horizontal rule

horizontal rule

Islam in Africa


Iqbal Jhazbhay

August 30, 2003

horizontal rule


Islam is a crucial cultural, religious and political force throughout Africa, counting more than one-third of the continent’s inhabitants among the faithful. This article traces the history of Islam since the early seventh century to its current status and emergence as an alternative system for organizing the social, political and economic life of Muslims.

horizontal rule

Today, Islam in Africa has rooted itself with a distinct local flavour. The spiritual masters, with their deep-rooted visions and strong educational programmes, have been recognised as having played a key role in interpreting Islam for the specific needs of African Muslims.

Islam is a crucial cultural, religious and political force throughout Africa, yet when one thinks of Africa, the idea that more than a third (307 million) of the continent’s estimated 770 million inhabitants are of Muslim faith may not cross the mind immediately. (See the table: "Statistics on Islam in selected African nations" at the end of this article). This is partly because of the erroneous notion that many African countries -- notably those in the northern parts -- are considered either part of the Arab world or a subsection of the Middle East.

Countries like Senegal, Mali and Somaliland are mostly Muslim. Half of Nigeria’s 113 million inhabitants -- Africa’s most populous nation -- are proponents of the Islamic faith. In addition, Africa’s remaining two most populous nations, Egypt and Ethiopia, have a Muslim population of 94 % and 59.68 % respectively. Furthermore, there are large Muslim communities in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

In short, Islam is very much an African religion with African roots and, as such, has been an important part of the political and cultural development and evolution of many African nations. Muslims were crucial in creating commercial networks with the rest of the world, in state building, in introducing literacy (when Muslims were in charge of state records), as well as in exchanges of inter-state diplomacy within Africa and beyond.


When did Islam take root in Africa? The historian Basil Davidson provides some answers in his text Africa in History:

“Of the headlong rush of Islam through North Africa and Spain, the dates speak almost for themselves. They are dramatic dates; even, at first sight, impossibly so. On 16 July 622, four men traveling on two camels left Mecca (the initial heartland of Islam) for another obscure Arabian town, Medina. Within as few as twenty-two years the movement of religious and political revolution thus set going by Muhammad (the Prophet of Islam) had won the whole of Arabia and Syria, engulfed Egypt, seized the Byzantine fortress at the southern apex of the delta of the Nile, captured Alexandria, and was everywhere preparing new departures.”

Prior to the date 622 provided above, Muslims fondly recall that the king of Abyssinia, Negus, provided shelter to Muslims escaping persecution from the Meccans in 615. Later King Negus accepted Islam.

Another historical question remains: How do we hope to explain how the Muslim faith of the Arab conquerors, who entered Africa from Tunisia (670, Uqba ibn Nafi), Morocco (683), Ghana (900), Mali (1000), and later East Africa by trading missions, could take root and flourish among peoples who owed nothing to the Arabs, knew little of them and did not speak the Arabic language?

The answer seems to lie with the fact that Arab conquerors could not simply appear as conquerors, but “also as renovators, as leaders who could point the way to a better order of society”. A society that -- in the words of Basil Davidson -- “bore the light of tolerance and social progress through centuries when Europe, impoverished, provincialised and almost illiterate, lay in distant battle and confusion”.

Europe and the barbarian raiders of the north, led by the Vandals, Goths, Franks and Visigoths two centuries earlier, failed to impress the Berber tribes of Africa. The culture of embracing many peoples remained beyond their grasp. It was largely due to these limitations and the social insecurity and turmoil long experienced that the Muslim case triumphed where its contesters failed.

Political Change

The greatest socio-political and cultural impact of Islam in the last few decades has understandably been in the Arabised part of the continent, such as Egypt, Sudan and north Africa, which came under Arab-Muslim cultural and political influence during the seventh to eighth centuries -- early in the history of Islam.

However, other African countries with Muslim majorities or substantial minorities have also been affected by the influences emanating from Islam. Former South African president Nelson Mandela has regularly made reference to the key role South African Muslims played in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. In this respect, this vocal Muslim minority community assumes a more assertive cultural identity and engages in civic and political activity.

An important feature of Islam in the last three decades has been its political reshaping. Therefore, it has emerged as an alternative system for organizing the social, political and economic life of Muslims.

Islamic Movement

This has given rise to the Islamic movement phenomenon in its various shapes. The methods applied by various groups and movements to bring about an Islamic system have differed from country to country and from time to time, ranging from mild efforts to assist the cultural Islamisation of society, to efforts to gain power through electoral means, to acts of violence.

The most dramatic example of how the Islamic movement’s efforts to implement their vision can lead to conflict and bloodshed has been the Algerian civil war, which began in 1992 when Algeria’s Islamic groups were denied the fruit of their electoral victory. The war has subsided somewhat, but it has not completely ended. Nor has Algeria succeeded in healing its wounds and developing a new national consensus.

Meanwhile, Algeria’s example has been used as a pretext by some governments to avoid political liberalisation, disallowing a voice even to moderate Muslims who would like to advance their views within a democratic framework.

However, the dilemma is real, and as long as all major Muslim groups have not accepted the clarion principles of democracy, it will remain so. During 2000, two major African countries--Nigeria and Morocco--embarked on a process of liberalisation. In Nigeria’s case, this meant a return to the democratic process after years of military rule. In the case of Morocco, it meant a move towards political liberalisation. In Nigeria, the return to democracy reopened some of the old issues that have long divided the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south.

The most contentious has been the north’s demand for the implementation of the Shari'ah, forms of Islamic penal law that govern the nature of punishments for criminals, as well as social behaviour.


In studying the evolution of political Islam in Nigeria, scholars have provided the historical background to the evolution of Nigerian Islam and show how issues of ethnicity, religion, class and economic interests have interacted to create the present circumstances of conflict. Many analysts have shown how the precepts of Islam, such as Shari’ah, have been appropriated in the struggle for the resources of Nigeria.

The conclusion scholars have reached is that “as long as Nigeria’s social and economic problems persist, the risk of manipulation of religion for political purposes and/or the practice of resorting to religion to find answers to problems of the material world will remain”. However, the restoration of democracy to Nigeria provides some hope that the current problems and tensions will not reach a point where widespread conflict becomes likely.

However, for the democratic process to have a chance to succeed, some rapid improvement in Nigeria’s economic conditions -- especially a reduction in the level of unemployment -- is necessary.


In Morocco, by contrast, political liberalisation initiated by King Muhammad VI has opened new possibilities for the Islamic forces to play a constructive role in their country’s politics, such as the Al-Islah wa at-Tawhid (Reform and Unity c -1982) and Al-`Adl wal Ihsaan (Justice and Goodness c - 1985). The question now posed by observers is whether they will use this opportunity wisely.

At present, it appears unlikely that Morocco will face a state-threatening challenge from Islamic groups. In the meantime, commentator Mecham notes, “finding an effective mechanism for incorporating Islamist groups into the political process without threatening the consolidation of liberal political reform remains a principal challenge for the new king and Morocco’s political leaders, secular and Islamist alike”.

Meanwhile, relations between states and Islamic movements in other North African countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, remain tense.

Islam Today

Today, Islam in Africa has rooted itself with a distinct local flavour. The spiritual masters, with their deep-rooted visions and strong educational programmes, have been recognised as having played a key role in interpreting Islam for the specific needs of Africans. From the early 1970s vigorous external attempts have been made to “re-root” Islam on the continent. Such theological attempts, while sincere, have added and at times disturbed the fine religious ecology of Africa.

horizontal rule

Statistics on Islam in selected African nations


Total Population
(in millions)

Percent that is Muslim

Muslim Population
(in millions)

Algeria 31.1 99 % 30.79
Benin 6.3 15 % 0.95
Burkina Faso 11.57 50 % 5.79
Chad 7.56 50 % 3.78
Congo 50.48 10 % 5.05
Cote d’Ivoire 15.8 60 % 9.48
Djibouti 0.45 94 % 0.42
Egypt 67.27 94 % 63.23
Ethiopia 59.68 47 % 28.05
Ghana 18.88 30 % 5.66
Kenya 28.8 7 % 2.0
Libya 4.99 97 % 4.84
Malawi 10 20 % 2.00
Mali 10.43 90 % 9.39
Mauritania 2.58 100 % 2.58
Mozambique 19.1 20 % 3.82
Niger 9.96 80 % 7.97
Nigeria 113.83 50 % 56.92
Senegal 10 92 % 9.20
Somalia 7.1 100 % 7.10
Sudan 34.47 70 % 24.13
Tanzania 31.27 35 % 10.94
Tunisia 9.5 98 % 9.31
Uganda 22.8 16 % 3.65
Total 583.92 53 % 307.06

Source: CIA World Fact book 1999 (Washington, DC: CIA, 1999)

horizontal rule

Iqbal Jhazbhay teaches at the University of South Africa and serves on the ANC’s Commission for Religious Affairs. This article has appeared in the South African Encyclopedia. He can be contacted at thabo@nuradeen.com

horizontal rule

horizontal rule

Hit Counter