University of California Press
Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1984. 215 p.
“The greatest knowledge is to know that one does not know.”
“Search in truth, and continue to search, for he who searches will find.”
“In ordef that one's heaft should be filled with the femembfance of the Lofd, one must look upon Him each day as a new discovery.”
Cerno Bokar, 1933
The discourses published here are an unusual collection of historical documents. They preserve a body of oral religious teaching in a state close to its original vitality and freshness, which provides an intimate glimpse into the workings of the mind of a West African mystic. What we see here is not a systematic presentation of religious concepts nor an ordered series of directives to disciples, as might be presented in a scholarly book. Rather we are placed in direct communication with what “search” meant to Cerno Bokar in a form which, although not free from inconsistency or even from occasional contradiction, is all the more impressive for the spirit of humble and ceaseless questioning which it portrays. Many of these discourses are answers to questions posed to Cerno Bokar, but they contain nothing of the dogmatic heaviness which often pervades religious writings. Quite the contrary; they reveal a kind of respect mixed with wonder which might be experienced in the face of a new discovery.
Perhaps the ultimate goal of all Cerno's study, teaching and searching was, to use his own words, “to recognize the existence of God and His Oneness” (Discourse 1). As we have seen, in Cerno Bokar's view, this goal required a fundamental knowledge of Islamic dogma, including a study of tawhîd, as well as a sincere commitment to the practice of Islamic rituals, such as prayer and fasting. But Cerno also asserted that “in order that one's heart should be filled with the remembrance of the Lord, one must look upon Him each day as a new discovery” (D. 11). Search is therefore pursued through renewal; each day one seeks to encounter God with all the naive excitement with which one greets a new discovery. The discourses include a number of examples of Cerno's own sense of discovery, none more moving perhaps than an incident concerning his dog (D. 49). While walking to his fields in the oppressive heat which immediately precedes the start of the rains, Cerno was struck by the fidelity of his dog which continued to follow him despite its obvious exhaustion.
This faithfulness touched me deeply. I did not know how to appreciate the act of this animal, ready to follow me to the death without any necessity for himself, and without being constrained to do it by anything whatever. He was loyal because of the fact that he considered me his master. He proved his attachment to me by risking his life with the sole aim of following me and being at my side.
“Lord,” I cried out in an outburst of feeling, “Cure my troubled soul. Render my fidelity similar to that of this being whom I disparagingly call ‘dog.’ Give me, like him, the strength to be able to scorn my life when it is a question of accomplishing Your will. And give me the strength to follow the road on which You place me without asking “Where am I going?”
The fidelity of his dog reminds Cerno of the weakness of his own fidelity to God. He consequently requests that God renew his strength and his resolve to follow the ‘road of religion.’ A similar note of humility is sounded throughout the commentaries here published. It is as if Cerno Bokar is constantly questioning his relationship to God, and constantly questioning himself. Indeed, one might even say that for him the quest — his personal search for truth — consisted of an attitude of persistent questioning.
It is this same persistent questioning which he tried to impart to his disciples. Amadou Hampâté Bâ relates a delightful story which in more than one way reflects Cerno Bokar's skill at bringing questions before his students and disciples:
One day Cerno was speaking about hudûr ar-rûh, the presence of the divine light within, or its action upon, a material question. He explained all this very well, and each time that he asked the students if they understood, they responded, “We have understood.” But as for me, I said I had not understood anything. There was a cousin of mine in the group who said to me, “Really, you were born stupid and you will die stupid! What Cerno has just said is clear.'” I replied that in any case I did not say it wasn't clear, I said I had not understood.
Cerno said to my cousin, “Alfa, you have understood?” He replied, “But Cerno, it is clear.” At which Cerno got up from his place and told Alfa to sit in it and to explain to everyone what had been said. Complete silence! Cerno asked, “What's this, Alfa? You have understood?” My cousin replied, “'I thought I understood.” “'Well, it looks as if Amadou is not as stupid as you!'”
Then Cerno said, “I see that we have not understood.” And he asked for a mirror to be brought to him, which he placed in the sun. He continued: “Let us consider that the light of the sun represents the divine light. Look over there at the dark corner of the vestibule. What is there?'”
“Nothing,” someone replied.
“Be careful of being hasty,'” Cerno said. “When Satan placed his first son in the world he named him Haste. You must never act hastily and thereby make a judgment about something which you have not investigated. It is dark over there, and your eyes have not penetrated the darkness. How do you know there is nothing? You should say ‘I don't know.’ Because the greatest knowledge is to know that one does not know. Anndude anndaa yo woni anndal manngal.”
Then Cerno continued: “When we are in ignorance, it is the light of God which descends into us in order to clarify what we don't know, in order to dissipate the darkness in which the thing we don't understand is enveloped. It is the darkness which hinders us from understanding it. If the light of God comes, it will dissipate the darkness and we will understand the thing we did not understand. We are considering that the sun is the light of God, and that the corner is the thing we don't understand.” Then Cerno adjusted the mirror so that the sun's rays were reflected into the corner of the vestibule, and it was illuminated as if with a torch. “There,” he said, “what is in there? What do you see?” One person said he saw an ant, another a stalk of straw, and yet another a stone. “A moment ago,” Cerno said, “you claimed there was nothing there, and now we see all of nature there in symbiosis: you have the animal, the vegetable and the mineral. The clarification of the divine light acts exactly like that. But the mirror is the heart. You see that the mirror is clean; the heart must also be pure so that it can receive the divine light and reflect the light in order to clarify what you wish to know.”1
“The greatest knowledge is to know one does not know.” This statement contains the essential message of the story, and epitomizes the force of Cerno Bokar's spiritual search. Everything and everyone constantly placed in question. The discourses include several examples, similar to that in this story, of a person caught up short and thrown back on himself, in question. Sotoura seeks a benediction to soothe her short temper; she is sent away to nurture her own capacities for love and indulgence (D. 15). Someone has been influenced by the reputation of Cerno's teaching and asks to become his disciple; he is told that no man ever “accords exactly with his reputation.” He must decide for himself (D. 47). And even those specific questions which are posed directly to Cerno are often not directly answered; or else the response is designed to lead to yet more questions. One is advised to meditate on certain verses from the Qur'an; or one is given a response which may be filled with metaphorical power but which requires considerable pondering before its meaning can be grasped. One might take as an example here Cerno's numerous comments on faith. According to Islamic theology, faith comprises certain specific beliefs: in God, the Last judgment, the angels, the revealed books, the prophets and the divine decree. But if one reads carefully all that Cerno Bokar says in his discourses on the subject it is clear that for him faith is also a material substance shared by all men but which differs in quality according to its state. These changes in the “state” of faith are described by metaphorical reference to light, water and heat.
A Sufism which is expressed in the metaphorical language of parables, or which seeks to pose ever more profound questiops rather than provide easy answers, may seem a long way from the Sufism of “eleven beads/twelve beads.” And yet we must remember that Cerno Bokar, although he professed his own interpretations of Tijani doctrines, fully accepted them in their strictest sense. The Sufism of Cerno Bokar consists of a mélange of all that we have attempted to describe in previous chapters about the Tijaniyya and the kaɓɓe as well as of the thoughts contained in these discourses. Many readers may find the content of the discourses more appealing as an expression of mystical search than the doctrines of the Tijaniyya, but for Cerno Bokar all these were part of a greater whole. What we might perceive as contradictions were not so for him. How, one might ask, can the spirit of incessant questioning revealed in the discourses be compatible with the kind of claims made by Ahmad al-Tijani for the Sufi way which he founded? Cerno Bokar would undoubtedly answer that this is because there are many “truths” with respect to man, although there is only one Truth with respect to God. Depending on the nature of the man in question, there are different religions, different forms of faith, and different expressions of Sufism. They all “true” only in the sense that they can lead to the “Truth.”
This collection of discourses was discovered in the library of the Centre de Hautes Etudes sur l'Afrique et l'Asie Modernes (CHEAM) in Paris (formerly the Centre de Hautes Etudes d'Administration Musulmane) under the title “The Parables of Cerno Bokar.” They were recorded by Amadou Hampâté Bâ in 1933 when he spent approximately six months in intensive study with Cerno Bokar and was then himself initiated into the “secrets” of Sufism. This period of special study was noted in interviews with several persons who were in Bandiagara at the time 2, and Hamp7âté Bâ has also given a brief description of how he collected this material 3. Because at the time he was unable to write in Fulfulde, he wrote down Cerno Bokar's comments in a direct French translation. These texts were later rendered into a smoother French version, which appears in the CHEAM document. Most of the quotations from Cerno Bokar which appear in Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara and Vie et Enseignement de Tierno Bokar are based on the CHEAM document, of which they constitute about half the total number of “parables.”
These published versions of the texts often differ in relatively minor detail from those of the CHEAM document, presumably because they were modified in order to achieve a more precise or clear language. This entire process of recording in direct French translation with subsequent modifications is, of course, unfortunate. Although we are deeply indebted to Hampâté Bâ for any texts at all which survive, and these certainly retain a high degree of freshness of presentation and reveal with great honesty both the content and process of Cerno's thinking, the absence of the original Fulfulde texts presents many problems. From a purely technical point of view, one would like to know the original Fulfulde words used by Cerno for certain terms, such as âme (soul) or esptit (spirit or mind).
And Hampâté Bâ himself has commented on the difficulties of rendering Fulfulde into literary French 5. In addition, questions must inevitably arise as to the accuracy of these texts which have been preserved and transmitted in a way which allows for no possibility of confirming their precise content. None of the persons interviewed in Bandiagara felt competent to comment on this aspect of Cerno's teaching, but excessive weight should not be placed on negative evidence of this kind; they had not enjoyed such intimate relations with Cerno Bokar as did Hampâté Bâ 6, and of course only he felt called upon to record Cerno's words. Hampâté Bâ claims that these texts are faithful transcriptions of Cerno's words to which he has added nothing (taking into account the conditions of collecting them, as explained above). On the other hand, he candidly confessed to me that these ideas have, become so much a part of him that at times he becomes confused between what were Cerno's thoughts and what are his own. It must be emphasized that the problem here being discussed only presents itself to the historian who seeks to reconstruct the content of Cerno Bokar's thought and teaching. Amadou Hampâté Bâ has devoted much of his life to the transmission of Cerno's teachings as he understands them; for him the precise re-statement of Cerno's words is less important than the communication of the essential spirit of the teaching. This said, Hampâté Bâ's published versions of the texts are extremely faithful to those in the CHEAM document. A few words and phrases have been modified to improve clarity of expression, but the basic ideas expounded in the texts remain untouched.
The internal evidence of the texts also presents some problems. One must seriously doubt that Cerno Bokar would have spoken about a conductor in an electrical circuit (D. 36), especially when he seems only to have learned of the existence of radio from Hampâté Bâ in 1933 (D. 6). Nor does it seem likely that he would have described the formation of fog in scientific language (D. 37). On the other hand, a note of authenticity is struck by the existence in the collection of an incomplete text (D. 48), to which is added the comment: “The master was interrupted by a visitor, and we never heard the rest of the story, alas.” Indeed, the overwhelming weight of the internal evidence suggests that these texts are the products of a West African Muslim and Sufi of the early twentieth century, although as discussed above we have no means of verifying conclusively that they are Cerno Bokar's exact words, in no way does their content contradict the doctrines of Islam or of the Tijaniyya order ; indeed, they show a deep understanding of them. They reflect the concerns of a person primarily occupied with the elaboration of his own personal religious understanding as well as the understanding of others. Finally, all the metaphors, examples and commentaries on social and political life mentioned in the texts are drawn from West Africa, and often even more specifically from the Niger river valley. Even if the sum of all this evidence cannot prove that these texts present Cerno Bokar's ideas in a completely unmodified form, it is still difficult not to conclude they are the product of the traditional West African Muslim culture of this century.
We have called the texts “discourses” rather than parables, because this seems to be the best English word to describe their character and content. A few might be considered parables in the strict sense, but many more tend to be comments, observations or answers to questions; and all represent Cerno Bokar's efforts to instruct and enlighten students, disciples and others around him. Most of the English translations presented here are published for the first time; they represent about two thirds of the total number of discourses in the CHEAM document. Where appropriate, references are given to published French versions, although these occasionally differ from the CHEAM texts because of subsequent revisions for publication or because some have been published only in part or even in divided form. We have not noted these details. The only notes added to the texts themselves are those which might be useful in explaining unusual or unfamiliar terminology. We have, however, attempted a brief introductory analysis of some of the major themes and ideas contained in the discourses.
Cerno Bokar's discourses might be seen as reflecting the life and concerns of his zâwiya, isolated from the turmoil of the outside world; here only the faintest echoes of French colonial authority or of African political and religious disputes are heard. Recorded in 1933, they are from the period preceding Cerno's submission to Shaykh Hamallah, although by then Hamallah and Hamallism were both exerting great pressure on religious and political life; we find no mention of such specific issues here, or of many other less elevated matters which must have exercised the minds of teachers and students. The discourses represent a “higher teaching” designed to nurture man's spirit in a movement away from “this world” and towards “God and His Truth.” Of course, the content of this collection represents that which Hampâté Bâ has selected to record from a much larger range of material. And although what appears here certainly does not exhaust the range of subjects which might have been discussed within the zâwiya, even on religious questions, we should accept the likelihood that the style of discussion and presentation is typical of Cerno Bokar as a spiritual guide and teacher, and that the subjects expounded here were among those of greatest personal concern to him. The discourses elaborate some of the themes which were introduced in earlier chapters of this book: the nature of man as a seeker of religious understanding, the nature of the soul (nafs) and the nature of religion itself. We also gain great insight into Cerno Bokar as a visionary and as an interpreter not only of his personal visions but of the world around him. The most vivid image which emerges from these discourses is of a man who speaks and understands the language of metaphor, and herein lies the essence of his religious teaching both in terms of substance and of style.
We have already touched upon this subject in our discussion of Cerno Bokar's, religious studies. Three important aspects of analogical reasoning might be re-stated here, since they bear directly on Cerno Bokar's thought as expressed in the discourses.
First, analogical reasoning is one of the primary methods employed by Sufis to comprehend the divine, hidden Reality underlying all manifested existence, including the Qur'an.
Secondly, this form of reasoning found wide-spread expression in the science of numerology (including the science of letters, 'ilm at-hurûf), a study taking numerous forms, some of which were condemned by orthodox scholars. The science of numerology was considered to be secret knowledge in West Africa, and its precepts were transmitted only to specially qualified individuals by means of an “initiation;” these secrets were also exchanged among initiates. Because it was considered secret, only a few references to numerology appear in the discourses (D. 5, D. 32, D. 41), in one instance with a specific mention of the restricted availability of this knowledge (D. 32). But one must not conclude from this absence of comment any lack of interest in the subject on Cerno Bokar's part; indeed he was an initiate into this science and the esoteric interpretation of his mâ'd-dîn was based upon it 7.
Thirdly, analogical reasoning allowed for the exercise of unlimited creative imagination in the transmission of a religious tradition whose essential substance was considered inviolable. A teacher could employ metaphor and analogy in any form which he wished so long as he preserved intact the basic tenets of Islam.
To a certain extent, of course, the use of metaphor and analogy is the result both of cultural tradition and of personal style. Both traditional African and Islamic societies exploit extensively the didactic potential of parable, proverb and story, and therefore of metaphor and analogy. Cerno Bokar seems to have combined within himself not only this dual African and Islamic cultural heritage, but also a personal acuity of ob§ervation and a disarming degree of sincerity. Quite a number of his stories are about himself, interpretations of his visions or clear explications of the lessons he has drawn from personal experience. This candid openness deepens the impact of what he has to say; one is inevitably moved by the humility of this man who is willing to share his innermost thoughts, especially when those thoughts reveal that he felt he too still had much to learn and a long way to travel in his own personal search. One might argue that the sharing of personal experiences as a form of teaching was a matter of personal inclination or style, but the practice has many precedents in Islamic literature. The hadîth themselves are accounts of Muhammad's experiences and behaviour which became a basic source for the subsequent compilation of Islamic law; a good Muslim should emulate the behaviour of the Prophet. Sufi literature also contains many examples of didactic stories drawn from personal experience, the aim of which is not necessarily emulation but where the lesson to be learned is often very clear. Al-Hajj Umar, who was not much given to this kind of personal confession, nonetheless recounts many stories of this kind in the Rimâh. One example of these can be cited here; it touches on a subject we have discussed, the bestowing of secret knowledge, in this case the Great Name of God. The story is told by Yûsuf b. al-Uusain ar-Râzî (d. A.D. 916) 8 that on learning that Dhû'n-Nûn possessed the Great Name of God, he travelled from Mecca to meet him. He stayed with the great Sufi master for over a year serving him and even instructing him in matters of theology. Then, longing to return to his people in Khurasan, he expressed this desire to Dhû'n-Nûn and asked to be given the Great Name. Dhû'n-Nûn did not reply to this request and spoke not a word to Yûsuf for six months. Then one day he summoned him:
— “Do you know a certain friend of mine who lives in Fustat and who visits us?” And he named the man.
— “Yes, certainly.”
So he gave me a bowl with a lid secured on it with a handkerchief, and he told me,
— “Deliver this to him in Fustat.”
I took the bowl from his hands and found it very light, as if there were nothing in it. When I reached Fustat I said to myself, Dhû'n-Nûn is sending me to a man with the gift of a bowl with nothing in it; I must see what is in it.” When I untied the handkerchief and opened the lid, a mouse leapt from the bowl and fled. I became angry; I though Dhû'n-Nûn was mocking me and at the same time my anxiety about [not accomplishing] what he had asked did not disappear. I returned to him filled with rage.
But when he saw me he smiled because he knew what had happened, and he said, “O foolish one, I entrusted you with a mouse and you betrayed me, so how can I entrustyou with the Great Name of God?” 9.
This story does not communicate such intimacy as Cerno Bokar's account of his dog, related above; on the other hand, it is much more sophisticated. At one level, its lesson is clear: a person cannot be given a secret if he cannot safeguard it. But there is also a much more subtle message: Dhû'n-Nûn had created the circumstances in which Yûsuf could see for himself why he should not be entrusted with the Great Name, and Yûsuf's suspicious behaviour was the inevitable result of his inner state. Sufis believe that a man's outward manifestations are dependent on his inner state of being in a manner analogous to the relationship which exists between created existence and divine Reality. The “inner” or “hidden” dimension determines the “outer” or “manifested.”
Cerno Bokar was well acquainted with this genre of story; he encouraged people to attempt “to uncover the secret” which he claimed was buried in traditional stories of all sorts (D. 44). But he himself did not seek to transmit hidden messages; his personal metaphorical descriptions are expressed in direct and lucid language. He did suggest that one should meditate on verses of the Qur'an, or on events which occur in ordinary life, in order to explore their various hidden meanings. And his advice on this is explicit:
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 one with another. 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” (D. 8).
He also said:
God has no need of reason nor of human intelligence. He gave them to us for use in this life; therefore we are not to bring them untouched to the grave, that is, to live and die without meditating on and drawing spiritual profit from the events which happen to us and from the things which we ascertain (D. 49).
To Cerno Bokar analogy and metaphor were not simply a matter of style, although he often employed them as pedagogical aids; they form the very essence of what he wished to study. Indeed, one gains the impression from this collection of discourses that his ultimate aim was to sharpen the agility of the mind so that it could move instantaneously between various metaphorical planes. Numerous examples of his own ability to do this appear in the discourses. Someone questions the curious (to many Africans) European custom of growing flowers and he replies that flowers are a mystical path; he even cites a relevant Qur'anic verse on which to meditate 10. The blinding flash at night of automobile headlights recalls to him the blinding flash of divine light which can “burst suddenly upon the vision of the initiate, flooding his breast and holding him fast, immobile and stupefied” (D. 14).
The implications of this kind of teaching are profound, because if every ordinary event and object can remind one of its hidden or esoteric analog, then a person can use his ordinary life as a constant and ever-present vehicle for coming back into touch with his personal spiritual search. Cerno Bokar certainly succeded in doing this for himself. Absolutely nothing seems devoid of its spiritual analogy: the foliage of trees, the rainbow, the road leading to the European settlement, even the coquette cleaning her teeth!
On the nature of man and religion. Cerno Bokar's discourses present a provocative commentary on man and his religion. His views were not dogmatic, but were singularly tolerant and sensitive; the basic religious tenets which he emphasized in his teaching did not differ from those preached by other Muslims in that he placed primary importance on the recognition of “the existence of God and His oneness” (D. 1), which implied the necessity for all men to submit to God and His law. But his interpretations were often at variance with predominant Muslim thought of the time. He saw the world as divided between those who believed in one God, and those who did not, and he was much more concerned to encourage the unity of the believers than to condemn the unbelievers (D. 3). His discourses are laced with pleas for unity and cooperation among believers who, he felt, attested “to the same truth” whether they were Muslims, Jews or Christians (D. 3). This tolerant and at times almost ecumenical attitude was justified by the Muslim doctrine that all the forms of monotheism which preceded Islam were valid. The first of these was the religion of Abraham, of which Islam considers itself a direct descendant. Tolerance of this sort was not universal in West Africa, but nor was it unusual; it was based on the Qur'an itself, and we have seen that the kaɓɓe also made explicit reference to the Pentateuch of Moses, the Psalms of David and the Gospels of Jesus, as well as to the Qur'an [see my partial translation of P. Marty — T.S. Bah].
Cerno Bokar was well aware that his views on these matters differed from those of many Muslims around him. But what is most essential for us to grasp in seeking to understand his thought is that he attributed these differences, not to any social, political or intellectual influences to which he or others might have been exposed, but to the level one attains in the development of personal faith. The operative conceptual pattern here is hierarchical and it relates to all aspects of Cerno's thought. We can probe this concept somewhat more deeply in examining Cerno's attitude to the jihâd of the sword, which he described as “the mutual killing to which the sons of Adam submit in the name of a God whom they pretend to love very much, but whom they adore poorly by destroying a part of His work.” 11 This attitude, like that of religious tolerance, was not unusual in West Africa, despite the far-reaching series of jihâds which had swept across the region in the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. One could argue from the texts of the discourses themselves that Cerno Bokar had reached his conclusions through his own reasoning about the nature of man. Every human being, he asserts, has been endowed with “a particle of the spirit of God” (D. 1). So how can one be anything but tolerant toward the “vessels” which contain this particle; and how can men ever justify destroying one another in the name of God? Cerno even reinforces this position by quoting the Qur'an to the effect that “there is no compulsion in religion” (D. 1).
Although this kind of logical presentation of Cerno's thought is not without justification, he also says something quite different about how one comes to oppose the waging of jihâd. Warfare in defence of religion, according to him, is characteristic of a certain group of people, “the common man, the masses, and teachers who are attached to the letter [of the law]” (D. 32). Among Muslims, these are the people who understand their religion as requiring nothing more than a strict and literal conformity to every aspect of the religious law. According to Cerno Bokar, the purpose of the religious law is to limit and contain the behaviour of man, “to deprive the faithful of the excessive liberty contained in the dissoluteness of irreligion” (D. 36). These constraining demands of the law are necessary for all Muslims; everyone must submit to the law. But Cerno Bokar did not believe that the practice of religion was defined solely by the precepts of the law, as do (according to him) most Muslims. Higher, more refined forms of religion exist, and movement between these different “levels” of religious life are determined by the nature and quality of an individual's faith. The faith of the majority of people is such that it can only relate to the specificity of the law and of ritual. This kind of religion is narrow, limiting and “intransigent” in belief, which is why its adherents often resort to war in defence of their beliefs. The second “level” of religious practice includes that minority “who have worked and successfully faced up to the trials … of the rigid law which admits no compromise” (D. 32). These people also conform to the law, but they can also see beyond it; their faith is more fluid and flexible, not in the sense that their religious practice differs from that of other Muslims or that they adhere to other doctrines, but in that they can “accept truths from wherever they come”(D. 32). They perceive that the essence of all monotheistic religions is the same and that all believers worship the same God, and they can accept the outward diversities of religious practice because they are aware that all of them lead to the same goal. Consequently, they are much less likely to resort to warfare on behalf of their religion. The third and highest “level” of faith is that possessed by a tiny élite who are capable of directly contemplating divine Truth; these are the saints of Islam.
These three levels of faith, and their corresponding forms of religious expression, conform to the Sufi doctrine, which Cerno Bokar taught in his mâ'd-dîn, that religious practice occurs on three levels, sharî'a (the law), tarîqa (the way), and haqîqa (the Truth). Although we know from his teachings in the mā'd-dīn that Cerno considered a certain amount of religious knowledge an essential pre-requisite for entry into the Sufi way, and although he stated explicitly that the constituent elements of the second “level” of faith “derive from understanding,” his comments in the discourses depict faith as a quality (or a material substance) which can be modified not through reasoning but through religious practice, specifically through the recitation of prayers or adhkâr. Cerno Bokar was not anti-intellectual — we have explored his belief that it was through the intellect that man becomes convinced of his need for religion — and the discourses provide many examples of how the intellect is employed to aid man's search by meditation on the Qur'an or in deciphering the esoteric lessons concealed in manifested existence. But it is only through recitations that faith is transformed, and a more refined quality of faith brings one a new capacity for understanding. This kind of thinking underlies Cerno's belief that not everyone is capable of understanding numerological analyses. Faith and understanding therefore progress together through the hierarchy of religious experience toward the perception and understanding of the “Truth.”
In addition to variations in the quality or “level” of faith, Cerno Bokar also thought that men differ among themselves in the nature of their “carnal souls” [nafs]. The carnal soul includes all those functions which man shares with the animals as well as what Cerno called his “psychic states;” this concept of the soul might be very generally compared to the contemporary western concept of personality. Man approaches religion, as indeed he approaches all his activities, through the agency of his carnal soul. Cerno believed that all men are religious, because as descendants of Adam all had been endowed with “a particle of the spirit of God” (D. 1). But because of the wide variations in the nature of the carnal soul, all men were not receptive to the same kind of religious teaching or preaching, the effectiveness of which depended on a clear understanding on the part of the teacher or spiritual guide of the nature of the soul of the student or disciple. With proper teaching and guidance every person possessed the inherent capacity to progress through the Sufi way toward the “Truth” (D. 18). But most people did not embark on this level of religious search because they were unable to overcome the barriers constructed by their own “carnal souls.” Cerno Bokar encouraged all people to pursue their religious search to the extremes of their personal capacities, but he knew that only very few persons would enter the Sufi way.
The dynamics ofspiritual search. According to the scattered references that we find in the discourses, Cerno Bokar seems to have thought that man was comprised of one invariable element, a particle of the divine spirit, and at least two variable elements, his soul and his faith. Man is also endowed with intellect, a function which sometimes seems to be part of the soul, sometimes more akin to the divine spirit. Intellect first brings man to his religion and it further aids him in the development of his religious understanding as he learns to observe the world “in the light of the law of analogy.” But there is also a higher intellect through which one can perceive ultimate Truth; this perception passes through what Ibn 'Arabî- called “the eye of discernment”. This function of intellect seems to be closely associated with the divine particle which God has placed in man, as Cerno Bokar described it. Spiritual search is therefore aimed at the activation of this higher intellect through the dual process of refining one's faith and overcoming the obstacles of one's carnal soul.
The divine particle which is man's heritage from God is enveloped within the carnal soul. As Cerno described it, “God caused a rain of passions to shower upon the original human principle which He planted in our father Adam; these are estimated to comprise nine-tenths of the states of the soul” (D. 41). The carnal soul plays host to all man's moral and religious disabilities; it is the seat of all his “faults,” such as excessive egoism (D. 18), failure to control his emotions (D. 9), and desire for the material rewards of this world (D. 12, D. 27, D. 31, D. 33, D. 37, D. 61). The struggle to overcome these faults is likened to Abraham's preparation to sacrifice his son Isaac (D. 35), but like Isaac the soul is spared and in fact becomes the vehicle for spiritual transformation. If the disciple must struggle to bring spiritual discipline to his soul, his teacher or guide must seek to nurture and prepare it for ultimate transformation. The trials through which the soul passes depend upon its “psychic state” (D. 5). Some souls must be “soaked in love” and “opened to charity” (D. 33); others, which Cerno likened to sandy soil, respond quickly but with results which last only a short time (D. 56); and still others, like clayey soil, respond slowly to religious teaching, but with results which remain firmly rooted once they take hold (D. 60). Indeed, the optimum condition of the soul is like that of a properly loaded canoe on the River Niger: not so overladen that it will capsize, but reasonably ballasted so that it can effectively navigate through any "waves of temptation" (D. 40).
“Whatever the nature of the soul, the spoken recitation of the first formula of faith is recommended: ‘There is no god but God.’ It is the best mental devotion which one can perform in order to please God” (D. 5). Whereas to please God is the most important reason for repeated recitations of His name, the practice also produces other important results. Prayer and recitation introduce a kind of “mystical heat” into the soul which augments its “laudatory capacity” (D. 52) and “keeps alight the spiritual ember” which is ignited within it (D. 53). This same heat also maintains and transforms man's faith. Cerno Bokar is not explicit concerning his understanding of the relationship between man's soul and his faith, although some of his comments imply that he saw the latter as a kind of life blood of the former. Faith is comparable to air, he said: “Both are equally indispensable to human life, so much so that one cannot find a man who sincerely believes in nothing.”12 But his favourite metaphor for faith was water which he said has “neither colour, odour, taste nor form; it takes on the shape of the objects which contain it” (D. 34). Faith is contained within the soul, and both container and contained can be transformed through the heat produced by the adoration of God and the recitation of His name. The soul can be crystallized into “the state of a mystical diamond” (D. 43), whereas faith can be sublimated into a vapour which rises toward God (D. 32).
Cerno Bokar was most eloquent in his descriptions of the various degrees of faith. The first is solid, “subject to a rigorous determination… and intransigent and hard like the stone” from which it takes its name. The second is liquid in nature; it “undermines the faults of the soul” and adopts a shape in the form of its recipient, penetrating each individual according to the “accidents of his moral terrain.” It is subtle and forms a “body in perpetual motion.” The third degree is like a vapour, void of all material weight, which rises “like smoke into the heaven of holy souls” (D. 32). Corresponding to these three levels of faith are three degrees of mystical light. The first is likened to the flame which man himself can ignite: it illuminates and heats only a limited space, and it can be easily extinguished. The second is the light of the sun which illuminates and heats everything on earth; it is constant, vivifying and immutable. The third emanates from God, “it is a darkness more brilliant than all lights combined; it is the light of Truth” (D. 55).
Cerno Bokar's spiritual search was contained within the second degree of faith; his goal was the “light of Truth,” but he never claimed to have glimpsed it. His ceaseless questioning and pondering conformed to the nature of his subtle and supple faith. His concern that one should be “constantly occupied with reciting the name of the Lord” (D. 57) emerged from his conviction that the mystical heat generated by recitations maintained a higher degree of faith and aided in the purification of the soul. The more refined one's faith and soul, the more profound became one's understanding of the hidden realities underlying God'screation, and the closer one came to perceiving the light of Truth.
1. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, interview of 2 May 1978.
2. Interviews with Sori Hammadun Bala, Baba Thimbely and Koola Sidi.
3. VE, 127-8.
4. 1 discovered the CHEAM document in May 1978 when in Paris for an extensive set of interviews with HampatE Bi. He apparently did not know of the existence of this copy, having misplaced his own, and I therefore arranged for him to have a photocopy.
5. VE, 128.
6. Except for Koola Sidi, who was not particularly willing to be interviewed in the first place, plus the fact that he was extremely feeble. The subsequent interview was therefore very brief and did not touch on this subject.
7. See Ch. 4. Apparently Hampâté Bâ has become increasingly willing to discuss certain aspects of numerology; see especially, Jésus vu par un Musulman (Dakar-Abidjan, 1976), and “Jésus et Hasdu, Conte initiatique de la mystique peule, enseigné à la Zaouia de Bandiagara par Tierno Bokar Salif Tall,” Bulletin de l'IFAN, XXXI, sér. B, no. 3 (1969), 754-86,
8. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 171, calls Dhû'n-Nûn the “part-time master” of Yûsuf b. al-Husain.
9. Rimâh, 1, 197 - 8.
10. See TB, 35; VE, 43; Monod, “Homme,” 153.
11. TB, 84; VE, 158-9.
12. TB, 82; VE, 148-9; Monod, “Homme,” 156.