Events leading to their death begun in 1857 when Kabaka Mutesa I ascended to the throne
The history of the Uganda Christian martyrs remains a well-known tale of intrigue and murder. It tells the story of 45 young men, mostly from Buganda's eminent families, who willingly surrendered their lives for the sake of their religious beliefs.
It is a story of how a group of young men defied their king by refusing to denounce Christianity, a religion that had been newly introduced to Buganda by Catholic and Anglican missionaries. In all, a total of 45 Christians made the long trip to Namugongo, where they went up in flames on a funeral pyre.
But there is another story of martyrdom, equally as inspiring as it is gruesome, yet not many people know it. This is the story of the Uganda Muslim martyrs.
Ten years before the Christian martyrs, men had made the same long tortuous journey to Namugongo where they were burnt in an inferno on the orders of Kabaka Mutesa I. Their exact number is not known, but some historians have put the toll to more than 70.
How it all begun
Events leading to their death begun in 1857 when Kabaka Mutesa I ascended to the throne after the death of his father, Kabaka Suuna. By the time of Suuna's death, Islam had started taking root in Buganda after it was introduced by Arabs and Swahili traders from the coast.
Mutesa was fascinated by Islam and took great pride in studying the Quran and its teachings. In his book, "Buganda nne Kabaka", Reverend Batulimayo Musoke Zzimbe writes that Mutesa was so committed to Islam, that he even ordered a mosque to be built at his palace in Kasubi. The brilliant Mutesa learnt to read and write Arabic and bestowed upon himself the title of Imam.
He was also much loved though equally loathed for his cruelty. Indeed, Mutesa was also called Mukabya which means "one who makes others cry". History records reveal that Mutesa maintained at least four punishment sites in Buganda where insubordinate subjects would be carted to be punished for real and imagined crimes.
Non-practicing Muslim king
Though Mutesa embraced Islam and went on to build a mosque that he led, he continued to eat meat from animals slaughtered by non-Muslims. He also refused to be circumcised, on the advice of his powerful chief administrative officer Katikkiro Mukasa.
"Mukasa sought audience with the king and told him that Buganda traditional royal custom forbade the king to shed his blood. The king, therefore, could not be circumcised, as demanded by Islamic law," says Sheikh Abdul Khalid Sserubogo, a former district Khadi
Sserubogo adds that Mukasa, a former Saaza chief, was renowned for his cruelty and was said to exert much influence over the king. "It is also argued that Mukasa was afraid that if the king accepts to be circumcised, he would compel the rest of the Muslim subjects including himself to do likewise," says Sserubogo
In those days, circumcision was carried out using sharpened reeds. It was a long and slow painful surgical procedure that would sometimes last a whole day. Back then, there was no anaesthesia to dull the pain, as it is today. It is not surprising therefore that the katikkiro was fiercely opposed to circumcision.
At about this time, a message from the Turks started circulating asking the Muslims not to accept the Kabaka to lead them in prayer. The Turks were particularly unhappy at the king's insistence on eating meat slaughtered by non-Muslims and reluctance to be circumcised.
"It was not long before the Kabaka's subjects started challenging him openly about his lifestyle. They went on to refuse to attend prayers led by the Kabaka. Numbers kept dwindling from hundreds to tens. Most found excuses to be away from the palace while others simply decided to pray on their own," Sserubogo explains.
Soon, the king noticed the dwindling number of worshippers and decided to investigate. His findings showed that the numbers had dwindled because he had refused to be circumcised, something that greatly annoyed him.
Weeks later, Mutesa held a grand feast to celebrate the opening of a new mosque. Several cows, goats and chicken were slaughtered for the occasion. Unware of what would befall them, Muslim courtiers ate just the food and refused to touch the meat, because uncircumcised Muslims had slaughtered the animals.
Angry, the Kabaka construed it as an act of treason and ordered all those who had refused to eat the meat to be arrested. The group was rounded up and taken to jail in Bukeesa, near Nakulabye where they were confined for four days without food.
"On the fourth day, the Kabaka sent them some food and meat. They ate everything except the meat. When the King's officers inquired why they had not touched the meat, they told them to go back and ask the king to send them a live cow and goat so that they could slaughter it themselves," Sserubogo narrates.
The Kabaka had them transferred to another jail in Nansana, hoping they will come to their senses sooner or later. On the fourth day, Mutesa again sent them food and meat. It was the same story. They were then relocated to Bukoto where again they were given a last chance to repent but again, they ate everything else apart from the meat. That is when the Kabaka ordered his chief executioner to kill them.
The exact date and month of their martyrdom is not known but it said, they were marched to Namugongo and killed in 1877. More than 70 martyrs were burnt to death that day.
Commemorating the martyrs
While the both the Ugandan Catholic and Anglican churches mark June 3, in pomp and prayer in commemoration of the death of the martyrs, hardly anything is held to remember the Muslims.
It was only after Idi Amin Dada came to power in 1971, after overthrowing Milton Obote that the history of the Muslim martyrs started to come to light. The president was typically irked that it is only the Christians martyrs who are honoured.
He henceforth ordered a memorial to be erected at Namugongo in recognition of the Muslims martyrs as well. Land was acquired just opposite the present Anglican Church Martyrs, and a foundation was laid for a mosque.
A small mosque made of mud and iron sheets was built at the site, to coincide with the Christian martyrs celebrations that year. The mosque has since been rebuilt and expanded by the Muslim faithful's in Namugongo.
Last year, The Uganda Muslim supreme council launched a sh3b development plan for the Muslim martyrs' site at Namugongo. The council also declared June 1 every year as the official day for the Muslim martyrs.
Reciting Quran 3:169 which states that Muslim martyrs have their reward with Allah, Sheik Suleiman Ndirangwa, the Kampala district Kadhi says unlike Christians, Muslims do not celebrate martyrs' day as it would be against the teachings of Islam.
Among the Muslims who were killed at Namugongo are Mponyebuwonyi, Muddu, Biira, Bamutalira, Mukwanga, Kaganyulo, Bazzekuketa, Kalule, Nsereko, Kisegula, Mabende, Mukeka, Namwanira, Mafembe, and Muwanga.