Free «To What Extent Can We Speak African Islam in West Africa?» Essay Sample


Islam is the youngest, but also the fastest-growing and second-largest among the major monotheistic religions of the world. Five times a day nearly 1.5 billion people pray facing Mecca. Islam’s entry onto the world stage as a religion and way of life is connected with life and career of the Prophet Muhammad. Islam was founded in Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia when Angel Gabriel passed the revelation of God to a simple, illiterate tribesman. At the beginning, Islam was politically weak, but Muhammad continued to proclaim his message, and the number of his followers grew. After many years, Islam became the major power on the Arabian Peninsula. Even after the Prophet’s death, the four Rightly-guided Caliphs spread Islam into Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, and it continues to successfully spread its message today.

Islam means “submission to God” and was founded in the modern country of Saudi Arabia in 610 C.E. by the Prophet Muhammad. According to Muslims, Allah (God) chose Muhammad to be the last and greatest prophet. Allah revealed the way he wanted his followers to structure and live their lives to the prophet. These revelations are recorded in the Quran which the Muslims believe to be a literal word of God. The basic life requirements for Muslims outlined include faith in God and his messenger Muhammad, obligatory prayers five times a day, charity to those who are in need, fasting at Ramadan and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a life time (the number of pilgrimages depend on the abilities of an individual). Muslims around the world are united by these beliefs and practices, as well as Arabic literacy, Islamic law (sharia) and mystical spirituality[1].

Islam in Africa

Islamic presence in Africa can be traced to the seventh century when the prophet Muhammad advised his early disciples who were facing prosecution by the pre-inhabitants of Mecca to seek refuge across the Red Sea in Zeila ruled by al-Najashi. According to the Muslim tradition, this event was called hijirah. These Muslim migrants provided Islam with its first major triumph. The Somalia coastline became the first haven for Muslims and the first place where Islam began to be be practiced outside the Arabian Peninsula.[2]

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The medieval accounts written by the Arab and North African geographers and historians describe the pattern followed by the Muslims in establishing their settlement regions. They gradually spread over the territories of the modern West African states like Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, etc. Apparently the coming of the Muslims was attributed to the trade that thrived in North Africa. The Muslims of North Africa are the ones who strengthened Trans-Saharan trade. Various trade routes were established to link different parts in West Africa with the Middle East. Sahel is an ecological transition zone between the Sahara desert and the forest zone. It offered a contact point for North Africa and the southern Sahara. It is a place of origin of the great empires like Ghana, Mali and Songhai in West Africa.

There are a number of historians, as well as Muslim geographers, who gave excellent record of Muslim in Africa. They include Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'di, IbnMunabbah, Al-Bakri, AbulFida, Yaqut, IbnBatutah, IbnKhaldun, Al-Masudi, Ibn Fadlallah al-'Umari,Al-Bakri, Mahmud al-Kati, Ibn al Mukhtar and Al-Khwarzimi. In the 8th century C.E., Islam reached the savannah region it was adopted by the Dya’ogo dynasty of the Tekur kingdom. Introduction of new cultural elements was facilitated by trade and commerce. This enabled possibilities of the scholarly growth which resulted in the spread of literacy. According to Al-Bakri, Ghana was well established and economically prosperous in 11th century.

The first kingdom to accept Islam was the Tekurd ynasty. Arab historians called it ‘The Land of the Black Muslims’. War-jabi who was the son of Rabis became the first ruler of the Tekur. His reign was firmly established in Tekur and the Islamic Shariah system was successfully practiced. It contributed to uniformity in the Islam law among the Muslims. It had a deep impact on the people long before the attack on the dynasty in 1042 C.E.

The Islamic history

There are three stages which illustrate development periods of the Islam. West Africa historically passed three stages. These are mixing, containment and reform. At the first stage African rulers contained the Muslims by discrimination. They blended them with local societies since the population selectively adopted the Islamic practices at the second phase. At the third stage African Muslims pushed for reforms aiming at eliminating mixed practices and implementation of Shariah law instead. The three stages contributed to the growth and establishment of the empires in West Africa.

 Foundation of Islam at the initial stages began among the segregated Muslim communities associated with the trans-Saharan long distance trade. According to Al-Bakri, there are various factors responsible for the growth of the Muslim merchant stratum in non-Muslim empires. Islam facilitated merchants with useful tools like law of contract, credit and networks of information. Muslims merchants who became scholars played the role of advisors and scribes in non-Muslim kingdoms like Ghana and those located in the forest zones. Ancient kingdom of Ghana was described by Al-Bakri as consisting of two towns lying on a plain. One town was large and Muslim. The town had twelve mosques; one of them was congregational and used for Friday prayers. Each of the 12 mosques had its Imam, Muezzin and specially hired reciters of the Quran; the second town possessed a large number of jurists, consults and learned men. Modern day Ghana is not similar to the ancient country and its name was chosen to honor the history of Africa. The kingdom boundaries ran through the Middle Niger Delta region, part of which is the modern day Mali and some parts of Mauritania and Senegal. Around 300 A.D, there began an emergence of large towns in the region of the Niger delta. Ancient Arab documents cite that the Muslims traversed the Sahara in order to get to West Africa. Sahara merchants traded horses, salt, camels and dates which they exchanged for goods from the south like gold, timber and foodstuff. The merchants from the North and Sahara were not allowed to stay overnight by the Ghana kings. The latter benefited from Muslim traders, but kept them outside the centers of power. It favored the rise of the kingdom.

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According to Nehemiah and Randall, from the 8th century to the 13th century contacts between Muslims and Africans increased. The African kings allowed the Muslims to integrate, which lead to the establishment of the Muslim state, Tarkuri, or the Land of the Black Muslims. The Almoravid movement was formed, which imposed homogeneity of practice and Islamic law among Muslims of the West Africa[3]. They led to the weakening of Takruri state by capturing the trade routes. This led to the eventual dissolution of the empire.

The African kings began adopting Islam culture while controlling their subjects with the help of different faiths and cultures. The majority of these rulers unified Islam with local practices. This phase is called the mixing phase. As time passed, the population began to accept Islam by selecting appropriate aspects of faith. 

The feuding kingdoms of West Africa region gave rise to the Empire of Mali between 1215 and 1450. The empire was composed of present day Mali, Senegal, Guinea and some parts of Mauritania. The empire was multi-ethnic and included various religious groups and cultures. The Muslims played the role of counselors and advisors in the court. It was Mansa Musa who made Islam a state religion. He went on pilgrimage from Mali to Mecca in 1342. This information is fixed in the European accounts due to his display of wealth and lavish spending which devalued the price of gold-mining countries, especially Egypt, for many years. This eventually led to the fall of this empire. Farther in the east there also developed Muslim societies, e.g. the Hausa and Kanem kingdoms, both in the present day Northern Nigeria. Kanem kingdom grew as a commercial centre near the Chad between the 9th and the 14th century. It became a Muslim state in the 9th century, and in the 14th century all Hausa rulers became Muslims too. However, the majority of the population failed to convert until later in the 18th century when Hausa rulers adopted local practices and the Islam. Muhammad Rumfa used to seek advice from Muslim scholars on the affairs of government value. He suggested to the famous Muslim theologian Al-Maghilli to write a book on Islamic government during the latter's visit to Kanem in the 15th century. The book became a celebrated masterpiece and was called The Obligation of the Princes. Al-Maghilli later went to Katsina, which had become a seat of learning. Most of the pilgrims from Makkah used to go to Katsina. Other Scholars from the Sankore University of Timbuktu used to visit the city and brought books on divinity and etymology[4].

The empire of Songhay traded with the dynasty of Merenid in the Maluks and Maghribin Egypt. The empire collapsed in 1591 when it was conquered by Morocco. Large empires in West Africa then declined following the fall of the Songhai. Merchant scholars dispersed and transferred learning institutions in Timbuktu and other learning centers from urban to rural areas all over Sahara. At this particular time scholars formed alliance with merchants and warriors to ensure security for the traders. Mystical Sufi brothers emerged around 12th and 13th century and spread Muslim orders in the region. The role they played was important for the social life of the Muslim societies as well as for the spread of Islam throughout the region.

The Jihad movements led to the third phase of the development of Islam in West Africa. This was mainly due to literate Muslims who became more aware of Islamic faith and demanded reforms at this particular period. This stage resulted in a religious shift and emergence of Muslims who practiced Islam which was combined with “pagan” rituals. The societies fully adopted Islamic values and established sharia laws as a governing rule. Muslim scholars offer different opinions concerning the origin of the Jihad in West Africa in the 19th century. The Mauritanian community was divided among scholar and warrior lineages. Nasir al-Din led a jihad called Sharr Bubba which failed. However, in the 19th century there were successful Jihad movements in Senegambia and the Hausa land leading to the overthrow of the already established order. It led to transformation of both the ruling class and those who owned land. Due to Jihad movement organized by a scholar Uthman dan Fodio in 1802, power centralization began to establish all over the Muslim community, together with education reforms and transformation of law. A literary revival and a renaissance of religious work resulted from it. It included texts in vernacular which was scripted in Arabic.

Umar Tal was a jihad leader who was inspired by the activity of Uthman and returned from pilgrimage in the 1850s. He claimed that he was spiritually authoritative over the region of West African Tijan Sufi order. He was able to conquer three of the Bambara Kingdoms from 1850-1860. The French, however, defeated him near Medine in 1857. This saw his followers flee westwards .They influenced the spread of the Tijani order in Nothern Nigeria. Samori Toure gathered an army of 30,000 strongmen and fought against the French[5]. He died and the French defeated his son in the year 1901[6]. The leaders of Sufi orders collaborated with colonialists and this contributed to the final development of Islamic practices in West Africa. Colonialism led to improved communication and transport. There resulted in the increased spread of the Muslim in the urban areas like Toruba land. Though they lost political power, their stay led to massive infrastructural development, e.g. building of roads in West Africa

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Colonialism and Islam

Relations between colonialism and Islam were complex. This is because European conquest generally facilitated the work of Christian missionaries who founded schools, churches and hospitals. Many followers of local religions converted to Christianity, but Muslims did not. Islamic expanded rapidly doubling the number of followers during the colonial period. Over half of the population in West Africa was Muslim by 1940. French government which was explicitly secular at home in Europe defined itself in Africa as a Muslim Power. They confessed Islamic rules to be originally African, thus helping to spread Islam among the subjects. The French colonial government restricted the activities of Christian Missionaries because they were viewed as a threat to the Islamic leaders who collaborated with their regimes.

As cities grew and trade increased, the Muslim scholars traveled and settled in new areas where they were able to promote faith not associated with the culture of colonial imperialism. The amalgamation of the Islam religion with local practices facilitated its spread in many West African states[7].

In modern Africa, the Islam has gained local features. Africans worship Allah in a particular way. Interpretation of certain common but sensitive issues like the place of women in Islam, vary from one region to another. The majority of West African Muslims belong to the Umma. Some of them belong to a smaller society called Tariqa and are presented by prominent and successful merchants of West Africa. African Muslims are seeking to redefine their religion in order to respond to modern needs and problems.  This means that orthodox Islamic practices and beliefs should not be mixed with African religious and cultural heritage[8]. Some people seek fundamentalist affirmation of Islam which is influenced by conservative movements in North and Middle East especially after 9/11. Northern Nigeria reports that there are 12 districts which have adopted a strict version of Islamic law as the best basis for legal system. Some critics argue that the move may be politically oppressive in particular regarding those who are of non-Muslim belief.

Elsewhere in West Africa there is a tension among a moderate branch of Muslims, Christians of different churches and a growing number of Islamic fundamentalists who would prefer to use a theocratic social and political order. Some critics argue that fundamentalist Islam with its divisive elements may undermine the fragile democratic gains accomplished recently in many countries. There has been a great concern about the growth of Islam in Africa. There is an increase in the Islamic phenomena which include mosques, attires designed within Arabic standards and writings, as well as Islamic bookshops, schools and universities, health centers and hospitals. Certainly, Muslim leaders in Africa and elsewhere assert and confirm this growth.

The relations between the states in West Africa and Islamist are becoming tense. The Islamist want to use sharia law to govern them while most governments do not want that, though their leaders are Muslims[9]. According to Reuters, separatist Tuareg-led MNLA rebels and armed Islamist swept the northern part of Mali in March and April 2012. They declared the state of Azawad in the north to be independent. The Tuareg informed the press that their objective was to impose sharia across the whole country of Mali which follows a moderate form of Islam. The western culture has infested even the Muslim one. One of the examples is the fact that conservative Muslim women in urban areas, especially in Lagos, do not conform to the traditional clothing meant for them. Modern parents also become liberal in the manner they are teaching the younger generation about the Islamic laws.

The influence of the west is evident in Africa more than any other part of the world. African Muslims are pressured in the same way as African Christians are subjected to submit to the pressure of the western culture. The moral value of chastity among young women has been eroded, whereby the culprits are not punished according to the law. This, among other factors, contributed to indignation of the conservative Islamists in West Africa who feel that the teachings of the Quran are being neglected by the moderate governments ruling in various states[10].

Senegal’s Brotherhoods are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam. They co-exist with Christians, minority religious followers. They are different from Islamist insurgents like Boko Haram because they accept Senegal’s secularism without using their influence to press demands for sharia. There was an awkward cohabitation between Islam and the French colonizers from the late 1600s; the religious chiefs, despite this, grew in stature.  Two largest Brotherhoods, the home based Mourides and the Tidianes from Morocco, have firmly established themselves in Senegal. According to Stamer, since the introduction of Islam in Mali the religion has been practiced in a moderate and tolerant form[11]. Movements like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has emerged, however, according to some scholars, it is hard for them to operate in northern Mali because they are not accepted by the Tuareg. They have rooted themselves in Algeria Salafist Movement and in recent years they have moved into the lawless Sahel region. They fund their operations by collecting kidnap ransoms and transport drugs into the West.


The history of Islam in West Africa is long and multi-faceted. For over a thousand years it has been influencing the economy, politics, education, social and even gender relations[12]. The architecture in West African culture and history has also been shaped by Islam. The Muslims of West Africa prove that Islam can be flexible and varied because Africa is neither homogeneous, nor unchanging.

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