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Islam and personhood in The Senegambia: The life times of Serign Mass Kah (1827-1936)

Jan 14, 2011, 3:06 PM | Article By: Review: Hassoum Ceesay, historian

Bala Saho, Mangroves Publishers, 2011

This is a new book by Bala Saho, Director General of the NCAC, and a noted writer focusing on one of The Gambia's most respected clerics, the venerable Sheikh Mass Kah born in 1827 and died in 1936. He is the founder of many cleric villages such as Medina Sering Mass Kah in Niumi.

This book is a formidable addition to Gambian historiography. It touches on an area of Gambian history on which nothing much has been written about yet, namely, Islam, Islamic personhood and influences in The Gambia.

Sheikh Mass Kah was born  in Ngui Mbayen in the Wollof state of Kayoor in present day Senegal in 1827 and died in the Gambia in 1936 at the village of Medina Sering Mass, in the Niumi District of The Gambia. His father was Ma Sohna Kah and his mother was Sohna Gaye Khan. He lost his parents at a young age and he grew up under foster parents. As was customary at the time, Mass Kah went to Quranic school or dara at a tender age at the University town of Piir in present day Senegal. Piir was the school where many Islamic reformers studied and Mass Kah must have met many other clerics from Futa Toro and Middle Senegal. He also studied in Mauritania under the renowned Sheikh Sidiya at Boutilmit. When he returned home, he began to attract scholars and followers by his peaceful approach to Islam.  His gentle stance was a pragmatic approach as by this time, militant Islam was on its dusk because the French, in their imperial designs,  had defeated or accommodated the jihadist like Lat Jorr and Maba Jahou Bah. Therefore, he saw reason in spreading the Word of Allah by teaching and avoiding any confrontation with the Europeans.

His attitude towards the colonial powers was total avoidance. Thus whenever the French or British authorities came close to his establishment, he would relocate to a new place. This is why he had lived in Karang, Amdalaye (border towns of Senegal and Gambia), Bathurst (Banjul) and Media Serin Mass. According to oral traditions, his motto was 'If you cannot agree with the ruler (Europeans), you have to leave his land for him'. In so doing, he avoided conflict with the colonial rulers and protected himself and followers from destruction. A good example of such tactical removal was his establishment of the Clerical village of Medina Serin Mass Kah named after him in the 1890s, which today remains a renowned Muslim clerical village. He established the village in his won image, that is, to teach the Quran, to spread the Word of Allah, and to do agriculture work. He therefore, stressed the two fundamental principles of hard work and religious piety.

The school he built at the village attracted students from everywhere. The school grew so big that it soon attracted the attention of the nosy Colonial Traveling Commissioner of North Bank Province. In his report for 1923 he noted 'there are a number of schools at which Arabic is taught, chiefly that of Mass Kah… some of the teachers are highly educated men...' Another way he won hearts and followers was by way of miracles. Today, there are numerous tales and poems recounting his miracles and super natural powers. These stories of miracle power confirm him among his followers as a saint. Stories abound when Mass Kah’s prayers would save debtors under arrest in Bathurst (Banjul) and under risk of jail. A story recounts the Sheikh’s prayers opening the cell door of a convicted debtor who was able to escape and go back to work on his farm to repay the loan; in another case he was said to have cured a madman. On occasions, the Sheikh was said to spread his mat on the water and cross the river successfully.

Yet, the disciples had to give some thing in return: farm work and free labour. One could argue that the teachings of Islam provided clerics with the ideological base upon which they could exploit the labour of their disciples, since in Islam it appears that there is a link between work for elders and clerics and blessings. Students would join a dara not merely to learn the Quran but also to work the fields for their teacher. Sheikh Mass Kah’s disciples worked his farms to sustain themselves, his family and hangers on. This was their duty to him to requite his protection, support and blessings. Bala employs primary, secondary sources including field work to gather his data giving the books an authorative hue.

I strongly recommend this book to students of Gambian history especially those interested in the issue of Islamic influences in the making of The Gambia.

Available in Timbooktoo.