The best leaders seek no followers, no power, and no titles. Yet they attract people anyway, precisely because they reject conventions and have a unique message. That’s true of Amadou Bamba Mbacke, a Senegalese Sufi poet, mystic, and peaceful resistor who lived from 1853 to 1927, and is now celebrated every July 28 in New York.
Bamba, as he’s affectionately known in Senegal and beyond, is a mystic of mythic proportions. The lore about the peaceful warrior who preached hard work is grounded in history and steeped in magic, yet he continues to have a very practical effect on the millions of followers of his Sufi sect, the Mourides. They do business internationally—from New York to Paris to Tokyo—and are known as “Islam’s mystical entrepreneurs.”
Bamba wrote poems, legal treatise, and mystical texts—it is said that he composed seven tons of writings (pdf). The Sufi was already a notable scholar at 13. And for the rest of his life, he remained ahead of his time, peerless.
Long before the rest of the world admitted that racism profoundly stains a society, Bamba called out inequality. As a young man studying Islam in Sudan, he recognized that teachers who treated him as inferior to Arab Muslims because he was black were themselves deficient, and he quit his studies. Back in Senegal, he declined the offer to take his deceased father’s title as counsel to a Wolof king, despite tradition, saying, “God suffices and I restrict myself to him. Why put destiny in the hands of those incapable to adjust fate?” In Bamba’s view, no human was above any other and no mere mortal ruler could grant true power.
According to the lore, Bamba was so pure of spirit that he glowed, and though he sought no followers, people flocked to him. Word of his wisdom spread throughout Senegal. So much so that when the Wolof king Lat Dior was trying to decide whether to keep fighting French colonizers—an effort he was losing—he sought Bamba’s advice. The mystic wrote to the king, “To control the world, turn your back on it. Devote yourself to studies. Depose your arms. Liberate your soldiers and horses. In return you will find something greater—inner peace and tranquility.”
When the king died, he was buried with a strip of white cloth Bamba had sent him. News of this reached the French Office of Muslim Affairs, which sent for the Sufi to inquire as to his intentions. Bamba admitted that he was forming a brotherhood in the city of Touba, a mystical movement called the Mourides that would emphasize peace, devotion to God, and hard work. His motto was, “Pray to God but plow your fields.”
Bamba’s approach disconcerted the French colonial powers. Although he said he was for peace, they didn’t believe him. In 1889, he established the Mouride Brotherhood in the city of Touba—now a holy site that draws millions from within Senegal and from around the world in pilgrimages every year.
The passion of his devotees worried French authorities. In 1895, under cover of night, Bamba was arrested and transported to Dakar via the new French railroad, the laying of which the king Lat Dior had resisted. The mystic was exiled to Gabon and magical stories about the Sufi began circulating in earnest.
It is said that on the ship to Gabon, Bamba lay out his prayer mat, which the captain forbade. Undeterred, Bamba tossed the mat overboard, prayed on the ocean floor, then walked on water back to the captain, saying, “Whosoever sought to drown me, does not know all directions are subdued for me.”
Bamba was held in a camp in Libreville. Tales of the miracles he performed got out—he subdued hungry lions, escaped from fires—though the mystic himself remained captive for seven years and nine months.
The exile only worked in his favor as far as the people were concerned—as the stories spread, protest over his incarceration grew impossible to ignore. The French finally released Bamba, unable to withstand the pressure, and he returned to Senegal a hero.
For this reason, Bamba was kept under watch. His followers weren’t fighters but a colonial officer wrote to his superiors that their devotion was disconcerting. “They seek light but I fear it could lead to dark times for the colonies.” Martial Henri Merlin, France’s governor-general for Senegal, suspected the Sufi of secretly recruiting an army of ecstatic Sufi soldiers. He ordered Bamba to appear before him, but the mystic refused.
Merlin sent French troops to search Bamba’s home for weapons. They found nothing. The mystic sent Merlin a telegram, stating, “Know O! governor that my words are in perfect accord with my deeds. I forgive you and your entourage and ask you to not listen to those who spread calumny.”
It wasn’t enough to reassure Merlin, who called for Bamba’s arrest in 1904. The Sufi turned himself in and was exiled to Mauritania. After four years, he was released, but in Senegal he remained under house arrest.
The French authorities finally realized Bamba wasn’t a typical enemy when they saw the effect of his teachings on Mouride farmers. The colony was promoting the growth of groundnuts for export, and the spiritually inclined growers helped the mission to succeed.
They were mystics who did business, which worked out economically for the French. In 1916, Bamba was named as a consultant to the colonizer’s committee on Muslim affairs. In 1919, he was recognized with France’s highest award for military or civil contributions, the Legion of Honor.
At that time, he had about 70,000 followers, according to French estimates. By the 1950s, the Mourides numbered 300,000. By their own count, now over one third of the 11 million Senegalese are Mourides, and many work around the world.
The Mouride work ethic makes Bamba’s followers particularly adaptable immigrants. They have a vast network of businesses, their own banking system based on trust and generosity, and believe in discipline and self-reliance—the time abroad is viewed as a spiritual journey. “Work and don’t complain much. That’s the only doctrine [we] have.” Moustapha Diao, a Mouride living in New York, told Reuters in 2007.
Mouride businesses abroad contribute significantly to the Senegalese economy. Followers send money home. But they also enrich the communities they live in—the Senegalese have numerous enterprises in Harlem, for example. Their presence is so strong that parts of Harlem are known as “petit Senegal.” And right nearby, at Columbia University, the Senegalese professor of philosophy Souleymane Bachir Diagne teaches US students about Sufism and Islam.
Bamba is honored on Aug. 9 in Raleigh, North Carolina and on Aug. 11 in Atlanta, Georgia, and his praises are sung around the world. This is the 30th year of Ahmadou Bamba celebrations on July 28 in New York.
Last year, the day devoted to the Senegalese mystic was an occasion for reflection on the Sufi’s contributions at the United Nations General Assembly. Senegalese leaders and intellectuals, including Diagne, spoke of the Mourides’ positive influence on economics, society, and development. Addressing the assembly, Thomas Walsh, chairman of the Universal Peace-builders Foundation, a global nonprofit working on development initiatives, expressed his admiration as well, saying:
To restore our world and build a world of enduring, lasting peace, there must be widespread collaboration and partnership. Governments, UN member states alone, cannot achieve this goal…Organizations such as the Mouride Sufi Brotherhood play a necessary and essential role in creating peace and stability in our communities, societies and nations.
You too have likely heard Bamba’s praises sung, though you may not have known it. The internationally acclaimed Senegalese musician Youssou N’dour is a Mouride, for example, and his devotion is the inspiration behind his songs. He describes the teachings as follows, “Mouridism is for me two paths—one is the way to God, the other path is the doctrine of work and dignity.”