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Sunday, November 1, 2020

Serign Mass Kah (1827-1936)

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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 Qur’anic 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.

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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 Medina Sering 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 Sering Mass Kah named after him in the 1890s, which today remains a renowned Muslim clerical village. He established the village in his own image, that is, to teach the Qur’an, 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 supernatural 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 something 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 Qur’an 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.


Culled from an article by Hassoum Ceesay reviewing a biography of the sheikh by Bala Saho.


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