Islam in the Gambia

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Islam is the major religion in the Gambia, representing 95%[1] of the 2 million population, with the first Muslim communities in the country arriving in 11th century.[2] Islam has therefore had an influence on the Gambia throughout history, and continues to impact its culture, society and politics. The majority of the Gambia's Muslims are Sunni belonging to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, influenced with Sufism.[3] There is a smaller Shiite community, largely stemming form Lebanese and Arab migration.[4] The Ahmadiyya movement is also present.[5] Other religious societies exist in the country, including Catholics, Protestants,[6] Hindus[3] and Traditional African religion.[7]


Early History[edit]

Evidence of Islam in the Gambia exists from as early as the 11th century, stemming from the arrival of North African Muslim merchants.[2] Following centuries of increasing influence, especially brought on by Islamic scholars,[2] Islam became the major religion in the country in the 19th century.[2] The Soninke-Marabout wars (1850), a series of jihads, led by the Marabou Islamists resulted in most of the Soninke Gambians (the traditional religious adherents) converting to Islam.[8]

British Occupation[edit]

In the early 20th century, the influence of Islam continued under British occupation. In 1905, British rule granted the establishment of an Islamic court and appointed a Qadi official to hear the cases of Gambian Muslims.[9] The Islamic courts ensured a formalised justice system, especially when compared to the traditional, pre-colonial court procedures, which were far less codified. However, the Supreme court, controlled by British colonials, did on some occasions overturn decisions made by the Qadi.[9]

1965 – present[edit]

The Gambia gained Independence from British rule in 1965,[10] initially as a constitutional monarchy, before becoming a republic in 1970.[10] The country has remained secular in principle. It has only been served by three presidents since 1970, namely, Dawda Jawara (1970 – 1994), Yahya Jammeh (1994 – 2017) and Adama Barrow (2017 – present).

Yahya Jammeh served as president from 1996 to 2017

Jawara became the country’s first president in 1970, after serving as prime minister from 1962, when the country was granted self-governance (before full independence). Following his death in 2019, he was recognised by the New York Times for “promoting tolerance, human rights and the rule of law”.[11] Jawara was born a Muslim, although converted to Christianity in 1955, before reconverting to Islam in 1965.[12]

Jarawa’s Presidency came to an end in 1994, following a successful coup d’état, lead by Yahya Jammeh, who subsequently lead the country until 2017. Under his Governance, the country was declared an “Islamic republic” in 2015,[8] although this was reversed in 2017 by new president, Adama Barrow.[13]


The Gambia has a diverse array of traditional cultural practices, stemming from the various ethnic groups that make up the population. The country maintains strong links to traditional music, such as the sabar drum and traditional cuisine, including the national dish, Domodah.[14] However, Islam has influenced some cultural practices.

A traditional West African sabar (drum), still played in the Gambia

Dress Code[edit]

Despite declaring the Gambia an “Islamic republic”,[8] in 2015, the then President Jammeh, maintained that no dress code would be enforced and that citizens would still have the right to practice any religion freely. However, one month after the statement was made, Jammeh placed stricter regulations on clothing, “order[ing] female government employees to wear headscarves at work”.[15] He then reversed the directive, lifting the dress code restriction shortly after it was imposed.[16]


The Gambia, in line with Islamic Sharia law, allows the practice of polygamy. Both ex-president Jammeh and current President Barrow have practiced polygamy.

In 2016, Jammeh announced a ban on child marriages, a practice that is not outlawed by Islamic law.[17] At the time of the announcement, 30% of girls under the age of 18 were married.[18]

Depictions in popular culture[edit]

Islam in the Gambia has had minimal coverage in popular, western culture, however, was portrayed in Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the subsequent miniseries, Roots, and the film Roots: The Gift. The story's plot focuses on Haley’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Kunta Kinte, a Gambian Muslim born in 1750.[19] Kunta is presented as having had an idyllic childhood, educated in Islam, before being captured in 1767, and sold into slavery in Virginia.[20] The novel tells the story of Kunta’s life in enslavement, a key aspect of which was his Islamic faith, which throughout the novel, never leaves him.[20] Despite criticism over the historical accuracy of Haley’s research, the novel has played an important part in investigating African and Islamic history in America.[21] In The Oxford Companion to African American Literature,[20] the impact of Kunta Kinte is assessed:

"Roots provoked a renewed interest by Americans in their own genealogy and instilled a new pride for African Americans about their African history"[20]



The role of Islam in Gambian society was evident even during colonial rule, specifically through the creation of an Islamic school, the ‘Muhammadan School’,[5] which combined both Islamic and Western pedagogies.[5] Indeed, since independence, numerous Islamic schools of thought have established educational institutions. Islam’s impact on education was further demonstrated in 1990, when the national curriculum included Islamic studies as a compulsory subject.[5]

Social Issues[edit]

Women’s rights[edit]

In 2015, President Jammeh, announced a ban on female genital mutilation, stating that the practice was not required in Islam.[22] At the time of the announcement it was estimated that 76% of Gambian women had had the procedure.[23] The following year, Jammeh announced a ban on child marriage, a practice that is not outlawed in Islamic law.[17] At the time of the announcement, 30% of girls under the age of 18 were married.[18]

LGBT rights

Homosexual activity is illegal in the Gambia and there is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In 2008, Jammeh instructed gay and lesbians to leave the country, and said that he would “cut off the head” of any gay man found in the Gambia.[24] With regard to the impact of Islam on the rights of the LGBT community, Jammeh was quoted as saying “The Gambia is a country of believers… sinful and immoral practices [such as] homosexuality will not be tolerated.”[24] He made similar comments in 2015, warning that he would “slit your throat” if you were found to be homosexual in the Gambia.[25]

Broader society[edit]

In her book, ‘Culture, Religion, & Democracy in The Gambia: Perspectives from Before and After the 2016 Gambian Presidential Election’ ,[8] Alieuh B. Sanneh explores the relationship between religion and culture and the importance of these two concepts in informing a society. Specifically, Sanneh writes, “The Gambia has demonstrated an intricate pattern of blending cultural practices with Islamic religious beliefs”.[8] This is demonstrated by the incorporation of a traditional xiin drum, similar to the sabar, into the culture of the Baye Fall subsect of the Mouride Islamists in the Gambia and Senegal, as adherents play it whilst walking the streets and begging for alms.[26]

However, the Gambia has also demonstrated a sense of societal independence from Islam, demonstrated by the response to Jammeh’s aforementioned dress code directive in 2016, in which women were told to wear headscarves in the workplace. Notably, the directive was lifted after resistance from within Gambian society, including, activists and pro-democracy groups.[16]

The role of Islam in Gambian society is not fixed and often depends on the individual. In Marloes Janson's monograph, ‘Islam, Youth and Modernity in the Gambia: the Tablighi Jama’at, [5] the author writes about the influence of the Tablighji Jama’at (an Islamic missionary movement).

“Secular oriented youth… condemn the jama’at... because it prevents them from pursuing a youthful lifestyle…because it leaves them with a sense of guilt at not being able to live up to Islamic principles. Moreover… the Jama‘at stands for a ‘foreign’ form of Islam that does not fit with local culture and traditions." [5]

Islamic Movements[edit]


Gambia has historically been viewed as a society that is receptive to people of different religious faiths.[5] As a result, other religious movements, such as the Ahmadiyya Islamic missionary movement have experienced some prominence in the country and success with regards to gaining adherents. An example of such prominence, is the fact that the Ahmadis were the first muslims in West Africa to set up schools that taught both religious perspectives as well as providing secular education.[5] The Ahmadiyya movement's rise in prominence was especially visible in the 1960s. Farimang Mamadi Singateh, (1912-1977) was president of the Gambia's Ahmadiyya community.[27] He became the first Ahmadi to serve as the head of any state or colony, following his appointment as the second and last Governor General of the Gambia, after the country was granted independence as a Constitutional Monarchy in 1965.[10]

Despite the prominence of Ahmadiyya in the Gambia, the religious movement has not been accepted across all regions of Gambian society. In a separate interview conducted in her 2013 monograph,‘Islam,Youth and Modernity in the Gambia: the Tablighi Jama’at,[5] Janson spoke to a Gambian man who, "decided to become an Ahmadi, much to the dissatisfaction of his relatives, most of whom broke off contact with him."

In 2014, one year after Janson published ‘Islam,Youth and Modernity in the Gambia: the Tablighi Jama’at', then president Jammeh's personal advisor and an Imam of the State House of the Gambia,[5] Abdoulie Fatty called for the expulsion of Ahmadi Muslims and Ahmadiyya teachings in the Gambia to be banned.[28] Shortly after his comments were made, Fatty was dismissed as Imam of the state house,[28] although insisted that his dismissal was unrelated to the statements he made regarding Ahmadis.

The following year, in 2015, the Supreme Islamic Council of the Gambia declared Ahmiddya non-Muslim.[29] Some reports suggested that Jammeh may have been interested in claiming the movement's assests, including its numerous schools and hospitals, such as the large-scale hospital in Tallinding, Serrekunda.

Tablighi Jamaat[edit]

The Tablighi Jammat is an Islamic missionary movement that has experienced prominence in the Gambia, having first reached the country in the 1990s.[30] In particular, the movement has appealed to youth in the Gambia, specifically middle-class Gambians in their twenties, who were secularly educated.[31] Marloes Janson claims that the movement "provides Gambian youth with a new sense of belonging in that they see themselves as part of a global movement."[5] As the Jamaat stems from South Asia, the Tablighi has resulted in a mergence of South Asian and West African cultures, especially as Pakistani preachers played a key role in starting the movement in the Gambia.[31] A further impact of the Tablighi Jaamat, claims Janson could be a rebellion of young Muslims in Gambia against the older adherents of traditional Islamic schools of thought.[5]



Since gaining independence in 1965, the Gambia has been governed by 3 presidents, all of whom have been Muslim. Islam has thus had a significant impact on internal politics in the country, although to varying degrees, in an otherwise secular society.

Islam has impacted the Judicial system of the Gambia since British colonial rule. The presence of Qadis [9] (Islamic magistrates) in Muslim courts during colonialism recognised the importance of Islam in the domestic issues of Gambian Muslims.

Farimang Mamadi Singateh, (1912-1977) became the first Ahmadi Muslim to serve as the head of any state or colony, following his appointment as the second and last Governor General of the Gambia, after the country was granted independence as a Constitutional Monarchy in 1965.

Ex-president Jammeh’s personal advisor Abdoulie Fatty, appointed shortly after his inauguration, was a Muslim scholar.[5] Jammeh also built mosques in state institutions and had verses of the Qur’an inscribed on public buildings.[5]

The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council, was established in 1992. It promotes Islamic ideals and sets the dates of Islamic holidays in the country.[5]

Foreign affairs[edit]

Following Jammeh’s military coup in 1994, many Western nations, including the U.S, cut their financial support of the Gambia temporarily. As a result, Islamic, Middle-Eastern states established stronger ties with the country. Libya, in particular, is known to have funded an array of services, such as mosques, schools and hospitals.[5]

In 2019, the Gambia filed a case against Mynmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim population to the UN, accusing the country of genocide.[32]

The Gambia is also a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Africa :: Gambia, The — The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency". Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  2. ^ a b c d Frederiks, Martha T. (September 2010). "Methodists and Muslims in the Gambia". Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations. 20 (1): 64. doi:10.1080/09596410802542136. ISSN 0959-6410. S2CID 143825183.
  3. ^ a b ""Gambia, The". International Religious Freedom Report 2007". US Department of State Archive. September 14, 2007.
  4. ^ "Shia Presence in Gambia". Archived from the original on 14 September 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Janson, Marloes. Islam, youth, and modernity in the Gambia : the Tablighi Jamaʻat. London. pp. 36, 46, 43, 70, 59, 62, 97, 46, 47. ISBN 978-1-107-47238-9. OCLC 867631246.
  6. ^ The Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBOS) and ICF International. 2014. The Gambia Demographic and Health Survey 2013. p. 32. Banjul, The Gambia, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: GBOS and ICF International.
  7. ^ Thomson, Steven K. “Christianity, Islam, and ‘The Religion of Pouring’: Non-Linear Conversion in a Gambia/Casamance Borderland.” Journal of Religion in Africa 42.3 (2012): p. 240. Web.
  8. ^ a b c d e Sanneh, Alieu B. (2016-08-04). "Culture, Religion, & Democracy in The Gambia: Perspectives from Before and After the 2016 Gambian Presidential Election": 124, 126, 131, 132. ProQuest 2235640778 – via Proquest. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ a b c Saho, Bala. (2018). Contours of Change : Muslim Courts, Women, and Islamic Society in Colonial Bathurst, the Gambia, 1905-1965. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. pp. 12, 14. ISBN 978-1-60917-549-8. OCLC 1007930318.
  10. ^ a b c Darboe, Abubakarr N. M. Ousainu. (1981). Gambia's long journey to republicanism a study in the development of the constitution and government of the Gambia. National Library of Canada. ISBN 0-315-00647-1. OCLC 1019227667.
  11. ^ Turkewitz, Julie (2019-09-04). "Dawda Jawara, Founding Father of Gambia, Dies at 95". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-19.
  12. ^ Whiteman, Kaye (2019-08-30). "Sir Dawda Jawara obituary". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-04-19.
  13. ^ "The Gambia: President Adama Barrow pledges reforms". Retrieved 2020-04-19.
  14. ^ "Gambia food and drink guide". World Travel Guide. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  15. ^ Reuters (2016-01-05). "Female government workers in the Gambia told to wear headscarves". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  16. ^ a b "The Gambia lifts headscarves directive after resistance". The Guardian. Associated Press. 2016-01-14. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  17. ^ a b "Reuben Levy: The social structure of Islam; being the second edition of The sociology of Islam, vii, 536 pp. Cambridge: University Press, 1957. 50s". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 23 (1): 201. February 1960. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00149602. ISSN 0041-977X.
  18. ^ a b "Gambia and Tanzania ban child marriage". BBC News. 2016-07-08. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  19. ^ "Kunta Kinte". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  20. ^ a b c d The concise Oxford companion to African American literature. Andrews, William L., 1946-, Foster, Frances Smith., Harris, Trudier., Oxford University Press. New York: Oxford University Press. 2001. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-19-803175-8. OCLC 49346948.CS1 maint: others (link)
  21. ^ Hasan, Asma Gull (2002). "Islam and Slavery in Early American History: The Roots Story". American Muslims: The New Generation Second Edition. A&C Black. p. 14. ISBN 9780826414168
  22. ^ "Gambia bans female genital mutilation". BBC News. 2015-11-25. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  23. ^ Lyons, Kate (2015-11-24). "The Gambia bans female genital mutilation". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  24. ^ a b "Gambia gay death threat condemned". 2008-05-23. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  25. ^ Tharoor, Ishaan (2015-05-13). "Gambia's president threatens to slit the throats of gay men". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  26. ^ Masters of the Sabar : Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal. African Soundscapes. Tang, Patricia. Temple University Press. 2007. ISBN 978-1-281-09405-6. OCLC 815538480.CS1 maint: others (link)
  27. ^ Arnold Hughes, David Perfect. Historical Dictionary of the Gambia. Scarecrow Press. p. 214.
  28. ^ a b "Gambian State Imam fired for making anti-Ahmadiyya comments". Rabwah Times. 2014-11-06. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
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  32. ^ correspondent, Owen Bowcott Legal affairs (2019-11-11). "Gambia files Rohingya genocide case against Myanmar at UN court". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-04-24.
  33. ^ "Organisation of Islamic Cooperation". Retrieved 2020-05-29.