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Background: Peter Brook


1200s The Mali empire is established by Sundiata Keita.

View map of Mali Empire, c. 1300s

c. 1400–50 Mali begins its slow decline and the Songhay empire is lead by Sonni Ali.

View map of Songhay Empire, c. 1500s

1591 Moroccan invasion brings an end to the Songhay empire.

1852–64 El Hajj Umar Tal wages a jihad, conquering the powerful states of Kaarta, Segu, and Masina, all of which were located in present-day Mali.

c. 1875 Tierno Bokar is born in Segu to the nephew of El Hajj Umar Tal and the daughter of an eminent Sufi leader.

1880s–90s The French conquer the cities of Bamako, Segu, and Bandiagara, creating the colony of Soudan.

1893 Tierno Bokar arrives with mother and aunt in Bandiagara.

1901 Amadou Hampaté Bâ is born in Bandiagara.

1908 Bamako named capital of the colony of Soudan Français.

1918 Tierno Bokar opens a zawiya (a Muslim center of mystical or esoteric education). Amadou Hampaté Bâ is educated in francophone schools as well as in the zawiya of Tierno Bokar.

1920s Amadou Hampaté Bâ enters into the colonial administration as a clerk and interpreter.

View map of French possessions and mandates in northern Africa, 1925

1937 Tierno Bokar breaks with his family and publicly recognizes as his spiritual master Sheikh Hamallah of Nioro du Sahel, a town on the desert edge in Western Mali. An iconoclastic figure, Hamallah was at that time opposed by both the French colonial administration and regional Sufi leaders, including members of Tierno Bokar's own family.

1938 Tierno Bokar returns to Bandiagara and is ostracized for his new allegiance. He is forced to close his zawiya.

1939 Tierno Bokar dies and is buried at his mother's feet.

1946 Gradual postwar liberalization of the colonial regime; establishment of political parties led by Africans across French West Africa.

1957 Having been elected to French colonial research institute, IFAN, Amadou Hampaté Bâ collaborates with Marcel Cardaire to publish Vie et Ensiegnement de Tierno Bokar: Le Sage de Bandiagara (Paris: Présence Africaine)

January 1959 Soudan and Senegal elect to join and form the Mali Federation, an autonomous nation within the French Community.

June 1960 The Mali Federation declares its independence from France.

August 1960 Mali Federation breaks up into the republics of Mali and Senegal. In Mali, President Modibo Keita establishes a noncapitalist regime that descends into a dictatorship.

1960s Amadou Hampaté Bâ becomes director of the Malian Institute for Research in Human Sciences as well as ambassador to the Cote d'Ivoire.

1962–1970 Amadou Hampaté Bâ serves on the executive board of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

1968–91 A military junta led by Lt. Moussa Traoré seizes power from Keita and establishes another dictatorship.

1976 Hampaté Bâ publishes the award-winning novel L'Etrange Destin de Wangrin ou les Roueries d'un Interprète Africain, (Novel, UGE) (translated as The Fortunes of Wangrin).

1980 Re-publication of Vie et Ensiegnement de Tierno Bokar, (Paris: Editions Seuil).

View map of modern-day Mali

1991 Before his death on May 15, Hampaté Bâ publishes first volume of his memoirs, Amkoullel, l'enfant Peul (Actes Sud).

March 1991 The army topples Traoré after scores of students and women were killed during widespread urban protests.

March 1992 The military hands power to a democratically elected president, A. O. Konaré, who is an archaeologist and historian. Mali pursues a neoliberal path to development.

1994 Publication of the second volume of Bâ's memoirs, Oui, mon Commandant! (Actes Sud).

2002 Konaré steps down after his constitutionally mandated second term, handing power over to an elected successor, Amadou Toumani Touré.

Peter Brook
Amadou Hampaté Bâ
at UNESCO (1962)
UNESCO / Claude Bablin

Gregory Mann on Amadou Hampaté Bâ
Hampaté Bâ did an enormous amount of work to reconcile the worlds of oral literature and tradition in West Africa, African traditional knowledge, and the French literate public. He saw himself as navigating between an oral tradition and a written tradition, and as an interpreter between West African religious traditions, Malian traditions, and the broader world. He wanted to represent the best of West Africa to France and to the world beyond France. Early in his career as an administrator, Hampaté Bâ worked as an interpreter for the colonial state. He became both a very well educated and a very cosmopolitan man. At the same time he remained very indebted to and interested in and a defender of his upbringing in Bandiagara and his religious traditions.

Gregory Mann is a Professor of History at Columbia University.

Peter Awn on Sufism
The word sufism most probably—though even the early Muslim scholars aren't sure—comes from the Arabic word for wool, suf. And a sufi was someone who wore a coarse woolen garment, most probably, but this is a guess, in imitation of the Syrian and Egyptian Christian monks that the early Muslims encountered in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts. So it has this resonance with Christian monasticism and eventually will have equally as much resonance with Buddhist monasticism.

Sufism begins—at least in its written form, where we have some sort of written sources—to show its face in the eighth century. Remember Mohammad is born around the time 570; he dies in the year 632, in the early seventh century. What is so extraordinary is within a hundred years a whole political and imperial structure had been built, based first in Medina, then quickly moving to Damascus, a highly sophisticated urban area, and eventually to Baghdad. So this vision that emerges out of a tribal desert region soon becomes very much tied to classic imperial structures and very, very sophisticated urban environments.

Some argue that the emergence of Sufism was in reaction to the extraordinary wealth and urbanization that took place very early on in the Islamic period that somehow was an abandonment of this original pristine desert vision of a simple life. And so you have preachers arguing for a rejection of wealth, a rejection of opulence, because it distracted you from your commitment to the one God. So you had a very vocal and articulate ascetical movement beginning to appear in the 700s and 800s. This eventually gets temporized by the addition of a love mysticism, arguing that the only point of asceticism is just to prepare you to shift your priorities away from the sensual and the material and power politics to really establishing an intimate and loving relationship with God. And quickly then you begin to see a literature emerging, especially a poetic literature, that provides you then with a spiritual practice to help you achieve this goal of union with God. And over time this becomes the catalyst for the production of extraordinary poetic literature in many different parts of the Islamic world. And eventually this has a huge impact on Islamic philosophy, because where one branch of Islamic philosophy relied heavily on Aristotelian thinking, the Sufis embraced the more esoteric, Neoplatonist strain, and they developed it to a level of sophistication that was really quite extraordinary.

Peter Awn is Dean of the School of General Studies and Professor of Religion at Columbia University.