Affiliations: 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.
Relations: 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.
Adaptation: 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.
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 (Aku) 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.
During the transition to democratic civilian rule in The Gambia, following the bloodless coup d’etat, a number of commissions were established to facilitate the process. The PIEC was responsible for conducting and co-ordinating all activities for the Presidential and National Assembly Elections, which brought in the democratic civilian government of the Second Republic.
Muslims make up 90% of the Gambian population. Most are Sunni though there are some people who belong to the Shiite, Ahmadiyya & Bahai faiths in Banjul & the Kombo region.
Islam & Everyday Gambian Society:
The religion has a very visible effect on Gambian life but it has not completely eradicated traditional beliefs in the majority of its believers. Most Gambians still either engage in wearing the Juju (Terre), praying at sacred crocodile pools, ancestor worship, animism, etc. This also includes some Christians as well. Central to almost every village is the mosque (Juma) or its smaller version the Jaka. It is from these places of worship that the call to prayer is made with Friday being the Muslim Sabbath. The Islamic Courts dispense justice in relation to the areas allowed it by the Government and apply Malikite tenets.
Gambian Religious Practices:
You will often see people praying (called Juli) either in places of worship (Juma) or out in the open after their ablutions. This is just one of the five pillars of Islam that Gambians observe. The other four are a belief in Allah as the one god & recognition of the prophet Mohammed as his messenger. The third is to make a pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca at least once in your lifetime, the fourth is giving to charity (Sarahh) and the fifth is to fast (Werr i Korr) during the holy month of Ramadan. Islam means surrender or submission to the will of God.
Polygamy is also practiced as it is not uncommon, particularly up-country, to find a man with up to 4 wives (Jabarr, wife). This is seen by many locals as a mark of prestige and status in the local community that they live in. This practice of keeping 4 wives however, is becoming less common among the middle classes in the Kombos (west coast) and it may be more common to see a man with 2 wives instead. The other aspects of a Gambian's religious life you should be aware of is that they must not drink alcohol (Sangarra) as it was originally forbidden because it interfered with prayer or eat pork as it is considered unclean.
Leaders of the religious society and interpreters and teachers of religious law acquired a role analogous to European Medieval clerics. The cleric was primarily a lettered man, a scribe. But the French term given to Moslem clerics, Marabout, has a special meaning through its identification with the cult of saints, a cult which is a particularly important feature of Sufi (or mystical) Islam. In this case it means a saintly man who has certain charismatic qualities (such as Amadou Bamba) which enable him to attract large numbers of followers to his teachings. As we use the term Marabout today, he is a person who stands apart from the laity because of the fact that he has received sufficient training in the Koran and other Islamic matters to be recognized as a religious leader. Note that the same term marabout, which translates as serigne in Wolof and Thierno (or Ceerno) in Pulaar, also refers to healers and herbalists. Devout persons acquire this training most often by assuming the role of a disciple ("Taloube") of another recognized marabout from whom he receives years of training and guidance, rather than by formal study at a school of theology. The marabout performs specific religious functions, leads prayers, teaches the young, and presides over ceremonies and feasts.
Each mosque, whether in a small neighborhood or for a whole city, has an official who leads the prayers and is known as an "imam". Each smaller mosque has its imam appointed by the community and he usually holds that position for life. The "tablet school" is where the lesser marabouts or clerics called "Ustaas" teach children to recite the Koran, verses of which are written on wooden planks. This is the first religious instruction of the child, at about 4 or 5 years of age.
Gambian Religious Holidays & Festivals
The Holy Month of Ramadan is observed each year by Muslim people.
Koriteh (or Eid-il-Fitr)
The prayer day of Koriteh immediately follows the end of Ramadan fasting in Gambia.
The Tobaski feast is marked with the slaughtering of sheep throughout the country.
Visiting a Mosque
If you want to visit one do go along with a Gambian friend and only do so during non-prayer times. Before entering you must take your shoes off before entering. Women should cover all parts of their bodies, especially their heads, except the feet, hands and face.
Female Circumcision (FGM)
Over 75 per cent of Gambian women have been circumcised.
Christianity arrived in the Gambia with Portuguese sailors in 1456 when they sailed upriver and landed on James Island. There are now over 120,000 Christians of various denominations including Roman Catholics, various protestant denominations including Methodists, Anglicans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists and others.
Despite earlier predictions that the community would eventually be swamped by the Muslim majority their total numbers have in fact grown. This has been helped by the arrival of the new evangelical movements from other countries including West Africa. They have spurred some people with vigorous gospel speeches, local assistance, aid and have built a number of places of worship and who continue to get some willing converts.
Compared to the 19th and first half of the 20th century the faith is less about converting people than it is about re-enforcing the faith, supporting charity work in villages, education and giving skills assistance to help youth schemes. Today there is a network of countrywide churches with the most magnificent standing on Banjul's Daniel Goddard St. (formerly Hagan Street) known locally as "Cathedral". There are 42,500 Catholics who make up 2.4% of the population with a total of 24 priests and just over over 55 parishes.
Christians work actively with Muslim communities all over the country on various projects and even accept them in their schools such as St. Augustine's High. There is also the Gambian Christian Council which is composed of various religions and denominations who discuss matters of common interest.
In the early 19th century the religion got a boost when freed slaves who were converts came to settle in Gambia after the creation of Bathurst on St. Mary's Island. In 1849 a Catholic mission was established in the settlement however, Catholicism floundered for the next half a century until 1905 when the Irish father (Giovanni) John Meehan arrived on the scene. In 1931 he created the Vicariate Apostolic of Senegambia and separated it from Dakar. In 1950 the Catholic population was just over 3,000. 1951 saw the Vicariate elevated to the Prefecture Apostolic of Bathurst in Gambia and in 1957 to The Diocese of Bathurst.
The Methodist Church is one of the earliest churches in Africa and has a history going back to 1821 when John Baker and John Morgan first arrived at Tendaba where they found a frosty reception. The later moved down to Banjul to found Bathurst's first high school for boys. In 1935 the Wesley Church was build in Macoumba Jallow St. Later, chapels and churches appeared in Serrekunda, Bakau, Georgetown and other areas of the Kombo St. Mary District as well as up-river districts.
The Church of England built the Anglican Cathedral of St. Mary in 1901 and also proceeded to build schools and other places of worship.
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