Every year, thousands of Mourides travel to the Holy City of Touba, east of Senegal’s capital Dakar, to celebrate the Grand Magal, one of the largest religious gatherings in West Africa. This celebration is to commemorate the exile of a Muslim spiritual leader, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, during the colonial era.
The Mouride Brotherhood is part of the four tariqa or Islamic order of Sufism (mystical teaching leading to the ultimate truth) and it is the largest of the Sufi Muslim Brotherhood forming 40 percent of Senegal’s population, which is about 16 million.
The Grand Magal is a pilgrimage by the followers of the Mouride brotherhood which is held once every year or twice every 33 years (in 2013 it was celebrated twice). Islam does not follow the Gregorian calendar and their calendar is 11 days shorter than the former.
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In Wolof, Magal means “celebration” and rightly so, as the “Grand celebration” attracts millions of pilgrims to the Holy City of Touba, otherwise known as “little Mecca”. This festival is the largest gathering ever in Senegal. From inception, the numbers have risen from thousands of attendees to about four million in recent years.
On the 18th day of Safar, which is the second month of the Islamic calendar, the Grand Magal is commemorated and that accounts for the different dates every year.
This year, celebrations started on Tuesday, October 6, and it was observed as a national holiday because the Mouride brotherhood is one of the most powerful voices in Senegal who can enforce certain rules and regulations that others in Senegal cannot. So regardless of one’s religious affiliation, the holiday is observed by all.
Bamba founded the Mouride Brotherhood in 1883. Bamba is a mystical Senegalese religious leader, writer, and preacher of hard work, pacifism and courtesy and hailed as a renewer of Islam or a mujaddid.
In 1887, Bamba founded the little village, Touba, which is now the second-most populous city in Senegal and home to the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa standing at 87-metre (285-foot).
The Holy City, Touba, is home to sacred Mouride sites like the mausoleum of Bamba and his descendants, the Central Library of Touba and the “Wall of Mercy.”
At the time, the French thought he was leading a revolt against them because of how fast his influence grew in the West African nation. He was then exiled to Gabon and then to Mauritania by the French colonial authorities in 1895 to end his influence on the people. Word of his pacifist struggle against the horrendous conditions he found himself got around and he rather gained a core following.
The French, after observing Bamba’s way of life even in exile, realized he was not a rabble-rouser and lifted the ban on his return to Senegal in 1910.
Since then, the festivities celebrate his life and teachings and return from exile. Essentially, he instructed the celebrations of the Grand Magal and it has been so since 1946. However, between 1928 and 1945, his son and successor celebrated the festivities on his death day, instead. Bamba died in 1927.
Magal is a time for communal bonding because one of the splendors of the pilgrim is the reinforcement of love for one another and hospitality.
The celebration is characterized by religious acts like the visit to the Grand Mosque where pilgrims circumnavigate, chanting and paying their respect and slipping coins. They visit the mausoleum of Bamba believed to have spiritual power or barakah. Then, there are visits to personal religious leaders or marabouts and other holy sites in Touba.
The secular aspect of the celebrations is characterized by eating and merry-making. Lunch and dinner are also eaten from a communal plate set up in Senegal, so everyone is sorted when it comes to food as well. Pilgrims also get to enjoy discounted goods at the markets since there is less regulation, making their wares cheaper than the rest of the cities.
The pacifist life of the founder drives the hospitality shown to the pilgrims during the celebrations. Pilgrims are housed freely by Touba residents. In the era of COVID-19, social distancing protocols will be hard to observe as this event is said to be one of the biggest so far to be held anywhere in the world since the pandemic hit.
Nonetheless, the health minister of Senegal, Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr, told reporters there will be 5,000 officials from his ministry in Touba to respond to all the necessary health concerns and monitor the situation on the ground.