I would like to recognize and pay respect to all the brothers and sisters gathered here to mark an important event in the life of the Muslim and Murid community of New York City. I am particularly honored by the opportunity you have given me to share with you my thoughts on a topic that is of the greatest interest to all of us here but also to Muslims around the world.
The title of the talk: The Relevance of Ahmadu Bamba’s Teachings in the Era of Globalization of Western Culturesis a little misleading. Of course, you are aware that the shaikh has written extensively. His teachings embrace all aspects of this world and the Hereafter and a whole week would not be enough to fully discuss the substance of his works. �
Today I pursue a more modest objective. My intention is to reflect on the Shaikh’s thought on educational theory and practices and to highlight the lessons we can learn from it to meet the challenges of a global world increasingly shaped by Western cultural values.
�Globalization in its diverse forms constitutes undoubtedly the most salient characteristic of our time. It is the first time in history that virtually every individual at every level of society can sense the impact of international changes. Improving means of communications, unprecedented development in information technologies have led to the shrinking of space and time and to the virtual abolition of physical boundaries between nations. The substance of the talk I am giving here, in the headquarters of the United Nations, will be in less than 24 hours subject of discussion between my fellow Senegalese, 7000 miles away. In fact, some of them may even be following the event live, through the Internet or via satellite radios.
Globalization has economic roots and political consequences, but it also has brought into focus the power of culture in this global environment. One needs to be concerned with the manner in which cultural relations and representations are affected by and, at the same time, shape the new global world. As Tomlinson argues globalization, cannot be understood simply in terms of increased mobility around the world or through the development of electronic networks, but must be set in relation to a host of cultural practices that are embedded within the "mundane" experience of everyday life, from shopping at the supermarket to watching the evening news.
It is these homogenizing influences that constitute one of the most controversial aspects of globalization. Just as Western material goods flood world markets; its culture is also penetrating every continent through the dramatic growth of modern methods and systems of international transportation, ever improving mass communication mediums such as music, television, films and the Internet. Globalization has led to the worldwide spread of a Western cultural model that promotes a monolithic, secularist and materialist society that imperils and endangers the special aesthetic, religious and moral values that people hold dear. From China to South America, through the Middle East and Africa, its impacts affect the lifestyles, religion, language, and every other component of culture. Across the developing world and even in Europe, foreign leaders and activists have warned against the emerging Americanized global culture which may lead to the destruction of local cultural, economic and religious traditions and to the standardization of moral values and taste.
One question that some of you may want to ask then is how it is that the message of Shaikh AB which was delivered in Senegal over a century ago can be relevant in addressing the negative impact of a 21st century phenomenon. To respond to this question one needs first to understand that if globalization is a modern phenomenon in the forms it expresses itself that is the speed and intensity of economic and cultural interactions, conceptually, it is a very old phenomenon. Islam originated from the Middle East in the 7th century but it reached Bilad es Sudan as early as the 9th century. The empire of Mali and his Muslim king appeared on the first world maps produced by Jewish cartographers in the 14th century and Africans in the western coast of Africa entered into contacts with the Portuguese sailors as early as the second half of the 15th century. So Africa and particularly, West Africa has been for long part of the global world. Africans have a long experience of interaction with foreigners and they were not passive receptacles of external influences. The inclusion of foreign components in their culture was intrinsic to the larger process of adaptation and change that has characterized their history for centuries.
But the capacity of African societies to absorb and naturalize foreign influences has been considerably hampered by the European colonization of the 19th century and the systematic policy of acculturation implemented by the colonial powers. Africans and particularly African Muslims have been made ashamed of their cultures and past deemed inferior and backward. Modernity and civilization became equated with Europe and the rejection of African values and mores a sign of cultural advancement.
So if the challenges brought about by globalization are new in their intensity and scope, they are not in their nature. In fact it was the same type of challenges that Shaikh Amadu Bamba had to face when he began his calling in the late 19th century and his responses to these challenges teach important lessons to those of us seeking guidance in this troubled world and in the hereafter.
When the Shaikh started his mission in west central Senegal he confronted numerous obstacles. Some of these obstacles were internal to Wolof societies and others were external. He was born and grew up in a period marked by the devastating effect of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the spread of ceddo values and the increasing encroachment of French colonial power. The consequences of this dismal situation was threefold first, the deterioration of Wolof positive values that is ngor (dignity), Jom (pride), maandu (honesty) and jub (righteousness); second, the corruption of significant factions of the Muslim leadership which became a docile servant of the rulers and wealthy; and third, the increasing influence of French culture and mores on the population.
In many of his works, Shaikh A. Bamba denounces this situation in terms very similar to those used by Muslims today to describe the effect of globalization on their cultures. In his book (Magaliq an Niiran, the locks of hell) he wrote: “Because of ignorance, the true traditions of the Prophet and his companions and the teachings of the erudite and God fearing masters, are neglected.” Elsewhere in Massalik Al Jinan (Paths to Paradise) he warned against those scholars who are abused by their sciences and religious erudition who do not acknowledge their weaknesses. …And are over confident of their wisdom, whereas their heart is full of such sicknesses as pride, hatred and jealousy. The Shaikh also criticized those Muslim clerics that Ghazali in his famous Ihya Uluum Un Din (The renewal of religious sciences) secular Ulama. These are Muslim masters who are blinded by greed, arrogance, selfishness and who, above all, collaborate and justify the crimes of unjust rulers. In Akhr az Zamaan, the End of Time, The shaikh deplores the degradation of the society of his time. He criticized parents for giving up their duties of guiding their offspring in the straight path and reminded the youth of their obligations towards their forebears and society. He denounced the sexual depravation of people intoxicated by the quest for pleasure and warned against the obsession for material wealth and power.
To heal the society of his sicknesses, Shaikh Amadu Bamba proposed religious and social renewal. And for him the best way to achieve this societal change was to transform the people that form the society. He believed that education was the best instrument to fulfill this goal. It is interesting to observe that many people around the world, this country included, are advocating similar remedies in face of the detrimental effects of the new world cultural order shaped by Hollywood and American popular culture.
However, for Amadu Bamba, not every type of education was fit to meet this objective of changing the society. He had his own vision of the adequate system of education. This vision was shaped by the intellectual, social, economic context in which he grew up and his critique of the traditional system of education. For Bamba, in order to have the positive impact wished on the social order, education should go beyond mere transmission of knowledge, as teachers have always done. One should apply Sufi method of education or tarbiyya that allows touching the soul, the body, and the heart. This is an education that engages the whole being in its spiritual and biological dimensions. Its ultimate goal was to tame the nafs or lower self and promotes a new moral order. Nafs is the animal instinct that is found in every human being and it is the very enemy that lures people’s mind and body to the immoderate search for enjoyment of worldly pleasures.
The method of Tarbiyya is framed by actions and attitudes that aim at freeing the human body from the grip of worldly preoccupations to gradually lift the spirit towards the neighborhood of God’s kingdom. It responded to a variety of educational demands, and to a large extent it was these demands that shaped the Muridiyya. The Muridiyya was conceived by Amadu Bamba as the framework for disseminating tarbiyya education among the masses of Senegal. �
The system of tarbiyya as designed by AB was a lifelong education geared towards the transformation of character, behavior and demeanor of the disciple. It targeted the interior and exterior of the disciple. It comprised three main steps: exoteric education or taalim, which aimed at feeding the brain by the study of the Qur’an and the Islamic sciences, and esoteric education or tarbiyya, which aimed at educating the soul. The third step, tarqiyya, which was reached by only a small number of especially gifted disciples, allowed the elevation of their souls beyond the futility of material life and put them in a position of leadership in the community.
Each of these types of education requires specific skills and competence from the educator in charge. And for the Shaikh the success of the system is predicated on the choice of an adequate teacher for the task. He distinguished between three major types of teachers: the shaikh of instruction, responsible for classical teaching of the Qur’an and the Islamic religious sciences (law, mysticism, tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, interpretation of the Qur’an and worship); the shaikh of education whose aim is to educate the soul and guide the disciple towards spiritual perfection; and the shaikh of tarqiyya or ascension. Each of these shaikhs requires a special profile.
�For Shaikh Amadu Bamba, religion is critical for the education of a people. That is why the teaching of the Qur’an and the Islamic religious sciences occupy a central place in the system of education he designed. He particularly emphasizes the importance of the shaikh of instruction that delivers this form of education. He highlighted three criteria for selecting this shaikh who specialises in the teaching of the Qur’an, the Arabic language, and classical and religious sciences. These criteria are: adequate knowledge, ability to communicate, intellectual sagacity and honesty constitute the three criteria that should guide the choice of this shaikh
The Shaikh noted that adequate knowledge for a teacher is knowledge that is based, on the one hand, on the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and, on the other, on the use of rational thinking and comprehension that derive from observation of concrete reality. However, the mastery of adequate knowledge is not enough; the teacher also needs to be able to communicate effectively with his students. For that purpose, Bamba thought that eloquence was equally important because it allows the teacher to explain his objectives with clarity and without the use of confusing hypotheses. He believed that the quality of an educator was measured by his communication skills.
But for the shaikh, the teacher must also be intellectually and morally fit. That is, he should be able to research and master the knowledge that would help him identify and overcome the shortcomings in his spiritual and material life. The educator’s ability to acquire this knowledge is manifested in his willingness to accept the truth without hesitation, always to be on the side of the right, to be able to say, ‘I don’t know,’ if necessary, and to abstain from saying or doing things if he is not sure of their lawfulness.
The shaikh of instruction plays an important role in society as a producer and disseminator of knowledge. But the teacher’s function should not be limited to disseminating knowledge; his life also must serve as a positive model for his students to emulate. Bamba observed that access to books does not free one from seeking a guide, and, paraphrasing Ghazali, he noted that books are important, but the teacher enlightens and God is the Supreme Knower. Therefore beyond the knowledge kept in the books one needs to seek guidance from a shaikh tarbiyya that is a shaikh who can educate the soul and heart.
Amadu Bamba lists three qualities that are required from the shaikh of tarbiyya or education, who specialises in the esoteric sciences. First, he must understand the nature of the soul in its different states and he should master the means of curing its defects. He also must be capable of identifying the sources of sicknesses that can affect the soul and the instruments that can assure its protection. In order to fulfil this task, the shaikh needs to combine scholarly insights and practical knowledge derived from experience with his soul. Second, the shaikh of education is required to understand the subtleties of the world and the practical and religious laws that govern the existence of matter and of the soul so that he can always apply the adequate remedy to the different problems submitted to him. Third, to act in this way, the shaikh must analyse every problem without passion and prejudice. To do so, he needs to fear God and to show repentance by shunning all self-glorification and by ridding himself of anything that distances him from his Lord.
The work of the shaikh of education is not to transmit formal knowledge per se, but rather to forge character. The techniques he uses are geared towards the control of the nafs or lower self, which is seen by the Sufi as the major obstacle that stands between the believer and God. Sufis consider the fight against this formidable enemy to be the greatest jihad, and they like to remind the saying of Prophet Muhammad when returning after a battle told to the followers “We come from the small jihad we must be prepared for the greater jihad.” The greater jihad is the struggle against the nafs our lower self. In fact, for the Sufi, God cannot enter the heart of a human being unless the heart is emptied of all trivial earthly preoccupations.
In his book Tazawudu Shubaan,The Shaikh identified seven organs through which the lower self works and described the method to counter its nefarious effects on the heart and mind of people. These organs are: the stomach, the tongue, the genitalia, the feet, the eyes, the hands and the ears. Referring to the stomach and the adverse effect it can have on the faith, Bamba warns against consuming illicitly acquired food and eating too much. He argues that behaving in such a way only leads to corruption of the spirit, the drought of the heart and to laziness. As for the tongue, it should be prevented from lying, slandering or engaging in [futile] controversies. Bamba advised disciples to refrain from seeking unlawful sexual pleasure and recommends chastity before marriage. The feet should be restrained from walking to do illegal acts or from visiting unjust rulers. Instead, they should be used to frequent the mosque and to build and strengthen ties between members of the community. The eyes should be taught not to look at forbidden things, to threaten or to embarrass people. The hands must respect the body and property of Muslims, and must be banned from writing indecencies or anything one would be ashamed of saying in public. As for the ears, Bamba recommended keeping them from listening to futile conversation such as slander and gossip or violating people’s privacy.
To tame these different organs, xidma or good work was an important tool in the hands of the shaikh of education. And it has important pedagogic virtue. It was the instrument to shield the disciples’ against the temptations of the illicit and to protect them from idleness, which Bamba saw as the mother of all sins. Through spiritual exercises and physical labor, tarbiyya kept the body and mind of the disciples permanently occupied with good deeds a provided a protection against worldly distractions.
The shaikh of education is a crucial part of Amadu Bamba’s system. If the shaikh of instruction feeds the brain, the shaikh of education nurtures the spirit as well as the body through his ability to touch the soul. The work of these two shaikhs is complementary. However, a lack of spiritual education constitutes the greatest danger to disciples. Bamba blames the deterioration of the mores and characters of the people of his generation on the absence of this form of education. He noted that the path to the truth is paved with pitfalls and traps, and only the guidance of those who had already trodden this path can prevent one from being misled by Satan. Amadu Bamba’s emphasis, from 1884, on spiritual education or tarbiyya constituted his response to the crisis that plagued his society.
When the shaikh of education reaches a certain level of spirituality, he can become a shaikh of ascension or tarqiyya. At this spiritual juncture, his demeanour and appearance, and just the fact of interacting with him, become a source of inspiration and an incitement to persevere on the right path. The shaikh of ascension teaches by example and leads the disciples to spiritual perfection through imitation.
The product of this of this system of education was the Murid saadix or the sincere disciple. The Shaikh describes the character of this Murid saadix in many of his works. But it is in his long poem Nahju that he gives a thorough discussion of the qualities of the genuine Murid. This disciple always treats people the way he wants to be treated by them. He shows compassion for the weaker than him. He respects and honors his parents and elders. He loves and always follows the guidance of his shaikh. He knows how to dominate his anger. He helps people before they ask. He pursues his goals in life with perseverance but without excess pride. He uses his time wisely and shuns idleness. He is always truthful and trustworthy. He frequents the righteous and educated and avoids the company of the ignorant and deviant people. He earns his life at the sweat of his brows and remains generous and hospitable.
We can see that the importance that the Shaikh ascribed to education reflected his belief in the role of Islamic knowledge and good work for the achievement of social change and the preservation of positive social values. The system of education he developed was a response to the deteriorating socio-political environment in the increasingly dysfunctional Wolof states of the 19th century.
The type of education he proposed encompassed the body, the mind and the soul. His objective was to make of education a transforming force. That is a powerful instrument for social change. For the shaikh, to achieve enduring impact, the seeds of change must be sown in peoples’ heart and soul. It is also in people’s heart and soul where the battle against acculturation should begin.
Therefore, facing globalisation and the imposition of western cultural imperialism, we have much to learn and to benefit from the shaikh’s model of education. It seems that what we need now is a counterculture that is a set of values, practices, a cultural code and worldview that provide structure and meaning to our lives as Muslims. This counterculture can be a viable alternative to the emerging global culture promoted by the West.