Islam is the majority religion of the Gambia, with around 90 percent of the population being Muslims and most have a Catholic relative/relation. The other religions include Christians, Catholics, Methodist, Baptist and Traditional African religion. Islam in the Gambia is unique in its unity with other religions and hold Jesus close to their hearts as they do Muhammad (peace be upon them). Gambia's Muslim population grew largely because of the efforts of 19th-century Muslim dawah works and the peaceful period during British colonization. The religious freedom that the Gambia enjoys is largely the work of leadership, past and present that has decided to build on the colonial legacy of religious pluralism.
Islam was first brought to the people of West Africa by North African traders on the Trans-Saharan routes, and it early established a base in the Southern termini of those routes.
In the 11th century the ruler of Futa Toro was converted to Islam. The same century, the Almoravid movement made its appearance among the Berber tribes of Southern Mauritania. Although the Almoravid directed most of their efforts to the North of Mauritania, they left a strongly Muslim imprint on the area, and Mauritanian Muslims introduced Islam to many areas South of the Senegal river including what is today the Gambia.
By the 15th century, there were marabouts attached to most of the chiefs’ courts in The Gambia region. These early converts prayed for the chiefs and served as court secretaries. As a reward for their services, they received land and were permitted to found their own villages.
By the 17th century, the Muslim villages had become substantial islands. The Muslim communities supported Qur'anic schools, kept fast during the month of Ramadan and followed the Islamic dietary laws. Before the arrival of Islam, religion was a complete way of life among the Negro people of The Gambia. They worshipped their deified ancestors and had faith on their rulers as having divine powers.
Islam, which regarded such traditional religious practices as profane, the majority of Gambians had embraced the religion which today is the dominant religion in the country.
The early spread of Islam in the Gambia area was the result of a number of factors, some social, some political and some economic.
The fact that the process of early conversion took place in the trading cities 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 to the local gods.
Islam did not attempt to destroy indigenous cults. Indeed studies of modern Islamization of West African peoples have shown the Muslim clerics do not discredit existing customs and traditional religious institutions but infiltrate them and change their nature.
There were also a number of more positive factors that contributed to the acceptance of Islam by the peoples of The Gambia area. As was pointed out earlier, Muslims were associated with the wealthy traders who brought goods essential to the local economies and contributed in the increase of military power. Early Trans-Saharan traders also told impressive stories of the Islamic civilizations in their own home countries, which undoubtedly gave practical expression to the Islamic concept of 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 Islamic religion. Their literacy in Arabic greatly enhanced this prestige for the non-literate peoples assigned important supernatural qualities to the written word.
The spread of Islam was also facilitated because of its appeal to traditional rulers. Once a rule accepted the religion, his influence and authority were usually sufficient to impose it upon at least the ruling classes of his state.
Acceptance of Islam by the traditional rulers, and observance of Islamic religious ceremonies brought them the political support of the urban Muslim communities who were influential for their role in commerce and for their literacy. This spread of Islam in the towns offered a new and necessary base for imperial unity.
Not only would Islam form a bond between the ruler and all his Muslim subjects, but his political authority would be further reinforced by the Islamic teaching which imposed obedience to a just Muslim ruler on all Muslims irrespective of ethnic or racial background. For these reasons rulers were quick to see the advantage of adopting an “international” religion in place of a local one.
The most obvious effect of the spread of Islam among the people of the Gambia was the introduction a new foreign religion. Islam’s monotheism and the idea that the souls of the dead and departed do not participate in human affairs were completely new to the societies into which they were introduced.
With the doctrines of Islam also came rituals and customs equally strange to the peoples. The introduction of Islam not only meant the profession of one God, but also the introduction of the Ramadan fast, the building of mosques and the pilgrimage to Makkah.
Not only did converts obey Muslim regulations on ablutions on the slaughter of animals for food and on the seclusion of women, they also adopted Islamic styles of dress, architecture, as well as reading and writing in Arabic.
With Islam came with a new and important form of education. Traditional education was purely local and concerned with initiating the young into knowledge of local custom, Islamic studies covered an international field of theology, law, politics, history, geography and the nature sciences. It may be difficult, however, to estimate the exact religious impact of Islam on the peoples of the Gambia or the people of the Sudan, in general. Early travelers and historians commented favorably on the standard of Islamic piety, scholarship and some features of government in the important trading cities.
On the other hand these travelers and historians recorded the continuance of traditional customs and ceremonies unacceptable to Islam. Possibly the efforts of Muslims to adapt traditional customs and practices of Islamic purposes had the opposite effect and Islam got assimilated into basically non-Muslim systems and institutions.
- Courtesy of www.observer.gm