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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why do Gambians pray five times a day?

PICTURES (top to bottom)

1. Tobaski prayers in Tanji 2011.

2. Remains of a camouflaged animist village in Dogon, Mali 2010.

3. An elderly village woman in Sarre Alfa 2010.

4. Mamasamba, my old host-father in Sarre Alfa 2010.

5. A boy sitting on a prayer mat in Sarre Alfa 2010.

6. Woman at Koriteh prayer in Sarre Alfa, 2010.

7. The large mosque in the center of Sarre Alfa.

8. - 9. Men at Koriteh prayer in Sarre Alfa, 2010.

10. A mud mosque in Dogon, Mali, 2010.

Since July of 2008 I have been living and working in The Gambia. I have learned a lot about Gambian culture. Over my next few blog entries I aim to explore my knowledge by answering a few questions. However, I want to stress that I am not an expert in any of these topics. I also have no desire to offend anyone or belittle their beliefs. These are simply my thoughts and opinions.

Why do Gambians pray five times a day? Well, it’s because most Gambians are Muslims. Muslims pray five times a day because it was commanded by Allah. According to the Holy Koran, from what I know, The Prophet Muhammed was transfigured and rode on a gryphon that took him up through the seven skies to speak with Allah. Muhammed was first commanded by Allah to pray something like 500 times a day. However, on the way back down, Muhammed ran into the spirit of Ebrima (Abraham), who asked Muhammed; “what did Allah command you to do?” After Muhammed related Allah’s command, Abraham instructed Muhammed to go back to Allah and ask him to reduce the number of prayers. This process was repeated several times until Allah reduced his command to five prayers a day. They are; Fajir (~5:30am), Tisubaar (~1:30pm), Takusaan (~5:00pm), Futuro (~7:30pm), and Geeye (~8:30pm).

Is it Islam or is it not? Back when few people had clocks or a watch, listening for the mosque prayer calls was probably a way for people to gauge time. It was the same with the ringing of church bells in early European cities. One can see that the prayer times were framed around typical daily routines. Islam developed in a hot, dry, desert environment. The first prayer motivates people to wake up early (Fajir at ~5:30am) and work until ~1:30pm (Tisubaar), when the sun gets hot. The last prayer is a clear precursor to hitting the sack. Perhaps these were Allah’s intensions.

I used to think that Muslims said the same set of prayers every time they prayed, but I have now learned that different combinations of prayers are recited during each prayer time, and that it varies by the time of year. There are also exact rules about what to do when you miss prayer times and how to pray on a day when you are travelling. Why are most Gambians Muslim? It’s most likely because Islam was instituted long ago and because it conforms well to the ideals and traditions of Africans. I have surmised from my little historical knowledge of West Africa that Islam was probably introduced by the Fulani, a powerful tribe that once ruled over much of this part of the world. In some cases Islam was violently imposed; such as in the Dogon in Mali, where animists fled to the more elevated cliffs and built camouflaged villages to hide from Muslim invaders. Today, Islam is the most commonly practiced religion in West Africa and The Gambia is no exception. Every Gambian village that I have seen has a mosque at its center; much like how every hill town in rural Italy has a church at its center.

Is it practical or is it not? Though I have said that Islam may have been imposed, I think that it appealed to Gambians in several ways. The structured, daily prayers conform well to the typical village routines. Gambians were used to frequently worshipping all-powerful beings, as well as many deceased or living human and animal figures. Islam requires frequent worship to an all-powerful being; Allah, as well as Muhammed and many other prophets (including Jesus, whom they call Isa). Islam bestows power and respect to elder men, which is a key aspect of traditional Gambian culture. I’m sure there are many other reasons that I am ignorant of. Ultimately, Islam is well instituted in their culture and the daily prayers conform well to the routine nature of village life.

Christianity is also practiced in The Gambia, though not nearly as widely as Islam. This is probably because Islam was introduced in West Africa before Christianity. Since Islam is the religion of Gambian elders, Gambian children are raised as Muslims and attend Madrassas (Koranic schools) or Daras (where they chant the Holy Koran around an evening fire with the village Imam). Even children who attended Christian missionary schools tend to grow up to be Muslims. I have met several Muslim teachers and co-workers who attended Christian schools. They made the choice to stick with the religion of their families, which I think is the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, Gambians who convert to Christianity or another religion are sometimes cast out by their family and even their community. Therefore, Christian Gambians tend to live together in villages or in certain districts of urban centers. You can almost always tell when you’re in a Christian village or neighbourhood when you see pigs roaming the streets; Muslims do not raise pigs because they do not eat pork. Christianity can even be tribally specific; the Manjago tribe is a largely Christian tribe. You can recognize Manjagos by their names; such as Mendy and Gomez, and they are almost always Christians. Gambian Christians and Muslims, however, are in no way segregated. In fact, they are very accepting of each other and of all other religions. I have found that The Gambia has a uniquely open minded and accepting take on religion, where people can believe what they choose to believe. In this way, I think that The Gambia serves as an excellent model for other countries all over the world.

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