To Wander and Whisper Love

Caption: 16th-century manuscripts from Timbuktu. Credit: Leslie Lewis Flickr Link: https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

To Wander and Whisper Love

A tribute to Muhammed Bagayogo

Of those who have gone before us, who have left us physically, whom do you hail? Whom do you pay homage to? One such person, whose feet I would like to have sat at, is 16th-century Malian scholar Muhammed Bagayogo. The celebrated Ahmed Baba, who’ll weave his way in and out of this tribute, wrote of Bagayogo’s humility, cheerfulness and generosity in his biographical work on Maliki scholars, commonly known as Nayl, or Nayl al-ibtihaj. 

I imagine living in the ward where Bagayogo resided — Wangara Kunda — in Timbuktu, blessed with the daily opportunity to be in his presence, to converse with him. Treading the same streets, bothered by the same sandstorms, hearing the same call to prayer, from the roof of Sidi Yahya Mosque. It would have been a real loss to the ward, to the Sarekeina quarter in general, if he’d accepted the imamate of the prestigious Sankore Mosque. But community activist that he was, he remained, serving the people from Sidi Yahya. He was their favored mediator in times of conflict: widely respected as a restorer of peace. In another time and place, they would have made him a U.N. Peace Emissary, Special Envoy — or he’d be one of The Elders, alongside Desmond Tutu and Graca Machel.

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Everyone wanted him! Bagayogo was offered the role of judge in Jenne (where he was born), Timbuktu — as well as in the Songhai capital city Gao. Historian Al-Sa’di, writing of him in the Tarik al-Sudan, one of the great chronicles of West Africa, stated:

“He was a source of blessing, a jurist, an accomplished scholar, a pious and ascetic man of God, who was among the finest of God’s righteous servants and practicing scholars. He was a man given by nature to goodness and benign intent, guileless, and naturally disposed to goodness, believing in people to such an extent that all men were virtually equal in his sight, so well did he think of them and absolve them of wrongdoing. Moreover, he was constantly attending to people’s needs … becoming distressed at their misfortunes, mediating their disputes and giving counsel.”

He must have been the neighbor you dream of. Your vote for local councilor.

Four years ago, Islamist group Ansar Dine began to destroy what they felt was forbidden in the region. I hoped and prayed they wouldn’t touch the Al-Wangari Manuscript Library — based on the original book collection of Muhammed Bagayogo — currently overseen by his descendent, Mukhtar bin Yahya al-Wangari. The full name of my hero is Muhammad b. Mahmud b. Abi Bakr al-Wangari al-Jinnawi. He was a scion of the Wangara, a great clan of scholar-traders who taught and dealt across the savannahs and forests of West Africa. The clan included lineages such as the Kamaghate, Saganago, Fofana — and the Bagayogo. For example, Soloman Bagayogo brought Islam and its scholarship into the Gonja state, in northern Ghana.

But of all the libraries in Timbuktu, I prayed the group would not touch that one, because through it, we get an insight into Bagayogo’s humanity, the generosity of the man. In a time when certain African leaders were striving to hold on, to acquire more power and palaces, it’s necessary to mention people such as he, such as Nelson Mandela, who gave more than they received. Here’s what Ahmed Baba wrote of the man and his books:

The aid which he gave to scholars and the trouble he took for them, giving out the rarest and most precious of his books in all subjects and never asking for them again, whatever the circumstances might be. Thus it was that he lost a portion of his books — may God shower His beneficence upon him for this! Sometimes a student would come to the door of his house and send him a note stating the title of the book he wanted and he would get it out of his library and send it to the student without even knowing his name. In this matter, he was truly astonishing, doing this for the sake of God, despite the love he had for books and the effort he spent to acquire them by purchase or copying. I came to him one day asking for books on grammar and he searched his house and gave me all he could come across.

Surely, such a library must be saved — a piece of the national heart. For years, the scholars of Timbuktu have worried about desertification – as have the officials of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites – but now they had to contend with human destruction. Although sadly, mausoleums and shrines were destroyed – and the door of the mosque of his imamship, Sidi Yayha, was vandalised, my prayers were answered: the al-Wangari Library was left untouched.

Caption: 16th-century manuscripts from Timbuktu. Credit: Leslie Lewis Flickr Link: https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

Caption: 16th-century manuscripts from Timbuktu.
Credit: Leslie Lewis
Flickr Link: https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

Ahmed Baba, like his favorite teacher, came from a scholarly lineage: the Aqits, one of the great Berber families, influential in the pedagogy and judiciary of Timbuktu, imams of Sankore Mosque. What goes around, comes around: Ahmed Baba’s father was a teacher of Muhammed Bagayogo.

Imagine being a student of his. Who’d want to be late for the giving out of gems? Space for one-on-one tutorials must have gone quickly. Ahmad Baba, considered an outstanding scholar during the Golden Age of Timbuktu, was Bagayogo’s student. In another excerpt from the Nayl: “In sum, he is my teacher; from no one else did I derive so much benefit … as I did from him and his books. May God shower him with mercy and recompense him with paradise.” Another laurel is that on his way to Hajj, while passing through Egypt, Bagayogo was given a doctorate by the scholars of Al-Azhar University.

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One reason Bagayogo is so important to me is that through figures like him, we of African descent can refute the notion that widespread literacy came with the Europeans. Those from Europe didn’t penetrate the African hinterland until the 19th century, yet the first known sub-Saharan scholar to have written in Arabic, Ibrahim al-Kanemi — from Chad — was writing in the 13th century. There had been what I call regional literacy, such as the languages of Ge’ez in Ethiopia and Eritrea; Vai in Liberia and Sierra Leone; and Nsibidi in southeast Nigeria. But with the coming of Islam, came Arabic. For the first time, there was widespread communication — between Senegal on the west coast and Zanzibar on the eastern one. The scholars of Timbuktu used spherical trigonometry to designate the times of prayer and fasting. Scholars of the Kanem-Bornu Empire were famed as master calligraphers. Across Western Africa, scholars could be found specializing in Maliki law.

Trying to catch something of the essence of the man, I created a series of vignettes entitled Tales of Muhammed Bagayogo. Here’s one called Tale of a Talk.

Wishing for a little solitude before the sunset prayer, Muhammed Bagayogo goes down to the river. He wishes peace to the Bozo fisherman making the last repairs to his craft, his channel to life — ready for the water tomorrow. The wish of peace is returned. He wishes peace to the Malinke labourer finishing his final mud bricks; a day of repetition, with earth and water. The wish of peace is returned. He wishes peace to the two Fulani women returning after selling milk and butter in a nearby village market. They return the wish of peace.

Choosing his spot, the great teacher stands to commence his talk with God. He marvels again at the vermillion beauty, as God begins to change the colour on his brushes to yellow, red and orange. A heron flies by in that elegant movement that we associate with that bird in flight. He watches its majestic motion until he can see it no more, and the silhouette of the boatman, his pole rising and falling, as the water begins its dreamtime shimmering. A flock of birds go skimming over the water. 

Caught in the reverie of his discourse with the Creator, he says a quick prayer of thanks for the moments of peace and beauty. Gathering up his robe, he walks rapidly back to town to deliver the Maghrib prayer at Jingererber Mosque.

It’s sad to think that the present is somewhat overshadowing the past and its beautiful history of learning; that we hear the name Boko Haram rather than the Yan Taru women teachers. When terror darkens communities in present-day Nigeria, Cameroon, Somalia and Mali — I think of those, past and present, who metamorphosed into lighthouses. I salute those of the present, such as the monumental Mama Kiota (cho-tah) and her work in Niger. But my first salute goes to the pioneers. To Nana Asma’u in Nigeria; to Modibbo al-Hajj Asmanu in Cameroon; to Dada (grandmother) Masiti in Somalia — and to Muhammed Bagayogo in Mali. They looked on God and envisaged peace.

Bagayogo was a man destined to teach, who appears to have been happiest when he was a conduit to knowledge. This is what Ahmed Baba writes about his teaching: “He had enormous patience in teaching throughout the entire day and was able to get his matter across to even the dull-witted, never feeling bored or tired, until those attending his class would grow fed up without it bothering him. I once heard one of our colleagues say: ‘I think this jurist drank Zamzam so that he would not get fed up during teaching.’”

Bagayogo was the hallmark of a brilliant teacher; he could have written a teaching manual. According to Ahmed Baba’s description, Bagayogo is like the Patron Saint of Special Needs Learners. I get the impression that he could have taught in any environment — special needs, prisons and adult education, to name a few — and that his patience and positivity would engage the most reluctant of learners.

I think of his life as a template, a blueprint for the 21st century. The two things he loved after God were knowledge and peace — the first a stepping-stone to the second. He made his faith live, a beautiful testament to God. People loved him because of his evident humanity, because he came to share and not to exploit. With today’s constant focus on those who conflate faith with terror, we need to recognize and raise the profile of figures such as Muhammed Bagayogo. Although he’s left us physically, his spirit of inclusion remains, wandering and whispering love.

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