Module Twenty Three, Activity Three

The Murid Brotherhood and International Networks

Muslim culture is an extremely vibrant and vital part of Senegalese history, culture, economics, and politics. In this section we will be exploring one of the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal, including its beginnings, the agricultural and commercial influences, and migration networks. The Murid brotherhood, which was mentioned briefly in activity two, is the most internationally recognized of the Sufi brotherhoods, due primarily to its market enterprises both in Senegal and abroad. It is also an important case because it is the only homegrown brotherhood and is very influential in Senegalese society.

It is important to remember that although there are standard characteristics, beliefs, and practices shared by Muslims all over the world, the expression of Islam is influenced by local culture and circumstances which are unique wherever Muslims are found. In fact, some scholars refer to Muslim dominant West African countries as exemplars of “black Islam,” due to the cultural additions in the practice and interpretation of Islam. The Murid brotherhood and its founder are a good example of how local traditions, beliefs and practices are infused with Islam in West African societies.

The founder of the Murid brotherhood was Amadou Bamba Mbacké. He was born to a Qadiriyya Muslim father in the town of Mbacke. He is known in Wolof as Serigne Touba meaning the “son of Touba,” which is the town in Senegal where he is buried, and where earlier he established a worship place for Murids. Touba means ‘conversion’.

Bamba was born to a father who was a marabout (ma-ra-boo), or religious leader, and was given the honor of carrying on his father’s work upon his father’s death. Although Amadou Bamba received the honor of his father’s recognition and heritage of his religious teachings, it was Bamba’s mother, Mam Diarra Bousso who is revered as the main contributor to Amadou Bamba’s life and values.

In Senegalese cultures, similar to most African cultures, women are seen as the keepers and producers of morality; the mother is responsible for passing values on to her children thus reproducing, intergenerationally, essential values, beliefs and cultural practices. That is to say, the actions of the father are of less importance compared to the moral role the mother plays. Mam Diarra Bousso is a legend among Senegalese society and is also an inspiration to women’s groups in many parts of West Africa, especially among the Murids. It was Mam Diarra who taught Amadou Bamba the importance of patience, submission, and compassion; themes that became central to his own teaching and practice. Many female followers of Bousso say mother and son are one, both giving of themselves freely and unconditionally.

Among the Murid there are two pilgrimages, much like the one to Mecca made by millions of Muslims from around the world each year. The first is to Touba where Bamba is buried and the other is Porokhane in the south where Mam Diarra Bousso was laid to rest. Many women travel to her shrine to ask for help resolving problems of infertility, household issues, and economic difficulties. Murid women find the pilgrimage to Porokhane just as important as the one to Touba. However, among educated and elite men the link between mother and son, Bousso and Bamba is held to be purely biologically with little mystical or spiritual connection. The Murid women feel differently. Pilgrimages are expensive and many Murid who have limited means are dependent on relatives who have migrated to urban areas or overseas to send money home to sponsor pilgrimages.

With the influence of his mother’s pious life and his father’s teachings, Amadou Bamba chose a life of piety and preferred to fight French rule or other conflicts from within, in what he, adopting the Islamic term, named the jihad (struggle). The jihad was a way for Bamba to promote an introspective resolution towards conflicts; faith and solutions were from the soul not through violence. This way of regarding the jihad is very different from some contemporary beliefs of military and violent type jihads. To Bamba, jihad was interpreted as an internal struggle essential to bringing a person closer to God; every Muslim, must throughout her/his life continue to find new ways to be with God through practice and thought. His ideas of hard work and constant battles to fight against oppression, poverty, and temptations to steer away from religious piety all played into the Murid interpretation of jihad.

Take a minute to write down a few things:

  • If you have heard the word jihad in the past what has it signified for you? What was the context it was used in and to describe whom?
  • How is the description different in this module and context?
  • Can you think of an example of something in your life that resembles the definition of jihad as an internal struggle?

Eventually after establishing a small group of followers, his teachings of faith and hard work began to attract more and more people; sufficient numbers of followers for Amadou Bamba to begin to create Touba, what became the holy city of his brotherhood. When his following became sizable, the French felt his diplomatic and internally expressed oppositions to French colonialism would turn into a large rebellion. Although this was not his intention, the French exiled him from Senegal twice between 1895 and 1912; first in Gabon, then to Mauritania.

There are magical legends that became associated with Bamba’s exile. During the trip to Gabon, he is thought to have broken free of his chains and to have thrown his prayer mat onto the ocean and prayed to Allah (God) while floating on the water because the French did not allow him to pray on the boat. He is also said to have survived various bouts of torture such as burning in an oven and being fed to lions. But, according to the story, the lions lay calmly by his side. These stories played a large role in his popularity.

Sheikh Amadou Bamba Praying on the Waters
Artist Mor Gueye's Sheikh Amadou Bamba Praying on the Waters, 1998

In the early stage of the colonial period, France tried to indirectly rule through chosen partners such as aristocrats and former royalty. This did not work due to popular protest; therefore, the French felt progress could be made through developing partnerships with marabouts; after all, the marabouts possessed a greater and more loyal following than did traditional chiefs. It was the objective of the French to use the marabouts as intermediaries to recruit their disciples to work for the groundnut (peanut) trade; thus the beginning of the Murids’ long history with agriculture, commerce, and markets and an impressive financial gain. The Murids established themselves as hard workers, dedicated, and impressively organized. Amadou Bamba was brought back to Senegal in 1902 but then exiled again to Mauritania in 1903. Ironically, later in life, after he returned from Mauritania, he was granted a prestigious Legion of Honor from the French for encouraging his followers to enlist in the French army during World War I.

Murid values appealed to many potential followers because they offered new religious practices and a community to rise above previous injustices brought from the slave trade and French colonialism. There is also a smaller group of Murids who follow the teachings of Ibra Fall a disciple of Amadou Bamba. The Baye Fall group is known for their patchwork clothes, which represent their practice of living off the goodness of donations and their own work in the community helping others.

Baye Fall
Baye Fall in the holy city of Touba.

The economic success of the Murids was due to their ability to negotiate business and labor deals with the French while avoiding the assimilation pressures. This meant that Murids became leaders of groundnut (peanut) production while concurrently preserving traditional Islamic and Wolof values. Marabouts also developed ways to directly influence the organization and obedience of the Murid followers which only contributed to their effectiveness and social, economic and political achievement. Building on their success as peanut cultivators they eventually started distributing manufactured goods in the rural areas where they resided or came from. Commercial success led to the establishment of infrastructure and dahras, koranic schools, with a focus on hard work and agriculture. The first significant infrastructure development was the mosque in Touba, built by the money and the hands of Bamba followers, symbolizing the Murid community. Construction of the mosque started in 1931 but was postponed due to finances. In 1945 construction restarted and it was finished in 1963 when it was inaugurated by Murid leaders and the Catholic president or newly independent Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor. Hiring exterior help with construction was not an option as Murids felt that by building the mosque themselves they were able to worship Allah and pay tribute to Cheikh Amadou Bamba in their own way. The mosque would be the first of many buildings, the start of what is now a metropolis—the second largest city in Senegal. The website noted below shows several pictures of the Grand Mosque in Touba.

After Senegal’s independence in 1960 the Murids who were living increasingly in cities, particularly Dakar, took jobs as stevedores in the port, and merchants selling peanuts as well as other material items. Art, such as glass paintings as seen with the paintings of Amadou Bamba, also became another expression of Murid pride and creativity. Several waves of migration took Murids to the cities such as Kaolack, Dakar, Thies due to drought or other hardships. Moving to the city meant seeking work in market commerce both formal and informal. These jobs and city residency was most likely a stepping-stone towards going abroad to gain money for the person’s family and a specific marabout and dahira (religious association). In many ways migration was a test of being a true, hard-working Murid. In Dakar one of the biggest, most successful markets, and most well-known both by Senegalese and foreigners, is the market Sandaga. Located downtown Dakar, the market’s success is most attributable to the small enterprises of Murid rural migrants. They were able to attain electronics and other goods that could be sold much cheaper than stores offered, welcoming loyal customers.

Murids began migrating out of Senegal in larger numbers in the beginning of the 1980’s to neighboring countries for trade and to Europe to sell goods on the streets or in local markets. In cities such as Paris, Turin, and Barcelona one could hear Wolof spoken by peddlers selling handbags, watches, belts, and other accessories. Starting in the 1980’s a similar scene came to cities in the U.S, particularly New York City. The Murid community in New York has developed into such an important community that the Cheikh from Touba visits every year for a New York celebration recognized as Cheikh Amadou Bamba Day. Indeed, there are buildings built from migrant dollars in Harlem as well as a section labeled “Little Senegal”. It is unsure as to how many Senegalese residents live in New York but it is estimated between 10,000 and up to 25,000. This uncertainty is due to the presence of illegal immigrants.

Little Senegal
Little Senegal in Harlem, NY photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Much of the money earned abroad is sent home to Senegal as contributions to the religious associations, to help family members with home construction, and to support infrastructural development in Touba, such as the construction of a new university and library. The “Little Senegal” neighborhood in Harlem boasts the similar vibrant sounds and colors of Dakar markets and restaurants. It is a community that greets, shares food, and supports each other through the Muslim associations, giving money for funerals and other emergency needs as well as gathering often. Not all of the Senegalese migrants are Murids, only about half of them, although most of the Senegalese businesses in New York are run by Murids. Store-fronts display signs referring to previous Cheikhs and to the holy city of Touba. Migrants who have been settled in the area for a period of time own apartments that house newly arrived Senegalese migrants. At times more than 20 people live in a two-bedroom apartment. Although it is crowded and not the standard American living conditions, the migrants are there to support each other, often training the new members on how and where to sell goods.

Before going abroad many Murid followers will not only be blessed by their marabout for serving the Murid community at home and abroad, but are often also sponsored by the marabout or other Murid families. Marabouts are then supported financially to visit the various locations to help migrants with guidance or legal matters. Back in Senegal marabouts also help support families in the absence of a husband or other family members. As a group abroad, Murids work tirelessly for their communities and also stay close to Senegalese and Muslim culture. Their clothes and other traditions demonstrate their distinct culture and religious beliefs that remain with them no matter their location. Murids in Senegal and elsewhere live by basic principles that are Islamic in their own right but also possess mystical and unique elements to Muridism due to Cheikh Bamba’s visions of this new Sufi branch. Religious practice among migrants remains constant due to Bamba’s ideas of scholarship and recitation. He wrote lessons and ways to recite Quranic verses through poetry and prose that encourage individual adherents to remain dedicated to Islam and Muridism. He also designed his lessons so that they would be taught to younger generations. Young men would become apprentices and stay connected to the brotherhood.

The brotherhood remains very tight knit, purposefully relying on the means and earnings of the group to evolve and thrive. Migrants in New York are a perfect example of this, as well as the growing influence overseas migrants have in politics, even if they choose not to involve themselves. For example, President Abdoulaye Wade brought his election campaign to Harlem in New York to appease overseas voters and solicit financial support for his election campaign. However, many of the Murid associations prefer group self-sufficiency and rely very little on the government. Marabouts often stand in as more of a governing body than the government itself. In recent years, migrant dollars, or remittances, have accounted for a large portion of Senegal’s economy. If you refer back to the history unit and remember the trials underwent by Amadou Bamba and his followers from the French it is clear that Bamba and the Murids learned how to take an unfavorable situation and make the most of it. Therefore, many articles describe the Murid group as resilient and flexible. They adapt to their new environment through peaceful means of resolution taught by Amadou Bamba.

Your turn…

Listen to the selected NPR program “A Little Taste of Senegal in Harlem” and choose one of the articles provided below to read. After you have read the articles and listened to the program, answer the following questions. Keep in mind the content of the entire unit while answering the questions.

Articles about Murids:


  1. What kinds of traditions both Murid and generally Senegalese are seen in Harlem?
  2. What is the goal of many of the associations and individuals for the community of migrants?
  3. If you were to walk through “Little Senegal” what do you think you would hear, smell, and experience?
  4. Why do you think these Senegalese migrants have thrived in Harlem, or any of the other places like Paris and Turin? What techniques have helped them?

Look at the below websites which promote the associations celebrating Touba and Murid culture and migrants in the United States. The Michigan Chapter is in a suburb of Detroit. Can you find a chapter in your own state?

Michigan Chapter:

Go on to Activity Four or select from one of the other activities in this module