Islam in Africa

The religion of Islam arose in the Arabian city of Mecca around A.D. 610 through the work of its prophet Muhammad. After Muhammad died in 632, his teachings were carried into Africa by Arab traders, settlers, and soldiers. By conversion and conquest, Islam spread across North Africa, into the eastern Horn of Africa, and even over the SAHARA DESERT into West Africa. The arrival of Islam had a major impact on the political and social development of those regions, and it remains a significant force in Africa today.


Islam first took hold on the continent in the 600s and 700s. It was brought to EGYPT and North Africa by conquering armies and to the East African coast by traders and merchants. West Africa did not encounter Islam until about 800, and the religion spread more slowly there than in the eastern part of the continent.

Islam in Africa

Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia

In 639 an Arab army of some 4,000 men invaded Egypt, which was then under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Despite its small size, this Muslim force succeeded in driving the Byzantines out of Egypt and installing their own ruler, known as emir. Soon afterwards the Arabs began to push south along the NILE RIVER, attacking the Christian kingdoms of NUBIA in what is now northern SUDAN. However, Nubian resistance halted the Arab advance, and in 651 the emir of Egypt signed a peace treaty with the Nubians.

Only in the 1200s, when the Nubian kingdoms had gone into decline, did Islam begin to take hold in Nubia. Arab Muslims from Egypt began to settle there and to intermarry with Nubians. Within a hundred years, Islam has replaced Christianity as the main religion. However, Islam made little headway in southern Nubia, which remains mostly Christian to this day. Moreover, conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south continues in the modern nation of Sudan.

Unlike the rest of Africa, ETHIOPIA had contact with the Arab world long before the rise of Islam. Thus, when followers of Muhammad fled persecution in Arabia in 615 and 616, they found a safe haven in the Ethiopian Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. As a result Muslims adopted a tolerant attitude toward Ethiopia. One of the traditional sayings of Muhammad was “Leave the Ethiopians alone.” Muslim merchants established settlements along the coast of the Red Sea that came to dominate trade routes to the interior. These Muslim settlements later grew into small kingdoms ruled by sultans. In the 1500s a Muslim leader known as Ahmad Gran united the sultanates in war against Christian Ethiopia. However, the defeat of the Muslims in 1543 ended the expansion of their influence in Ethiopia.

Somalia and East Africa

Like Ethiopia, SOMALIA was home to Arab trading communities before the rise of Islam, and by the 900s Muslims had settled on the coast at several places, including MOGADISHU. Another wave of Muslim migration to Somalia began in the 1100s. As the Somalis moved south, they brought Islam with them as far as northeastern KENYA. Nomadic Somali herders spread Islam into the rural interior, where it developed alongside traditional African religions and customs and blended with them. In the 1900s Somalia was home to a number of Sufi brotherhoods, mystical Islamic sects. One of the Sufi leaders, Muhammad Abdallah Hasan, emerged as a major opponent of the European colonization of Somalia.

In 740 a new group of Muslims arrived on the shores of eastern Africa from southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Many of them settled in Arab towns on islands just off the coast. These island towns, as well as those along the coast itself, became centers of Muslim influence, and over time the Muslims adopted the SWAHILI language and many local customs. A new East African Islamic culture developed in cities and towns from southern Somalia to northern MOZAMBIQUE.

Islam's spread to the East African interior began only in the 1800s. At that time much of the coast was controlled by Muslims from the Arabian kingdom of Oman. Omani merchants, who had established a trading empire based in ZANZIBAR, set up new trade routes to the interior, establishing settlements and caravan routes into Kenya, UGANDA, and TANZANIA.

By the late 1800s, British and German colonial armies had taken over these regions. Colonial officials hired Muslims as civil servants, soldiers, and tax collectors, making centers of Muslim culture into colonial administrative centers. This situation tended to keep Muslim influence concentrated in the cities and towns.

West Africa

The earliest evidence of Muslim contact with West Africa dates to about 800 in the kingdom of Kanem, in what is now CHAD. Islam became the religion of Kanem in 1085, and in other kingdoms farther west, such as Gao in MALI, around the same time. Although Muslims never gained the throne in the ancient West African empire of GHANA, they worked there as scribes and ministers. In the late 1000s, Muslims from North Africa and Spain helped bring about the collapse of the Ghanaian empire. This upheaval showed that militant Islam was a political force in western Africa as elsewhere.

At that time Muslim traders also controlled the caravan routes that crossed the Sahara between northern and western Africa. These caravans carried gold, slaves, salt, cloth, and horses over hundreds of miles. To maintain control over trade and increase tax collection, local Muslim rulers conquered towns and villages along the routes. These towns eventually grew into large kingdoms, such as Mali, Songhai, and Kanem.

In many of these kingdoms, Islam existed side-by-side with indigenous religions. Although this arrangement helped maintain order, it angered Sufi leaders who wanted the people to follow Muslim principles more strictly. Beginning around 1700 Sufi leaders in western Africa launched a series of jihads, or holy wars, against Muslim kingdoms that had not completely abandoned traditional religions. The jihad movement lasted almost 200 years and resulted in the founding of several strict Islamic states.

In the late 1800s, French and British armies defeated the forces of the jihads. From then on, as in East Africa, educated Muslims often cooperated with and served in the colonial governments. This led many Europeans to consider Muslims to be superior to other Africans. However, when some Islamic leaders opposed colonial rule, Europeans called Islam a superstitious, fanatic, anti-Christian religion.


As a political and military force, Islam united large areas of Africa. However, as Muslim culture took root across the continent, it also clashed with existing legal, religious, and social practices.

Islamic Law

The introduction of Islamic law has changed important aspects of the legal relationships of individuals in African society. Islamic law, or Shari'a, is a written system; many indigenous legal traditions are oral systems. In numerous places these two traditions have come together, resulting in a blend of Islamic and indigenous practices. But where Islamic authorities have insisted on a strict interpretation of the written law, Shari'a has changed some of the basic elements of social relations.

In traditional African societies, kinship relations—relations of family and community—are basic to one's identity, rights, responsibilities, and role in society. Islamic law has redefined many of these relations in ways that conflict with traditional practices. For example, many rural African societies considered that land belonged to the community, while Islamic law emphasizes individual ownership of land. It also says that property is inherited through the male side of the family and favors certain relatives over others. Islamic laws therefore contradict the practice of some African societies, which have many different ways of dealing with inheritance.

Islamic law has affected the role of women in African society as well. It generally gives men considerable power over the property, actions, and personal lives of the women in their households and also restricts the right of women to make decisions about pregnancy and birth. Many traditional African societies allowed women more personal freedom. While Islamic law has altered approaches to personal and family law, it has not been widely adopted in Africa in areas covered by civil and criminal law. Since the colonial era, the power of Islamic judges and courts has been limited in most African nations. Only Sudan and northern Nigeria apply Islamic law in all areas. However, throughout Africa religious officials and judges have usually been appointed by secular rulers, and this practice has blurred the line between religious and secular authority. In recent years reformers have worked to modify parts of Islamic law to bring it more in line with other traditions.

Religious and Social Interactions

Islam brought to Africa new religious beliefs, rituals, and practices. Although some African cultures already had the idea of a supreme being, most also recognized the presence of many other minor gods and spirits. The Islamic belief that there is no God but Allah clashed with African polytheistic beliefs. However, many West African converts readily accepted Muslim prayers and charms, as their traditional religions already had similar elements. In addition, some Africans saw Muhammad's role as Allah's messenger as similar to the role of holy men and women in their own religions.

Islam also posed a political problem for African rulers who adopted it. In many traditional societies, the rulers' leadership was based partly on their role as guardians of the religious traditions. So rulers who accepted Islam had to abandon some African beliefs, and this move weakened their claim to leadership. African kings and chiefs were often torn between the demands of Muslim scholars and those of the indigenous priests and non-Muslims who made up the majority of their subjects.

For the last century or so, Islam's influence in Africa has been challenged by Christian missionaries. Strengthened by European conquests, the missionaries converted many millions of Africans. In practice, however, most African Christians have merged Christian and traditional beliefs. Islam remains the major religion in North Africa and many of the countries on the southern fringe of the Sahara, but Christianity is growing in sub-Saharan Africa. However, Africans throughout the continent have often incorporated Christian and Muslim beliefs and practices into their indigenous religions. (See also Arabs in Africa; Asma'u, Nana; Barghash Ibn Sa'id; Christianity in Africa; Colonialism in Africa; History of Africa; Ibn Battuta; Mansa Musa; North Africa: History and Cultures; Slave Trade; Sufism.)