Chebo Cham Imam, Islamic scholar

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Imam Chebo Cham, tell us a little about yourself.

I am from Panchang, Upper Saloum. I studied here before receiving a scholarship to Saudi Arabia and upon completion of my studies, I returned to The Gambia.

There is a battle for the soul of Islam in The Gambia today between the so-called traditionalists and revivalists like yourself. What brought this about?

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The fight has been on for a long time. Even those who came before us also fought and disagreed. Disagreement is a long phenomenon in Islam. But no matter how long the disagreement may seem to last, there is truth in it. In every generation, no matter how bad it maybe, Allah always selects a few people to be on the side of the truth.

And what is this truth?

It is what Allah has ordained and ordered. This disagreement that is going on, for me, I refused to recognise it as a fight between the maajalis and the madrassas, or a fight between Wahhabis and Maajalis. All the elders in the madrassas today, have gone through the maajalis. Some of their fathers are in fact maajalis owners.  For me, the fight is between those who call people to the sunnah, and those who call to bid?ah [innovation]. There are those from the maajalis who have the sunnah, and have accepted what we have been saying as the truth. The issue is about intention. The fight that is happening, people should know that it’s not between madrassas and maajalis; it is between those who call towards the sunnah and those who want to follow their heart or worldly desires. If a person tells you this is how the prophet practised this and that, should that warrant a fight? I say it all the time in my sermons that there are marabouts who engage in black magic and damage people’s lives. Why should that annoy anyone? Are those not bad people, those who damage the future of learned young men, young men who would otherwise have taken this country forward? To destroy all of that such that no one can benefit from the knowledge possessed by that young man all because one person came to you to tell you to destroy that young man’s life! And you pick your pen to destroy him? So, if people like me are preaching that those marabouts who practise such are bad, why should that annoy anyone? Those who make others turn crazy, or end marriages, those are bad marabouts. They are destroyers. Look at the gaamo for example, a lot of money goes into them, and a lot of animals get slaughtered, in a single day. And those who slaughter these animals are in fact poor people. Their homes are dilapidated. Even their foods is bad. These poor people will splash all these monies in a day, such that their madrassas and oustasses are no longer sustainable. Just think about it.

Some believe that it is your methodology – that you took the wrong approach by being adversarial – that brought about the current fight in Islam in the country?

For me, I cannot force others to say exactly how I would say it. What I want to ask people is to look at what a messenger is saying – is it true or false – regardless of whether it is said in a dignified manner or not? If what the messenger is saying is the truth, then accept the truth and perhaps try and convince the person to say it in a more dignified way. But if you want to come and start a fight saying what we are saying will not be accepted here, then you are fighting the commandment of Allah. We accept that even among us, there are those who do not know how to preach these things. But what he is saying is from the Qur’an, so accept that and forget about how he goes about saying it.

Going back to the division in the religion, is it proper to have two organisations – the Essa Darboe-led SIC, and the Sheriff Nano Hydara-led Rawda – parading themselves as leaders of Muslims in The Gambia?

It is bad. It’s beyond bad. And if the government did not take action, it could lead to something even more dangerous than this. The so-called new Islamic council, or the Rawdatul Majaalis, should break up their group and go visit the Supreme Islamic Council that has been here since the times of Jawara to Jammeh to today of Adama Barrow. But it is the Gambian people and the government that I would blame for this situation because it is them that Allah empowered to end this issue. This Rawda that is being spearheaded by our sheriffo, should abandon it for The Gambia to be one. How would you feel if there were two governments operating in this country? There can be no two presidents in a single nation. Let the elders call on both sides for mediation talks. And whatever is discussed there, what should happen is that the last comers should join the other side for development. All the previous governments have only one SIC, even Gambians recognised only one SIC. If they want the conflict to be over in this country in matters related to Islam, we must all become one.

The trending topic now is the appointment of the first female cadis in The Gambia. We have interviewed you on the issue and you have given us your assessment but many activists have said that you are a bigot and misogynist. How do you respond to that?

Thank you very much. I sincerely like that question. I know that when you publish the article, there was a lot of talk, but it is the Muslims that we are talking to, not hypocrites and unbelievers. It is Allah who made a man and woman, and then He appointed some things to the man, and others to the woman. I will never be prejudiced against women because it’s women who birthed us, and birthed the prophets and the messengers. The leaders and the saliheen [righteous predecessors] were birthed by women. He who made man and woman gave positions to whom He wills. Even in the house, He appointed the man as the boss. It’s a small responsibility, but who did He put forward? A man. When it comes to salat, we all know that the man is ahead and the woman behind. What did that teach us? That the position of a woman is behind a man in society. A woman cannot be in front of a man, and that is why the prophet said “put them behind, were Allah puts them”. It doesn’t mean He undermines a woman, no. When it comes to leadership, a man steps forward. When it comes to adjudicating, the man steps up and not the woman. I told you in the interview that there were lots of prophets but among them none was a woman. The critics would say He is trying to undermine the woman, to retard their progress but it’s not.

The justification is that there is no single verse in the Qur’an prohibiting the appointment of women cadis.

You know, if one has knowledge, he can easily trick the unlettered. They would say these comments to those who do not know the Qur’an, and do not know how the wisdom of the deen come about. So, if the unlettered hears that, he says oh there’s no verse in the Qur’an prohibiting it. Even the dongos who are weed smokers, you would often hear them say the Qur’an didn’t mention weed. They say show us a verse in the Qur’an that mentioned weed. But the Qur’an doesn’t work like that. The Qur’an can bring one aya’at that has thousands of meanings. Allah said in Sûrah an-Nisâ that “men are the protectors and maintainers of women”. Didn’t this verse alone show a woman should be behind a man? Those who are saying bring forth evidence that women should not be appointed as cadis, we have the same question for them: where in the deen did they see a woman should be made a cadi? Upon hearing that the people of France allowed a woman to lead them after the death of their leader, the prophet said a people will not prosper whose affairs are in the hands of women.

Imam Chebo, I have long been following your sermons and preaching. One thing I observed is that you hardly ever criticise leaders. Now, if that leader is a bad leader, how should Muslims deal with him?

Alagie, many are still not hearing what we are saying, such that they are accusing people like myself of accepting monies from the leaders and that is why we are saying these things. But Allah knows best. You see, if a leader is bad, that is on him, but what Allah wants is that if we lack the power to fight him, to remove him from that seat of power, the sharia said let him be. Let him continue with his ruling. Rice is expensive, oil is expensive, cost of living is high, leave him there. That is better than going out and fighting with him. Today, you and your crew came here in peace and have left behind people at home, not worrying about their safety, comfortable in the knowledge that they are doing just fine. But if the guns were loud today, you wouldn’t come here. You wouldn’t have met me here, and your driver couldn’t have brought you. So, let the rice be expensive. We don’t want it to be expensive; we want it at a reduced price so that all can afford, but if things didn’t go as planned, let us make effort and find the money to buy rice, make efforts to live a better life and pray to Allah to make things easier. But if we want to go out to fight the government, that will bring another conflict bigger than the one we are faced with.

To be continued next week