History of Islam in Africa

Published July 26, 2012

By Staff Writer

The Prophet Muhammad reminded the Muslim world, “We are a single community, distinct from others.” The distinction shapes the Muslim’s religious identity and underlines the nature of the Islamic ideal, whether the purity of the monotheistic concept, the uncompromising quest for morality, or the lifelong seeking of knowledge.  It also accentuates the common historical thread running through the international Muslim community.

In Global, African, and Near Eastern studies, the role of the African Muslim may be the most overlooked by Western academia, and involve the most tenacious myths about the spread of Islam. The lack of African sources allowed scholars to make false assumptions as they evidenced the old axiom, “scholarship follows the national flag.” The dominance of Western scholarship resulted in complete silence about African creativity, innovation, exploration, trade, and skills in scholastic writings and textbooks.

In 1945, British historian Hugh Trevor Roper galvanized the Eurocentric view when he wrote, “the only history in Africa is the history of Europe in Africa.” Given the self-perpetuation of cultural exceptionalism, it is not surprising that African history remains mythologized under the shadows of Euro-American history. Yet, the dissemination of Islam in Africa by first Arabs and then African Muslims, and the role that Islam and Muslims have played in the development of Africa, are essential to a balanced and accurate understanding of African history.

Arab Eyes on Mediterranean Africa

In the seventh century, Islam entered Africa from the northeast corner. Unbeknownst to the second caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab, his most competent general, Amr Ibn al-As’, led as many as twelve thousand soldiers and archers across what is now the Red Sea and conquered the city of Fustat (which became Cairo in 920). With relative ease, Amr claimed Fustat from disillusioned and tired Byzantine troops who eventually fled. Under Umar’s caliphate, he established military garrison towns and Fustat was of the first.

Umar reminded his soldiers who were stationed in both Syria and Egypt, “we are a nation of arms.” Yet, he forewarned his troops, Bedouin tribesman who he perceived as naive, to “co-exist with them [the local people], but not to assimilate.” After effortlessly seizing the former Roman-conquered cities of Cairo, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Tripoli, geographically strategic Egypt encouraged military movements west along the perilous Mediterranean shores. Gradually, Muslim armies rode south, along the hypnotizing White Nile (a tributary of the Nile in Egypt), exploring the land of Kemet, the Kushite, Ethiopia, and the east African panorama with its jagged coastline, and out into the temperamental Indian Ocean. From Alexandria, the jewel of Alexander the Great, it took Arab Bedouins seventy-five years and four enterprising generals to cross Mediterranean Africa, despite continuous resistance by Berber mountain clans.

The objective of the law is not to apply technicalities regardless of their consequences, but to achieve the ultimate moral and ethical objectives that represent the essence of Godliness on this earth

Arabs thought North Africa contained hidden wealth left by the Romans, but, surprisingly, they found nothing of such riches.  Resistance to their encroachments was led by the famous Berber, Kuysaila, who subsequently accepted Islam and rose to fame after assisting the Arab Bedouins along their march through Morocco. However, after hearing of the senseless slaughter of his mountain village by Umar Ibn al-Khattab’s aggressive maverick general, Uqba Ibn Nafi, Kuysaila retreated and waited two years in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Upon the commander’s return from his triumphal campaign to the Atlantic Ocean, Kuysaila retaliated for the slaughter of his people by killing Uqba.

After conquering Alexandria, Arab Bedouins met the legendary and revolutionary Berber, Al-Kahina, a woman who, it was said, fought like a man. According to lore, when she was enraged her hair stood on end and her coal-black eyes widened in intensity. Al-Kahina organized thousands of Sanhaja fighters and with cunning and prowess used the mountains they knew so well to surprise, sabotage, and kill Arab soldiers, all the while maintaining hope of independence in the minds of the Berbers who were used to extended foreign invasions.

By the twelfth century, Christians essentially disappeared from North Africa, while the Coptic population of Egypt shrunk to less than ten percent. For the most part, the Saharan trade, except for the period when Europeans traded for slaves and gold, remained exclusively a Muslim trade as late as the seventeenth century. On the other hand, during this time, Christians controlled the maritime trade of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Although Umar entered Egypt, all of North Africa was soon to become a prime focus under the Umayyad caliph Muawiyya and his son and successor, Yazid. It would not be, however, until the Abbasid reigns of al-Mansur, al-Mahdi, al-Hadi, and the great Harun ar-Rashid, that expenditures from state coffers maintained security in Africa.

The puritanical African Murabitun or Almoravid, known in the west as the “Moors,” were a Berber dynasty of Morocco in the 11th century. They adhered to the Maliki School which continues to dominate sub-Saharan Africa. In accordance with the ethics of Islam, the Almoravid, under two great leaders, Abdullah Ibn Yasin and Ibn Tashfin, sought, to reform Africans gravitating away from orthodox Islam as established by the Prophet Muhammad. The Almoravid, who originated on the third cataract of the Northern Senegal River, marched in the hopes of eliminating pagan practices. In the process, they sent reformist signals to succeeding West African kings like Ahmed Tall, Uthman don Fodio, and Ibrahim Sori. While they attempted to reinvent the image of Islam in Africa, or duplicate the Abbasid period in Africa, reformists fought against persistent pre-Islamic cultural traditions.

Basil Davidson, a British historian, measured the Abbasid Empire against West Africa’s golden era. “Centuries afterwards, in the Western Sudan, the great reforming movements associated with Uthman don Fodio would draw inspiration from a Utopian picture of the Abbasid era of the tenth and eleventh centuries, seeing in it the prototype of that ‘Rightly Guided Caliphate’ in which all Muslims had once enjoyed equality and justice. For them the ‘golden age’ of Islam could not possibly lie in Abbasid times. Rather it lay in the earliest years when, the ten years of the prophet’s rule in Medina, and perhaps the thirty years following his death were conceived as having formed an age in which human society had come as near to perfection as could be hoped for…”

The African-born Almoravid movement sought to reform Mauritania, Guinea, Senegambia, and Mali in West Africa, and at the request of the twelve threatened Reyes de Tarifa (the twelve Muslim kings of splintered Andalusia), recaptured eleventh century Spain from Alfonso VI. The Almohads now sailed from North Africa to re-secure the law and order, and after reconnaissance, they reaffirmed Spain as Muslim, and so it remained until 1235.

The Muslim world was recovering from a series of unpredictable onslaughts. In North Africa, now imbued with Sufism, we begin to see the wearing of amulets, the worship of saints and intercessors, the practice by some of making predictions about the future, and the dawn of the renowned mystical schools. The Fatimids replaced the Abbasid after their crushing defeat in 1258 at the hands of the Mongols in Baghdad, and reinvigorated the authenticity of heredity in Islam. Salah al-Din and his Ayyubids, known for their challenge of the Christian troops during the final Crusades, unseated the Fatimids in Cairo.

As in the Middle East, in Africa the Arabic language preceded Islamization. Acclimatization to the use of Arabic brought about commercial profits and preceded religious conversions. Where the Sahara married the Sahel (a region between the Sahara  in the North and the Sudan savannas in the south), two worlds solidified through language and trade. By the eleventh century, an African trading expansion, with an emerging religious culture and the common commercial language of Arabic, became apparent. Conversion meant access to a wider platform of goods, traditional trade routes to the east, credit lines, adjusted pricing, and honor. Tauregs (the nomadic Berber people of the Saharan interior of North Africa) roamed both sides of the great divide, linguistically best equipped to profit from the crossroads of trade, and mediate differences between northern Saharans and sub-Saharans.

The Portal into West Africa

African Muslims produced five empires: Takur (what is now southeastern Mauritania, and Western Mali) which was lukewarm to Islam; the loosely governed Kanem (what is now the countries of Chad, Nigeria and Libya) and its successor-state Bornu; Ghana, although it never claimed Islam as the state religion but is considered by many the first African Muslim nation; Mali, the most written about; and Songhay the most fought over.

Despite Islam beginning to penetrate the indigenous consciousness and cause a shift in daily religious practices, local customs and beliefs persisted, which centuries later was used to justify the most violent raids of the Sokoto dynasty under Uthman Don Fodio. The spread of Islam among the Yoruba began late, well after the nineteenth century conversions of Wolof (a West African state that ruled parts of Senegal from 1360 to 1890), and increased after Fulbe (an ethnic group spread over many countries, predominantly in West Africa) conquests of the 1800s. Except in Ilorin, because of resilient traditional beliefs, Islam straddled the religion of the people. West Africans developed a unique religious parallelism with Islam and because of its ability to co-exist, shared local authority.

There are misunderstandings about the historical role of Arab Bedouin military conquests during the initial spread of Islam in Africa. Except for the 1591 marauding by al-Mansur’s Sanhaja Moroccan army led by Judah Pasha in Timbuktu, there were no military excursions below the Sahara. The second myth purports Arab Bedouin merchants brought Islam to Africa, and Arab military might destroyed African institutions and cultures. The spread of Islam south of the Sahara owes very little to Arab military occupation. What is more accurate is that Arab merchants reported to wealthy Arab sponsors the religious appetite Africans had for Islam. In time, teachers and imams relocated to African towns and became responsible for the spread of Islam. The role of the merchant was the introduction of Islam and a precursor of Arabization. It was, however, the scholarly community, the teachers and imams, who became the agents of Islamization. Merchants certainly inspired an intellectual curiosity about Islam, and on return to their homelands, they reported, as mentioned previously, the eagerness of the Africans to learn more about Islam. Typically, local West African rulers embraced Islam first and became the indigenous progenitors of the process of Islamization. Traveling scholars and imams, as long as they posed no threat to the existing socio-political order, completed the process of Islamization in both East and West Africa.

The masses initially considered Islam an innovation, and had difficulty fitting a universalist concept into their local context. The introduction of Christianity in Africa experienced the same social phenomenon and challenge. There is a revealing axiom about religious duality in Africa: “Publicly rulers claimed Islam, however, in private feared the fetish” (fetish worship involved attributing supernatural powers to some natural or man-made object). In the middle of the fourteenth century, Ibn Batutta attested to the division between indigenous practices and classical Islam. Expressing abhorrence, he wrote of gambling, drinking, sexual deviance, nudity, and idol-worship in Mali under Mansa Musa. Records indicate these practices caused a sterner Askiya Muhammad of the Songhay Empire to be religiously and morally repulsed.

At its peak, the Songhay Empire encompassed much of the territory that had belonged to the Mali Empire in the west. Malian hierarchy and early Abbasid infrastructure had its similarities and differences. African scholars of Timbuktu, unusually active in the political sphere, lived with more than a modicum of religious authority. The campaign to determine final authority played out between the civil authority of court qadis (judges) represented on one side, and the ulama (Muslim scholars) who embraced Islamic theology, on the other side. In dynastic form, the solution of the Abbasid royal courts was to absorb the ulama into the qadis community, control legal verdicts, and further their absolutist rule. In West Africa, where there was more success, the ulama and the qadis remained separate and empowered, each in their own sphere. As with the Abbasids, the kings of Mali lived in opulence and grandeur, secluded from the lay community. They adorned themselves with imported cloths and jewels. When entering the royal space, visitors sprinkled dust on their necks to designate their lowly position and absolute loyalty to the throne. The Mansas (kings or emperors) avoided demonstrations of their humanness, so they never slept, ate food, or changed clothes in front of others.

By the ninth century, Arab merchants made substantial profits in the marketplace. There Arabs found willing urban consumers, presenting them with abundant supplies of material goods for sale. Even as early as the ninth century, slow commercial expansion of Takrur territories found receptive African converts. Among the newly converted, Islam signaled the religion of transactions, literacy, and recording and documentation, all hallmarks of development and progress. Despite tactical religious conversions and the admiration for Islam’s literacy and administrative expertise, religion had little impact in the countryside. Only by the late twelfth century did religious conversions in West Africa accelerate, marked by such conversions as the King of Gao in 1010 and the King of Kanem-Bornu in 1068.

With the face of universal Islam peering over a pagan, parochial Africa, a second period begins in the thirteenth century. After southerly Taureg and Almoravid incursions, the empire of Ghana weakened through internal disputes and rival provinces. A pattern of dynastic disagreements and jockeying for the throne eventually shattered its strength, and diffused the wealth from the trade routes. The people of the rural areas, considered servile in status, but loyal to ancient traditions, reemerged, claiming positions of power. The demand from the countryside for increased participation in the towns created stress and political divisions which, like in the Umayyad Empire, ultimately caused its downfall.

In the first quarter of the fourteenth century, Sundiata, a descendant of the royal Keita family, rose to take the mantle of the new Mali Empire. A marginal Muslim, Sundiata expanded the empire, increased production from the alluvial gold fields, developed the military, and claimed to be a liaison with the spirit world. Just decades later, under Mansa Musa, Mali became the first African Muslim state, with Islam as the state religion.  From Africa in History, Basil Davidson remarked about the Mali government, “It opens the way to a literate bureaucracy, to effective diplomatic links with distant powers, and to the inner reorganization of power and authority along the lines which cut across the separatist loyalties of traditional religion.” During the reign of Mansa Musa’s progressive government, Mali was Islamically reshaped, and repositioned. After completing the Hajj, Musa was recognized by Cairo as the western caliph of the Sudan (“land of the blacks”). During his reign, he sent a signal that tolerance of traditional and indigenous practices would remain; however, he alone would now be the representative of Allah.

By borrowing from the larger Muslim world, Musa built a literate nation. He replicated the Abbasid learning centers, and although illiterate himself, Mansa Musa found inspiration in scholarship and encouraged study abroad. He opened schools for both genders, hired translators and copiers of the Qur’an, gave stipends to scholars, elevated the status of imams, and opened the royal court.  Known for his insistence upon civil law and highly reputed for his generosity, Mansa Musa became a household name. Pointing to his generosity with gold, an account of his visit to Egypt while on his way to hajj tells of the Egyptian economy taking a nosedive upon his departure.

With internecine squabbling in Mali, succeeding Mansas never embraced the long-range vision of Mansa Musa, and this, along with fiscal mismanagement, resulted in the empire capitulating to the Songhay. The Songhay people took advantage of the Mansas’ weaknesses, and as the trade flowed away from the capital of Niani, the ambitious Songhay rose to take control. In the Songhay, the last of the large Muslim spheres of influence, the ulama were the avowed enemies of the founder Sunni Ali. After years of intense negotiations, though, they reasserted their loyalties to the king and found political justification to back Sunni Ali.  He was an ambitious leader, who like Sumanguru of Ghana and Sundiata of Mali, was also a charismatic magician, an astute politician, but, again, a nominal Muslim at best.

The next in line in the Songhay Empire, Askiyah Muhammad, catapulted Islam to great importance in West Africa, and elevated Muslim expectations. Amongst the few to travel to Mecca, Muhammad realized the need for outside scholarly assistance, so he encouraged Muslim scholars from Morocco, Syria, and Andalusia to relocate to sub-Saharan Africa. Of the scholars migrating to the kingdom, the celebrated Al-Maghili commented about slavery among Muslims, saying that slaves are, “a hubus, an inheritance, or an endowment to be treated carefully.”

The Songhay did not destroy domestic slavery, but did not benefit from the European slave trade. Unlike his predecessors, Muhammad lived in accordance with the Sunnah, read Arabic, and wholeheartedly subscribed to the Maliki School of jurisprudence. In the second half of the sixteenth century, in Jenne, one of the great learning centers in West Africa, a qadi who was a son of the chief of Kala, rejected his royal status to become a scholar.

The Reach of Islam in East Africa

In the early years of Islam in Africa, before the Malian Mansa left for Mecca, the principal interaction between Arabs and Africans was through the markets and the hajj. On the east coast of Africa, and based upon its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs and Africans quickly became co-religionists, engaging in much cultural exchange. Under a veneer of Islam, Arabization spread, finding groups like the Funj, Wadai and Dar Fur willing adherents.

East of the Nile River, Christianity dominated and thus stunted the growth of Islam for more than five hundred years. Until the nineteenth century, Islam in East Africa remained a coastal religion, with the majority of schools, mosques, and trade centered on the coast, whereas in West Africa Islam stretched into the interior. In writing about Muslims in East Africa, Randall Pouwels claims in The History of Islam in Africa, “The spread of Islam took place within a wider context—one of cultural influences and migrations. In West Africa, these movements were in the same direction, from north to south, as that taken by Islam. In East Africa on the other hand, migrations and the movements of goods, from the interior to the coast, were contrary to the direction Islam would have taken, that is to say from east to west.”

Despite the unifying force of Islam, geography accounts for Africa becoming culturally disparate. And despite East Africa’s cultural link to the Arabian Peninsula, Arab Bedouins made their way to the Horn of Africa as late as 780, and the Islamic-Swahili civilization only became an indelible African phenomenon between 1200 and 1500.  Students from the Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Guinea regions of Africa were sent to the University of Sankore at Timbuktu, the University of Qayrawan at Fez, Al-Ahzar University in Cairo, the learning centers at Jenne, Kano, or to Birin Ngarzagamo. Based upon geography and the close proximity to the home of Islam, East African Muslims studied in Hadhramaut, Medina, and Mecca.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, a religious revival began, with wealthy Muslim landowners and traders uniting to build a Muslim presence. They segregated the sexes, established Muslim cemeteries, built mosques, schools, and libraries filled with manuscripts. The commitment to Islam furthered the reputation of East African Muslims. Thus, in the course of a few decades, East Africa became the home of Ismaili and Sufi communities, and attracted prominent Ahmadiyya scholars from India.

Summary of African Reform Movements

Traveling from Andalusia, the fiery al-Maghili warned African chiefs about maintaining a religious duality in the Dar ul-Islam. The sixteenth century began to heed such warnings, and ultimately brought about the era of classic African reform movements in several regions. During the Songhay Empire, Askiya Muhammad initiated severe attacks on villages which tolerated non-Islamic practices, and battles were fought in Kano during the reign of Muhammad Rumfa, related to the famous Sokoto reformist Uthman don Fodio. In the Bornu Empire, for a brief time Ali Ghaji cleared the way for Islam.

Umar Ibn al-Khattab was adamant about his Arab Bedouin soldiers not disturbing the social order of conquered territories. He ordered his troops to ensure that churches, agriculture, and homes not be destroyed. In Umar’s decentralized form of governance, he sent signals about tolerance and keeping local cultures alive. In West Africa, the indigenous people were not invaded by foreign armies, so traditional customs persisted without a dramatic parting with the past. Through the Mali and the Songhay, the foundation of power depended upon the vibrancy of indigenous practices. By the end of the eighteenth century, classical forms of the new religion overrode the old parity between tradition and Islam, with Muslim reformers now considering a break with the traditional past a necessity demanded by Islam.

Exposure to the outside world by pilgrims traveling to Mecca sparked a curiosity about the authenticity of African-Islamic practices. There were questions about the indigenous practices and traditions and whether they could be permitted by Islam. Then the eleventh century Almoravid dynasty, with a deep attachment to life on the Arabian peninsula, galvanized a puritanical Islam. This caused some African kings to re-evaluate their understanding and practice of Islam. The reform movements in Africa, however, also included destructive episodes such as the raids and chaos caused by the Ethiopian Muslim Ahmad Gran.

Given the overemphasis placed on Arab history as the totality of Islamic history, it would be in the best interest of Western historians to assess anew the history of Islam in Africa, and for Muslims to re-engage the heritage and reawaken the vitality of Islam in Africa.

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