Why Muslim martyrs are not celebrated in Uganda

What you need to know:

  • Not glorified. Before the nearly 50 Christians were martyred by Kabaka Mwanga between 1884 and 1887, Kabaka Muteesa I had earlier in 1875 killed a number of his subjects for professing Islam. But the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council says heroes of faith cannot be celebrated, Faustin Mugabe writes.

Every June 3, millions of pilgrims throng the Martyrs’ Shrine in Namugongo to commemorate the nearly 50 Christian men and boys who were killed between 1884 and 1887.
They were killed on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda for rebelling against him and denouncing the traditional Lubaale religion.

But not known to many is that earlier, in 1875, scores of Muslims were executed on the orders of Kabaka Muteesa I, Mwanga’s father, because of professing Islam.

British missionary and author Rev Robert Ashe in his books Two kings of Uganda published in 1889 and Chronicles of Uganda published in 1894 wrote that those Muslims were executed earlier before the arrival of British explorer Henry Stanley in 1875 in Buganda. Ashe arrived in Buganda in early 1880s.
However, other books such as African Holocaust, 1962, by J. F. Faupel and Basekabaka, 1901, by former Katikkiro of Buganda Apolo Kagwa indicate that Muslims were executed after Stanley’s arrival.

Arabs spread Islam
Arab traders started spreading Islam in Buganda soon after they arrived in the early 1840s. The Arabs, who came looking for slaves, ivory and iron ore, were the first non-African foreigners to interact with the Baganda in the 19th Century. They were welcomed by Kabaka Ssuna.

Besides trade, they spread Islam in Buganda so much that by the time the first European, John Speke, arrived in Buganda in 1962, Islam was practised besides the Lubaale religion.
Islam grew steadily until April, 1875, when another British explorer, Lt Henry Stanley, arrived and started a campaign against Islam.

In his campaign to sway Kabaka Muteesa I to the British, Stanley attempted to convert the Kabaka to Christianity, but in vain.

Nonetheless, diplomatic relations between Buganda and Britain was sealed with the letter Stanley wrote on behalf of Muteesa asking the Queen of England to send more missionaries to Buganda.

The letter was taken by a French soldier Col E. L. Linant de Bellefonds through Sudan and Egypt. The two had met at the Kabaka’s palace. On November 15, 1875, the famous letter was published in the Daily Telegraph of the UK. Also accompanying the letter was Stanley’s report about how he had de-campaigned Islam in Buganda.

“I have, indeed, undermined Islamism so much here [in Buganda] that Mtesa (sic) has determined henceforth, until he is better informed to observe the Christian Sabbath as well as the Muslim Sabbath and the great captains [chiefs] have unanimously consented to this,” Stanley’s letter read in part.

By Stanley’s own admission, there was a deliberate effort by Europeans to destroy Islam and promote Christianity. But attempts to defend Islam sparked a rebellion by Muslim converts against Muteesa who in turn ordered for their execution.

Muslims killed for their faith
When Kabaka Muteesa I succeed his father Ssuna, he observed Islamic teachings such as eating of animals only slaughtered by Muslims and ordered for the construction of mosques in Buganda.
It is also said that Stanley’s attempt to convert Muteesa to Christianity by demeaning Islam left Muteesa undecided on which was the true religion.

In confusion, Muteesa decided that everyone should profess any religion of their choice. This, however, provoked Muslims in the palace to rise up in rebellion.

They accused the Kabaka of being uncircumcised and thus unfit to lead prayers in the mosque. They also accused Muteesa of ordering the construction of mosques facing the wrong direction instead of mecca. This infuriated the Kabaka who ordered for their execution.

While it is said that more than 500 Muslims could have been killed between 1875 and 1876, Sheikh Abdullah Sekimwanyi, one of the first Ugandans to go Mecca, in his book Ebyafayo Ebitonotono ku ddiini ya Kiyisiramu published in 1945, compiled the names of Muslims which were less than 40.

Heroes, not martyr
Sheikh Nsereko Mutumba, the spokesperson of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, acknowledges that Kabaka Muteesa I killed Muslims because of their religion. But he adds that in Islam they can only be called heroes who died because of their religion.

“In Islam, it is only God who decides who is a martyr. We [Muslims] don’t glorify them [Muslims killed between 1875 and 1876]. We don’t have saints or martyrs in our faith,” Sheikh Mutumba says.

He, however, says Muslims in Uganda have a plan to expand the mosque at Namugongo where some of the Muslims were killed and beautify the premises so that it becomes a tourist attraction since it is a historical site.

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