Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sufis in the City

There is only one known photograph of Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a pacifist Sufi, or Muslim mystic, who opposed French colonial rule in Senegal. Taken in 1913, it depicts him lean and erect, wearing a white robe and a head scarf that reveals his high forehead and intense gaze. Today, that image inspires artwork in Senegal and a community of Senegalese immigrants in Harlem. Both are the subject of "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," now on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The exhibit, which was organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, is impressive for its breadth, depth, and beauty. It presents glass paintings of Bamba working miracles, photographs of the mosque in Touba, Senegal where he is interred, African calligraphy of Arabic script, and paintings and articles of clothing created by his followers. It also provides a good introduction to Islam in Africa and to the presence of African Muslims in America, past and present.

Bamba's teachings inspired the Muslim spiritual brotherhood of Mouridism, which is well-established in Senegal. In particular, Senegalese young people value his divine mysticism's, his post-colonial identity, his sense of responsibility, and his ideas about the dignity and sanctity of work. Bamba is equally revered by Mourides in New York City. Indeed, a majority of the 1,000 or so Senegalese immigrants living today in Central Harlem are Mourides. Their community--which supports a local radio station and television show--is a visible presence in businesses around 116th Street.

In Dakar, images of Bamba--who is frequently depicted alongside Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Bob Marley--watch over everything from homes to businesses to motor vehicles. In Manhattan, references to Touba, which holds Bamba's grave, appear in the names of stores and boutiques.

As much as this exhibit is a fine introduction to African art and Islam, it is also a lesson in the many religious paths that people follow to similar destinations. Christians who visit the exhibit will see in Bamba's story a Muslim version of the life of a saint. And Jews will recognize, in the mystical devotions of Bamba's followers, similarities to the ecstasies of Hasids and the Kabala.

"A Saint in the City," which is well worth visiting, closes June 30. The Schomburg Center is at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue.

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