August 3, 2018 in Analysis
Islam in Africa in the 1800s

Africa is a home for one-third of Muslim population of the world

It is the first continent to adopt Islam. As scholars state, North Africa adopted it in the seventh century. Then Islam spread in the whole continent, deeply influencing the further development of cultural, economic, political, and social spheres of African countries. At the same time, African Islam has its own style, which is different from the Asian one. It is constantly reshaped under the influence of various political and economic factors. Thus, in 2002 scholars defined that forty-five percent of the African population were Muslims living in the North and in the West, in countries of the Horn of Africa, and on the territory of Swahili. In South Africa, the Muslim population is a minor social group. Islam emerged in North Africa as a result of military invasions of Muslim troops, which conquered Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco in the seventh century. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Islam emerged in East and West Africa. By the twelfth century, Islam had spread in Mozambique and South Africa. In the 1800s, Islam emerged in Malawi and Congo under the influence of the Zanzibar Sultanate. At that time, trade and preaching were the major means of spreading Islam in Africa. The history of trade development, which led to the emergence of a new style of life, social, political, and cultural changes in the African continent, became the history of spreading Islam. It determined for centuries the further development of African countries.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began in Europe and the United States. As a result, new political and economic relations emerged in the most progressive countries of the world. It was a historical period of emergence of the capitalist market economy and abolition of slavery as the most unprofitable means of economical production. It influenced the African market. On the one hand, even though Europe and America demanded cheap raw materials and mineral resources from Africa for successful development of their industries, slave trade between Africa and the Western civilization was cancelled. At the same time, slave trade increased in Africa because of the demand of Arabia and countries of the Persian Gulf. Moreover, slave labor was used on plantation to produce palm oil and spices in Africa. One of the largest slave trade centers was situated in the northern part of the contemporary Cameroon. A nomadic tribe of Fulani was engaged in trading with various Muslim countries. They kept cattle and travelled along Western Africa. In the early nineteenth century, Fulani adopted Islam and founded the Adamawa Emirate in the northern part of Cameroon, thereby driving non-Muslim tribes away. Some people from those tribes became slaves in Fulani households. In 1884, Germany conquered Cameroon, and many Fulani continued travelling along Western Africa through “Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal” (Cavendish 72). Of course, they spread Islam in those countries.

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In the 1800s, many new Islamic states emerged in place of the Songhai Empire in Western Africa. At that time, Sufi brotherhoods conducted Muslim reforms, and many new countries adopted Islam. Members of the brotherhoods travelled through Western Africa, revealing corruption. They forced local authorities to respect Muslim laws, and inhabitants supported them. At that time, the jihad movement emerged there in order to abolish various traditional beliefs in Muslim West Africa. One of the prominent Islamic leaders Usman dan Fodio forced a local emir from the territory of contemporary Nigeria to observe Islamic laws, which ended in an armed conflict. As a result, small emirates united into the Sokoto Caliphate. It was the most important historical event in Western Africa, which resulted in spreading Islam through vast territories both eastward and westward.

The Muslim movement became a significant force to resist European colonization

The most dramatic historical events took place in the struggle against British control of the Suez Canal. A French engineer designed the canal. French and British citizens made investments in its construction. The Suez Canal had a very important strategic position as it was the shortest way from Asia to Europe. By that time, the Civil War ended in the United States, and Egypt incurred heavy losses from producing cotton. Consequently, Egypt lost its shares in the Suez Canal. After defeating the Egyptian military rebellion against its king, Great Britain dominated Egypt. Moreover, the British wanted to gain control over the Upper Nile Valley. Islamic Sudan was the sole country to resist the British expansion. In 1881, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi began a war. In 1884, his military forces attacked Egypt, seizing Khartum, which was one of the most significant centers of trade with Africans who lived in the basin of the Nile. Of course, the British wanted to control this city because the Nile was a short way to the central and western parts of Africa washed by Indian Ocean. As a matter of fact, it was a war for trade ways that were under control of the Muslims. In 1898, the Battle of Omdurman took place, where Anglo-Egyptian armed forces defeated Mahdist troops, using the newest Maxim machine guns. It was a real massacre; ten thousand Muslims of Sudan died in the battlefield. Moreover, the British killed wounded Mahdist soldiers, revenging for Khartum.

Thus, European imperialism posed a real danger for African nations because it was turning their countries into colonies. Moreover, African Muslims would lose their control over all trade with local African tribes that were under their influence. Thus, Muslims had to spread Islam among African peoples via trading in order to have influence over them. As Nehemia Levtzion and Randall Pouwels state, Islam played a major role in the further development of African peoples, and Muslims were “important in the process of state-building, in the creation of commercial networks that brought together large parts of the continent” (Levtzion and Pouwels ix). Islam helped with creating diplomacy between African countries, controlling rulers, and educating citizens.

In the early nineteenth century, Islam spread only on the coast of East Africa

It is explained by the fact that the coast settlers were connected with the trading people of the Indian Ocean. They were merchants and traders from various Muslim countries, who did not deal with African tribes, living in the interior part of the African continent. As Levtzion and Pouwels state, goods from Africa were carried by “traders from the interior (the Shona, and later the Makua and the Yo). The spread of Islam conveniently took place within a wider context – one of cultural influences and migrations” (6). Thus, Islam spread in West Africa from north to south, but in East Africa it spread from east to west because it was the main directions of trade. In the nineteenth century, rich merchants built many mosques and schools on the coast of East Africa. Islamic scholars improved their knowledge about Arabia. It caused popularity of literacy. The Sufi brotherhoods made their best to involve more people in studying Islam. On the one hand, Islamic sultans from Oman were interested in settling more Muslims among Swahili, but newcomers were aliens among the Swahili communities (Levtzion and Pouwels 8). They considered the Swahili as inferior people and preferred to remain in their homeland. On the other hand, Swahili did not approve people who tied themselves with Arabs.

In the nineteenth century, the situation with islamization of East Africa changed because Muslims began to settle in the interior part of the continent, and Swahilis came back home from the coast. In addition, many Muslim traders went to the interior part to get ivory and slaves. As a rule, converted Muslims were relatives of Arabs or other Muslims. The Yao living in Mozambique and Tanzania became Muslims in the nineteenth century, when Islamic traders began their activities in those territories of the continent (Levtzion and Pouwels 7). In addition, there were tensions in Yao communities because Islam destroyed their traditional lifestyle and matrilineal order. South Africa adopted Islam after immigration of citizens of Malaya and Muslim islands situated in the Indian Ocean. The historical period from 1798 till 1838 was “South Africa’s golden age of Islam” (Levtzion and Pouwels 8). Africans hated Europeans for their enslavement, and Islam united them by giving hope and consolation in their hard lives. On the other hand, rich African Muslims had an opportunity to develop their thinking by studying Islamic philosophical texts. Therefore, Islam became the main state-building religion in Africa.

In the nineteenth century, the Islamic movement in Africa opposed African Christianity, European colonialism, various pagan religions and those Muslims who did not observe Islamic laws, but had traditional pagan beliefs. In 1862, a famous Muslim Kurdish leader Abu Bakr Effendi arrived in South Africa to integrate local Muslims into the Islamic world. He began the development of Islamic orthodoxy there and thus retarded conversion to Islam, which was better before his arrival (Levtzion and Pouwels 11).

Islam developed literacy among local African tribes

Peasants and other rural workers were involved in the educational process, studying various religious texts. Thus, Islam became a popular religion that turned into a political force. Muslim leaders encouraged creative writing. Therefore, many poems of local authors emerged at that time. They were both in local and Arabic languages. Some of the Muslim leaders used those poems for jihad. A literary word became a major mobilizing means for thousands of Africans to take weapons and begin Muslim wars. Africans also used local languages for spreading moral virtues of Islam among local tribes. Therefore, Islam made local languages better and richer via poetry. It was a real integration of Islamic culture into the local ones. Islamic leaders opened schools and mosques in African villages, where children and adults got education. Africans cherished it, and when enemies of Islam killed one of the Muslim leaders, it became a reason for a holy war. Islam improved the judiciary system in Africa. Muslim leaders appointed judges, or qadis to monitor how Muslims observed Islamic laws.

Though Islam opposed Christianity, Muslim leaders collaborated readily with colonial authorities. Of course, they realized that African Muslims could not gain victory over the most developed European countries. In turn, British, German, and French colonial authorities supported the spread of Islam among indigenous peoples of Africa. In the nineteenth century, many new routes and railroads emerged in Africa. Muslim community developed various trading centers, which were very profitable for Europeans. The centers improved connections with local producers of raw materials. At the same time, they fostered the spread of Islam among them. As Levtzion and Pouwels state, “Muslim trading stations developed into administrative centers, where most of the government officials were Muslim” (14). Therefore, spreading Islam was also a result of trade development, which became a base for creation of local administrative centers headed by Muslims.

Islam played a major role in political, economic, cultural, and social life of Africa. Actually, Islam was the main state-building religion in African countries. This religion united Africans under religious ideology. Moreover, Islam improved education, philosophical thinking, and administrative management of Africans. In the nineteenth century, Islam was spreading among African tribes via trading. Translated Arabic Islamic poetry influenced the further development of local languages, which developed the culture of African peoples. Moreover, Islamic judges formed a reliable judiciary system that provided order and protected Africans. Islam integrated African peoples into the Muslim world. Thus, trade played the major role in spreading Islam among African peoples in the nineteen century.

Works Cited

  1. Cavendish, Marshall. Peoples of Africa: Burkina Faso – Comoros. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 2003. Print.
  2. Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall L Pouwels. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. Print.

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