Senegal Sufi leader conducts Muslim naming ritual by cellphone

November 13, 2007

Cheikh Bethio with some of his followersIt seemed incongruous for the marabout to answer his mobile phone while conducting prayers. The faithful were gathered on mats around his ornate deckchair and I was at his feet waiting to speak to him for our feature on Senegal’s Mouride Sufi brotherhood entitled “Fake Prada Fuels Senegal’s Muslim brotherhood. ” The scene illustrated how close together the ancient and the modern as well as the spiritual and the material sit for members of the brotherhood.

It was one of his talibe, or followers (the term in the local language Wolof comes from the same Arabic word “talib” — religious student — that has become notorious in a different context in Afghanistan). The caller asked the cheikh to perform a Muslim naming ritual for the latest addition to his family. Seated in the sandy compound of one of his many homes, Cheikh Bethio was happy to oblige right away. He asked the family to hold the phone to the baby’s forehead, right ear, left ear and genitals while he whispered its name and blew into the phone. The faithful at his feet bowed their heads and kept silent. They’re used to such interruptions – sometimes he even performs weddings this way.

A Mouride follower of Cheikh Bethio wearing his pictureMouridism, a Sufi Islamic movement based in Senegal’s holy city of Touba, preaches hard work as a means to paradise and the accumulation of wealth so as to build mosques, Koranic schools and help the poor. Its devotees have taken the lesson to heart and the result is a network of small businessmen and traders who combine religious fervor with a natural Senegalese ability to drive a hard bargain. Mourides run the majority of stalls in Senegal’s markets. They are the producers, promoters and retailers behind its thriving music industry, which has borne such stars as Youssou N’Dour and Cheikh Lo. They control its trucking and bus companies and own tens of thousands of hectares of its peanut plantations. Hip-hop superstar Akon and English premier league footballer El Hadji Diouf rank among their number.

Such is their devotion to hard work that thousands of Mourides answer a “ndiguel” – a call to work – by the movement’s caliph, Serigne Saliou Mbacke, each year. Talibe from all backgrounds – students, teachers, bankers and doctors – come to help harvest the peanut crop by hand, some of them camping out in the fields for weeks at a time.

Looking like a cross between a music festival and a refugee camp, the tented community they set up in the Khelcom fields around Touba is where they eat, sleep and chant religious songs together after working the fields, forming friendships that last a lifetime. The phenomenon is seen as an act of religious cleansing and of solidarity, the epitome of the philosophy that hard work wins the favour of God.

Truck brings talibe to work in peanut fieldsCritics say the Mourides’ reverence for their marabouts, including Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba who founded the movement in the 1880s, outstrips their respect for the Prophet Mohammad. They also say that sending children as young as 10 to Koranic school deprives them of other educational opportunities.

The Mourides reply that for them, Bamba is the Prophet’s slave and that revering him is a legitimate short cut. And in a country where unemployment is rife, half of the population are under 18, and even the best-educated struggle to find work, the brotherhood provides a surer route to economic independence for the young.

Cheikh Bethio and his fellow Mouride leaders are material as much as spiritual icons.

In the corner of his compound is a blue Mercedes and, next to it, a brand-new white Hummer, a gift from Serigne Modou Kara, one of Ahmadou Bamba’s descendants.

In this impoverished corner of Africa, religion and materialism make comfortable bedfellows.

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