In The Gambia 90% of the population are mostly Sunni
making them the largest religious group, followed by
9% for Christians
& 1% who still practice traditional beliefs. Interestingly,
in 1963, 29% of Gambians claimed to be pagans who engaged
in animism & fetishism. The country is a secular
state, with freedom of religious expression enshrined
in the constitution.
Despite having one of the highest percentage of Muslim
populations in sub-Saharan Africa Muslims generally
have a tolerant & relaxed attitude to people
of other religions. Indeed, so good are the relations
between people of various faiths & beliefs that
it is something many Gambians are very proud of. Furthermore,
several different faiths and denominations have formed
the Inter-Faith Group for Dialogue and Peace to discuss
matters of common interest. This tolerance however,
is not extended to atheists or agnostics so if it is
your position then do be careful about stating this
when visiting people.
The form of Islam
practiced here is mostly the teachings from the Koran
combined with some animist / fetishist practices which
existed long before Islam arrived in the Senegambia
basin. There are even some Christians who practice animism.
Historically, Islam had existed in 'islands' in this
region of West Africa since the 11th century.
The Akus make up the majority
of the Christian denomination though it also includes
some Jolas, Manjagos and others.
Though the Gambia is a secular state Muslims by their
religious practices should in principle be governed
by Sharia Law. However, parts of Sharia have been incorporated
into state law for example when dealing with inheritance.
Islamic Council mediates and lobbies on Muslim religious
affairs affairs and meets with the adherents of Christianity
on the Inter-Faith Group.
Not only is The Gambia a mainly Muslim country, but
it is also located in a strongly Muslim region. The
influence of Islam in the country can be dated back
as far as the 7th century, when the Berbers of North
Africa converted to Islam and plied West Africa for
trading reasons. The faith of these Berber traders was
critical to determining the future faith of the people
of West Africa with whom they came into contact. From
the 14th century onwards a continuous Muslim presence
could be seen in West Africa; and Islamisation took
place after that – particularly through the 18th and
19th century holy Jihads, when Islam became widely promoted.
Christianity was first brought to The Gambia in the
15th century, via Portuguese traders. However, it did
not last, and it was not until the first half of the
19th century that Christianity came back to stay. The
Christian population of The Gambia is concentrated mainly
in the west, urban areas, and originally comprised the
(Akus) Krio speaking population who immigrated to The
Gambia from the population of freed slaves in Freetown.
Since that time the other ethnic group that has contributed
to the urban Christian population is the Wolof.
In the rural areas the main adherents to the Christian
faith are those who were previously of the African traditional
religion, such as the Karoninka, Manjagos and the Balanta.
The population of the up-river provinces is at least
95 per cent Muslim.
For the Christian population in The Gambia, the relations
with Islam are part of daily life. Since the return
of Christianity to The Gambia, during the first half
of the 19th century, there has been close interaction
in daily social life, in the work place and within the
system of education. Christians and Muslims attend each
other’s weddings and funerals,
there is intermarriage and, within the extended family,
there can be both Christians and Muslims. All state
functions are preceded with prayers by leaders of both
religious communities. However, mutual invitations to
religious occasions are not common.
Under the former government, for many years it had been
the tradition that, each New Year, leaders of both religious
communities would visit the State House together to
offer greetings to the President.
Immediately following the coup d’etat of 22nd July 1994,
religious leaders of both communities were invited to
the sate house by the Head of State; where in informed
them that they are seen as ‘torch bearers of ethics
and morals in the nation and were free to address any
issue with his government
in the future. Since that time, the leaders of both
religious communities have joined voices to point out
moral wrongdoings in society at large. After a lull,
when there was no New Year visit by religious leaders
to the State house, within the last couple of years
this tradition has been revived. During this visit the
leaders of both faith communities pray for the nation,
and also raise pertinent issues with the President that
hinge on peace with justice in the land.
Every Christmas, Easter and New Year, Church leaders
broadcast messages to the nation on radio and television.
During 2003 the leaders of the mainline churches in
The Gambia received a letter of Christmas greetings
and goodwill from the Imam Ratib of Banjul. Jesus is
recognised as an important prophet in Islam, and the
Imam pointed out that the globe would be a better place
if more people acted upon the teachings of the prophets.
The major Muslim feast is Tobaski – when the Muslim
community remember the act of obedience of Abraham,
who was willing to sacrifice his son on the order God.
During the Tobaski season, the Heads of Christian Missions
in The Gambia reciprocated by sending a joint letter
to the Imam Ratib of Banjul extending greetings, and
noting the fact that both faiths recognise Abraham as
an important man of God.