Islam in Africa

Africa was the first continent, outside of Asia that Islam spread into in the early 7th century. Almost one-third of the world's Muslim population resides in the continent. Muslims crossed current Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea to seek refuge in present-day Ethiopia during the Hijarat.[1] Most Muslims in Africa are Sunni; the complexity of Islam in Africa is revealed in the various schools of thought, traditions, and voices in many African countries. African Islam is not static and is constantly being reshaped by prevalent social, economic, and political conditions. Generally Islam in Africa often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems forming Africa's own orthodoxies.

It was estimated in 2002 that Muslims constitute 45% of the population of Africa.[2] Islam has a large presence in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Swahili Coast, and much of West Africa, with minority but significant immigrant populations in South Africa. However, Islam has encountered criticism and resistance in several nations of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Spread of Islam in Africa

On the advice of Muhammad, in Rajab 8BH, or May 614AD, twenty three Muslims migrated to Abyssinia where they were protected by its king, Al-Najashi, who also accepted Islam later. They were followed by 101 Muslims later in the same year. Most of those Muslims returned to Medina in 7H/628CE but some settled in the neighboring Zeila which was at that time part of Bilad al-Barbar. Those that settled there later built Masjid al-Qiblatayn. In 20H/641CE during the reign of Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab, Muslim troops took over current Egypt and conquered current Libya the following year. Muslims then expanded to current Tunisia in 27H/647AD during the reign of the third Muslim Caliph, Othman bin Affan. The conquest of North Africa continued under the Umayyad dynasty, taking Algeria by 61H/680AD, and Morocco the following year. From the latter Muslim troops crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Europe in 92H/711AD. Islam gained momentum during the 10th century in West Africa with the start of the Almoravids movement on the Senegal River and as rulers and kings embraced Islam. Islam then spread slowly in much of the continent through trade and preaching.[3] By the 9th century Muslim Sultanates started being established in the Horn of Africa, and by the 12th century the Kilwa Sultanate had spread as far south as Mozambique. Islam only crossed deeper into Malawi and Congo in the second half of the 19th century under the Zanzibar Sultanate. Then the British brought their labor force from India, including some Muslim-Indian nationals, to their African colonies towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.


The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, originally built in the reign of King Mansa Musa of the Mali 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,[4] located in the city of Kairouan, Tunisia.

The presence of Islam in Africa can be traced to the 7th century when 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 Axum. In the Muslim tradition, this event is known as the first hijrah, or migration. During this first Hijra some Muslims settled in the city of Zeila and built the Masjid al-Qiblatayn mosque in 627 CE. This mosque has two Qiblas because it was built before the Prophet switched the Qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. The coastline of The Horn of Africa 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 the Horn of Africa and North Africa.[5]

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.[6]

Similarly, in the Swahili coast, Islam made its way inland - spreading at the expense of traditional African religions.[7] 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.[5] Indeed, in the middle of the 11th 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.[6] As these kingdoms adopted Islam, their subjects thereafter followed suit. In praising the Africans' zealousness to Islam, the 14th 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.[6]

The History of Islam in Africa and accounts of how the religion spread, especially in North and the Horn of Africa have always been contentious. Head of Awqaf Africa London, Sheikh Dr. Abu-Abdullah Adelabu has written in his Movements of Islam in face of the Empires and Kingdoms in Yorubaland claims about the early arrival of Islam in the southwestern Nigeria. He seconded the Arab anthropologist Abduhu Badawi on the argument that the early Muslim missionaries had benefited their works from the fall of Kush in southern Sudan and the prosperity of the politically multicultural Abbasid period in the continent which, according to him, had created several streams of migration, moving west in the mid-9th century into Sub-Saharan Africa.[8] Adelabu pointed at the popularity and influences of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), the second great dynasty with the rulers carrying the title of 'Caliph' as fostering peaceful and prosperous migration of the inter-cultured Muslims from the Nile Valley to Niger as well as of the Arab traders from the desert to Benue. Adelabu's claim seems to be in line with the conventional historical view that the conquest of North Africa by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between AD 647–709 effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries.[9]

In the 16th century, the Ouaddai Empire and the Kingdom of Kano embraced Islam, and later toward the 18th century, the Nigeria based Sokoto Caliphate led by Usman dan Fodio exerted considerable effort in spreading Islam.[6]

Today, Islam is the predominant religion of the northern half of Africa, mainly concentrated in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, as well as West Africa.


The 13th century Larabanga Mosque of Ghana, one of the oldest surviving mosques in West Africa.
The 12th century Sankore Madrasah, Timbuktu, Mali. 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.

Islam has been in Africa for so long since its genesis on the Arabian peninsula that some scholars have argued that it is a traditional African religion.[10]

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. Islam in Africa is not static and is constantly being reshaped by prevalent social, economic and political conditions.[5]

Islam in Africa is often adapted to local cultural contexts and belief systems forming the continent's own orthodoxies. Africans have generally appropriated Islam in both more inclusive ways, or in the more radical ways, as with the Almoravid movement.[11]

Additionally, Islam in Africa 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, Muslims in Africa are also part of the ummah or 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, Muslims in Africa have developed and maintained close connections with the wider Muslim world.[5]

Analysts argue that Muslims in Africa, 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.[5]


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 exception of northern Nigeria, 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.[5]

Nigeria is home to 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, claims Shar’ia as the main source of its legislation, yet its penal and civil codes are based largely on French law.[5]


Muslims in Africa mostly belong to the Sunni denomination, although there are also a significant number of Shias adherents. In addition, Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, has a presence. The Maliki madh'hab is the dominant school of jurisprudence amongst most of the continent's Sunni communities, while the Shafi'i madh'hab is prevalent in the Horn of Africa, eastern Egypt, and the Swahili Coast. The Hanafi fiqh is also followed in western Egypt.


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.[5]

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).[12]

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.[5]


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, and the Federation of Mab and Islamic Schools primarily funded by Salafi governments in the Middle East. These Salafist organizations, often based in Saudi Arabia, promote conservatism, and regard Sufi Islam as "heterodox" and contrary to the traditional Islam.[5] Such NGOs have built Salafi-dominated mosques and Islamic centers in Africa, and many are staffed by puritanical African Muslims, often trained in the Middle East. Academic scholarships to study in Islamic universities in the Middle East are also offered to further Salafism.[5]

Notable kingdoms and sultanates

Further reading


  1. Muslim Societies in African History (New Approaches to African History), David Robinson, Chapter 1.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica Book of the Year 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica, (2003) ISBN 9780852299562 p.306
    According to the 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. Ian S. Markham,(A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.) is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total population. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture. See Amadu Jacky Kaba. The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, June 2005. Discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopedium, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
  3. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (eds). The History of Islam in Africa. Ohio University Press, 2000
  4. Hans Kung, Tracing the Way : Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions. Continuum International Publishing Group. 2006. page 248
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Hussein D. Hassan."Islam in Africa" (RS22873). Congressional Research Service (May 9, 2008).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  6. 1 2 3 4 The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith By Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, pg.261-
  7. "African Religion Diaspora and Continent". Dr. Kofi Asare Opoku.
  8. Abduhu Badawi: Ma'a Harak ul-Islam fi Ifriqiyah (Siding Islamic Movement in Africa) 1979 Cairo page 175
  9. Archived July 22, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. African traditional religion in the modern world - Douglas E. Thomas page 125
  11. Muslim societies in African history David Robinson -
  12. John Pike (2012-08-17). "Sufi Islam". Retrieved 2013-11-23.
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