By Latif A. Tarik -- a.k.a. “the Black Sufi”
"Exoteric knowledge is in charge of improving human actions while esoteric knowledge deals with human spiritual moods and degrees."
- Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba (1853-1927), Ways Unto Heaven
Thanking the Creator (Allah), the beginning of January 2023 was the continuation and exploration of my spiritual growth, Islamic development, and connection to aspects of West African culture. I visited Senegal with the sponsorship of the Council of American Overseas Research Center's Overseas Faculty Development Seminar program in partnership with the West African Research Center. In Senegal I explored West African History and Sufi Islamic culture, but more importantly, I sojourned as a Black American connecting to the African Diaspora. Before arriving in Senegal, my study of Islam and Senegalese culture were influenced by Cheikh Anta Diop’s books, specifically his monograph Precolonial Black Africa and studying the teachings and philosophy of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba’s book Ways Unto Heaven.
Over the decades, I have been in pursuit of esoteric and exoteric knowledge through the practice of Sufi philosophy. “Among the spiritual practices of West African Muslims, the predominant form was Sufism, which encouraged additional devotional practices beyond the five daily ritual prayers performed by all Muslim devotees. These practices included Arabic litanies and prayers chanted silently or out loud for self-purification. Sufi worship was therefore private and encouraged believers of Islam to create a close relationship with Allah.” This practice is evident in the history of West African Sufi Muslims enslaved in the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia and throughout the Southern colonies. Those enslaved Africans used Islam as the cornerstone of their survival during American slavery while simultaneously giving birth to a new Black American religious identity. This is why I am the “Black Sufi” because my spiritual journey did not begin with me, but rather with my ancestors who were enslaved in America from West Africa. Thus, going to Senegal was a sojourn through time, space, and the African Diaspora.
Sufis embrace both art and poetry. The street art and murals on the side of buildings of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is a testament of his commitment to Islam, Sufism, and his fight against French colonialism. Throughout my stay in Senegal, I was able to capture at least 15 to 20 street paintings and murals of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.
It was during Fajr during the first of the five prayers in Islam where I got up early in the morning at the prescribed time to go to the masjid and pray but mostly bear witness to Sufi chanting. I cannot say which brotherhood I witnessed, but each and every chant brought the original meaning to the Sufi order. The spiritual devotion to chanting by Sufis is similar to the Black American church tradition where examples of praise, worship, and the tongues of the Pentecost represent spiritual devotion. I recorded several hours of Sufi chanting and their devotion to Islam and their Sufi brotherhoods. My pursuit of Sufism through the West African tradition has provided great insight to understanding African epistemology, religiosity, and spirituality. Considering I wear a “locked” or “dreadlock” hairstyle I was often called ras, rasta man, or baye on the streets of Senegal. The origins of ndiagne, which means strong hair in English, often represent Muslims who are the followers of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba and Ibrahim Baye Fall. Amongst some Sufis dreadlocked hair represents a time of colonial oppression by the French, moreover, also creates a link with Rastafarians living in the West. So, within Cheikh Anta Diop’s “Black Personality” of identity formation I embrace the meaning of being Black, African-descended, Muslim, Sufi, Black American/African American, and Rasta. Senegalese culture has had a long and impacting development on my spiritual
Growth and Africanized identity.
Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop often discussed the meaning of the “Black Personality.” Diop suggests that African descended people have a shared cultural web that provides cultural meaning making that creates a global “Black Personality.” On some level I found this to be true with the different ethnic enclaves of people I meant in Senegal. Senegalese and Blacks in America share not only some genetic origins but also elements of music, food, and material culture. I am a collector of African art. Once in Senegal, it was my intent to try to find a hand carved wooden smoking pipe. I failed in that attempt unfortunately, and yet I was very impressed with the wood carvings of the Bambara people, the Mende/Mandinka group living along the Seine River. The gentlemen in the photo with me had such a familiar face he could have been my uncle or someone from back home in the United States. If
you didn't know I was a Black American, I could very easily be considered Bambara or Mende by appearance. It was within the woodshop of my nameless friend where he showed me Cheikh. Cheikh is the name of the hand wooden carved statue in the picture sitting on my books on my bookcase. Cheikh sits at the entrance of my apartment, smoking his pipe. Cheikh is wise and calm, a guardian of that space. Ironically, this is the same spirit of the Bambara gentlemen smiling with me in this photo; kindred spirits, [sharing and] enjoying a brief moment of cultural exchange.
Before going to Senegal I had an interest in the origins of African martial arts and traditional fighting systems. I wrote a book chapter titled, “Black Martial Artists: Modernity in Pursuit of an African Fighting System in the African Diaspora” in the book Slavery to Liberation: The African American Experience . Most of the research was conducted in the US by Black martial artists who had the opportunity to travel to Africa to explore the subject and by academicians who published their research in various books. However, I was able to witness Senegalese wrestlers in their village community. I observed “African dance and African drumming were not separate from the combative training incorporated into the ethos of African fighting systems. The African systems used drums and stringed instruments to create a rhythmic beat for fighting.
Warriors, either individually or in groups, practiced using weapons, both for attacking and defensive movements, in conjunction with the rhythm from the percussion instruments. Ritual drumming and percussion usage were essential in training young warriors. African warriors used the dances to develop formational movements, footwork, and effective fighting techniques. Although these training patterns have been dismissed as ‘war dances,’ expressive movement rather than martial drills, they actually played a central role in the training of African warriors.”
Despite my depth of knowledge on the subject nothing could replace watching Senegalese wrestling for about four hours in the community of the local wrestlers. Witnessing the event was festive, anthropological, cultural, and educational. Watching the wrestling match gave full meaning to the understanding of African martial artist and Senegalese wrestling. In the movie series Roots, Kunta Kinte who was from the area of the Gambia had to learn to wrestle during his rites of passage into manhood. I found that Senegalese wrestling was a system that developed character for the young men living in their village communities. The sport and training promoted team building, community pride, and cultural integrity. Though the men are the wrestlers, it is the women who chant, dance, and support their favorite wrestlers while the drummers drum. Those elements are essential functions of Senegalese wrestling. The wrestling match is not just about who will win, but rather It’s more about bringing together the community to practice and maintain cultural pride and heritage.
Latif A. Tarik is an Assistant Professor of History at Elizabeth City State University. He is a global citizen who enjoys people, traveling, and cultural exchange.