Islam in The Gambia The Foundation of Islam
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Islam is not only the leading religion in the Senegambia region, but also one of the world’s leading religions. The religion was founded by the Prophet Mohammed in Saudi Arabia. Today the followers of Islam number hundreds of millions and are to be found in all parts of the world.
Muslims form the bulk of the population in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and certain areas of the Far East. Many countries in East, Central and West Africa, including The Gambia and Senegal, have predominantly Muslim populations. The Prophet Mohammed, who founded the religion of Islam, was born in about AD 571 in Mecca and belonged to the Quarish tribe. Islam traces its founder’s descent to Ismail and Abraham.
Mohammed’s father. Abdulla Ibn Abdul Mutalib, died before the Prophet was born. His mother, Amina, also died when he was six years old: Mohammed was first taken care of by his paternal grandfather, Abdul Mutalib. After his grandfather’s death, Mohammed was now taken care of by his uncle, Abu Talib. At the age of twelve, Mohammed accompanied his Uncle on a trip to Syria. This trip to Syria afforded the future founder of Islam the opportunity of learning much about different peoples and their religions in the Middle East, chiefly Christianity and Judaism.
Mohammed as a youth spent much of his time attending to flocks in the desert for his uncle. During this period Mohammed was so dutiful that he earned the titel Al-Amin, meaning “the trustworthy”.
To supplement his meagre income, Mohammed accepted a job with Khadija who was a prosperous lady of the Quarish tribe. Khadija placed Mohammed in charge of the caravant travelling from Mecca to Syria. Winning the esteem and affection of Khadija, Mohammed married her. Mohammed and Khadija were blessed with two boys and four girls, but all died young except a daughter Fatoumatta.
Unlike most of his countrymen in his day, Mohammed was a very religious man and believed in only one God. He often retired to a cave near Mecca at the foot of Mount Hira for prayer and meditation. On one such occasion he felt he had a call from God or Allah. This was at a time when everybody else in Arabia believed and prayed to many Gods.
Mohammed, therefore, had a very difficult task preaching in Mecca, a city with as many as 365 gods. Mohammed faced bitter opposition to his mission of denouncing polytheism and idolatry.
However, Mohammed would soon win to his side a number of followers including his wife khadija, Abu Bakr, a nobleman and an influential Meccan, the Prophet’s cousin, Ali and a freed slaved called Zaid.. The persecution of his followers started and many of these people fled to Ethiopia for refuge.
After Khadija’s death in 619 and the death of the Prophet’s uncle, Abu Talib, the following year, Mohammed found his life in danger. It was for this reason that on 20 June 622 he escaped with his faithful follower, Abu Bakr, to Medina, a city to the north of Mecca.
He was welcomed in this city and gained many disciples there. Mohammed built the first Muslim mosque in medina and started to propagate his religion. Mohammed’s flight to Medina, known as Hijra, is generally regarded as the beginning of Islam, and is, therefore, a very important landmark in Islamic history.
In fact the Muslim calendar starts from that date. Soon after the Hijra, the Meccans decided to pursue Mohammed to Medina. This resulted in a war which lasted for ten years. After this long conflict the Muslim forces consisting of only 700 men finally inflicted a decisive defeat on the Meccan army of 24,000 men, a defeat that inspired the followers of Mohammed and persuaded the vast majority of people in Arabia that God had, in deed, sent the Prophet to convert his people.
Having defeated the enemy, Mohammed returned to Mecca and from then on people flocked to embrace Islam in their thousands. These followers of Mohammed would then launch a crusade outside Arabia to propagate and spread the new religion.
Within the first century after the Prophet’s death in 632, Islam would spread to many lands. The religion had by now reached India and the whole of Northern Africa had become Muslim.
The Coming of Islam to The Gambia
We have already seen how Islam was first brought to the people of West Africa by North African traders on the Trans-Saharan routes, and it early established a base in the Southern termini of those routes.
In the eleventh century the ruler of Futa Toro was converted to Islam. In the same century; the puritanical Almoravid movement made its appearance among the Berber tribes of Southern Mauritania. Although the Almoravid directed most of their efforts to the North of Mauritania they left a strongly Muslim imprint on the area, and Mauritanian Muslims introduced Islam to many areas South of the Senegal river including what is today The Gambia.
By the fifteenth century, there were marabouts attached to most of the chiefs’ courts in The Gambia region. These early converts prayed for the chiefs and served as court secretaries. As a reward for their services, they received land and were permitted to found their own villages.
By the seventeenth century, the Muslim villages had become substantial islands. The Muslim communities supported Koranic schools, kept fast during the month of Ramadan and followed the Islamic dietary laws. Although Islam first took hold in the chiefly entourages, if increasingly found its greatest success among the free peasantry.
Reasons for the success of Islam
Before the arrival of Islam, religion was a complete way of life among the people of The Gambia. The religion of these early Negroes was a combination of many factors. Usually there was a chief good, creator of all things, who was normally tied into the descent group by having especially created the first ancestor.
Since they struggled against a hostile environment, natural objects were also venerated as lesser deities. This led to a belief in a pantheon of gods: god of the sky; god the earth; god of the animal world.
The rulers of these early Negroes were believed to possess divine powers through their descent from deified ancestors, who were worshipped and consulted by the people through oracles. Each god had his own cult; each cult its own secrets, shrines and priests. Each god was the centre of import ceremonies and the recipient of sacrifices. Each cult played a vital role in the working of the whole social system, and served as a source of political and religious authority.
Offerings were made not only to the gods but also to appease or exorcise evil spirits. There were some beliefs in an after life which was viewed as an extension of life itself. And yet with the arrival of Islam, which regarded such traditional religious practices as profane, the majority of Gambians had embraced the religion which today is the dominant religion in the country.
The early spread of Islam in The Gambia area was the result of a number of factors, some social, some political and some economic.
The fact that the process of early conversion took place in the trading cities is significant. In these trading cities lived different peoples, removed from their own closed village societies where the success of the harvest was held to depend on fertility rites and sacrifices to the local gods.
In their non-traditional setting, these city dwellers were de-tribalised in a religious sense and thus more open to the influence of a new religion which seemed adapted to their urban way of life. To them, Islam must have seemed very much like the cut of traders and Allah the God of merchants.
The acceptance of Islam was also facilitated by the nature of traditional religions of the people. New cults were founded for newly identified gods. Although they were people who believed in many gods, all of them acknowledge the existence of a supreme God. This must have made the Islamic introduction’ of the worship of one God unobjectionable.
Although Islam did not have rituals like sacrifices to local gods or consulting oracles, its own rituals could be interpreted in terms of local cult practices. Such practices were such things like the five daily prayers, the yearly fasting and the required procedures for the slaughter of animals.
Such types of rituals including the sale of amulets to protect the owner against evil spirits and ill- health could be equated in non- Muslim minds with traditional religious sacrifices, the consultation of oracles and ancestor worship which played an important role in their own religions.
As long as Islam did not attempt to destroy indigenous cults, there was no objection to it. In deed studies of modern Islamisation of West African peoples have shown the Muslim clerics do not discredit existing customs and traditional religious institutions but infiltrate them and change their nature.
There were also a number of more positive factors that contributed to the acceptance of Islam by the peoples of The Gambia area. These factors were mainly non-religious.
As was pointed out earlier on, Muslims were associated with the wealthy traders who brought goods essential to the local economies and contributed in the increase of military power. Early Trans-Saharan traders also told impressive stories of the Islamic civilizations in their own home countries which undoubtedly gave practical expression to the Islamic God.
The mode of dress of these early Muslims, their new architecture with impressive mosques and their possession of luxury goods added to the prestige of the Islamic religion. Their literacy in Arabic greatly enhanced this prestige for the non-literate peoples assigned important supernatural qualities to the written word.
The spread of Islam was also facilitated because of its appeal to traditional rulers. Once a rule accepted the religion, his influence and authority were usually sufficient to impose it upon at least the ruling classes of his state.
Acceptance of Islam by the readitional rulers, and observance of Islamic religious ceremonies brought them the political support of the urban Muslim communities who were influential for their role in commerce and for their literacy. This spread of Islam in the towns offered a new and necessary base for imperial unity.
Not only would Islam form a bond between the ruler and all his Muslim subjects, but his political authority would be further reinforced by the Islamic teaching which imposed obedience to a just Muslim ruler on all Muslims irrespective of ethnic or racial background.
For these reasons rulers were quick to see the advantage of adopting an “international” religion in place of a local one. The cult of the Almighty Allah became in time the personal religion of an almighty earthly ruler.
The Effects of the Spread of Islam
The most obvious effect of the spread of Islam among the people of The Gambia was the introduction a new foreign religion. Islam’s monotheism and the idea that the souls of the dead and departed do not participate in human affairs were completely new to the societies into which they were introduced.
With the doctrines of Islam also came rituals and customs equally strange to the peoples. The introduction of Islam not only meant the profession of one God- Allah, but also the introduction of the Ramadan fast, the building of mosques and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Not only did converts obey Muslim regulations on ablutions on the slaughter of animals for food and on the seclusion of women, they also adopted Islamic styles of dress, architecture, as well as reading and writing in Arabic.
With Islam came a new and important form of education whereas traditional education was purely local and concerned with initiating the young into knowledge of local custom, their duties within local society and the skills they needed for their livelihoods, Islamic studies covered an international field of theology, law, politics, history, geography and the nature sciences. In this way, Islam also introduced the are of academic criticism.
It may be difficult, however, to estimate the exact religious impact of Islam on the peoples of The Gambia or the people of the Sudan, in general. Early travellers and historians commented favorably on the standard of Islamic piety, scholarship and some features of government in the important trading cities.
On the other hand these travellers and historians recorded the continuance of traditional customs and ceremonies unacceptable to Islam. Possibly the efforts of Muslims to adapt traditional customs and practices of Islamic purposes had the opposite effect and it Islam that became assimilated into basically non-Muslim systems and institutions.
It certainly seems that Islam in The Gambia valley before 1800 was little more than an imperial cult of great prestige existing side by side with cults to other-gods. Few rulers escaped the need to draw their power and legitimacy from traditional religions; many people must have both worshipped in the mosque and sacrificed to local deities.
It was mainly for this reason, as we shall see, that nineteenth century Gambian Jihadists like Maba Diakhou and Foday Kabba Dumbuya castifated nominally Muslim rulers for the travesty of Islam practiced in their states and waged the Soninke-Marabout Wars that raged in The Gambia through out the nineteenth century placing Islam on a new foundation.