Islam in East Africa
Analysis of writings on East Africa show that religion, culture, and tradition in traditional Africa were very important, but they were also altered over time by the entry of other religions and other cultures, aspects of which became entrenched in Africa, sometimes in altered form and sometimes in a way that altered local customs and beliefs. Islam today is well established in East Africa, as well as some other parts of Africa, and the religion moved into East Africa slowly and largely peacefully, beginning with economic and trade connections between the Muslim world and Africa and eventually leading to some areas in Africa becoming centers of Islamic learning, education, and worship.
Trade began when Arab traders sought certain goods from the continent:
As well as being an important market-place for the traffic between East and West, Arabia also annually sent a fleet of ships down the east coast of Africa to carry on the trade in ivory, slaves and spices which had originally attracted the Arabs to the coast.
Islam exists in many different cultural settings and adapts to circumstances:
As a world religion, Islam is practiced in diverse cultures in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and America. Differences in religious and cultural practices are therefore wide-ranging.
East Africa is an area of great diversity and includes islands that interact with the African mainland. The Islamic influence is strong in this area. The history of Islam in East Africa is long, though not always as a dominant element. In Eastern Africa commercial contacts with the states of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were in place by the first century C.E. There were a number of cities along this coast, though identifying them from the ancient texts has proven difficult. In the first millennium B.C.E., new peoples began to migrate into eastern Africa from the west, including Bantu immigrants from Central Africa. Bantu society has been illuminated by recent archaeological discoveries. Iron working may have been practiced in the region of Lake Victoria as early as the seventh century B.C.E. Bantu society was essentially rural and was based on subsistence farming, and the land was often tilled with both iron and stone tools. There was a clear division of economic functions within the family as women tilled the fields and men tended the herds.
The next great kingdom in Africa developed with the coming of Islam. By the end of the sixth century C.E., the kingdom of Axum was in decline, in part because of a shift in trade routes, and the rise of Islam on the Arabian peninsula hastened this process. In the clash with the Arab world, Axum declined even further and also underwent significant internal changes:
The Zagwe dynasty, which seized control of the country in the mid-twelfth century, centralized the government and extended the Christian faith throughout the kingdom, now known as Ethiopia. Military-commanders or civilian officials who had personal or kinship ties with the royal court established vast landed estates to maintain security and facilitate the collection of taxes from the local population.
The level of government and social control was at least as advanced as that in Europe at the same time period.
The analysis of the various nations that developed on the African continent during the same time period as Europe was developing into the nations we know today shows that African societies were not backward or inferior, only different. African towns developed along lines similar to those of Europe at different periods in history. The towns started as fortified walled villages and then evolved into larger communities serving different purposes:
Here, of course, were the center of governments and the teeming markets filled with goods from distant regions. Here also were artisans, skilled in metal or wood working, pottery making, and other crafts, as well as some farmers who tilled the soil in the neighboring fields.
The city of Timbuktu represents the sort of developments taking place. The city was on one of the major trade routes passing through the Sahara between the kingdoms of West Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. By the sixteenth century, the city was not only a prosperous trading city but also a center of Islamic scholarship, with three universities connected to its principal mosques and 180 Koranic schools. This is hardly evidence of a backward society.
Islam in East Africa in the period before European colonialism was a core element of the Arab-Omani hegemony on the East African coast and was the monopoly of a politically and economically ruling minority. However, the prestige of Muslimhood “was disturbed by the development of a popular Islam (through brotherhoods) and then by the domination of Christian European rulers.”? During the struggle against the colonial powers, the status of Islam remained ambiguous “because of the historical memory of Arab domination (actualized in the continuance of the Sultanate of Zanzibar), and because of the support accorded by some literate Muslims to British colonial rule itself.”? In the era since, politicians and Muslim leaders throughout Eastern Africa tried to unite Muslim communities into single national associations:
These are supposed to co-ordinate, regulate and centralize the various activities more or less related to religious (meaning, in these contexts, Islamic) matters. Whatever conclusions may be drawn regarding the effectiveness or otherwise of these national associations, such a widespread process cannot be regarded as politically insignificant. These organizations are SUPKEM (Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims), BAKWATA (Baraza Kuu Waislamu wa Tanzania) and the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) or, for a time in Uganda, the National Association for the Advancement of Muslims (NAAM). Their ‘supremacy’ is rather dubious and, even when their legal positions and statuses are made public in printed regulations, their legitimacy and social impact remain ambiguous.
The connection between Islam and Africa was both religious and economic. From the sixteenth century, Christians tried to make headway in Africa, but largely failed to make a lasting imprint, while Islam became more and more firmly entrenched. Arab domination of the coast of East Africa was more and more important at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, though the coast was claimed by the sheiks of Oman, they exercised little centralized control, and what occurred was that the “suzerainty of Oman was continually overthrown as Arab families established independent small-scale kingdoms based on the coastal towns.”? The coast would be opened to the outside world after the movement in 1840 of the court of Seyyid Said, the ruler of Oman, to Zanzibar, a shift partially motivated by political issues and more “because of a realization of the economic potential of the African mainland.”? Concerns about controlling the trade between East Africa and the rest of the world was raised and undertaken by collecting duties through control of the ports and entrepots along the coast and by trading into the interior.
The entry of Islam in some areas was not as peaceful or gradual as it was in most of the East. The Mahdist faction of Islam, for instance, entered Egypt in a different way and “under the command of Umar Salih, determined to drive out the Egyptian garrisons and spread Islam, by fire and sword if necessary, among the African Negroid population.”? Islamic people from the Sudan were key in the spread of Islam into East Africa: “Speaking Arabic and practicing Islam, the Sudanese strengthened the Moslem party by their presence in Buganda and, until their mutiny, served as a principal agent in the spread of Islam in East Africa by example, intermarriage, and by their general support for Moslem converts.”?
The introduction of Islam into Africa, then, was gradual for the most part and also peaceful. Most of the Muslims on the coast today are Shafite Sunnis, and it is thought that the conversion of the coast people began some time after A.D. 813, for it was then that Muhammad bin Idris es Shafi, the founder of the Shafite school, started his teaching:
After Seyyid Said’s transfer of his capital to Zanzibar, the Arab traders carried their religion inland as far as the great lakes and later Uganda. At this stage Islam took root in several places and secured some African followers. However, converting people was solely the work of isolated Arabs, Swahili and Somali traders, and their African converts. It was not directed by any missionary organization and lacked plan, money or literature. Despite this, the period of European occupation from 1885 onwards was one in which the Muslim faith spread to parts of central and western Tanganyika, southern Uganda and a number of townships in Kenya; for European penetration of the interior meant that the Swahili population, who were Muslim, found openings as troops, traders, skilled craftsmen, interpreters, domestic servants etc., and could thus help to spread Islam.
In British East Africa today, there are more than two million Muslims, which is one-tenth of the total population. A more organized move into Africa came late, with the first Muslim Mission to East Africa opened in 1935 in Tabora, Tanganyika, by the Ahmadiyya Mission. Today, it is active in all three territories. The present head of the mission is Sheikh Mubarah Ahmed, whose first task was to prepare a Swahili translation of the holy Koran with a commentary, then to produce other Islamic literature. Muslims have primarily been involved in conducting village Koranic schools, where the standard of religious and secular learning is low:
As many Muslims are afraid of religious pressure if they send their children to Christian schools, the African and Arab communities are apt to be backward and economically handicapped. Nor has the Ahmadiyya mission yet undertaken hospital work of the type undertaken by the Christian missionaries. The Muslims who follow H.H. The Aga Khan, on the other hand, established schools, hospitals, dispensaries and libraries after the end of the First World War. They do not, however, support missionaries, for they believe that conversion should result from the activity of the individual.
In the earlier period, missionary work was not an Islamic tradition, and the adoption of Islam was instead “a natural consequence of the intermarriage of Arab and Persian settlers with the coastal populations since the tenth century.”? As a rule, the “Arab slave-trader had not in general been a missionary: to have proselytized his victims would indeed have precluded him from enslaving them.”? For tribes allied with the Arabs, though, there was evidence of some religious assimilation to Islam before the arrival of Europeans.
Burke, Fred G. And Stanley Diamond. The Transformation of East Africa: Studies in Political Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1966.
Duiker, William J. And Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History: Volume I. New York: West Publishing, 1994.
Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hansen, Holger Bernt and Michael Twaddle. Religion and Politics in East Africa: The Period since Independence. London: James Currey, 1995.
Ingham, Kenneth. A History of East Africa. London: Longmans, Green, 1963.
Kingsnorth, G.W. And Zoe Marsh. An Introduction to the History of East Africa. Cambridge, 1957.
Oliver, Roland. The Missionary Factor in East Africa. London: Longmans Green, 1952.
Ramsay, F.J. Global Studies: Africa. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
G.W. Kingsnorth and Zoe Marsh, An Introduction to the History of East Africa (Cambridge, 1957), 8.
John L. Esposito. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 39.
F.J. Ramsay, Global Studies: Africa (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 95.
William J. Duiker, and Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History: Volume I (New York: West Publishing, 1994), 240.
Holger Bernt Hansen and Michael Twaddle, Religion and Politics in East Africa: The Period since Independence (London: James Currey, 1995), 20
Kenneth Ingham, A History of East Africa (London: Longmans, Green, 1963), 11.
Fred G. Burke and Stanley Diamond, The Transformation of East Africa: Studies in Political Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 244.
Kingsnorth and March, 78.
Roland Oliver, The Missionary Factor in East Africa (London: Longmans Green, 1952), 202.
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