Islam, Colonial Rule, Sub-Saharan Africa

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Islam, Colonial Rule, Sub-Saharan Africa

The story of Islam under the colonial canopy in sub-Saharan Africa is complex because of the various types of Islam, directions of infiltration, varieties of local appropriation, and differing colonial, pragmatic policies driven by exigencies. Prominent is the interplay between local, Islamic, and Western cultures as patterns of African responses conditioned the religious landscape that emerged.

West African Islam originated from the Maghrib during the trans-Saharan trade in salt, gold, and slaves. Islam relied on the patronage of the older African indigenous traditions, acclimatized, acquired local coloring, and meshed into the indigenous cultural fabric naturally and unhurriedly; traders and scholars moved from a quarantine process of maintaining Muslim space, through mixing or crossing boundaries patronized by rulers, before jihadists reasserted orthodoxy or created Islamic states. Coincidentally, the colonial forces emerged at the tail end of the nine jihads in West Africa, hindered some, and left the wrong impression that many jihads were anticolonialist. The French colonized two-thirds of West Africa, but the British colonies had a larger population while the Germans held a few until World War I (1914–1918). Portugal was confined to Portuguese Guinea and some islands.

The Islam of eastern and central Africa came from Persian adventurers and Omani Arabs from the southern Arabian peninsula who established hegemony over Swahili Muslim communities on the coast. In the crusade spirit, the Portuguese brutalized Muslims and collected tributes. Fort Jesus, built in 1593, represents Iberian coastal imperialism; its loss in 1698 to Ottoman Turks reestablished Muslim power in the zone north of Cape Delgado. From 1840 the Omani Arabs established a cultural imperialism that forayed inland from Zanzibar while the Portuguese secured Mozambique for Portuguese East Africa. The eastern African coast was also known as Estado da India because of trading relationships with Indians whose Muslim population remained visible and were resented because of their exclusiveness and conspicuous prosperity. The partition of Africa heralded a territorial imperialism as rival Portuguese, French, Italians, Belgians, Germans, and British consolidated territories that absorbed Islamic communities at the expense of Ottoman Turks.


Colonial policies differed, shared many similarities, and changed through time. Prominent was a combination of evolutionary and positivist ideas that profiled Islam as midway between paganism and higher civilizations; therefore, suitable for Africans, and preferable to paganism. Yet suspicion survived based on a clash of civilizations, secularist ideology, the separation of church and state, and enlightenment worldview that bred an antireligious diatribe. Missionaries exacerbated the alarm that Islam would dominate Africa. Colonialism feeds on monopoly, control, order, and cultural domination to sustain capitalism. These traits determined policy. European-Muslim encounters in Maghrib confirmed that Islam is a competing religion and civilization, posing as a superior, universal, comprehensive way of life, endowed with an inherent power of resistance, and now capable of indigenizing into a variety dubbed as "Black Islam."

Colonial policies gyrated between hostility and accommodation based on the political realities, the intellectual fad at home, and caprices of a governor. All except Britain shared a policy of direct rule; Portugal and France assimilated colonies as parts of the metropolis. In practice, racism redefined citizenship and denied full rights to the indigenat or "native" (in Portuguese, nao indigenas) except when acculturated through education. Colonial incursion coincided with some jihads and compelled hostile responses.

Western instruments against Islam included superior technology, administrative and legal structures, education, economic transformations, and charitable and welfare institutions. Military power and negotiated agreements pacified rulers and secured colonial regimes that remained insecure until the end. But the administrative structure removed the powers from local competing nodes after the jihads had disintegrated many communities; a few chiefs were pensioned off. The new chefs de canton became the new power elite. When the Moro Naba of Mossi accepted French control, he was allowed to retain symbolical, moral, social, and religious authority without political power.

Local exigencies confounded colonial policies: sometimes the government aided pilgrimage, constructed mosques, and patronized Islamic education. But it would restrain contact with Maghrib Muslims and compromise Muslim education by insisting on communicating through European language and culture because of the need for an indigenous workforce. Marabouts frightened the colonialists, sufi brotherhoods were profiled as dangerous secret societies, while the ubiquitous Dyula traders (the strongest evangelists) appeared harmless.

Vibrant Western influence in the coastal and urban areas created evolues who would challenge traditional rulers, Islamic values, and ironically spearhead the nationalist movement. The umma would split among supporters for tradition, advocates of adaptation to modernity (Islam with democracy) and secularist attack on medieval Islamic structures. Colonial rule delinked political from religious power and caused an internal debate about appropriate responses: hijra withdrawal could not suffice; military jihad was countered; taqiyya, jihad of the mind that feigned accommodation while waiting for a more appropriate opportunity appeared as the only option based on mulawat, accommodation in the name of overriding interest (maslaha). This required the consolidation of Muslim space, piety, and learning, to ensure protection and freedom of religion.

Colonialism disrupted the social structures built on Islamic values. Posing as liberators of slaves, the abolition of serfdom (captifs de case) created the clientele system in many places or estate system in northern Nigeria. Colonialism catalyzed social mobility, and created new class structures and ethnicity. Cash crop economy and new commerce created new wealth, and consumption habits; old towns decayed as railways, roads, and motor and sea transports changed trade routes. Rural-urban migration intensified though village associations, family and marriage systems preserved old values.

Islamic social structures are tenacious, survive against the forces induced by Western material culture, and thrive in urban settings. Ironically, Islam grew under the colonial canopy than many jihads could accomplish. It utilized colonial resources to spread into the hinterland. Many ethnic groups in Senegambia that had avoided Islam converted in large numbers; there are cases of mass conversion. Islam grew through trade, marriages, the evangelical ardor inspired by the Da'wah call, and the activities of various brotherhoods that sprouted to consolidate the spirituality. Some sufi brotherhoods as the Muridiyya had local provenance, ancient ones as the Quadriyya spanned the continent, while others like the Tiyaniyya, led by Ibrahim Niass, developed a network that linked the rest of West Africa to the Maghrib. Talisman, prayers, and rituals provided solace and anchor amidst rapid social change. The spasmodic harassment and exile of sufi leaders betrayed the discordant vestiges of Madhist expectations that contacts during pilgrimages intensified.


Assimilation policy created two cultural worlds and juxtaposed the incompatible worlds of modern medicine and magical-religious methods. Colonial policies sought to create detribalized, individualized "new men," protected from Arabic cultural centers; it invented Hamitic languages and lineages and ethnic distinctions that differentiated the Orientals from Africans and sought to counter Islamic community and total submission of all aspects of life to Allah, and the wall against Western ideals. By 1911, le péril de l'Islam, the old fears that the Muslims may serve as lightning rods conducting German attacks, resurfaced and encouraged repressive policies including the promotion of indigenous religions and cultures to counter Islam.

In practice, assimilation policy was never purist but resembled the British indirect rule policy because both faced manpower shortage, tense geopolitics, international turmoil, and portending world war. The British protected Islam, consolidated the Fulani hegemony in northern Nigeria, sponsored Islamic education, restrained missionary incursion into emirates, and granted local authority to effective, loyal Muslim rulers. In reality, it rested political power in the British administrator and limited the purview of sharia laws, allowing autonomy only in the law of personal status. But sharia ceased to be universal as in the ancient sultanate. Colonialism consolidated Western civilization through schools that combined Islamic and Western literacy and recruited educated Muslims into the civil service. One consequence was that custodianship of Islam passed gradually from the ruling hierarchy (the sultan, qadis, and imams) into the hands of sufi turuq, devotional, mystical, thaumaturgic leaders. These made it difficult for Islam to adjust to insurgent Western presence. Muslim groups, as the Ahmadiyya from India, imbibed Western education as a survival strategy against intramural demonization.

Nigeria serves as an example of the changes that followed in Anglophone Africa: by the 1920s, the protection was eased to permit missionary activities in the northern region, especially as these controlled social service infrastructures. World War I nationalism, security considerations, and changing administrative structures brought the Islamic communities closer to others and created new challenges. For instance, the amalgamation of the northern and southern provinces into one nation, Nigeria, brought diverse ethnic groups together, betrayed the gap in education, differences in religions, and catalyzed a virulent competition for power. The artificiality of colonial boundaries became palpable. In Ghana, the Muslims formed a protective association in 1932 in response. Though the southerners decried the protection of Islam, the Muslims chafed under the defeat by colonialists.

In eastern and central Africa, neither the British nor the Germans practiced indirect rule; both left the Muslims to practice their religions and concentrated in competitive pursuit of gold, glory, and serving God. The German folk (volk) ideology made them more sensitive to indigenous religion of colonized peoples, and this affected policy toward Islam that had developed a Swahili Islamic culture long before colonialism. This culture permeated inland after 1880 when Omani Arab penetrated the Lake Victoria region, spreading Islam among the Yaos of Malawi, the Congo, and Buganda. They traded in ivory and slaves, and resisted colonial and Christian missions enterprises. It was their rebellion against the African Lakes Company in 1887 that broke their backs. All colonial powers responded violently against rebellion. The Belgians were strongly Roman Catholic and hostile to the spread of Swahili Islam that the sufi shaykhs nurtured in the 1930s. On the whole, Islam in Eastern Africa remained strong along a coastal strip and weak in the hinterland.

The Islam in South Africa originated from neighboring Mozambique despite the hostility of Dutch Afrikaans; then came Indian Muslims linked to Ismaili Muslims of East Africa, followers of Agha Khan. These exclusivist Muslims neither mixed with the "Malays" or Cape Colored or the faintly Islamized Balemba and Lemba ethnic groups. Despite their investment in mosques and social services, they were deeply resented. Ironically, apartheid forced Muslim intellectuals to exegete the Koran to support the liberation of the oppressed in the mid-1900s.

World War II (1939–1945) questioned the capacity to maintain colonial policies. Nationalists forced broken France to abolish the indigenat status in 1946 and open citizenship to the colonized without accepting French personal laws or discarding Islamic heritage. Assimilation was abandoned for association policy that would permit indigenous people to govern their affairs and associate closely with French interests. In 1956 the devolution continued with universal adult suffrage, single electoral college, territorial assemblies, executive councils, and Africanization of the local administrations, which enlarged indigenous political rule by transferring the powers reserved to the French Parliament. The negritude movement and participation in European ideological parties signaled the rise of the evolues and Africanist ideology that contested the pillars of colonialism.

In Ghana, the Convention Peoples Party sought to ally with the Muslim Association Party (formed in 1939) rather than ignore them. In Nigeria, the new political realities at the end of colonial canopy frightened the aristocratic elite: they formed a political party that they could control, essayed to mobilize the whole northern region under an Islamic identity. They wove patronizing contacts with Arabic states. The Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia funded the Islamic project in Nigeria. This initiated a process that would expose African Islam to international, radical Islamic influences in the future. But the educated, clerics, and masses formed a counter party that would liberate the masses, building an Islamic constitutional modern state adapted to modern conditions. Many of the un-Islamized communities mobilized with their own party and linked themselves to larger ethnic groups to escape from Habe/Fulani hegemony. The collapse of the imperial structures created an enigma for Islam: how to survive in a postcolonial world imbued with predominantly Western values.

see also Muslim Brotherhood; Sub-Saharan Africa, European Presence in.


Hiskett, Mervyn. The Course of Islam in Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall L. Pouwels, eds The History of Islam in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.

Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in West Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

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Islam, Colonial Rule, Sub-Saharan Africa

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