TOUBA (Senegal): Buy a watch or a CD from an African street-seller in New York, Paris or Rome and your money could find its way to this dusty Senegalese city controlled by a powerful Muslim brotherhood.
Known as “little Mecca”, the city of Touba sprawls across the flat, arid scrubland of north-east Senegal, its towering white-marble mosque looming above the peanut fields.
It is revered as the birthplace of Sheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride brotherhood, an African branch of Islam that preaches hard work as a means to enter paradise.
From a tiny village 100 years ago, Touba has grown to become the hub of a global network of small businessmen and street hawkers who funnel a share of their profits back to their religious leaders.
“The Grand Mosque, the whole of Touba, was built by Mourides’ donations,” said Sheikh Serigne Abdou Mbacke, a descendant of Bamba.
“If we took money from the Saudis to build our mosques, we’d have to pray the way they wanted,” he said.
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While a rash of Saudi-built mosques in West Africa has stirred concerns of a rise in Wahhabi fundamentalism in the arid Sahel, the Mourides preach tolerance.
Founded under the yoke of French colonialism in the 1880s, Mouridism values independence and personal religious fulfilment.
Unlike other Muslim holy cities, such as Mecca, women in Touba do not wear a veil and can move freely. One branch of the brotherhood, the dreadlocked Baye Fall, are excused from prayer and can even drink alcohol and smoke.
Originally a rural movement that controlled Senegal’s main cash-crop, peanuts, Mouridism changed forever when a prolonged drought afflicted West Africa in the 1970s, forcing its devotees to the cities. Many spiritual leaders encouraged their followers to head overseas to seek their fortune from trade.
More than a third of Senegal’s 11 million people are now Mourides, including President Aboulaye Wade, and the group wields vast influence in the 95% Muslim nation.
The political clout of the Mourides has helped maintain hefty subsidies for Senegal’s peanut sector and ensures that Touba remains free of customs duties – making it a busy crossroads for trade across the region.
Their dictum, “pray as if you will die tomorrow and work as if you will live for ever”, has brought the Mourides economic success wherever they have settled.
In New York, the Mourides established their own community, Little Senegal, and July 28 has officially been designated Sheikh Amadou Bamba day.
But some orthodox Muslims question whether the Mourides’ reverence for Bamba eclipses their respect for the Prophet Muhammad: one of the pillars of Islam. They also note that Baye Fall are excused from fasting during the month of Ramadan and the five daily prayers.
“If you do not pray five times a day and you do not observe Ramadan, what kind of Muslim are you?” said Idrissa Sonko, a security guard in Dakar.
Mourides also believe that those without the money to make the pilgrimage to Mecca – another of Islam’s pillars, the haj – may simply travel to Touba, with the same spiritual benefit.
In their defence, Mourides say the intervention of the saintly Bamba has allowed them to bend these rules slightly.
“To be a Mouride is, above all, to be a Muslim,” said Mbacke. “Sheikh Amadou Bamba stayed within the tradition of the prophet.”