AfricaMuslim Frontier Communities
After striking its roots in Egypt and in the far West, Islam was carried into the fringes of black Africa by indigenous tribesmen. Through the foundation of trading centers, the movement of populations, and the affiliation with local ruling elites, Muslim influence in the interior of the region was strongly felt. In their eleventh-century search for gold, Berber nomadic tribesmen reached the area of upper Niger, which was inhabited by the Mande-speaking peoples (Malinke). Following their ruler, a sizable number of them embraced Islam. With the favorable political environment and the flourishing trans-Sahara trade, a Muslim community also flourished and became an important link between the older Islamic world north of the Sahara and the African interior southwards as far as the fringes of the forest. It was under this Islamic influence that the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay had functioned and prospered. Throughout the fourteenth century, a number of competent Muslim chiefs were able to create a considerable domestic power base and to cultivate strong relations with the older Muslim world, especially Egypt, Morocco, and Arabia.
Like the Berber in the north, the Christian Nubians of the Nile resisted the Muslim-Arab invasion and delayed the advance of Islam for centuries, although an Islamic state had been securely established in adjacent Egypt since the seventh century. It was only through persuasion and trade that Arab tribesmen and merchants were able to penetrate far beyond Aswan, which was used, like al-Qurawan in Maghrib, as a frontier garrison to protect the Muslims against the raids of the Nubians and the Beja. Although there was no deliberate policy of spreading Islam to the south, the gradual settlements and intermarriages between the Arabs and Nubians began a process of Arabization and Islamization that laid the foundations for the subsequent institutionalization of Islam. The discoveries of significant gold mines in the eastern region, and the intensive traffic caused by the religious pilgrimage known as the hajj, led to the rise of the Red Sea ports and to the flourishing of Muslim communities within them.
Apart from gold mines, the east African coast, which comprises what are today Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia, had experienced constant exposure to Islamic influence since the seventh century. Persian and Arab traders were active in the region for centuries, and through them Islam infiltrated the area through the Red Sea ports of Badi, Aidab, and Suakin. Consequently a string of Muslim enclaves and settlements arose and extended from the Gulf of Aden to Mozambique. However, a variety of factors halted the advance of these communities into the hinterland (present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi), and it was not until the nineteenth century that their Islamic influence reached Malawi and the Congo basin.
Searching for ivory, some pioneering Arab merchants from the east coast of Africa, especially Zanzibar, ended up within these central African regions. Trade in ivory had, however, become inseparable from the slave trade in which those Arabs were involved as intermediaries between indigenous slave traders and Europeans. But trade in ivory and slaves brought Africans, Arabs, and the European colonial powers to logger-heads. The Arabs' presence in central Africa was eventually broken during the European scramble for Africa, which had negative effects on the advance of Islam in that region.
Interestingly, the same institution of slavery that hampered the advance of Islam in central Africa generated numerous incentives to Islamic conversion in southern Africa. Between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, European colonialists, mainly Dutch, brought tens of thousands of slaves from Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent, and the Indonesian archipelago into South Africa. Although Christians, these European slavers did not evangelize among their slaves—such a practice would have held out the promise of legal and social equality. Discouraged from becoming Christians, some slaves turned to Islam and, together with exiled Muslim imams and political prisoners who were expelled from the same region, laid the foundations for an alternative Islamic culture and community.
Looking at the relatively rapid growth of Islam in African public life, one might think that Islam was an ideology of the rulers, or even a royal religion, as indeed some scholars have thought. Overemphasizing the role of tribal chiefs and traders, some scholars have also maintained that the spread of Islam was due not so much to a recognition on the part of the converts of the intrinsic qualities of the faith as to the desire for fame and wealth.
Traders and chiefs were important external agents of Islamization, but their efforts would have made little headway without two important internal factors: the self-propagating system of rituals that bind the individual worshipers and the scholar-led, mass-oriented Sufi brotherhoods that bridge the gap between government and society. If we are to understand the deeper Islamic influence in Africa, we must look beyond political institutions and ideologies into the Islamic system of worship, the centers of learning, and the social structures they stimulate.
Islam was not introduced to the common people as either theology or law but as a system of worship. After uttering the Shihada (a public declaration of faith) and learning to perform the obligatory rituals, a person would normally be designated a Muslim regardless of the adequacy of his knowledge about the theological and ethical implications of the faith. Simple as they may appear to be, these pillars of worship would ultimately bring in the other parts of the Islamic system, that is, the social and moral, and the political. The hajj, which entails an annual journey to Mecca, is a case in point. African pilgrims used to take the trans-Sahara route from central Africa to Tripoli or Egypt, or, alternatively, travel from the Chad region through Darfur, crossing modern-day Sudan to Massawa or Sawakin at the Red Sea. Such annual, collective spiritual journeys were instrumental in educating African Muslims and deepening their Islamic consciousness. The hajj would, necessarily, expose them to other peoples and cultures and give them prestige and influence in their own local communities. Upon completing his hajj and returning home, a person would usually be more committed to Islam and acquire, in the eyes of other believers, a kind of mystical aura; he might even become a focus of spiritual attraction. Through him and through his fellow travelers, new ideas would be introduced and new attitudes would be established. But before we can understand how Islam transformed ideas and attitudes, we must briefly examine the wider Islamic philosophical outlook.