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Sulayman S. Nyang, Marloes Janson
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The Republic of the Gambia has had the highest percentage of Muslim inhabitants in West Africa for a long time. According to a survey conducted by Trimingham in the 1950s, the Republic of the Gambia had the highest percentage of Muslim inhabitants in West Africa. This situation can be explained partly by the fact that the Gambia River is one of Africa 's most navigable waterways and has always provided traders with easy access to the country's interior. Trade was vital in introducing Islam and attracting people to it. Nowadays, about 95 percent of the Gambian population of approximately 1.5 million inhabitants is Muslim. Notwithstanding Gambia's long history of Islam, our knowledge of Islamization processes in the country is largely lacking.


The history of Islam in the present Republic of the Gambia stretches back to the medieval empires of Ghana and Mali. When the Ghana empire ruled the Sahel, Muslim traders and their African counterparts had some contact with the people who now inhabit Gambia. Composed largely of ethnic groups belonging to the Mande, Wolof, and Fulbe cultures, 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 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 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 embarked on jihāds, known as the Soninke-Marabout wars. These men of faith, called marabouts, tried to set up Islamic states in the heart of the Senegambian region. Feeling threatened by the dominant non-Muslim Soninke and determined to maintain their Islamic identity, these Muslim leaders strengthened and created more of the Muslim towns and villages known to Western travelers as Morokundas. In the 1860s the Gambian jihādist Maba Diakhou managed to impose an Islamic form of government on large areas of the Senegambia that were previously untouched by Islam. His jihād sparked off other Muslim movements in Gambia.

During the nineteenth century Gambian Muslims found themselves facing two forces whose interests clashed with their own: the non-Islamic status quo and 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 co-opted 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 and Tijānīyah. Although the Qādirī and the Tijānī brotherhoods still have a considerable number of followers in Gambia, it should be noted that they have never become as prominent as in neighboring Senegal, where adherence to a Ṣūfī order is considered, more or less, a religious obligation.

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 communicate with one another and expand their spheres of influence. 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 Qurʿānic schools. The British acknowledged the centrality of Islam in Gambian life by making room for some elements of the sharīʿah in the legal system of colonial Gambia. Qāḍīs were appointed in the Muslim courts, and an Islamic school was built in the capital Banjul for Muslims who wanted to combine an Islamic education with Western subjects.

Muslim Emancipation.

The foundation of the Gambia Muslim Congress in 1952 began a wave of Muslim emancipation. This party pledged to end the discrimination faced by Muslims in the provision of educational facilities. From the 1950s onward, Gambian Muslim parties and pressure groups have called for the Muslim equivalent to Christian schools established in the colonial times. Money coming from the oil countries since the 1970s facilitated the implementation of these demands. In the early 1990s, Islamic studies became a compulsory subject on the national curriculum and today all Gambian schools, even Christian mission schools, employ at least one Muslim teacher of Islamic studies. By introducing Qurʿānic studies in all schools in the country the Gambian government went further than many other West African countries. Furthermore, several Islamic schools prescribed an Islamic dress code for both students and teachers. In the beginning of 2000 the issue of the veil as part of the school uniform came under fierce debate in Gambia.

Since the 1970s, an increasing number of Gambian students have received scholarships to universities in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Upon their return to Gambia, these graduates attempted to reform Islam by purifying it from local traditions. On the grounds that they were educated in formal institutions in the Arab world, they often claim to have more insight into the proper interpretation of Islam than scholars who were trained in the traditional Muslim education system in Gambia.

The graduates ’ exposure to a more reformist type of Islam stirred up an Islamic resurgence, which led to an increased visibility and assertiveness of Islam in society at large and in the media. This is manifested in an explosion in the number of mosques that are financed by the mushrooming national and international Muslim associations. Mosques, Islamic schools, Muslim community centers and clinics identify much of the public—and especially urban—space as Islamic. Furthermore, Islamic scholars have captured the public media. Their Friday sermons are nationally televised and broadcasted. During weekly talkshows, they are invited to answer diverse questions concerning religious matters. Most newspapers have a Friday column in which these scholars elaborate on proper moral conduct. Furthermore, their sermons on audio-cassette are widely distributed. The television and radio broadcasts, as well as the audio tapes of preaching, religious pamphlets and newspaper columns, have brought about a change in religious discourse and the general perception of Islam in Gambia.

New Muslim Politics.

A fresh scope for the creation of a public discourse on Islamic doctrine has developed in Gambia since President Yahya Jammeh enforced greater adherence to Islamic precepts. Jammeh, originally an army lieutenant who took power during a bloodless coup in 1994, has lately begun to profile himself as a Muslim dignitary. His statue in Banjul shows him in military uniform; but nowadays he appears in public wearing a turban and clasping prayer beads. Jammeh 's military coup caused Europe and the United States to temporarily cease their financial support to the country. This prompted Jammeh to establish relations with Islamic powers in the Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Libya. Until recently, Libyan president Qadhdhāfī was President Jammeh 's closest ally in the Arab world.

Islam was not very important in national affairs until after 1994. President Jammeh 's predecessor, Sir Dawda Jawara, started his period of government as a Christian (he later converted to Islam). During his leadership, which lasted for more than thirty years, he built on the colonial legacy of religious pluralism. Jammeh, on the other hand, has set up a Ministry of Religious Affairs, breathed new life into the Supreme Islamic Council, built mosques in state institutions and inscribed Qurʿānic verses on public buildings. Furthermore, he appointed Imām Fatty (Alhaji Abdoulie Fatty), an Islamic scholar who graduated in Saudi Arabia, as his personal adviser, and asked him to lead the Friday sermons at the State House mosque. Jammeh 's official intervention in Islamic discourse may be explained by his age and ethnicity. At the time of his takeover he was only twenty-nine. Being a Jola, an ethnic group generally regarded as not closely affiliated with Islam, did not help his position. Many Mandinka elders, who had been loyal followers of Jawara, strongly objected to the idea of a young Jola soldier holding power. In order to win their support, Jammeh needed to affirm his Muslim identity and as such open the way for a greater role of Islam in public life.


In conclusion, four important developments within the post-colonial Gambian Muslim community can be discerned. First, the Islamic community has become more diverse and tolerant. This is evidenced by the tacit acceptance of the Aḥmadīyah, a missionary movement that is often opposed or suppressed as heretical 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 Arabisants, but in Gambia as etijangos (derived from the French word for student, étudiant; scholars referred to in this way distinguish themselves on account of their education), these graduates of Arab universities have set up new Muslim organizations that are engaged in both daʿwah (mission) and development-oriented activities.

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. An example are the Tablīghīs, adherents of the Indo-Pakistani Islamic missionary movement of the Tablīghī Jamāʿat. Since the late 1990s Pakistani Tablīghī missionaries, preaching in English, have attracted a large number of young Gambian men and women who had attended only Western, secular schools and are not literate in Arabic. The new access to Islamic literature in English 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.

A final development that resulted in the renewal of Islam in post-colonial Gambia was the Afro-Arab cooperation in the 1970s. This opened Gambia to countries such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and daʿwah groups from these countries played an important part in the dissemination of Islamic literature there. Because of the revolution in world communications, Gambia has become embedded in transnational religious networks, and has, despite its small size, grown into a Muslim country of some influence. For example, President Jammeh was elected the first president to represent Africa at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) based in Saudi Arabia.

See also SENEGAL.


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