Earlier this week, thousands of worshippers gathered for the Grand Magal pilgrimage. Centred on the Great Mosque of Touba, Senegal, the festival pays homage to Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacke, the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, a Sufi order of Islam.
Born in Senegal in 1853, this Sufi saint is known to his followers as The Servant of the Messenger and Cheikh of Touba. Now the second largest city in Senegal, it is said that Touba was founded when the Cheikh experienced a moment of transcendence and cosmic vision under a large tree. In Islamic tradition, Ṭūbā is the name of the tree of Paradise and in Sufism, this symbolic tree represents an aspiration for spiritual perfection and closeness to God.
We do not know the species of the Ṭūbā tree, but trees feature large in the pilgrim traditions of many faiths. The forbidden fruit of a tree in the garden of Eden is a central point of the moral traditions of Judaism and Christianity, although at this distance from events, its unsurprising that few can agree which fruit it was. The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury (Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’) which, by tradition, grew where Joseph of Aramathea planted his staff into the ground marks the connection between the Isle of Avalon and the Holy Land and 2000 years later the descendants of this hawthorn reinforce Glastonbury’s status as a place of pilgrimage.
The Bodhi Fig Tree or ‘tree of awakening’ (Ficus religiosa) marks where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment around 2,500 thousand years ago. The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar marks the place and is unsurprisingly an important locus for Buddhist pilgrims. In addition, this species is also considered sacred by Jains and Hindus and its shade is valued as a place of meditation.
Cleyera japonica (sakaki) is considered sacred to Japanese Shinto faith, and is one of the classical offerings at Shinto shrines. These temples are traditionally approached via a grove of sacred trees, typically ancient tall growing species such as ginkgo camphor tree and cryptomeria (sugi). According to Japanese classic mythology, the first sugi were created when the great deity Susano-o, younger brother of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, plucked hairs from his beard and scattered them across the countryside.
Aside from the events in Senegal, the Jewish pilgrim festival of ‘Sukkot’ is also celebrated this week. It features a palm branch, sprigs of willow and myrtle, along with an etrog (a fragrant citrus fruit). These four species, known collectively as a lulav along with the temporary shelter, or sukkah, in which observant Jewish families eat their meals and sleep, are part of a festival which acknowledges the season past and the winter to follow. Gratitude for what has been and hope for what is to come.
As the leaves turn golden for the autumn and the nights begin to close in, perhaps it’s time to head to the woods, whatever our faith or none, and join that long pilgrim tradition of giving thanks, via the great oaks, cedars sequoias and other trees which have long been humanity’s anchor points to the natural world.