By Momodou Lamin Yaffa
I can vividly recall the days when the mastermind and architect of the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council, Alhaji Soriba Gassama, used to frequent my office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help him with matters related to his efforts to establish the Council. He chose me as one of his aides because of my Arabic/Islamic background coupled with me being a government civil servant at the time. I was in a position to be of assistance to him when it came to drafting correspondence in both English and Arabic and to giving him advice.
Alhaji Soriba was a product of the typical Gambian Majlis (Daara). He hailed from Jarra Sutukung. He had never sojourned in the Arab world for studies. The knowledge of Islam he had was the one he gleaned from the Majlis of his fathers and forefathers in Jarra Sutukung. I can fully recall that his major motive of founding the Council was to give voice to the Serignes/Karamos of the Majlis/Daara and equip them with an institution that would serve as a bulwark against the onslaught of the Madrassas, which were mushrooming in The Gambia in the late seventies and early eighties. So, it was an irony of fate that the very institution he created to counter Gambian scholars with Islamic education acquired from Arab countries took over the Council from him before his death.
Interestingly, Gambian scholars from Arab countries, in a bid to counter Alhaji Soriba’s designs, created their own body, which they called “League of Scholars with Arabic Education”. After the military takeover in 1994 and consolidation of APRC rule following the presidential and National Assembly elections of 1996 and 1997, Yahya Jammeh weaponized the Council to pursue his agenda. It was a golden opportunity for the Arabic scholars to take over the Council because by then people like Imam Abdoulie Fatty, a graduate from Saudi Arabia, was the imam of the State House Mosque, the late Alhaji Kebba Landing Sanyang, a graduate from Libya, was the Chairman of the Hajj Commission.
They connived to push Alhaji Soriba aside and appointed Alhaji Banding Drammeh, a graduate from Egypt and Libya, as president of the Council with the blatant interference of the then Minister of the Interior, Lamin Kaba Bajo. An institution initially designed to be a non-governmental organization that handles Islamic matters on behalf of the Muslim community had unfortunately become a mechanism that Yahya used to manipulate at will.
The leadership of the Council were also eager to be instrumentalized by Yahya for their own narrow interests. Yahya built them a head office with government funds despite the Council’s being a non-governmental institution. This was no surprise given Yahya Jammeh’s unorthodox ways of running the affairs of state. The Islamic scholars were the least concerned about Yahya’s overtures towards the Council because their prime objective was to be recipients of the head of state’s largesse irrespective of the unscrupulous manner such benevolence was doled out to them.
The Council’s current executive has served its mandatory term limit of ten years. It should have organized a general assembly to elect a new executive more than a year ago. However, the Council is seen to be procrastinating in abiding by an entrenched clause of its own constitution despite several appeals by Muslim associations for such a move. Unfortunately, the calls have gone unheeded and the Council is going about its business without coming up with any justification for its disregard for its own statutes. The only excuse they have so far put forward is the lack of funds to organize a general assembly.
This is considered a flimsy excuse in many Muslim quarters, including Rawdatul Majaalis.
Moreover, a series of testimonies at the TRRC had revealed the Machiavellian designs of members of the Council like Imam Abdoulie Fatty and Imam Muhammad Lamin Touray during Yahya’s rule. The Lead Council, Essa Faal’s line of questioning revealed to a large extent the high level of prevarication they were resorting to in their answers. Testimonies given by TRRC witnesses adversely affected by the Council coupled with Fatty’s and Touray’s evasive answers have dispossessed the Council of total credibility in the prying eyes of any good Gambian.
They preferred to conceal the truth about their unholy alliance with the former Gambian despot instead of coming out clean and apologizing to the Gambian people for their misdeeds. They should remember that they condoned or turned a blind eye to whatever ghastly act that Yahya Jammeh perpetrated against Gambians simply because Yahya arrogated them with powers they were not entitled to. They systematically abused those powers to introduce and entrench the Salafist/Wahhabi brand of Islam, which is totally at odds with the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence blended with Sufism, which is the brand we inherited from our fathers, forefathers and local scholars. They received lavish financial assistance not only from Yahya but also from Saudi and Qatari philanthropists, whose agenda is to propagate Salafist/Wahhabi Islam worldwide. They installed on the premises of the Council a radio station that serves as an apologist for Salafist/Wahhabi Islam and vehemently and systematically condemns the traditional Islam that is prevalent in the Senegambia region and even in West Africa and beyond. In so doing, they have sown seeds of discord among Gambian Muslims.
My scrutiny of Salafism/Wahhabism has led me to the conclusion that, to thrive, they would leave no stone unturned to befriend the powers that be so that they can push through their Wahhabization agenda, especially if the autocrat they are dealing with is characterized by utter naïveté when it comes to Islamic culture. They successfully implemented their design during Yahya’s reign and left in their wake a trail of hapless victims.
It is for this reason that a rival camp called Rawdatul Majaalis emerged after the demise of the Yahya regime. This rival faction is composed of Islamic scholars who espouse the tenets of our traditional Islam i.e. the Maliki School and Sufism. They are advocating for the current leadership of the Council to hold a general assembly and elect a new Council leadership. The rivalry came to head when Rawdat unilaterally appointed a president for the Council because of the current Council’s systematic defiance and snobbery of appeals for the organization of a general assembly and election of a new executive.
Unfortunately, the Barrow government, which should have played the role of a mediator and arbiter to break the stale-mate seems to be engaged in a game of “variable geometry”.
When a national umbrella religious organization curries favour with a government, the former cannot stand up to it when the latter errs. We saw it during the impasse when Yahya Jammeh flatly reneged on his pledge to accept the results and hand over the reins of power to the then president-elect, Adama Barrow. The Council’s entire leadership failed the Gambian populace by not siding with them openly.
They might have been condemning Yahya’s volte face in the privacy of their abodes but were unable to do it in public. They woefully failed to observe the Prophet’s oft-quoted Hadith: If you see an offence or a misdemeanour being committed, stave it off with your hands; if you cannot, do it with your tongue i.e. denounce it; if you cannot, disapprove of it in your heart. The Prophet (pbuh) concluded the Hadith by saying literally “That is the weakest form of iimaan (faith). The use of the demonstrative pronoun “that” of distance instead of that of proximity “this” clearly indicates that he was referring to the social phenomenon of injustice, crime, etc. as indicative of the people’s low level of faith.
If each individual is driven by strong faith of righteousness, the need to resort to the use of authority, denunciation or disapproval would not arise. So, the low level of faith the Prophet is referring to is not that of the person who cannot stave off a crime or condemn it but simply disapproves of it. He instead meant the explanation outlined here above. It is also worth noting that the three acts of prevention, condemnation and disapproval are not hierarchical in terms of implementation but are acts in terms of roles. The role of prevention is that of authority be it law enforcement, the judiciary, the executive, etc., while the role of condemnation behoves the elders, the scholars, etc. through counselling, education, upbringing, etc. and the role of disapproval is the duty of every individual of society whose conscience and faith always dissuade them from engaging in any form of wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, the Council leaders and members could not muster courage to say to Yahya in his face that he was absolutely and grossly wrong. It took a lady, Bishop Hannah Faal of the Christian Council, to audaciously perform her rightful task of a religious leader. She was able to do so because she and her Christian Council do not cajole government leaders, particularly the head of state, for favours. This was why she was able to take the moral high ground and told Yahya Jammeh in his face that he was horribly wrong and was hurting the people he was meant to protect.
Owing to the series of debacles the Council has inflicted on itself, it has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Gambian people. The bitter lesson of the impasse saga is that the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council, if it continues to exist, and there is no reason for it not to, should revamp itself and seek reconciliation with its rival faction, Rawdatul Majaalis. This is what is in the supreme interest of Gambian Muslims. Let the scholars imbued with the Salafist/Wahhabi doctrine put an end to their unwavering attacks on scholars espousing traditional Islam. They should also learn a seminal lesson I have drawn from my life-long relationship with Islamic/Arabic education.
The Islamic education they have acquired can be put to good use if and only if they realize that religious education is meant to be applied in one’s life. They are meant to emulate the character traits of the Prophet (pbhu) not only in words but also in deeds. Let them establish daaras/majlises, where they teach not only Islamic disciplines but also how to be close to Allah through constant devotions and worship. They should learn to be the paragons of virtue like the Prophet (pbuh).
The Council must cease its systematic attempt of absolving itself, seek reconciliation with Rawdatul Majaalis and thus unite all Muslims in our dear country. However, all indications are that neither the current Council nor the government has heeded the lesson of the recent past. The government is caressing the Council and ignoring Rawdat’s appeals to the government for mediation. Such an attitude by a government, which is meant to be a conciliator and not a divider, does not augur well for religious and social harmony in The Gambia. Both the current Council and Rawdatul Majaalis look up to the government as a mentor. The latter should therefore seize such an opportunity to play its historic role of unifier and thus put an end to the senseless and unwarranted bickering and mudslinging between brethren of the same faith.