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Praying for Life

Sahelian forms of artistry are a manifestation, or a visual translation, of an overarching ontology. Its plastic language can be understood as the language of a philosophy of the force of life.

Musée des Confluences, (photo by Louis Desplagnes)

“Praying for Life” by Souleymane Bachir Diagne originally appeared in Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara by Alisa LaGamma, which accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The exhibition is curated by Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with the assistance of Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator, and Research Associate Hakimah Abdul-Fattah.

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The Senegalese poet, philosopher, and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) explained that, although they are different in their languages and rituals, traditional religions in West Africa share the same cosmological framework: the universe is a hierarchy of forces, from the Force of forces, which is God, to the mineral, via the departed ancestors, who remain active forces in the community, to living humans, animals, and plants. Or as Senghor put it, “from God to the pebble.” In the same vein, the French anthropologists Louis-Vincent Thomas and René Lumeau have reported in their two-volume collection of African oral religious texts that traditional prayers in West Africa, in spite of the great “diversity of their expressions and the circumstances that inspired them, share the feature of being very often prayers for life”

Praying Figure, Middle Niger civilization, Mali, (12th–14th century) terracotta; private collection (photo credit: Hughes Dubois)

The authors are perfectly aware of the differences between the cultures, languages, and religious rituals from one region to another. They are simply stating the empirical fact that there are common denominators among the cosmologies that constitute the traditional belief systems among the peoples of Sahelian West Africa, and that the notion of “life force,” often referred to by its Bamana name, nyama, is central to those cosmologies and constitutes such a common denominator. Those dynamic, continuously emerging West African cosmologies can be described as resting upon the following ontological principles:

  1. To be, to exist, is to be a force.
  2. The universe is a hierarchy of forces, the Force of forces being God, and nothing is inert because the minerals, plants, animals, and human beings, those alive and those who became “ancestors” when they departed from this world, are all living forces.
  3. Forces can increase or decrease, “reinforce” or “de-force,” as Senghor also said.
  4. The purpose of the force is to be more force.
  5. What is ethically good is defined as what increases the life force, and bad is what decreases it.

One first commentary to be made is that the fundamental principle of existence, meaning the existence of a force of life, does not mean that in every existing thing a force resides. It is to say that to exist is the same thing as to be a force. “Force” is not a predicate attributed to the existing subject, it is the subject itself, or rather, the agent. The ontology underlying West African traditional cosmologies is not the static ontology of the attribution of predicates to a stable subject; it is the dynamic ontology of continuously increasing and decreasing forces of life. It expresses the fact that the Force of forces did not create once and for all a universe to be contemplated. On the contrary, its creative act is always at work within a continuously emerging cosmology. And, most important, it is the role and responsibility of individual beings to participate in that continued cosmic movement, of an increase and intensification of the force of life. The production of art objects is an essential dimension of that generative process.

Accordingly, the Sahelian forms of artistry are themselves a manifestation, or a visual translation, of an overarching ontology. The plastic language that has given shape to massive stone megaliths or simple pebbles, the animal and human figures assembled from organic matter, fashioned from clay, or carved out of wood, and even the golden ornaments: all can be understood as the language of that philosophy of the force of life. What it says is that underneath the way the reality of an existence appears to our sight is a throbbing “sub-reality” and a certain rhythm, to use again the language of Senghor. That sub-reality is the aim of the creative agent, who produces a material manifestation of the force of life. This is not something that imitates reality as it appears to the faculty that Senghor calls our “reason-eye,” meaning the faculty that sees at a distance its object; on the contrary, it is the “reason-embrace” of the creator, the faculty to abolish distance and be one with that which captures and grasps the true (sub)reality of the object, and uses different nonmimetic visual means (geometric forms, for example) to offer it to the reception of those who come to be in its presence. In a word: the creator accesses the rhythm of the object beneath its appearance and is able to present it through her art to those who will receive it through the “rhythmic attitude” that is required.

Pendant: Male Figure with Crossed Arms, Middle Niger civilization, Mali, (9th–14th century); bronze; Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva (photo credit: © Fondation Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo by Luis Lourenço)
Prisoner, Dogon peoples, Mali, (19th–mid-20th century) bronze; private collection (photo credit: Frederic Dehaen-Bruxelles)

The history, cultures, sciences, languages, and arts of Sahelian West Africa cannot be understood isolated from Islam. That religion and its civilization has had a pervasive presence for more than a millennium in a region that came to be known, in the Arabic chronicles of its history, as Bilad as-Sudan, or simply Sudan, meaning “land of the Blacks.” The expansion of Islam southward from the shores of the Sahara (the very meaning of “Sahel”) followed the paths of the trade conducted by certain ethnic groups that became Muslims early on: the Sanhaja Berbers, the Jula, the Zawaya, and the Fulbe. For those who embraced it, over time Islam played a crucial role in restructuring their worldviews, cultures, and languages, introducing, for example, new periodicities, or conceptions of time. This, in turn, is reflected in the hybridization of regional languages with words related to time and temporalities adapted from the Arabic tongue. That is evidently a sign of the way in which the cosmology of the Qur’an contributed to shaping a Sahelian worldview.

Does that mean that Islam entered into conflict with the arts produced by the philosophy of the force of life? Islam against the idols? In her seminal 1986 study Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa, architecture historian Labelle Prussin addressed that very question, writing that “masking and masked ceremonies have always been considered a very distinctive, if not the most distinctive, feature of traditional West African ritual and of traditional plastic and sculptural art, and it has been generally assumed that with the arrival of Islam, masking traditions suffered and ultimately disintegrated under the impetus of prohibitions against images and idols.” Despite the long-standing assumption she raises, Prussin demonstrates in her assessment of the region’s architectural history that for the most part Islam was “rethought, rephrased, and remolded to the sub-Saharan cultural milieu” and became “woven into the cultural fabric” instead of disintegrating it.

The assumption that Islam declared a war on traditional African artistic creativity is itself a manifestation of a more general assumption that Islam came as a total stranger to impose itself by violence upon the populations of West Africa. Conquering Islam? Ahmad Baba, certainly the best-known scholar among those who made the city of Timbuktu the great intellectual center that it has been for centuries, famously wrote that the people of the Sudan “converted to Islam without anybody conquering them.” That statement was a firm response to certain opinions put forward by some, in the Maghreb and beyond, who did not want to see challenged the legal basis of the trans-Saharan slave trade, of which many West African peoples were victim. In addition to the myth according to which Black people were the descendants of Ham and therefore condemned to slavery, they would invoke a legend that had gained some currency in northern Africa, namely, that some “legitimate imam” had in the past supposedly conquered the Sudan as a result of a jihad. That imam was then said to have spared the lives of the subjugated Black people under the condition that they would be slaves from then on. Such a status was supposed to mean that the Sudanese people were de jure always susceptible of becoming the de facto property of slave traders, who could rightfully own them with no regard for the possibility that they could be Muslims.

Fritz Nansen (German, active early 20th century), “Timbuktu Landscape” (1908) oil on canvas; National Museum van Wereldculturen, Netherlands

In his Replies on Slavery, better known under the title of his book Mi‘raj al Suud ila nayl hukm mujallab al-Sud (The Ladder of Ascent toward Grasping the Law Concerning Imported Blacks), Ahmad Baba made the statement quoted above as a clear denunciation of those myths. In that work, written in 1615, during the last period of his life, the scholar from Timbuktu — who had been captured in 1591 and deported to Marrakesh by the army of the Moroccan sultan, who had attacked what then remained of the Songhay empire — was sweeping away the fabricated “curse of the descendants of Ham,” which turned them into “Blacks,” as well as the invention of a mysterious “Imam” having conquered and enslaved the Sudan. His Replies were an indictment of those who would try to justify the trans-Saharan trade of human beings. Ahmad Baba emphasized the illegality and infamy, from the standpoint of Sharia law, of the enslavement of West African people on the sole basis of their race, regardless of the limitations set by the Islamic religion.

The validity and significance of Ahmad Baba’s statement setting the record straight goes beyond the legal context in which it was made. That the people of the Sudan “converted to Islam without anyone conquering them” said something important about the history of the Islamization of the region and the philosophical meaning of conversion to Abrahamic monotheism. The history of Timbuktu, a city populated by those groups and others, is a testimony to the tradition of learning and erudition in Islamic disciplines across the region of West Africa. It reminds us that the translatio studii as the transfer and translation of Greek philosophy and sciences was not a single linear path from Athens to Rome and from Rome to Latin Christian Europe. Instead, the translation also followed trajectories that led from Athens to Baghdad, to Córdoba, to Kairouan, to Fez, and to Timbuktu. So the history of Timbuktu tells us that the Sahara was not a wall separating the northern Mediterranean regions of the continent from what Hegel called “Africa proper.” It was a space of conjunction crossed by many trans-Saharan routes, and Timbuktu was one of the main destinations.

Kneeling Figure, Middle Niger civilization, Mali, (11th–14th century) terracotta; private collection (Photo credit: Hughes Dubois)

From southern Spain, the Maghreb, and the Middle East, all manner of goods, books, scholars, paper, and ideas flowed to Timbuktu. From Timbuktu to the rest of the Muslim world, goods and enslaved or free peoples, including scholars, students, and pilgrims, traveled. Like other places in the Sudan, Timbuktu was an intellectual center where scholars taught and wrote in Arabic and sometimes in other African languages using the Arabic script: texts on art, medicine, sciences, philosophy, theology, Sufism, jurisprudence, etc. This tradition of learning and teaching was not, however, confined to Sahelian urban centers. It spread, following the paths opened to it by learned Muslim traders and missionaries. Thus the “people of Diankha,” as Muslim clerics from the Jakhanke ethnic group called themselves, developed from Senegal to Kano important centers of learning. Scholar Lamin Sanneh, in his works on the Jakhanke Muslim clerics, has emphasized that they upheld “the Suwarian tradition,” named after al-Hajj Salim Suware, their almost mythical ancestor who lived in the 12th or 13th century. In Sanneh’s account, Suware was the model of the pacifist cleric, believing that only the force of persuasion and education could spread the message of Islam, since it primarily requires consent. Suware and the clerics who followed his pacifist tradition did not tolerate the use of violence. Through dispersion and resettlement, the Jakhanke scholars created, over the centuries, different places of learning modeled upon Diankha, the first such center developed by their ancestor Suware.

The different outbreaks of jihad in West Africa should not be ignored. Certain clerics launched wars to submit the “pagans” to the rule of Islam and to combat those they considered enemies of the faith. But the lesson of the Jakhanke upholders of the pacifist tradition of Islam has always been that much more could be achieved through learning and education than the ephemeral results of jihads, not just those launched to convert the “pagans” but also those fought against colonial rule. That spirit transmitted its main traits to Islam in the Sudan, and the Sufi brotherhoods whose teaching accelerated the spread of Islam during European colonialism continued that tradition, knowing that time and the patience of education would achieve the goal of developing a self-assured Muslim identity in the Sudan better than the sound and fury of religious wars.

To say that Islam in West Africa was neither the result of conquest nor that of compulsion implies that the adoption of the religion was not the loss or the violent replacement of an identity through the total destruction of the cosmology within which it was defined, but rather a reorientation of it and the infusion of the language of Qur’anic cosmology into ancient regional vernaculars. “Islamic” design became an important feature of the arts of West Africa, just as religious praise poetry became an integral part of oral traditions and the Arabic script itself became an artistic motif incorporated in many different idioms, from the embroidery on tunics to the leather amulets attached to hunters’ shirts. But the most visible form of this synthesis is in the Sahelian vernacular of its adobe architecture.

Apropos of Islamic architecture, the discourse of a conquest by “the North” is again manifest in the long-held view that the Sudan received from the Maghreb the models of its mosques. The individual credited with this transfer was Abu Ishaq al-Sahili. This Andalusian poet, who was born about 1290 in Granada and died in 1346 in Timbuktu, is said to have accompanied Mansa Musa when he returned from his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and to have been commissioned by him as the official architect of the empire. The narrative was thus that he created the style best illustrated by the Great Mosque of Timbuktu, known as Djinguereber. Today scholars agree that Abu Ishaq al-Sahili may have played some role, but the urban history of the region and what came to be known as the Sudanese architectural style was developed instead by Sahelian creative ingenuity.

Kneeling Figure, Middle Niger civilization, Mali, (11th–14th century) terracotta; private collection (Photo credit: Hughes Dubois)

The West African mosques express in their very architecture a philosophy of time and a cosmology that are in continuity with the cosmology of life force. To build “the house of God” is to make it appear as if it is coming out of the living alluvium on the shores of the Niger River, as if it is continuously being born of the Sahelian land, receiving like celestial mercy the life brought by rains. In a word, to build a mosque is to give to the push of life the form that suits the house of God.

Another aspect of that philosophy is that the work it creates does not pretend to be eternal; it is an expression not of monumentality and permanence but of transience, which is life. Far from attempting to defy and evade time, it belongs to it, is housed in it, lives in it, reminding us that, while God is the Eternal, it is also true, as the prophetic tradition (hadith) says, that “time is God.” The need to continuously and periodically repair and heal is inscribed in the building itself: the exposed wooden beams that come out of its walls (or at least the minaret) made of mud have a decorative function but also function like a permanent scaffolding, facilitating periodic repairs and replastering, revivification and rebirth. The Sudanese style is thus the expression of a dynamic ontology, of a continuously emerging cosmology.

If it is true that outbursts of religious zeal and iconoclasm have sometimes led to the destruction of figurative sculpture and other evidence of “pagan” rituals, it is also true that the “disintegration” did not happen. The cosmology of the vital force did not simply survive Islamization, it integrated it. From the kneeling Middle Niger figures to the Great Mosque, these creations are manifestations of an ever-expanding civilization and were conceived as prayers for life.

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