The History of Islam in Africa: A Historical Overview

By Zahrah Awaleh**

Apr. 11, 2005

Relief in Egyptian Queen Hatsheput's mortuary temple in Luxor, depicting the chief of the Land of Punt and his wife welcoming the queen's expedition

Islam in East Africa

The East Coast of Africa has had links with various cultures and civilizations over the centuries. In the Valley of the Queens in Upper Egypt, the tomb of the famous Egyptian queen Hatshepsut reveals reliefs from 2,000 BC, showing the Egyptians trading with the Land of Punt, which at that time included Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen, and acknowledged its high degree of civilization. The Romans called it Azania.

The Islamic period on the East African Coast (EAC) started from the first hijrah to Ethiopia (Habasha) where An-Najashi (the Negus) was ruling. The pagan Quraysh followed the Muslims in their tracks and wanted An-Najashi to exile them, but once the king heard the Muslims recite Surat Maryam, he cried and allowed the Muslims to stay. When An-Najashi died, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) made the Funeral Prayer for him in Madinah, which indicates that he must have entered Islam and had a gathering of followers locally that more than likely went on to propagate in Eritrea and northwestern Somalia.

Following that, we see from the Lamu Chronicle that the Umayyad caliph Abdullahi ibn Marwan sent emissaries to the EAC in 696 CE, indicating some sort of relationship existing, possibly in trade and Islamic education. The Kilwa Chronicle includes the story of seven Muslim brothers who emigrated from Shiraz, Persia, and established rule on the EAC around the eighth century. However, it is debatable whether the ethnic “Afro-Shirazis” really existed on the coast, or if Persian descent was an instrument for the Swahilis to distinguish themselves later in the 12th century from the Shaykh and Sharif Arab clans and the Indians who were starting to arrive.

According to the Muslim historian Al-Mas`udi, in the 10th century trade was entering the EAC from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, and China. The Muslim geographer Al-Idrisi noted in 1154 the trade between Zanzibar and Muscat, Oman. The Muslim Moroccan geographer and the first epic traveler to date, Ibn Battuta, visited Mogadishu, Mombassa, and Kilwa in the 14th century, where he found that the learned people and `ulamaa’, who mostly practiced Shafi`i fiqh, had correspondence with their counterparts in the Hijaz.

The 12th to the 14th centuries saw the emergence of urban settlements such as Mombassa, Zanzibar, Kiwali, and Kilwa. The Swahili are said to have had a very natural lifestyle that was completely environmentally friendly. They used natural materials like coral to make houses that still stand today, and their diet was mainly made of local fruit, vegetables, and fish.

In the 15th century, the Christian Portuguese reached the coast. Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498 as representative of the king and people to perform trade and a religious crusade, but ironically, he would not have reached the coast without the maps of the Muslims, and no Portuguese sailors dared go around the Cape of Good Hope until the Muslim navigators trained them. Da Gama described Kilwa as extremely beautiful, with exotic fruit, organized streets, running water, strong structures, and literacy with scholars to rival Europe.

The island of Kilwa in the 15th century

Despite the trust of the Swahili people, the Portuguese attacked Mombassa in 1505 and the people fled because of the heavy bombardment by cannons. The Portuguese established Fort Jesus in Mombassa, and other forts along the coast. The Portuguese continued to subjugate predominantly Muslim cities all along the Indian Ocean, from the Arabian Peninsula, Aden, India, Goa, Gujurat, to Calcutta, and created a trade route from the EAC all the way to China. Having had the experience in warfare and proselytizing with Muslims in Andalusia, the Portuguese forced missionaries on all its subjugated lands, and so it is reported that the Muslims, at least on the Swahili coast, revolted, and preferred to be placed under the protection of the Turkish caliphate rather than their Portuguese Catholic colonizers.

The Swahilis managed to drive out the Portuguese with the help of the Omanis, but by 1812, there were clashes between Mombassa and Lamu, and Sultan Sayyid Said intervened and conquered the Swahili coast. By 1840, it was totally subdued, to the extent that Zanzibar was made the capital of the Swahili coast and of Oman too, perhaps because it has a natural harbor and was, and still is, exceedingly beautiful. According to Askew (1999:90), “The brutal imposition of Portuguese rule in the sixteenth century and their attempts to consolidate their power and break the hold of the Swahili merchant class over the lucrative gold and ivory trades, pushed coastal economies into a spiral of decline.” By enforcing a tribute in gold from every subdued city-state and implementing a pass system, created to control sea traffic, the Portuguese, as Abdul Sheriff (1987:16) states, “helped to kill the goose that had laid the golden egg.”

The Omanis tried to revive the golden age of Swahili trade under the reign of Sultan Sayyid Said, but could not recover its past glory. Thus, the Swahili merchants increasingly turned to agriculture, producing spices such as nutmeg and cloves for commerce.

Islam in North Africa

The mosque built in Cairo by Muslim conqueror `Amr ibn al-`As was the first mosque in Africa

In 640 CE `Amr ibn Al-`Aas (may Allah be pleased with him) conquered Egypt through Fustat, and assumed other lands of the Byzantine Empire along the Mediterranean, where the peoples had been exploited and non-Romans were second-class citizens. Ibn Abi Sarh (may Allah be pleased with him) in 646–652 achieved this when he continued the march across North Africa to Western Tunisia, Northern Algeria, and the majority of the Sahara. ‘Uqbah ibn Nafi’ followed that up by spreading Islam into Morocco, and the march was supposed to have even reached the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Uqbah also moved south and the propagation of Islam continued into the Sahara, up to the area surrounding Lake Chad. In the beginning, the spread of Islam in North Africa had been military, but at a later phase, it became peaceful and spread by trade and intermarriage. Islam also spread through Islamic education, knowledge, and Arabic all the way down to West Africa, mainly through such peaceful means, especially the trans-Saharan trade routes.

In 1039, Sheikh Abdullah ibn Yasin formed Al-Murabitun (Almoravids) movement amongst the Sanhaja Berber community. Their basic tenets were ordering good and forbidding evil, and fighting illegal forms of taxation. They probably emerged in response to a decline in Islamic standards in their Maghribi region. They also believed in establishing rubut (fortresses) on the edge of Muslim states, as the Muslims were perpetually fighting off Byzantine and other enemy forces. At its height, Al-Murabitun Empire included Morocco, Western Algeria, and Andalusia.

In 1051, Al-Murabitun had a new leader in the Maghrib, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, under whose leadership the movement flourished and spread south into West Africa, through Abdullah ibn Yasin, to set up rubut as far as the Niger River. Around 1062, Ibn Tashfin established the movement’s capital at Marrakesh, and soon after, led forces into Seville (Sequiliyya) in Andalusia (Muslim southern Spain) to help the Muslims fight against the encroaching Christian armies because of a tax dispute. He came to their aid again in 1088, against the Christian forces encroaching from the northern provinces.

When Al-Murabitun became successful in Andalusia, the Muslims weakened in their Islamic practice, so the Al-Muwahhidun (Almohads) succeeded them and entered Andalusia in 1146. The leader of Al-Muwahhidun was Muhammad ibn Tumart, a Masmuda Berber from southern Morocco, who had been to Hajj, studied in Makkah, and been influenced by the writings of Al-Ghazali, which drove him to try to revive Islam in the Maghrib (all of Northwest Africa except Egypt). Under Ibn Tumart, Al-Muwahhidun, who preached the importance of tawheed (Oneness of Allah), defeated Al-Murabitun in Andalusia in 1146, and thereafter Islam was able to bloom once again and produce brilliant thinkers and scholars such as the philosopher and fiqh (Islamic law) scholar Ibn Rushd. However, as the famous North African sociologist Ibn Khaldun (whom many consider to be the founding father of sociology) has said, whenever any society experiences success and prosperity, it is only a matter of time before decadence sets in, and thereafter, decay, decline, and then another rise. Andalusia is an excellent example of his social theory, and it finally fell to the Christians in 1492.

Islam in West Africa

The Alcazaba Mosque at Marrakech was built by the Almohads

Islam entered West Africa around the 11th century, and according to the oldest source concerning this, the Muslim geographer Al-Zuhri writing in 1137, the people of Ghana converted in 1076, most probably through a Murabitun presence among them, even though their king was a non-Muslim.

The years 1050–1250 saw the peak of the Malian Empire in the region. In the 14th century, the Malian Emperor Mansa Musa established the Maliki School of law in the empire, and performed Hajj. It is reported that as many as 12,000–72,000 people went with him across the Sahara desert to Egypt where he met the Mamluk rulers, who were dumbstruck at his entourage. Musa and his followers carried so much gold with them on their travels that they literally affected the economy of every land they resided in, as Mali was the center of the West African gold trade at that time.

The well-known 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali during 1352–53, under the reign of Mansa Musa’s brother, Mansa Sulayman. He was amazed at the justice and peace that prevailed there, and admired the Muslims’ love for building mosques and performing the Jumu`ah (Friday) Prayer. Despite that, it is said he noticed some reproachable pre-Islamic local practices still in vogue in the king’s court, indicating the importance of social stratification in the kingdom.

The Andalusian geographer Al-Bakri, in 1068, collected information on three African kingdoms of his time: Gao, Takrur, and Ghana. In one text, he presents the account of the conversion of a West African king through an encounter with a Muslim merchant and propagator. The Muslim was a guest of the king, whose country had suffered continuous drought year after year. Therefore, the king pleaded with his Muslim guest to pray for rain for his people; he agreed to do so only if the king converted to Islam and prayed with him. So they prayed throughout the night and rain fell at the first light of dawn. Having seen this miracle, the king ordered the idols to be broken and the sorcerers expelled from the country. The king, his descendents, and nobles accepted Islam and were sincerely attached to it; whereas the people remained polytheists. After the building of Islamic schools and mosques in his country, Islam spread so much that in Jenne in 1200, historians reported over 42,000 scholars residing in the city of learning.

The next empire to emerge in the region was the Songhay Empire in the 15th century, which was also famous for its development of Islamic education. Timbuktu and Jenne were the most important centers of this empire, and the Andalusian architect and poet Abu Ishaq Al-Sahili, who met Mansa Musa en route from Hajj, built the well known Timbuktu Friday Mosque. Sidi `Abdur-Rahman Al-Timimi traveled from Arabia to Timbuktu to find that the scholars excelled him in fiqh, so he stayed to learn from them!

Cover of a children's book about the great West African King Mansa Musa

Islam reached Kanem and Bornu most probably via ‘Uqbah ibn Nafi’, who took it all the way to Lake Chad, as previously mentioned, and perhaps even married there. Islam became the majority religion in Kanem in the 13th century and later in Bornu in the 15th century through the Sifawa Dynasty, which is the oldest one in human history, claiming descent from the legendary Arab hero Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan. The Bornu caliphate reached its peak under Mai (King) Idris Alawma (1570–1603) when all the state dignitaries were Muslim and the capital N’Gazargamu was an important center for Islamic learning.

In the late 17th century there was a development of scholarly clans of whole extended families, who were itinerant merchants and scholars. This peaked in the 18th century when these clans settled in rural areas and formed their own religious communities, away from the traditional urban Muslim centers that were becoming increasingly corrupt and debauched. An example of these clans is the Jahanke, who specialized in Maliki fiqh; another is the Kunta of Sene-Gambia, who are said to have introduced the Qadiriyyah Sufi tariqah (order) into West Africa.

These mobile clans were around 500–1,000 in number, and wherever they settled, they set up schools and intermarried with the locals. They practiced the mulazamah system, where the students lived with and sometimes worked for their teacher. The experience was a lesson in developing not just “book knowledge,” but also interpersonal relations and actually putting the Qur’an and Sunnah into real life. From the rural areas, these scholarly clans returned to the cities and established great educational institutions. The Torodbe scholarly clan had a great role in the dissemination of knowledge and waging jihad in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were distinguished by wearing unique designs on their garments. Probably the most famous of them was Sheikh `Uthman ibn Fodi, who fought a revolutionary jihad against the lax Muslim rulers of Hausaland (northern Nigeria) from 1804 to 1808. He justified his jihad on moral grounds, through his famous prolific treatises and poetry in Arabic, Fulfulde, and Hausa. Thereafter, he established the Sokoto Caliphate that his son Muhammad Bello and his descendents continued until the conquest of the British in 1903.

Islam in South Africa

Jenne: this West African center of Islamic learning counted no less than 40.000 scholars in the early 13th century

The Cape of Good Hope was a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) and a place to send exiled and dethroned rulers from its eastern provinces. Many of these political exiles were some of the first Muslims in South Africa, an example being Sheikh Yusuf of Mucassar (Indonesia), who arrived in the second half of the 17th century with his family and entourage totaling 49 people. His dwellings on the False Bay Coast attracted fugitive slaves and other easterners, and are the first evidence of the establishment of Islam and its dissemination among slaves on the Cape. Consequently, Sheikh Yusuf is considered the founder of Islam on the Cape of Good Hope.

According to historians, the earliest Cape Muslim leaders were freed convicts from Dutch colonies such as Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago, but their crimes are not stated. I wonder if it was their resistance, or their mere Islamic faith that enraged their Dutch colonizers. These “freed convict” imams arrived at the Cape in several migrations throughout the 18th century and made up most of the ‘ulamaa’ there.

Slave raiding in West Africa was prohibited in the 18th century to the DEIC, so they turned to the Indian Sub-continent, which supplied more than half of the formal slaves. The Indonesian archipelago supplied just less than a quarter, a little more than half came from Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean, and the East African coast. The mosques and Jumu`ah Prayers of these groups were first noticed in 1770 by the English explorer George Forster.

The Dutch Reformed Church prohibited slaves from converting to Christianity because they could not then be sold, so the slaves turned to Islam. Achmat Davids noted that Muslim slave owners were also slow in manumitting Muslim slaves at their death. Despite that, the several hundred male slaves who bought their freedom, or whose owners willingly freed them, still converted to Islam. The Muslim free blacks not only freed their own slaves, but also manumitted others, whatever their religion. The Christian missionary John Philip in 1831 wrote admirably about this incident.

I do not know whether there is a law among the Malays bidding them to make their slaves free, but it is known that they seldom retain in slavery those that embrace their religion. And to the honor of the Malays, it must be stated that many instances have occurred in which, at public sales, they have purchased aged and wretched creatures, irrespective of their religion, to make them free.

Descendents of Sheikh Yusuf in modern day Cape Town

It was rare to find Christian slave owners displaying such egalitarianism with their Christian slaves.

The Merdeka Muslim slaves were those set free to take part in the wars against the British and then the Xhosa. African slaves that the British navy intercepted at sea were liberated and diverted to Cape Town, where they converted to Islam in large numbers. Muslims on the Cape traded with other Muslims such as Makkan ‘ulamaa’ who, having arrived at the Cape, sometimes married and settled there. The 1830s are the earliest record of Hajjis going to Saudi Arabia via Mauritius. The Cape ‘ulamaa’ were the first Cape Muslims to go to Hajj and write religious and other books in the new Arabic-Afrikaans. They established Islamic schools, manumitted slaves, ran mosques, conducted marriages and funerals, and generally successfully corresponded with the colonial authorities. The Cape Muslims complained to Queen Victoria about having no Muslim “missionary,” so she sent the Kurdish scholar Sheikh Abu Bakr Effendi to them in 1862.

The second wave of immigration was the indentured Indians, who made up 80–90 percent of the second shipments to Natal. They were brought over to work in the sugarcane fields and mines of the newly colonized province of Natal on the east coast. These indentured Indians were supplemented with others from the Zanzibar and Pemba islands.

Correspondence between Al-Hajj Mustafa Al-Transvaali and the Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad ‘Abduh, on questions concerning Muslims living as a minority in a non-Muslim land, indicated the development of Muslim early 20th century thought in South Africa.

The Muslims succeeded in founding the Jami`at Al-`Ulamaa’ in Transvaal in 1923, the Muslim Judicial Council in Cape Town in 1945, and the Jami`at Al-`Ulamaa’ in Natal in 1952. However, it seems that they were based upon ethnic and geographical lines that were to be the basis, perhaps, for differentiating between them in the apartheid system (1948–1994).

In 1990, delegates from Muslim organizations gathered to consider their response to a post-apartheid South Africa. The outcome was the formation of the Muslim Front that campaigned for the ANC in 1994. Some Muslims formed alternative parties, but these failed to win seats in the new Assembly. However, the ANC appointed `Abdullah Omar to the portfolio of justice in the government of national unity.

Due to the failure of government to create lasting law and order in recent times, there has been a revival of Islamic education for the youth, and the emergence of Muslim grassroots community organizations such as PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) in Capetown.

* This essay is dedicated to my dear friend, Khalida Khatun (may Allah be pleased with her), who was the driving force behind the book in which this essay was meant to be published, if it weren’t for her unexpectedly early return to Allah.

** Zahrah Awalah holds a BA in Arabic language and an MA in Islamic studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. She resides in London with her husband and two children. You can contact her at


Sheikh Abdullah Hakim Quick, Islam in the World: Highlights of the History and Achievements of Muslims (Audio tapes produced by International Book Services, South Africa)

N. Levtzion and R. L. Pouwels, The History of Islam in Africa, James Currey, Oxford, 2000

Chapter 3: Islam in the Bilad Al-Sudan to 1800, Nehemia Levtzion

Chapter 12: The East African coast, 780 to 1900 CE, Randall L. Pouwels

Chapter 15: Islam in South Africa, 1652-1998, Robert C-H. Shell


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