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Old and New Islam in Gambia


By Eric Maroney


The Montréal Review, May 2011




In Gambia, the place of women has become a battleground for the fight about the future direction of Islam. The place women will have in an increasingly Islamic society, and the kinds of social and religious roles they will play, have assumed supreme importance. As different forms of Islam vie for power and prestige, the future position of Gambian women has become a set of major questions with no easy answers.


Gambia, a small nation in West Africa, is about twice the size of the state of Delaware. It more or less follows the contours of the Gambia River, and with the exception of its small exposure to the ocean, it is completely surrounded by Senegal. It gained its independence from Great Britain in 1965, so English is widely spoken in the country. The Gambia River is one the most navigable rivers on the West African coast, which aided the rapid spread of Islam in the country during in the 19th century. As a result, of the 1.8 million Gambians, 90 % are Muslim. But Islamic missionaries did little to stamp out local religious traditions, and instead incorporated them into Gambian Islam.

So Gambia became an Islamic country while retaining many of its pre-Islamic customs and practices. Then during the colonial period in West Africa, Africans' travel to Islamic centers in the Middle East was made difficult by colonial powers who were afraid of Islam's power. Now, after independence from foreign rule and with the relative ease of travel, Gambians have been exposed to other forms of Islam --- and there has been a resulting clash between "old" and "new" forms of Islam.


A female saint in Berekantu embodies this conflict. Described as the "mummy in the bush," Aminata Mendy-Gomez lives on the beach dressed in a white gown, a white wrap, and a prayer shawl. In her tiny hut are bags full of clothes, prayer mats, a copy of the Qur'an, prayer beads, and a bottle of perfume to keep Satan and evil spirits at bay. Her hut is located near the site of the well-known grave of a saint said to be one of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. This saint travelled from Mecca to Gambia to spread Islam, and died there. He was buried in Berekuntu, and people continue to visit his grave to ask for his intercession with God. Aminata says that she learned about him more than a decade ago, when God informed her of his tomb --- and she has lived near it ever since.

Aminata was born a Roman Catholic, and after her parents passed away when she was young, an older sister brought her to live with an aunt in Dakar, Senegal. She eventually married and had children. After the marriage fell apart, she had a dream that she must return to Gambia and convert to Islam. So she converted (despite opposition from her family), and taught herself Arabic in order to read the Qur'an. She remarried, but shortly afterward she heard a voice telling her to move to the saint's grave site. And as long as she is at the shrine, she can't live with her husband and fulfill her role as a wife.

She claims that she can do nothing about this situation, as "God made me the way I am." In fact, she refuses to leave the grave until a mosque is built at the site. Aminata is aware of the controversy she has stirred up in her role as this saint's spokesperson and a female Sufi, or Muslim mystic. And despite her isolation, she was well aware when a "conference" was organized by Islamic reformists to denounce her work.

In the last ten years, the Gambian government has turned more Muslim, in part to continue to receive aid from rich Gulf states, in return for which Islamic scholars are allowed to come to Gambia and spread their ideas. Young Gambians also travel to places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to obtain Islamic educations. Then when they return to Gambia, they preach a different kind of Islam from the variety practiced in their homes. A group of these young scholars organized a conference to denounce Aminata's practices.

The Islamic conference was set up by a local committee of foreign-trained religious scholars. All represented the same group of reformist Islamic scholars, and were educated abroad. One scholar admonished people to stay away from those who introduce novelties into Islam. Muslims believe in three primary things, he explained. They help each other do good things and abstain from doing bad things. They believe in the oneness of God, and that Muhammad is his messenger. And they believe that religion has a source, so each time there is a misunderstanding between Muslims, the involved parties should fall back on the Qur'an and the Prophet's teachings to correct a problem.

Here is revealed one of the basic premises of the Islamic reform movement in Gambia: rather than rely on Gambian traditions, a believer should look to the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet, and seek the counsel of Islamic scholars. This scholar went on to explain that there is some misunderstanding regarding God and saints --- that real saints are chosen by God, but that Satan also misleads people, who then call themselves saints. So Muslims should follow those saints whose words and actions fall in line with the Qur'an. He explained that God is the only one who can give people luck, and that he can grant people's requests in any way he wants and at any time. Anyone who thinks a human being is capable of these things, he continued, is not a true believer. Finally, he stressed Muslim law forbids building a mosque near a burial ground.

Another speaker at the conference lectured directly about Aminata. He told the crowd that if people require anything, they need only pray to God --- that God does not instruct Muslims to pray to a grave. He explained that the names of all the Prophet's companions are known, and that the tradition does not speak of one who came to Gambia. He goes on to say that no woman can be a leader in a religion. If we let this woman go ahead, he clarified, she will build a mosque, and the children of Gambia will worship in the bush. He concluded by saying that God forgives all sins except the veneration of tombs. For this sin, a person goes straight to hell.

The final speaker hit on a point that is important to followers of Islam in Gambia: whether or not the local tradition of Islamic worship is valid. He marveled that when a Muslim drinks alcohol and worships a tree, local tradition considers it idolatry, but when a Muslim worships a tomb, the same local tradition considers it Islamic. He argued that those who claim that Gambians should continue worshipping as their ancestors did are simply ignorant, and that Gambian Muslims should begin to follow people who are knowledgeable about Islam.

The reformist element in Gambia fought against Aminata and her activities at the grave because she represents all they see as wrong with the practice of Gambian Islam. Foremost, Aminata is a woman, and women cannot have leadership positions in the variety of Islam that those scholars are promoting. In addition, she worships at a grave, and is therefore is engaged in idolatry.


The Supreme Islamic Council (SIC) represents the Muslims of Gambia, and is supposed to settle disputes. Following an article published in a Gambian newspaper about Aminata and the reformists, the SIC felt it had to intervene in the issue of shrine veneration in general, and in the case of Aminata in particular. The SIC report starts with a claim that it can no longer ignore claims by a "self-appointed" saint in Kartong, who said she had discovered the grave of one of the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad. People had been traveling to the site to worship, and the "matter came to worst" when the woman suggested a mosque be built around the grave.

The SIC investigated the matter, and found "the lady's claims to be very strange," because there is no indication in the history of Islam that a disciple of the Prophet was buried in Gambia. The SIC goes on to state that it wrote to the village chief of Kartong condemning the idea of building a mosque. But for all its denunciation, the report ends saying the matter is still under investigation, which is probably an indication that the SIC does not want to completely denounce Aminata and her practices are popular in Gambia. Overall, the SIC tries to take a middle ground between reformist and traditional elements, ever aware that these are the two poles of Islamic culture that it must work to harmonize in the country.

The lines between the two camps can be sharply drawn. Aminata's version of Islam is closely allied to Sufism, which is Islam's mystical branch. Although she makes no claims to be a Sufi, she is defined by the people who surround her as "God's friend," which is a term often employed when referring to Sufi saints. After her conversion to Islam, she had dreams where she acquired "secret" knowledge of the faith, which is a common Sufi experience. God also enabled her to learn Arabic in a short time and gave her the gifts of clairvoyance, fortune telling and healing. Her hut between the village and the wilderness also contributes to her power as a saint, as her isolation gives her an aura of sanctity. By setting herself apart from society, she becomes something exalted and holy in the eyes of many.

Her reputation brings people from all over Gambia and Senegal to recount to her their problems, which range from illness to impotence, unemployment to visa rejections, and include love difficulties of all kinds. Unlike many Sufis, she does not make charms for her followers, but instead recites prayers, begging God on behalf of the people. Her prayers are believed to have a special efficacy, and in return for her services, she is given cash or goods.

The idea that a saint can have direct access to God in a way that ordinary Muslims cannot is anathema to the reformists. For them, there is a theoretical equality between God and all Muslims. According to the reformists, Islam gives a person direct access to God. There is no need for someone like Aminata in true Islam. And although the reformists do not deny that something like sainthood exists in Islam, they categorically reject women saints.

Usually, Sufis like Aminata offer their services at special life cycle events, like weddings, funerals, and ceremonies for the naming children. Their function is specific to times of life when a person passes from one threshold to another, so Sufis mingle with the people and deliver inspired sermons. The reformists, on the other hand, are in the habit of forming conferences, where they address people from behind tables. During reformist conferences, the sexes are separated. During most Sufi gatherings, the sexes mingle. Aminata often touches men who are not members of her family, and she employs local boys who help her do chores.

The reformists and Sufis also have different conceptions of time. The Sufis claim that the past is their vindication: for generations, Gambian Muslims have prayed at saint shrines. The reformists reject that past, and believe that following the way of one's ancestors does not guarantee that one is being a good Muslim. Instead, they invoke another past: that of the Prophet during his lifetime, when he and his early followers set examples with their own lives. They seek to appeal to a wider and truer sense of the past: that of the worldwide Islamic community. And they call out the local customs of Gambia as a deviation from that path. This is largely the product of a generation gap in Gambia. Most of the reformists are young men who have gone to the Middle East to study Islam, and when they return, they inform their elders that their practices are not in keeping with true Islam.

Although very different in their approaches to Islam, both the reformists and the Sufis borrow tactics from each other. The reformists denounce Aminata for taking gifts for her services, but as poor scholars, they also avail themselves of local custom to take pay for their services. Aminata, in turn, stresses her knowledge of Arabic, has a copy of the Qur'an conspicuously located in her hut, and echoes the reformists' belief in the oneness of God. So most Gambians borrow freely from both traditions, while the Supreme Islamic Council (SIC) is caught in the middle. The SIC seeks to foster communication between different Islamic groups, as well as with the government and the outside Islamic world. But even though the SIC claims to represent the interest all of Gambian Muslims, the Gambian government's connection with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia make it lean more toward the reformist camp.

Still, the SIC, as the body for all Gambian Muslims, cannot be as condemnatory of Aminata as have been the organizers of the Islamic conference. In its report, the SIC finds the "lady's claims very strange," but does not use harsh language in condemning her activities. It also refrains from final judgment, deferring a decision to an uncertain point in the future which may very well never come.


The rise of Islamic reform movements in places like Gambia originate from the collapse of Muslim political power in the 19th century. In other words, Islam has taken a centrality in the lives of Gambians where they feel that their modern, post-colonial, secular states and culture have failed. The largest reformist organization in Gambia is called Tablighi Jama'at. The group evolved out of the teachings and practices of the Dar-ul Ulum madrassa in Deoband, a small town near Delhi, India. The scholars attached to this school saw themselves as crusaders against "folk," or popular expressions of Islam, and worked to bring Islamic communities back to their ideal: the golden age of Islam, when the Prophet was still alive.

This school of Islamic thought came in the wake of the collapse of Muslim power and the consolidation of British rule in 19th century India. In the face of the humiliating loss of autonomy to a foreign power, Indian Muslims looked internally to find the root cause of their powerlessness. For the reformers, it was the debased level of Muslim practice. They concluded that Islam had drifted from its moorings toward folk practice, and its punishment was the loss of freedom and foreign occupation. This movement spread out from India, and became a missionary force. Branches were created in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Gambia was a natural setting for Tabligh Jama'at missionaries. The first missionaries to arrive in Gambia were Pakistanis who preached in English. (Since England then ruled Gambia, English was and still remains one of its official languages). The Pakistanis used this to their advantage, since most Gambian Muslims do not have a good command of Arabic, and therefore were not good targets for missionaries from other Islamic countries who shared no common language with the Gambians. The Pakistanis preached and provided Islamic literature in English. Also, because of Gambia's location in central West Africa along a navigable coastal river, new Islamic beliefs could spread easily in the small country.


The crisis in Gambia between reforming and traditional elements within Islam can be seen against the backdrop of many competing visions. First and foremost it represents a struggle within Gambia itself to define what is good Muslim practice, and therefore what should be a just and fair Islamic society. The depressed economy of Gambia has immeasurably helped the cause of the reformists, who claim that the government and native forms of Islam have failed, and the proof is the low standard of living in Gambia. They say only when Muslims act according to the universally agreed upon tradition of Islam (as practiced in parts of the Middle East, but especially in Saudi Arabia) can the ills of society be fixed. They maintain that crime, drugs, and licentiousness are all caused by Gambian's failure to practice true Islam. And very often, this battle over tradition versus reform centers around the role of women.

Aminata's very public position as a mystic and healer, living away from the guiding influence of men, is an obvious affront to the reformist notion of Islam, which maintains that women should remain within the home as wives and mothers. In the reformist camp, women are seen as the fundamental force behind the overhaul of the Muslim family. Because very small children receive their first exposure to Islam from their mothers, the reformists have very unbending ideas about the place of women. They belong in families and at home, and their involvement in the outside world is to be as limited as possible.

In contrast, Aminata's position as a mystic and saint, although very much at odds with the reformers' view of Islam, fits comfortably with the traditionalists' vision of Gambian Islam. Traditional Sufi saints participate in life cycle events, which are times when women are very active in the family and community. So the presence of women, and the mixing of the sexes in Gambia during such circumstances, give women like Aminata an important place in traditional of Gambian Islam. Aminata is the conduit of a saint, and is a healer, and a provider of comfort for the sick and desperate. And above all, she is accessible. Aminata in her hut is not a remote figure living apart from the people. Nor is she official clergy with access to numerous books and the traditional forms of religious authority. Aminata did not receive any formal training to pursue her vocation. She simply acted out the prerogative of her patron saint, and listened to a voice in visions and dreams. But the conflict between Aminata and the reformists reflects a deeper rift in Muslim West Africa. What will be the direction of Islam? What role will women play in Islamic societies? Who will get to define what women can and cannot do in Gambia? As Aminata continues to pursue a simple life in Gambia, her actions belie deep and subtle complexities.


This article is part of a larger work-in-progress Eric Maroney is writing about folk religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam called Great Tradition, Little Tradition. Elements of this article have their sources in Marloes Janson, "We are all the same because we all worship God. The controversial case of a female saint in Gambia," in Africa 76 (4), 2006 and Scott Kugle Sufi and Saints' Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.


Eric Maroney is the author of two books of non-fiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010).  His fiction has appeared in Our Stories, The MacGuffin, ARCH, Segue, The Literary Review, Eclectica, and Per Contra.  He has an MA from Boston University, and lives in Ithaca New York with his wife and two children.  More of his work can be found on his web page: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/ econ/em75/


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