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Gambia's Soninke Marabout Wars
History     Muslims in Gambia     History of Islam
The Soninke-Marabout Wars began in the Gambia in the 1850s until 1901. It was essentially a civil war among the Mandinka tribe which erupted on both the north and south banks of the river. The Marabouts were holy Islamic clerics and teachers and the Soninke were Mandinka kings.  The wars were caused partly by the persistent adherence of the Soninkes and their people to local traditional religions in the form of animism, lax religious practices combined with a taste for alcohol at the same time as adhering to Islam. Most of the wars were in fact battles and skirmishes but displaced large numbers of people in Gambia. The word Marabout was later extended to devout Muslims in general. In Senegal they were referred to as the Thiedo by the Wolof. The word Soninke comes from So-ni which is the Mandinka word for libation or sacrifice. This is not to be confused with the term Soninke that is applied to the Serahule.

Islam was brought to the peoples of Senegambia by north African traders in the 11th century. When the Portuguese arrived in the area in the 15th century there were Marabouts in most of the chief's courts in Gambia. These Marabouts would marry local women thus creating Muslim families in communities that still held onto the beliefs of the traditional animist religion.

These religious leaders would over time purchase a potion of for farming as well as for dwellings. Such land was given to them by the local Mansas for their services as court secretaries. In these settlements the Marabouts would build mosques, establish Koranic schools and teach the new religion of Islam. These settlements in time developed into Muslim towns called Morokunda. These settlements existed in Saloum & Baddibou, Niumi, Tumana, Europina, Jarra and Kombo. The Marabouts regarded those living outside these towns as infidels or Kafirs. Thus they saw it as their religious duty to extend Islam to these people which eventually resulted in the Soninke-Marabout Wars which raged for decades from the 1850s. The war was similar to many Islamic Jihadist movements that emerged in other parts of West Africa in the nineteenth century. It should be noted that their aims were not just religious but had political and secular goals.
The Jihadist movements of West Africa at the time were the result of a deliberate attempt to create new states that were to be based on the foundations of a purified and puritanical Islam as well as bringing about social and economic justice. These conflicts have their roots in the past. The Muslims resented their exclusion from political power. They further resented the taxes they were forced to pay as many of them had become wealthy through trade and performing rituals for dignitaries and fee peasants alike. To compound matters further the Marabouts were often targets for pillaging and plunder by their lax Muslim neighbours.

Uprisings and Conflicts:
This led to a Marabout uprising in Wuli in 1842, Kombo in 1855 culminating in Baddibu in 1861 but the main area of turmoil was in the Kombos where there was much loss of life, crops and social upheaval. Even Jola and Serer mercenaries were bought into the fray and no tribe in the region was left untouched. By the middle of the 1870s the whole of the Kombo area was in Marabout control and the main war aim was largely now forgotten and both sides fought for political and economic reasons. During the conflicts the British tried to keep out of it and only intervening when the colony or its British subjects were at risk. After the killing of a travelling commissioner by a Marabout leader, by the name of Fodi Kabba Dumbuya, on the Sankandi in 1901 the British and French in Senegal (Saloum) acted decisively and managed to kill Fodi Kabba which effectively ended the Soninke-Marabout Wars. The legacy that was left was the replacement of traditional animist ruling classes with Marabout leaders thus putting Islam on firmer ground. The population displacements created large numbers of refugees among the Wolof, Serer, Serahule and Fulani.

Thus certain memorable leaders emerged such as Amath Bah who was better known as Ma Ba Diakhou, Fodi Silla and Fodi Kabba.


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