Islam in Africa: A Brief Introduction

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The Great Mosque of Touba, is one of the largest mosques in Senegal.

Islam in Africa is almost as old as the faith itself. Muhammad died in 632; less than ten years after his death, Arabs conquered Egypt, though it was not until the 14th century that the majority of Egyptians were Arabic-speaking Muslims (Hallett, 92). By the end of the 7th century, Islam had spread across North Africa to the northern border of present day Mauritania.

Today, North Africa above the Sahara and significant portions of West Africa and the East African coast are Islamic.

Many people associate Islam’s spread with conquest or jihads. The importance of conquest, however, was that it established an Arab presence, inviting Muslim settlement and trade. Settlement and trade, ultimately, were more important than conquest in establishing Islam as the dominant religion of the region. Still, the historical process seems circular because without the unity religion brings, and thus the “righteousness” behind invasions and conquest, the vast trade routes and settlements might never have happened.

Still, though Islam’s fundamentalism is often cited as the reason why Islam spread historically, wealth — the possibilities of trade and business — were just as important for establishing an Arab presence in North Africa as proselytization.

In this, at least, Islam and Christianity differed little in their invasions of Africa. Europeans and Arabs had similar reasons for Africa’s conquest. For Europeans, spreading Christianity and culture (the idea of “civilization”) were ostensibly two of the most important reasons for their presence in Africa; but commerce rarely took second place to religion or culture.

For Arabs, Northwest Africa held the same allure that Western America held for the Europeans who emigrated there in the 19th Century. They pioneered it the way Americans pioneered the West; as more and more Arabs settled in North Africa, it became the land of hope and opportunity where they could be free from persecution and make a fortune.

While the distinction between religion, culture, and trade or commerce is fuzzier for Muslims than for Western Christians, historian Hallett argues that few Muslims would have moved without the lure of wealth. Unlike Europeans, however, the Arabs who emigrated to Northwest Africa assimilated the indigenous cultures they encountered. Both cultures — and the religion Islam — changed and deepened in the process. (Of course, Christianity changed in the hands of Africans as well; the question remains if and how much western Christians allowed Africa to influence and enrich their culture.)

Egyptian and Berber intellectuals contributed to Islam’s theology, while farmers and pastoralists changed the agricultural economy in Asia by importing crops like sorghum and coffee.

Women were a vital method for cultural exchange. Intermarriage created an avenue for Islamic culture and the Arabic language to spread quickly, as well as incorporating the cultural practices of a particular ethnic group into an Islamic family.

One negative example of this cultural exchange, whereby Africans influenced Islamic culture, is the practice of female circumcision. It is often attributed to or blamed upon Islam, particularly because the majority of women who are circumcised today are Muslim. But historians believe that nomadic tribes first practiced it and that it was absorbed or carried over into the new culture and new religion as these tribes converted to Islam. Muhammad himself spoke against the practice, and advised that if females MUST be circumcised, the circumcisor should practice a less severe form because “cutting deep” would take the “shine” out of a woman’s eyes.

The cultural exchange, however, did not produce a unified culture of Islam in Africa. The number of ethnic peoples, cultural customs, and religious practices among African Muslims is extrodinarily diverse. Among worshippers at the festival Id al Fitr, the festival that concludes Ramadan — an Islamic ritual that consists of a month-long fast — an anthropologist observed members of ethnic groups from Senegal and Nigeria, as well as groups from Dyula, Zara and Bobo.