The Gambia has a general blasphemy law that prohibits “insults” to religions and words intended to “wound religious feelings.” The law does not appear to be frequently invoked, with no high-profile or widely-reported prosecutions in recent history. Reports on instances of persecution toward blasphemers in the country—upwards of 90% of which is Muslim—are likewise scant.

History of Blasphemy & Apostasy Laws

The Republic of the Gambia, named for the Gambia River around which its territory is situated, has had generic blasphemy laws on the books since 1934, when British colonial authorities enacted the penal code that still serves as the basis for law in the country today. They prohibit insults to religion or “religious feelings” with imprisonment and/or fines. The laws today appear rarely used, if ever, but some overlap of religion and state is still present.


The borders that today constitute the Republic of the Gambia were established in 1889, when the region became a full British colony and protectorate. The region’s Islamization also occurred largely in the nineteenth century as a result of the Soninke-Marabout Wars, although it had previously been under the jurisdiction of the Mali and Songhai Empires. Today, well over 90% of the country’s population is Muslim, with Christians being the largest religious minority.  

Development of Blasphemy Laws

Islam has been present in the region of the Gambia for possibly a thousand years or more. The region has been controlled by various kingdoms and empires, including the Mali and Songhai Empires, but the religious character of the populace did not become firmly Islamic until a series of Islamization campaigns beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. The Soninke-Marabout Wars, a conflict between Islamists and the Gambian adherents to traditional African religious beliefs, effected the conversion of much of the region’s population to Islam between 1850 and 1856.

The region had earlier come under the control of the British Empire, established as a formal colony and protectorate in 1816. The territory around the Gambia river and its surrounding regions had long been a subject of contention between the British and French; however, in 1889, the borders that currently constitute the Gambia were established. These borders would be retained into the following century even after the Gambia attained its independence from the Crown and became a nation all its own.

In 1905, British colonial authorities provided for the establishment of qadi courts in the Gambia for Muslim denizens. These courts, explicitly Islamic in their basis, became an integral part of law enforcement in the Gambia. However, no comprehensive codified body of law existed for the Gambia, which largely relied on uncodified precedents and norms like English common law, until 1934. 

The 1934 penal code, which still serves as the basis for Gambian law today, was passed under British direction based on earlier colonial penal codes drafted for Nigeria. The code included generic blasphemy provisions against “insulting” religion and “wounding religious feelings,” much the same as many other British-controlled colonial African countries. These offenses, still on the books today, allow imprisonment and/or fines for guilty blasphemers, but the laws seem to be rarely enforced, if ever.

Recent Developments

Former president Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a coup d’état in 1994, took a number of steps toward further Islamizing the Gambia in the mid-2010s. In 2015, he went so far as to declare the country an “Islamic republic,” but he lost the 2016 presidential election to the more socially and religiously liberal Adama Barrow, who rescinded that declaration in 2017. 

More recently, in 2019 and 2020, an attempt to draft a new constitution replacing the Jammeh-era one from 1997 failed, largely due to the government’s issues with the limitations it would have placed on executive power. During the process of debate, the Gambian Christian Council and the Supreme Islamic Council sparred over whether a new constitution should explicitly establish the Gambia as a secular state. The Supreme Islamic Council took the position that the Gambia should be nonsecular and officially emphasize the importance of Islam in particular and religion in general. The draft constitution that failed ultimately did not contain the word “secular” as the Gambian Christian Council desired—although neither does the current constitution.