The Appropriation of Islam in a Gambian Village : Life and Times of Shaykh Mass Kah, 1827–1936

by Bala S. K. Saho


This paper explores the role played by an Islamic cleric, Shaykh Mass Kah, in the dissemination of Islamic teaching and its practice in the Senegambia. It analyzes the role religious leaders played in the Senegambia after the demise of Islamic kingdoms that militant Islamic leaders attempted to build during the second half of the nineteenth century. Examining the life history of Mass Kah within this time period shows how religious leaders like him remained central in the everyday lives of local communities, their followers, and those who sought their blessings. Given the pivotal role of Islam in the Senegambia during the militant revolutions between Muslims and non-Muslims or nominal Muslims (those who practice the religion in name only) of the nineteenth century, the clerics emerged as new leaders in positions of social and political authority. Islam offered the people a social, cultural, and political opportunity to replace their autocratic overlords. By foregrounding the meaningfulness of the change that was brought by the peaceful transition to Islam during the colonial period, the paper examines how the “new” faith was widely internalized by the peasantry, who were impressed with the numerous demonstrations of miracles by Muslim clerics.

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Bala S. K. Saho is a Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, Michigan State University. His research focuses on nineteenth and early twentieth century Islamic, colonial, and gender history in the Senegambia region.