Islam in African History
Islam in African History
Islam came into Africa through two paths. One from the east and the other from the north. Islam crossed through vast empty spaces when coming from east and north. The Indian Ocean and the deserts of Sahara are often considered barriers. However, they turned out to be the best transmitters of religious influence.
If we talk about Islamic influence in Egypt, it got extended in three directions. The Islamic influence spread through the Red Sea to the eastern coastal areas, going through the Nile valley to the Sudan, and across the western desert to the Maghrib. In the eleventh century, Arab normads came from Egypt to Sudan and then across North Africa. These Arab normads are those who contributed to the Islamization in Sudan and North Africa. It was the same time when commercial centers were being developed along Red Sea and the East Coast of Africa. Christians left North Africa in the twelfth century.
Islam faced many challenges on the way to its Islamization. There was a battle between Islam and Christianity from sixteenth to eighteenth centuries on the East African coast. Religion was an important factor in this battle of Arab and Swahili Muslims. The battle ended with the withdrawal of the Portuguese from the coast of Mozambique. However, Muslims lost control to the Christians in the Indian Ocean.
Since Islam spread from North Africa to the West Africa, the Maliki school of law was being followed in North Africa. However, in East Africa, where Islam was originated from Arabian Peninsula, the Shafa’i school was dominant in this region.
The Growth of Islam in North and West Africa:
During seventh century, the Arabs started gaining control over coastal North Africa. But, somehow, they failed to have their authority over the Berber tribes. Arabs withdrew due to successive revolts of the Berbers. This is referred to as ridda. The second phase of Berbers’ resistance to Arab rule occurred with the adherence to the sects of Ibadiyya and Ismailiyya.
Finally, the Almoravids came in the eleventh century and became the agents of Islamization in the twelfth century. The Berber speaking normads were took hold of both shores of Sahara. The line dividing the white and the black Africa, cuts across the modern African states such as Niger, Mali, Senegal, Chad, and the Sudan.
In the eleventh century, Manding-speaking traders created a legal system of Islam known as shari’a. It was necessary to follow this system if anyone comes under Islam and wishes to trade commercially. However, in the kingdoms of the Sahel, the kings developed greater commitment and devotion towards Islam. Famous scholars like Timbuktu lived as an independent community under the governance of qadi (the Muslim judge). There were tensions between the scholars of Timbuktu and the political authorities because the scholars of Timbuktu were not politically neutral.
The Spread of Islam in West Africa:
The history of Islam in West Africa can be categorized into three categories namely containment, mixing and reform. The African kings contained Islamic influence in the first stage by segregating Muslim communities. The second stage was about blending Islam with local traditions and norms. The third stage was about the need to have reforms in order to get rid of societal norms and mixed practices that were forming up.
The presence of Islam was related to the segregation of Muslim communities. Islam offered trade by providing useful sets of tools for merchants including credit, contract law and information networks. There was a big role played by merchant scholars in the spread of Islam. The merchants included are Jakhanke merchant, the Hausa merchants in Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea Basau, and the Jula merchants.
The next few decades were about adopting and mixing into different cultures and practices. Many rulers mixed Islam with local practices. That is why; this phase is termed as mixing. The Mali Empire (1215-1450), composed most of modern Mali, parts of Mauritania and Senegal, was a multi-ethnic state with different cultural groups. The founder of the empire, Sunjiata Keita, was not himself a Muslim. Even then, 1300 Mali kings converted to be Muslims. The popular of them was Mansa Musa. Musa went on to pilgrimage to Mecca displaying his wealth in European records. The popular 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta visited after the death of Musa. Mali dissolved due to conflicts by the fifteenth century.
Mansa Musa was successful in conquering the Kingdom of Gao. The kingdom of Gao emerged as Songhay Empire after two centuries. The Songhay State was known for Islamic institutions, mosques and libraries. The Great Mosque of Jenne was made in 12th century. This mosque is the largest building in the world. Timbuktu scholars then attracted the whole Muslim world. The major partners of the Songhay Empire were the Mamluks in Egypt and the Merenid dynasty in North-West Africa. The Songhay Empire ended when it was conquered by Morocco in 1591. The decline of Songhay Empire led to decline of big empires in West Africa. Timbuktu scholars and other learning centers got dispersed throughout the Sahara. Around 12th and 13th century, Sufi brotherhood started to begin in the region.
Reform in the 19th Century:
This phase is the third phase in the development of Islam in West Africa. This is the phase in which Muslims were beginning to get aware and literate of Islamic principles and reforms. This period is marked by a prominent change and shift in Muslim communities that practiced traditional norms to communities that completely changed themselves towards literal Islamic ethics and values, in other words, shari’a.
These three stages throw light on the development of Islam in the region of West Africa. The important gateway which helped spreading Islam was the trans-Saharan trade. The phases prove that Islam has remained a significant part in the African landscape.
Muslim Brotherhood in 19th Century:
In the sixteenth century, there was Sufism among the scholars of Timbuktu but they were not known the concept of brotherhood. Similarly, in Bornu, there was no brotherhood. In Sudan, the relationship between the shaykh and his followers is was without any organizational collaboration. It was face-to-face and personal. In Somalia and in the eastern Africa, the affiliation within communities was weak. It was in the nineteenth century that the concept of brotherhood and affiliation was highlighted in Somalia. After 1800s, the brothers were mutually engaged in livestock, agriculture and worship. In the eighteenth century, there came a significant shift towards brotherhood. The process was restructured and the system of shaykh and brotherhood became centralized and disciplined. This system included a network of khalifas. This system was hierarchical and centralized.
Fodio and Fuladi Jihad in Northern Nigeria:
One of the most prominent leaders in West Africa in 1800 was Usuman dan Fodio (also known as Uthman ibn Fudi). Usuman reformed Islam and is therefore known as ‘Shehu’. He was an intellectual person, a writer and a leader. His writings and teachings had a strong influence. Many of his writings are still being read in Africa. Many writers have different interpretations regarding the holy war ‘jihad’ in the states of Hausa and the role of Usuman in it. There were three Muslim reformers involved in Fulani jihad-Usuman dan Fodio, his son Muhammad Bello and his brother Abdallahi. All three of them were dedicated men. They possessed good educational backgrounds. They wrote on a wide variety of subjects.
In the seventeenth century, Islam was spread from urban side to the countryside. Trade was the basis for the economic survival of the urban side. The rural towns were dependant on farming and the work of students (talamidh). In Bornu, scholars withdrew from political centers in order to develop independent religious communities. In Sudan, rural learning centers were established that combined legal teaching with Sufism. This was developed after sixteenth century. Moreover, leaders from jihad movement in West Africa did not come from the urban side. Instead, they came from the countryside. The main challenge in African societies did not come from ‘ulama’. Ulama were the spokesmen for traders. The challenge did not also come from clerics who provided religious services in the courts. However, the challenge came from the independent rural communities.
Period of 1880-1918:
In this period, there were three forms of Islamic militancy that were interconnected in the Horn. One was against religions and Muslims; the second was against Christian Ethiopian state; and the third was against European colonialism. In Somalia, jihad movement was started by Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hassan in 1898 to purify the country from the unbelievers. Sayyid Abdallah Hassan was from brotherhood, a tariqa that was founded by Ahmad ibn Idris. He managed to deal with Qadiriyya, which collaborated with Europeans. In 1862, a movement of Islamic revivalism started in South Africa with the arrival of a Kurdish scholar, Shaykh Abu Bakr Effendi. He integrated the Cape Muslims into the Muslim world and imposed Islamic principles.
The expansion to the countryside widened the basis for Islamic teaching and principles. The preaching of Islam was given to illiterate in the vernacular languages. On one hand, people and political leaders were trying hard for Islam to be strong as a religion and political force, and on the other hand, a pious literature was being developed. The main tool of learning was the poems which could be easily memorized. Such poems became a vehicle for Islamic teachings and preaching. These poems were distributed in the form of handwritten copies which were then recited in public by Muslim literati.
Reformers who wrote the text tried to reach out people from all walks of life. The literature was written in Arabic and local languages. A large collection of religious and educational poetry was written in Fulfulde under the rule of Almamis of Futa Jalon. With the developments in literature and teaching activities by the leaders of jihad movement, local languages were given importance and increasingly used for religious purposes. Before seventeenth century, Arabic seems to be limited to first generation immigrants and to those who obtained education abroad. Swahili was their main language in daily use. The two languages interacted only after the seventeenth century. After the mid of seventeenth century, Arabic words were being loaned by Swahili language. The earliest literature that was in written in Swahili dates back to seventeenth century. A new genre of poems called tendi was developed in eighteenth century. The themes of these poems were drawn from the life of Prophet Muhammad and other prophets. The new genre highlights a different stage in the Islamic literature that was founded interesting to the local public.
The Post-Jihad States:
In post-jihad period, development of schools and mosques was increased in urban as well as in rural areas. Sufi practices were encouraged in order to promote the Islamic teachings and principles. The emirs administered Islamic law. Seku Ahmadu was a prominent figure in the post-jihad regime. He settled the lives of people in rural and urban side. A formal judicial system was then formed throughout Africa. This system was formed in order to administer the shari’a. The system was a little informal before where people came to imam, a Quranic teacher, to solve their problems. There were other leaders of jihad movement, like al-Hajj Umar and Samori, confronted colonial powers but they were defeated. However, the Sokoto Caliphate survived the colonial rise.
Islam under Colonial Rule:
People who resisted colonial rule were in minority. They tried to resist the rule by making hijra (migrating beyond the colonial authorities). However, the majority of the people opted for accommodation and collaboration. The colonial rule benefitted Juula traders. There was a significant spread of Islam under colonial rule. In southern regions, the opening of railways and routes facilitated the Islamization. In East Africa, administrative centers were developed under British and German rule. People from rural side started migrating to urban side like Tabora where they came under the influence of Islam. In Malawi, the expansion of Islam was facilitated through freedom and security of movement to Muslim traders. If talk about farther east of Africa in the provinces of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, Germans recruited Swahili-speaking Muslims to work as interpreters and soldiers. Their quarters became the urban centers. Native people were converting to Islam and the foreign people were adopting the local language.
However, during the colonial period, the Muslim educational system that existed insulated the Muslims from the modern techniques of learning education. The Muslims living close to Christians such as in Mombasa and Capetown, they combined Islamic and Western education both. During this period, women actively participated in learning and piety. Women gave time to learning Koran, prayers, preaching and voluntary services. Involvement of females in Arabic schools was high. They would often visit Mecca off-season. Women would often perform umrah (similar to hajj), which can be performed at anytime of the year. However, reformers resisted giving women a greater role in religious life. Women responded wisely to the challenge by observing hijab (putting on veil), embracing an Islamic dress, and at the same time becoming more politically active. They started forming their own organizations.
After independence, the system of educational institutions was such that the Muslim intellectuals combined both Western and Islamic education. The new type of Arab schools that were developed in 1930s gained popularity in 1960s. From 1970s, an increase in the network of such schools was observed. Moreover, Egypt supported such Islamic educational projects and activities.
Formation and Dominance of Sunni Orthodoxy (700-1800):
Orthodoxy was formed during this period when people had two choices. By mid nineteenth century, Sunni orthodoxy had reached its maximum. In Egypt, when the Kurdish descended Saladin (1171-93), the Sunni orthodoxy was established. Two types of institutions were associated to this orthodoxy, the college (madrasa) for scriptural teaching and the teachings of mysticism (khanqas). Both were religious foundations which were independent from government. Saladin’s descendants, the Turkish Mamluks and the Ayyubids expanded the orthodoxy by embracing Sufism in the teachings of Shafi law for natives of Lower Egypt, and the Maliki law for Upper Egypt. Later, the same orthodox was maintained by Turkish Ottomans.
Political Recentralization and Religious Reform (1800 to the present)
Islam is almost 1400 years old. It is ancient in Africa as well as Sub-Saharan. It is expressed in different forms. Most African practitioners consider themselves to be pious. They have formed their own orthodoxies when it comes to Islam. However, this paper is critical when it comes to understanding of how the religion of Islam was spread throughout the zones of Africa. Now, more than one billion people across the world call themselves to be Muslims. Islam is now the second most important religion in United States and Europe. If we talk about Africa, the number of Muslims is as many as there are Christians.
Map to Illustrate the Spread of Islam in Africa:
Following is a map to summarize the spread of Islam in a pictorial form:
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