Sunday, June 23, 2024

From Massina with Love: A Short History of the Origin of the Diakhanke People

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By: Cheikh Sylla, the son of his father Ibn Taimiya, and the student of his grandfather Al Hajj Karamba

The Diakhanke clan is one of West Africa’s most specialized clans, having spent the majority of its history specializing as religious scholars, guides and healers. Due to their endodontic nature and insular nature, their history is not well known.

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Their origin is in Southwest Mali, in the city of Dia in the Massina region. That particular historical period straddled the downfall of the Ghana Empire and the rise of the Manding Empire. In their origin, they were of Mande stock but with frequent religious and social relationships with the Berbers of the Arab North – with many of the Diakanke clans claiming descent from companions of the Prophet such as Abdullahi ibn Umar and Abdullahi ibn Abbas.

In any case, they had established a strong religious foundation by the beginning of the 13th century, while attempting to insulate themselves from the frequent skirmishes between the representatives of the Mandinke Empire and the emerging links of the future Songhay Empire. This persistent danger resulted in the two characteristic traits of the Diakhanke slowly developing; first, they retained a strong Islamic identity through scholarship which not only gave them a point of distinction in a largely polytheistic region of the world, but also made them valuable for writing, spiritual mediation, and trade. Secondly, owing to the whimsical nature of the pagan and nominally Muslim rulers, they generally distanced themselves from intervention in the affairs of the state.

These traits would become embedded through the leadership of Al Hajj Salim Cisse Souare, whose frequent trips to the Arab world rejuvenated his community spiritually and pedagogically. Upon his return from Hajj, and fearing the stability of their religion in Massina-Dia, he would begin a great sojourn across Mali and Senegal. Wherever they would descend, they would be received as the Dia-nko (The People from Dia). This attribution of origin, along with the propensity of that region towards the Arabic letter خ is what created the name Diakhanke, thus beginning the history of the Diakhanke as an identifiable and separate group within the complex fabric of the Mandinke society.

Al Hajj Salim Souare would settle in the region of Bambukhu near the present-day border of Senegal and Mali, and founded the city of Bambu Dia – with the aforementioned propensity towards the letter خ causing it to be known as Diakha. It would become known as Diakhaba (Or the Great Dia) as an indicator that this was the site of rejuvenation for the former residents of Dia, and a place where they could carry out their philosophy.

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Al Hajj Salim Souare would found this new Dia, not with himself, but with a cadre of companions that would form the backbone of Diakhanke civilization. There was Souare and his three maternal cousins- who were collectively known as the sons of the four mothers. These were the Drammeh-Kanji, the Fofana-Girasy and the Dibasey-Fadiga. They were also joined by what were known as the three cooking stones, a euphemism in Mandinke society for a communal pillar. These were the Diaby Gassama, famously represented by the loyal student of Al Hajj Salim known as Yousupha Gassama, the Sylla, and the Diakhite-Kaba. All of the modern Diakha can trace their maternal ancestry to one of these three mothers. While these seven clans served as the Pillars of Diakha, they were by no means its exclusive owners. Families from the Touray, Cisse, Diakhaby, Sawaneh, Diassigui and other surnames were also present at the founding of Diakhaba.

This constitution indicates that the Diakhanke were the byproduct of a particular philosophy of social inclusion rather than a specific ethnicity. Anyone from the mandinke or soninke clans that predated Diakha was able to settle in Diakhaba and assume a particular role within the society. It was a religious movement that was based on certain philosophies and sustained itself through its endogamic marital practices to retain that philosophy.

It helps, at a glance, to have an overview of that philosophy. The first and central element was an unyielding devotion to Islam. The Diakhanke are not incidental or cultural practitioners of Islam. Rather, they cannot be conceived of in any sense without Islam. This leads to the second element of the Jakhanke philosophy, which is scholarship that is almost prostelytic in its nature. A study by Ivor Wilks of 30 chains of transmission for Islamic sciences revealed that 30 of them trace back to Al Hajj Salim Souare and two of his students. This is a manifestation of the inseparable role of Islamic scholarship within the culture of Jakhanke and their ability to incorporate neighboring peoples, many of whom were previously pagan, by taking them as students and innoculating them with Islamic values.

The third element, and likely the one that permitted the first two to flourish, is aloofness towards the politics of the state. This largely began as a reactionary view towards the tendency of West African rulers to mischaracterize or completely discard Islamic law in unjust wars. For that reason, and for the fear of mixing with what they saw to be paganism, the Diakhanke remained aloof from state powers wherever they went, preferring to remain in distant villages and marry within themselves.

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All of this shows Tawheed (monotheism) in that they made Allah their singular objective, along with zuhd (abstention) from the world in being willing to accept the hardships that came with such an objective. We will, in due time, discuss the breakdown of Bambu Diakha and the revival of the Diakhanke ethos in the 17th and 18th centuries. For now, we can remain content in viewing one of the rare transformational movements in history and a manifestation of the rare mercy of Allah.

‘And others of them who have not yet joined them. And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. And that is the bounty of Allah that he gives to whomever he wills’.

-Surah Al-Jumuʿah, Ayah 3

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