The life Times of Sheikh Hatab Bojang (1931-1984)
Sulayman Tumani Danjo, The Life Story of Sheikh Hatab Through The Lens of His Acquaintances(Translated by Ebrahim Samateh and Basidia M. Drammeh), 2020. 442 pages.
This book stands out in the growing corpus of Gambian authorship and scholarship for many reasons: first, it is the first full length biography of any major Gambian Islamic leader; second, it is the first full length and indeed very comprehensive biography of Sheikh Hatab Bojang (1931-1984), a leading Gambian scholar, Islamic missionary, teacher, mentor and philanthropist. It is to the great credit of the author Sulayman Tumani Danjo, himself an Islamic scholar of repute, that he has done such an exhaustive research on the life times of Hatab Bojang, one of our great Islamic activists and teacher.
The book has come our originally in Arabic. The author had his manuscript reviewed by nothing less than a dozen scholars who knew Hatab in one way or the other, including family, friends, and faculty. The former president of Supreme Islamic Council Imam Muhammed Al-Amin Touray, and other notable scholars Ismail Bin Muhamad Manjang, Sheikh Essa Darboe and Imam Abdullah Fatty, did dignified forewords. It has since been rendered a very faithful translation into English by two Gambian orientalists and experts Ebrhahima Samateh and Basidia M.Drammeh. Therefore, we can trust this good book as it is the result of exhaustive research, careful writing and faithful translation.
On page 36 of the book, the author Danjo summarizes the life times of Sheikh Hatab thus: ‘was one of the first and most prominent, successful Islamic figures who is greatly credited with laying the first building blocks of the modern scientific renaissance and reformist, Islamic da’wa movement in The Gambia’. Such a personality indeed deserves such a lengthy biography as this one. But the author also goes on page 37 to reiterate that Sheikh Hatab was a transnational Islamic activist, who was active in ‘most part of West Afroca, along with some Arab countries such as Mauritania, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia…’
Admittedly, the author shows that Sheikh Hatab was by all accounts a great and dependable mentor. He has taught and mentored men who now are in the front for the spread and strengthening of Islamic education and the religion itself. But Sheikh Hatab, according to this book went beyond moulding Gambian minds into strong proponents of Islamic education. He went further to build institutions which exists today 37 years after his demise. These include the Khalid ibn Walid Isalmic School founded in 1961(p.193), one of many Islamic schools that the Sheikh has established(p.203-206); the Islamic Solidarity Association of West Africa which he formed in 1970s, following his defenestration from his full time job of Supervisor of Islamic Education(p.212), and his weekly Islamic Programme over Radio Gambia which he pioneered in 1965/1966(p.230).
To further highlight the great legacy of Sheikh as mentor, the author meticulously follows the career of some of the major students and wards of the Sheikh who have passed through his hands and have since become notable figures in the propagation of Islam and Islamic education in the country and beyond(page 276-327). A careful read of this list indeed confirms that Sheikh Hatab deserves the accolade as the great mentor of Gambian Islamic scholarship.
But this kind of achievements it seems were not enough to make the Sheikh escape the shenanigans of the political class in Banjul of the late 1970s. These were days of the NCP-PPP rivalry; between Jawara and Sheriff Dibba, especially from 1976 onwards. On page 220-221, the author explains how the Sheikh got caught up in the staid and highly parochial politics of his community at this time which made gim lose his job at the Ministry of Education in 1978, just after five years. This was sadly just the start of his troubles with the Government. In 1983, he was jailed briefly on allegations of giving false information to a visiting Saudi journalist. Luckily when the government realized their mistake, he was released(p.249). However, Sheikh Hatab used his brief stay in Mile Two to make lasting effect on the morals and spirituality of the prisoners (page 250). Sheikh Hatab being a true scholar did not harbour bitterness. He returned to his missionary work and job at Radio Gambia.
Interestingly, Sheikh Hatab was also a scholar-diplomat. According to Danjo, ‘he was one of the first scholars who stove to improve diplomatic relations between The Gambia and many Arab countries and other Islamic countries...’(p.240). He used his iron cast contacts in the Arab and Islamic world to bring projects and closer ties between his country and institutions he helped found or supported such as the Tallinding institute, Islamic Institute of Brikama etc (p.243). Sheikh Hatab was indeed a developmental scholar-diplomat.
The author Danjo also to his credit was able to record in minute details Sheikh Hatab’s journey for knowledge which took him to Mauretania, Senegal, Sudan, Saudi Arabia(p.241; 152). He was an inspiring searcher of knowledge. Sheikh Hatab’s social life, his many friends and companions are also carefully detailed in pages 153 to 179. Clearly, in this book the author traces the strong Islamic roots and heritage of Gunjur, Kombo South.
All told, this is book is a rare gem. It is well researched, aptly translated and indeed very accessible. The story of Sheikh Hatab should add impetus and courage to the Gambians who are educated in Arabic and have knowledge in it that indeed they are worthy and equal citizens who can play an important role in national building just as those educated in western languages like English. Arabic education is not second to anything as far as importance for nation building is concerned. Danjo’s historical contextualization of the arrival and strengthening of Islam in The Gambia(p.42-56) shows that Gambians have used Arabic as a language of commerce and religion since the 1400s. Arabic education as espoused by the Sheikh Hatab is therefore not new to this part of the world, and deserves support and commitment for its growth.
I recommend this book to all Gambians who wish to imbibe the true story of the life and times of a patriot-scholar of profound depths of knowledge and activism.
Hassoum Ceesay, ORG is a Historian, Museum Curator, Biographer and Copyright Expert. He is currently the Director General, National Centre for Arts and Culture(NCAC):
The Gambia National Museum Premises
PMB 151, Banjul, The Gambia