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
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
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
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
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.