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

28 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.

The spread of Islam and social challenges: 

Here we look at how African culture has influenced Islam.  There is great influence of African culture on Islam just as Islam also significantly influences Africans. Since the inception of Islam it has been practiced alongside the African culture. Whereas Islam presents the full culture in all aspects of life, the African culture is also complete. Islamic culture is enshrined in the Quran and Hadith. Yet the African culture is seen in the customs, values and traditions of different societies. The aim of the traditions is ultimately practiced to please their gods and ancestors who are believed to be responsible the death. (Kasule 1992:87). Death and funeral rites for instance among the Baganda is highly observed, it may cause friction among the family members if it is not observed. The Muslims have Islamized it so as to remain embracing. They introduced in it the elements of Islam where preaching's about the attributes of Allah are made. The holy Quran is recited and the function is led by the prayer from sheikhs to include Allah's. Some have completely discarded the cultural rituals that are contrary to Islamic principles. However, so many Muslims practice both Islamic and African cultures. They publically praise Allah and secretly resort to their ancestors for wealth and cure of strange diseases.  

Islam is also spread through marriage, many Muslims practice polygamous marriages. They claim to marry for religious reasons (Ibadah) and expansion of Islam. They marry both the Muslims and non Muslims. They convert the non Muslim women to Islam. However, some of them do not take the responsibility of neither teaching them Islam nor showing them the best example as Muslims. The products of such a couple are Muslims without Islam. Thus is that expanding Islam or fighting Islam? 

Some Muslims practice polygamy however, many of them has faced a lot of hardships.  It should be noted that Islam allows polygamy in the Quran Chapter 4:3

…Marry women of your choice two, three, or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one...

This verse however, limits the number of women to four and emphasizes a condition of justice.  Some Muslims in Uganda go ahead to marry many even beyond four and fail to fulfill their obligations for such families.  This creates numerous problems and injustices that affect the whole Ummah. These include high dependence burden, lack of parental love and care to the children, income inadequacies etc.  Such Muslims does not practice Islamic polygamy but traditional polygamy. They marry following the traditional belief that the more women and children one has the more respect the person would command from the society.(Makaato 2009)  This has seriously affected the Muslim Ummah as such families have produced many nominal Muslims with little Islamic Knowledge and benefit to the spread and expansion of Islam. Muslims should learn and understand their religion on the concept of marriage. The task is upon all Muslims as individuals, and community.

In relation to sacrifice, some Muslims have been seen making dual sacrifice. i.e. sacrificing for Allah and ancestors. Sacrifice is a common practice in Islam and African traditions. In the pre-Islamic era in Africa, the Africans could sacrifice animals and human life to appease their gods, spirits and ancestors. This was done to invoke blessings from them. With the coming of Islam, sacrifice was highly welcomed. Many Muslims sacrifice publically as part of worshiping Allah and secretly sacrifice for their ancestors for wealth, knowledge, cure and wisdom. There is therefore great need for more teaching of Islam about sacrifice for the sake of Allah and not any other cause.

Under looking of Islamic courts in favour of secular courts of law. Secular courts are found of not settling Muslims' disputes amicably but instead increase them.   It should be noted that the east African Coast was the first region to become literate. Writing and reading in the Coastal towns was witnessed hundreds of years before western civilization.   Because the Coast was the first area to become literate the earliest written documentations for East Africa's history has come disproportionately from Coastal archives. They were the first to adjudicate on the basis of written law, especially the Sharia in Islam. For instance Kadhi's courts and their variants in Islamic jurisprudence are a thousand years old in Kenya. These courts in Kenya were there hundreds of years before the United States created its exceptionally powerful Supreme Court and before England's Magna Carta. (Mazrui Ali 2004)

However, the colonial rule stripped Kadhi's courts of their jurisdiction in criminal cases and of their powers in most commercial and economic disputes. But the British were sensitive enough to create what Mazrui call Triple Heritage of Law – indigenous customary law, Islamic personal and social law. To date the Muslims only refer to the Islamic laws in terms of inheritance and signing marriage contracts. However, this works only when there is no dissatisfied party. Where there are conflicts the secular laws preside over the Islamic laws.


The spread of Islam in Sub Saharan Africa has historically largely been through trade, although Islam continued spreading through other methods like refuge, colonial rule, and the role of the converted leaders etc. A Combination of spiritual and secular factors like the introduction of many innovations and new skills played a role in the Islamisation process. Islam in East Africa was most associated with slave trade. It spread along the trade routes. This was exploited by the Christian missionaries to undermine Islam in the 2nd half of the 19th Century. Islam faced a lot of challenges during colonization and beyond, i.e. it was portrayed as a religion for the minority, a situation that exists up to date.  

However, there is a tendency to over blame the colonial history for Muslim problems. The fact is the character of the Muslims and their perception of Islam is greatly responsible for some of their problems. Their behaviors can be seen in cultural mix, divisionism, hypocrisy and greed for power that characterized the colonial and post colonial era and undermined the spread of Islam in the sub-Saharan Africa. The challenge and the prospects on the spread and expansion of Islam have been and remained on the individual character basis which must be checked if we are to create the Muslim Ummah worth emulated.

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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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