The history of Islam in East Africa stretches back to around 1000 CE. Until the mid-20th century, it remained largely confined to the coast and closely bound up with the history of the Swahili towns situated on it. The Swahili language remains central to many East African Muslims, hence the occasionally heard phrase, “Swahili Islam.” East African Muslims are mostly Shafiites and some belong to Sufi orders, especially Qadiriyya and Shadhiliyya. Since c. 1850, Islam, with many variations in ritual, has become the religion of speakers of a multitude of languages across the region, second only to Christianity. The region’s independent nation-states initially promised equality for all religions within a secular order. Since c. 1990, though, the minority status of East African Muslims has fed into a multitude of grievances related to the region’s economic and political impasses. This situation has led to growing movements of Islamic preaching and activism, supported by increased contacts with congregations elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. At times, they have influenced electoral politics, especially in Zanzibar, where Islamic activism resonates with fear of marginalization by the mainland. In Kenya, Somali-influenced Islamist terrorists committed a series of atrocities in the 2010s. East African governments, in turn, have been proactive in tracking and disrupting such networks, and in Kenya, the government engaged in targeted assassination. Nevertheless, peaceful coexistence between Muslims and adherents of other religions remains the norm in East Africa, and its dynamics are often poorly understood.
The History of Islam in East Africa
Islamic Historical Sources: Manuscripts and Online
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew. The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.
James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey: Educator, Minister, and Global Black Intellectual
Ethan R. Sanders
James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (1875–1927) was a transatlantic black intellectual, educator, and Christian minister. Aggrey was raised in West Africa, where as a young man he became a rising figure among the educated elite of the Gold Coast and played an important role in the Gold Coast Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society’s defeat of the Public Lands Bill of 1897. For two decades, he served as a professor at Livingstone College, the chief educational institution of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church, and as a pastor in two AMEZ churches in rural North Carolina. Throughout this period, he became connected to a number of black intellectuals and educators in Washington and New York, including Robert Moton, James Cromwell, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Edward Bruce, Arthur Schomburg, and Carter G. Woodson. Through these connections, he became a promoter of Ethiopianist ideas and developed a vision for Africa’s redemption and a positive outlook toward the continent’s role in the future of the world. In 1920–1921 and again in 1924, Aggrey was selected to join two educational commissions to visit eighteen African territories. Over the course of eighteen months, Aggrey made hundreds of appearances and spoke to thousands of Africans through both public speeches and private audiences. His fame during this time led to his becoming the first continental celebrity of sub-Saharan Africa. His fame in the West also peaked during the early 1920s, and he became one of the most sought-after Christian speakers in Britain and North America, leading one scholar to suggest that Aggrey was perhaps the most well-known African in the United States during this period. Aggrey had a long-lasting impact on the African continent, in large part through helping the people of the continent to see themselves as belonging to an African nation of people who had a glorious future once they unified as one people. Aggrey helped to infuse a positive value into an “African” identity, and his vision was interpreted in various ways throughout colonial Africa and led to numerous educational, political, and social movements and shaped the ideas of many prominent African figures throughout the 20th century.
Sufism, Islamic Philosophy, and Education in West Africa
West Africa has been home to and contributed to the development of several important Islamic intellectual traditions, including logic (manṭiq), theology (kalām), Sufism (taṣawwuf), legal philosophy (uṣūl al-fiqh), and even philosophy (falsafa)—all of which influenced the distinctive forms of pedagogy that emerged in West Africa, in which ritual practice, physical presence, and the cultivation of virtue and adab (manners, a particular habitus) played an important role. The 20th and 21st centuries ce (14th and 15th centuries ah) witnessed the emergence of radically different forms of pedagogy and epistemology in Muslim West Africa, because of both increasing exposure to texts and ideas from other Muslim societies and the colonial encounter with Western philosophy and institutional education in the context of nation-states, which profoundly altered the intellectual landscape of the region. The contemporary situation in West Africa is quite plural and dynamic, in which traditions of Sufism, Salafism, Shiʿism, Western philosophies and pedagogies, Pentecostalism, and traditional African religions coexist, compete, interact, and influence each other across a wide variety of domains of life. Nevertheless, Sufism remains an important and prominent feature of many dimensions of life in Muslim West Africa, including Islamic education.
The History of Islam in Mauritania
The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.
Uthman (Osman) dan Fodio (1754–1817): Life and Religious Philosophy
Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817), an emblematic figure of Islamic history in West Africa, was born in 1754 in Maratta in the Tahoua region (present-day Niger) and died in 1817 in Sokoto (present-day Nigeria). The role of Sheikh Uthman (Osman) dan Fodio is well known to all who are familiar with West Africa’s Muslim culture. Sometimes referred to in West Africa as “Nûru-l-zamân” (the Light of Time) and in Western literature as the “Great Pulaar Jihadist Sheik,” Uthman dan Fodio was one of the greatest Muslim theologians and thinkers in West Africa and is regarded as the founder of the last Muslim Empire. He studied under the Fodiawa family as well as with the great scholar Sheikh Jibril. As a successful teacher himself, he attracted attention from the royal palace. As a preacher, Uthman dan Fodio was listened to and followed by the religious devout, which led to him being persecuted by the successors of Bawa Jan Gorzo, consequence the jihad of 1804 and the foundation of the Islamic Empire of Sokoto. Despite this, in the tradition of prominent spiritual masters of Islam (Al-Ghazali, Al-Muhâssibi, Azzaruk, As-Suyûtî, Abdel Wahab, etc.), Uthman dan Fodio’s legacy remained strong in the Muslim world between the end of the 18th century and the end of the 19th century. The sheikh described his contributions in terms of moral and religious rebuilding; he felt as if he was invested in a messianic mission to save his community from perils. In other words, his tasks included promoting widespread change as it pertained to societal norms, morals, and education. Uthman dan Fodio’s reform project is part of the reformist heritage movement, which is also known as “the wave of the reformist current of the 18th century.”