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Bâ, Amadou Hampâté

Ralph A. Austen
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Bâ, Amadou Hampâté

Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900–1991), a Malian scholar, writer, and public intellectual, was one of the major cultural figures of twentieth-century Africa. His life and work exemplify the “triple heritage” of Islamic, indigenous, and Western influences that Ali Mazrui (1986) proposed as the defining feature of modern African identity. Hampâté Bâ most frequently presented himself as a “traditionalist,” a collector and interpreter of oral traditions and oral literature (much of it involving non-Islamic rituals and beliefs) from the Fulani and Mande worlds of West Africa. He wrote, however, almost entirely in French, and his most widely read texts are works within Western literary genres: a novel, L’étrange destin de Wangrin (translated as The Fortunes of Wangrin, 1973, 1999) and two volumes of memoirs, Amkoullel, l'enfant peul (“Amkoullel, the Fulani Child, 1991) and Oui mon commandant! (Yes, District Commissioner, 994). Neither his training nor his writing followed the classical lines of Islamic scholarship but he did become an important spokesperson for Ṣūfī understandings of Islam, based upon the teachings of his mentor, Cerno Bokar Salif Tall.

Education and Religious Affiliation

The arenas in which Hampâté Bâ operated were, for the most part, those of the colonial and postcolonial secular regimes, rather than the older Islamic institutions of Sudanic West Africa. At the age of twelve he was forcibly moved out of Qurʾānic school into the French education system and from his twenty-first to forty-second year he served in the African ranks of the French colonial bureaucracy. In 1942 he transferred to the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) and began a new career dedicated to research. From 1962 to 1970 Hampâté Bâ was a member of the executive council of UNESCO, where he concerned himself more with African tradition and vernacular literacy than Islam. From 1961 to 1966 he undertook his only political mission, as Malian ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, and established a primary residence in Abidjan where he lived until his death in 1991.

Hampâté Bâ’s formal authority as a Muslim leader came from his investment as a muqaddam of the Tijānīyah, a position that allowed him to transmit the rituals and teachings of this Ṣūfī order. However, in more conventional terms, he lacked the qualifications to be considered a Muslim scholar. In the memoirs of his years as a colonial clerk in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), he describes continued efforts to find teachers who would help make up for the disruption of his Qurʾānic schooling, but there is little evidence that he ever learned enough Arabic to read advanced Islamic texts, few of which are found in his personal library. Hampâté Bâ’s most serious Islamic learning took place during a six-month leave between his Upper Volta service and a subsequent assignment in French Soudan (now Mali). He spent this time studying with Cerno Bokar and later transformed the notes from these sessions into his first and most significant publication on Islam, Cerno Bokar: le sage de Bandiagara (Cerno Bokar: the Sage of Bandiagara, 1957). Cerno Bokar’s pedagogy was aimed at a general audience rather than Muslim scholars and was carried on in the vernacular (Fulfulde) rather than Arabic; its transcription and publication by Hampâté Bâ was in French.

Hampâté Bâ’s Islamic affiliations in Africa were initially dual although he ultimately identified with the specific branch of the Tijānīyah embraced by Cerno Bokar. Cerno was a grandnephew of al-Hajj Umar Tall, the Futa Toro (Senegal) Tijānī scholar who led a jihad that conquered the Middle Niger region of Mali in the 1860s. The mother and stepfather of Hampâté Bâ were also descended from Futa Toro Tijānīs. However, among the victims of al-Hajj Umar’s campaign was an older Islamic state, Masina, led by Fulanis affiliated with the Qādirīyah. The family of Hampâté Bâ’s father came from Masina but his own allegiance to this Islamic heritage was expressed only in retrospective reflection rather than active affiliation. His second book (but first published), L'empire peul du Macina (The Fulani Empire of Masina,1955), the product of a major research effort, and based entirely on oral traditions, remains a valuable document of West African Islamic history but deals more with politics and personality than religion.

Writing and Teachings

The one point where Hampâté Bâ’s concerns with his Masina roots, oral literature, and Islam converged was in his studies and production of Fulfulde religious poetry. There was a robust practice of such Islamic composition and performance among the Fulani of Masina, and Hampâté Bâ sought to give it wider recognition even before his move to IFAN. Hampâté Bâ’s initial assignment at IFAN was the curating of a rich set of manuscripts left by Gilbert Vieillard, a French scholar-administrator who had himself collected both oral Fulfulde poetry from Masina and similar work in ajami (local vernaculars written in the Arabic alphabet) from the Futa Djallon region of Guinea. However, Hampâté Bâ soon abandoned this task to pursue his own research projects (mainly outside Dakar), most of which involved indigenous history and culture rather than Islam. Yet in what he called “my only works of ‘creation’” (as opposed to scholarship or remembrance), Hampâté Bâ did produce a considerable body of Fulfulde religious poetry. In part because it is written in ajami and thus difficult to access even for Fulfulde-speaking readers who know only the Roman alphabet, these writings have been little studied or translated.

The prose interpretations of Islam offered by Hampâté Bâ in many of his writings and interviews were almost all attributed to Cerno Bokar. Very briefly, they focus upon a basic cathechism, the maʾd din (literally, “what is religion), linked to esoteric knowledge and its decoding through numerology (Brenner, 1984). They also include parables often exemplifying humanistic practice and ecumenical tolerance of not only Christianity but also African “unbelief.” Little attention is given to formal Muslim law or theology. Since he is the main source for these ideas (transmitted by Cerno Bokar in oral rather than written form), and presented them largely for European or Westernized African readers, scholars have sometimes wondered about Hampâté Bâ’s role in formulating them. In any case, arguably Hampâté Bâ’s greatest contribution to Islamic thought is the presentation of Cerno Bokar’s teachings to an audience beyond the few pupils who encountered him in the small Malian town of Bandiagara.

Muslim Politics.

While Hampâté Bâ was neither a major Muslim leader nor a political activist, he did become involved in the politics of Islam, albeit without much influence on the outcome of the struggles into which he was drawn. Adherence to the Tijānīyah might well have served his colonial administrative career, given that the order and French authorities had established a mutually supportive relationship by the early 1930s. Cerno Bokar, however, came into conflict with the main Tijānī leadership, and thus the French as well, by joining the newly formed Ḥāmidīyah branch of the order. French persecution led to the exile and death of Shaykh Hamahullah, the movement’s leader, and contributed to the premature death of Cerno Bokar. These developments also placed Hampâté Bâ under considerable suspicion, because he made no secret of where his sympathies lay. However, the situation actually worked in his favor, because it made both Hampâté Bâ and the colonial government anxious to move him out of the administration and into research work at IFAN, where he flourished.

Hampâté Bâ’s next engagement with religious politics was on the side of the French in the 1950s. At this point the chief concern of the Bureau des Affaires Musulmanes had shifted from the Hamawiyya to reformist African Muslims returning from studies in Egypt and Arabia, who were challenging what they perceived as “traditional” Ṣūfī practices. Hampâté Bâ, who now publicly questioned the privileging of Arabic language and learning in the propagation of Islam, was encouraged by French administrators to do something against the grain of all their previous education policies: establish Islamic schools using local vernaculars as the medium of learning. This “counter-reform” project never produced any lasting results, largely because it began not long before France granted independence to its African colonies, but it marks the potentially most influential moment in Hampâté Bâ’s role as a Muslim thinker.

A comparable moment arose during the 1970s in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. By this time Hampâté Bâ had retired from all his official duties and was living in Marcory, a humble Muslim quarter of the city. His home there came the closest to realizing his often-stated ambition of founding a zawiya (Ṣūfī center). Because of the dangers (subsequently and tragically realized) of alienation between the wealthy south of Côte d’Ivoire and the poorer, largely Muslim, north, the country’s president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, sought to encourage dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the capital. Hampâté Bâ was not central to initiating this effort, but as a close friend of Houphouët and by then a much-revered figure throughout the region, well known for advocating ecumenism, he was invited to lend his name to various local Muslim associations and speak to Christian groups. As a result of this involvement he published a small book, Jésus vu par un musulman (Jesus as Seen by a Muslim, 1976), in which he combined ideas about ecumenism with his most explicitly personal interpretation of Cerno Bokar’s esoteric teachings.


Hampâté Bâ exemplifies a version of Islam and Ṣūfīsm that continues to contrast itself––and perhaps is even more contrasted by outsiders––with the rigidity and narrowness attributed to its reformist rivals in West Africa. He did so more through his life and narrative discourse than his doctrines––especially if we accept that these are mainly attributable to Cerno Bokar. As in his other fields of cultural endeavor, Hampâté Bâ thus remains a major figure in Islam in West Africa, even if one whose specific and original contributions are not so easily defined.


  • Austen, Ralph, and Benjamin Soares, eds. “Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s Life and Work Reconsidered: Critical and Historical Perspectives.” Special issue, Islamic Africa 1 (Winter 2010)
  • Brenner, Louis. “Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Tijani francophone.” In La Tijaniyya: une confrérie musulmane a la conquête de l’Afrique, edited by Jean Louis Triaud and David Robinson, pp. 289–326. Paris: Karthala, 2000.
  • Brenner, Louis. West African Ṣūfī: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Quest of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal. London: C. Hurst, 1984.
  • Devey, Muriel. Hampâté Bâ, l'homme de la tradition. Senegal: LivreSud, 1993.
  • Mazrui, Ali. The Africans: A Triple Heritage. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.
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