The history of Islam in East Africa is extremely significant in elucidating the modern place of Islam. However, Islam in this large region has diverse and different histories. According to historians and religious sources, Islam penetrated Ethiopia when Prophet Mohammed was alive. It penetrated to Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo in the 19th century. Consequently, the specificity of these histories in various parts of the region has influenced the role of modern history in the different countries of Eastern Africa. It is also recognized that the coast of East Africa has had contacts with Red Sea and maritime India civilizations several centuries before the advent of Islam. Sumerians and Assyrians from Iraq were amongst the earliest visitors to the coast of Eastern Africa. The belief that Sumerians and Assyrians were among the first visitors is supported by various archaeological and historical findings.
The development of Kiswahili language and Swahili culture along the eastern Africa coastline from a minority language to an international language can be associated with many factors. Examples of these factors include religion, slave trade, commerce, colonial rule, communication, education, wars and post independence policies of the government among others. Most of these factors have researched extensively. Nevertheless, the factor of religion especially Islam up to present casts a dark shadow over the role of religion in civilizing the eastern Africa coast. In this regard, this paper discusses the various impacts of Islam on East African communities.
Islamization in the coast of East Africa
Migration across the Red Sea and from Egypt was a very long process by both Egyptians and pastoralists respectively. According to historical sources, the migration process pre-date Islam, though it continued energetically after Islam. The Muslim Egypt and the Christian Nubia had friendly relations and treaty with Muslim Egypt and the trade between them flourished. Nubia provided an obstacle to downward penetration of pastoralists and Islam. However, during the 14th century, the Egyptian Mamluk conquered the Nubian. Therefore, the southward penetration of Islam intensified. As the penetration intensified, the Funj kingdom arose bringing to an end the Christian Nubian kingdom. The new established kingdom expanded northwards and became an empire. The expansion caused some parts of the empire to get Arabized and Islamized. The Islamization in west and south of the Funj Empire continued through migration and trade links. According to Islamic history, 16th century migration of holy-men and Muslim scholars from North Africa and Upper Egypt as well as Arabia resulted into a significant Islamization of the region.
In relation to Ethiopia, the Aksumite state arose in the Ethiopian highland at around the start of Christian era. The king of Aksumite was converted to Christianity and later Christianity became the official religion of the state. From that time to present, it has been extremely difficult to break up the church from state in Ethiopia. The state of Aksumite in the highlands of Ethiopia prospered during the forthcoming seven centuries before experiencing a prolonged decline. The decline was because of the internal struggles between the regional ruling nobility and the kings. Consequently, Muslim states began establishing themselves at the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands and the coast of Red Sea. According to academicians, Muslim states grew on African side of the Red Sea after the death of Prophet Mohammed. Islam slowly gained popularity via trade occupying to the foothills of Ethiopian highlands. The Aksumite Kingdom lost its trade routes as the Islam continued expanding in the mid-7th century. By mid-9th century, Islam had reached the southern cost of Gulf of Aden and Eastern Africa coast. The Ifat and Muslim sultanate were established at the beginning of the 12th century. Some of the Cushitic people were slowly converted to Islam. According to historical sources, the conversion of Cushitic people resulted from the proselytizing efforts of Arab traders. Cushitic people permanently got Islamized and occupied the horn of Africa.
At the beginning of 13th century, one of the major problems faced by the Christian kingdom that was ruled by Amhara was the threat of Muslim provocation. During this time, Islam had established itself firmly in east and south of Ethiopian highlands. The major impact of Islamization during this time was urbanization. Cities like Harar grew as Islam gained popularity in both the present day Somali and Ethiopia. Despite the propensity towards disunity, the Muslim community continued posing intermittent threats to the Christian kingdom.
In the mid-1520s, a major Muslim voyage mounted against the Christian state in Ethiopia. The voyage, over the next fewer years, broke into the heartland of the Ethiopian state. They placed the Christian kingdom under the administration of Muslim governors. In the mid-16th century, the military and political organization of the Christian kingdom had already been weakened by Muslim assault. During the same century, the Oromo movements also began pressurizing the Christian kingdom from the south. During this time, the Oromo had settled in the south of Ethiopia. The Oromo had small Muslim kingdoms that became powerful military forces in various kingdoms. They therefore became a significant political factor in various Ethiopian states.
Some Somali people moved from Afar, in the presently known Ethiopia, to Tana, in the presently Kenya. Others quickly occupied the peninsular to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. As such, they met Arabs and Swahili people who were occupants of this region. The Somali established a series of settlements along the eastern Africa coastline. The arrival of Arabs and the converted Islamic Somalis intensified the spread of Islam along the coast of East Africa. In addition, the presence of Muslims along the coast increased significantly due to the increased trading activities in the Indian Ocean. Muslim settlers came from Iran, Oman, Yemen and Hadhramaut. These settlers settled mostly along the entire coats from Somali, Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa, and all the way to Mozambique.
The intensified spreading of Islam due to the arrival of Arabs and Somalis, and intermarriages with the local people resulted into the Swahili people and Swahili culture. Perhaps, this is the most notable impact of Islam at the coast of East Africa. The process that resulted in Swahili culture took several centuries. Islam religion was at the centre of Swahili culture and established city-states along the coast. History reveals that the Muslim Swahili communities became prosperous due to their linkage with the Indian Ocean and international trade. They also maintained a peaceful coexistence with their neighboring communities. The arrival of Portuguese in 1498 shook the situation. The Portuguese took control of Kilwa and controlled the entire coastal strip.
The Swahili people have, over centuries, developed cultural unity. In addition, Islam and Swahili language are at the core of this coastal culture. Over these centuries, the coastal city-states had significant social, economic and cultural interactions between them. Islam in the coastal Eastern Africa has deep roots. Historically, the coastal people of Eastern Africa are Sunni Muslims and conform to the Shafii School despite Oman that conforms to Ibadi School being dominant power along this region. According to historians, this is due to the extremely strong links between Hadhramaut in Yemen and the East African leadership. The Eastern African coast has produced its own well-known scholars recognized all through the Islamic World. The main centers of religious scholarship and learning have been Mombasa, Lamu, Comoro islands and Zanzibar. Presently, Lamu in Kenya is the most widely acknowledged Islamic center along eastern Africa coastal strip as well as the interior of East Africa.
Islamization of East African Mainland
However, Islam in the mainland has a more recent history. Islamization of the mainland might have taken place during the 19th century. During this century, Zanzibar emerged as a thriving center of East African trade between the interior and the coast. The trade routes extended downward into Mozambique and Malawi, and Westward onto the Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Buganda. Islam spread to the interior majorly via settlements of Swahili people and Arab traders. The settlement of both Arab traders and Swahili people were majorly the encampment and villages that developed into urban centers. Therefore, in the mainland of East African Coast, Islam is not only recent but is also identified with Swahili culture. It is evident that Swahili culture is mainly based in towns and villages along the trade routes used by Arab traders and Swahili settlers.
However, Swahili language and culture as well as Islam spread much earlier and extensively in Tanganyika than in any other interior neighboring regions. This was because of Tanganyika had the largest number of trade route encampments and settlements of Arab and Swahili settlers. Islam was the main agent of the alleged “detribalization” of the mainland Tanganyika. In addition, during the short administration of Tanganyika, Germans used Swahili as its administrative language and favored Muslims in the administrative positions due to its international alliance with the Ottoman Turkey. During the German administration, Islam and culture extended and entrenched in the mainland Tanganyika.
On the other hand, the Kenyan case is different. This is because Kenya did not have trade routes until in the 19th century when the British had an interest in establishing themselves in both Uganda and Kenya. This forced the British to construct railroads from the coastal town of Mombasa to Uganda. As a result, Islam and Swahili spread into the interior at much later time. Historians have also pointed out that Islam and Muslim porters, soldiers and early domestic servants of British settlers mainly spread Swahili. According to historians, these people were majorly Muslims from the coast or from Somali. Islam spread to Uganda via early trade from Zanzibar through Tanganyika. According to historians, Islam also spread to Uganda through via the settlement of Nubian Soldiers. The arrival of colonial masters not only brought colonial administration and economic exploitation but also church missionaries came in force.
Islam in Africa and African Islam
There is much similarity between Islam in Africa and African Islam. Arabic culture has significantly affected Swahili tradition. One major legacy of the Arabic culture is the incidence Islamic religion among the Swahili speaking people. According to historians, Islamic traditions regulate almost each aspect of the culture of Swahili people, including clothing, food and lifestyle among others. For instance, both Swahili and Muslim children have to attend Madrassa, which are religious class that involves studying the Koran and learning the Arabic language. Unlike other Kenyan tribes that do not practice Islam, there are no specific rites of passage for young Swahili women and men.
Similar to Islamic culture, marriage in Swahili culture marks the transition to adulthood. According to researchers, parents often arrange marriages in Swahili culture. However, the parents of bride in both Swahili and Islamic cultures will often choose the groom for their daughter. However, the bride has the right to refuse the choice of the parents and choose her own groom. The marriages in Swahili are also similar to those in Islamic culture in that weddings in both cultures last for many days and involve long preparations.
Islam in East Africa has been known for many years to cohabitate with African Islam to an extent of intermixture. African Islam refers to Islam practiced the African way. In some parts of Africa, African Islam has gradually substituted Islam without any ruptures and clashes. Presently, a significant number of African Muslims seem to reject this experience. These Islam prefer the Arab model of living Islam. This is because they imagine Islam to have been introduced by Prophet Mohammed and lived by the founding community in Medina.
In Africa, more than any other place, the tendency of Islamization in whatever form is seems to be a challenge to the way of behaving, being and living in a community. This is a challenge to extreme roots of the African way of Islam. The question is “can there be a justified way of being a Muslim or not?”
The mass practice of Islam by Africans is comparatively a recent fact. The practice of Islam was preceded in many cases by an extremely long period of coexistence. During this period, Islam remained a religion for the minority. According to researchers, it was not the pre-eminence of religious message of Koran, which finally tipped the balance in Islam’s favor.
African Islam culture, besides the confusing diversity of its actual expression forms, is in reality much more than those in west mean by the term religion. The African Islam is universal framework of life that involves every human situation and governs the entire society. African culture is closely associated to ancestral soil.
Another similarity between African Islam and Islam in Africa is that they both worship one God whom they believe to be the creator of the universe and underlies everything else in the universe. Islamic culture and African culture believe that God does not interfere with the daily affairs. The two cultures believe that the daily activities are controlled by good or evil, and invisible forces from who is possible to win favors via the ritualized experience of ancestors. An example is the belief among Africans that spirits can possess an individual.
In various regions of East Africa, Islam has little by little substituted itself for the African culture. This substitution is sometimes under the influence of external factors. In the vast majority cases, the substitution of Islam for African culture occurs without any violence. One can mention an entire series of factors showing the level of sociological and cultural proximity between the two religious cultures. However, at the time, other respects that are equally fundamental, in which the African and Islam religion seem irreconcilable also exist. During the inception of Islam, for instance, ancestor worship was something primary with African religion. This is seems foreign to Islam cultures. The actual closeness between African religion and Islam lies far more in the fact that the two cultures are more than pure and simple religion. This is in the sense that one religion solely deals with the relationship of man to the spiritual.
In all the problems of life disillusioned with traditional socio-religious universe, Islam seems to provide a new approach that is all-embracing, secure and reassuring. A new cohesion in the Muslim community substitutes the tribal and village cohesion without transforming the habits and laws of Africans. The new prohibitions and prescriptions seem to have replaced the habits and laws without the need to attempt and understand their deeper meaning. However, this does not exclude the ritual practices of some African religions in order to conciliate the intermediate powers. Islam practiced by Africans does not explicitly forbid this. On the other hand, in relation to the central place of the Koranic text and the impossibility of most African Islams gaining direct access to it, because they do not know Arabic, the custodians of scriptures have become the new intermediaries.
During the process of Islamization, the key motive was clearly the desire to belong to a community. In this regard, Islamization has showed patience and flexibility over many centuries. Accessing the Muslim community has often been extremely easy. It requires a change of name and the reading of the profession of faith, which is also known as shadada, before witnesses. The deepening of religious knowledge and the normal fulfillment of the other religious duties will follow only a generation later. According to African Islamists, there is no a real break in the passage from one Islam community to another. It is simply a continuous disengagement from one Islamic community to another.
The extremely long cohabitation of Islam in Africa and African Islam has also had an impact at the cultural level of East Africans. The East African languages are, in general, languages with solid vocabulary. According to linguistics, African languages affected by are rather also limited in the expression of developed reflections or abstract. The Arabic and Islam language has been capable of filling the gap. In fact, African, some barely touched by Islamic culture, seem to have borrowed a comprehensive abstract, vocabulary, and most importantly religious from Arabic. These languages exhibit no more than the changes to proper structure of the language.
Migration across the Red Sea and from Egypt was a very long process by both Egyptians and pastoralists. The migration process pre-date Islam, though it continued energetically after Islam. The Aksumite state arose in the Ethiopian highland at around the start of Christian era. The king of Aksumite was converted to Christianity and later Christianity became the official religion of the state. In the mid-1520s, a main Muslim voyage mounted against the Christian state in Ethiopia. The voyage, over the next fewer years, broke into the heartland of the Ethiopian state. Some Somali people moved from Afar, in the presently known Ethiopia, to Tana, in the presently Kenya. Others quickly occupied the peninsular to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. As such, they met Arabs and Swahili people who were occupants of this region. The intensified spreading of Islam due to the arrival of Arabs and Somalis, and intermarriages with the local people resulted into the Swahili people and Swahili culture. The Swahili people have, over centuries, developed cultural unity. In addition, Islam and Swahili language are at the core of this coastal culture. Over these centuries, the coastal city-states had significant social, economic and cultural interactions between. There is much similarity between Islam in Africa and African Islam. Arabic culture has significantly affected Swahili tradition. One major legacy of the Arabic culture is the incidence Islamic religion among the Swahili speaking people. Similar to Islamic culture, marriage in Swahili culture marks the transition to adulthood. Islam in East Africa has been known for many years to cohabitate with African culture to an extent of intermixture. In some parts of Africa, African culture has gradually substituted Islam without any ruptures and clashes. Another similarity between African Islam and Islam in Africa is that they both worship one God whom they believe to be the creator of the universe and underlies everything else in the universe. During the process of Islamization, the key motive was clearly the desire to belong to a community.