Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Rise of Islam In the Gambia

By Suntou Touray
Historians documented that, the rise of the Marabout terminology in the Gambia occurred in the nineteenth century. Marabouts are people who follow the Islamic religion, the term use be to associated with clerics of North Africa, whilst the Soninke is equivalent to a Pagan or an unbeliever.
The starting point in describing people as Marabout or Soninke can be based on the mere consumption of Alcohol. All alcohol drinkers are term Soninke whilst non-drinkers are seen as marabouts. The soninkes consisted of the traditional aristocracy and their loyal supporters.
Photo above said to be that of Shiek Omar Taal.. (
Traders coming and going from North Africa preached Islam and some Muslim faithful journey to spread the word of God in different kingdoms. The Portuguese explorer valentine Fernandes, a 15th century traveller observed that, Muslim advisers were established in the courts of some traditional rulers in Tukrur and some states along the Gambia River.
However, Dr Charlotte Quinn (1972) in her thorough historical research to the Gambia and going through records maintained that Dyula or caravan traders from then centre of the Manding Empire Mali “systematically introduce Islam to the Gambia in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries...” It is natural after some time natives that had adopted the religion will also start to teach it or spread it to neighbours and other localities. It is observed that, the preaching of Islam by Gambians to Gambians happen around the 17th century.
The traditional rulers were well aware of the potentials for a change to their power structure by the Muslims. As a precaution, they barred Muslims from holding positions of power and political positions apart from advisers. Although Muslim clerics were accorded a good welcome into local communities, this was due to the skills of the marabouts in educating, the practice of what now refer to spiritual doctoring or magic and medicine. Even non-believers do utilises some of the expertise of the travelling clerics (marabouts).
The art of marabourism started as far back as when Mungo Park was journeying through West Africa. Park (1795) discovers leather amulets worn by both animist and Muslims alike as protection against evil spirits and for self-defence. Hacquard (1855) also reported that, the Mansa of Jarra have his special marabouts who manufacture all sorts of amulets for him, which he wear on important occasions. Even though Soninke or pagan rulers did not accept Islam, they value the prayers of the marabouts when in distress political situations.
Oral history reports that, the rulers of Kwinella in Kiang sort the prayers of marabouts for the attainment of successes. Jobson 1851 a missionary reported seeing marabouts according prayers to cattle caravans crossing the river Gambia. Berenger-Feraud (1879) found the practice of Qur’anic writings on wooden boards and the washing of it for medicine purposes common.

Captain Washington (1838) narrated an account one young Muslim boy Muhammad Ceesay who travels from Niani Maru to Darsilame in Wulli, currently Sandu in search of Qur’anic teacher. He further narrated the master had several children who he taught and tended to. Again Mungo Park elaborated on an Islamic school he visited at Kamalia a mandingo village were children from pagan origins are taught Islamic knowledge and ceremonies are held for them after completion of certain stages.
The existence of Muslim among the Gambian communities living and coexisting peacefully was further supported by a map that J.M. Gray (1940) said was drawn in 1751 detailing “six morro kunda” (Muslim Villages). The villages of the Muslims were found in Niumi, Tomana, Niani, Eropina, Jarra, Kombo, Salum and Badibu. Also in 1850 the Mandingo and Torodo community living among the trading communities in Jokadu, Badibu, Niani and Fula travellers from Futa Jalon called themselves Marabouts.
Islam was the minority religion up to the mid of the nineteen century, and Hecquard explained that the Jola and Serere tribe remain animist when some other tribes were entering into Islam through travelling traders. O’connor (1853) wrote that in 1850, the biggest mosque was said to be in Sabejy (Sukuta) Kombo.

To be continued insahalah

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