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In The Gambia 90% of the population are mostly Sunni Muslims, 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.

The Supreme Islamic Council mediates and lobbies on Muslim religious affairs affairs and meets with the adherents of Christianity on the Inter-Faith Group.

Further Reading:
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.


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