Africa is the second largest continent in the world made up of 54 countries. There are many different religions in Africa and some of them have been celebrating their faith, telling their stories and teaching their principles for thousands of years.
Islam has been in Africa for so long since its beginning on the Arabian Peninsula that some scholars have argued that it is a traditional African religion.
Traditional African religion is based on oral traditions, which means that the basic values and way of life are passed from elders to the younger generation. These traditions are not religious principles, but a cultural identity that is passed on through stories, myths and tales.
In traditional African religion, the community is the most important part of someone’s life. This community is made up of people who remember and share the same traditions. The individual only exists within the community and separation from it is sometimes worse than death. A believer’s family still has influence over him or her even if they live far away.
Religion in most African societies also supports moral order. It creates a sense of security and order in the community. Followers believe in the guidance of their ancestor’s spirits. There are spiritual leaders, like priests or pastors in most traditional African religions. This person is essential in the spiritual and religious survival of the community.
In the Zulu culture, there are mystics or sangomas that are responsible for healing and ‘divining’ – a kind of fortune-telling and counselling. These traditional healers have to be called by their ancestors. They undergo strict training and learn many skills, including how to use herbs for healing and other, more mystical skills.
The blending of Islam
Africa was the first continent, outside of Arabia that Islam spread to in the early 7th century
when Muhammad advised a number of his early disciples, who were facing persecution by the pre-Islamic inhabitants of the Mecca, to seek refuge across the Red Sea in Axum. In the Muslim tradition, this event is known as the first Hijra or migration.
Trading has a big part to play in the spread of Islam. Pastoral North Africans called Berbers had long traded with West Africans. The Berbers offered salt in exchange for West African gold. That may seem like a bad deal until you consider that without salt, we die.
The Berbers were early converts to Islam and Islam spread along those pre-existing trade routes between North and West Africa. The first converts in Mali were traders who benefited from having a religious as well as a commercial connection to their trading partners in the North and the rest of the Mediterranean. Then the kings followed the traders possibly because sharing the religion of more established kingdoms in the north and east would give them prestige not to mention access to scholars and administrators who would help them cement their power.
Islam became the religion of the elites in West Africa which meant that Muslim kings were trying to extend their power over largely non-Muslim populations which worshipped traditional African gods and spirits.
To appear more acceptable and less foreign, these African Muslim kings would often blend traditional religion with Islam like for instance, giving women more equality than was seen in Islam’s birthplace.
The first kings we have a record of adopting Islam were from Ghana which is recorded as the first empire in West Africa. Historians believe that a group of people called the Soninke founded Ghana as early as the year 300 and it thrived until around 1200. Ghana became known for its rich culture, wealth, organisation, and power.
As with all empires and also everything else, Ghana rose and then fell and it was replaced by Mali. The kings of Mali especially Mansa Musa, but also Musa’s brother and successor, Mansa Suleyman, tried to increase the knowledge and practice of Islam in their territory.
Mansa Musa brought back from a pilgrimage to Mecca the architect al-Sahili, who is often credited with the creation of the Sudano-Sahelian building style. Mansa Suleyman followed his path and encouraged the building of mosques, as well as the development of Islamic learning.
Islam in East Africa
On the other side of Africa, there was an alternative model of civilizational development. The eastern coast of Africa saw the rise of Swahili Civilisation which was not an empire or a kingdom but a collection of city-states like Zanzibar and Mombasa and Mogadishu. All of which formed a network of trade ports. Each of these cities was autonomously ruled usually, but not always, by a king.
There were three things that linked these city-states so that we can consider them a common culture: language, trade and religion. The Swahili language is part of a language group called Bantu and its original speakers were from West Africa. Their migration to East Africa changed, not only the linguistic traditions of Africa but everything else because they brought with them ironwork and agriculture. Until then, most of the people living in the East had been hunter-gatherers or herders but once introduced, agriculture took hold.
Swahili cities trade had been going on since the first century CE but Swahili Civilisation didn’t begin its rapid development until the 8th century when Arab traders arrived seeking goods that they could trade on the vast Indian Ocean network.
Just like in West Africa these merchants brought Islam with them which, which was adopted by the elites who wanted religious as well as commercial connections to the rest of the Mediterranean world.
In many of the Swahili states these Muslim communities started out quite small but at their height between the 13th and 16th century, most of the cities boasted large mosques like one in Kilwa.
Although the majority of Muslims in Africa are Sunni or Sufi, the complexity of Islam in Africa is revealed in the various schools of thought, traditions, and voices that constantly contend for dominance in many African countries. Islam in Africa is not static and is constantly being reshaped by prevalent social, economic and political conditions.