“May our love not be centered upon ourselves! May this love not incite us to love only those who are like us or to espouse ideas that are simililar to our own! To only love that which resembles us is to love oneself; this is not how to love.”
These are words spoken by the Malian mystic Tierno Bokar in the 1930’s. Known as Soudan during the era of French rule, Mali had been largely Muslim for centuries and Tierno was a disciple of the Sufi tradition of Islam. The unity of all believers, like the unity of humankind, was basic in his teaching.
“To believe that one’s race or one’s religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be. Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air. Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something. Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is God or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.”
Tierno (pronounced ‘Chair-no’) Bokar grew up in a devout Muslim household surrounded by social conflict in Segou, a major town of southern Mali. While periodic battles threatened the population, his mother, aunt and grandmother taught and lived the virtues of love and charity. Following his father’s flight with one of the contending militias, Tierno and family settled at 18 in the village of Bandiagara where he lived the rest of his life. As a man who exemplified modesty and humility, he taught that God bestowed faith and wisdom on all peoples regardless of their level of technological advance or education. Although highly literate himself, Tierno’s humility along with his sensitivity and respect for those without education led him to teach through oral communication only.
His leading disciple Amadou Hampate Ba wrote that Tierno had said, “Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives.” Ba urged us to remember that all of Tierno’s words “came out of a modest room of dried earth, in the heart of black Africa, in 1933”. Amadou Ba’s 1957 record, published in French, of his master’s teaching was titled A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar in the 2008 English translation.
After the Catholic Director of the colonial Office of Muslim Affairs read Amadou Ba’s transcript of Tierno’s words, he wrote,
“These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speakers nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause god to lie in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.”
At the age of 33 Tierno Bokar opened his school, or “zawiya”, in Bandiagara. It was where Amadou Ba began his education. After years of study in the colony’s French schools and university, Ba spent six months in 1933 with Tierno, his first and foremost teacher. His copious notes recording for himself and others what this master of wisdom and faith taught represents the only account of Tierno’s teachings.
Apart from his emphasis on tolerance and the unity of humankind, Tierno Bokar appealed to his pupils to find what God was trying to communicate to us through our senses and the “Book of Life”. As Jesus sought to do with the parables, Tierno often based his lessons on seeking the meaning of commonly shared experience. Amadou Ba’s book tells a moving story of his teacher repairing a bird nest and follows it with Tierno recounting an incident when his dog served him as an example of faithfulness. Ba comments, “For him, all of nature, animals and plants included, should be respected because they are not only our nourishing Mother, but they are, moreover, the great divine Book wherein everything is a living symbol and a source of teaching.”
During the six month sabbatical from his post in the colonial administration Ba asked Tierno whether it was good to study other religions. The “sage of Bandiagara” replied,
“You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith. Certainly faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up. Otherwise , it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.”
Tierno Bokar then added, “That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion – for there can only be one Religion- are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time. As for the sources of religion itself,” he went on to say, “it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or space, a spark which God breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.”
Founding his beliefs on love and humility, Tierno’s teachings on religious tolerance came naturally. A plea for the unity of all believers accompanied his teaching on tolerance:
“Brothers of all religions, let us in God lower the boundaries that separate us. Down with the artificial creations that pit human being against each other….. Let us fly as an eagle with powerful wings towards the union of hearts towards a religion that is not inclined towards the exclusion of other ‘credos’ but towards the universal union of believers, freed from their own selves and morally liberated from the appetites of this world.”
Tierno advocated respect and acceptance for Christian missionaries and colonial officials: “This religion, which Jesus sought to deliver and which was loved by Muhammad, is that which, like pure air, is in permanent contact with the sun of Truth and Justice, as well as with the Love of the Good and Charity for all.”
It is with excitement that I introduce most of you readers to the teaching of Tierno Bokar. I am looking forward to re reading Ba’s book again and expect it will soon fill with my scrawled notes and comments. The lessons of a heightened awareness of what is going on around us in nature, the animal and plant realms in particular, hold a special appeal for me as I approach three quarters of a century in age. I also plan to order the only other book I know of that treats Tierno’s insights on God’s presence. Published in 1984 it is by the author of the introduction to Ba’s book, Dr. Louis Brenner, and is titled West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalife Tall .