More than 90 percent of the 7,469,000 people of the Republic of Niger are Muslim. Niger is located in the Sahel region of Africa; its northern half is covered by the Sahara desert.
Agriculture, including livestock rearing, is the primary economic activity of 85 percent of Niger’s population.
Niger is strongly multiethnic: the Hausa comprise 35 percent of the population, the Zarma-Songhay 21 percent, the Tuareg (Berbers) 11 percent, the Fulbe 10 percent, the Kanuri-Manga (Kanem-Bornu) 5 percent, and the Tubu, Arabs, and Gourmantche each less than one percent. All these ethnic groups have played major roles in the diffusion of Islam in the western Sudan.
The Hausa, Songhay, and Kanuri states contributed significantly to early conversions to Islam during the course of territorial and political expansion. Much was also achieved through the establishment of local madrasahs in the spirit of tajdid, or peaceful reform. Although some individual Fulbe were known for their contributions as ulama, the Fulbe and their affiliate group the Tukolor (or Torobe) are most noted for the reformist jihad movements that they carried out throughout West Africa in the early to mid-eighteenth century.
Some communities in Niger have historical ties to ancient Muslim communities such as the Dyula, Soninke, and Lamtuna Berbers, who traveled the Saharan-Sahelian trade routes from the seventh to ninth century. The region’s first contact with Islam, however, occurred around 665 CE when the Arabs conquered the Berber territories under Uqba ibn Nafi al Fihri, who had founded Qayrawa at the northern edge of the Sahara desert and later traveled south to Kaouar.
In the eighth century the Iberkoryan, Berbers who had been Islamized in the preceding century, began moving south. Approximately two centuries later, long distance trade through the Soninke state of Ghana extended the influence of Islam through the western Sudan. Islam spread, especially among the elites. The Mali expansion encouraged the eastward movement of Songhay communities. By the fifteenth century, scholarly communities were established throughout Kanem and Bornu.
Today, more than 98 percent of Hausa people in Niger are Muslim.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Qadiriyah was introduced in Katsina, Gao, and the Air. Although Katsina now lies in northern Nigeria and Gao in eastern Mali, their influence as centers of Islamic philosophy and education are still felt in Niger today. An Islamic teacher from Touat known as Al Majhili is credited with introducing Maliki tenets during this period, and this school is the most widely followed in the region now.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Qadiriyah was the only Islamic brotherhood among the nomads of Niger, as well as among the sedentary communities of Maradi, Dakaro, Tahoua and Zinder. During the later nineteenth century, the Tijaniyah brotherhood supplanted the Qadiriyah.
Two major droughts of 1973-1974 and 1984-1985 caused significant population displacement, forcing many nomadic groups to take refuge in towns. This accelerated Islamic reform as formerly marginal groups established links with Islamic associations or communities in the urban centers.
In 1981 an Islamic University was built in Say to commemorate its long history in Islamic learning, with funding contribution from numerous Islamic countries throughout the world. Muslims in Niger remain closely linked to the rest of the Islamic world; in fact Niger hosted an international conference in 1982.
In the early 1990s there continued to be some unease among the various Islamic groups in the country. The greatest difference between the Izal and the other groups is the emphasis among the Izal on prayers offered in homage to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), specifically what is locally called the “Salatoul Faith” (prayers of the Faith).
The coincidence of Islamic practice and philosophy with public ideology and state policy is not new in Niger. One of the major challenges is the development of a coherent judicial process that does not ignore customary and Islamic law on the issues of judicial rights, privileges, the protection of women and the family, and land tenure rights.