The Spread And Expansion Of Islam In Sub Saharan Africa, Challenges And Prospects (Part I)

08 Feb 2012

By Mr. Muhammad Makaato

Paper to be presented at the International Conference on Islam in Africa: Historical, Cultural and Global Perspectives, 19th -21st July 2011 organized by the International Institute for Muslim Unity, International Islamic University Malaysia.


This paper focuses on the spread and expansion of Islam in Sub Saharan Africa especially East Africa.  Islam reached Africa thousands of years before the introduction of other foreign religions; it reached Ethiopia during the Prophet Muhammad's time and later established deep roots in North Africa, West Africa and Swahili coastal trading communities of East Africa. By the twentieth century, most of the African countries contained significant Muslim populations.  However, to date the Muslim communities in many parts of Africa lag behind in many sectors of life.  This has a lot to do with the history of these countries especially during the colonial and neo- colonial eras.  Islamic religion spread more widely, carried along trade routes into the interior of Africa.  

By 1900 the Muslim percentage in sub Saharan Africa were higher than that of Christianity; (19%: 9% respectively) however, by the 2010 Islam had became a religion of the minority in the region (World Religion Database 2010). The general objective of this paper therefore, is to examine the challenges and prospects to the development of Muslims and Islam in Sub Saharan Africa concentrating on three East African countries namely, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. This paper presents the character of the Muslims and their perception of Islam as the main challenge and prospect to the spread of Islam in East Africa for years.

The Spread and Expansion of Islam in pre- colonial Africa.

Islam can be seen as an African religion that reached African continent in the earliest days. It has been adopted in many different ways of life. In some sub-Saharan African countries like the Eastern coastal towns Islam has been seen as an integral part of life. Archaeological evidence indicates that Muslim settlements on the East African coast started as early as the 8th century, It points out the Muslims remains that were found in Shanga, on Pate Island in Kenya. However, after 1100 A.D, the Muslim presence along the coast increased considerably, due to the expansion of trade in the Indian Ocean. (Thomas Arnold, 2003:335) 

Islam was mainly spread by individual traders, converted leaders and through colonial officers. The Muslim Arabs and Swahili came into contact with the indigenous Africans who lived in land. Through such contacts, the Africans became Muslims. The conversion to Islam by the native Africans was seen as civilization and raising of social status. The Yao and the Baganda are the classic examples of conversion through trade contacts. (Thomas Arnold, 2003:335) What should be noted here is that the spread of Islam in Sub Saharan Africa was largely peaceful.  It was not antagonistic to traditional religions instead it co-existed with the traditional beliefs. As such, the converts practiced dual religion i.e. Traditional with Islam (Ray, 1976.184). 

Through trade and economic movements that centered on the ocean monsoon winds, the Arab Muslim traders flocked to the coast for the Indian Ocean trade. They settled at the coast of East Africa and built cities. Their interaction with the local contributed to the spread of Islam.(Spencer. T, 1968:2) 

The introduction of Islamic faith brought many changes within the religious beliefs and in various spheres of life of the East Africans. The great impact of Islam and Arab settlement at the coast was the emergence of Swahili language and resultant civilization with Islamic background. As Islam and Swahili flourished at the coast, the interior was still with its traditional beliefs.(Timothy Insoll, 2003: 374). Though, the Swahili traders tried to settle in the interior along river Zambezi, they had little significance to the spread of Islam in the interior before 19th century. (Edmond A, 2000:304) 

Until the rapid penetration of the trade into the interior, Islam became a byproduct of trade as many people converted along trading markets and those Muslim traders who penetrated the interior of East and central Africa became a conduit in exporting Islam. The 19th century drive towards the Islamisation of the interior of East and central Africa was due to the increased demand for Ivory and the Arab and Swahili penetration of the interior of using the caravan routes. They interacted with the Yao and the Nyamwezi who acted as middle men and traders. Unlike at the coast, Islam in the interior advanced slowly and gradually through the trading contracts with some Africa people (Viera Pawlikova- Vilnova-Vilhanova, 2009:51). 

Through the commercial expansion in the 19th century, Islam gradually got representatives in various parts of the interior of East and central Africa. This does not mean, however, that Islam reached all corners of the interior in the early days, some parts remained without Islam. Despite the existence of trade between the Muslims at the coast and the interior, the Northern parts of East Africa took long to receive Islam. It was not until 19th century when Islam started its influence in the interior.  In South Africa, the spread of Islam was slow, local conversion remained on small scale, thus the presence of traders was not accompanied by a significant Islam in all sub Saharan Africa (Edward A Alphers, 1972).

 It should be noted however, that the Arab Muslims' primary target to was not spread Islam; their interest was economics, the spread of Islam was made as past time                    (Makaato, 2009:8). For this reasons the spread of Islam was restricted to the people they interacted with. This was evidenced on the way Islam flourished along the trade routes, way stations and settlement during trade. (Norman R. Bennett,1973:215-225). It seems that the prosperity of Islam in the 19th century concentrated on the Arabs and Swahili traders which are linked to the trade in Ivory and Slaves 

Besides, Islam in the early days gained new followers due to a combination of religious ideas and attractions of Islamic culture and civilization. Islamic way on life, dress, new languages; Swahili and Arabic introduced by the Arabs attracted many people to the faith. The prestige and the honor associated with Islam in terms of increasing powers and position of converts in the social hierarchy attracted the Africans to Islam in sub Saharan Africa (Insoll, 2003: 395).

Islam also reached the interior areas of East Africa from South Tanganyika to North Mozambique and Malawi through the trade contract. The exchanging commodities like tobacco, skins developed as early as 17 century (Edward Alpers, 1972:180-200). The Yao, like the Nyamwezi were also attracted to Islam for prestige and honor. The trade contacts led to the creation of the chiefdoms based on trade links and military strength. In fact the conversion to Islam was not significant until the conversion of the Yao chiefs .e.g. around 1870 the Yao chiefs Makanjila III adopted Islam which boosted the religion in the area in the 19th century. More rulers converted to Islam, sources reveals that many Unyanyembe aristocrats observed the fasting in the month of Ramadhan by 1880s. It's believed however, that some of the rulers and chiefs converted to Islam so as to benefit more from trade. This partly explains their partial practice of Islam. This does not mean that there were no chiefs and kings who deeply practiced Islam. Powerful leaders like Yao chief Makanila III, the Chaga chiefs Madara or Kabaka Muteesa of Buganda practiced more Islamic rituals, learned Arabic and Kiswahili(Viera Pawlikova- Vilhanova, 1972). 

Besides Kenya and Tanzania, Islamic penetration into Uganda was more significant. Islam was introduced to Uganda through two routes; the Buganda route of 1840s and the northern Uganda route through the Turko- Egyptian influences. Kasozi,1986: 23) gives 1844 as the year when the first Muslim Arab trader; Ahmed bin Ibrahim reached the King's court in Buganda, while Soghayroun (1980:10) gives 1830 as the period when the Khartoumers started Islamic influence in northern Uganda (Makaato, 2009:7-8).

Although Ahmed bin Ibrahim's primary role was trade contacts, he introduced Islam to the Kabaka Suuna basing on the circumstances he found at the court. It's said that Ibrahim found the Kabaka when he had paraded his subjects for death sentence. Ibrahim advised him not to do that as there was a supreme being who give and take life. Kabaka Suuna II listened and wished to know more about the Supreme Being. More Muslim Arabs and Swahili traders arrived in the kingdom later using the southern route which passed through Tabora and Karagwe route up to western shores of Lake Victoria. Islam found the kingdom of Buganda with a strong culture and a well established political system that rotated around the Kabaka. When the Kabaka embraced it, it was easy for it to become a dominant religion. 

By the time of the arrival of the Christian missionary and explorer; Henry Morton Stanely in 1975, the Islamisation in Buganda had reached its climax; Kabaka Mutesa 1 who succeeded his father Suuna declared Islam a state religion, practiced prayers, fasting, and supervised the observance of it. In fact there was one of his chief Kakolokoto who was caught eating during day time in the month of Ramadhan and that gave birth to a slogan in Buganda to refer to whoever found eating during the month of Ramadhan as Kakolokoto. Mutesa I also constructed a Mosque at his court where he was the Imam.

However, Mutesa I practiced Islam alongside the traditional religion. He refused to get circumcised because it was a taboo for the king to shade blood on his land when it was not the time of war. He continued consulting his ancestors and taking wine. This led to the rebellion of some of his subjects who refused to pray behind him. Mutesa I interpreted this as disloyalty from his subjects and consequently massacred over 100 Muslims at Namugongo, denounced Islam, and invited the Christian missionaries to his kingdom (Semakula K, 1971:169).

This followed the influx of the Christian missionary groups beginning with the Church missionary Society that arrived in 1877, then White fathers etc. The missionaries came with strong military weapons which Mutesa I thought were vital for the expansion of his kingdom and the consolidation of his authority which the Muslims had attempted to challenge. As a consequence, he made the Christian missionaries his close allies, eventually replacing the influence of Islam with Christianity (Nkonge  A,  2009).

 The arrival of the Christian missionary groups complicated the life of the Muslims who were the dominant group in Buganda. As such confrontations emerged along the three religious groups; the protestant, Catholic Muslims and the monarchy. Such event became to be known as the religious wars in Buganda that occurred between 1880s and 1900. The clash between the three religious groups was partly for political recognition. Initially, the Muslims using their dominance played a leading role when they allied with other religious groups to overthrow Kabaka Mwanga who had succeeded his father Mutesa. They managed to replace Mwanga with a Muslim Kabaka Kiwewa and later Kalema who accepted Islam. This caused more tension among other religious groups. Consequently, the Protestants and Catholics allied against Muslims. From 1890, the Muslims with their Kabaka Kalema were attacked by the Christians and fled to Bunyoro at place called Kijungute where Kalema died of small pox. This weakened the Muslims as his successor Nuhu Mbogo was not as strong as Kalema.( Semakula Kiwanuka, 1971: 200-18) 

The Muslims were weakened further by Captain Lugard who arrived in Buganda in 1890 to expand the influence of the Imperial British East African Company. Lugard re-instated Kabaka Mwanga and together they attached the Muslims from Bunyoro. (Sekimwanyi,1947) However, Lugard in 1892 used the weakened Muslims for his political maneuvers, he signed an agreement with their leader Nuhu Mbogo who was recognized as the leader of the Muslims but this did not settle the Muslims as they were taken as the third class in Buganda. The Muslims continued to resist Lugard for being marginalized. This prompted serious attack from the British forces in 1899 which weakened them more.

In the event that followed, was the signing of the 1900 Buganda Agreement which distributed Buganda's wealth, the Muslims were treated as the third class citizens. Islam became a religion of the minority in Buganda and Uganda in general. The spread of Islam remained at individual level.


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BY Mr. Muhammad Makaato
(M.A History, M.A Human Rights, BA Education)
Ass. Lecturer in the Department Of History
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Islamic University in Uganda



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