Africa was the first continent into which Islam spread from Asia in the early 7th century.

 

Almost one-third of the world’s Muslim population resides in the continent. It was estimated in 2002 that Muslims constituted 48% of the population of Africa. Islam has a large presence in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Swahili Coast, and much of West Africa, with minority immigrant populations in South Africa. (source: wikipedia)7th Century Incursion.

Pictured to the right: The Great Mosque of Touba, is one of the largest mosques in Senegal.

Islam enters Africa in 627 A.D.

The presence of Islam in Africa can be traced to the 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 hijrah, or migration. During this first Hijra some Muslims settled in the city of Zeila and built the Masjid al-Qiblataynmosque in 627 CE. This mosque has two Qiblas because it was built before the Prophet switched the Qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. The coastline of The Horn of Africa became the first safe haven for Muslims and the first place Islam would be practiced outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Seven years after the death of Muhammad (in 639 AD), the Arabs advanced toward Africa and within two generations, Islam had expanded across the Horn of Africa and North Africa.

Further Expansion and The Berbers

Soon after they had defeated the Byzantine imperial forces in the middle of the seventh century, the Arabs gained control over coastal North Africa. But for some time, the Arabs failed to impose their authority over the Berber tribes of the interior. Successive revolts of the Berbers, that forced the Arabs to withdraw, were referred to as ridda, the same term used when Arab tribes deserted the young Muslim community after the death of the Prophet. In both cases, political submission and conversion to Islam were considered one and the same act. Similarly, when the Arabs consolidated their rule over the Berbers the text reads “after the islam of the Berbers had been made good” (ba’da ma hasuna islam al-barbar); the word islam here carried the two meanings of submission and conversion. The next phase of the Berbers’ resistance to Arab rule occurred within Islam, through adherence to heterodox sects, first the Ibadiyya and then the Ismailiyya. The Almoravids finally secured the victory of Sunni-Maliki Islam in the eleventh century. Under their Almohad successors, Islam in the Maghrib became imbued with the mysticism of the sufis, who became the principal agents of Islamization in North Africa after the twelfth century (chapter I). Berber-speaking nomads reached the southern Sahara and touched the Sahel in pre-Islamic times. They were well positioned to mediate Islamic influences between IntroouctioH the Maghrib and the Western Sudan (known to the Arabs as “Bilad ai-Sudan”). As the Berber nomads occupied both shores of the Sahara, the dividing line between “white” and “black” Mrica, to use French colonial terms, was where the desert meets the Sahel, and where Berber-spealcing nomads interacted with the Sudanic sedentaries. Along this line they cooperated in creating the termini of the Saharan trade. Today, this dividing line cuts across the modern Mrican states of the Sahelnamely, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Sudan. In all these states, except the Sudan, political power is with the black people of the south; it is also only in the Sudan that the dividing line is not only an ethnic but also a religious frontier. As early as the eleventh century, Manding-speaking traders, ancestors of the Juula, traveled between the termini of the Saharan routes and the sources of the gold. They created a “commercial diaspora,” based on a shared religion as well as a collective language. A common legal system-the law of Islam (sharia}-even if not strictly observed, contributed to mutual trust among merchants in the longdistance trade. Conversion to Islam became necessary for those who wished to join commercial networks. Though merchants opened routes and exposed isolated societies to external influences, they did not themselves engage in the propagation of Islam. (Excerpted from History of Islam in Africa, Levtzion and Pouwels)

In the following centuries, the consolidation of Muslim trading networks, connected by lineage, trade, and Sufi brotherhoods, had reached a crescendo in West Africa, enabling Muslims to wield tremendous political influence and power. During the reign of Umar II, the then governor of Africa, Ismail ibn Abdullah, was said to have won the Berbers to Islam by his just administration. Other early notable missionaries include Abdallah ibn Yasin, who started a movement which caused thousands of Berbers to accept Islam.

Similarly, in the Swahili coast, Islam made its way inland – spreading at the expense of traditional African religions. This expansion of Islam in Africa not only led to the formation of new communities in Africa, but it also reconfigured existing African communities and empires to be based on Islamic models. Indeed, in the middle of the 11th century, the Kanem Empire, whose influence extended into Sudan, converted to Islam. At the same time but more toward West Africa, the reigning ruler of the Bornu Empire embraced Islam. As these kingdoms adopted Islam, their subjects thereafter followed suit. In praising the Africans’ zealousness to Islam, the 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta stated that mosques were so crowded on Fridays, that unless one went very early, it was impossible to find a place to sit.

The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, originally built in the reign of King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire in the 13th century.

Decline of indigenous Christians

By the twelfth century, the last indigenous Christians disappeared from North Africa, and by the fifteenth century the Christian Coptic population of Egypt itself was reduced to a minority of some 15 percent. The Christian Nubians, who resisted Muslim expansion for almost six centuries, steadily lost ground between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. It was only in the Horn of Africa that the power struggle between Islam and Christianity remained undecided. Ethiopia endured as a Christian state even after the number of Muslims had grown considerably; Muslims could not own land and were excluded from higher government offices. On the East African coast, Islam faced the challenge of Christianity between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Religion was important in the struggle of Arab and Swahili Muslims. The struggle concluded with the withdrawal of the Portuguese from the coast north of Mozambique after 1698. (Excerpted from History of Islam in Africa, Levtzion and Pouwels)

Merchants and the Slave Trade

As noted by historian Bernard Lewis, “the Qur’an countenanced the institution of slavery and recognized the basic inequality between master and slave and the rights of the former over the latter (XVI:71; XXX:28). It also recognizes concubinage (IV:3; XXIII:6; XXXIII:50-52; LXX:30). It urges, without actually commanding, kindness to the slave (IV:36; IX:60; XXIV:58) and recommends, without requiring, his liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins (IV:92; V:92; LVIII:3) and as an act of simple benevolence (II:177; XXIV:33; XC:13). It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom. An important change from pagan, though not from Jewish or Christian, practices is that in the strictly religious sense, the believing slave is now the brother of the freeman in Islam and before God, and the superior of the free pagan or idolator (II:221).”

From multiple sources, we learn that the Arab Muslim slave trade in Africa from the 7th to 20th centuries dwarfed any other slave enterprise in history. While scholarly sources appear to be lacking for the following, the consistency of different reports lends some credence:

Over 28 Million Africans have been enslaved in the Muslim world during the past 14 centuries While much has been written concerning the Transatlantic slave trade, surprisingly little attention has been given to the Islamic slave trade across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

While the European involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade to the Americas lasted for just over three centuries, the Arab involvement in the slave trade has lasted fourteen centuries, and in some parts of the Muslim world is still continuing to this day. A comparison of the Muslim slave trade to the American slave trade reveals some interesting contrasts.

While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Muslim slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Muslims.

While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Trans-Saharan and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%!

While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves destined for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines, in harems, and for military service.

While many children were born to slaves in the Americas, and millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the USA to this day, very few descendants of the slaves that ended up in the Middle East survive.

While most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated, and most of the children born to the women were killed at birth.

It is estimated that possibly as many as 11 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic (95% of which went to South and Central America, mainly to Portuguese, Spanish and French possessions. Only 5% of the slaves went to the United States).

A comparison of the Muslim slave trade to the American slave trade reveals some interesting contrasts. While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Muslim slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Muslims.

While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Trans-Saharan and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%!

While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves destined for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines, in harems, and for military service.

While many children were born to slaves in the Americas, and millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the USA to this day, very few descendants of the slaves that ended up in the Middle East survive.

While most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated, and most of the children born to the women were killed at birth. It is estimated that possibly as many as 11 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic (95% of which went to South and Central America, mainly to Portuguese, Spanish and French possessions. Only 5% of the slaves went to the United States).

While Christian Reformers spearheaded the antislavery abolitionist movements in Europe and North America, and Great Britain mobilized her Navy, throughout most of the 19th Century, to intercept slave ships and set the captives free, there was no comparable opposition to slavery within the Muslim world.

Even after Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and Europe abolished the slave trade in 1815, Muslim slave traders enslaved a further 2 million Africans. This despite vigorous British Naval activity and military intervention to limit the Muslim slave trade.

By some calculations the number of victims of the 14 centuries of Muslim slave trade could exceed 180 million. Nearly 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in America, and 130 years after all slaves within the British Empire were set free by parliamentary decree, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980, begrudgingly removed legalized slavery from their statute books.
And this only after international pressure was brought to bear. Today numerous international organizations document that slavery still continues in some Muslim countries. (one source here).

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