After lunch we drive over hard bumpy terrain to a sacred oasis.
“Why is this oasis sacred?” I asked.
Salah, a friend who lives in a desert camp not far from here and who has been our generous host today, points to a tiny crumbling shack on the hillside.
“Because of the marabout; a saint lived there.”
Inside the marabout we find pieces of cloth tied to the collapsing ceiling rafters. They are instantly identifiable as some kind of prayer flags, a recognized form of sending prayers to heaven from the Buddhist tradition. It was a complete surprise to discover them here in the Sahara.
There was no question in my heart and mind, I tear a strip of cloth from my headscarf, find a palm branch to attach it to and set my prayer.
One of the archaeology experts and guides, Idir, also wants to leave a prayer. We both begin to walk anti-clockwise around the tiny building, following rituals from different spiritual practices. We make 3 rounds each and later Idir tells me that some people make 7 rounds.
But is this an Islamic practice? In Senegal, (I discovered online) a marabout is a leader of a religious community and is also known as a Sufi murshid, a practitioner of more ancient animalistic rituals such as animal sacrifice and the use of talismans. As the equivalent of a shaman, they were revered and sometimes referred to as saints.
Karima tells me that a small building like the one at this oasis is to be found in most if not all villages and she has always been curious as to why certain members of the community refuse to attend the ceremonies, where animals are still sacrificed to this day. This is a separate kind of killing to the annual Muslim religious slaughter of a goat at Eid, a reenactment of Abrahams torturous but ultimately heavenly moment of Divine communication, when according to scripture, God relieved him of the task of murdering his son when he saw Abraham was indeed willing to completely and unquestioningly bend to his will and a goat was killed instead.
Perhaps, as the Christian missionaries did across Africa and South America, where certain pagan and voodoo rites where adopted and adapted into their practices, to transition indigenous peoples across to a new religion, the Muslim faith has also retained some pre-Islamic languaging and stories, places and people that were integral to community spirituality still remain etched into social memory, with a twist.
A marabout stays a marabout, a place where a saint lived and where people asked for prayers to be answered. Although of course, now becoming a Muslim saint. It is those two latter words, side by side, that caused me to beg these questions. Can a Muslim saint exist?
I am not a scholar and merely muse. If anyone would like to educate me further, information is most welcome. In no way are these wonderings intended to be a slur on the fastest growing religion in the world today, and the spiritual backbone of the place I choose to live, a peaceful place, they are simply the result of a wonderful day out, to a fascinating and historically meaningful location.
There my prayer lies still, hanging on the broken branch, free of religion and full of hope.