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Gambia

By:
Sulayman S. Nyang
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Gambia

The history of Islam in the present Republic of the Gambia goes back to the days of the medieval empires of Ghana and Mali. When the Ghana empire ruled the Sahel, Muslim traders and their African counterparts had some contact with peoples who are now the inhabitants of the Gambia. Composed largely of ethnic groups belonging to the Mande‐Wolfulbe cultures, the present‐day Gambia is home to descendants of Mande‐speaking groups who emigrated from Mali at the height of its power in the fourteenth century. They came directly into northern Gambia or indirectly by way of Kaabu in southern Senegal and northwestern Guinea Bissau. Their northern Mande‐speaking cousins, the Serahuli and the Jahanke, who ruled ancient Ghana one thousand years ago, entered the Gambia during the Malian era. Wolof elements of the population came from the northern bank of the Gambia River, where they and their Serere cousins had settled in the kingdoms of Saloum and Sin. The Fulbe portion of the Gambia's population came from either the Fula Toro region of modern‐day Senegal or from the Futa Jalon area of modern Guinea, where their ancestors had emigrated in the early eighteenth century.

Islam did not become a major force in the Senegambia until the nineteenth century, when a number of Muslim scholars decided to embark on a preaching jihād. These men of faith tried to set up Islamic states in the heart of the Senegambian region. Feeling threatened by the dominant non‐Islamic cultures and determined to maintain their Islamic identity, these Muslim leaders began to strengthen and create more of the Muslim towns and villages known as Morokundas to Western travelers. These settlements were founded by itinerant Muslim scholars and their students and by Muslim merchants.

During the nineteenth century Muslims found themselves facing two forces whose interests clashed with their own. They had to contend with the non‐Islamic status quo, and they also had to face the challenges posed by the rising power of European trading groups along the African coast. By the end of the century Gambian Muslims found themselves under the growing power of the British Empire. Their leaders were either defeated in battle or coopted into the new order. As a result, Islam at the beginning of the twentieth century was not a state religion but the religion of individual believers who had affiliations with Ṣūfī orders such as the Qādirīyah, Tijānīyah, or Murīdīyah.

Islam grew from a minority religion in the nineteenth century into a modern majority religion largely because of the favorable socioeconomic conditions created by colonial rule. This increase in the number of believers was the unintended result of particular policies and activities by the colonial rulers. By building roads to previously inaccessible areas of the country and opening the hinterland of the Gambia River, the British enabled Muslim leaders and traders to link up with one another and to expand their horizons. By the time the decolonization process came to an end, Muslims constituted more than 90 percent of the population. Mosques were built throughout the country, along with hundreds of Qur'ānic schools. The British acknowledged the centrality of Islam in Gambian life by making room for some elements of the sharī῾ah in the legal system of colonial Gambia. Qāḋīs were appointed in the Muslim courts, and a Muhammadan School was built in Banjul for Muslim children who wanted to combine their Islamic education with Western subjects.

Islam in postcolonial Gambia is not radically different from what it was during the colonial period; however, four important developments within the larger Muslim community are now noteworthy. First, the Islamic community has become more diverse and tolerant. This is evidenced by the acceptance of the Aḥmadīyah movement, an organization that is often opposed or suppressed in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and South Asia. A second development is the emergence of a new group of young Muslim intellectuals who are disenchanted with traditional Ṣūfī ideas about Islam. Generally known to the French‐speaking Africans as the Arabisants, these graduates of Arab universities have set up new Muslim organizations that are engaged in both da῾wah (mission) and development‐oriented activities. Today they share the limelight with both older and more recently organized national Muslim groups such as the Gambia Muslim Association, the Gambia Islamic Union, and the Supreme Islamic Council. Within the same domain of operation are smaller groups known as dayirahs. These local Ṣūfī organizations are designed to bring the faithful together to celebrate the praises of God in the mosques and beyond.

The third development is the greater accessibility of Islamic literature in English. This has resulted in the intellectual revival of Islamic consciousness among a sizable number of Gambian youths whose previous knowledge of their faith was limited. The new access to Islamic literature can be traced to the activities of international Muslim organizations that are competing with both the Aḥmadī missionaries in Africa and their Christian counterparts from the West. The fourth development that resulted in the renewal of Islam in postcolonial Gambia was the brief period of Afro‐Arab cooperation in the 1970s. This opened the Gambia to countries such as Libya and Saudi Arabia, and da῾wah groups from these countries played an important part in the dissemination of Islamic literature there.

In conclusion, three points are to be emphasized. The first is the historical fact that Gambia became a Muslim state largely because of the efforts of the Muslim jihād leaders of the nineteenth century, and also because of the state of peace brought about by the British colonial power. Second, it should be noted that the Muslim sense of tolerance in the country is largely the work of the present leadership, who have decided to build on the colonial legacy of religious pluralism. Finally, Islam in the Gambia is no longer isolated from the mainstream of Islam in the Middle East because the revolution in world communications has created a permanent bridge between Gambians and other Muslims. This bridge of cooperation and understanding is used not only during the ḥajj but throughout the year.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, J. N. D. Islamic Law in Africa. London, 1954.
  • Archer, Francis Bisset. The Gambia Colony and Protectorate. London, 1967.
  • Gailey, Harry A. A History of the Gambia. New York, 1965.
  • Gray, J. M. A History of the Gambia. Cambridge, 1940.
  • Nyang, Sulayman S. A Contribution to the Study of Islam in the Gambia. Pakistan Historical Journal (April 1977): 125–138.
  • Nyang, Sulayman S. Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy towards Africa. Horn of Africa 5.2 (1982): 3–17.
  • Quinn, Charlotte A. “Traditionalism, Islam, and European Expansion: The Gambia, 1850–1890.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1967.
  • Reeve, H. F. The Gambia: Its History, Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern. London, 1912.
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