Islam in East Africa

Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed


Like a benevolent mother opening her arms to all the children in the neighborhood, Africa held its arms open for successive waves of refugees from Arabia. In turn, the immigrants brought with them the light of Islam and shared it with the people of Africa. This was the quid pro quo between Africa and Arabia: Africa gave protection to the Arabs. In turn, the Arabs shared their faith and their knowledge with Africa.

It was the year 613 CE, nine years before the Hijra. Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) was still in Mecca. Mighty was the struggle he was engaged in, teaching the message of the Unity of
God and the brotherhood of man to a people steeped in layers of ignorance.  As conversion to Islam gathered momentum, so did the persecution of the Muslims. Conditions became so harsh in Mecca that the Prophet ordered a group of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia, across the Red Sea from Arabia. There the Christian king received them with honor and gave them protection. Two years later, in 615 CE, a larger migration took place. Many were the well known Companions who were a part of this second migration. The second group stayed in Africa for fourteen years, returning only in the year 629 CE, long after the Hijra (622 CE) and the establishment of a Muslim community in the City of Madina.

This pattern of migration continued after the passing away of the Prophet (632 CE). The civil wars that ensued over the succession to the Prophet generated successive waves of refugees. Africa always had its arms open to those Muslims who were at the losing end of armed conflicts and were fleeing the heavy handed persecution by the victors.  The Indian Ocean was the connecting link between the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of East Africa, called the Swahel (or Sahel) in Arabic.  It became the conduit for men and women seeking refuge from the political upheavals in the Arab world.

After the assassination of Hazrath Ali (r) in 661 CE and the tragedy of Karbala in 680 CE, the Umayyads consolidated their hold on the Arab Empire and relentlessly persecuted those who had supported Ali (r). Any sign of dissent was mercilessly crushed.  Resistance to this oppression, flowing in the body politic like a subterranean stream, surfaced sporadically but each time it surfaced, it was brutally crushed. The lineage of Hazrath Ali (r), the Shi’a Imams and their followers were always suspect in the eyes of the Omayyads who used every coercive means at their disposal to extirpate any sign of dissent.

The kharijites (al-khwarij) who had opposed both Muawiya and Ali (r) were the first group to face the wrath of the Omayyads. Unable to withstand the pressures, the kharijites split. One group moved west to North Africa and settled south of Tripoli, Libya. Another migrated to Oman (686 CE) and from there sailed down the coast to East Africa. In their new homes in Africa, they gave up their violent ways and turned their attention instead to charity and prayer (ibadah). Hence they were called the Ibadis.

The political climate for the Shi’as, and others opposed to Omayyad rule, improved somewhat during the reign of Khalifa Omar bin Abdel Aziz (717-719 CE) but deteriorated rapidly for the worse after his death by poisoning.  During the reign of Abdel Walid Hisham, a group of Sayyeds (descendents of the Prophet) migrated to East Africa and settled at Mogadishu. Wherever they went, they established mosques and halqas (centers of learning). The purity of their hearts and the nobility of their character attracted people and a large number accepted Islam.

The Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE turned the power structure of the Islamic world upside down. The victorious Abbasids pursued the Omayyads with a vengeance. It was now the turn of the Omayyads to flee. One of the Omayyad princes, Abdul Rahman I, escaped to Spain where he founded the Omayyad Emirate (751 CE). Other Omayyads fled south taking the oceanic route to the Swahel and settled along the coasts of Somalia and Kenya.

In the tenth century, the political edifice of the Islamic world was rent asunder from the Shia-Sunni split. The Fatimids (a branch of Shia Islam), challenging the authority of the Abbasids of Baghdad, marched out of the deserts of North Africa and soon overran Egypt and the Hejaz. In the tenth century, their sway extended as far east as Multan, currently in Pakistan. There were also many splinter groups among the Fatimids. One of the extremist groups, the Karamatians rose up in Yemen. Moving north, they sacked the city of Mecca in the year 930 CE, removed the Hijr e Aswad from the Ka’aba and carried it off first to Basra and then to Bahrain (it was brought back to Mecca by the Abbasids in 952 CE). People of Yemen and the Hejaz scattered. Some found refuge in the Swahel, settling down in cities as far south as Tanzania. Excavations on the Pate Island in the 1980s confirmed the presence of Muslims in East Africa as early as 830 CE.  Faza on the northern coast of Pate Island was a major center of commerce until it was destroyed by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

Through these centuries, there was a constant influx of traders from Oman and Persia into the Swahel. The immigrants had contacts in the lands they came from. Trade flourished. Africa offered Ivory and gold. The Arabs offered Yemeni textiles, Omani pearls, and Arabian (Yemini) incense. There was also a three way trade involving spices from the southwest coast of India and silk from China.

Trade, commerce and the two-way movement of people attracted the attention of kings and noblemen as well. Circa 1000 CE, Prince Ali Ibn Hassan al Shirazi of Persia migrated to East Africa along with his entourage of courtiers and supporters. He disembaked in Mogadishu, Somalia but his reception by the local elite was cool. Sailing further south, he landed at Kilwa in Tanzania.  He purchased the island from the Bantu king and established a trading post there.

The commanding location of Kilwa on the north-south sea lanes of East Africa gave it an advantage over rival trading posts. In time, Kilwa grew to be the most important trading center in East Africa. The political clout of the city grew in proportion to its commerce. In the twelfth century, Sultan Sulaiman Hassan, the ninth in the lineage of Sultan Ali ibn Hasan, captured the port of Sofala at the mouth of the Zambezi River. Sofala was the export center for the gold and ivory in the Zambezi River Basin. Control of this wealth gave the sultans of Kilwa enormous political clout along the Swahel and they extended their sway all along the coast, from Kenya to the Zambesi River and south. Included in their domains were Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Comoro, Sofala and the cities along the coast of the large island of Madagascar.  Kilwa carried on a brisk trade with cities as far away as Oman, Cochin (India) and Acheh (Indonesia).  Using the Astrolabe, the Kilwans developed precise navigational maps of the Indian Ocean.  Commerce made the African cities prosper and the sultanate of Kilwa rose to occupy an important place among the trading kingdoms that dotted the Indian Ocean like pearls around a half moon.

The free flow of people created a cosmopolitan culture wherein the immigrants and the Africans freely mixed with each other. The Arabs and Persians melted into the African milieu and a new culture arose amalgamating the best that Persia, Oman, Arabia, Yemen and East Africa had to offer. This was the origin of the Swahili culture. In time the Swahili language grew incorporating Bantu grammar and a rich Arabic and Persian vocabulary. It remains the lingua Franca of the people of East
Africa and is the declared national language of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, the Comoros and the Congo. The impact of Swahili culture and language is to be felt as far away as the African American population in the United States. Examples are the celebration of Kwanza as a holiday and the use of Kiswahili names by a sizable number of African Americans.

The far flung Kilwa sultanate was a free association of commercial interests between the major trading cities in the Swahel. The sultan was the nominal head of this association. Each city enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. The decentralized structure allowed each city to build its own trade relations with the Bantu peoples of the interior. The coastal cities exported Yemeni, Persian and Indian textiles to the interior and imported in turn ivory and gold. The region prospered.

Ibn Batuta visited the East African coast in 1331-32, traveling through the Sudan and Yemen, then on to Zeila (Eritrea), Mogadishu (Somalia), Mombasa (Kenya) and further south to Zanzibar and Kilwa. Ibn Batuta found the inhabitants of these cities to be very affluent. He records that they wore fine cotton clothes and intricate gold jewelry, prayed in domed mosques and dined on fine porcelain from China. Their cities were peaceful, with no outer fortresses, offering a warm and open welcome to the merchants from distant shores.

In the fifteenth century Kilwa went into decline because of court intrigue and internecine fighting. Ambitious viziers made the sultans their puppets and became de facto rulers. Sensing the corruption and turmoil in the capital, the associate cities in Sofala, Malindi, Mombassa and Mozambique sought to distance themselves from Kilwa and become independent.

It was into this fragmented political structure that the Portuguese thrust their dagger. Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. His goal was to find a sea route to the spice trade of India, bypassing the Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa who had hitherto controlled that trade. Vasco da Gama visited Mozambique and then Kilwa. Sailing further north he touched Mombasa and then Malindi.  It was from Malindi that he embarked on the last leg of his voyage. The Muslims of East Africa knew the Indian Ocean well and understood the monsoons that enabled them to ply this vast ocean.  Vasco da Gama enlisted the help of an African Muslim mariner Ahmed ibn Majid. Taking advantage of the southwest monsoons, he sailed across the Indian Ocean, and landed at Cochin on the Malabar coast of India in May 1498.

The discovery of a sea route to India from Europe, bypassing the land routes through the Middle East, was a major event in world history. Europe was now in a position not only to benefit from direct trade with Asia but more importantly, threaten the Arab and Muslim Middle East with military encirclement. From a global perspective, three major events took place in rapid succession towards the end of the fifteenth century.  They signaled the end of the medieval period and ushered in the era of European ascendency. In 1492 Granada fell and the Muslims (and Jews) were expelled from Spain freeing up the southwestern flank of Europe from Muslim encirclement, a prospect that had haunted Europe for seven hundred years. It was also in 1492 that Columbus made the European discovery of America and opened up the vast resources of the New World to European exploitation. Then, in 1498, Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India.

While Vasco da Gama opened European doors to the riches of Asia, the event proved to be a disaster for Muslims. It was not just trade that the Portuguese were interested in. They were intent on destroying Muslim influence in the Indian Ocean and imposing their brand of Christianity on the peoples of Africa and Asia. Their tool was the inquisition that they and the Spaniards had used with devastating effectiveness against the Jews and the Muslims in Andalus (1492-1498). Vasco da Gama used his first voyage as an intelligence gathering mission. He returned in 1502 at the head of a heavily armed flotilla of ships mounted with cannons and blasted his way across the coast of East Africa to India. The prosperous cities that dotted the rim of the Indian Ocean were trading posts. They had no defenses against an enemy attacking them from the sea. They fell one after the other before the Portuguese onslaught. The East African sultanates were in political disarray. Some of the cities, like Sofala, surrendered to the Portuguese. Kilwa resisted and was blasted and occupied. Arriving on the coast of India, the Portuguese flotilla engaged in wanton acts of piracy on the high seas. In one recorded instance, they captured a ship carrying Indian pilgrims to Mecca, butchered every man, woman and child on board and impaled a lone Egyptian mariner to the cross. The Hindu Raja of Cochin (the Zamorin) sent his ambassador, a respected Brahmin, to negotiate. The Portuguese cut off his nose and ears and sent him back to the Raja demanding total submission. When the Raja refused, the Portuguese bombarded Cochin and carried off scores of Indians as slaves.

In a short period of twenty years, the Indian Ocean turned from an ocean of peace to a theater of war. It had existed for a thousand years as a conduit of trade in which the peoples of the littoral states, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike interacted with each other. Now it became an ocean of conflict and insecurity. Destroyed were the coastal cities that had been built up over a period of centuries for commerce and trade by Africans, Arabs and Persians alike. In their place sprang up fortress towns with parapet mounted Portuguese cannons facing the oceanic trade routes. The Portuguese captured Goa, India in 1510 and made it the base for the expansions of their fledging Indian Ocean Empire. The onslaught continued through much of the sixteenth century. In 1511, Malacca (Malaysia) fell. Chinese Macau, which fell in 1557, marked the limit of their reach.

It was not until 1578 when an Ottoman Turkish armada engaged a Portuguese fleet off the coast of Tanzania and inflicted heavy losses upon it that the Portuguese menace was contained. It was the same year that the Portuguese king Sebastian was killed in the Battle of Al Qasr al Kabir in Morocco and Portugal became a protectorate of Spain. Moreover, Portugal did not have the resources to control and police a vast body of water like the Indian Ocean. For all these reasons, a stand-off prevailed for a hundred years between the Portuguese navy and the navies of the great land powers of Asia, the Moguls of India, the Safavids of Persia and the Ottomans of Turkey. This power balance lasted on the high seas until the ascendency of the Dutch and then the British in the eighteenth century. It is not commonly appreciated that it was the Ottoman naval effort in the Indian Ocean (1560-1578 CE) which preserved the Muslim influence on the coast of East Africa north of Tanzania while the coastline south of it continued under Portuguese control.

It is instructive to ask how a small country like Portugal could project its naval power as far away as China. The answer must be sought in the state of naval technology in Europe and Asia. The Andalusian Christian powers, the Spanish and the Portuguese, mastered the art of mounting cannon on board ships. It required an understanding of how to keep gun powder dry under the salty, humid conditions at sea. The Asian powers did not have this know-how. Secondly, the Europeans knew how to sail against the wind which gave their ships an advantage in close combat. Third, the Asian powers invested very little in their navies, content with the riches on land. China, the only Asian power which had shown its prowess at sea during the great voyages led by Admiral Ho (1402-1424 CE) had long since withdrawn into itself after the death of the Ming emperor Yongle. The Great Moguls never made a serious attempt to build a navy. The Safavids mounted a concerted effort to recapture the Straits of Hormuz from the Portuguese which they did in 1615 CE with some help from the British navy but it was a limited local engagement. The Ottomans did build a powerful navy (1540-1600 CE) which challenged the Spaniards in the Mediterranean and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean but their interest tapered off in the seventeenth century.

It was left to the sultans of Oman to challenge the Portuguese sway over East Africa. In 1698, Saif ibn  Sultan, Imam of the Ya’rubi dynasty of Oman captured Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya.  In the succeeding years, the Omanis advanced down the East African coast and consolidated their hold on all the territories between Mogadishu in Somalia and Sofala in Mozambique.  Thus the Muslim sultans regained political control over the Swahel. In 1741 the Sa’idis succeeded the Ya’rubis as the Emirs of Oman. In 1837, Sa’id bin Sultan shifted his capital from Oman to Zanzibar. Under this able monarch, the East African region was integrated into a common market.  The Swahili language received royal patronage while Arabic was the state language. Trade, commerce, culture and the arts flourished. Schools and madrasas were built all along the coast. Trade fostered business relations with the interior and conversion to Islam gained momentum in the African hinterland. The sultan founded the new cities of Tabourah and Ajjuji and worked ceaselessly to establish friendly relations with the heads of the neighboring states.  Further north, the emirate of Lamu (Kenya) flourished. It became renowned for its fine wooden structures, intricate jewelry, cloth, musical instruments, and the fine arts.

After the death of Sa’id bin Sultan, the Omani kingdom was divided between his two sons. One of the sons, Majid Ibn Sa’id inherited the Swahel while the other, Thuwaini Ibn Sa’id kept Muscat and Oman. Sultan Majid was a far sighted monarch and continued the wise policies of his father. He founded a new city, Dar es Salaam, as the capital for his kingdom. Through deft diplomacy, he kept at Bay the British and the other European powers who had consolidated their hold on much of Asia. During his reign, Islam was at its zenith of influence in East Africa.

Colonialism was a spreading virus. Sultan Majid passed away in 1870 and his successor Sultan Bargash lacked the wisdom to govern and stave off the contagion of colonialism. An independent East Africa was too much to stomach for the British who had consolidated their Indian empire.  The British navy was the mistress of the seas. The other European powers were not far behind in their quest for colonies and actively worked with the British to divvy up the continents of Asia and Africa.

Kaiser’s Germany, moving in collusion with Great Britain, colonized much of Zanzibar between 1883 and 1885. The sultan was left was a narrow stretch of land surrounding his capital. The Portuguese extended their sway to the north and occupied all the territories up to Cape Delgado. The sultan was hemmed in. In 1886 he accepted the protection of the British over the coastal strip north of Wenga while the strip to the south was ceded to the Germans. Further concessions followed in succeeding years. In 1889, he accepted British protection over Zanzibar. He then sold Dar es Salaam, Kilwa and Lindi to the Germans for four million pounds. By 1894 the sultanate had completely disappeared and its place taken by British, German and Portuguese colonies.

The Germans organized their colonies under the name of Tanganyika.  However, their colonial empire was short lived. After their defeat in World War I the Germans surrendered their colonies to the British except for Rwanda and Burundi which were handed over to the Belgians. The areas under British control were reorganized into the modern states of Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. Somalia resisted under the determined leadership of Shaikh Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (1899-1920) but his endurance was no match for the vast resources and firepower of the British Empire. The resistance was crushed and Somalia became a British protectorate. It was occupied briefly by the Italians under Mussolini during WWII.

European colonial rule did not go unchallenged in other parts of East Africa as well.  Al Abushiri of Tanzania led a revolt against the German occupation in 1887-88. The uprising was crushed and Al Abushiri was publicly hanged by the Germans. There were revolts against the British in Malawi and Uganda, and against the Belgians in the Congo.  This was the political-military front. More important was the resistance to European cultural imperialism. Christian missionaries appeared on the heels of the colonizers and set up proselytizing missions. Conversion to Christianity was encouraged by the Portuguese by force and more subtly by the British, the Belgians and the Germans.  The language of instruction in schools and in official transactions was changed from Arabic to English and other European languages. The Muslims were suspicious of the European schools and stayed away from them. This had the impact of excluding the Muslims from government jobs because the state machinery now worked through English, French and Portuguese. On the other hand, those who attended European schools rose to occupy the new strata of the bureaucratic elite, the government functionaries, judges and teachers. The Arabic schools, lacking state support, fell back on local community support. As poverty spread, the support of these schools also decreased, catching the Muslims of the Swahel in a downward socio-economic spiral.

Faced with this cultural onslaught, the Muslims of the Swahel waged a valiant struggle, setting up their own Qura’nic schools. As the European administrations built roads and improved communications with the interior, the Muslim ulema used the opportunity to open Islamic schools in the interior. In the ensuing contest for new converts, the Muslims, with the simplicity of their religion and the sincerity of their efforts, were more successful than their Christian counterparts. But they lagged behind in education, jobs and the technical disciplines.

The Second World War sapped the strength of the European colonial empires. When India gained its independence in 1947, the British lost the Indian army which had provided the muscle power to keep their other colonies at bay. Independence of the African countries followed. Tanganyika gained its independence in 1961 followed by Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda in 1962 and Kenya in 1963. Zanzibar also gained its independence in 1962 but it was overrun by troops from Tanganyika who invaded and slaughtered a large number of Muslims. Malawi gained its independence in 1964 and Mozambique was free in 1974 after a long and protracted armed struggle.

Independence was welcomed by all the peoples of Africa. Here at last they were free to chart out their course through history and take their place in the comity of nations. However, due to the legacy of colonial rule, the Muslims of the region faced specific challenges in the educational, cultural and technological fields. The difficulties varied from country to country but there were also common threads that ran through them.

Security has been an issue with the people of the Horn of Africa. The long drawn out war between Eritrea and Ethiopia took its toll. Since the 1990s, Somalia has been beset by foreign invasions and internal instability making it impossible to reconstruct a civil life. Chaos reigns. The people suffer. The situation is far from stable even as of this writing.

Education has been a continuing challenge for the Muslims. The colonial administrations created an education system which clearly favored those who attended missionary schools over the graduates of the Qur’anic schools. The disparity in education continues to this day and is reflected in the number of university graduates. Muslim children graduate in far fewer numbers than is warranted by their numbers. A vicious cycle of poverty and lack of education has taken its toll in Mozambique, Somalia and Malawi. The Muslims face a dual challenge: How to teach their children the Qur’an and Islamic disciplines and at the same time advance in the secular, technological disciplines to compete with the rest of the population. This is the same challenge faced by Muslims wherever they live as a political or cultural minority.

Africa is a resilient continent. It has endured and has survived some of the worst tragedies experienced by humankind. The Muslims of East Africa, citizens of their respective countries, realize that what is past is past and are looking forward to the future. There is emphasis on modern education.  The enrollment of Muslims in schools and universities is increasing. In Uganda, for instance, the Uganda Muslim University was established at Mbale with the help of the Ugandan government and the Organization of Islamic Conference. In secular Tanzania, Muslims have a respectable presence in the legislature and the judiciary. There are numerous Islamic organizations in each of the countries of the East Africa. Assistance from the oil rich Gulf countries has helped some schools. Participation in the Hajj from the Swahel has been increasing. The Muslim Personal Law is accepted as a source of jurisprudence for Muslims in most East African countries.  The Law itself is undergoing continual scrutiny to apply it to a modern, technological age.   There is hope that this vital part of the Islamic world will successfully overcome its political, educational and cultural difficulties, rise to the occasion and will creatively contribute to the broader community of man. A great civilization always does.

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