By Jean Claude Froelich
Umar Tal was born in the upper valley of the Sénégal River, in the land of the Tukulor people. His father was an educated Muslim who instructed students in the Qur??n, and ?Umar, a mystic, perfected his studies in Arabic and the Qur??n with Moorish scholars who initiated him into the Tij?n? brotherhood.
At the age of 23, ?Umar set out on the pilgrimage to Mecca. He was already well known for his piety and erudition and was received with honour in the countries through which he traveled. Muhammad Bello, emir of Sokoto in Nigeria, offered him his daughter Maryam in marriage. Enriched by this princely alliance, ?Umar had become an important personage when he reached Mecca about 1827. He visited the tomb of the Prophet in Medina, returned to Mecca, and then settled for a while in Cairo. On a visit to Jerusalem he succeeded in curing a son of Ibrahim Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. In Mecca, finally, he was designated caliph for black Africa by the head of the Tij?n? brotherhood.
Armed with his prestige as a scholar, mystic, and miracle worker, ?Umar returned to the interior of Africa in 1833. Trained for political leadership by his father-in-law, Muhammad Bello, the emir of Sokoto, with whom he again spent several years, and his position strengthened by the title of caliph, ?Umar now decided to obey the voice of God and to convert the pagan Africans to Isl?m. By now he not only was looked upon as a miracle worker but also had acquired a bodyguard of followers and of devoted Hausa slaves.
Upon the death of Bello, he departed for his native country, hoping to conquer the Fouta region with the assistance of the French, in exchange for a trade treaty, an agreement the French declined because of ?Umar’s growing strength. ?Umar realized that faith without force would be ineffective and made careful preparations for his task. In northeastern Guinea, where he first established himself, he wrote down his teachings in a book called Kit?b rim?? ?izb ar-ra??m (“Book of the Spears of the Party of God”). Deriving his inspiration from ??fism—a mystic Isl?mic doctrine—he defined the Tij?n? “way” as the best one for saving one’s soul and for approaching God. He recommended meditation, self-denial, and blind obedience to the sheikh. He gained many followers in Guinea, but, when in 1845 he went to preach in his own country, he met with little success.
Having built up an army, ?Umar decided to use force. In March 1854 he issued an order for a jihad to sweep away the pagans and bring back the Muslims who had strayed from the fold. Starting out with about 10,000 men who lived off the land, he spread terror in order to force the pagan chieftains to submit. In 1855 he defeated the Bambara pagans of Mali, adding to his empire. He forcibly converted them, yet these conversions proved to be ineffectual. To defend his authority ?Umar had 300 hostages executed, but revolt broke out again as soon as his armies were removed.
After an unsuccessful attack on a French fort that had refused to supply him weapons, ?Umar again set off toward the east, but he had great difficulty subsisting in a land already ravaged. His men deserted, and his companions began to doubt his mission.
Having been unable to decisively conquer his adversaries, ?Umar was to spend the next 10 years trying to contain his empire. Repressing new revolts, he was led eastward by the resistance he stirred up. In 1860 he signed a treaty with the French general Louis Faidherbe, governor of Senegal, accepting the Sénégal River as a common boundary.
?Umar perennially had to defend his conquests and foil hostile coalitions without giving up the principle of the jihad. This proved difficult, however, when he was confronted by the Fulani people of the Masina, who were Muslims, followers of the Q?dir? brotherhood. When ?Umar attacked the Fulani, he no longer represented the “wrath of God”—he was a conqueror; his mission turned into a fratricidal war. Both armies prayed to the same God before the battle. ?Umar, recognizing the danger to his divine mission, proposed a duel with A?madu III, the leader of the Fulani army. But the latter refused the judgment of God. ?Umar won the battle, and A?madu was captured and beheaded.
In 1863 ?Umar took possession of the city of Timbuktu, but, defeated by the nomadic Tuaregs, he had to beat a retreat. In a subsequent battle, attacked by the Tuaregs, the Moors, and the Fulani, his army was destroyed. He withdrew to the city of Hamdalahi, where he was besieged. He escaped and took refuge in a cave but was killed when the cave was blown up with gunpowder.
Al-??jj ?Umar Tal’s empire lasted 50 years, from 1848 to 1897, when it was annexed by the French. Few of the Mali people still remember it, except the descendants of the Tij?n? initiates or the Fulani and Bambaras, who suffered the conqueror’s cruelties. In order to enhance his own position, General Faidherbe described ?Umar in his reports as the symbol of resistance to French penetration, at the same time recognizing his virtues and his courage. In fact, ?Umar was not anxious to oppose the French. He had sought their neutrality and had hoped to buy arms from them, but they had other sources and feared his power. The mosque of Dinguiraye in Guinea is all that remains of ?Umar’s empire.
?Umar Tal lived, fought, and died more like a 7th-century warrior than a 19th-century political leader. He was a mystic, and his life resembled those of the early followers of the Prophet Mu?ammad, who fought in the name of God and converted by fire and the sword. Senegalese poets, singing of ?Umar’s life, have compared it with the Prophet’s. Some have glorified him and lauded his victories, citing the thousands he killed and the thousands he sold into slavery as proof of the divine character of his mission; others to this day hate him for having shed Muslim blood.