Boubacar O Keita
I got up at one o’clock this morning, like every morning, to pray with my fellow disciples. Our living space is upstairs, but our guide, Sheikh Bilal, leads prayers in the mosque room on the ground floor
We kneel together under the Quranic inscriptions and chant the names of Allah. The meditation is called a zikr, and it lasts until dawn. Sufism is about seeking inner purity and peace; it lets the individual move closer to the spiritual and away from the world.
I’ve been living in this Sufi community for 16 years. When I was 5, my parents decided that I should become a Sufi, so my uncle brought me here to be adopted by Sheikh Bilal. The sheikh is my spiritual guide, and he is everything to me now: my father, brother, mother and sister. My parents still visit me, but the Sufi community became my family.
At the start it wasn’t easy. There was no money — the sheikh had few followers — and it wasn’t certain that we’d eat every day. When I became a disciple there were only 12 of us, living in a small cabin. Now, there are hundreds of students, and we live in this four-story zawiya, a Sufi monastery. The sheikh always said it would be like this one day. I was really happy; the new home was such a step up in the world.
The trouble is I have so many ambitions.
We eat once a day. After the dusk prayer, we all make rice and eat it together. Alongside my duties here I’m studying law at the University of Bamako. Next year, I will start taking courses in journalism, because that’s my passion. I want to study journalism in a European country, probably in France, because I already speak the language. God knows whether we will have money. If the sheikh has it, he will share it. Most Sufi students spend their time praying and meditating, but the sheikh agrees with my professional ambitions, and he’s going to help me.
The trouble is I have so many ambitions. I want to become a sheikh, a leader and spiritual guide of a Sufi community. I’d like to get married and to have kids. Studying law is hard work, but it is very nice moving between these two worlds, the spiritual and the professional. Both are rewarding. My time here is devoted to prayer, and at university, it’s devoted to study. I have to balance them.
Some people see a conflict between the two, but there isn’t. There are Sufis working in government, in factories. They carry their spirituality into the workplace. My father is a policeman, and my mother teaches at private schools around Bamako; both of them are Sufis. If I became a journalist, I would still practice my faith.
But if I am to become a sheikh, I must devote myself to God. In Sufism, there is always the ambition to rise. Sufism focuses on meditation and spirituality, not just studying. You can’t just read about God, you must know him. Sheikh Bilal shows us how to experience him. We have a strong spiritual love for our guide, for the prophet and for God. It is this love that moves me. In most zawiyas, disciples stay bonded to their guides for life. But Sheikh Bilal is an innovator — he frees his disciples after their education. He says that Sufism should not stop me from following a normal life.
Soon I am going to have to choose a path. It is hard, because Sufism isn’t understood in Mali. Some see us as Rastas who wear weird shoes and grow dreadlocks. But I have lots of friends. I’m a son of Bamako. We meet and socialize like anyone else, but then I come home in the evening and do the prayers I’ve missed. My fellow disciples spend most of the day here, praying and worshipping. After dinner, I go to bed. I have to be up again at 1 a.m.
As told to Jack Watling and Paul Raymond
This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project
First Published by OZY
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.