Sheikh Mass Kah, religious scholar and saint


there are a number of schools

at Arabic is taught, chiefly that

of Mass Kah… some of the teachers


are highly educated men

Sheikh Mass Kah was born of Fulbe origin Ngui Mbayen in the Wolof state of Kayoor in present day Senegal in 1827. He died in The Gambia in 1936 at the village of Medina Sering Mass, in the Nuimi 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 grew up under foster parents. As customary at the time, Mass Kah went to Qur’anic school, or daara, in 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 in decline 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.

Mass Kah’s 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 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 Colonial Travelling Commissioner of North Bank Province. In his report for 1923, he noted: “there are a number of schools at Arabic is taught, chiefly that of Mass Kah… some of the teachers are highly educated men.”

Muhamed Joof in his study of Islamic schools in West Africa notes the schools run by Mass Kah as centres of excellence in Quranic education. By establishing schools, he was fulfilling many roles:

chiefly, he was spreading Islam by peaceful means during a turbulent period where most others were spreading Islam by the use of horse and the sword.

Thus he was emphasizing the values of peaceful coexistencel whilst promoting literacy for the masses and empowering them for the future.

Furthermore, by establishing schools, Islamic clerics, like him, obtained a larger number of followers and gained the trust and confidence of the communities, enriching and adding value to the lives of the people.

The Sheikh’s ability to draw divine inspiration to alter circumstances in favour of those of his followers in disadvantageous positions also added to his prestige. In some ways, these gestures by theSheikh illustrate how he reached out to the ordinary people around him and how he responded to their daily worries especially when they came into collision with the new colonial laws and regulations at the turn of the 19th century. This miraculous intervention made the Sheikh relevant to the communities and was able to draw and maintain new followers. Above all, he put a lid on social tensions as he was able to give hope to the despairing masses.

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 daara not merely to learn the Quran but also to work the fields for their teacher. Gamble notes that the cleric appears like “a man without needs, indifferent to material things, yet whose basic needs for food, shelter, clothes and housing would be taken care of by the disciples” through farm labour.

Sheikh Mass Kah’s disciples worked his farms to sustain themselves and his family. This was their duty to him to requite his protection, support and blessings. Indeed, the proceeds from the farm were so big that the Sheikh’s granary was like an emergency food reserve from which the community could draw in times of need.

Thus hunger and its attendant problems such as social conflict were put at bay.

Source: Patriots, by Hassoum Ceesay