An Islamic Holy City: Touba, Senegal

Senegal is 95 percent Islamic, hosting both Sunni and Shiite adherents. The two groups live together peacefully. Senegal’s moderate Islamic state is unique and allows a democratic form of government to function. Senegal is the only West African country to govern by the ballot box and has successfully transitioned from one political party to another without a military coup.

What has generated this tolerant relationship between Sunnis and Shiites? Why are Roman Catholic and Protestant churches allowed to own property and openly propagate the gospel? Even converts from an Islamic background are able to openly accept the Christian faith, although they are often rejected by their families.

No doubt a number of factors are involved, but following my brief visit to Senegal, I am convinced that the widespread practice of Sufism has produced this brand of Islam. Sufism offers many freedoms. For example, women are not required to wear burqas, and respect is usually shown for one another’s religious beliefs.

Sufis are Muslims who seek more than the traditional Islamic rituals. They search for some type of mystical experience, an encounter with God. I call them the evangelicals of Islam. Sufism is expressed through the formation of brotherhoods that develop their own unique, extra-Quranic theological positions.

A number of Sufi brotherhoods operate in Senegal, although they originated in other countries. The Mouride brotherhood is the only one initiated by a Senegalese – Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba. Unique in Bamba’s teaching is a call for peaceful coexistence between the various sects of Islam and other faiths. The focus is on works as opposed to academics, including memorization of the Quran.

Bamba founded the holy city of Touba following a celestial vision of light that he experienced while seated under a large tree. In Islamic tradition, Tuba is also the name of the Tree of Paradise. In Sufism, this symbolic tree represents an aspiration for spiritual perfection and closeness to God.

Ahmadou Bamba died in 1927 and was buried at Touba, which was still a small village. At that time construction of the city began, and the Grand Mosque was completed in 1963. The city’s population now exceeds 500,000, and an annual pilgrimage, the Grand Magal, draws over a million worshippers from Senegal, Africa, Europe and America.

I drove to Touba, accompanied by a Senegalese friend. Arriving at the Grand Mosque, we pulled into a parking lot across the street. Immediately about 10 men converged on our vehicle, wanting us to hire them to guard the pickup or serve as our guide at the mosque. Like a match igniting fuel, a fistfight exploded into a major brawl. They all wanted our business!

We exited the parking lot and circled the mosque. The head guide steered us away from the scene of the disturbance and apologized for the fight we had just witnessed. He assured us it was an accident and not in keeping with Mouride beliefs.

Parking the vehicle at a business, our guide led us to the entrance of the mosque. It was beautiful, but the scaffolding being used for renovations was a bit distracting. The guide explained that according to Bamba’s teaching, work would continue until the mosque was covered with pure gold.

The mosque had the appearance of a cathedral, including amazing architecture and workmanship and use of Italian marble. The guide was very proud of the marble and explained that it never got hot. Upon entering the courtyard he asked me to remove my hat and shoes. With a temperature well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we walked comfortably across the marble courtyard, which could accommodate about 50,000 worshippers at a given time.

Inside the mosque, the guide pointed out a large room to the left, which was equipped with water faucets used by men for ritual washing in preparation for prayer.

What surprised me was that in the same-sized room on the right, women could go through ritual washing too. Behind the women’s washing area was their own prayer room. It was big and beautiful – nothing inferior about it in comparison to the men’s prayer area. It was good to see a brand of Islam giving women such recognition and privilege in worship.

I noted a man sweeping the prayer areas and shining the pillars. The guide explained that 400 volunteers maintain the mosque and clean it each evening. The volunteers live from gifts given by pilgrims who visit. 

The 45-minute tour afforded me the opportunity to visit every area of the mosque except the tomb room of Ahmadou Bamba and...

the inner prayer room with its “Well of Mercy” spring from which pilgrims drink and take away samples of holy water believing it has medicinal powers.

Our guide was well-versed in the history and beliefs of Mouridism. He told me that more than 1 million adherents live in Senegal.

As we completed the tour, the guide said, “I want to give you a blessing. I give you forgiveness of all your sin. Anyone visiting this mosque receives that blessing.” He explained that the spirit of Muhammad was in Touba and the spirit of Bamba was in Mecca, making a pilgrimage to Touba equivalent to a pilgrimage to Mecca. 

“Thank you for wanting to give me a blessing,” I told him, “but I don’t need that blessing. Jesus Christ has already forgiven my sins. However, I want you to know that I fully agree with your founder on a major point of Mouridism: Muslims and Christians should live at peace with one another.”

As we returned to our vehicle and continued on toward Dakar, my Senegalese friend expressed what both of us were thinking. “Our guide really believed everything he was sharing with us,” he said. 

Our guide believed working in the fields of an Islamic leader for seven years without pay or visiting the Grand Mosque at Touba may merit forgiveness of one’s sin. May God be merciful to the Mourides and allow the light of gospel truth to penetrate their hearts and minds. Amen!