By: Sheikh Sulaiman Danjo
Translated by: Basidia M Drammeh
Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara was born in 1947 in Joli village in the Kiang region, but his family originally came from Tankular of Kiang West. He grew up in a household renowned for its learning and erudition – first being taught by his father, Sheikh Abubacarr Gitteh Camara, who was a prominent Islamic scholar and a key local reference. When he reached the age of 13, he moved to Serrekunda to attend a primary school, living there with his elder brother Sheikh Ibrahim Sheikh Abu Bakr Gitteh Camara, who was a teacher at the same school.
His quest for knowledge:
The Sheikh began his academic career in his village, Kiang Joli, under his father, Sheikh Abubacarr Gitteh Camara, learning from an early age. His father was an educator in one of the Quranic learning circles in the village.
Enrollment in regular schools:
In the period between 1960 and 1961, the sheikh moved from the village to the city of Serrekunda to attend the Arabic Primary School, where his brother Sheikh Ibrahim Camara was working as a teacher. The head of the school at that time was Sheikh Hattab Sharif Bojang.
At this school, Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara learned the basics of the Arabic language, including grammar, composition, and poetry, under Sheikh Hattab Bojang, while he was taught the basics of other sciences by his brother Sheikh Ibrahim Camara and other teachers.
Return to the traditional learning circles:
In 1965, on his father’s orders, Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara moved to Sheikh Kajali Drammeh’s learning circle in Massembeh village in the Kiang region, where he spent three years with Sheikh Kajali Drammeh known as Sheikh Jal Drammeh, during which time the Sheikh learned most of the basics of Maliki jurisprudence at the hands of Sheikh ‘Jal’ Drammeh (may God have mercy on him).
Recollecting that time during my conversations with him, while he was receiving treatment in King Fahd Hospital in Madinah on a Tuesday in September 2019, Sheikh Muhammad Bashir said, “When my father ordered me to return to the village to continue studying there, I was annoyed, but I said to myself, ‘My father knows what works best for me, and based on that I relied on God and obeyed him, and of course, I did not regret it. I benefited considerably from Sheikh Drammeh’s learning circle as I studied most of the basics of Maliki jurisprudence – from Al-Akhdari to the Risalah – Praise be to God.”
His academic sojourns beyond the Gambia:
In 1968, the Sheikh sold the crops harvested on his farm, where he’d been working during the rainy season in preparation for going abroad to expand his education outside the Gambia. When the crop was successfully sold, he ventured first to the Senegalese capital, Dakar. When the Sheikh arrived, he joined the ‘Franco-Arabe’ Institute, where he was enrolled in the Arabic section.
During this period, he used to frequent the learning circle under the late Sheikh Subuki Silla, the elder brother of the famous Senegalese writer, the late Sheikh Abdulqader Sillah, to study Maliki jurisprudence and other subjects. Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara benefited immensely from Sheikh Subuki, whether through academic or literary knowledge.
During his studies at the Franco-Arabe Institute, Sheikh Bashir obtained a certificate equivalent to the preparatory stage certificate. After obtaining that certificate, he was sent the same year to the Islamic University in Madinah, where he was admitted in 1970.
His enrollment in the Islamic University of Madinah:
In 1971, the sheikh enrolled in the Islamic University of Madinah, becoming the first Gambian to be admitted to the university after his mentor Sheikh Hattab Bojang, although Sheikh Hattab Bojang had only briefly attended the university before transferring to the Islamic University of Omdurman in Sudan.
When the Sheikh arrived at the Islamic University of Madinah, he resumed his studies at the intermediate, secondary, and university levels. During his intermediate studies, Sheikh Sharif Bajan arrived from Sudan, where he had completed high school at the Omdurman Institute. When Sheikh Sharif arrived at the Islamic University, he enrolled in the College of Da’awah right away. Thus, Sheikh Sharif Bajan became the first Gambian graduate at the Islamic University, although Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara was the first Gambian to have been admitted to the Islamic University.
During Sheikh Muhammad’s studies at the Islamic University, he became the president of the Gambian Students Union in the Prophet’s City and is thus considered to be the very first president of the Gambian Students Union in Madinah.
His efforts in education:
In 1981, the Sheikh graduated from the Faculty of Islamic Law, and returned to Gambia (may God protect and preserve him).
In 1982, he was appointed as a teacher at the Talinding Islamic Institute, in addition to his appointment as deputy principal of the Islamic Institute.
In 1990, he was appointed as a supervisor for Arabic Language Affairs at the Islamic Institute.
Also, in 1990, Sheikh Muhammad Bashir became the principal of the Islamic Institute and Schools of the Gambian Islamic Union, succeeding the Bengali national Sheikh Abdul Wadood (may Allah have mercy on him), remaining in this position for 21 years until 2011.
In 2011, Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara was appointed President of the Gambian Islamic Union, succeeding Sheikh Ali Saja Fatty (may God have mercy on him), who was a graduate of Al-Azhar University.
His efforts in Education Management:
The Islamic Institute has witnessed remarkable progress in terms of developing the academic system and strengthening internal and external relations, as well as in other fields, in addition to increasing student cultural activities since Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara took over in 1990. The number of students has substantially increased, followed by an increase in the number of teachers. This has been a significant contribution to reducing unemployment for educated young people and others in the country.
When Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara became president of the Islamic Union in 2011, he achieved a quantum leap in the trajectory of the Islamic Union, adding to its projects Al-Hikma University that started with the College of Education for Girls, which will soon, God willing, be turned into a modern Islamic university incorporating various faculties. The university is currently under construction, with large parts of the project already completed, thank God. If this project is completed, it will bolster Islamic higher education in The Gambia and propel it toward more progress and prosperity.
While the Sheikh’s many achievements in this field are hard to enumerate statistically, they can be summarized in the following points:
1- Establishing the preparatory and secondary educational stages during his tenure, with the first high school batch graduating in 1990.
2- Succeeding in streamlining and coordinating the Islamic Institute’s certification system with Arab universities, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which provides the opportunity for students to continue their studies in the Kingdom and other Arab countries with ease.
3- Working tirelessly to strengthen relations between the Gambian Islamic Union and international charitable institutions and related bodies in the Arab world. This has resulted in strong ties between the Union and various academic and philanthropic organizations in the Islamic world, among which are: Islamic Solidarity Fund at the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is the largest and most crucial donor institution for the Union in support of its educational and charitable projects. This is also the main financier of the Al-Hikma University project affiliated with the Islamic Union in the village of Faraba Banta.
4- Building the institute’s dispensary with funding from the Islamic Solidarity Fund in Jeddah. The clinic has continued to meet the health needs of students and teachers since its establishment, in addition to providing health services to the Gambian community through conducting medical examinations and blood tests, as well as treating some non-urgent cases.
5- A college for girls was built for the first time in Gambia’s history, with operations at Al-Hikma University’s ‘College of Education for Girls,’ which is affiliated with the Gambian Islamic Union, now in its fifth year and the first batch of graduates graduating in 2019, although they’re still awaiting their graduation ceremony. The college accepts female students from various Islamic institutes and schools in the Gambia, and as the first college for girls in higher Arabic education in the Gambia, hopes are pinned on these students to fulfill the dreams of many Gambian families who want their daughters to obtain knowledge and experience in an academic environment in which their privacy and religious values are respected. The number of admissions has now reached more than 200 students from various Islamic institutes in the country.
6- In the same vein, during Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara’s tenure, the colleges of Sharia and Education for Boys were built in the village of Faraba Banta under the name ‘Hikmah University project’ with funding from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Islamic Solidarity Fund. Although the two colleges are ready, they have not yet been inaugurated.
7- Sheikh Muhammad Bashir Camara has also worked hard to win government recognition for the Islamic Union, taking all the necessary measures to gain the trust of the government. Consequently, the authorities granted the Union the full permission to carry out its various activities, educationally, socially, and economically as well as to conduct its Da’awah programs. As well as being officially registered by the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, the union has also been recognized by the office of the National Agency for Non-Governmental Organizations, meaning that the Union has gained the status of a non-governmental organization, which comes with many important privileges, including exemption from customs duties on aid received from donors as well as well as a waiver from property tax.
8- Construction of 16 commercial stores for rent and endowment investment in the Latrikunda Sabiji market, funded by the Islamic Solidarity Fund, which is a plot of land purchased and developed in the form of shops for endowment investment. The stores have been in use for more than ten years.
9 – Seeking to provide means of transportation for the Union cars, as all the vehicles that the Union has obtained were secured, by the Grace of Allah, through his efforts, directives and instructions, whether directly or indirectly.