| · Population: about 2,000,000
| · Folk Islam: >99%
| · Christians: <30 known
| · Homelands: Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania
| · Migrant Communities: France, Spain, USA, Sierra Leone, Angola, DR Congo
The Soninke comprise only 2 million of West Africa’s 100 million Muslims, yet they have played a surprisingly influential role in the region’s history. In particular, the entrance of Islam into the region properly begins with them.
Early Times in West Africa for the Soninke
For centuries Soninke culture has consisted of two complementary halves – farming and trading – and it was the combination of the two that first brought them to prominence. The Soninke (or Serahule as they are also known) were the first Black African tribe to forge trade links with North Africa, trading their grain for salt (a rare and thus precious commodity in West Africa), which they then traded on throughout the region. This enabled them to build West Africa’s first great empire, the fabulously wealthy Kingdom of Ghana.
When the Almoravids, a group of Islamic fundamentalists from Morocco, sacked the capital city, it suddenly became politically and economically expedient to profess Islam. The resulting diaspora coupled with the Soninke’s habit of itinerant trading thus became the vehicle for the spread of Islam throughout the region.
Though their Kingdom was lost, the habit of itinerant trading remained. To this day Soninke men travel to locations such as Sierra Leone and Angola to trade in diamonds and precious metals. Communities of Soninke also exist in New York, Paris, Barcelona and other Western cities. Their wealth has also remained, and has been fabled by neighbours and foreigners alike. Scottish explorer Mungo Park said of the Soninke, “they are indefatigable in their exertions to acquire wealth”. Large sections of real estate in West African capitals are owned by Soninke.
Today in West Africa for the Soninke
Today, Islam as practised by the Soninke is broadly similar to that of other West African ethnic groups. There is a strong reliance on jujus – amulets often consisting of Qur’anic verses bound with other items in small leather pouches which are worn around the waist or upper arm. These are usually supplied by the marabout, a key figure, who blends Islamic learning with arcane spiritual powers. Jinn are greatly feared, and encounters with these terrifying spirits are frequently reported.
Older men wear clothing similar to that in many parts of the Muslim world, but the women are less strictly covered than in many places, wearing brightly printed clothes liberally adorned with embroidery or lace.
Although small numbers of men receive a rigorous Islamic education in prestigious locations such as Cairo, the majority are ignorant of all but the basics of their religion. Men often “read” the Koran – mouthing the syllables without having any idea what the sounds mean – in order to gain credit with Allah.
Prayer Guide for the Soninke of The Gambia:
* For the Soninke to discover the eternal Kingdom and to be indefatigable in their exertions to acquire true spiritual wealth.
* For whole communities of the Soninke to have a decisive revelation of Jesus.
* Success for workers from different agencies partnering together in several West African countries.