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
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
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.
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.