History of Islam in Africa

From its beginning, Islam has been a central feature in Africa. Africa was the first continent into which Islam expanded, and it has become an integral part of many African cultures and histories.[1] According to World Book Encyclopedia, Islam is the largest religion in Africa, followed by Christianity.[2] However, according to Encyclopædia Britannica, Christianity is the largest religion in Africa, followed by Islam.[3]1/4 of the world's Muslims are in Africa.[4]


There are conflicting statistics on religious practitioners in Africa (including North Africa). Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 376,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa.[5] Nevertheless, according to a May 9, 2009 Congressional Research Service report, there were 371,459,142 Muslims, 304,313,880 Christians, 137,842,507 who practiced indigenous religions, and 9,818,542 people who practiced other religions in Africa.[2]


Islam by country
The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, originally built in the reign of King Mansa Musa of theMali Empire in the 13th century. A prime example of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style of West Africa.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan (also known as the Mosque of Uqba), founded in 670 by the Arab general and conqueror Uqba Ibn Nafi, is the oldest and most prestigious mosque in North Africa,[6]located in the city of KairouanTunisia.
The presence of Islam in Africa can be traced to the seventh century when the prophet Muhammad advised a number of his early disciples, who were facing persecution by the pre-Islamic inhabitants of the Mecca, to seek refuge across the Red Sea in the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) under the rule of al-Najashi. See also Islam in Ethiopia. In the Muslim tradition, this event is known as the first hijrah, or migration. These first Muslim migrants provided Islam with its first major triumph, and the coastline of Somalia became the first safe haven for Muslims and the first place Islam would be practiced outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Seven years after the death of Muhammad (in 639 AD), the Arabs advanced toward Africa and within two generations, Islam had expanded across North Africa and all of the Central Maghreb.[1][2] In the following centuries, the consolidation of Muslim trading networks, connected by lineage, trade, and Sufi brotherhoods, had reached a crescendo in West Africa, enabling Muslims to wield tremendous political influence and power. During the reign of Umar II, the then governor of Africa, Ismail ibn Abdullah, was said to have won the Berbers to Islam by his just administration. Other early notable missionaries include Abdallah ibn Yasin, who started a movement which caused thousands of Berbers to accept Islam.[7]
Similarly, in the Swahili coast, Islam made its way inland - spreading at the expense of traditional African religions. This expansion of Islam in Africa not only led to the formation of new communities in Africa, but it also reconfigured existing African communities and empires to be based on Islamic models.[2]Indeed, in the middle of the eleventh century, the Kanem Empire, whose influence extended into Sudan, converted to Islam. At the same time but more toward West Africa, the reigning ruler of the Bornu Empire embraced Islam.[7] As these kingdoms adopted Islam, its populace thereafter devotedly followed suit. In praising the Africans' zealousness to Islam, the fourteenth century explorer Ibn Battuta stated that mosques were so crowded on Fridays, that unless one went very early, it was impossible to find a place to sit.[7]
In the sixteenth century, the Ouaddai Empire and the Kingdom of Kano embraced Islam, and later toward the eighteenth century, the Nigeria basedSokoto Caliphate led by Usman dan Fodio exerted considerable effort in spreading Islam.[7] Today, Islam is the predominant religion of Northern Africa, mainly concentrated in NorthNortheast Africa and the Sahel, as well as West Africa.


The Larabanga Mosque of Ghana, one of the oldest surviving mosques inWest Africa.
The 12th century Sankore MadrasahTimbuktuMali. One of the earliest universities in the world. The three mosques of Sankoré, Djinguereber Mosque and Sidi Yahya compose the famous University of Timbuktu. Madrasah means school/university in Arabic and also in other languages associated with Muslim people.
Although the majority of Muslims in Africa are Sunni or Sufi, the complexity of Islam in Africa is revealed in the various schools of thought, traditions, and voices that constantly contend for dominance in many African countries. African Islam is not static and is constantly being reshaped by prevalent social, economic, and political conditions.[2]
Islam in Africa often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems forming Africa's own orthodoxies. Africans have generally appropriated Islam in more inclusive way, or in the more radical way, as with theAlmoravid movement.[8][9]
African Islam has both local and global dimensions. On the local level, experts assert that Muslims (including African Muslims) operate with considerable autonomy and do not have an international organization that regulates their religious practices. This fact accounts for the differences and varieties in Islamic practices throughout the African continent. On the global level, however, African Muslims belong to the ummah, the worldwide Islamic community, and follow global issues and current events that affect the Muslim world with keen interest. With globalization and new initiatives in information technology, African Muslims have developed and maintained close connections with the wider Muslim world.[2]
Analysts argue that African Muslims, like other Muslims in Asia, the Middle East and the rest of the world, seem to be locked into an intense struggle regarding the future direction of Islam. At core of the struggle are questions about the way in which Muslims should practice their faith. The scholars assert that the majority seems to prefer to remain on the moderate, tolerant course that Islam has historically followed. However, a relatively small, but growing group would like to establish a stricter form of the religion, one that informs and controls all aspects of society.[2]


The Sharia law broadly influences the legal code in most Islamic countries, but the extent of its impact varies widely. In Africa, most states limit the use of Shar’ia to “personal-status law” for issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. With the exceptions of Nigeriaand Somalia, secularism does not seem to face any serious threat in Africa, even though the new Islamic revival is having a great impact upon segments of Muslim populations. Cohabitation or coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims remains, for the most part, peaceful.[2]
Nigeria is home to Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest Muslim population. In 1999, Nigeria’s northern states adopted the Shar’ia penal code, but punishments have been rare. In fact, dozens of women convicted of adultery and sentenced to stoning to death have later been freed. Egypt, one of the largest Muslim states in Africa, but has penal and civil codes based largely on French law.[2]


Muslim Africans are mostly Sunni, though there are significant Sufis and Shi'ites.


Sufism, which focuses on the mystical elements of Islam, has many orders as well as followers in West Africa and Sudan, and, like other orders, strives to know God through meditation and emotion. Sufis may be Sunni or Shi’ite, and their ceremonies may involve chanting, music, dancing, and meditation.[2]
Many Sufis in Africa are syncretic where they practise Sufism with traditional folklore beliefs. Salafis criticize the folklorists Sufis, who they claim have incorporated "un-Islamic" beliefs into their practices, such as celebrating the several events, visiting the shrines of "Islamic saints", dancing during prayer (the whirling dervishes).[10]
West Africa and Sudan have various Sufi orders regarded skeptically by the more doctrinally strict branches of Islam in the Middle East. Most orders in West Africa emphasize the role of a spiritual guide, marabout or possessing supernatural power, regarded as an Africanization of Islam. In Senegal and Gambia, Mouridism Sufis claim to have several million adherents and have drawn criticism for their veneration of Mouridism’s founder Amadou Bamba. The Tijani is the most popular Sufi order in West Africa, with a large following in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Gambia.[2]


Relatively recently, Salafism has begun to spread in Africa, as a result of many Muslim Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly for Muslim Youth, the Federation of Mab and Islamic Schools. These Salafist organizations, often based in Saudi Arabia, promote conservatism, and regard Sufi Islam as "heterodox" and contrary to the traditional Islam.[2][1] Such NGOs have built of mosques and Islamic centers in Africa, and many are staffed by puritanical African Muslims, often trained in the Middle East. Academic scholarships are also offered to further Salafism.[2]

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