Thinking About Religion
Volume 6 (2006)

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What Accounts for the Rise of Islam:
A Case Study of Nigeria and Senegal

Dr. Kofi Johnson
Fayetteville State University

The early Islamic penetration of Africa began in North Africa in the eleventh century. By the thirteenth century the religion had crossed along trade routes into the sub-Saharan Africa. The enormous land mass of this region made conversions easy. Once the chiefs embraced Islamic faith, this eventually led to a wide spread of conversions of the people. As colonialism began to recede in the sub-Saharan Africa in the 60s and 70s, a new phenomenon began to emerge. That is, western influence began to penetrate the fabric of Islamic society. To counteract this, reform organizations were formed whose aim were to reform society along Islamic line and to prevent secularization through education.

Between the 70s and 80s many Muslims became frustrated as a result of pressures coming from the secularized world.  Many sought to reject the waves of western cultural imperialism and to return to their Islamic roots. The situation became exacerbated due to constant confrontations between the West and the Arab world over the issues of Palestine and Arab nationalism. These crises reached their crescendo with the Iranian revolution in 1979.

After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, a new term became popular in the West. The popular word is fundamentalism. It became the code word to describe certain radical Muslim groups which articulate political goals.

This study focuses on the political and socio-economic role of Islamism in Africa with emphasis in south of Sahara. Examples from this study will be drawn from Nigeria and Senegal. The purpose of this study is to draw up some possible reasons for the recent rise of Islamism. According to Westerlund (1997), a study of Islamism calls for a multi-dimensional analysis of possible causes because of the complexity of the phenomenon.  Consequently, we borrow from the Westerlund approach by starting from the “genetic.”  The discussion in this study will be eclectic. The study does not pretend to build a theory in explaining the rise of Islam and reasons billions of people are attracted to Islam (Westerlund). Our approach is will be descriptive and eclectic in order to capture the reality of the phenomenon that serves as an attraction to billions of citizens all over the world.

According to Discover Islam: Your Birth Right (2001) the Muslim population of the world is estimated to be 1.4 billion. In other words, one out of four people on the planet earth is a Muslim. Additionally, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. Muslims are made of all races from the “Philippines to Nigeria” they are united under one faith. About eighteen percent of Muslims live in the Middle East. The largest contingents of Muslims live in Indonesia. Thirty percent of Muslims live in the Indian subcontinent, twenty percent and ten percent in Russia and China. In areas such as Australia, and Latin America one finds Muslim minorities. In the United States, it is estimated that there are eight million Muslims. The figures submitted thus far lend credence that Muslims are not confined to the Middle East. In other words, it is widespread all over the world as is Christianity. There is a misconception that Muslims are all Arabs. This is not true.

Northern Nigeria and Senegal present good case studies on the rise of Islam in West Africa. Islam took its roots in Northern Nigeria in the 15th century and in Senegal in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both countries were colonized by the European powers. The British colonized Nigeria, while the French colonized Senegal. (Callaway et al.: 1994:4) To continue with their similarities, Nigeria and Senegal have one of the largest Muslim populations sub-Saharan Africa. In Senegal, 94% of the population is Muslims. The most important brotherhood is Tidjaniyya and the Muridiyya (Ibid.). In Nigeria, 50% of the population is Muslims. The Sufis feature prominently in the Muslim community of the country. The most important Senegalese jihad was al-Hadji Umar Tal who spent his formative years in Sokoto in northern Nigeria. In northern Nigeria, the man who gave a foothold to Muslims in Nigeria was Usman dan Fodio. As Callaway points out “there are interesting religious connection between the two countries, one further expanded in modern time by proselytization in Nigeria of the twentieth century marabout (Muslim leader) from Senegal, al-Hadji Ibrahim Niass" (Galloway et al.: 1994, 4-5).

Islamist Characteristics

Two concepts need clarification: two concepts: Islamism and Islam. The term Islamism is a generic concept that connotes “an ideology that demands complete adherence to the sacred law of Islam and rejects as much as possible outside influence, with some exceptions (such as military and medical technology).”  In short, Islamism connotes an ideology. The concept has gained currency in the West since the attacks on September 2001. On the other hand, Islam connotes “faith.” It denotes one who practices the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed. For this reason, those who adhere to Islamism are often labeled as those who profess the radical overthrow of the Western culture because they see the West as the roots of poverty and corruption of the Islamic states.

In this study we refer to Islamism primarily as the means of converting outsider to Islam. Furthermore, this study avoids the debate that Islamism is a radical phenomenon. This study shies away from the negative definition of Islamism. The working concept of Islamism in this study means those who embrace Islam and use the faith as a vehicle to convert people to the path of Allah with emphasis on the methods other than violence.

The sources of Islam are based on the Koran and the teachings of Prophet Mohammed. The edifice on which Islam stands is based on five pillars. They are: 1. Faith, 2. Salah (prayers), 3. Zakah - welfare or dues, 4. Fasting, and 5. Hajj. These five groups of acts by the Muslims become the five pillars under which Islam stands.

  1. Faith:  this is known in Arabic as “shahada.” This is a declaration of faith that there is no other God except Allah and Mohammed is His Messenger.

  2. Salah- meaning prayers. A Muslim must perform five daily prayers everyday: before dawn, at noon, at mid-afternoon, at sunset and at nightfall. The prayers may be conducted anywhere but preferably in the mosque.

  3. Zakah: this is purification due. It is spent on the poor or generally for the welfare of community. The rationale is to lessen resentment between the rich and the poor.

  4. Fasting: Muslims are expected to fast for 30 days once a year during the month of Ramadan. According to Islam, fasting at this appointed time calls for abstinence from smoking, food, and conjugational relationship. One fasts during the day time hours.

  5. Hajj- pilgrimage to Mecca. This is an act of worship that every Muslim is expected to perform at least once in a lifetime. (See Discover Islam: Your Birth Right).

The sources of Islam are based on the Koran and the teachings of Prophet Mohammed and the five pillars enunciated by the Koran. They are the corner stones on which Islam is based.

Islamization of West Africa: Factors

There are many factors that have contributed to the Islamization of black Africa.  One of the factors that can account for the spread of Islam in West Africa is adaptability and flexibility of Islam. It came to Africa through trade routes and through the Arab countries. Additionally, it developed rather differently in black Africa than its counterparts in the rest of the Islamic world. Meaning, the conversion of black Africa was peaceful.  In the sub-Saharan Africa, the people were converted to the love of God without disturbing the existing indigenous religions that were already in existence. The Islamic faith merged, adapted, and retained much of the traditions of the pre- Islamic religions, “in contrast to Islam of the ulema and followers of other beliefs” DeGeorge, 2000: 195). Many of the advantages of Islam were combined with practices of indigenous religions to establish legitimacy between non-Muslims. This cohabitation suited Africans since Islam offered the uprooted and disillusioned Africans a new religious framework. Furthermore, becoming a Muslim has always been easy it only requires assuming a new name. There was no break from the old religion to the new one that would come later.

According to Westerlund (1997), the rise of Islam can be attributed to its organizational skills. Through modern organization skills, it permits Islamists to act as lobbying groups.  During the colonial eras, the organizational structures of Islam were not well developed.  This was attributed to the separation of church and states. This had damaging effect on the growth of Islam. As colonial rule began to phase out, and became the relic of the past, many Muslim organizations began to mushroom in Africa and other Islamic world. Several of these associations began to challenge the established organizations that they became counterpoise to the activities of conversion. They used the tactics practiced by well organized Christian missionary societies. The spread of these organizations began in the 70’s and reached their crescendos in the 80’s and 90’s. In Nigeria for example, governments formed organizations such as the Supreme Council of Islami, with a view of being the mouthpiece of the Muslim community. Various other organizations were also established in Nigeria such as Jamaat nostril al-Islam (JNS-Association for the Victory of Islam). This was considered the trial-blazer for Islamization of Nigeria.( McCormack , 2005).

Islamization of black Africa can be attributed to external forces. Here, the accusing fingers point to Riyadh. The government of Saudi Arabia is involved in promoting Islam south of the Sahara. This is done by providing money through the Saudi Embassy to fund Islamic activities in Africa (See McCormack). The funds are used to build mosques and Islamic centers. For example the Saudi governments are responsible for funding such Islamic organizations such as the Izala of Nigeria and Al-Falah of Senegal. These funds provided by the Saudi government put these groups at an advantage in fostering their Islamic programs “from the bottom up- grassroots methods for the introduction of Wahhabism.” The significance of these associations are to promote Islamic ideology and significantly to recruit new members for Islam.

Due to the financial problems facing many African countries the state welfare programs of these various countries are weak. Consequently, non-governmental organizations such as Izala in Nigeria had to fill the vacuum created, that they have become increasingly important by copying socio-economic activities of Christian missionary churches in attracting new members to Islam (Westerlund). In Port Harcourt, Nigeria for example, “Muslims contribute money, food and other items, which are distributed without discrimination on the basis of religion.”  According to Kilani, these socio-economic activities are to convert non-Muslims to Islam. These outreach programs are very effective in converting the poor who depend on these handouts.

The growth of Islam in Nigeria and Senegal can also be attributed to the resurgence among youths, because of a network of information available through television radio, books and the internet which the youths have access to as compared to older Muslims. These available new tools serve as a catalyst to recruit the youth, not only in sub-Saharan but the world as a whole.  

One of the features of Islam that serves as a recruiting device in Africa as well as the rest of the world is that Islam condemns racism and ethnic prejudice. The Prophet Mohammed said:

He who lives in factionalism and tribal partisanship (asabiyah) is not one of us.
He who dies in factionalism is not one of us. He who fights factionalism is not
one of us. (Quoted by Kilani, 2001).

This means that Islam extols the virtue of a unified community. Corruption, weakness and destruction follow when people are divided. (ibid.) Hence, unity is strength. Its virtue of tolerance has helped Islam to grow globally. The annual gathering in Mecca validates this virtue or viewpoint. The Hajj is an international gathering of Muslims all over the world. It offers a forum to proclaim one’s faith irrespective of ethnicity and status in life. The Hajj is a leveler and mixer of all colors of ethnicity. This solidarity is one of the greatest conduits that bring all the Moslems together. It also demonstrates that in the eyes of Allah all races are equal.

A common method used to convert non-Moslems is the establishment of Islamic primary schools and colleges and educational exchanges. These collective efforts are aimed at stabilizing the Islamic faith within black Africa. In many communities free Arabic schools are established. In Senegal, for example the Mouvement de l’Enseignement Arab has initiated such schools. Educational efforts are not confined to primary and secondary schools, teaching of adults and females are being included. A Friday Islamic column in Nigeria newspapers has mass readership within the country. In Senegal, Chiekh Toure’s radio programs in Arabic are of importance in propagating Islam. Where many people cannot read, radio becomes an instrument to transmit Islam to non-believers (Westerlund, 1997: 326-327). Also, there is the consistency of Islam. Since the Koran was revealed to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel more than a thousand years ago, it has not been subjected to various interpretations like the Bible.

Discussion and Conclusion

In this paper, concerted efforts are made not to get involved in the controversy of Islam and Islamist or Islamism. What this paper is all about is to underline methods used to perpetuate Islam around the globe with emphasis on areas south of the Sahara (Nigeria and Senegal). The objective is not to paint Islam as a rosy religion. The controlling question is: Why is Islam is on the rise? This is followed by the question: “What makes the religion so enticing to billions of people?”  More importantly, the study aims to analyze various tools used for Islamization.

The carnage of violence that is the hallmark of Islam in the Middle East was largely absent in black Africa. For example, Senegal with 80% of its inhabitants is an oasis of peace. What should be noted is that Islamization of black Africa “was largely a peaceful affair facilitated by trade routes linking the region to the outside world” (McCormick, 2005). Furthermore, rather than eliminating the indigenous religions, Islam fuses with local religions. What emerged out of this fusion is known by anthropologists as syncretism. Islamization lays the foundation for the spread of Islam by using many proselytizing methods of Christians such as education, organizational skills, externalities -funds from outside source such as the Saudi government and charity.

The resurgence of Islam in Africa in the 70s through the 90s was triggered by the weak and corrupt governments of Africa that were unable to provide the basic needs of their citizens. Consequently, the organizations that emerged in the Islamic world became the progenitor of Islamization. The societal disorders in these countries make Islam to flourish since the masses were neglected by their own governments. Additionally, African governments were also responsible for the spread of Islam. For example, the Nigerian Government aided and abetted the Islamic faith by establishing a mouth piece of Islam known as Izala, an organization that advances Islamism. More importantly, the Saudi government is known for exporting a brand of Islam known as Wahhabism in order to counteract the Sufis elements in Nigeria and Senegal as a way of gaining an ideological foot hold and influence in the region.

Islam will continue to be on the rise because it is not only a religion but a way of living to billions of people. It is also well organized religion that attracts intelligentsias. Its doctrine of monotheism is attractive to many converts. One thing should be said. It is a greatly misunderstood religion due to the naiveté of the west and its arrogant behavior toward non-Christian religions. Its resurgence is deeply rooted in traditional values.

Significantly, Islam will continue to pose problems to the West as most western countries look at Islam activities under microscopic lens of 9/11. To check these problems two steps may be taken. First, the West must make concerted efforts to address the issue of global poverty. In addition, because of diversity of Islamic activism the west should exercise caution in their policies. Second, the Palestinian issues should be addressed. In the sub-Saharan there will be tensions between Islam and Christianity that will continue particularly in Nigeria where certain governors in the northern parts of the country are trying to implement Sharia – Islamic code of laws. This will be exacerbated by corrupt governments of the region.

In discussing the possible rise of Islam in sub-Sahara, it is important to focus on the recruiting centers such as universities and other established organizations that mushroomed in the 90s.  The main focus of this paper is to zero in on the phenomenon that had caused the resurgence of Islam. In the end, the question will still billow in the air: Why is Islam such a fast growing religion in the world? In analyzing the reasons for the advancement of Islam one walks out with a feeling that the forces underlying the spread of Islam are more complex. Apart from its complexities, there are many strands of Islam making the rounds in the world. To treat Islam as a monolithic religion, we fall into the same pit of not understanding this fast growing religion. What should be done? The west should be cautious, tolerant and patient. This should be the guiding policy if we wish to understand the 1.4 billion people that are adherents of Islam.

It should be noted that no single reason accounts for most of conversion to Islam. For example, for black Africa, Islam “displaced a complex mythology which often pictured the world as alien, frightful, and full of spirits which had to be appeased (Salaam).  To others, Islam appealed to those “who have become disenchanted with a mysterious amorphous Christianity” (ibid.). To many, they come to Islam to liberate themselves from racism and oppression. ( Ibid.)


  • Callaway, Barbara and Creevey, Lucy (1994). Islam Women, Religion and Politics in West Africa (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.)

  • De George, Barbara (2000). “Millennial Islam in Africa: The Sufi Politics in the Sudan,” The European Legacy Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 195-206.

  • Discover Islam: Your Birth Right (2001). (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Charitable Book and Cassette Center.)

  • Kilani, Razaq Abdul (2001), “Islam and Intra-Muslim Rivalry in Portharcourt,” Journal of Muslim Affairs Vol. 21, pp.347-361. 

  • McCormick, David (2005). “An African Vortex: Islamism in Sub-Saharan Africa, Center for Security Policy”,

  • Sala, “The Growing Religion”, viewed 12/19/2005

  • Westerlund David, and Rosander, Eva Evers. (1997), African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters Between Sufis and Islamists, ( Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.)


Thinking About Religion, Volume 6
Copyright © 2006
Posted 10/7/06

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