From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 12
© 1990 Far West Editions
Life and Teaching of
The Sage of Bandiagara
by Amadou Hampaté Bâ
Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1980
Translated from the French by Far West Institute
In this country where, for thousands of years, only sages had the right to speak, in this country-where the oral tradition was transmitted as faithfully as the most sacred texts, the spoken word became sacred. To the extent that Black Africa was deprived of a practical system of writing, she had the worship of the Word, of the fecundating word. .
. . . The importance of the Word, the concern for its value, good or bad—in the style of a new Aesop—takes on an essential importance for Tierno Bokar:
Speech is a fruit whose peel is named “chatter,” whose flesh is called “eloquence,” and whose seed is “wisdom.”
From the moment a being is endowed with the Word, whatever his degree of evolution, he can be considered among the most highly privileged, because the Word is the most marvelous gift that God has given to His creature.
The Word is a divine attribute, as eternal as God Himself. It is by the power of the Word that all was created. In giving the Word to man, God delegated to him a part of His creative power. It is by the power of the Word that man also creates. He creates not only to provide the relations indispensable to his material existence, but also to provide the spiritual means by which the doors of beatitude will open for him.1
A thing becomes that which the Word tells it to be. God says “Be!” and the creature answers “I am.”
• • •
Tierno’s words were spoken in one of the most humble places on earth, with the Master seated on barren ground which the sun baked and the rain dissolved in turn. Tierno generally spoke in Foulfouldé (Peul). Even though he was very well-versed in Arabic, which helped him to penetrate into the heart of the texts, he never stopped preaching in the language of the local countryside. In addition to Arabic, he knew four African languages, as well as the traditional teachings of the principal peoples of the savannah.
He loathed those who expressed themselves in a language other than the common language. One of the characteristics of “sorcerers” being their use of a secret language, Tierno often derided by that name those who, through intellectual snobbery, affected to express themselves only in Arabic, even though they were addressing people ignorant of that language, thinking all the better to dazzle them.
Tierno’s message was meant to be understood. Did not the Prophet say, “Speak to people according to their ability to understand”?
The stories and sayings
which follow I received personally from the mouth of Tierno Bokar, with whom I
lived from tenderest infancy. I was born, as one says in
• • •
It was mainly in 1933
that I received his teaching in the most profound and intensive way. Until
then, in effect, he had always taken into account my age and my degree of
understanding. That year the
Plunged into the Mystical life—by that we understand a life not cut off from the world, but in which the inner relation to God accompanies and illuminates each moment lived in this world—Tierno Bokar was the very incarnation of love and goodness. Love of God, first, absolute, without reservation; then love for all living creatures, from man down to the lowliest creatures of nature, animals or plants.
Tierno Bokar loved all men without consideration of race, religion, or social position. For him the distinction that seemed most futile consisted of grouping men under different religious banners, leading them to believe they were enemies of one another. Do not men, particularly those animated by sincere faith, contain a “particle of the Spirit of God”? Tolerance, then, must become the permanent concern of students, as it was the foundation of the teaching of Sheikh Ahmed Tidjani and one of the fundamental principles of Islam.
Tierno Bokar gave attention to the society in whose midst he made his terrestrial journey and whose harmony is so often compromised. But for him, Love and Charity gave the key to all hearts and the solution to all problems.
Enormous undertaking! He who determines to follow it must return often to a refreshing and vivifying source in order to find the force for progressing ever further on the spiritual path. For Tierno Bokar only one source existed capable of constantly reinvigorating those who weaken. It was the Mystic Source at the approaches to which one meets religious men of all faiths and of all times.
I asked him one day, “what are the respective roles of the Sharia (revealed law) and of the
The Sharia and the
The essential objective of the Sharia is, by its very severity, to preserve man from the libertinism of irreligion. It is comparable to a plane which shaves wood. It obliges the believer to improve his conduct and prevents him from falling to the lowest depths of a disordered life where no spiritual culture can blossom.
Without a strong Sharia, moral tares are quick to manifest and favor the corruption of mores. The fundamental pillars of the Sharia2 are similar to so many drains by which the imperfections that invade hearts are carried away.
If one compares the Sharia to a network of drains,
First, from a Revelation by God to an elect of His choice —a Prophet who teaches and propagates this revelation;
Second, from the experience of the believer or—in the case of an individual predestined to receive Divine Light—from a direct intuition, fruit of his long meditative observation and religious practice.
Under its first aspect it is a direct emanation from the Source, contained and conserved in the Sacred Books. In each form the Religion3 takes, these Books are like reservoirs for collecting rainwater. Just like material water, these reservoirs must be preserved from all pollution in the interest of the very life of the community.
Under its second aspect, the
Wishing to make us understand the limitations of an attitude of simple imitation (taqlid), blind and narrow, he gave us the following parable:
The well that receives water only from the outside receives at the same time thousands of things that the current carries. It finds itself exposed to refuse and to an even graver danger— running dry shortly after water is drawn out. On the other hand, the well whose eye4 is in itself has no need of rain to be replenished. Its waters, filtered by the interstices of the earth, remain abundant, pure, and fresh, even at the moment of greatest heat. It is the same thing for those whose faith in God depends on an external supply and those who draw their faith from their own meditation and inner conviction. The first are subject to fluctuations and their faith is not exempt from doubt. The second remain immutable. They are in the Full Light, the full moon of their faith, which never knows darkness.
• • •
The Three Lights
The eye (’ayn) which is at the heart of each mars is in need of a light to see the world in its true reality and, above all, to perceive Divine Realities. But not all the pathways are accessible to everyone.
One day, while he was teaching about the idea of Light (nour in Arabic), I asked him a question:
“Tierno, how many mystical lights are there?”
O, my friend, I am not the man who has seen all the lights. I will nevertheless tell you of three symbolic lights.
The first one we draw from matter by setting it on fire through friction. This light can only heat and light up a limited space. Symbolically, it corresponds to the faith of the mass of individuals barely evolved on the mystical ladder. At this level, the adepts are not able to go beyond imitation (taqlid) and “letter” (outer form). The darkness of superstition surrounds them, the cold of incomprehension makes them tremble. They remain curled up in a little corner of tradition and there they make the least possible noise. This light is the one which animates believers who find themselves at the level of faith called sulbu (solid).
The second light is that of the sun. It is superior to the first in that it is more encompassing and more powerful. It lights up and warms everything that exists on earth. This light symbolizes faith of the intermediate degree on the mystical path. Like the sun, this light dissipates the darkness as soon as it conies into contact with it. It is a vivifying source for all creatures. It symbolizes the light possessed by the adepts at the mystical degree of faith called sa’ilu Just as the material sun lights and warms all beings, who by this fact are brothers, in the same way adepts who reach the intermediate light see and treat as brothers everything that lives under the sun and receives its light. They do not scorn the first light, by reason of its indispensable preparatory role, but are no longer like bugs that dance around a flame and sometimes burn themselves in it. The first light, like that which symbolizes it, can, according to the whim of circumstances, be snuffed out or relit; it can be carried from one place to another. In other words, it can change form and strength, whereas the second light remains fixed and immutable in its permanence, like that of the sun. It will always come from the same source and remain the same throughout the centuries.
The third light is at the heart of all that exists—it is
the light of God. Who would dare describe
it? It is an obscurity more brilliant
than all lights combined. It is the light of Truth. Those who have the happiness to reach it lose their
identity, becoming like a drop of water that has fallen into the
At this level, Jesus became the Spirit of God, Moses His Interlocutor, Abraham His Friend, and finally Muhammad the Seal of His Missions.5
• • •
Does God Love the Infidel?
“Tierno, you are always talking about God’s Love that embraces all. But does God also love the infidel?”
God is Love and Power. The creation of beings proceeds from His love and not from any constraints.
To exclude a being from the primordial love is proof of supreme ignorance.
May our love not be centered on ourselves! May it not impel us to love only that which resembles us, or espouse only those ideas similar to our own! Loving only that which resembles us is to love oneself—this is not love.
The infidel, being a man, cannot be excluded from Divine Love. Why should he be excluded from ours? He occupies the level to which God raised him. Though a man may be punished for debasing himself, he is not necessarily excluded from the source from which he sprang.
We must think about the legend of Karoun and Moses. Karoun was the most perverse of beings. He had received an inheritance of the most wonderful riches that a man can enjoy on earth. Of these gifts he made a paradise for himself, a paradise whose access, he said, was forbidden to Moses and his God. Moses asked God to punish Karoun. God replied: “I have entrusted the earth to you. Do as you wish.”
The Prophet Moses then addressed Karoun: “0, infidel! Mend your ways and return to your Lord, lest you receive a punishment that will be cited as an example to all.”
“Call down on me all of the maledictions that you wish and that you can; I am afraid of nothing,” replied Karoun.
Then Moses commanded the earth to swallow Karoun and all his goods. Karoun, seized by the ankles and unable to loosen the hold, understood that he was lost. He repented and asked pardon of Moses.
“You believed yourself to be stronger than God,” Moses answered him. “You have rejected both the Eternal and myself, His messenger. Now you are struck down and your riches are naught. The earth will swallow you slowly; you will suffer this punishment until the end of tune.”
Thus, Moses excluded the infidel from God’s love. He caused him to perish after having pronounced his judgment and awaited the approbation of the Almighty. But the designs of God are impenetrable and the Lord upbraided him severely: “0, Moses! Karoun, repenting, invoked you 70 times. You remained deaf to his appeal. If he had called Me even once, I would have rescued him.” Moses was confounded. God added: “Do you know why you had no compassion for Karoun? It is because he is neither your son nor your creature.”
• • •
To Beware of One’s Own Dust
Being an attentive spiritual educator, Tierno never forgot to put us on guard against the dangers of a complacency toward oneself which can insidiously accompany the soul up to the highest levels.
Whatever the race of a man, when the spirit crystallizes in him as a result of the adoration6 of God his soul becomes like a mystical diamond. The color of birth of such a man has no influence on the quality of his spiritual light. Whatever his social status may be or his birthright, if he arrives at this degree of crystallization, no outside element will be strong enough to disintegrate it.
To the adepts who have attained this degree, there remains but one recommendation: to beware of one’s own dust—that is to say, of admiration for what comes from oneself. Self-admiration, however subtle and hidden, can pervert the soul of the worshipper, even if he has reached the spiritual degree called “diamond-like” wherein the hidden Name of God irradiates his uncolored and unformed Light.
• • •
The Bird Fallen from the Nest
Tierno Bokar’s love for people extended far beyond the framework of his religious group: it extended to the totality of the human race. Better still, it overflowed that totality to embrace the whole of creation, down to the most humble of God’s creatures.
One day during the year that I spent close to him, he was seated in the house where he would die seven years later. Speaking to the elder pupils, he expounded upon the esoteric significance of the Tidjani rosary. We were all under his spell. Outside, the wind was blowing. It blew the sand around the courtyard and ruffled the feathers of the rooster clinging near the grinding pestle. A more violent gust shook the frame of the house. Due to the shock, a swallow’s nest, balanced high on the wall under the eaves, split open. A chick fell crying. We glanced over at it indifferently. The concentration of the audience had not wavered for an instant. Tierno finished his sentence, then fell silent. He stood up and, casting a sad look over his pupils, he stretched out his fingers—which were long and fine—toward the little bird, and said:
“Bring me this son of another being.” He took it in his cupped hands. His look brightened. “Glory to God whose caring grace embraces all beings!” he said.
Then, setting down the little bird, he rose, took a box, and placed it under the nest. He went out and returned shortly. Between his fingers we saw a large needle and cotton thread. He climbed up on the box, placed the swallow’s little one inside the torn nest, and repaired it with the same care that at other times he gave to embroidering boubous. Then he stepped down and resumed his place on the matting. We waited impatiently for. the continuation of his lesson, but instead of taking up the rosary that served as the theme of his discourse, he set it aside. After a moment of silence, he spoke to us:
I must speak to you more about Charity, because I am pained to see that none among you has enough of this true goodness of heart. And yet, what a blessing! . . . If you had had a charitable heart, it would have been impossible for you to listen to a lesson, even about God, when a small, miserable being cried out to you for help. You were not moved by this despair, your heart did not hear this call.
So! Truly, my friends, he who learns by heart all the theologies of all religions, if he has no charity in his heart, can consider his knowledge so much worthless baggage. No one benefits from divine encounter if he doesn’t have charity in his heart. Without it, the five prayers are nothing but meaningless gesticulations; without it, the pilgrimage is a profitless journey.
The scene of that day is forever etched in my memory. I see him still, standing upright in his white tourtil, delicately repairing the home of this “son of another being” whose call we were unable to hear, preoccupied as we were with ourselves.
• • •
The Sheep and the Shepherd
Tierno Bokar was conscious of his duty as a teacher toward the community that had chosen him as a guide, but his subtlety was such that one would be hard pressed to find a “do this” or a “don’t do that” in the whole of his teaching. In his mind, only the Divine Word had the power to order or to forbid; only it could establish moral imperatives. Thus the moral aspect was blended throughout the totality of his teaching. He suggested more than he explained. He shaped souls; he never brutalized them.
Treating the problem of the passions, he spoke of them as impulses to be guided and not as enemies to slay. His language was never that of an “inquisitor.” Above all, his teaching tried to he constructive and educational.
For Tierno Bokar, the passions are a characteristic of all men. They are like sheep that the shepherd must come to control and direct.
When the sheep scatter, the shepherd can no longer lead them. Then we see him running about to prevent the scattering of his flock. We are each the shepherd of our passions. It is up to us to tame them and prevent them from jumping over our heads, overwhelming us, and leading us into a moral abyss.
• • •
White Birds and Black Birds
Not only did he abstain from judging others, but he also tried to make us understand that a good thought is always preferable to a bad one, even when it concerns those we consider our enemies. It wasn’t always easy to convince us, as is shown by the following anecdote, when he was led to speak of white birds and black birds.
On that day, Tierno recited the following verse:
And who so doeth good an atom’s weight will then see it; and who so doeth ill an atom’s weight will see it then.
—Koran XCIX, 8 and 9
Since we were questioning him about good deeds, he told us:
The most profitable good deed consists in praying for one’s enemies.
• • •
Men, in regard to each other, can be compared to two opposing walls. Each wall is riddled by a multitude of small holes where white birds and black birds nest. The black birds are harmful thoughts and harmful words. The white birds are good thoughts and good words.
The white birds, by virtue of their shape, can only enter into the holes of white birds. And the same goes for the black birds, who can only nest in the holes of black birds. Now, let us imagine two men who believe themselves to be enemies. Let us call them Youssouf and Ali.
Youssouf, persuaded, one day, that Ali wishes him evil, feels himself filled with anger toward him and sends him a very evil thought. In doing so, he releases a black bird and, at the same time, frees a corresponding hole. His black bird flies toward Ali and searches, in order to nest there, for an empty hole corresponding to his shape. If, on his part, Ali has not sent a black bird toward Youssouf, that is to say, if he has not emitted a single bad thought, none of his black holes will be empty. Not finding a place to lodge, Youssouf’s black bird will be obliged to return to his original nest, bringing back with him the evil with which he was charged, evil which will end by gnawing away at Youssouf and destroying him.
But let us imagine that Ali, also, has sent out an evil thought. In so doing, he frees a hole where Youssouf’s black bird can enter in order to deposit a part of its evil and accomplish its mission of destruction. During this time, Ali’s black bird flies toward Youssouf and comes to lodge in the hole freed by Youssouf’s black bird. Thus, the two black birds will attain their aim and work to destroy the men for whom they were intended.
But, once their task is accomplished, each returns to its original nest, for, as it is said, “Everything returns to its source.” The evil with which they were charged, not having been exhausted, turns back against their senders and ends by destroying them. The author of an evil thought, evil wish, or malediction is thus reached by both the black bird of his enemy and his own black bird when it returns to him.
The same thing happens with the white birds. If we send only good thoughts toward our enemy while he addresses only evil thoughts to us, his black birds find no place to lodge with us and return to their sender. As for the white birds, bearers of the good thoughts we send our enemy, if they find no hole in our enemy’s wall they return to us charged with all the beneficial energy they carry.
Thus, if we send out only good thoughts, no evil, no malediction, is able to touch us in our being. That is why it is necessary always to bless both our friends and our enemies. Not only does the benediction go toward its objective in order to accomplish its mission of appeasement, but it also returns to us, one day or another, with all the good with which it was charged.
This is what the Sufis call “desirable egoism.” It is valid Self Love, linked to respect for oneself and one’s neighbor, because each man, good or bad, is the repository of a particle of Divine Light. This is why the Sufis, in conformity with the teaching of the Prophet, do not wish to soil either their mouth or their being with evil words or evil thoughts, not even by apparently benign criticisms.
By the principle which claims that “each thing returns to its source,” he exhorted us to generate only the purest spiritual vibrations by consecrating our thought and tongue to the recitation of the Name of God (dhikrou-Allah).
• • •
To repeat constantly this Name or the formula of the Unity of God (La ilaha ill’ Allah) is a sure way to introduce into oneself the breath which will fan the flame of the inner fire. Without this fire, the spiritual embers deposited in us slowly go out and end by becoming an inert black charcoal within which a corrosive acid resides.
From the back of his modest place, Tierno had observed people. No nuance of their souls escaped him. Marvelously applying the counsel of the Prophet, “Speak to people in proportion to their understanding,” he knew how to adapt his teaching to the comprehension of each.
I had observed his methods and one day I could not restrain myself from telling him of my astonishment.
“Tierno,” I said to him, “when I hear you speak with the little children in the courtyard I see that, in the end, you tell them the same thing that you tell us, but in such a way that it becomes just like a fairy tale. When you speak to my aunts, I see you using still another language. Finally, you can say the same thing to the old marabout Alpha All and to Gabouli, the little eight-year-old girl, but with a different form and color. Why?”
The Three Types of Clothing
There are three ways to wash clothing. Thick and coarse materials are beaten with a board, materials of average thickness are stamped underfoot, and very fine material is squeezed by hand. One must not wash a thick wool coverlet in the same way as a bonbon of fine European cloth.
It is the same for human souls. The trials through which souls must pass to reach the level at which the spirit is constantly occupied with praising the Name of the Lord are more or less violent, depending on their state.
Tierno, who loved all men, also loved sinners, whom he did not believe he had a right to judge. He who lamented over Bandiagara before he died believed he had a duty to fulfill toward those who had turned aside from the divine path, but he did not condemn them.
When one of us asked him:
“Tierno, what do you say of those who devote themselves solely to temporal things?”
He answered simply:
“They are souls for whose safekeeping we must pray.”
• • •
With his great lucidity, Tierno Bokar had already perceived the menace of disequilibrium which weighed on African society, split by currents which uprooted its children from their original milieu. The phenomenon of cultural disintegration which began under his very eyes seemed infinitely grievous to the Sage of Bandiagara, for whom the remedy resided in the cultural base of the ethnic group themselves, in this cement which had been strong enough to assure the coherence of African society for millennia.
For Tierno, a young African, before allowing himself to run after the attractions of this or that foreign culture, should meditate upon the treasure bequeathed to him by his ancestors and not, as is so often done today, ignore it or consider it as something inferior. His advice could be summed up as—follows: “Don’t seek your fortune begging far from home, you who are seated on a sack of gold. Make use of this fortune. Make it prosper by trading in it.”
Tierno Bokar was enriched by numerous African experiences. Born of Toucouleur parents, and successively Hausa, Bambara, Peul, Marka, and Dogon by adoption, he had drawn from each of these ethnic groups a particle of his experience of the whole. He increased this harvest by virtue of his knowledge of traditional Islamic teachings. Koranic teaching had made him a master of African Sufism. The various men from here and there with whom he had rubbed shoulders in the course of his eventful youth had transmitted to him the precious teaching of the traditions of many African lands. Finally, he did not distinguish any fundamental opposition between the two worlds that had formed him.
Tradition and Evolution
To a question about the traditions, he responded:
Respect them. They constitute the spiritual heritage of those who have preceded us and who have not broken with God. The traditions can appear in the form of different kinds of stories of varying lengths: tales for children and didactic or initiatic stories. Whichever they may be, meditate on them, search to unveil the secret which is hidden within them. Dig into them deeply, like the prospectors for gold in the mines of Bourré.7
Each story, each riddle, is like one shaft; all together form a whole mine of instruction which the ancients bequeathed to us—by region, race, family, and sometimes from one individual to another. It goes without saying that, in order to work profitably inside this mine and to move about comfortably, one must be able to see clearly or, in other words, to possess a key or a master.
• • •
When haphazard speculations prevail over divine laws and the customs instituted by traditional wisdom—customs which we ill appreciate, lacking sufficient knowledge—then unavoidable misfortunes strike the world, against which contemporary people can do nothing.
• • •
All tongues, in our time, conjugate the verb “to earn” in the first person of the present indicative. Earning becomes an imperative duty. As to the manner of earning, one is little concerned with knowing whether it is lawful or not.
These are times in which the poor, honest man lives and dies ignored. Happy is he, moreover, if he is not spurned by all, even by his own parents!
Even in the relative isolation of Bandiagara, protected by its cliffs, Tierno Bokar foresaw the impatience of the young people of the country to conjugate the verb “to develop.” He had weighed both its nature and its inevitability. He was too wise to oppose it, but he corrected the simplistic way in which some people had a little too hastily defined this verb of nearly magical attractions. To develop, yes, but from a solid starting point.
Some people believe that to develop is to break squarely with all of one’s traditions in order to adopt those of a race whose behavior one admires, often out of snobbery. For us, to develop means to perfect our patrimony, which includes more than just our homes and fields; it also means to adapt our thought, our entire way of being.
What works for a temperate country cannot be entirely suitable for the tropics. We see our Sudanese children rather awkwardly imitating Arabs or Europeans, depending on their upbringing. They are like waterfalls that disappear, uselessly streaming over slabs of stone without ever reaching a lake to calm their mad and sterile course.
Tradition, the point of departure, must he strong enough in the minds of those who set forth to allow them to retrace their steps and make a new start in case of a collision, fall, or error. It is the anchor and reference point that permits one to know who one is and to advance boldly on new and far-reaching paths without, thereby, losing one’s equilibrium or identity.
Blind imitation of others does not make us like them, but makes us forget ourselves. As the proverb says: “A piece of wood may float on the water, but it will never become a crocodile.”
• • •
In closing this chapter consecrated to Tierno Bokar’s “message,” let us listen once more to this call which he addressed to all men in the name of spiritual unity:
With all my heart I wish for the coming of an age of reconciliation among all the faiths of the earth, an age in which these faiths, united, will support one another to form a moral and spiritual vault, an age when they will rest in God on three basic points: Love, Charity, and Brotherhood.
There is but one God. Likewise, there can be but one way leading to Him, one Religion whose diverse temporal manifestations are comparable to the spreading branches of a single tree. This Religion can only be called Truth. Its dogmas can be but three: Love, Charity, and Brotherhood.
This often-predicted, prepared for, and so long-awaited reconciliation, indeed we could call it a “true alloy.”
In truth, a meeting of the essential truths of the various faiths which now divide the earth could prove to be of a vast and universal religious utility. Perhaps it would be more in accordance with the Unity of God, the unity of the human spirit, and that of the entire Creation.
1. An allusion to the spiritual virtue of the recitation of Sacred Texts and Divine Names.
2. The fundamental pillars of the Sharia are, first of all, the canonical obligations of Islam (faith in the unity of God, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage); then :he various restrictions, moral as well as material, which the believer must respect; and finally, the entire body of recommendations taken from the example of the Prophet and His companions.
3. The Eternal Religion, of which the diverse historical religions are nothing more than manifestations in time and space.
4. In Peul, as in Arabic, “eye” and “source” are expressed by the same word.
5. All of these qualifiers applied to the prophets are drawn from the Koran.
6. The Arabic word ibadat means both admiration and service.