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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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.)