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An American View Point About Muridiyya

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It has been 15 years since I was first introduced to Muridism as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. At that time I was based in a small village south of Ziguinchor, so I had little opportunity to meet any Murids, other than the Baaye Falls who begged on the streets of Dakar. I found them to be very intimidating with their large clubs and imposing stature. It was the stories of their drunkenness and self-flagellation that circulated among the young American volunteers, not the inspirational words of Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba or his courageous resistance to French colonialism.

I knew that we called these mendicants the “Baaye Faux”, and I heard tell that the Caliph-General had denounced those who begged merely for self-enrichment, but I never pondered over what was a “true” Baaye Fall-or a “true” Murid for that matter-if these were “false” disciples. That was until I have spent a great deal of time in Touba and the surrounding villages in the department of Mbacke where I did research for my doctorate. In 1993, I lived in Mbacke for several months before moving to the holy city of Touba with the help of Thierno sow, my other hospitable Murid research assistant, I visited various marabouts to discuss with them the changing nature of the relationship between Muridism and Senegalese politicians, particulary the leaders of the ruling Parti Socialiste. In their homes, I learned not only the meaning of “terranga” (hospitality) but also the depth of Murid piety and devotion. Sitting among the many taalibes (disciples) who had come to seek counsel from the marabouts, I learned that the relationship of Murid disciples to their Sheikhs is based not merely on some sort of “blind” devotion, as described by many Westerners, but out of a deep respect for the spiritual guidance and material assistance that marabouts have offered their disciples for generations. While I learned a great deal from the marabouts with whom I spoke, it was from speaking with Murid disciples in Touba and the surrounding villages that I learned what a “true” Murid is. In villages such as Kelel Diop, I discovered how accurate was the portrayal of Muridism offered by President Abdoulaye Wade, who wrote when he was a mere student of political science that Muridism was analogous to Protestantism in term of its work ethics. And in Touba Fall, I learned that being a Baaye Fall was not about the colorful clothes one wears or the Islamic obligations one can ignore, but about devotion to the example of Sheikh Ibrahima Fall and his descendants. What impressed me the most during my time in Touba-Mbacke, however, were the Dahiras that seemed to be multiplying everywhere like stalks of millet during the rainy season. Each Daahira contributed to the Murid community according to the ability of its members. Sometimes this extended only to the limited but important role of buttressing the spiritual and physical morale of the disciples who had banned together to aid each other within the Daahira. But increasingly, I have run across various Daahiras that have grown in strength and membership, permitting them to undertake formidable tasks such as the construction of the hospital in Touba of the sanitation of this ever-growing holy city. When I went to Touba last December, I was most impressed with the strides that had been made to complete the hospital, with no detail forgotten right down to the mosque on the grounds. So, when I moved to New York City in 1996, I was not surprised to find a vibrant Murid community. As New York is a global economic center, of course entrepreneurs such as the Murids would be drawn to it. And with them, they have brought their strong sense of solidarity and community. But what was most astonishing was how Murids have contributed to the transformation of the Harlem I knew in my childhood. When I was a young girl in high school and then in college, I would visit from upstate New York by train. I was always saddened to ride through one of the worst ghettos in America, to see the stark difference between impoverished 125th street juxtaposed to 5th avenue. Indeed, it was this sort of economic injustice on a global scale that had led me to join the Peace Corps. But I never dreamed that anyone could change so dramatically in such short time an area plagued not only by poverty, but also with crime and drugs. Many of my colleagues and students who live and work in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Columbia University are astonished to hear that I would freely venture into Harlem by me, especially at night, to visit friends, to dine in the various Senegalese restaurants or shop at the African market on 116th street. And when I convince them to join me, they are most impressed with changes they witness. While it would be unfair to my African-American compatriots to not acknowledge the large role they have played in this transformation, it has clearly been in conjunction with various African communities, particularly the Murid community. In my mind, the catalyst for this renaissance is more African than American. I say this with some shame, but also hope that we can learn from the example of Harlem’s renaissance to address similar issues in other urban ghettos across America. If I were asked what was the Murid contribution to the revitalization of Harlem, I would say that most of all Murids offered their strong sense of community, family and piety as an example, may be even as a core around-which a larger multi-ethnic and religious coalition grew. Given stringent U.S. immigration laws, no one knows precisely how many Murids are in Harlem or elsewhere in the United States, but when Americans-and New Yorkers in particular-think of industrious African immigrants who are contributing to the betterment of urban America, they think not only of the more numerous Nigerian and Ghanaian communities but of Senegalese. My image of Murids, and that of many Americans, is no longer the ominous “Baaye Faux” begging on the streets of Dakar, but of the industrious Murid merchants, grocery store clerks, taxi drivers and other workers on the streets of New York


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