Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa Research Paper

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An estimated 140 million Muslims live in tropical Africa, also referred to as sub-Saharan and Black Africa. The majority are concentrated in the Sahelian and Savannah regions that lie to the south of the Sahara proper, between the Atlantic to the west and the Red Sea to the east, in the Horn of Africa and along the East African coast from Somalia to the northern region of Mozambique. Nigeria’s Muslim population, generally estimated to be over 50 million, is the largest in this part of Africa, and the focus in this research paper will be on the growth and impact of Islam there, and in East Africa, especially in Tanzania where, as in Nigeria, there is also a heavy concentration of Christians, a situation that affects the character, policies, and objectives of both religions in both countries. Elsewhere either Muslims or Christians are in a clear majority.

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The advance of Islam and Christianity throughout tropical Africa has not undermined all traditional beliefs and rituals. On the contrary, as modernization has brought new challenges to community and personal life, people have not rejected the traditional belief systems for the ‘newer’ religions but have tended to juxtapose—the term syncretize is misleading— them, and to have recourse to either one or the other depending on the concerns that require a spiritual solution.

Broadly speaking, there have been three stages in the development of Islam in tropical Africa: quarantine, mixing, and reform. In the first of these stages Muslims, mainly merchants from North Africa, tended to live in closely-knit communities and apart from the indigenous population. The second stage was characterized by the mixing of Muslim and traditional beliefs and rituals, a process which gave rise to the third stage, that of reform.

1. West Africa Until The Nineteenth Century

It was through commerce that, over 1,000 years ago, Islam began to spread to West Africa and indeed to most of tropical Africa. During the eighth century, Muslim merchants of both Arab and Berber origins began to work their way across the trans-Saharan trade routes to the Ancient kingdoms of Ghana and Kanem Borno situated within the frontiers of what is today western Africa.

After gradually establishing itself as the religion of court and commerce, Islam came to be seen as a progressive, modernizing force in Tropical Africa. The traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–68 77) left an account of the healthy condition of Islam in Mali in the middle years of the fourteenth century. He was impressed by the meticulous observance of the Friday prayers, the importance attached to the learning of the Qur’an by heart and the fidelity with which zakat or almsgiving was practiced. Ibn Battuta also pointed to what has been a feature of Islam in West Africa since its beginnings there: mixing. He noted the retention in Muslim circles of traditional religious customs, including divination, prostration before a ruler, and the matrilineal system of inheritance, considered to be contrary to Islam, and given by reformers as the principal reason for jihad.

Early on Islam encountered Christianity in tropical Africa. By the middle of the seventh century, Arab Muslim traders had come into contact with the Christian kingdom of Nubia which, when unified, stretched from the second to the sixth cataract of the Nile, although there was little by way of Islamization until the arrival of the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt in the second half of the thirteenth century. A combination of military pressure from Egypt and royal marriages between the Egyptian and Nubian dynasties resulted in the establishment of Muslim rule in the capital of the Nubian state of Muqurra in the first half of the fourteenth century.

2. The Scholar-Mystic As Reformer And Nationalist

While Islam in tropical Africa has been spread largely by peaceful means and has used the same means to reform itself, the launching of the Almoravid movement in the southern sector of the Sahara in 1054 by Abdullah b. Yasin initiated a tradition of militant reform that was to influence the course of West African Islam down the centuries, inspiring future jihads or holy wars.

In the fifteenth century, this tradition was given intellectual and doctrinal weight by the Muslim scholar Al-Maghili (1425–1502) from Tlemcen in southern Algeria, who spent many years teaching Islam and counseling rulers in Hausaland (present day northern Nigeria) and the central Sudanic kingdom of Songhay (present day Niger). His radical teachings on the Shari’a (Islamic law), Muslim government and education, gender and taxation were communicated in reform manifestos to scholars and rulers across the western Sudan.

The seventeenth century saw the beginnings of a series of jihads in western Africa culminating in the Sokoto jihad which was to change the cultural and religious landscape of that region during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was launched by the scholar and mystic from the hinterland of Hausaland in northern Nigerian, Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817) early on in the thirteenth century of the Muslim hijra (1785–1882)—the century which, it was widely believed, would witness the advent of the Mahdi (God-guided one) who would ensure the triumph of Islam everywhere. The principal target of this jihad, one of the most thoroughgoing in the history of Islam, were the nominally Muslim urban based government administrators and the jurists who were accused of every kind of corruption and oppression. Oppression of fellow Muslims, Shaykh Uthman preached, was tantamount to infidelity on the ground that a believer was duty bound to befriend a fellow believer.

The Madhi, many were convinced, had arrived in the eastern Sudan in 1881 in the person of Muhammad Ahmad. A member of the puritannical Sammaniyya Sufi order, Muhammad Ahmad, in a brief period, overthrew Egyptian rule in the Sudan and established an Islamic state there which lasted until 1898. Like that of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio, the Sudanese Mahdi’s religious nationalist movement was both rural based and directed against the corrupt urban based elites, mostly Turco-Egyptian officials. The careers of both men highlight the crucial role of the mystic as reformer in African Islam.

After the Madhi the Sudan was to become, in theory, a condominium under joint British and Egyptian rule until 1952. The Sudan has suffered from a civil war between the largely Muslim North and the Christian, traditionalist South since 1955. Since that time several administrations have been engaged in extending Islamic law and education across the South.

3. Islam On The East African Coast Until The Nineteenth Century

As in West Africa, Islam’s early development on the East Coast was slow. It spread more easily and evenly among the nomadic and seminomadic populations of Somalia and the Horn generally, while further south it remained confined to many of the island populations including those of Lamu, Pate, Pemba, Comoros, Mombasa, and Zanzibar, and to a few settlements on the coast itself. The best documented of the early coastal settlements is Kilwa, founded by Shirazi immigrants from the Arabian peninsula in either the tenth century or in the twelfth century. Though early Islam was largely confined to the coast Arab immigrants had established a Muslim state far inland in Shoa in Ethiopia by the ninth century which was later absorbed by Ifat, one of seven Muslim kingdoms all tributaries of Christian Ethiopia.

By the first half of the fourteenth century a well-developed Muslim society had been established on parts of the coast of East Africa. Once again Ibn Battuta, the chronicler and traveler, who visited Mogadishu in Somalia in 1331, provides a picture of the state of Islam at the royal palace at this time. He describes a deeply Islamized court around the Arabic speaking ruler and/or shaykh who was assisted by a Muslim judge or qadi from Egypt. Furthermore, East African students had already begun to travel to study in the Islamic university of Al-Azhar in Egypt, a tradition begun in West Africa much earlier.

Though historically less militant than western African or Sudanese Islam, the fusion of Islam with local coastal customs and traditions created the context for reformers to engage in jihad or holy war. The reformer Ahmad b. Ibrahim (1506–43), better known as Ahmad Gran, waged several jihads from the Muslim state of Adal, situated in the interior, into the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia which involved not only the purification of Islam but also the conversion of Christians. Paradoxically, the indirect consequence of those jihads was the disintegration of the largely Muslim region of Adal, the main area of relatively settled Islamic life in the interior, although Harar, to the south, remained for Somalis a center of Muslim orthodoxy. In the second half of the sixteenth century the Galla, originally from south central Ethiopia, began to expand and by the nineteenth century a number of ethnic groups further north including the Wallo were largely Muslim.

Though Islam made little further progress in the East African interior until the nineteenth century, Arab Muslim culture had begun to interact with the indigenous Bantu cultures through marriage and concubinage to produce the new and distinctive culture known as Swahili, an Arabized-Bantu lingua franca spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, and in the eastern sector of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Muslim presence on the coast, on the other hand, was strengthened by the arrival of the Ottomans who occupied Masawa in 1557, and came into conflict with the Portuguese who had burnt down Zayla’ in 1517.

4. East African Islam Turns Inland

The Yao people, situated midway between Lake Nyasa and the Indian Ocean and part of a trading network that included slave trading stretching from the Indian Ocean west to Katanga, were the only major ethnic group south of Somalia to turn Muslim prior to the nineteenth century. During the first half of that century increasing economic expansion inland began to effect a profound reorientation in outlook, attitude, and priorities among the Muslims of the coastal settlements. Muslim traders and agriculturalists began to move into the interior to Tabora, Ujiji, Nyangwe, Buganda, Lake Nyasa, Katanga, and elsewhere, and while not actively proselytizing they were, nonetheless, spreading Islamic culture by imitation.

The first Muslims arrived in Buganda, part of present day Uganda, from Zanzibar in the midnineteenth century during the reign of Kabaka Suna. Arab influence increased in the 1860s under Suna’s successor Mutesa, not a full Muslim himself (he was not, for example, circumcised) and this was manifest in Buganda’s adoption of the Islamic calendar, the observance of Ramadan, and the wearing of Arab dress which had become fashionable.

Tension created by the uneasy relationship between the demands of Islam and local custom and culture was never far below the surface and erupted in violence as protests by strict, orthodox Muslim visitors to Buganda against Mutesa’s leading of the Friday prayers led to a backlash in which 100 Muslims were massacred. The situation was further complicated by the arrival of Christian missionaries in Buganda in 1877. Though in 1888 Christians and Muslims united to expel Mutesa’s successor Mwanga, too much a pagan for either, unity soon turned to hostility as the Muslims expelled the Christians and installed Kalema as Kabaka. A civil war followed and by 1890 the Christians had gained the upper hand and were to receive the backing of the colonial regime. By the treatises of 1890 and 1892, Captain, later Lord, Lugard, acting in the name of the Imperial British East African Company, allocated Bugandan landed chieftainships along religious lines in favor of Christians and this was confirmed by the Ugandan Agreement of 1900. Christianity’s dominance in Uganda had been institutionalized.

5. Colonialism And Islam

Muslim resistance to colonialism has been mentioned in the case of the Sudan and Muslim opposition, both passive and militant, emerged in many other parts of tropical Africa including the Senegambia, Somalia, and Northern Nigeria.

While profoundly disturbing culturally, psychologically, and spiritually everywhere in tropical Africa, the indirect consequences of colonial rule on the actual spread and institutional development of Islam were uneven both in time and place and depending on colonial aims, interests, rivalries, and manpower requirements. At first the German use of Muslims for administrative purposes in East Africa contributed to Islam’s progress in the interior, while later this same practice worked against its advance by dividing government personnel from the indigenous peoples opposed to foreign domination. The strongest opposition to German colonial rule came in the form of the Maji-Maji (maji in Swahili means water) rebellion (1905–7), organized by Kinjikitile, once again a Sufi or Muslim mystic.

British colonialism which replaced the German system after World War I tended to slow the progress of Islam in Tanzania and elsewhere in East Africa. The system of Indirect Rule at the level of local government tended to protect the power of the local chiefs from being undermined by wealthy Muslim merchants from the coast. Moreover, Christian schools became the main supply of local administrators, teachers, police, and army personnel. The perception was formed of Christianity as the religion of progress, while Islam, as it was gradually sidelined, came to be seen as an obstacle to advancement in the modern sector of the economy and politics.

By contrast with East Africa, British colonial rule in Northern Nigeria relied heavily on Muslim personnel to implement the system of Indirect Rule and even extended Muslim authority to cover the so called ‘pagan areas’ such as the Jos Plateau. Muslim courts and schools were improved and, as in the Sudan, Colleges of Islamic Law were opened. What mostly assisted the spread of Islam during the colonial era was the improvement in communications, while what mostly disadvantaged Islam and assisted Christianity was the growing importance of western education.

6. Postindependence Islam In The Context Of The Nation State

The independence struggle and the regaining of independence itself provided Muslims, previously under represented in the modern sector of political life and in the civil service in many parts of Tropical Africa, with the opportunity to insert themselves in a more positive and sometimes aggressive manner into the political affairs of the new nation state.

Since independence in 1963, Nigerian Muslims have created a nationwide network of Islamic institutions and have supported the territorial integrity of the federation when threatened by seccessionist movements which continue to exist and the most serious of which, in recent times, came from the eastern region and resulted in the Biafran Civil War (1967–70). On the other hand, in the late 1970s as the country prepared to return to civilian rule after more than a decade of military rule, Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly appointed to approve the Constitution of the Second Republic became embroiled in a serious controversy over the establishment of a Supreme Shari’a Court at the Federal level that threatened the unity of the nation. Many Nigerians not only resented and felt threatened by the Muslim demand for a Federal Shari’a Court but also by the Muslim call for the removal from the preamble to the 1978 draft of the Constitution of the Second Republic the term ‘secular state’ on the grounds that it promoted secularism, atheism, and immorality. Those skeptical of northern Muslim intentions and more favorable, if not to seccession, then to greater regional autonomy, claim that Muslim enthusiasm for a strong central government reflects a concern not with harmony and unity but over the resources of the country, principally oil, which are located in the South.

Evident in tropical Africa since the 1970s is not only the greater role of Islam in the affairs of the nation state but also the steady increase in Muslims in what were traditionally non-Muslim areas such as Meru country in Central Kenya. The precise number of Muslims in Kenya is unknown but the best estimate would seem to be somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population. Islam is also expanding among the black population in South Africa where it was first introduced by slaves and political prisoners from the Dutch East Indies, Madagascar, and West Africa in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century. Numbers were boosted by the influx of Muslim traders, many of them from Bombay, who distinguished themselves from the indentured laborers from India, a majority of whom were Hindu, who began arriving from 1860.

In the 1980s Muslims joined with Christians of all denominations, Jews, and Hindus in South Africa against the enforced pluralism of apartheid. Today most of South Africa’s major cities have a sizeable Muslim presence, and increasing attention is given to education, community integration, and links with the wider Muslim world in Africa and beyond from which it was largely cut off during the apartheid era.

7. Conclusions

It is usual to stress the fit between Muslim culture and the African condition, and while there was, and is, undoubtedly much common ground between the two, Islam, like Christianity, has been both a destructive and creative force. It has produced many distinguished scholars, mystics, and philanthropists, among them a Muslim William Wilberforce in the person of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817) of Hausaland in present day northern Nigeria whose writings and program of reform continue to influence and motivate contemporary Muslims not only in Africa but also in the United States and Europe.

Islam has been a major agent of globalization in tropical Africa. Wherever it has settled it has brought numeracy and literacy in Arabic and turned what were regional and/or national trading and commercial networks into international ones. It has also introduced new forms of religious community and spirituality in the form of the turuq or Sufi brotherhoods that link believers in tropical Africa to those in the wider Muslim world.

Whether Islam, or for that matter Christianity, has been an innovator or simply a catalyst, where the introduction of such core beliefs as belief in the Supreme Being as totally unique and independent is concerned, is both a fascinating and much debated point among social scientists and historians of religion, but one which space prevents us from discussing here.


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