The Origin And Growth Of Islam On The African Continent

A mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Islam is one of the most popular religions in Africa.
A mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Islam is one of the most popular religions in Africa.

Islam enjoys a dominant presence in States situated in West Africa, North Africa, the Swahili Coast, and the Horn of Africa. Since the religion was introduced to the continent in the 7th century, it has spread extensively and the continent today is home to nearly one-third of the Muslim population in the world.

Introduction Of Islam In Africa

In the 7th century, Muhammad suggested to his disciples that they cross the Red Sea to seek refuge in Axum in a bid to escape persecution from the pre-Islamic residents of the Mecca. This migration is called the first Hijra in Islamic traditions. These disciples settled in Zeila City where they erected the Masjid al-Qiblatayn mosque around 627 CE. North Africa's coastline thus became the first region that Islam would be observed outside the Arabian Peninsula. However, most of these early disciples of Islam went back to Mecca after peace was brokered between the pagans and the Muslims, and contacts were continued.

Spread Of Islam In Africa

In 639 AD, about seven years after Muhammad’s death, the Arabs commenced their conquest of Africa. In 642 AD, Egypt was brought under Muslim rule, and the Arab military subsequently ventured into regions surrounding Egypt. In three invasions, the Arab military managed to drive out the Byzantine Empire from North Africa. Arab Muslims then started leading trade caravans into Sub-Saharan Africa beginning in the Nile Valley onward to Nubia and eventually across the Sahara into West Africa. Nubia's Christian Kingdoms were the first to witness the Muslim invasion. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, Sufi orders proselytized communities throughout the trade routes extending from North Africa to the Kingdoms of Mali and Ghana and they also established zawiyas along the shores of River Niger. The efforts of the Sanusi order in missionary work bore fruits in areas as far south as Lake Chad. The pilgrimage of Musa I of Mali resulted in a large number of conversions in the Mali Empire and Timbuktu grew to become a significant Islamic center. The modern nations of the Republic of Sudan, Mali, Senegal, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger have a large Muslim population due to this history. In the Swahili Coast, City States flourished due to the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. The residents of these states had constantly interacted with Arab and Persian traders from the 7th century. These trade relations facilitated the growth of Islam and intermarriages.

Notable Sultanates And Dynasties

As Islam spread across the continent, caliphates, and dynasties developed in various regions. The Sokoto Caliphate emerged in 1809 in West Africa after it was founded by Usman Dan Fodio. Its capital alternated between Gudu, Sokoto, Birnin Konni, Sokoto, and Burmi. The territory of the caliphate today lies in Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Niger. At its climax, the caliphate featured more than 30 Emirates and a further 10 million people. The Fulani Jihad organized by Usman Dan Fodio inspired other jihads in parts of the Sahel and savanna which resulted in the creation of Islamic States in Sudan, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, and the Central African Republic. The British executed a decisive defeat on the Caliphate in 1903 and included its territory in the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. In 1848, El Hadj Umar Tall established the Toucouleur Empire whose territory was located in the modern-day Mali. The empire had its capital at Segou, and it observed Sunni Islam. In 1890, the French in collaboration with the Bambara invaded Segou and defeated the empire. Another Sunni Islam Empire was the Bornu Empire which survived from 1380 to 1893 and had its capital at Ngazargamu. The empire was founded by the Kanembu people whose interactions with the Bornu created the language Kanuri. This empire flourished and reached its zenith under Idris Alooma; a statesman praised for his Islamic piety, military skills, and administrative reforms. In the 18th century, Bornu suffered extended famines which weakened the empire. By 1893, the Bornu Empire had lost most of its glory and subsequently declined.

Islam And Colonialization

The 20th century was characterized by the colonialization of nearly all of Africa by various European powers. Armies of Christian missionaries docked in Africa, and they founded educational institutions aiming to convert the African masses to Christianity. Muslims boycotted these institutions. The French in Algiers, for example, took the Jami' Masjid and converted it to the Cathedral of Saint-Philippe complete with a cross. The African population which went to colonial schools was absorbed in the colonial administration, and at the end of colonialization, they took control of the civil administration. This situation has resulted in visible tensions between the Christian and Muslim population of some countries.

Modern Day Islam In Africa

The bulk of the Muslims in Africa either lean towards the Sunni or Sufi orders of Islam. African Islam is complex, and there are several schools of thoughts and traditions that wrestle for dominance in the numerous African States. African Islam is also highly dynamic, and it is constantly being molded by existing economic, social, and political realities. African Islam features local and international dimensions. African Muslims, on the one hand, observe their faith with relative independence as there is no internal body which regulates their religious activities. There are thus notable varieties and distinctions with the Islamic practices observed across the continent. African Muslims, on the other hand, participate in the ummah and they keep up with the current events and global concerns. Muslims residing in Africa maintain close links with the larger Muslim world.

Most African Muslim republics have their legal codes influenced by Sharia law. Most States observe the law in such matters as divorce, child custody, marriage, and inheritance. Secularism is seen as a threat only in northern Nigeria while in other parts of the continent, Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist peacefully. African Muslims mainly subscribe to the Sunni denomination, but there are populations of Ibadi observers and Shias. Most African Muslims adhere to the Maliki Madh'hab but the Shafi'I madhhab enjoys dominance in the Swahili Coast, Horn of Africa, and eastern Egypt, while the Hanafi fiqh is observed in western Egypt. Sufism has adherents in Sudan and West Africa, most of whom are syncretic and include traditional folklore beliefs in their Sufism practices. The Sufi orders of Sudan and West Africa attract skepticism from the strict Islam branches in the Middle East. Salafism is being popularized by Muslim NGOs who have built Islamic Centers and Salafi-dominated mosques across the continent.


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