The 5th of September is a landmark date for those who tread the path of non-violence. It was on this very day in 1895 that Senegalese Sui Saint and Spiritual Master, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, rose alone without an ounce of fear against the powerful oppression of the French colonisers when he was brought before the private council of the court in Saint Louis.
But, for what reason was the Sheikh being tried in a court? What exactly was his crime?
It is important to understand the fear behind this condemnation of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba. After all, how could such a large imperial power be so fearful of one unarmed man?
The Path of “those who seek the Truth”
Living under French occupation, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba saw the oppression of the Senegalese under the French colonisers as a symptom of the spiritual diseases present among the people. As a way to bring people back to the Prophetic message, he founded the spiritual path called Muridiyya: the way for those who aspire to Truth and Love to tread the path of non-violence.
Through the creation of the Muridiyya, the Sheikh began to operate a deep Prophetic revolution in the society at the time. A revolution that struck each and every sector of the existing social order: cultural, social, economic and political. The Sheikh was restructuring society; he was building an alternative society and placing service to humanity as the highest value. In this way, all forms of injustice were erased and people could see the path for true liberation in the message of the Sheikh.
Over the years, the Muridiyya continued to attract large numbers and began to emerge as a formidable resistance against the French occupiers – all through non-violence. Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba remained steadfast in his non-violent approach and continued to call the people back to the path of God, rather than struggle along the path of trying to achieve ‘independence’.
The colonial powers saw the Sheikh as a threat to their rule over Senegal. The Islamic authorities who were collaborating with the French shed even more doubt on the Sheikh and the Muridiyya. It is interesting to observe how all of these people were living with the plagues of pride and jealousy while being firmly rooted in the complexes of superiority and inferiority. Through fighting for their own security, they were only maintaining a fake peace – and fake peace can never be the basis for a truly peaceful, equal society.
The Trial and the Exile
Fearing a rebellion, the French took Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba to trial in 1895. On the 5th of September 1895, he was brought before the private council. In the hope that the growth of his following could be quelled and to help the Senegalese forget all about him, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba was thus exiled to Gabon on the Atlantic coast of central Africa. Gabon was chosen because it was infested with endemic diseases – to exile the Sheikh there was actually an indirect way of guaranteeing his extermination.
As a being of peace and in complete commitment to his ideal of non-violence, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba did not retaliate when sent into exile. Senegalese authorities from Saint Louis asked him for permission to plead for his cause, but the Sheikh was categorical in his non-violent conviction. He said: “There was no need to defend myself”.
Miraculously, he survived the dangerous terrains of Gabon, only to return in 1902 and then be exiled again. The Sheikh’s dedicated following continued to grow in number, strength and commitment to his message and so, he was put under house arrest for a further fifteen years, amounting to a total of 33 years of his physical liberties being taken away. His dedication to his path never wavered, however, and he retained his inner freedom despite it all
A Captive of God
In one of his poems, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba says:
“They thought that I was their captive, but I am only the captive of God”.
And these very words and this situation help us to better understand how any situation can command two perceptions according to two levels of consciousness.
The dual consciousness sees the apparent reality and judges according to our conditioning in the social order. Non-dual consciousness sees the interior manifestation of the act and does not judge knowing that there is another court: the court of conscience.
So in this situation, where when one may see the Sheikh as a prisoner, the other one sees the mysterious unfolding of divine justice; a powerful, liberated man armed with faith – which disarms everything.
The Conviction and Audacity of this Peaceful Warrior
To understand the selflessness of a Peace Being of the calibre of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, we must look deeply into his intentions.
He was committed to this one and only goal: to serve humanity through the model of his master, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
In the Holy Qur’an (Ayat 128, Surah Tawbah), it is said:
“Indeed there has already come to you a Messenger from (among) yourselves. Mighty (i.e., burdensome) to him is whatever distresses you. Most eager is he for your (welfare), to the believers (he is) constantly compassionate, constantly merciful”.
The Prophetic model through which Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba served was a revival of the tradition of the Prophet: applying his quality of mercy to the whole of humankind. The Sheikh was reviving the true Islamic ideal summarised in the words of God for the Prophet: “You were sent as a mercy for the whole universe”. This means without any distinction of creed, race, colour or other. This means no injustice. This means true Peace.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) defined the way to be treaded, which corresponds with these words of Jesus (PBUH):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? … And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”
The Sheikh plunged into this ocean of Love for the whole of humanity, and the 5th of September and his whole life has become an attestation of “wish for the other what you wish for yourself”.
He used the science of non-violence to achieve this love for all creatures. Even after 33 years of the deprivation of his liberty, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba proclaimed: “I have forgiven all”.
Lessons to Take Away
The most crucial lesson from this day and Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba’s life is how he lived in the way of non-violence and made it accessible to us all.
The Sheikh made a diagnosis of the situation and the people to liberate everyone: as much the oppressor as the oppressed and the sympathiser. He wanted the black man not to see himself as a victim. He wanted the French man to become conscious of his destructive pride. He wanted the sympathiser to see how he was playing the game of a hypocrite.
He defined the way to access the capacity for internal criticism and to recognise and accept our vices and virtues – because, after all, we are all only products of an existing social order. We can always see the evil in others, in those we condemn as our oppressor – but the Sheikh developed the capacity not only to see the splinter in the eyes of the colonial power but also the planks in his own peoples’ eyes. This is also what was done by other peace beings like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, among others.
The aftermath of non-violence is the creation of a benevolent community so that when the battle is over, there is a rebirth – the sprouting of a new love between what was once the oppressor and the oppressed. The sympathiser’s role in this new community simply doesn’t exist anymore.
The French finally recognised the greatness of the Sheikh and significantly, in 1919, he was accepted by the French administration and given the award, ‘Knight of the Legion of Honor’ – the highest honour that they could award, to which the Sheikh kindly declined.
Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba devoted his entire life to awakening human consciousness, both among the oppressed and the oppressors, and he never made any distinction between the two. For him, service to the whole of humanity was the best expression of the love of God which he made visible through non-violent action to bring about change.
So friends, let us not limit ourselves to just praising the deeds of those we call ‘great men’. Instead, let us be courageous, revisit our inner selves, transform our inner worlds and model those we call ‘great men’.
The choice is ours – only ours! Let us take the path of conscious awakening and let us rise to play our role: to serve humanity through the path of peace, love and non-violence – just like Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba and all the Peace Beings who came before, and after him.
Find out more about the International Sufi School, founded by Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, and its leaders so far, here.