This has been my third trip to The Gambia on behalf of Ummah Welfare Trust. A small West African country once colonised by the British.
One of the great challenges that the colonisers had, after they agreed to end slavery and over a century of oppression, was how to utilise a new generation of Africans to spread Christianity across the West African region.
In 1787 AD many slaves from America and the West returned to Freetown, the modern-day capital of Sierra Leone, West Africa. The town was to be the base for their mission. As a result, today, many Christians in Sierra Leone have Muslims ancestry, which is clear from their Islamic names.
What fascinated me about The Gambia, however was that Islam till today here remains strong. Over 95% of the population are Muslims, and by constitution, it is a Muslim country.
Alhamdulillah, Islamic clothing is commonly seen and there are many Islamic institutes. The general zeal for the religion is strong; I even heard a guard at the airport listening to the Qur’an.
I was intrigued to find out what sacrifices were made to protect the Iman of these people, thereby allowing them to retain their Islamic Identity.
Going back, Islam first reached The Gambia in Islam’s first century, 63 AH, under the leadership of ‘Uqbah bin Nafi Rahimahullah. However most of the people then still retained their paganism, living under different kingdoms and tribes.
As the centuries passed, Muslim traders from Mali and various Islam conquests allowed Islam here to spread. However, it took time, and only in the 19th century AD did Gambia become a Muslim-majority country.
In more recent times, one prominent personality has made a real difference. He established a strong foundation of Arabic schooling alongside modern education to pre-empt disbelief entering Muslim minds through the guise of ‘education’. His name was Sheikh Khattab Bohaj (Rahimahullah).
He was born in 1931 AD and was the son of a businessman.
His father loved Islam dearly, and so when a great Sheikh from Mauritania visited the Gambia, he requested him to take his young son, Khattab, just six years old then, back to Mauritania to learn Islam. His father gave 1,000 pounds for his expenses, and young Khattab bade farewell to The Gambia.
For the next 23 years he studied under the renowned tutelage of Mauritania’s great scholars. He memorised the Qur’an and ahadith and mastered many subjects on Islam. He acquired the deep insight and asceticism that has for centuries been imparted in the region’s deserts.
Wise beyond his years, he returned back to his native home and established the first Arabic school teaching modern subjects in the Gambia. Students flocked to him, alhamdulillah.
He was generous and made his home a permanent residence for needy students. The government, threatened by his righteousness, made life difficult and even imprisoned him on occasion.
He was also deeply pious and loved the Qur’an dearly. Following his father’s death, he recited from Maghrib until Fajr to complete a khatm on his behalf.
He always stressed the importance of memorising the Qur’an. Growing up in Mauritania, he had seen how nearly every household there had members bearing the Qur’an in their chests.
His eagerness and concern for the general population never diminished. A friend of his recalls how he would always remind him to leave alcohol and other sins, but he never listened.
One day he called him and said, ‘Are you not going to change your ways because you will surely die between Monday and Sunday.’
His friend says, ‘I became afraid that I will die that same week because Sheikh Khattab was known to be a pious person and a man of foresight and truth.
Therefore, I decided to change my ways and repented. However, due to the worry of death, I lost a lot of weight.
When Sheikh Khattab found out, he summoned me and said, “What I meant was that you would die on one of the seven days of the week, and not specifically this week.”‘
Upon sensing the dangers of disbelief entering Gambia’s educational system, set up by missionaries, he lobbied to make one lesson on Islam mandatory in all government and private schools, and even missionary ones.
Despite facing resistance, he managed to get the law passed. Alhamdulillah, a warning was issued to all missionary schools not complying with the law to teach one lesson of Islam. Their school was otherwise shut down.
It was a huge achievement, and till today has helped protect Islam and Muslim values in the country.
Just two days before his death, he told a congregation, ‘I have sowed the seeds, and if I die, you will enjoy its fruits, as my students are ready to carry on with my mission.’
On 30th of April 1984 when leaving his home to deliver a regular lecture on the radio station, he told his driver to wait a few moments as he’d forgotten to perform his two raka’at of Salaatul Ishraaq.
He entered his house and began praying.
After some time, his wife became worried. He had taken much longer than usual. He was supposed to leave since he had a lecture to give. She went to check on him and found him in sajdah unresponsive. She quickly called some of his students.
They moved him and found that he had died in Sajdah – Allahu akbar.
May Allah have mercy on him and reward him immensely.
Today Ummah Welfare Trust is striving to preserve his legacy of teaching Islam to the poor and destitute. The charity has allocated a budget of £10 million to support, strengthen and expand religious institutions across the Gambia and Sierra Leone, inshaAllah.
Make du’a for the work and continue your support.
Ummah Welfare Trust Team
The Gambia | 25/2/2021