Africa, Islam in

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Islam has an important past and present within Africa. It has been present in Africa since the very early days of the faith, and it constitutes the practice of roughly half the population of the continent, or some 250 million people. While most of the Muslims live in the northern half, important communities can be found in South Africa, Malawi, and other parts of southern Africa. This history and this importance are often misunderstood in the West and in the Mediterranean centers of the Islamic world. Scholars and the intelligent lay public do not naturally identify Africa with Islam.

Indeed, Africa is usually equated with sub-Saharan or "black" Africa in most definitions. Egypt and the Maghreb are lumped with the Middle East in the language of the World Bank, U.S. State Department, and most ministries of foreign affairs, as well as in this encyclopedia. The defining characteristic of Islam is often the Arabic language, as the first language of communication in the home, business, government, and the media, as well as identification with the Arab world and thus the origins of Islam. This is not a clear definition, however, since Berber languages are still widely spoken in the Maghrib and the Sahara, while Arabic is spoken by much of the Sudan and important minorities across sub-Saharan Africa.

This article focuses on sub-Saharan Africa and deals with Muslim societies rather than "Islam" in one area or another. These societies, throughout history and to the present, demonstrate all of the varieties of the faith that one might expect: orthodox practice, radicalism, Sufism, and many creative combinations with local, non-Islamic practices. Muslims in Africa have practiced the jihad of the sword from time to time, but they have also demonstrated a great deal of tolerance of other practices—"pagan," Christian, and other. The Maliki school of law has traditionally been dominant in north and west Africa, while the Shafi˓ite pattern has prevailed along the Red Sea and the Swahili coast.

Northeast Africa

The earliest Muslim presence in Africa actually antedates the event known as the hijra, when Muhammad left Mecca for Medina in 622 c.e. At a time when the Prophet was already beginning to feel the hostility of his Meccan compatriots, he sent a large portion of his followers—about one hundred according to the principal hadith—to the Christian emperor of Aksum (ancient Abyssinia), an important state in northeast Africa, for safekeeping in 615 and 616 c.e. This is sometimes called the first hijra. Muhammad called for this community to return after he established himself in Medina, and there is little evidence of any ongoing Muslim group in Aksum or any other part of Ethiopia at this time. But the brief exile demonstrates the presence at that time of Ethiopians, including Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, in Mecca and other areas around the Red Sea, as well as the good relations between the early Arab Muslims and people in northeast Africa.

Reasonably good ties continued after Muslim communities emerged in northeast Africa close to the Red Sea. Most of these communities lived in the lowland and eastern areas, but some spread into the mountainous region called Abyssinia, which was dominated by Aksum and then a series of other states that privileged Christianity and the Orthodox Church. Relations between the two faith communities worsened when these states, with their Christian and Solomonic ideology, expanded to the east in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; they executed many Muslims and forced the conversion of others. Muslims responded to this in the movement led by Ahmad ibn Gran, a cleric and warrior from the coastal region in the sixteenth century. This conflict, often characterized by the terms "crusade" and "jihad" in the registers of the two faiths, has often been taken as characteristic of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Hostile confrontations have certainly occurred: for example, cases of forced conversion of Muslims by expansive Christian emperors in the late nineteenth century, or the conflict over the brief tenure of Lij Iyasu as Menilik's successor as emperor of Ethiopia between 1913 and 1916. Lij Iyasu came from a family that included both Muslims and Christians, and he sought to bring some Muslims into positions in his brief government. He failed because of his own inexperience, the strong Christian and church predilections of the court, and the conflict between the Axis and Allies during World War I. But Ethiopia's population today is close to 50 percent Muslim, and Muslims have been able to coexist with Christians and other non-Muslim communities most of the time.

Gateways of Islam in Africa

The History of Islam in Africa (2000) identifies two main "gateways" of Islamization in the continent. One is the East African coast, which became accessible to sailors and merchants coming down the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, just as it had been for previous centuries for Southeast Asians. The other is Egypt, and by extension the Maghreb and the Sahara.

The first Muslims on the East African coast followed in the wake of a lot of other maritime travelers from the Near East, South, and Southeast Asia. They used an old, well-tested technology of sailing close to the coast, down the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, and then along the Indian Ocean. Primarily Arab, they were interested in acquiring ivory, gold, other metals, leather goods, and some slaves. They interacted with the fishing and agricultural peoples along the coast who spoke the language that today is called Swahili, which takes its name from the plural of sahil, and literally means "people of the coast." Over time, roughly the last one thousand years, the Swahili language evolved to include a considerable Arabic vocabulary, in addition to some Malay and other infusions, within a basic Bantu lexicon and language structure.

The language was the basis for a culture, and both were built around small towns along the ocean, running about two thousand miles from Mogadishu in the north (today's Somalia) to Sofala in the south (today's Mozambique). Most of the towns were autonomous city-states, confined essentially to islands or the coast, with very small hinterlands devoted to farming. The inhabitants of these city-states were committed to the vocations of agriculture, fishing, shipbuilding, and trade. They lived in the cosmopolitan world built around the Indian Ocean and practiced Islam, but acknowledged local gods and customs. The more wealthy Swahili often claimed paternal origins among the Arabs or Persians. They used Islamic forms in the architecture of their homes, as well as for mosques and other public buildings. Many of them fulfilled the pilgrimage obligation, which was easier to perform than from other parts of the African continent.

The most prosperous period for the Swahili city-states ran roughly from 1250 to 1500 c.e. Lamu, located in an archipelago along the northern coast of modern Kenya, Mombasa, a larger city on the southern coast, and Zanzibar, the island which forms part of Tanzania, were among the best-known and most active cities. The most prosperous was probably Kilwa, an island off the southern coast of Tanzania. It was tied in to the interior trade, including the commerce in gold that tapped into the old Zimbabwe states.

The main location of the Swahili language, culture, and people, and of the practice of Islam, was concentrated on this East African littoral until very recent times. Most of the Muslims were Sunni, but some belonged to the Kharijite persuasion through their connections with Oman, a small state at the southeastern end of the Arabian peninsula. The literate elite, and especially the "professional" Muslims, understood and wrote Arabic, but Islam was typically taught orally through Swahili explanations. The recourse to explanation in the local language was common practice throughout Africa and many parts of the Islamic world. Beginning about three hundred years ago some scholars and writers began to adapt the Arabic alphabet to the language, and thereby create a written or ˓ajami literature alongside the older oral one. The written corpus contained the same stories, chronicles, and poetry as the one that had been transmitted orally down the generations.

The Swahili Muslims did not emphasize the spread of Islam into the interior, by preaching, colonization, or the military jihad. They were generally content to practice their faith, ply their trades, and interact with the people of the interior who were largely non-Muslim. The spread of Islam into the interior, and of the Swahili language and culture, did not begin until the late eighteenth century, under the impetus of Omani Arabs, who made Zanzibar their base. The Omani sultans controlled a significant portion of the Swahili region in what we could today call Tanzania and Kenya, primarily for commercial reasons. They continued to trade in ivory and gold, but now added a significant commerce in slaves. Some were sent to the Middle East and South Asia, while others were used at the coast to produce cloves and grain for export. The Zanzibari system resulted in more active contact between coast and hinterland, and the spread of Islam and the Swahili culture to the entrepôts and towns of the interior.

These networks laid the basis for the widespread practice of Islam in East Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main agents of islamization were merchants and teachers, not the reform-minded scholars who became so prominent in West Africa. The Omanis themselves were Kharijites, but most of the older Swahili communities as well as many of the slaves were Sunni. Relations across these doctrinal lines were not difficult. The jihadic tradition remained a minor theme, except when it came to resistance to European domination.

The "Egyptian" or North African gateway is usually emphasized in treatments of islamization in Africa. The Saharan region obviously marked the "entrance" to sub-Saharan Africa. It was not an obstacle to trading caravans, but it was to armies. Indeed, there is only one example—the Moroccan expedition of 1591—of a military force successfully crossing the desert and winning victories on the southern side. Arabs used the expression sahil or "coast" to apply to the two edges of the desert. The Arab and Berber Muslims of North Africa established networks of trade on both sides of the desert and rhythms of caravan trade that resembled the movement of ships along the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa. By 1000 it is possible to identify indigenous as well as North African Muslim communities in the towns of West Africa connected to the trans-saharan trading networks. In contrast to the pattern in East Africa, merchant capital became very important in the Saharan and sub-Saharan interior of West Africa from an early time, and for many centuries was the motor force of Islamic practice.

North Africans often called sub-Saharan Africa the Bilad al-Sudan, the "land of the blacks." Geographers and historians have used this term and divided it into western, central and eastern portions. The eastern or Nile section corresponds to the modern nation of Sudan, while the western portion corresponds to most of the West African Sahel.

The greatest amount of literature about Islamic practice, generated by internal and external observers, deals with the West African region. Scholars have used this material to create a threefold pattern of islamization. Islam was first a minority religion, practiced essentially by traders; it then became the practice of Muslim courts; and finally, either by processes of military jihad or Sufi orders, or both, it became the practice of those living in the rural areas, farmers and pastoralists. It was at this point that it became the dominant religion, in the last two to three centuries. This formula can be useful, if it is applied selectively and discretely to the different parts of the Sahel and to areas further south in the continent.

The eastern Sudan or Sahel, what is called the Sudan today, is something of an exception to this rule. Adjacent to the Nile River, it lay along a natural axis of advance from Egypt to the south. Egyptian travelers and armies, whether in ancient or Islamic times, had often advanced up the Nile, and communities in the region sometimes returned the favor. Once the Muslims had established control of Egypt, they confronted the Nubian kingdoms that had adopted Monophysite or Orthodox forms of Christianity as the state religion in earlier centuries. Muslims and Christians then worked out a pact, called baqt, by which the weaker Christian states paid a small tribute and allowed trade through their areas in exchange for noninterference in their affairs. This arrangement endured for several centuries. It was endangered by the limited participation of some Nubian armies in the European-led Crusades of the twelfth century, and finally ended by the Mamluks in the fifteenth century. After this period Arabic became the dominant language of the northern Nile valley and the lingua franca of the wider region.

West African Patterns

In the western and central Sudan the process was different. The early Muslim communities were merchants who lived in good relations with and on the sufferance of non-Muslim courts. These early Muslims were Arab and Berber but they were soon joined by Soninke, Mandinka, and other communities of local origin. By the time of the empire of Mali (fl. 1200–1400), some ruling classes had adopted Islam, although not necessarily to the exclusion of local or "ethnic" religious practices. Mali in particular is remembered for the pilgrimage of Mansa Musa in 1324 and for the visit that Ibn Battuta paid to the court of his brother and successor, Mansa Sulayman, in 1352 and 1353. The court of the Songhay Empire (fl. c. 1450–1591) is also remembered for adherence to Islam. Indeed, Askiya Muhammad (1493–1528) is remembered not just for his pilgrimage but also for his discussions with the famous jurisconsult al-Maghili and for some serious efforts to spread the faith in the Niger Buckle (the area around Timbuktu and Gao) in the early years of his reign. The state of Bornu, in the area of Lake Chad in the central Sudan, is remembered for an early adoption of Islam at the court as well as for its longevity (about one thousand years, into the nineteenth century).

In the last 250 years Islam has spread much more widely throughout northern Africa thanks to Sufi orders and reform movements. The oldest order was the Qadiriyya, but its network for some time consisted principally of an elite group of scholars across the Sudan, the Sahara, and North Africa. A Qadiriyya revival and spread in the late eighteenth century was followed by rivalry with the Tijaniyya and other orders with strong bases in North Africa and the Holy Cities. The competition increased in the nineteenth century, all across this belt, along the Swahili coast, and in the East African interior. Sufi practice was not challenged by reform movements, akin to the Salafiyya or the Wahhabiyya, until the mid-twentieth century.

Indeed, Sufism was the principal vehicle by which Islamic practice spread from city to countryside in the Sudan or Sahel. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was accompanied by reform movements, led by scholars who increasingly complained of the lax, mixed, or corrupt practice of the faith in the cities, courts, and countryside. Increasingly these scholars, usually with Sufi affiliations of their own, resorted to the jihad of the sword and led military movements to replace the regimes that they criticized. The most successful of these movements, in terms of its breadth, depth, and literary heritage, was the one led by ˓Uthman dan Fodio in Hausaland in the early nineteenth century. It resulted in the Sokoto Caliphate, a regime that dominated most of the northern part of Nigeria as well as the southern fringe of today's Niger. Many Muslims of northern Nigeria today see the caliphate as a kind of social charter for the present day and have pushed for the establishment of shari˓a (Islamic law).

The strongest fusion of Sufi identity and militant reform came in the mid-nineteenth century with the mobilization led by Umar Tal, a scholar and pilgrim whose origins were in Senegal. Umar made the pilgrimage to Mecca, was initiated into the highest ranks of the Tijaniyya order by a Moroccan in Medina, and returned to West Africa in the 1830s to pursue a career of teaching and writing. In 1852, however, after some campaigns of recruitment, he launched a jihad of the sword against the non-Muslim states of the Upper and Middle Niger and the Upper Senegal Rivers. He particularly targeted the Bambara Kingdom of Segu, which he defeated in 1860 and 1861. He also had some encounters with the French and an expansive governor named Faidherbe in Senegal, and this has given him and his Tijaniyya affiliation an aura of resistance to European conquest. At the end of his life Umar attacked the Muslim state of Masina or Hamdullahi, principally because of their aid for the "pagan" Bambara of Segu. This conflict between two Muslim armies and communities, both of Pulaar or Fulbe culture, caused great consternation in the West African Islamic world. It also led to Umar's death in 1864 and to the premature limitation of the ambitious movement that he launched.

The greatest expansion of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa took place in the colonial period, particularly under the overrule of the British in Nigeria and the Sudan and the French through most of the old western and central Sudan. In these instances Islam provided an alternative tradition to the secular or Christian identities of the rulers and the missionaries who typically accompanied them. It has often meant closer approximation to the styles of dress, architecture, and roles of women characteristic of the Middle East. Europeans rulers, on the other hand, sought to develop institutions and practices for dealing with their Muslim subjects. They coopted portions of the Islamic legal and educational systems, tried to control the pilgrimage, and sought to create "colonial" forms of Islam. The best-known creation was Islam noir, the "black Islam," which was supposed to characterize French West Africa. The European colonial authorities often styled themselves as "Muslim powers" and made comparisons with practices in India, Indonesia, and other areas.

By the time of independence in most sub-Saharan countries in the 1960s, Muslim communities had established closer ties with the faithful in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The centrality of these areas, combined with the pilgrimage and institutions such as Al-Azhar University, encouraged this process. At the same time the Arab Muslim communities made significant human and material investments in sub-Saharan Africa. This investment stimulated some criticism of Sufi and other African Muslim practices, particularly in the Sudan, Nigeria, and adjacent areas. In other regions the "Arab" and Saudi influence was not as pronounced, and patterns such as the "maraboutic" (a synonym for a cleric, derived from the term "almoravid") domination of Islam characteristic of Senegal were maintained.

The Suwarian Pattern

One of the most intriguing and original creations of Muslims in Africa is the Suwarian tradition. This term, coined by the historian Ivor Wilks, goes back to a certain Al-Hajj Salim Suwari, a learned cleric from the Middle Niger region who lived around 1500. The Suwarian tradition expresses the rationale used by Muslims who lived as minorities in "pagan" regions, particularly the communities of merchants who originally left the western Sudan for regions of woodland and forest to the south, in search of gold and other items of trade. This began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the Empire of Mali was at its height and sent out colonies of traders, juula, who retained their ties with the state, the Mandinka language, and their Muslim identity. It continued into the twentieth century.

Juula came to be an ethnic, linguistic, and religious designation for these people, who typically lived in demarcated neighborhoods within the main commercial towns and organized trade between the forest areas of the south and the Sahel to the north. They left the realm of "politics" to their local hosts. They constituted a Muslim minority within a non-Muslim majority, corresponding to the first "phase" of islamization mentioned above. They worshiped, educated their children, distributed their property, and in almost every respect conducted their lives as would Muslims anywhere in Africa or the rest of the world. They were no less learned nor pious than believers elsewhere, and they did not compromise their faith. But they could not afford to, and generally did not want to, change the religious identities of their hosts, who welcomed their presence and accorded them favors because of the prosperity they brought through trade. They were not about to try transforming the Dar al-kufr in which they lived into a Dar al-Islam.

Over time the juula colonies developed a theological rationale for their relations with non-Muslim ruling classes and subjects on the basis of the teachings of Suwari. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca several times and devoted his intellectual career to reflection upon the situation of Muslim minorities. Drawing upon Middle Eastern jurists and theologians, he reformulated the obligations of the faithful. Muslims must nurture their own learning and piety, and thereby furnish good examples to the non-Muslims who lived around them. They could accept the jurisdiction of non-Muslim authorities, as long as they had the necessary protection and conditions to practice the faith. In this position Suwari followed a strong predilection in Islamic thought for any government, albeit non-Muslim or tyrannical, as opposed to none. The military jihad was a resort only if the faithful were threatened. In essence, Suwari esteemed that God would bring non-Muslims to convert in His own time, and it was not the responsibility of the Muslim minorities to decide when ignorance or unbelief would give way to faith.

In practice, of course, the Muslims and non-Muslims did not function in isolation. Across the many times and places of the woodlands and forest, they were in constant contact with each other, and conceived of the relationship as two estates: the merchant estate, which was Muslim, and the ruling classes, which were "pagan" or at least "ignorant" from the standpoint of Islam. But the ruling classes typically esteemed the merchants and their religion, and sought the baraka or blessing that Muslims might bring to the political realm. This esteem was reflected in a number of ways, for example, in the demand for amulets produced by clerics for their "pagan" hosts. A British traveler in the early nineteenth century, Joseph Dupuis, gives an account of this demand in the Kingdom of Asante (today's Ghana) in his Journal of a Residence in Ashantee:

The talismanic charms fabricated by the Muslims, it is well known, are esteemed efficacious according to the various powers they are supposed to possess, and here is a source of great emolument, as the article is in public demand from the palace to the slave's hut; for every man (not by any means exempting the Muslims) wears them strung around the neck. . . . Some are accounted efficacious for the cure of gunshot wounds, others for the thrust or laceration of steel weapons, and the poisoned barbs of javelins, or arrows. Some, on the other hand, are esteemed to possess the virtue of rendering the wearer invulnerable in the field of battle, and hence are worn as a preservative against the casualties of war.

Besides this class of charms, they have other cabalistic scraps for averting the evil of natural life: These may also be subdivided into separate classes; some, for instance, are specific nostrums in certain diseases of the human frame, some for their prevention, and some are calculated either to ward off any impending stroke of fortune, or to raise the proprietor to wealth, happiness and distinction. (London, 1824, 1966, appendix, page xi)

The relationship between leading merchants and rulers is captured well in another passage from the same author, in the same kingdom. Merchants, clerics, and rulers were all residents of the same city, Kumasi, the capital of Asante. The speaker here is the head of the local Muslim community, and he talks of his role with the Muslim estate, mainly through education, and his ties to the power structure:

"When I was a young man," said the Bashaw (Pasha), "I worked for the good of my body. I traded on the face of God's earth, and traveled much. As my beard grew strong [I became older] I settled at Salgha [a trading center] and lastly removed to this city. I was still but an indifferent student [of Islam] when, God be praised, a certain teacher from the north was sent to me by a special direction, and that learned saint taught me the truth. So that now my beard is white, and I cannot travel as before, [but] I am content to seek the good of my soul in a state of future reward. My avocations at Kumasi are several, but my chief employment is a school which I have endowed, and which I preside over myself. God has compassionated my labors [i.e., made them prosper], and I have about 70 pupils and converts at this time.

Besides this, the king's heart is turned towards me, and I am a favored servant. Over the Muslims I rule as qadi, conformably to our law. I am also a member of the king's council in affairs relating to the believers of Sarem and Dagomba [areas to the north with significant Muslim populations]." (Dupuis, p. 97)

The Suwarian tradition was a realistic rationale for Muslims living in the woodland and forest regions of West Africa in the last five or six centuries. It suggests the kinds of positions which many Muslims throughout the world have taken when they found themselves in situations of inferior numbers and force, took advantage of their networks for trade, and enjoyed generally good relations with the local authorities because of the goods and prosperity that they could attract.

Some Muslims have searched for wisdom and inspiration within African societies. They have established links with indigenous healing practices, divination systems, and cosmologies. They have created worlds of mediating spirits and possession cults, such as the bori of Hausaland or the gnawa of Morocco. These fused religious worlds have come under increasing criticism in the last two centuries from movements of reform and the closer integration of sub-Saharan Africa with the Middle East.

See alsoAhmad Ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi ; Ahmad Ibn Idris ; Hajj Salim Suwari, al- ; Suyut, al- ; Tariqa ; Zar .


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David Robinson