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Sheikh Swaibu Ssemakula: The father of Islamic schools in Uganda


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Once a mere lay minister in the Church of Uganda, Swaibu Ssemakula rose to become one of the most influential Ugandan Muslims ever. Before he became the first Mufti of Uganda, Sheikh Ssemakula founded the first centers of Islamic learning in this part of Africa, ending an era in which ignorance was almost the only the basis for religious practice.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: Nsereko Mutumba is the Public Relations Officer of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council.

We are privileged to bring to you the Grandfather of Islamic scholars in Uganda, His Eminence Sheikh Swaibu Ssemakula (Sheikh Mukulu). 

Ssemakula was a son of Bakiikamuganda (Father) of the Lugave Clan and Lukuyisa (Mother). His father was a well-known sorcerer in the palace of Muganzirwazza (mother to King Mutesa I).

Using his position in the palace, Ssemakula’s father made him a palace page.  When the colonialists introduced Christianity in Buganda in the second half of the 19th Century, he was one of those selected by Buganda Kingdom to go and study Christianity and he was baptized in Buwaya Church – Busiro.

This made him one of the first Ugandans to become a Christian. He later became a Mubulizi (Lay Minister) of Church of Uganda. When the colonialists formed the Uganda Company, Semakula was given the responsibility of promoting it to the general public.

He was later assigned work of providing spiritual guidance to Ugandans who were working on the construction of the Uganda Railway. He travelled with the railway workers all the way to Kisumu. He became a very good friend of the Uganda Railways construction supervisor; an Indian called Shakibu who was a devoted Muslim.

During his stay in Kusumu, there was a small pox outbreak and many railway workers died. Ssemakula was also infected but he survived because his friend and supervisor Shakibu took good care of him. After recovering, Ssemakula picked interest in the Holy Quran and asked his friends; Shakibu, Yusuf, Juma Suimbi, Musabbaawa bin Abed, Mzei Midaadi and others to tell him more about it.

They started teaching Islam to him and when he returned to Uganda, he decided to embrace Islam. He was circumcised by one Shaban (an aide to the then District Commissioner of Entebbe) who also named him Swaibu.

He detested shirk (polytheism) from the onset and he refused to eat chicken slaughtered by his brothers who were not yet Muslims. Using the little Islamic knowledge he had so far acquired, he started teaching Islam to his own family and out of this effort, two of his brothers (‘Juma’ Bagenda and ‘Rashid’ Lwanga) and one sister (‘Safia’ Nabukalu) embraced Islam.

He started acquiring further Islamic knowledge in Butambala from where he went to Muwalimu Musale’s home in Kyanja-Kyadondo. From here, he left for Kiziba (Tanganyika) where he found a prominent Swahili sheikh who taught him a lot.

When he returned to Uganda, he spent a little time in Buganda and left for Mbale where he teamed up with Imam Yusuf and they started teaching Muslims from Buganda who were working in government as well as local Muslims. This is where he met Sheikh Abdu Samadu Ibn Najim, another prominent teacher who further taught him and ordained him a Sheikh in 1911.

In recognition of his contributions to Islam, Prince Nuhu Mbogo, the leader of the Muslim community, appointed him as the Twale (County) Sheikh for Kyaggwe County.

His most outstanding contribution to Islam in Uganda was teaching many Muslims to the level of Sheikhs. Shortly after being ordained as a Sheikh 1911, he started the first well organised and systematic Madrasa School in Uganda at Kitosi and later in Buwenda – Kyaggwe.

In 1912, he transferred the school to Kabonge – Kyaddondo.  In 1927, he built a school in Nnamasumbi and after retiring as a Twale Sheikh, he built another school in Jjinja-Kawempe where he continued with his work of teaching Islam.

He also established an Islamic school in Katuumu, which he later entrusted with one of his sons Sheikh Mahmood Katende who taught many prominent Sheikhs.

Sheikh Ssemakula is the one who introduced “Sheikhism” in the year 1935, and the first Bawalimu (Muslim teachers) to be ordained Sheikhs were: Sheikh Yusuf Kasujja of Butambala, Sheikh Abdul Kadir Sentamu of Busukuma in Kyaddondo County and Sheikh Muhammad Lubowa of Kibuli in Kampala. These were ordained Sheikhs on February 15th 1935.

In 1946, he passed out another group of sheikhs who included; Abdunur Kinene, Muhammad Mayanja, Ahmad Male, Muhammad Matovu, Abdul Rahman Mivule and Umar Katende. In 1947, Sheikh Juma Waiswa Kinyiri was among those ordained Sheikhs.

In 1950 Shk. Rajab Bosa from Mbale, Muhammad bin Said from Gulu, Hassan Njalila from Bukedi, Shk. Ruhinda from Ankole, Shk. Abdul Aziz from Tooro and many others were ordained Sheikhs.

In addition to championing the teaching of Islam to Muslims in general, Sheikh Ssemakula practiced what he taught by teaching Islam to his own children. Out of the 28 children that he had, 16 became Sheikhs and they include; Umar Katende, Mahmood Katende (a very prominent teacher), Burhan Ssemakula, Musa Lukoma, Muhammad Kyazze, Haji Mutyaba, Muhammad Baadi, Musa Serunjogi, Ahmad Mukiibi and others.

Among his grand children who became Sheikhs are Hussein Buruhan, Muhammad Murshid (who served as Kibuli Mosque Imam for 40 years), Zakiyu Buruhani Serunjogi and many others.

Sheikh Ssemakula did not teach Islam to only men but also women. In 1966, he ordained the first Ugandan Sheikhatu by the names of Hawa Namugenyi.

Administratively, Sheikh Swaibu Ssemakula was the first Mufti of Uganda. He prayed on behalf of the Muslims at the historical ceremony of October 9th, 1962 during which Uganda gained its independence from the British colonialists.

In 1965, Joseph Schacht, an analyst on Muslim issues wrote about Shk. Swaibu Ssemakula who was also named “Sheikh Mukulu” by his as admirers, thus, “According to my study, most Muslims say that Shk. Ssemakula (the former Mufti of Uganda) is Uganda’s leading Muslim scholar.”

Shk. Swaibu Ssemakula passed away in 1973 aged around 99 years and he was buried in at his home in Katuumu – Bulemezi County.

Finally, we are witnessing a peculiar grandfather of Ulama (Islamic Scholars) in Uganda.

Having been among the first Ugandans to embrace Christianity, the first Mubulizi (Lay Minister) from the Church of Uganda to embrace Islam, the first Muwalimu (Muslim Teacher), the first Ugandan to be ordained Sheikh, the first Ugandan to establish systematic Madrasa, the first Ugandan Muslim to establish “Sheikhism”, the Founder Mufti of Uganda and having produced many notable sheikhs, His Eminence Sheikh Swaibu Ssemakula (Sheikh Mukulu) is indeed a Muslim hero though unsung.




+1 #1 Farooq 2013-05-31 12:03
Thank u shek
0 #2 Kisaasi Muslim s.s 2014-08-06 19:26
Thanks alot mutumba for the untold story