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					           University of Pardubice
            Faculty of Philosophy
Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy

African Islam in Discussion

                  2st Paper

   Eastern Africa – Political Development

                Vít Ronovský
           Summer semester 2008


          Islam in todays Africa is a very strong element, which can not be easily overlooked. If
we look at the Africa as whole, we can say that almost all of the African states were
influenced by Islam. There are at least about 215 millions of muslims in recent Africa1 and
this number is still growing. Main aim of this paper is to analyze discussion over the African
Islam and to try to explain the plurality of reasons to conversion in the African history and
present. Let’s have a look at three main periods of the African history and their religious
context. These periods are Indigenous State, Colonial State and Post-Colonial State.


          We can speak about Islam at the context of African indigenous states approximately at
the period between 11th and 18th century. In Booth’s view Islam of the indigenous state period
appealed for those whose activities involved contacts beyond the local area – especially
merchants and rulers. The reason of the conversions is easy to understand – Islam provided a
great source of power at this time. Thus the first spread of Islam in Africa comes due to
          The first rulers, as the Takrur king, tried to incorporate Islam into the traditional
pattern. Latter the traditional incorporated into Islam, however, in both cases Islam made its
appeal as a source of power more than a pattern for life. Although the rituals were popular
observance of Muslim law was minimal and outside the governmental and commercial
centers Islam had little influence at all.
          So the state as whole wasn’t Islamic in the right sense of the word because the
majority of the people were left undisturbed in their practice of the traditional religion. As a
result of the first phase there were Muslim individuals and Muslim towns but with a few
exceptions, no Muslim peoples. The reason is clear - the masses of the rural population
accepted Islam mostly because it provided them access to new powers which supplemented
the traditional.

  However, it is very difficult to numerically demarcate religious beliefs in Africa. Carlene J. Edie, Politics in
Africa: A New Beginning?, Amherst: University of Massachusetts at Amherst, p. 15-17.
  The indigenous and colonial state are best discussed in Booth’s article „Islam in Africa“. Newell S. Booth,
„Islam in Africa,“ in: Newell S. Booth (ed.), African religions, New York: NOK 1979, p. 297-343.

           In general the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were a period of Islamic
recession associated with weakness in centralized authority connected with the first
appearance of Europeans and changing trade patterns.
           Islam did not make any major advances until the nineteenth century, because there was
no massive need of changing the identity, which comes especially by the influence of
Europeans in the colonial state period.3


           The second phase of African Muslim history began in the eighteenth century and was
characterized by the transition from a class religion to a religion of whole peoples which
means that Islam began to play a role as a basis for communal integration. If we look at the
colonial period, in many parts of Africa there was a rapid spread – (almost an "explosion") of
Islam, Booth claims. Contributing to this popularization was the spread of the mystical Sufi
orders, politically engaged jihads and European penetration of Africa.4 This period had the
crucial importance for the future direction of the political and religious development in the
post-colonial and multi-party state.
           The spread of the mystical Sufi orders was naturally connected with the looking for a
counterbalance to legal orthodoxy. In the view of many Africans the mystical aspect of Islam
was probably closer to their indigenous religious orientation. Thus Sufism provided a unique
opportunity for understanding Islam.
           Politically engaged jihads were led especially by the fundamentalist Muslim rulers.
The proper object of jihad aimed at the establishment of a truly Islamic society, but
degenerated form of jihad was often playing a role of an excuse for destructive raids. Because
this conflicts were often aimed against the European colonialists, it contributed significantly
to identify Islam with opposition to colonial rule, what slowly started to be an important
aspect of many conversions, as we will see further.
           The appeal of the Sufi brotherhoods, combined with both the positive and negative
influences of the jihad in the western and central Sudan, lead in the nineteenth century to the
"massive conversion of the savanna farmers" who had previously resisted Islam.

    N. S. Booth, „Islam in Africa“, p. 297-343.

        Nevertheless, the most important changes in the African society were associated with
European penetration of Africa. Booth considers this penetration significantly contributing to
the breakdown of traditional societies and thus bringing more Africans to the point where a
religion such as Islam became appealing.5 Colonialism creating distinct socio-economic
groups intensified the social divisions in Africa6 and thus inadvertently created a context
conducive to growth of Islam as a “universal” and “global” religion providing significant
resources for those who have lost their traditional roots.7
        In the early stages of colonialism we could see still primarily economically oriented
conversions, because Islam was more "respectable" than "paganism". Later in the 19th century
when the western exploitation of African continent strengthened8 the African resistance to
European penetration grew as well.9 Thus being Muslim could be a way of gaining
advantages under the colonial system and at the same time expressing a certain distance from
Western culture. In some areas Islam was seen as a way of resisting Western political and
cultural domination while in others it was because colonial policies unintentionally favored
        Significant role in this process played surely character of colonial politics. In spite of
the French attempt to replace traditional culture and education with their own, Islam made
notable progress in the French-controlled areas. Opposite to this, in British territories where
"indirect rule" was established (for example in northern Nigeria) and Muslim chiefs were
confirmed and sometimes strengthened by the colonial regime, Islam didn’t note any big
growth; rather other way round.
        The urbanization and growth of the trade were inherently connected with the incidence
of colonialism. So the rapid growth of the cities and population and better trade were another
crucial aspects which helped not a little to a bigger spread of Islam in the whole Africa.
        If we should compare Christianity with Islam from the African cultural point of view
there are a couple of aspects in which Islam appeals to Africans better. Islam with its five

  N. S. Booth, „Islam in Africa“, p. 297-343.
   Bill Rau, Feast to Famine: The Course of Africa’s Underdevelopment, Washington DC: Africa Faith and
Justice Network, p. 19.
  N. S. Booth, „Islam in Africa“, p. 297-343.
   European colonialists attempted to exploite African human resources as well. Between the 16th and the 19th
century about 28 millions of people were exported as slaves overseas and once more this number of people were
killed, injured or displaced. At least 10 million Africans were deported overseas only between c. 1750 and c.
1870. B. Rau, Feast to Famine, p. 9-10.
  Rau speaks shortly about this resistence in his Feast to Famine on p. 18-19.
   N. S. Booth, „Islam in Africa“, p. 297-343.

pillars is easier to understand than Christian heavy theology and doesn’t refuse polygamy,
traditional African habit, as Christianity does. Islam is smarter.
           Thus it can be said that "the events of the nineteenth century upset the historical
equilibrium established between Islam and African religions and loaded the scale against the
future more effectively than at any previous stage of history."11

           Aspects affecting conversion to Islam in colonial state and latter periods:

       o Islam was “universal” and “global” religion providing significant resources for those
           who have lost their traditional roots through the fast socio-economic changes.
       o Sufism as the emotional verse of Islam was closer to the traditional African religions
           and thus became “gate to Islam”.
       o Islam was identified with opposition to colonial rule with the growth of African
           resources exploitation and cultural imperialism (especially in French colonies).
       o In the early stages of colonialism good educated Muslims were unintentionally
           favored by many of the colonial policies.
       o The spread of the Islam was connected with better trade and rapid growth of
           population and urbanization.
       o Islam with its five pillars is easier to understand than Christian heavy theology and
           doesn’t refuse polygamy, traditional African habit, as Christianity does.


           The era of the post-colonial state in Africa is often defined between the years 1960
(1963 in Kenya) and 1990. Post-colonial state went through the process of decolonization
which meant “africanisation of Africa” and was often connected with cultural nacionalism. It
was the initiative of Africans resisting to its former inferiority, however, their effort mostly
didn’t reach for the economical and political independence on Europe and led even to
establishment of less democratic regimes under the ruthless dictators. But it’s quite important
to mention again the fact, that the foundation of modern African politics was partially

     N. S. Booth, „Islam in Africa“, p. 297-343.

established during the historical period of capitalist-colonial domination in Africa and its
destructive legacy.12
        In this difficult and hurtful period many of the conflicts were nourished by the
religious intolerance. Since independence in the countries like Nigeria, Chad, and the
Republic of the Sudan, differences between the Muslim "north" and the non-Muslim "south"
have been partially responsible for civil strife. Although the religious aspect cannot be
ignored the basic of these problems may not be religious so much as ethnic and economic.13
The truth is that in time of such a conflict conversion to Islam (or other concerned religion)
can provide certain feeling of safeness and confidence.
        Booth asks, whether a new "third phase" of African Muslim history has now begun. If
so, he says, it probably is associated more with "secularization" than with independence as
such. In some areas, such as in western Nigeria, Islam is spreading as the personal faith of
individuals more than as a total communal way of life. The "new Muslims" may be very
devout personally, yet identify themselves politically, economically, and culturally with non-
Muslims. Political alliances cross religious lines in other areas, such as Senegal, which has a
large Muslim majority but a Christian president. Secularization, in these cases, involves the
disassociation of political loyalties from religious considerations. Booth finds even a greater
degree of secularization in the small but growing minority of younger and better-educated
Muslims in various parts of Africa. This kind of understanding Islam is quite different both
from that of the first phase, when it was a class cult, and from that of the second phase, when
it was a basis for communal integration.14
        But generally we can still see the same reason of appealing Islam as before because
both the colonial and post-colonial periods may be viewed as two phases of incorporation and
capitalist intrusion.15 We can use as a small example Kenya where a major millenarian
religious movement grew out of disaffection with tax and labor demands.16
        Also help with provision of the basic living needs still plays an important role as an
argument for Islam because there are many financial, educational and other material means
connected with quaranic schools and mosques through the whole Africa. There can be found
in some places the phenomena of talibés - the children who beg for the quranic schoolteacher.
The hunger and humiliation, alongside physical and verbal disciplining, are indeed intended

   C. J. Edie, Politics in Africa, p. 63-64.
   N. S. Booth, „Islam in Africa“, p. 297-343.
   Thomas S. Wiesner, Candice Bradley, Philip L. Kilbride (eds.), African Families and the Crisis of Social
Change, p. 17.
   B. Rau, Feast to Famine, p. 21.

to benefit the talibe children. However, representatives of the modern quranic school bluntly
referred to their colleagues from the talibe "ancient" school as "slave drivers".17
        So except still persisting aspects affecting conversion mentioned above in the part
colonial state, I consider the more important reasons in the post-colonial state. These are:

     o Islam can provide feeling of safeness and confidence in times of civil wars and other
        social and political turbulences.
     o Quaranic schools and mosques can help with provision of education and basic living


        In the small article I attempted to describe the appeal of Islam to indigenous African
inhabitants. The analysis of the problem requires a proper understanding of colonial state,
which still influences even the present African states. Although through the nineties almost all
of the African states switched to “democratic” multi-party states, their economics partially
still suffers under the dictate of the western financial institutions like the IMF etc. This plays
surely its role in recent conversions when Africans begins getting to know their course of
underdevelopment. Then “the direction Europe” as their path to the African exploited wealth
is quite understandable. The question is if there is a possibility of mutual trust in case of lying
both African and European textbooks for children. I consider understanding Islam, its spread
and radicalization, as a highly problematic in the society, where the political will to disclosure
of the truth doesn’t exist. The reason is clear. The disclosure of the truth would damage not
only them, but the essence of the global neoliberalism which we all believe in.

  Anne Kielland, Maurizia Tovo, Children at Work: Child Labor Practises in Africa, London: Lynne Rienner
Publishers 2006, p. 84-87.


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