Jeremy Dell on “The Banished Sufi”

Jeremy began this fascinating discussion of his working paper with a juxtaposition and with a question. He outlined the contemporary importance of Amadu Bamba, how the only known image of him is omnipresent in Senegal, as street art in Dakar and on the side of buses. He contrasted this with the absence of contemporary presence in the cultural visual space of Amadu’s brother, Shaykh Sidi Mukhtar Mbakke. This absence was in stark contrast to the ubiquity of Mbakke in the archives of the colonial administration. This raised the question foreshadowed in Jeremy’s introduction, why has the legacy of Mbakke been so different to that of his brother? Both men suffered exile at the hands of the French and both were key figures in the foundation of the Murid Sufi sect. While Mbakke did not have the spiritual presence of his elder brother, and was not the singular founder, he was an early disciple, a major economic player in his own right and had a parallel experience of exile. Based on exciting new discoveries from the colonial era archives in Segou (Mali), where Mbakke was exiled, Jeremy’s paper illuminates much about the life and times of an underappreciated and somewhat forgotten Murid founder.

Abdourahmane Seck (Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis, Sénégal), gave insightful comments and suggested that Mbakke offered a window into the long processes through which contemporary Senegal has emerged. He not only drew out the parallels between Mbakke and the first disciple of the Prophet Abu Bakr but also those, more recent, with Mamadou Dia. This latter comparison suggests the intriguing potential for an exploration of paths not taken, and places the relationship between Mbakke and his more famous elder brother on the same level as the contentious and complex relationship between Senghor and Dia. The alliance between the two on the eve of independence against Modibo Keita shaped the emergence of the Senegalese Republic in its current form and their subsequent disagreement over which direction to take the country led to a decisive evolution along the path laid out by Senghor, while Dia found himself in a form of internal exile. This conjures the image of the exile as a somewhat forlorn figure, who must forever lament the victory of their political rival from a distance. For Mbakke this experience of exile is an imperfect analogy as he was exiled by the French administration, but he shares the indignity with Dia of having his historical importance occluded by proximity to a transcendental and era defining figure.

Paul Nugent (Edinburgh) continued this discussion of exile in his thoughtful comments by pointing to the strong tradition of hijra in West Africa and suggested perhaps tweaking the framing of the overall paper to take advantage of this particular perspective. Hijra in its strict sense refers to going into exile for Islamic religious purposes, so that you may live under Islam away from interfering and inimical state authority, but has significantly broadened in contemporary political usage. Malian President Touré’s escape from the 2013 coup d’état after which he sought refuge in Senegal has been interpreted through this lens. From this perspective we could think of a contemporary principle descended from ideas of hijra that ‘when the government is inimical then you must leave.’ The French colonial administration in Senegal was certainly inimical to Mbakke.

This was followed by much discussion over potential frames within which this fascinating story of Mbakke’s exile could be understood, particularly over the utility and definition of exile. There were also several suggested answers to Jeremy’s initial question of why Mbakke’s story has been lost: the fame of his brother, internal factional disputes and even a suggestion that whilst Mbakke is absent from contemporary visual culture he is not from other media. In any case we look forward eagerly to reading the final version of this exciting look at an underappreciated figure from Senegalese history. Whilst the image of Mbakke may not grace walls and buses in Dakar the way that images of his elder brother do, Jeremy has already restored to him something of the academic attention which such an impactful figure deserves.