Attending a conference on Islam and peace in New York City

The skyline of midtown Manhattan as viewed from the 15th floor of

The skyline of midtown Manhattan as viewed from the 15th floor of Columbia University’s International Affairs Building, venue of the Islam and World Peace Conference.

I started the new semester by attending a conference. This is getting to be a habit; read about attending conferences at the outset of semesters in Lisbon (Sept. 2013), Edinburgh (Sept. 2014) and Harvard University (Feb. 2015). This time, the conference was on Islam and World Peace. Held on September 11-13, 2015, and scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the conference was jointly organized by Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, its Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life, and Majalis, a US-based NGO active in peace-building and African-Muslim heritage.

As academic conferences go, this one was exceptional and unusual in several respects. It included not only presentations of dry scientific papers, as wonderful as these are, but also the screening of a new documentary on Touba’s great Magal by filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and an exhibition of paintings by artist-calligrapher Yelimane Fall.

Painting titled "Touba Darou Salam" (Touba the Abode of Peace) by Senegalese Murid Calligrapher Yelimane Fall.

Painting titled “Touba Darou Salam” (Touba Abode of Peace) by Senegalese Murid Calligrapher Yelimane Fall, exhibited at the conference.

Mostly though, the conference was innovative in that it brought together academics and Senegalese clerics on both sides of the Atlantic. While academics have long studied clerics and their works, the idea that something fruitful can come out of a dialog is rather new. My first experience with this was at an International Conference on Sufism organized by Murids and held in Dakar and Touba in December 2011. There, scholars of Sufism met with sheikhs from several different Senegalese Sufi orders to discuss Sufi responses to the current global economic crisis. The proceedings of that get-together were published and can be downloaded here.

The context for this weekend’s dialog between academics and clerics is just as pressing. The post-9/11 world is characterized by extreme expressions of violence. Mass murders have become spectacular media events. Regimes are overthrown in displays of disproportionate “shock & awe.” Drones wantonly rain death on innocents from the skies. Arms sales are booming. Discourse on the web and in social media has become hateful and threatening (never read the comments). Violence is far more pervasive in the world now than at any time since WWII, and much of it is somehow associated with Islam; in the name of God, violent extremist who profess Islam go into mosques to kill Muslims as they pray. Not only is peace not being given a chance (I took a moment while in New York to visit Strawberry Field across from the Dakota Building where John Lennon was murdered), it doesn’t even seem to be an option any more. It’s as if it’s been taken off the menu. A whole generation of young people have come of age in the meantime. Our present age of extreme violence in act and in rhetoric is all they have known. This could prove disastrous to the world they are inheriting. How can we oppose the violence of our times? How can we take the space, our “public sphere,” back from saber-rattling, war-mongering and jihadism? How can we put peace back on the menu?

In contrast to warfare, which has a very ancient pedigree as an object of study in both theory and practice, as a political idea peace is a relative newcomer. Historically, religion has been the only sphere of human inquiry to develop the concept of peace. Because of their great geographic scope over centuries, this is particularly important in the case of the main “world” religions. This is why academics and clerics need to talk.

This conference aimed at presenting the theories, concepts and practices of peace in the  Islamic traditions of Senegal in particular, where a successful “peace tradition” has developed and thrives–there is talk of a “Senegalese model.” What can we learn from this? Over two days, clerics and academics assembled in Dakar and in New York City to share perspectives and experiences. On Sunday morning a joint panel discussion was held via satellite.

My contribution to the work shop consisted of tracing an ethical principle of nonviolence from Al-Hajj Salim Suware, founder of the Jakhanké clerical tradition in the 12th century, to modern Sufis: Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké (1853-1927) and Tijani sage Tierno Bokar Tall (1875-1939). All three thinkers categorically rejected violence, and armed jihad in particular. Their teachings have become the consensus, not just among clerics but throughout society, and this peace tradition is holding up very well.

Clerics and academics have something else in common, students. Our students and taalibes are our greatest assets. They are important to the issue of world peace not just because they are the “citizens of tomorrow” but because they are active world citizens now. They have grown up in a violent post-9/11 world of “culture wars” and “civilizational” conflict. For the most part, they don’t like it. We need to trust them. They are very good at articulating the kind of planet they want, and at communicating with each other. Our role as educators consists not only of presenting them with ideas but of empowering them as social actors. Clearly though, academics and clerics have only just begun the discussion.

Some words of wisdom from West African Sufis

Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, 1853-1927

Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacké, 1853-1927

This is how Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba responded when in 1886 Lat Dior, deposed king of Cayor and leader of resistance to French occupation, asked for advise on how to pursue the conflict:

“I am sure that if you manage to free yourself from your soldiers, to distance yourself from your weapons and horses, in recompense you would find something better and would know peace and tranquility…” (Serigne Bachir Mbacké. Les bienfaits de l’Eternel ou la biographie de Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké. Khadim Mbacké trad. Publication de l’IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop: Dakar. 1995: 62)


And here is one of Tierno Bokar Tall’s aphorisms:

Tierno Bokar Tall, 1875-1939

Tierno Bokar Tall, 1875-1939

“When will men realize that panting war horses and weapons that spew deadly fire and destruction can only destroy material beings, never the principle of evil which inhabits souls which lack any sense of charity. Evil is like a mysterious breath. When one kills a man inhabited by evil violently or with weapons, the principle of evil rebounds out of the cadaver which can no longer be inhabited and it enters the murderer through his dilated nostrils, where it then takes new root and grows even stronger. Evil must be combated with weapons of Good and Love. When love destroys evil, evil is definitively killed. Brutal force only buries the evil it wants to destroy for a while. Know that evil is a tenacious seed. Once buried it grows stealthily. It germinates and reemerges stronger than before.” (Amadou Hampaté Bâ. Vie et enseignement de    Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1980: 159-60).

Suggested readings

  • Ba, Amadou Hampaté (1980), Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar, le Sage de Bandiagara, Editions du Seuil, Paris.
  • Ba, Amadou Hampaté (2008), A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, Translated by Jane Fatima Kasewit, Edited by Roger Gaetani, World Wisdom Publisher.
  • Babou, Cheikh Anta (2007), Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913, Ohio University Press, Athens.
  • Diouf, Mamadou (editor) (2013), Tolerance, Democracy and Sufis in Senegal, Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Dumont, Fernand (1969). “Amadou Bamba, apôtre de la non-violence.” Notes africaines. #121, pp. 20-24.
  • Sanneh, Lamine (1989). The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics: A Religious and Historical Study of Islam in Senegambia. New York City: University Press of America.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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