By: Cheikh Soubky Sylla, the son of his father Sheikh-Al-Islam Sylla, the student of his grandfather Al Hajj Karamba Tabatou
In a Prophetic narration brought forward by Sidi Ahmed Al Hashimi, the Messenger (SAWS) is reported as saying “It is an obligation upon Allah that whatever He raises, he brings down”. This is true in people, nations and even his own religious communities. Within that ultimate trajectory, there are ebbs and flows, downturns and rejuvenations. This is indicated by another Prophetic narration that highlights the arrival of a mujadid (renewer) at the head of every century to renew the faith, courage and strength of the Muslims. In this article, I explore how the tumultuousness of the 1600s and 1700s began with extreme difficulty for the Diakhanke but eventually resulted in what a tajdid (revival) and tashrih (expansion) of their values in the Western lands of West Africa.
The Diakhanke, within these universal and Muhammadan patterns, were no different. After 200 years of continuous living in Bambu Diakha, the effects of external pressures as well as the difficulties of maintaining a single harmonious society began to cause migration south towards Senegal’s oriental region of Bundu. The breakdown of the Mali Empire and the Songhay Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries meant that the stability that the Diakhanke had experienced for almost 300 years was untenable. Owing to that, they began to found villages in the deep wilderness of Bundu – a region that sits in modern-day Senegal but remains highly inaccessible even to this day.
The choice was both pragmatic, in terms of its closeness to their home origin, as well as deliberate, in that Bundu’s remoteness protected the Diakhanke from the turmoil involved in the breakdown of century-old empires and from intervention within state affairs. The villages that they would found were numerous, and this included those founded the Diaby-Gassama (Saffali), the Sylla (Bani Israel), the Diakhite-Kaba (Jeylani/Toumboura), and the Drammeh (Gunjiour).
In Mali, the Diakhanke had largely been autonomous owing to their particular location as well as the reverence that local Mandinke and Soninke rulers had towards them. In Bundu, they would find themselves in a more tumultuous situation owing to the state powers being warring clans of Fulanis and Soninkes (nee: Serekhule) that were aiming to establish their foothold on power. Because of this, the situatedness of the Diakhanke within remote areas would not be enough to shield them from turmoil. In the 1600s, they carefully balanced themselves between both the Fulani and the Soninke, often marrying clans such as the Sy and Tanjigora, due to the perceived benefit and mutual values along religious lines. However, by the early 1700s, the wave of Fulani Jihads – a theme that will become relevant later on in this piece – and their Soninke rivals would become untenable, leading the Diakhanke to leave Bundu in masse in three different stages.
It would be amidst this difficult time, that many of the mujahideen (renewers) of Diakha would emerge. Chief among these figures was a man known first as Diakhon Alajie Gassama, and who would become later immortalized as Karomokhoba Touba (The Great Scholar of Touba). Diakhon Alajie was born in Dide, in the region of Bundu, in 1736. He was the direct descendant of the student of the Diakha founding father – Yousouppha Gassama. After completing his primary education in Islamic studies, and upon reaching the age of distinction, he set out – on his mother’s command and his father’s legacy wish – towards Kunting. There, he would spend nearly five years learning Tafsir (Qur’anic Exegesis) at the hands of his father’s former student Osman Darring. Upon the completion of this subject, Diakhon Alajie faced a decision that would be seminal in his own personal history and in the history of Diakha.
He could, as it was customary at that time, come back to Dide and be known as Fode Alajie with all the honors that this entailed, or he could seek to further his knowledge beyond what was customarily available in Bundu at that time. Rather than returning to Dide, he would press on towards Mali, promising that he would not return to Bundu until he accumulated new knowledge. This journey would lead him to Mali, where he took knowledge from 19 teachers – none of whom were Diakhanke. This included the completion of Sahih Al Bukhari, Aliffiya Ibn Malik, Maqamat ul Hariri, Mukhtasar al Khalil and the Burhan of Sanusi. His decision to forego Bundu would foreshadow the death of the region within just a few decades.
It is important here to note that Karomokhoba’s journey of knowledge was a microcosm and a precursor of an explosion in knowledge for the Diakhanke. In the early years of the Diakhanke, their situatedness within the Mali Empire and the stability of that Empire ensured that there was a frequent flow of knowledge from the outside Islamic world. This is indicated by the fact that Al Hajj Salim Souare was able to make seven trips to Hajj, a feat that would have been both impossible and legally forbidden if the path had been unsafe. In the 200 years after the founding of Bambu Diakha, however, we see a relative silence on their history as well as the relative lack of individuals bearing the title Al-Hajj, with the exception of those who were named after Al Hajj Salim Suware – such as the great grandfather of Karamokhoba and Karamokhoba himself. The breakdown of the Mali and Songhay empires would have made Hajj a nearly impossible task.
The indication of a lack of written history during that time is also something that can be expected from frequent migration and living in highly remote areas. The Diakhanke had effectively retained an excellent proto-Islam that was being passed from father to son and practised with extreme sincerity. However, the range and scope of the learning were limited by the fact that they were living in remote areas shielded from a dangerous society. This prevented the diffusion of new knowledge. An anecdote that illustrates this is the visit of a Fulani elder to a particular Diakhanke site; he informed them that he found taqwa (fear of Allah), wilaya (friendship with Allah) and ikhlas (sincerity to Allah), but that their manuscripts were filled with typological errors – indicating that there was still another level that they could reach.
At that time, the education would have been limited to basic theology, basic jurisprudence and mastery of Qur’anic interpretation – after which a person could be titled Fode. This is certainly no small feat considering the linguistic, cultural and historical scope of the Qur’an and considering the lack of communication that the Diakhanke would have had with the outside world. However, it paled in comparison to what was obtainable in large established city centres. The lack of extensively extrapolable tarikh (history) and the lack of production of titular works, beyond abbawi (father-to-son) transmissions of poems is proof of the effect that the upheaval had on Diakhanke.
The spirit of knowledge and sincerity, however, was still present among the Diakhanke as indicated by Karamokhoba. His journey was critical because he would take knowledge that was dispersed and accumulate them in a manner that no one had done in Diakhanke. After nearly 60 years of travel, at the age of 85, he would found his 9th and final city – Touba in the region of Futa Jallon in modern-day Guinea, nearly 1000 kilometres from his own origin and equally as distant from the Diakhanke homeland of Bambu Diakha. It would be here that the Diakhanke, fleeing from the turmoil that was occurring in Bundu at the hands of various Fulani and Soninke armies. Frequent kidnappings, enslavements, and outright murder made it so that the Diakhanke could no longer stay in Bundu. Some, such as Fode Mohamed Gueye Sylla and Fode Sheikhu Sylla, went to the extreme West where they finally settled in Kunting.
Others such as Fode Mohamed Khair Diaby, the father of the Khairabaya in modern Gambia, and Arafaqa Souare, the father of many of the Souare in modern-day Gambia, would join them. The former was a cousin of Karamba and a key representative of the Gassama who came from Bundu, all of whom were related to Karamba through his fourth grandfather – Fode Alajie. He directly struck the first spear into Touba, cementing an already existing filial relationships between the Khairabaya and the latter was a man of extreme knowledge, having memorized Mukhtasar Al Khalil, and a direct descendant of Al Hajj Salim Suware. Along with these two, there would be a seemingly endless stream of Diakhanke families, with their students, families, and client clans attached to meet Karamba in Touba.
The breakdown of Bundu and the opening of Futa and the Western Lands, along with Karamba’s legendary sojourn to seeking knowledge had two positive outcomes that characterized the revival of the Diakhanke. The first is that it provided a large, physical location for which all types of knowledge could be obtained in a single location. The erudite scholar of Taba, Al Hajj Karamba Diaby, notes that in Touba, there was a majalis dedicated solely to the study of Sahih Al Bukhari – a feat that takes six years in some of today’s most famous madrassas. No longer would one have to travel to Bundu to find one individual who had mastered Al Khalil, then travel to Mali to learn hadith, then travel deeper into Mali to learn advanced grammar. It could all be taught and learned in places like Touba, then brought to places like Kunting, Massembe, and – after the turmoil had subsided – even Bundu.
The second effect is that, with the safety of Touba and the Western Lands, and with the nearly 36 tribes that were present in Touba, was competition to access new forms of knowledge and spiritual promise. A famous example is the arrival of Abdul Lateef Kunta to give the initiatory wird (formulas) of the Qadiri Tariqah (spiritual path) to the residents of Touba. When the grandson of Karamokhoba Touba – Karan Qutubo- set out to the Sahel to bring the knowledge of Tassawuf (spirituality) formally to Touba in a complete form, he found that he had already been beaten to the punch by other Diakhanke from the Gallokho and the Diakhite-Kaba. This indicated an arms race towards knowledge that would benefit the Diakhanke in cementing their position as scholars, adding information to what had already been a proven clan of religious sincerity.
The explosion of this knowledge was manifested into two emerging practices beginning with the generation of Karamokhoba. The first of these was in the naming practices of the Diakhanke. Prior to the 1700s, we find that the names of the Diakhanke were limited exclusively to forms of the Prophet’s names or common names from the companions, prophets or attributes of Allah. For example, Karamokhoba’s lineage in his previous five grandfathers is highlighted by Mohamed, Fode Mohamed, Abdullahi, Alajie, and Amadou. All of these are noble names, but they represented the limited scope of exposure to different authors and different texts.
By the 1800s, however, we see the Diakhanke’s naming practices reflecting the knowledge expansion that had been experienced as a form of performative but genuine gratitude. We can cite numerous examples for this; Among the sons of Karomokhoba, for example, is Mohamed Bukhari – who is named after the compiler of the most authentic collection of prophetic narrations (hadith). Another of his sons was named Mohamed Sanusi, after the famous author of the theological work Ummul-ul Barahin (The Mother of Proofs), who himself was born 200 years after the birth of Al Hajj Salim Souare. The friend of Karamokhoba, Fode Osman Kaba would name his son Qadi Iyad Jaiteh, after the author of As Shifa (The Cure) – the famous work of Prophetic history. Karamokhoba’s grandson, Karan Qutobo, would be named after Abdul Qadir Jeylani – famously known as Qutbul Awliya (The Pole of the Saints). Other names around this time period would include those named after Mohamed Al Yadali, the author of Khatimatu Tassawuf (The Seal Of Spirituality), Ahmed Al Maqari, the author of Idaatu Dujunna (Illumination 0f Darkness in the Creed of the People of Tradition) and Mohamed Al Khalifa, the leader of the Kunta Tribe and the Muqaddima of the Qadiri Tariqa at that generation.
It was obvious, in the naming practices of the Diakhanke that they were internalizing and externalizing the knowledge that was facilitated by this rejuvenation. A second novel practice was the production of books, such as the Nahjatu Saalik of Karan Qutubo, and his grandfather’s versification of Aliffiyatu bin Malik, and his father’s one-thousand-line poem on morphology – all of which are published and available to this day. Not only was the expansion of knowledge something unprecedented in this era, but it began to be preserved in a way that allowed for both Islamic sciences and the history of the Diakhanke to be preserved in greater detail.
By virtue of this expansion, and by remaining firm on their primordial ethos of Islam, the Diakhanke became even stronger beacons of the knowledge that they possessed. They centralized that which had been dispersed among themselves and systematically placed it under well-controlled centres of learning. They then travelled, originally in search of safety but then in search of more knowledge, thereby attracting those who were ignorant to the depth of Islamic sciences or to Islamic itself. The second miracle of Diakha was nothing more than a manifestation of Allah’s mercy, and it is hoped that the one who was merciful before will be merciful yet again.
‘And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good (Al Ankabut:69)’