Serigne Mass Kah: The saint from Medina


By Dr Bala Saho

Serigne Mass Kah was born into a Fulbé family at Ngui Mbayen in the Wolof state of Kajoor of what is now Senegal circa 1827 and died in The Gambia in 1936 at Medina Serigne Mass, a village located in Niumi District, North Bank Region.
His father was Ma-Sohna Kah and his mother was Sohna Gaye Khan. Serigne Mass established the village of Medina for learning the Qur’an, spreading the word of God, and agricultural work. A present-day visitor to the village of Medina Serigne Mass is quickly struck by the sight of a beautiful minaret, loud songs in praise of God from Qur’anic students, and the sight of large millet and groundnut fields.

As was customary at the time, Mass Kah went to Qur’anic school under the tutelage of his brothers, Serigne Samba and Serigne Morr Anta Sally, at a village called Pir.
Mass Kah was a quick learner and as a young man he studied the Qur’an and Islamic sciences at Pir, where he had opportunity to meet other clerics. The sheikh was also said to have studied in Mauritania.


Mass Kah continued studying under different clerics. He read many books including: Asmawee (fiqh-religion, ways of prayers), Laxdari (religion and prayers), and Hasamadine (way of life) as well as aspects of the religion such as Lawal (religious affairs), Usul (jurisprudence), Tawhid (unity of God), and Naxu (grammar), after which he returned to Senegal.

By the time of his return to Senegal, the sheikh’s peaceful approach to Islam began to attract a following. One can only speculate that his decision was influenced by the changing political and religious landscape in the Senegambia. It was noted that the defeat of the last Wolof king, the Damel of Kayor, Lat Dior, at the battle of Dekkile´ in 1886 at the hands of French conquerors, and the subsequent disintegration of the state of Kayor, served as a warning for all the clerics in the region that their culture was now under threat.
Mass Kah’s attitude towards colonial expansion was said to be one of avoidance. He relocated himself whenever the French got closer to his area of domicile. Though it is not clear why he made such decisions, a purported incident between Mass Kah and a certain French colonial commissioner is perhaps relevant.

The sheikh finally established his village of Ke¨rr Medina Serigne Mass in The Gambia in the early 1890s. Here the scholar immediately established a daara (Qur’anic school) and continued to teach the tenets of Islam and the Qur’an as well as instilling work ethics into his students and followers. The school soon attracted students from within Gambia and Senegal. This school became so popular that it attracted the attention of the British colonial administrators. In the 1923-1932 report of North Bank Province concerning educational improvements, it is written: “There are a number of schools at which Arabic is being taught. The chief of these are at Farafenni under Sherif Malainen a native of French Soudan; at Medina Serigne Mass under Mass Kah and his son, Momadu Kah, Jollofs (Wolof); at Sittannunku under Arafang Briama Dabo, a Mandingo; at Medina Cherno under Cherno Omar Jallo, a Toranko.”

The writer of the report was impressed with the level of Arabic education and continued, “Some of these teachers are highly educated men. I know one, a Mandingo now dead, who evolved a calendar whereby he could convert the days of the moon into days of the month, and even overcome the difficulty of the leap year.”
In his study of Islamic schools in West Africa Muhammed Joof also notes the place of the school run by Sheikh Mass Kah as a centre of learning and with many students.

The life of Mass Kah needs to be examined against the general background of the religious reforms of the nineteenth century, which should be seen through the acts of key reformers, most of whom, it is claimed, at one time or another had come into contact with Mass Kah.
For example, Mass Kah was said to have met with Amadou Bamba of Touba (1852-1927), founder of the Mouride Brotherhood. Informants narrated that Bamba visited Mass Kah in Banjul at Hagan Street, where the present‚ Mourid Headquarter? in The Gambia is located. It was also reported that the sheikh met Al-Hajj Umar Tall (1794-1864), one of the most travelled and influential clerics in West Africa. Similarly, it is said that he had met Maba Diakhou Ba (1809-1867) and his son, Saer Matty, by blessing their jihads through prayers. Although there are no written records to substantiate these claims, they seem to suggest that these encounters strengthen his credentials as a reputable religious figure. These religious figures have remained important icons in Senegambians’s popular memory. Relating Mass Kah to these individuals therefore appears to be a conscious effort to illuminate his piety.

In some ways, Mass Kah’s life can be compared to that of Bamba who evaded colonial encroachment through what Robinson calls‚ accommodation. By making the same evolution as Bamba, Mass Kah’s preoccupation was to avoid conflict with the French and the British. In so doing, Mass Kah can be seen as someone reaching back to other distinguished Muslim tradition of Sufism and the peaceful spread of Islam. Also, Mass Kah’s actions can be seen in light of making the faith more prominent at a time of the evident failure of the militant approach, and in this he is similar to his contemporary Bamba.

The peaceful spread of Islam in West Africa was first associated with the life of Al-Hajj Salim Suwareh, a religious teacher who probably lived in the fifteenth century. Mass Kah’s life as it appears in the legends and poems is a later example of the peaceful efflorescence of Islam during the colonial period. His model of the peaceful practice of Islam was similar to the peaceful Suwarian tradition of Islamic clerics in West Africa. Although this peaceful model was negated during the nineteenth century by jihadist leaders within the Suwarian tradition who adopted militant models from elsewhere in the Islamic world, with the onset of colonialism at the turn of the twentieth century, the Suwarian tradition gained a new life and led to an upsurge of Islamic affiliation.

Serigne Mass Kah’s teachings took place during the turbulent years of Islamisation in parts of the Senegambia during the nineteenth century when Islam was also spread by the sword. Mass Kah, however, never took up the sword. By establishing schools and public preaching, Islamic scholars obtained followers and gained trust in the communities they visited, enriching the lives of believers and winning over new converts.

Mass Kah ascended through Sufi Islam as an adherent of the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya, two popular Islamic orders which gained currency in the Senegambia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as most local clerics embraced either one or the other. This gave Mass Kah an opportunity to understand the Sunna, Qur’an and Islamic institutions. Sufi Islam, with its mystical and ascetic movement, is associated with the veneration for saints (waliu), who are credited with miracles and are believed to have the mystical gift of baraka (redeeming power and grace). The central core of the Sufi way is the wird, usually part of dhikr, the prayer ritual that is specific for the way and transmitted from teacher to student. The initiation is variously called akhdh al-‘ahd (the taking of the oath), akhdh al-wird (the taking of the litany), and akhdh al-tariq. The sheikh took to Sufi practices by combining fasting, seclusion, and travel as a way of spreading the word of God. Valerie Hoffman in her work on Sufism, notes, “The Sufi’s major preoccupation is with crushing his passions, fighting, as the sufi say, against his own soul. A time-honoured method of taming the soul is to resist its desires through fasting and other forms of asceticism.”


Miracles, social work, and healing
Today, there are numerous stories, tales, and poems about Mass Kah’s supernatural performances, recounted by Qadi Aliou Saho and many of the sheikh’s followers. Qadi Aliou Saho’s father was a student of Mass Kah, and Saho was a student of Mass Kah’s son. Such accounts from students and other followers form the core of praises that are performed at every religious gathering in honor of the sheikh. In Islamic tradition, Sufi poets find inspiration in the poems of earlier periods. Julian Baldick mentions the influence of poetry on Sufism and how earlier mystics of Islam had made extensive use of Arabic poetry. The poems and songs about Mass Kah are composed in Wolof, interspersed with words and sentences in Arabic. The inclusion of Arabic in the poems requires that the performers be literate in Arabic and belong to the sheikh’s daira.

These popular views of Mass Kah are echoed in beautifully composed poems sung by adherents during annual ziyaras in the cleric’s honor. Most of the stories are believed to be miracles, which confirm the cleric’s position as a waliu (saint).
To a large extent, the life and deeds of Mass Kah recounted in these poems and songs are constantly reminding his followers of his sainthood. The qadi narrates that while Mass Kah was at Medina he continued teaching the Qur’an and preaching Allah’s words, and it was there that he exhibited many of his miracles.

For example, Qadi Aliou Saho narrates that one day, the people of Medina were clearing land for cultivation towards the direction of Bakindiki village. The villagers cleared a wide path till they came to a big tree. They tried to fell the tree but they found the tree had grown again to its former size the following morning. They reported the matter to Serigne Mass Kah. The following morning, when the villagers returned to work, the tree had disappeared. The villagers were stunned and chanted about the incident:
Amoon na garab bu n?u
Toxaloon ci yooni Bakindiki la woon, Waa re´e´w mi yepp la lootaloon, Seringe Kah je¨l ko mu sori.
(There was a tree that was removed
from the way to Bakidinki.

It disturbed the whole village,
Serigne Mass Kah removed it to a farther place).
This is another story that illustrates the sheikh’s ability to see and deal with what “ordinary eyes” cannot see. Presumably, the sheikh was able to defeat the jinns of the tree and made the tree disappear. In this part of the world, it is commonly believed that most trees have owners – a jinn. Moreover, Hoffman notes that “the ability of sufi sheikhs and saints to see things that ordinary people cannot see might be considered just a part of their ability to transcend spatial limitations.”
This demonstrates again the esoteric knowledge of the sheikh, which the informant chose to emphasise.

Towards the end of his life, Mass Kah’s knowledge and wisdom became more profound and visible. He lived and died for what he believed: teaching the Quran, spreading of God’s word, and doing his work.

In many ways Mass Kah’s life is now being remembered through many of the songs and miracles including the belief of him as a saint who could shower baraka in life or in death.
Sheikh Mass Kah’s life reveals that he was a cleric who played a key role in disseminating Islamic practice in the Senegambia. He did this through his teachings, by creating the “holy” village of Medina, and by blessing his followers. He had performed several “miracles” in the process of healing the sick and relieving people in difficulty. Moreover, like Bamba, he opted for a peaceful Islam. But unlike the Mouride cleric, he rarely came into direct contact with either the French or British colonial authorities at different times in his life. The life and times of Sheikh Mass Kah reveal that scholars of Islam have a lot to gain in studying individual Sufi clerics who were seemingly not so well-known to the “outsiders”, namely the Europeans. As a result, there is not so much written on them. The sheikh in particular did not leave behind a rich collection of risalas (messages, memoirs, or documents). All that is available about him is stored in the popular memory of his disciples who wrote songs and stories and also organised annual ziyaras to memorialise him.


Culled and abridged from African Studies Quarterly | Volume 12, Issue 4 | Fall 2011 “Appropriation of Islam in a Gambian Village: Life and Times of Shaykh Mass Kah, 1827–1936” by BALA SK SAHO. You can read the full, unabridged work here: