Going to the Temple: visiting Touba the center town for the Mouridieh Sufi tariqa

It is almost impossible to talk about Muslims in Senegal without talking about the Sufi tariqas. There is no other country, in Africa or the rest of the world, that the Sufi brotherhoods have taken on the shape they have taken in Senegal.
I needed to hear from the source. While ideally I would have visited both headquarters of the both major tariqas, Kaolak for the Tijaniya and Touba for the Mouridiah. I only had time to visit one (both are three hours away from Dakar). I chose Touba for the simple reason that it is very unique to Senegal. The founder of the tariqa, I was told, is the only non-Arab African imam to found a Sufi tariqa. Imam Ahmad Bamba also became a symbol for resistance to French colonization. He was exiled by the French for years. His children and then their children have inherited the role of imam for the Sufi tariqa. They are called the Khalifa and Servants of the Prophet.
We were given a tour of the Djourbel mosque by the caretaker of the mosque

We were given a tour of the Djourbel mosque by the caretaker of the mosque.

We stopped by Djourbel, a city on the way to Touba to pick up Ba Bakir. Ba Bakir was to be our guide in Touba. While we were there, we took a tour of Djourbel. It is where imam Ahmad Bamba was originally from and where he passed away (though he was eventually buried in Touba). Along for the ride came Sadiq, a Turkish exchange student who spoke French and Turkish. Yes, we had no common language between us, which made for communication that was varyingly entertaining and frustrating. But, I have to give it to him, when he wanted to tell me something he somehow managed to get his point across. It wasn’t always pretty, but we managed.

The mosque in Djourbel. It was hot. And, the sand was unbearable in the sun.

The mosque in Djourbel. It was hot. And, the sand was unbearable in the sun.


The Institution 
We arrived at the mosque complex and I was immediately taken aback by the size of the mosque. While the city is growing and developing, the mosque stands-out in comparison to the rest of the city. It is currently in renovation as the current Mouridiah Imam decided to add two minarets and refresh some of the internal decor.
As we enter the city, the mosque's minarets stand out.

As we enter the city, the mosque’s minarets stand out

As soon as we entered the mosque, we were approached by many “students” offering us “free” guides. We refused, but, nonetheless were accompanied by someone.

The Grand Mosque of Touba. Followers of the Mouridiah Tariqa visit the mosque in pilgrimage.

The Grand Mosque of Touba. Followers of the Mouridiah Tariqa visit the mosque in pilgrimage.

Not unlike many mosques, they asked us to take off our shoes out of respect of the mosque. However, they asked us to take off our shoes at the gate of the mosque. Between the gate and the actual building of the mosque is a long way on exposed tiles in a very hot and sunny day. This made me run. Very fast. Almost coming off as disrespectful to the mosque.

The tomb of imam Ahmad Bamba is within the mosque.

The tomb of imam Ahmad Bamba is within the mosque

After touring the mosque, we met withMoustaphaDeattra, the head of the library in the complex. We chatted with him about Mouridiah and Touba. The Mouridiah tariqa is a bit different from other tariqas, Moustapha explained to me. Its principles are a bit less instructional. The three main principles are:

1) To worship Allah
2) To work
3) To support the brotherhood

Moustapha Deattra, the head of the library.

Moustapha Deattra, the head of the library

The context of this tariqa is the history of Imam Ahmad Bamba. In his attempt to oppose the French colonization, he opposed much of Western civilization. A practice still ascribed to by his followers today in accordance with what they perceived to be Mouridiah’s attitude to all Westernization. Moreover, the Imam’s emphasis on work has created tremendous financial success among his followers. Many told me that today the richest individuals in Senegal are followers of the Imam’s tariqa.
The interior of the mosque

The interior of the mosque

At the time for iftar, we were late going into the mosque. The guard at the entrance almost wouldn’t let us in. We had to play the tourist/visiting foreigner card to get in. It was very well-organized. There were ushers making sure every spot was filled. And the iftar was more than enough. When it was time to break the fast, a little ring-tone came out. A ring similar to that note played on speakers in the airport before an announcement is made.

Just before iftar, there was a massive rush on the street outside the mosque. I was told that it is a tradition for people to carry food to the Imam's house.

Just before iftar, there was a massive rush on the street outside the mosque. I was told that it is a tradition for people to carry food to the Imam’s house.

Immediately after iftar, we prayed maghrib and got on our way back to Dakar. We were really looking forward to getting back and eating a proper meal. The day was long, and tiring.

It was a very long day, and we couldn't wait for iftar. Tea. Coffee. Juice. Dates. Cake. French baguette and some sort of spam/processed meat.

It was a very long day, and we couldn’t wait for iftar. Tea. Coffee. Juice. Dates. Cake. French baguette and some sort of spam/processed meat.

Education: 
On our visit to Touba, we visited two schools. The first school adopted a modern education model. It taught Islamic topics, Arabic, French, and the curriculum mandated by the government. The second school we visited was a daara, a Quranic school where children are sent there at a very young age to memorize Qur’an. Most commonly, children stay there until their parents call them back or until they memorize the Quran. That could be one year or five years. During this period, the kids live at the daara.

The principle of the modern school and the son of Moustapha Deattra. He himself had gone to a quranic school growing up until he memorized the quran, then went to a regular school.

The principle of the modern school and the son of Moustapha Deattra. He himself had gone to a Quranic school growing up until he memorized the Quran, then went to a regular school.

There are over 18,000 Quranic schools in Senegal. They are all united under one overseeing organization. These Quranic schools vary in size, method, and the Sufi tariqa they follow. I was fortunate to meet the head of the association of all Quranic schools in Senegal prior to our visit to Touba. He mentioned that his goal is to unify the curriculum and create a system to ensure the quality of education. However, given the wide geographic distribution these schools across Senegal and the deeply entrenched differences in teaching approaches between the different tariqas‘ approaches to teaching the Quran, it is proving to be very challenging. He noted that the Mouridieh Tariqa is very famous for producing students who memorize the Quran. However, they rarely have a strong understanding of the meaning within the Quran. Conversely, he mentioned that the Tijanya Tariqa focuses less on memorization and more on the meaning and understanding of the Quran.

The classes at the modern school.

The building where classes are held at the modern school

When I arrived to the daara, we were escorted to a dimly lit room. To make things even more dramatic, the light had a green tint. It was explained to me that we have to wait until the children wake up. We waited for a little while, and then suddenly, they filed into the small room. They all shook my hand. And, each student raised my hand to their forehead as an expression of respect. They did that with all the adults in the room. The room filled quickly with approximately 20 children. The room was small. It was stuffy and had an unpleasant smell. They sat on the floor and looked up at me. I looked to Sadiq and our shared discomfort was clear despite our language barriers.

The students at the daara

The students at the daara

The children were cared for by the head of the daara. They have a strict schedule of studying and memorizing the Quran. They get some brakes during which they can play with each other. There is some staff that come in and help the head of the school in cleaning, cooking, and other necessities.

The kitchen of the boys daara.

The kitchen of the boy’s daara

This was one of the better schools I was told. The kids are not sent to go ask for money in the streets, which is a common sight around Senegal. All of these kids have caring families. Some schools become a refuge for unwanted children.

Students reading quran at the girls daara

Students reading Quran at the girl’s daara

We went to the girls school, and it was a different situation. The school was bigger, cleaner, more spacious with plenty of natural light. I was able to make a fool out of myself long enough to get them to laugh at me.

Sadiq!

Sadiq!

Sadiq and I continued to be uneasy with the situation in the school. When we went to dinner in Dakar, we asked, Matar, our driver his opinion on the daraas. He explained to us that he likes the idea of Quranic school. He attended one himself for four years during which he learned everything he felt he needs to learn about Islam. He explained that until very recently very few schools taught religion in the school. He knows that there are a lot of daaras that send the kids to beg for money. And, though he blames the parents for sending their kids to such schools knowingly, he thinks it remains a reasonable option. He told us he has two children and sends them to weekend school to learn religion. He says that option works better for his family.
There were a lot more horse-carts in Touba than in Dakar.

There were a lot more horse-carts in Touba than in Dakar

The Mouridiah Tariqa has amassed a large following and strong influence in Senegal. The mosque was very well-organized, and everyone was happy and quick to clarify and explain to me the misconceptions about the Mouridiah. More-over, they have succeeded in dramatically increasing education within its followers. Though Senegal is a majority Muslim country, it seems that a strong centralized education model has yet to be successfully established.

Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.

For more information, visit our page about this journey.