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History of Islam in The Gambia
 
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Historical Foundations of Islam:
What bought the Islamic religion to the Senegambia basin including The Gambia were the Berber Arab traders who had regularly crossed the Sahara desert since 1000 BC. After the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD Islam had reached North Africa. In the 11th century Futa Toro, in Senegal, was converted to Islam. In the same century the puritanical Almoravid movement made an appearance among the Berber tribes of Southern Mauritania and made a strong religious impact there. It was these converted people who laid the introduced and laid the foundations of  the religion in The Gambia and Senegal.

Before the arrival of Islam traditional religion was part and parcel of everyday life for the people of The Gambia and was well entrenched in people's existing belief system. This took on the form of animism, ancestor worship and a pantheon of gods representing elements of their environment such as a god of the earth, a god of the animal kingdom and so on. And yet the majority of Gambians embraced Islam until today 90% of the population are Muslims and only 1% admit to adhering to animists beliefs.

Reasons For Acceptance:
The early spread of the religion was due to several factors which were social, economic and political. The fact that early conversion took place at the terminus of the routes of the Trans-Saharan Trade 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 made 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. Perhaps in their own mindset, Islam might have appeared very much like the religion of wealthy traders and Allah being their God. 

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 acknowledged the existence of a supreme God. This must have made the Islamic introduction of the worship of one God unobjectionable. As long as the new religion did not attempt to destroy indigenous cults, there was strong objection to it. Indeed studies of modern Islamisation of West African peoples have shown that Muslim clerics did not try to discredit existing customs and traditional religious institutions but infiltrated them and changed their nature.

There were also a number of other factors that contributed to the acceptance of Islam by the peoples of The Gambia area. These factors are of a non-religious nature. As was said before because Islam was associated with wealthy traders who brought goods essential to the local economies and contributed in the increase of military power. Early Trans-Saharan traders told impressive stories of their civilisations 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 religion. Their literacy in Arabic greatly enhanced this prestige because the non-literate peoples assigned important supernatural qualities to the written word. 


Opportunism:
The spread of Islam in Gambia was also facilitated because of its appeal to traditional rulers. Once a ruler accepted the religion, his influence and authority were usually sufficient to impose it upon at least the ruling classes of his state. This bought them the political support of the urban Muslim communities who were influential for their role in commerce and for their literacy.

This allowed the rulers to form a bond  between himself and all his Muslim subjects and this was further re-enforced by the Islamic teaching which imposed obedience to a just Muslim ruler. For this reason rulers were quick to see the advantage of adopting this widespread religion rather than just a local one.

The effect of this new religion on the Gambian people was that it exposed them to theology, law, politics, geography and the natural sciences. The effect was to introduce academic criticism.

Adaptation & Incorporation:
Early travellers had commented favourably on the piety, scholarship and features of government in the important trading cities. On the other hand these they also noted the continuance of traditional customs and ceremonies which were unacceptable to Islam. It appears that Islam in The Gambia valley before 1800 was little more than an imperial belief of great prestige which existed side by side with cults to other gods. Few rulers could escape 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.

Theological Clash:
It was mainly for this reason that in the latter part of the 19th century Gambian Jihadists like Maba Diakhou and Foday Kabba Dumbuya castigated nominally Muslim rulers for their lax religious practices in their states and thus waged the Soninke-Marabout Wars that raged in The Gambia throughout the 19th century placing Islam on a new foundation.


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