Sheikh Al-Haj Umar Taal al-Futi

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 He was an accomplished scholar, author and social activist. He combined the greater holy war (jihad al-akbar) against the ego-self (nafs) with the lesser war of arms (jihad al-asghar) in the hope of establishing a Muslim empire of justice and peace in West Africa. His magnum opus, the Kitab rimah hizb al-rahim ‘ala nuhur hizb al-rajim (“The Book of the Lances of the League of (Allah) the Merciful Against the Necks of the League of (Satan) The Accursed”), is considered a veritable compendium and one of the most important works of the nineteenth century anywhere in the Muslim world (Hunwick, 1992). The work is normally printed with the major work of the Tijaniyya, the Jawahir al-Ma’ani. The “Umarian” state Al-Hajj Umar was forged by 1860, although shortlived, it was one of the largest ever seen in West Africa. His legacy of resistance to French colonial conquest has inspired West Africans from all walks of life to the present time.

He was a giant of this tariqah. The Qutb al-Ghawth of his age, the complete khalifah of the Qutb al-Maktum Shaykh Ahmad Tijan (RA), a consummate scholar of the four schools of Islamic law, a legendary Mujahid warrior who established an Islamic Tijani empire in West Africa, the destroyer of disbelief and Idol-Worship, a brilliant author and a personality to whom we cannot do justice. If he did not do anything but author the great Kitab al-Rimah, it would have been enough service for the tariqah Tijaniyyah. Indeed, it is the second most referred to book in the tariqah after the Jawahir al-Ma’ani, and is usually published with the Jawahir (a major manual of the tariqah by Ali Harazim on Sheikh Ahmad Tijani).

He inherited the Qutbaniyyah (a rank within the hierarchy of saints in Islam) after the death of the qutb Sidi Muhammad al-Habib, son of Sheikh Ahmad Tijani, who in turn had inherited the qutbaniyyah after Sidi Ali al-Tamasini, the immediate khalifah of Sheikh Ahmad Tijani. Sheikh Umar was walking out of the mosque when this happened and suddenly felt the burden of the entire world on his shoulders.

Al-Hajj Umar was born in Helwar, Futa Toro, in present-day northern Senegal. He hailed from the noble Fulani, a people who had become renowned for their Islamic scholarship throughout West Africa by the seventeenth century. His father Cherno Saidu studied at the famous Islamic university of Pir Sanikhor in Senegal.

He was martyred in Mali, inside a cave that was blown up by disbelievers. What is amazing is that while the injured bodies of his companions were found in the cave, his own body was never found. This was considered a miracle. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that his body was never burnt, for it is narrated that the fire of hell was forbidden on anyone who prayed behind him!

Once a man who was carrying some meat in his pocket prayed behind him. Afterwards, when he tried cooking the meat, the fire had no effect on the meat. His tariqah spread to such an extent that he and some Moroccan Tijanis (such as Sidi Akansus) thought that he was the predicted Sahib al-Faydah (a prophesy of Sheikh Ahmad Tijani of divine bestowal of mercy and gnosis that shall come upon his followers). However, this claim was relinquished by him later on, and neither his descendants or anyone else ascribed it to him afterwards. The man many regard as the Sahib al-Faydah, Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse had clarified the matter once and for all in his book Kashif al-Ilbas.

 

Words by Alieu A Bah

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