It was the long, drawn-out confrontation of the seventh century c.e. between the emerging Islamic caliphate and the declining Roman Empire over the Mediterranean African shores, and the subsequent breakdown of the empire, that created favorable conditions for the establishment of the two earliest Islamic frontier provinces in North Africa: Egypt and Tunisia. But the establishment of these two provinces did not, by itself, lead to immediate large settlements of immigrant Muslims, or to dramatic transformations in African communities. Yet, barely six hundred years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, various African communities and chieftains had either adopted Islam as a court religion or incorporated Muslim practices into their religious systems. Grasping the cultures and structures of these Islamized and Islamizing communities is indispensable to understanding the development of Islam in Africa. However, space does not permit a detailed examination of each of these communities. For our purposes it is sufficient to identify the major frontier communities through which Islam made inroads into Africa, to give a brief summary of the main controversies in Islamic philosophical outlook, to examine the types of African social forces that appropriated it, and to make a few observations that seem relevant for an understanding of the current signs of regeneration of Islam in modern Africa.
Muslim Frontier Communities
After striking its roots in Egypt and in the far West, Islam was carried into the fringes of black Africa by indigenous tribesmen. Through the foundation of trading centers, the movement of populations, and the affiliation with local ruling elites, Muslim influence in the interior of the region was strongly felt. In their eleventh-century search for gold, Berber nomadic tribesmen reached the area of upper Niger, which was inhabited by the Mande-speaking peoples (Malinke). Following their ruler, a sizable number of them embraced Islam. With the favorable political environment and the flourishing trans-Sahara trade, a Muslim community also flourished and became an important link between the older Islamic world north of the Sahara and the African interior southwards as far as the fringes of the forest. It was under this Islamic influence that the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay had functioned and prospered. Throughout the fourteenth century, a number of competent Muslim chiefs were able to create a considerable domestic power base and to cultivate strong relations with the older Muslim world, especially Egypt, Morocco, and Arabia.
Like the Berber in the north, the Christian Nubians of the Nile resisted the Muslim-Arab invasion and delayed the advance of Islam for centuries, although an Islamic state had been securely established in adjacent Egypt since the seventh century. It was only through persuasion and trade that Arab tribesmen and merchants were able to penetrate far beyond Aswan, which was used, like al-Qurawan in Maghrib, as a frontier garrison to protect the Muslims against the raids of the Nubians and the Beja. Although there was no deliberate policy of spreading Islam to the south, the gradual settlements and intermarriages between the Arabs and Nubians began a process of Arabization and Islamization that laid the foundations for the subsequent institutionalization of Islam. The discoveries of significant gold mines in the eastern region, and the intensive traffic caused by the religious pilgrimage known as the hajj, led to the rise of the Red Sea ports and to the flourishing of Muslim communities within them.
Apart from gold mines, the east African coast, which comprises what are today Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia, had experienced constant exposure to Islamic influence since the seventh century. Persian and Arab traders were active in the region for centuries, and through them Islam infiltrated the area through the Red Sea ports of Badi, Aidab, and Suakin. Consequently a string of Muslim enclaves and settlements arose and extended from the Gulf of Aden to Mozambique. However, a variety of factors halted the advance of these communities into the hinterland (present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi), and it was not until the nineteenth century that their Islamic influence reached Malawi and the Congo basin.
Searching for ivory, some pioneering Arab merchants from the east coast of Africa, especially Zanzibar, ended up within these central African regions. Trade in ivory had, however, become inseparable from the slave trade in which those Arabs were involved as intermediaries between indigenous slave traders and Europeans. But trade in ivory and slaves brought Africans, Arabs, and the European colonial powers to logger-heads. The Arabs' presence in central Africa was eventually broken during the European scramble for Africa, which had negative effects on the advance of Islam in that region.
Interestingly, the same institution of slavery that hampered the advance of Islam in central Africa generated numerous incentives to Islamic conversion in southern Africa. Between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, European colonialists, mainly Dutch, brought tens of thousands of slaves from Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent, and the Indonesian archipelago into South Africa. Although Christians, these European slavers did not evangelize among their slaves—such a practice would have held out the promise of legal and social equality. Discouraged from becoming Christians, some slaves turned to Islam and, together with exiled Muslim imams and political prisoners who were expelled from the same region, laid the foundations for an alternative Islamic culture and community.
Looking at the relatively rapid growth of Islam in African public life, one might think that Islam was an ideology of the rulers, or even a royal religion, as indeed some scholars have thought. Overemphasizing the role of tribal chiefs and traders, some scholars have also maintained that the spread of Islam was due not so much to a recognition on the part of the converts of the intrinsic qualities of the faith as to the desire for fame and wealth.
Traders and chiefs were important external agents of Islamization, but their efforts would have made little headway without two important internal factors: the self-propagating system of rituals that bind the individual worshipers and the scholar-led, mass-oriented Sufi brotherhoods that bridge the gap between government and society. If we are to understand the deeper Islamic influence in Africa, we must look beyond political institutions and ideologies into the Islamic system of worship, the centers of learning, and the social structures they stimulate.
Islam was not introduced to the common people as either theology or law but as a system of worship. After uttering the Shihada (a public declaration of faith) and learning to perform the obligatory rituals, a person would normally be designated a Muslim regardless of the adequacy of his knowledge about the theological and ethical implications of the faith. Simple as they may appear to be, these pillars of worship would ultimately bring in the other parts of the Islamic system, that is, the social and moral, and the political. The hajj, which entails an annual journey to Mecca, is a case in point. African pilgrims used to take the trans-Sahara route from central Africa to Tripoli or Egypt, or, alternatively, travel from the Chad region through Darfur, crossing modern-day Sudan to Massawa or Sawakin at the Red Sea. Such annual, collective spiritual journeys were instrumental in educating African Muslims and deepening their Islamic consciousness. The hajj would, necessarily, expose them to other peoples and cultures and give them prestige and influence in their own local communities. Upon completing his hajj and returning home, a person would usually be more committed to Islam and acquire, in the eyes of other believers, a kind of mystical aura; he might even become a focus of spiritual attraction. Through him and through his fellow travelers, new ideas would be introduced and new attitudes would be established. But before we can understand how Islam transformed ideas and attitudes, we must briefly examine the wider Islamic philosophical outlook.
Islamic philosophy flowered as a later development of Islamic thought. It was preceded by the kalam (disputation) science, the discipline of confirming the Muslim creed and defending it against subversive factions. It originated in the theological controversies of the eighth century over God's unity and attributes. Like the Jewish scripture, the Koran also emphasizes the unity of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the accountability of man. But it is the first article—the unity of God—that has come to occupy a central place in Muslim philosophical and theological thinking.
The earliest problematic question dealt with the relationship between God and his attributes, that is, whether God is one without division or quality, or one in essence but multiple in attributes. Debating this issue brought in some of the centuries-old ontological and epistemological questions, such as: What is the nature of God's existence? Does God, for instance, exist as a concept in one's mind, or does he also exist in an extra-mental (or supernatural) reality? And in any case, what is the relationship between God and man, and between God and the world, and how can a human being know him and understand his commands?
The debate could have continued peacefully had not the Mu'tazilites, who took an extreme rationalist position, resorted to force. Converting the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun to their cause, they gained a hold on the highest positions in the caliphate and used that power to impose their views. The Islamic world at large was shocked by the way they treated their opponents, especially Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855), an eminent scholar and founder of one of the four schools of Islamic law, who was subjected to flogging and imprisonment because of his opposition to the Mu'tazilites' views on the nature of God's speech.
Distancing themselves from the repulsive Mu'tazilite politics and extreme interpretations, most jurists took a middle position, making an honest effort to keep close to the Koranic and Sunna texts bila kaifa, that is, without asking a "how" question. Their aim was to shift the debate from theology to jurisprudence and law. Rather than focusing on God's attributes and essence, attention should be directed, they argued, to man's behavior and actions in compliance (or lack thereof) with God's law. But when al-Ash'ari (c. 873–935) dramatically broke away from the Mu'tazilites, returned to the moderate position of the people of the Sunna, and, thus, dealt the death blow to Mu'tazilism, followers of the orthodox schools of law lent him their support. The Ash'arite school became the theological representative of the mainstream Sunni Muslims.
With the rise of Ash'arism some theological issues lost their appeal, though new ones have emerged, for instance, concerning the question of perception as an independent source of knowledge in contrast to revelation. Like the Mu'tazilites before them, most of the Ash'arite scholars argued that perception is a source of knowledge. None of them, however, maintained (as did the ancient Geek materialists and modern crude Western empiricists) that perception is the only source of knowledge. According to Ash'arism, knowledge that is derived from the senses is legitimate, but it must be subordinated to the revealed truth, if certainty is to be attained.
In this view, revelation has an epistemological as well as a social function. In addition to illuminating the wider picture of oneself, the world, human existence, and ultimate human ends, it also serves to free the individual from irrational fear of natural forces, and instills in him a tendency to attempt a systematic understanding of these forces and their impact on human life. The revealed vision, moreover, liberates the individual from subordination to the ego and ethnocentrism and the dehumanization of the other that hinders rational argument and understanding.
But this balance between the revealed vision and the inquisitive mind has not always been maintained. In contrast to the Sunnis, who struggle to maintain a distinction between God and humans, the Shia contend that the distance that separates God from human souls is the source of all evil. Engulfed in matter, and cut off from their origins, human souls have no hope of being saved except through knowledge (irfan ). But the redeeming knowledge, wherein God reveals himself and his divine designs, is attainable only through the guardians whom God assigns to accompany the prophets. Prophets bring the outer (zahir ) divine command, whereas the guardians initiate people into the batin, or inner commands.
Borrowing this element of batin, the Sufis, on the other hand, developed a slightly different theory of knowledge. For them, understanding the divine sources of Islam rests neither in holy guardians nor in language, but on the "people of reality" (ahl al-haqiqa ). They maintained that the Koran includes certain divine secrets and subtleties (asrar wa lata'if ) that only the people of reality—Sufis—are capable of understanding.
It was mainly due to such tendencies of batini (esoteric) interpretations that a barrier of mistrust developed among Shia, Sufi, and Sunni jurists in Islamic history. Instead of debating the nature of God's attributes, the new questions for debate asked what it means for a term to have a specific meaning, and how one can know that a statement is true. These questions led eventually to the evolution of the philosophy of language, mysticism, logic, and jurisprudence as new Islamic disciplines. Opposing these Shia and Sufi trends of interpretation, most Sunni jurists resorted to the tradition of the Prophet and classic Arabic usage of language, employing the first as an explicit code of conduct and the second as an objective code of meaning. Both were meant to restrict extreme tendencies of interpretation.
Closely related to these debates was the issue of the source of moral knowledge and obligation. Conceiving God as the ultimately wise and just Being, the Mu'tazilites refused to establish a relation between God and evil. Endowed with a free will, they argued, humans are the authors of their own actions and ought to be rewarded or punished accordingly. Moral judgment and knowledge, in their view, stems from human reason, which can independently distinguish between good and bad.
For Sunni scholars, it was all very well to emphasize a person's capacity to reason. What they found objectionable, however, was the assertion that human reason is the sole criterion of truth and behavior, or that by following the dictates of reason alone one can be virtuous and attain happiness. This tinge of Aristotelian rationalism was thought to be irreconcilable with Islam's sources of guidance, reason, and revelation.
It is curious, however, that the Mu'tazilites' philosophical method, as well as some of the unresolved problems they left behind, have become, despite their political defeat, an important source of intellectual ferment in Muslim thought. Some of the issues they raised persisted and were pursued, with more moderation, by other eminent linguists, commentators, and philosophers. And most of those—Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun, among others—appeared in the Muslim West (North Africa and medieval Spain) and not in the East, as might be assumed.
Indigenous Vehicles of Islamization
The political movements and philosophical trends that prevailed in the older Islamic world did not immediately sway African Muslims. Even the process of linguistic and ethnic Arabization, in which the indigenous peoples acquired Arabic as their language and connected themselves in the Arab tribal system, did not take hold immediately, nor did it proceed equally in all regions. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the level of Arabization that took place had a huge impact in transmitting the new Islamic outlook—words, ideas, and behavior usually being interconnected.
Similar to the performance of hajj that we have mentioned earlier, learning the Arabic language (and writing in it) had also become an important instrument for linking the fledgling African religious elites, especially in the relatively stable mosque-colleges that emerged in the western, eastern, and central regions of the continent, enriching and authenticating a genuine Islamic civilization. In some of these mosque-colleges, works of al-Muhasibi, the famous Sufi of Baghdad (c. 751–857), and al-Ghazali (1058–1111), the Sufi and Ash'ari theologian, were required readings. It should also be noted that the traditional rift between the ulama (doctors of law) and the Sufis, which prevailed in the older Muslim regions, had been mitigated in these new African centers of learning. Along the eastern coast and the Nile, the Arabized and Islamized Nubians, Beja, and Somalis developed, since the fourteenth century, indigenous Sufi brotherhoods that succeeded in blending law with Sufism. Maliki and Shafi'i jurists did, in some cases, embrace Sufism.
The traditional Islamic principle affirming that the ulama are the heirs of the prophets had nearly been actualized in the African situation. African Muslim ulama had truly become the points of intersection of religious and political ideas, activism, ethnicity, and intellectualism. The groups that coalesced around the ulama would usually become the indigenous vehicles through which Islam acquired its significance as a basis of political power and resource mobilization. The reasons for this are not hard to find.
The scholar serves mainly as a spiritual mentor who helps the people, through sessions of recitation and meditation, to relate to God. Demands for spiritual help necessitate close contact and regular sessions with the scholar during which certain litanies (dhikr ) are chanted, thus sharing in the blessing of the Koran and the Prophet. In these ways the scholar shapes individual behavior. Moreover, the ulama would naturally, as scholars, investigate, describe, analyze, and explain, but as citizens most of them would be deeply embedded in the social and political structures of their communities. Their scholarship would not be disconnected from their social and political activities and commitments. This is what gave some of them particular force, encouraging political groups and movements to identify with them and with their ideas.
To make this clearer we may take the example of Muhammad ibn Sahnun, of the Qairawan mosque-college, who was responsible for the promotion of Malikism in Africa. The Qairawan, where he and his disciples taught, became the citadel of Sunnism. Some of their works (for example, the Mudawana, the Risala, and the Mukhtasar ) have become important sources of Islamic thought and have had the greatest influence on African Muslim communities. The Maliki trend took a more serious turn when Ibn Tumart (c. 1080–1130), a Berber from South Morocco (Masmuda tribes), and one of his Zenati followers and successors, Abd-al-Mumin, mobilized their followers and founded the greatest empire in the Muslim West that ruled from 1147 to 1269.
It is therefore reasonable to contend that most Islamic social and political movements that had a significant impact on African communities were the outgrowth of a type of ulama -tribal alliance. The rise of Shiism in North and West Africa; the expansion of Malikism and the Sufi brotherhoods; and the revolutionary (jihadist) movements are prominent examples of the crucial role of the ulama -tribal alliances.
But Islam was not alone in shaping African communities or determining their future development. By the end of the nineteenth century, the entire African continent (with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia) was shared out among the European colonial powers. In line with the secular modernization begun by the colonialists, Arabic was replaced by French in West Africa, and by English in Central, East, and South Africa. These and similar drastic colonial policies not only undermined the centuries-old Islamic educational system (and the religious elites that relied on it) but ushered in a new, westernized African elite that wielded enormous power out of its connections with the colonial state and/or the Christian missionaries.
With the internalization of secular values, and the incorporation of African communities into the international economy, older bases of legitimacy were challenged and new value systems and ideologies began to compete for people's minds. That cultural and economic experience, as well as the fractured, postcolonial social structures that remain, constitute the major challenge to African Muslims today. Whether this apparently complete secular modernization process will continue to strangle Muslim communities—thus provoking an imminent counterinsurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and providing it with needed resources of resistance—or manage to break these communities' cultural isolation and revive a wider meaning of human existence that Islam itself impresses on its believers, remains to be seen.
See also Africa, Idea of ; Colonialism: Africa ; Communication of Ideas: Africa and Its Influence ; Education: Islamic Education ; Islam: Shii ; Islam: Sunni ; Philosophies: Islamic ; Philosophy of Religion ; Religion: Africa .
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Eltigani Abdelgadir Hamid