African Culture and Islam

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Islam, an Afro-Asiatic faith, has long been known to be a religion of great synthesis that has interacted with local cultures, enriching them and being enriched by them. It has impacted on African society in various ways for almost a millennium, if not longer, adding to the fabric of these cultures.

Spread of Islam in Africa

Islam made its presence felt in much of Africa (the East coast and Horn of Africa as well as West Africa) mainly through trade and migration. In West Africa, for instance, Islam was introduced from North Africa by the Berbers through the trans-Saharan trade as early as the ninth century. Later, trading networks developed among local African groups such as the Mande (Dyula/Wangara) whose area of operation spanned a wide area extending from as far west as Senegal to northern Nigeria in the east. This trade network, or diaspora, was closely associated with the diffusion of Islamic studies, including mysticism in the later centuries, and enabled Islam to penetrate peacefully beyond the Sahel—the semiarid region of African between the Sahara and the savannahs—into the savannah area. In the coastal trading communities of East Africa the process of interaction between the Middle Eastern immigrants, mainly south Arabians, and the dominant African groups created a new urban ethos in which Islam blended with the indigenous local culture to produce Swahili Islam. The cross-cultural trade in many parts of Africa, apart from reinforcing cultural self-identity and nurturing religious commitment, fostered a pluralist structure in which commerce, Islam, and the indigenous system supported the urban network. In this way a balance was established between local ritual prescriptions and those of universal Islam.

Islam in Africa therefore was primarily an urban religion (with an urban ethos) that fostered commitment to its religious system ranging from ethnic self-identity to Islamic self-identity, universal and transethnic in scope. Islamic penetration in the rural areas, on the other hand, made piecemeal infiltration over a long period of time with significant gains awaiting a much later period. The religion therefore entered much of Africa peacefully through the agency of trade and later gained status after the migrant community (purveyors of the written word and the visual symbols of Islam) was integrated into the political setup before finally the ruling elite embraced the faith and appropriated its symbols for political purposes.

The intensity of Islam varied from one region of Africa to another and was influenced by a number of factors, including the length of interaction between Islam and the traditional religion, the compatibility or incompatibility of the worldviews of the two religious systems, and the level of resilience of the indigenous integrative symbols to sustain traditional structures of the local religion. Islam has its written scripture, a prescribed ritual, a historical and systematized myth, and a supra-ethnic religious identity. Its interaction with African traditional religions is therefore governed by the tension between its supra-ethnic universality of its umma and the ethnocentrism of African traditional religion. As Dean Gilland put it, for the African, the ethnic group is the matrix in which his religion takes shape, the meaning of myth communicated, and a person's sacramental relation to nature experienced. This means that when the symbols of the ethnic group are challenged by a new system, recombination of old and new forms may appear to reorganize the group and to compensate for any loss. More specifically, becoming a Muslim and joining this universal umma involves offering prayers in a mosque frequented by members of other ethnic groups, adoption of Muslim behavior patterns and dress code in some cases, and using a certain language (e.g., for quite a long time Kiswahili in the case of East Africa). The Kano Chronicle, a record of Hausa kings of sixteenth or seventeenth century inspiration first written down in the nineteenth century whose sources were largely oral, brings out clearly the struggle between the two religious systems, the Islamic and the traditional one, after the symbolic tree is cut down and a mosque built in its place.

Indigenous Culture and Islam

The old forms and symbols of the indigenous system are often not discarded but retrieved and reinforced and recast in a new form. In the artistic and architectural domains, for instance, there has been a unique blending of Islamic structure and African representation. Once a balance had been reached between the local religious practices and the universal ritual prescriptions of Islam the next step was to cast the imagery and iconography of African ancestral pillars, shrines, and so on into Islamized form. Where Islam was introduced such items as charms, amulets, certain types of clothing, and prestige goods were incorporated into local societies. More importantly, the local altar-shrine was transformed into the mosque in such a way that the physical configuration represented a qualitative leap into verticality. Thus, as Labelle Prussin notes, the single, towering pyramidal earthen cone became the mihrab (it also served as a minaret) with its system of projecting wooden pickets extending out of this massive structure. The ends of these wooden pickets served as a scaffold for workers to climb and repair the walls. The ancestral conical structure pillar (the Voltaic tradition) was now redirected to a new focal center, that of Mecca. In certain cases, as Prussin and Rene Bravmann have observed, some of the mosques that were built in Mali had mihrabs that evoked the image of an African mask (which traditionally represents powerful forces). This is how the mosques were constructed by the Mande of West Africa with Islam clearly inspiring the use of certain architectural features in the spatial configuration. The Islamic architectural tradition (mediated through the Maghrebian heritage) in turn inspired the architectural imagery or style represented by the thatched domes of the Senegal-Guinea area for mosques and maraboutic (referring to a Muslim scholar or saint in North Africa or parts of West Africa) shrines following the example of the domed cities of Tripoli and Cairo. Islamic-type designs were also emulated and led to the adoption of arabesque wall patterning instead of the attached African charms. This calligraphy allowed for a new system of spatial organization. More than this, Islamic script was used in decorative ways even in non-Muslim areas such as modern-day Ghana, where in the nineteenth century the Asantehene, head of the Asante confederacy, wore clothes with Arabic writing in various colors. Islam had clearly filtered through Asante politicoreligious structure such that both in terms of ideas and in the realm of the arts it provided a medium through which the ideology of the Asante was communicated.

Islam, which for many centuries coexisted well with traditional African religion, gradually over time attempted to replace it as the dominant faith of some regions without major clashes. What made this possible was the fact that the Islamic faith was much more adaptable in Africa with very minimal requirements for new members who at the very least were expected to change their names after reciting the testimony of faith. The observance of Islamic duties along with the understanding of the faith were supposed to follow later. For the first generation of Muslims, introduction to Islamic cultural values was what came first whereas Islamization itself could take generations to realize. At this level there was accommodation to social and political structures of authority. This was the period when the learned Muslims, as in West African kingdoms, played a key role in administration and diplomacy. Eventually, however, a number of these African rulers adopted Islam and in doing so may partly have under-mined the basis of their legitimacy as guardians of African ancestral religious traditions. Nevertheless, they did not completely renounce ties with the African traditional religion, which continued to be the religion of many of their subjects. This arrangement assisted in maintaining order although it did not please some West African Sufi leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who launched their jihads (reform movements) of Islamic revivalism (some of which had mahdist/messianic overtones) to establish Islamic states. The theme of Islamic revivalism will be discussed later.


Colonialism facilitated the growth of Islam in areas of Africa as far apart as Tanzania (Tanganyika) in East Africa and Senegal in West Africa through the activities of Muslim brotherhoods (Sufi orders), traders, and others. For some African groups the loss of power with the onset of colonial rule made them gravitate toward Islam, which was seen as an alternative to the prevailing colonial order. The difficulties of a new life under the colonial system, which uprooted the African from his traditional universe, presented Islam with an opportunity to provide a new framework as meaningful and all-embracing as the old African one. This, for instance, happened with Amadou Bamba's Murid brotherhood in Senegal, which converted thousands of people whose earthly kingdoms had been destroyed by colonialism. In 1888 Bamba established Touba/Tubaa as a great holy city (some say) to rival Mecca, and he was buried there in 1927. Every year hundreds of thousands of his followers visit his tomb on the anniversary of his death. For the uprooted African who joined the faith, the Muslim supra-ethnic umma provided a solidarity and a sense of belonging not very different from that of the African village/ethnic one. Moreover, while the Islamic prescriptions replaced the indigenous ones, in matters of worship, however, the Muslim ritual prayer did not completely dislodge the traditional rituals of seeking to appease the ancestors. In fact, the Muslim religious leaders and teachers came to perform the same kind of role as the African healers and medicine men in curving out the domain of popular religion.

Indigenization of Islam

Yet, despite Muslim efforts to purge African elements from their faith, their religion continued to display a level of "Africanness" that revealed the indigenization of Islam in these regions of West Africa. How else would one explain the continued presence of, for instance, the bori cult in northern Nigeria? There, women tend to follow the traditional cults even with the sustained impact of Islam in Hausaland for centuries, including producing such well-known major religious Fulani reformers of the nineteenth century such as Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio? There must be a level of affinity between the two religious systems that allows this to happen. For instance, the belief in mystical powers (jinn/invisible supernatural creatures) allows Islam to be accommodated to the African spirit world that is so important to understanding the African religious universe. In fact, the ancestral beliefs have been recombined with Muslim practice to form a new "folk" religion with emphasis on, say, saint veneration (which popular Islam and Sufism reinforce) that approximates local ancestor veneration.

The practice of curing illnesses attributed to occult forces provided an opportunity for the Muslim healing system to flourish and allowed for the services of Muslim healers/holy men (who provided additional healing choices to local practitioners) to be in high demand. The appearance of new epidemic diseases such as smallpox and cholera, which arose in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in hinterland East Africa (and which the local people could not adequately deal with), led the people to turn increasingly to the Muslim healing system. Muslim prayers and amulets were more popular than Muslim secular remedies in this atmosphere of suspicion (which took the form of sorcery and witchcraft accusations). Apart from the fact that Muslim amulets were believed to embody the words of the Supreme Being and not that of the intermediary powers (making them therefore more potent, as the Asante believed), Muslim literacy played a role as a potential source of healing. Furthermore, Sufi masters who had attained a closeness to God through following the path of spiritual enlightenment were believed to have special powers that made their prayers efficacious. This baraka (blessing power that heals) was passed on in families and explains why the scholarly Sufi lineages of the Sahara have played a pivotal role in mediating Islam between North and West Africa.

While the influence of the tariqa (Sufi orders) has been undermined to some extent in some parts of Africa such as Tanzania, the commitment to Sufistic engagement with faith nevertheless continues to be strong in West Africa and especially in Senegal, although even there it is facing the challenge of the Salafi reformers. Sufism, far from being a predominantly rural phenomenon that would fade away as Muslim societies became increasingly modernized, has continued to thrive and to engage African Muslims of the urban centers as well. Yet for some educated young African Muslims who are discomfited by magical practices, saint veneration, hierarchy, and the authoritarianism of some Sufi orders, the Salafi message has seemed attractive.

The Salafi reform is itself at some level quite conservative and traditional; to the extent that this is true, Salafi reform and Sufi traditionalism are constantly engaged in an overlapping movement of interaction. Will they creatively synthesize from the values of their common Islamic heritage while acknowledging the entanglements and creative encounters between and within cultures? It remains to be seen what the outcome of this clash will be. It is clear though that underlying the conflict between them are struggles for power and control of the Muslim community by these competing groups.

Gender and Islam in Africa

What type of cultural interface has taken place between Islam and Africa in the area of gender relations? More specifically, what has been the role of Islam with respect to the status of women in the regions of Africa where Islam has been introduced? Did Islam introduce patriarchy in Africa? Many African societies were patriarchal (polygamous as well) even before their encounter with Islam. Nevertheless, where Islam was introduced and its values incorporated in the socioeconomic and political structures of these societies (especially those with a propensity for state/empire building) a hierarchical social organization resulted in which there were clear demarcations of male and female spheres of activity. This, of course, did vary from society to society. For instance, the Yoruba women of southwestern Nigeria continued to be market women even after the coming of Islam whereas their Hausa counterparts in northern Nigeria tended to lead more secluded lives. It is significant to note that the Mahdiyya movement, which was established in 1941 in Ijebul-Ode in southern Nigeria by the southern Muslim scholar, Muhammad Jumat Imam, emphasized the education of women, their attendance of mosques together with men, and their inclusion in public affairs (hence no Qur˒anic basis for the practice of purdah, or female seclusion. By way of comparison, among the Tuareg-Berbers of the Sahara (who tend to be matriarchal) their unveiled women continued to enjoy far more freedom of movement than their Arab counterparts in North Africa.

The Sufi dhikr (chant) practices and the spirit possession cults (bori among Hausas in West Africa and zar in Ethiopia and Sudan) have offered women possibilities for autonomous spiritual expression and for creation of networks of mutual support. Mysticism in particular has opened the room for the acceptance of female authority (for instance, Sokna Magat Diop of the Murids) or religious leadership located within the female realm. Moreover, the Qadiriyya order accepted the female leadership of Shaykha Binti Mtumwa (a former slave or person of low status) who founded a branch of the order in Malawi and was successful in attracting many women. Therefore, both possession cults and Sufi brotherhoods have allowed women to establish a sphere of action in hierarchical societies where control of the state is a male domain. These orders have incorporated women in both East and West Africa, especially in the area of education, fund raising, and the like, although women have a much larger scope in Senegal than in Nigeria in leadership of brotherhoods.

During the period of economic hardships in the last several decades, issues of cultural authenticity have become rooted in Islamic identity in opposition to what has been perceived as Western cultural domination. These women reject Western feminism, which they see as an extension of Western cultural domination worldwide, a domination that makes Western values and ideas be the normative values that everyone else should strive for. The role of these women has expanded as liberalization of the political process and the emergence of multiparty politics have led them to establish organizations and to embrace a particular agenda, including the Muslim dress code, and involvement in cultural politics. The Islamists and radical reformist activists are engaged in contesting existing gender relations and social justice. They use the text (scripture) as their framework whereas the secular activists' frame of reference is based on certain abstract concepts such as egalitarianism, humanism, human rights, and pluralism, concepts that have emerged from Western discourses on the subject.

The roles of men and women are constantly changing due to urbanization, education, and cross-cultural contacts. For some women these changes have generated new freedom and opportunities for self-improvement.

Islamic Law and Politics

As a political force, Islam united much of Africa in the past and was willing to accommodate local (including legal) practices. Nevertheless, as the level of Islamization deepened the learned Muslim scholars began to call for a strict interpretation of the shari˓a (Islamic law), which they saw as different from the African legal or customary practices. Some obvious areas of difference included, for instance, Islamic emphasis on individual ownership of land (and property inheritance through the male side of the family) whereas in various African societies land belonged to the community. Also, the way Islamic law was interpreted (some have suggested) tended to give men considerably more power over property matters than perhaps was the case in some African societies. Scholars, however, need comparative data across a number of African societies to make a meaningful comparison.

Unlike African customary law, which is unwritten, Islamic law (which covers both public and private life) is written and provides an extensive framework within which Muslim qadis (judges) analyze legal issues and deduce new laws to handle new situations in the umma. Islamic law emphasizes the rights or obligations of individuals whereas African customary law (in which economic and social relations, especially in "stateless" societies, were regulated by customs maintained by social pressure and the authority of elders) is based on kinship ties in matters of marriage and property. It extends to commercial and criminal law and also has rules regarding the conduct of political leaders or those entrusted with authority. In their encounter with other legal systems European colonial powers left these systems functioning in some societies (for instance, Sudan and Nigeria as part of the Britain's self-serving policy of indirect rule) while in others they allowed Muslim judges to apply Islamic civil and family law except in criminal matters, which were tried by European courts. In the postcolonial period the scope of Islamic law, where it is applied, is limited to religious issues and civil cases; the modern trend, with its emphasis on equal rights of citizens, is to have laws that apply across the board without recognizing any distinctions based on religion or gender.

Recognition of Islamic laws in many African states after independence has created tensions and political controversy especially when the secular elites have sought to forge a uniform system of law or at least have attempted to modify Muslim personal law (in aspects such as marriage for girls) to bring it in line with the inherited Western law and African customary practices. There has been a wide variety of responses to the dilemma of how much scope to give to religious laws. Mozambique, for instance, has made attempts to recognize traditional and religious marriages (thus doing the basic minimum) whereas Sudan has made shari˓a the law of the land. The call by Muslim groups in northern Nigeria for nationalization of Islamic law (to apply beyond northern Nigeria) has unleashed the shari˓a debate, a source of tension in national politics in a country where at the very least only half or slightly more than half the population is Muslim. In African Muslim societies in general, however, it has been noted that there is often an antistate discourse underlying the call for Islamic law by Muslim groups, which seek to foster their religious and cultural autonomy in societies (with failed political institutions and secular ideologies such as socialism) in which state and secular institutions have failed to respond to their needs.

Coexistence of Islam and African Religion

The coexistence of Islam and African traditional religion has cultural and linguistic implications as well. The Arabic language has provided abstract concepts, particularly religious ones, that reveal Islamic modes of thought and expression. Islamic influence is, in fact, revealed both at the explicit and suggestive levels in languages as different as the Berber dialects, Hausa, Swahili, and Somali to name just a few. These languages have absorbed the Islamic worldview (though at some level languages such as Swahili have been progressively secularized over time during and after the colonial period, making them more neutral).

Islamic culture has generally held the written word in such high esteem that wherever Islam has reached in Africa versions of its script have been adopted in those regions of sustained contact. Moreover, Islamic penetration of Africa introduced Arabic as the language of religious discourse among scholars, official correspondence between Islamized states, and historical writing during the period of the Muslim kingdoms. Good examples of important records that were produced by Timbuktu scholars were the monumental Tarikh al-Fatash and Tarikh al-Sudan. Both East and West Africa have also produced Afro-Islamic literature (from the panegyrics of the Prophet to poetry) based on the local languages, which have absorbed a lot of Arabic loanwords in the spheres of religion, politics, and commerce. In some of these areas, however, the written word has competed with the oral literature especially among such clan-based people as the Somali.

In the linguistic dimension it is often assumed that when Arabic and an African language such as Swahili, Berber, Hausa, Fulani, Harari, Somali, and others come into contact the latter will invariably be influenced by the former. It is, of course, undeniable that as a result of contact with Arabic these languages (which are related in their ethos to Arabic) have absorbed many Arabic loanwords. In fact, some had in the past a written tradition in Arabic script. Nevertheless, there is an unstated assumption that these languages have borrowed from Arabic rather passively without contributing anything back. This may explain the fact that while there are a number of studies that trace Arabic loanwords in various African languages, fewer comparable studies, if any, have been undertaken to study, say, the influence of Swahili on the Arabic dialects spoken in Oman or south Yemen (Hadhramaut). This influence should be expected given that the Red Sea separates the Arabian peninsula from Africa and this proximity resulted in a profound interaction in a number of spheres. The Arabs, by their own tradition, recognize African ancestry through Ishmael's mother Haggar, who was Egyptian. Also, Arabs recognize the active presence of Africans in the evolution of pre-Islamic Arabic culture and the important role that Ethiopia and Ethiopians played in the early history of Islam.

How will both Islam and African indigenous traditions fare in the twenty–first century in the era of globalization? Can both systems penetrate Western secular culture, whose secular institutions and ideologies have not functioned well in Africa? Are African religious traditions destined to die out as socioeconomic changes (not to mention the colonial experience) have disrupted the cultural nexus in which these traditions have thrived? This is rather unlikely as African indigenous cultures have demonstrated much resilience even as their followers enter the fold of either Islam or Christianity (Ali Mazrui's triple heritage) and the African ancestors are poised to raise their heads once again in the synthetic and syncretic religious universe. With one quarter of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims living in Africa (making Muslims, half the continent's population, the most numerous followers of any religion) the final chapter of the unfolding global resurgent Islam is yet to be written.

See alsoAfrica, Islam in ; Bamba, Ahmad ; Timbuktu ; Touba ; Zar .


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Abdin Chande

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African Culture and Islam

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