Katende, a former eminent Buganda judge and leader of the Olugave clan of Buganda Kingdom writes in one of his unpublished memoirs that despite the fact that Kabaka (King) Muteesa I identified himself as a Moslem, the king continued to eat meat from animals slaughtered by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 (Prime Minister) Mukasa. Mukasa, a former Saaza chief, was renowned for his cruelty and was said to exert much influence over the king. J.F. Faupel writes in the “African Holocaust”, Mukasa contrived to render his position almost unassailable by means of a blood pact with Kabaka (King) Mutesa I, which made him both blood brother to the reigning monarch and ‘father’ to his future successor”. Katende writes further that Mukasa was afraid that if the king accepts to be circumcised, he would compel the rest of the Muslim subjects including him to do likewise.
At the time, circumcision was carried out using sharpened reeds. It was a long, slow painful surgical procedure that would sometimes last a whole day. Back then there was no anesthesia to dull the pain, as it is today. It is not surprising therefore that the Katikkiro (Prime Minister of Buganda Kingdom) was fiercely opposed to circumcision. Katende writes that Katikkiro Mukasa sought audience with the King and brought to light an old law, telling the King that the Buganda Kingdom traditional royal customs forbade the King to shed his blood. The king, therefore, could not be circumcised, as demanded by Islamic law. This meant that religious observances that had been led by the King under a previous easier going Muslim regime with the Arab Muslims, including the slaughter of animals could no longer be perceived and accepted as being carried out by a true Muslim.
At about this time, a group of Muslim fundamentalists from Egypt visited the Kabaka’s court at Kasubi. However, whereas they were impressed by the spread of the new religion, they were unhappy at the king’s un-Islamic conduct and reluctance to be circumcised. They noticed that the mosques in Buganda Kingdom faced westwards instead of facing towards Mecca, meat was not being slaughtered according to Islamic law, the King who led Muslim prayers in his courts had not been circumcised and this greatly displeased them. They immediately advised all Muslim converts that in order not to anger Allah and force His wrath upon them, they should rebuild their mosques but this time facing towards Mecca, make sure that the meat they ate is slaughtered according to the Muslim laws, and most importantly, make sure that all Muslim prayers are led only by circumcised persons.
The visitors reportedly started criticizing the king and very soon, they incited the rest of the King’s subjects to rebel against him. It was not long before the Kabaka’s subjects started challenging him openly about his lifestyle. Where once hundreds would turn up for prayers, only a few would now show up. Most found excuses to be away from the palace while others simply decided to pray on their own. King Mutesa I noticed the dwindling number of worshippers and decided to investigate. It is said that one day the King summoned one of his most loyal servants, nicknamed Muddu Awulila (the obedient servant) to inquire why he was not turning up for prayers. Muddu Awulila answered: “My Lord, it’s because we feel you should not lead the prayer because you are not circumcised”. “But I am your King. You are supposed to obey everything I tell you to do”, argued the Kabaka. “My Lord, our actions are not meant to disobey you, but in this case, we are not looking at you as our king but as a fellow Muslim worshipper”.
Katende writes that King Mutesa I was so angry at his servant’s casual and almost insolent response, that he stayed in a foul mood for the rest of day. Several weeks later, King Mutesa I held a grand feast to celebrate the opening of a new Mosque. Several cows, goats and chicken were slaughtered for the occasion. It is said several of the 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. The Kabaka had them transferred to another jail in Nansana, hoping they will come to their senses sooner or later. On the fourth day, King Mutesa I 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.
When they refused to budge, it was a serious affront to Kabaka (King) Muteesa I, so he ordered that his chief executioner, named Mukajanga, to take all the Muslim converts that has defied him to Namugongo, and burn them. The exact date and month of their martyrdom is not known but it said, they were marched to Namugongo and killed in 1877. Only three of them; Yusuf Sebakiwa (Elephant clan), Amulane Tuzinde (Mushroom clan) and Musirimu Lwanga escaped the inferno. It is said they died of natural illness, a result of the long trek to Namugongo. More than 70 martyrs were burnt to death that day. Mukajanga would later serve King Mutesa’s successor, Kabaka (King) Mwanga, and it was also Mukajanga who executed the Christian Martyrs.
The spot where the Moslem Martyrs were killed is now marked by the Masjid Noor Mosque. The land where the executions took place was donated by Idi Amin in 1975, when he was President. He ordered that the mosque be built, and he laid a foundation stone – although the mosque itself was not built until years later.
The Muslim martyrs – do not receive the same recognition as the Christian martyrs, partly because Muslim martyrs (or Shuhada, as they are known) are not celebrated according to the Koran, and also because the only pilgrimage that Muslims undertake is to Mecca. But their contribution to the growth of Islam in East and Central Africa is widely acknowledged.