939.
30. Dauda Maiga, interview of 29 September 1977; in this interview Dauda recalled losing his wives only later, on a visit to Bandiagara after having been transferred to Niafunke. Other evidence suggests the marriages were dissolved in late 1938 and early 1939; available evidence did not allow the resolution of the discrepancy in these dates.
31. ANM, letter from Mopti to Koulouba, 6 February 1939.
32. Dauda Maiga, interview of 29 September 1977.
33. Two reports allege this: Baba Thimbely, interview of 29 September 1977, and ANM, letter from Mopti to Koulouba, 6 February 1939.
34. Baba Thimbely, interview of 29 September 1977.
35. TB, 65ff; VE, 114ff.
36. Baba Thimbely, interview of 29 September 1977.
37. TB, 70; VE, 121.
38. As told to Baba Thimbely, interview of 29 September 1977.
39. Dauda Maiga, interview of 29 September 1977.
40. ANS, 2-G-40/10, Soudan, Rapport Politique Annuel, 1940.
41. ANM, Fiche de renseignement, 20 july 1937.