Mecca too far? Senegalese Muslims head for Touba

TOUBA, Senegal Mon Mar 12, 2007 7:49am EDT

1 of 2. Pilgrims queue as they wait to enter the tomb of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride Islamic brotherhood, in Touba March 8, 2007. More than one million pilgrims converged on the remote northeastern town in Senegal this week for the Grand Magal, or 'great pilgrimage', which commemorates Bamba's exile by French colonial authorities in 1895.

Credit: Reuters/Daniel Flynn

TOUBA, Senegal (Reuters Life!) - Abdoulaye Gueye is too poor for the pilgrimage to Mecca but the Senegalese Muslim could afford an 18-hour journey in a rusting seven-seater taxi to reach the holy city of Touba.

Once a dusty village in Senegal's remote northeast, Touba has flourished thanks to the power the Mouride Islamic brotherhood, whose founder Cheikh Amadou Bamba ordered his devotees to observe an annual pilgrimage to his birthplace.

More than 40 percent of Senegal's 11 million people are Mourides, a branch of Sufi Islam. The Grand Magal, or "great pilgrimage" in the Wolof tongue, draws over 1 million people to Touba, choking its streets with pilgrims, peddlers and beggars.

"What you have in Mecca, the prophet of Touba recreated here. It's the same thing," said Gueye, 39, in a cool hallway of the Grand Mosque. "He prayed so the poor could come to Touba if they did not have the money to make the pilgrimage to Mecca."

Although he lives in Senegal's distant southern region of Casamance, Gueye has not missed a pilgrimage in 26 years. Despite arriving late at night, Gueye is in the marble-clad mosque early next morning, praying at Bamba's mausoleum.

"When you pray here today, God can give you a lot of things. The door is open," said the bleary-eyed Gueye, dressed in a blue robe. "If you do good acts today, God multiplies their value."

While in Touba, Gueye stays at the house of his spiritual guide or marabout -- where he listens to his advice and teachings, studies the Koran, and gives what money he can.

"Even if you only have 200 cfa francs ($0.40), you should give that to your marabout for the poor," said Gueye, who works in a peanut factory. "But some people have come from America or England just for today ... They will give 20 or 30 million."

PRESIDENT A MOURIDE

The Grand Magal marks Bamba's exile to Gabon in 1895 by French colonial authorities who feared his growing influence. Despite that, there is no anti-Western feeling and foreigners are hospitably welcomed with free food and lodging.

Bamba's doctrine of hard work as a means to reach paradise has made the Mouride order wealthy and powerful, its devotees spread across the world. President Abdoulaye Wade, who won reelection last month, is a Mouride: he came here to thank religious leaders for their support when he won power in 2000.

But many ordinary Senegalese fear the Mourides' power and their strict obedience to their marabout and to the Caliph Serigne Saliou, the last surviving son of Bamba.

"To be a Mouride, you must work hard, believe in God and follow your spiritual guide," said Gueye, a strict Muslim who is unmarried himself. "I love the prophet of Touba deeply, him and all his family."

Cheikh Serigne Abdou Mbacke, a grandson of Bamba's, sits on a sofa as devotees approach on their knees to receive his blessing and press coins into his palm.

"When you are a descendent of the Cheikh, you are called upon to have disciples and to vulgarize his teachings ... and to serve as an example to others," said Mbacke, who runs a prosperous construction company.

A former top executive of Air Senegal, a retired senior military official and a senior figure in the ruling PDS party all come to sit before the heavily built young man at his sprawling residence near the Great Mosque.

"If the marabout says jump from the 20th floor of a building, a Mouride will do it because he knows that no ill will befall him," said the former aviation executive.

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