Research Paper On The Spread Of Islam Through North And West Africa
Introduction to Africa
Islam was one of the first major religions to be introduced in Africa in the mid-seventh century AD. This introduction came a few decades Prophet Muhammad and his followers had made their way from Mecca to Medina through the Arab Peninsula in 622 A.D. After the Arabs conquered Spain and pushed far past the Indus River, they created an empire that extended over three continents. These achievements were completed one hundred years after the prophet Muhammad had died. Between the 8th and 9th centuries, the religion was spread by Arab traders and travelers along the eastern coastline of Africa to the central and western Sudan (referred to as the land of the black people). This movement not only spread Islamic religion and culture, but also stimulated the emergence of urban communities (Levtzion and Pouwels 2). As a result of its practical and negotiated approach to different cultural situations, Islam in Africa may be regarded in terms of its multiple histories rather than its unified movement. The success of the spread of Islam in Africa may be attributed to the conversion of Berbers, Bedouins and nomadic traders (Bower and Lobdell 50). This implies that Islam spread through trade routes and across desert areas. Another reason that contributed to the advancement of Islam is science and technology. Arabs were superior in mathematics and algebra, enhancing trade and technological advances. These advances include metallurgy, astronomy, construction of circular towers etc. As a result, Islamic armies had a great edge over their enemies. They had sharper weapons as well as better tactics. For example, their sea-faring vessels were also considerably superior because they featured sails. The military superiority of the Arabs enabled them to conquer and spread their culture and religion to different parts of the continent, starting with Sudan, Ghana, Mali and neighboring regions. Undoubtedly, the spread of Islam in Africa was as a result of different factors. This essay explains how and why Islam spread in Africa and the factors surrounding its spread in terms of culture, trade, and conquests.
Islam reached the continent through two major gateways, from the North and the East. Through both routes, the carriers of Islam navigated vast empty spaces, such as the Sahara desert and the waters of the Indian Ocean. The Arabs conquered the Byzantine imperial forces and took control of the coast of North Africa in the mid-seventh century (Riad reviews 1). This conquest was led by Amr ibn al-‘As, who invaded Egypt with only 12,000 men. Amr ibn al-‘As was successful because he was welcomed by native Egyptians who hated Byzantine rule. The Arabs also formed an alliance with the Coptic Church against Byzantines, agreeing not to interfere with the native Coptic religion (Riad reviews 1). The Arab administration started taxing Egyptians and became more profitable, drawing more Arabs into the country. They increased the amount of irrigated land to accommodate more Arabs. Although the Arabs did not want to cause unrest amongst the Coptics, who had welcomed them, their closeness to the natives was responsible for the transmission of the religion to them. Native Egyptians had become wives, employees, servants, and friends to the Arabs and had begun to adopt the religion. By 750 AD, the majority of the population had become assimilated Muslims, known as Malawi. By 660, the Arabs had started to increase their campaigns into more regions of North Africa.
In West Africa, the spread of Islam in the 8th century resulted predominantly from trans-Saharan trade rather than through conquest (like in the North). Muslim merchants and traders lived with non-Muslims but soon spread the religion to them. After conquering North Africa, Arabs thought of conquering West Africa but the Sahara desert posed a considerable obstacle. The only approach was through trade and Islamic missions. Muslim merchants and traders made their settlements at Kumbi, a great market in Ghana. At Kumbi, they built 12 mosques and established a spiritual leader known as the Imam. Kumbi would later be captured by the Almoravids in 1076, and the Mande in 1240, spreading Islam further into the region. A result of this spread was the emergence of the Mali empire. The leaders of the Mali empire, such as Mansa Musa in 1312 accepted Islam and practiced it devoutly. Under Mansa Musa leadership, Mali emerged as a major hub for the Islamic world. Muslim scholars, traders and merchants came to Mali for business or settlement. An important event that further spread the religion in West Africa was Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey to Mecca and Medina was lavish and it underlined the importance of Islam in the West and the North. Because of Musa’s pilgrimage of Hajj, Mali became recognized as an important kingdom and by 1375, it appeared on a European map of Africa.
In the Mali Empire, the Songhai people were the most influential. In 1460, they were led by Sunni Ali. Sunni Ali brought together a powerful army, enabling Songhai to secede from Mali, and eventually conquer it. The first leaders of the Songhai were not devout Muslims. As a result, Muslims in Songhai rebelled and replaced them with Askia Mohammed Toure to the throne. Toure was an important proponent of Islam in Songhai and the further West African region. He set up rules and rigid controls to ensure that Islam was practiced accordingly in Songhai. He also led various wars to convert non-believers to Islam. Under Toure’s rule, the Songhai Empire became as large as Western Europe.
A notable component of Islam and Arab trade in this region is slavery. The concept of slavery has been acceptable by Muslims since the beginning of the religion. Prophet Muhammad kept slaves and the Quran is a proponent of controlled slavery (Barnabas Fund 1). Naturally, the Arabs traded in slaves. The supply of slaves in Arab empires and states had to be replenished constantly due to their high death rate. Marriage amongst slaves was not allowed. As the intricate network of slave trading emerged, the business of seizing and selling slaves became lucrative, causing the Arabs to move further into uncharted territories. This movement further spread Islam and the Islamic culture. Slaves were used as concubines, for domestic duties, agriculture and for the military. The power of Muslim states was proportional to the number of slaves held.
Islam Spread in East and South Africa
The earliest evidence of Muslims and Islam in Eastern Africa is the foundation of a mosque in Lamu. Gold, copper and silver coins dating to AD 830 were found in 1984 during an excavation. The oldest mosque in Eastern African that is still-standing is located at Kizimkazi, Southern Zanzibar, believed to have been built in AD 1007. The evidence implies that in AD 1300 Islam was common along the Indian Ocean shores. The East African coastland visit of Ibn Batuta from Morocco in 1332 signified that most of the inhabitants of the coastline had already picked up the Muslim religion by that time (Levtzion and Pouwels 6). Islam was brought to this region by Arab traders from Arabia. Interestingly, Islam did not “Arabise” Eastern Africa but Islamic practices became Africanized. As a result, Islam became similar to an indigenous African religion (Lodhi 88). This conversion was coupled with the development of the Swahili language, Swahili dress, eating habits, food and other cultural elements. Further consolidation of Islam in East Africa happened after the Portuguese violently and brutally conquered all Indian Ocean ports. The African locals at the coastline invited Omani Arabs to come and oust the Portuguese in 1652. By 1729, the Portuguese were finally driven to Mozambique, leaving the coastlines of Kenya, Somali and Tanzania under Omani Arab rule (Lodhi 88). Before the Omanis were replaced by European rule in 1890, Islam had expanded significantly in East Africa to the interior along the caravan trade routes. Omanis were encouraging their fellow Arabs to migrate from Hadhramaut to the coast of East Africa (Levtzion and Pouwels 6). The new arrivals, however, failed to assimilate into the Swahili society. They saw the Swahilis as lower-status individuals and even treated them with contempt. At the same time, Muslims began to settle in farms in the interior. This movement was a slow process when compared to the North and West African spread of the Islamic religion (Lodhi 88). After the entry of the Europeans in 1890, however, Muslim communities lost their economic and political influence. Their place was taken by Christians who emerged from freed slaves settlements and tribal areas.
Islam spread to Southern Africa was influenced by a complexity of factors. Key among them, however, was the free and slave migration from areas such as Malaya and small islands of the Indian Ocean. The slaves were brought into South Africa to support the building of the Dutch colony at Cape Town. The slave population comprised of a large proportion of Muslims brought from various places in Asia and Africa (Brenner 1). Slavery as an institution offered pathways for people to convert to Islam. Although the colony was predominantly Christian, slaves sort to stamp their own inherent resistance by converting to Islam. The Dutch colony realized this situation and began to baptize all newborn slaves at the Cape. In South Africa, arrivals of political and religious exiles also contributed to the spread of Islam. For example, Shaykh Yusuf, a highly respected Islamic Sufi formed the first Muslim community at Cape Town, South Africa. Shaykh Yusuf led the development of many Muslim schools and taught Islamic religion and culture to African. He targeted the African slaves that were controlled by the Dutch. The slaves were eager to learn Islam because they did not want to associate with Christianity, which was the religion of their masters (Vilhanova 136). Shaykh Yusuf faced great opposition from the Dutch through their policy of isolating influential Muslim political exiles from the slave population. After Shaykh Yusuf died, his gravesite became a holy place for devout Muslims in South Africa (Vilhanova 136). An elaborate tomb was later built in his honor in the nineteenth century. His personality became an important symbol of Muslim presence in the region. In addition, further spread of Islam was ushered in with the arrival of Shaykh Abu Bakr, a Kurdish scholar, in 1862. He wanted to integrate Cape Muslims into the greater Muslim world and to develop Islamic Orthodoxy (Vilhanova 136). Further in the 1900s, the apartheid state of South African encouraged the radicalization of Islam between 1948 and 1994. The spread of Islam in Africa was manifested through different ways such as culture, government and law, education, religious practices and the arts.
Government and Law
Muslims in North, West and Eastern Africa developed various Islamic forms of government and law. One considerable change involved inheritance of rule and the line of succession. The right to rule in West Africa was traditionally traced through maternal lines (matrilineal) rather than through the father. However, after Islam arrived, succession became patrilineal. The structure of government became highly centralized after Islam influence. After most West African Kings such as Mansa Musa converted into Islam, they began to exert more control over the local rulers. The kings further adopted titles previously used in Muslim lands, such as Sultan and Amir. Shari’ah laws were also adopted to replace customary laws. Shari’ah law, unlike the traditional customary law is written (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1).
The role of Islamic education
Muslims encouraged other people to get an education. They facilitated education by building learning centers and schools. The city of Timbuktu, which was also a big trading center, was crucial for the education of West Africans. Under Songhai and Mali rule, Timbuktu became renowned for its superior schools and community of Muslim scholars. Timbuktu remained an important learning center until Morocco conquered the Songhai in the 1500s. Several universities emerged in Timbuktu. One of the world’s great learning centers at the time, the University of Sankore, was located in Timbuktu. Sankore was made up of a series of independent schools, each of which was run by an Imam. The basic subjects taught at these schools included Islamic studies, the Qur’an, literature and law. When traders passed through the city of Timbuktu, they often studied at one of the universities. Students in the Islamic colleges learned how to trade in addition to studying religion. Although the Muslims did not have printing presses, they passed written knowledge by hand, accumulating vast libraries with books that were both rare and valuable (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1). As a result of Islam-led education, people came from far and wide to the universities of Timbuktu. As they went back to their regions, the students helped spread Islam to the people in villages and remote areas of West Africa.
Language was also a major element in the spread of Islam throughout Africa. Islam is rooted deeply in Arab culture. The spread of Islam throughout Africa also saw the spread of the Arabic language. For example, Arabic became the language for religion, government, learning, as well as commerce in West Africa. The native Africans, however, continued to use native languages for everyday speech. All Muslims were expected to be fluent in Arabic because the Qur’an was only written in Arabic at the time. Scholars also used the language to write about the culture and history of West Africa. For example, scholars wrote the history of the Mali Empire and Songhai in Arabic. They also wrote on Islamic law, helping to spread Islam, Islamic culture, and general knowledge around West Africa. eventually, when the leaders of West African states adopted Islam, Arabic became the official language for trade and government. Leaders could communicate more efficiently than before because they had advanced a language that could allow increased interaction between the African natives and the Arab traders and settlers.
The role of art and architecture
The influence of the Islam religion brought new styles in art and architecture. Art styles such as calligraphy and the used of decorative geometric patterns emerged. Muslims used calligraphy for decorating objects with verses from the Qur’an. These decorated items spread far and wide through trade between communities. Muslims also decorated costumes, fans, and even weapons with the Arabic word for God. When non-Muslims saw the beauty of the art and its religious foundations, they became increasingly receptive to the idea of Islam and Islamic culture. Geometric patterns are also important to Islamic art. These decorations soon became widely associated with Islam. Dressing was also largely influenced by Muslims in West Africa. Arabic robes were worn as outer layer, with calligraphy and geometric shapes being used to personalize them.
Besides influencing art and dressing, Islam also introduced new architectural styles to the continent. People designed mosques and homes using ideas introduced by Arabs. For example, after his Mecca pilgrimage, Mansa Musa was highly motivated to build more mosques. He brought with him Al-Saheli, a Spanish architect to help in these efforts. Al-Saheli and other Arabian Architects were responsible for the shift from round houses with cone-shaped, grass thatched roofs to rectangular brick and mortar houses. Clay drain pipes also improved drainage considerably and improved the quality of lives in West Africa.
The spread of Islam in Africa took two major gateways. The first was from the Northern part of the continent, while the other was the Eastern coastline. Through both routes, the carriers of the religion faced the daunting task of navigating vast empty spaces, the Sahara desert and the Indian Ocean. In North Africa, the process began with the Arabian conquest of the Byzantine Imperial forces in Egypt. This process was facilitated by the native Egyptians under the direction of the Coptic Church. The natives hated the oppressive Byzantine regime and sought to have it ousted. The presence of Arabs in Egypt led to interaction through marriage, business, and servanthood. As a result the Arabs spread Islam to the natives. With time, they intensified their campaigns into more regions of North Africa. In West Africa, Islam spread predominantly through trade. Arab merchants and traders settled at Kumbi before building mosques and Islamic schools. The Mali Empire emerged at this time, followed by the Songhai secession. In East and Southern Africa, the spread of Islam took on more complex processes. Arab traders arrived at the East African coast leading to assimilation of their culture and religion. Their language, however, was Africanized into Swahili. In Southern Africa, the spread of Islam was mainly influenced by the institution of slavery as well as by a few respectable Muslim clerics. Undoubtedly, the spread of Islam on the continent was manifested in various spheres of life such as culture, government and law, education, language, religious practices and the arts. For example, in government, there were notable changes. The structure of government became highly centralized after Islam influence. After most West African Kings such as Mansa Musa converted into Islam, they began to exert more control over the local rulers. As a result of Islam-led education, people came from far and wide to the universities of Timbuktu. As they went back to their regions, the students helped continue the spread Islam to the people in villages and remote areas of West Africa. In terms of language, all Muslims were expected to be fluent in Arabic because the Qur’an was only written in Arabic at the time. Scholars also used the language to write about the culture and history of West Africa. For example, scholars wrote the history of the Mali Empire and Songhai in Arabic. Art and architecture played a vital role in the spread and expression of Islam. Art styles such as calligraphy and the used of decorative geometric patterns emerged. Muslims used calligraphy for decorating objects with verses from the Qur’an. These decorated items spread far and wide through trade between communities. Muslims also decorated costumes, fans, and even weapons with the Arabic word for God. Overall, the spread of Islam in Africa poses a interesting subject for further research and investigation.
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