Islam: An African Religion

The history of Islam in Africa is rich, substantial, and full of contradictions. While some would agree that Islam has a large positive heritage in Africa, others would disagree. In either case, it cannot be denied that Islam is now entrenched in many African cultures – almost inseparably – but also has a history of influencing many negative trends and forms of oppression, such as slavery, racism, and sexism. 

A question that should be addressed objectively: is Islam itself, as a religion, responsible for its history of oppression in Africa? i.e., are the practices of slavery and the prejudices of racism and sexism in Africa legitimately associated with the history of Islam? I heard arguments that affirm this association many times, in many different ways, by many different people, and every time I hear it – and after considerable examination – I conclude that it is generally reactionary and ahistoric (i.e., without concern for historical development). I will try to explain my position here.

Some Historical and Contemporary Realities to Start with

To put things in perspective, two points need to be in mind:

1- Islam today is the largest religion in Africa, with over 50% of the continent’s population identified as Muslim. A quarter of the World’s Muslims live in Africa. Sufism – the mystic movement of Islam – has played a prominent role in spreading Islam and maintaining its vitality in African lives and cultures. Sufism in Africa has not largely spread by ‘conversion through coercion’, yet it is credited with being the main responsible for introducing and spreading Islam throughout most of the continent. “Many Sufis in Africa are syncretic where they practice Sufism with traditional folklore beliefs.” (Wikipedia: Islam in Africa)

2- Early Islam emerged among a generally oppressed and poor people of Arabia. They enslaved each other, traded slaves with other parts of the world (including Africa, Persia and Roman territories), and their main economic activities were trading, direct labour and livestock herding, due to the nature of their land (very small allowance for agricultural activities). They were surrounded by bigger and stronger neighbors from all corners (i.e. Abyssinia, Roman Empire, Persia and Egypt).

When Islam emerged in this environment, it had a distinct and unmistakable stance against oppression and supremacy claims based on heritage; being historically the first religion to completely disqualify racism and declare the equality of all human beings (in addition to making serious strides in elevating the status of women; evident from the early women pioneers of the faith, some of whom were former slaves). Moreover, the prophet of Islam was particularly and openly impressed by the civilization and justice system of Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia and Eastern Sudan), and clearly respected them more than the other neighbors of Arabia. At the time, Abyssinia was also a colonizer of parts of Arabia (Yemen). The first refuge of the earliest Muslims who fled persecution in Makkah was Abyssinia, and it was there where they found a very good and hospitable asylum, as the prophet anticipated. Therefore Africa was the first continent to which Islam expanded, and it was not by military means.

Slavery is a Human Historical Institution

Slavery is an ugly institution, no doubt. We now look back in history and say this clearly, and almost all of us – human beings – agree. There is no illusion, though, that slavery was not a religious establishment, and certainly not an Islamic establishment as such. It existed in all societies, all cultures, and for long histories before and after the emergence of Islam or the Abrahamic religions in general. 

What would we make of the African history of slavery – the non-Muslim African nations and kingdoms who attacked and enslaved other Africans, and forced them to change their deities and names? What would we, for example, say about the long history of wars and forceful change of deities between ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia? Also, after Islam, what would we make of the many Muslim-inspired revolutions against the European colonial masters in the Sahelian region of Africa?

We need to be careful when we examine history, and be aware of ourselves as products of human history, with all its negatives and positives. I haven not seen, to this day, a self-determining being saying that he/she is also free from the historical accumulation that produced his/her peculiar existence. There is no such ‘thing’ as an ahistoric and universal human being. Our context and historical condition leaves its print on us all the time. Self-determination and freedom have nothing against understanding the givens, and the constraints, of historical context. Freedom implies the agency to build on that historical heritage in a self-determining way, but does not mean the abrogation of that heritage altogether; that is simply untenable and undesirable at the same time.

Religions are essentially a product of intellectual and spiritual exchanges between human beings throughout history. Religions circulated and evolved through interaction with one another. The origins of monotheism can be traced to the ancient Nubian beliefs (see the work of Cheikh Anta Diop on that). Religion is a product of the human condition of dynamic interaction (sometimes violent, sometimes not, but always historical and dialectic). It is an authentic ‘human’ product, not belonging to a specific race or land; the same way many would agree that atheism does not belong to any specific race or land. It is no historical mystery that all religions are interactive networks of ideas and beliefs, and are reproduced in such ways.  

Frankly, an apparent irony of the human condition is that many things that have been done cannot be undone, but can be transformed; such is the history of slavery.

Abrahamic Religions are Pioneered by Oppressed Peoples

Historically, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, were all born into conditions of oppression. Non of these persons was a ‘privileged white man’ or born into the condition of being one of the oppressor group. Abraham lived a great deal of his life a refugee in Africa; Moses and Jesus were raised among a colonized people; and Mohammed (whose ancestors are Kushite) was born among a people that were dominated, militarily and economically, by the Romans, the Persians, and the Abyssinians. More and more can be said about the original positions of these figures regarding oppression. It is historically erroneous to regard Christianity and Islam as ‘foreign’ products to Africa, because Africa and Africans played a very early and essential role in each of them. One can actually, confidently, say that Africans are closer to Christianity than Europeans, and are not further from Islam than Arabs.

That said, If one would want to consider any use of violence in human history as enough to mark a religion ‘foreign’ because it spread coercively, it would be very difficult to find one ‘indigenous’ religion today. The one genuine difference between what is ‘indigenous’ and what is ‘foreign’ is the historical phase in which the people are engaged in cultural transformation. By this I mean that the difference between the two is only essentially a difference of historical phase and the social sense of ‘ownership’ of the religion. What is foreign today can often, with the right factors, transform into native, and then indigenous, tomorrow. There is also no ‘indigenous’ concept or practice in the pure sense, for culture is inherently dynamic, and is formed through interactions and influences with the environment and with other beings. Cultural transformation itself, however, never stops, with both internal and external influences. In history, it is only naive to expect violence to be out of this process when it was part of every society’s daily life.

Let’s not rob our African ancestors their agency, which they lived and died by. Africans were never passive agents in cultural transformation anywhere they were present, outside or inside of Africa. The choice of following a certain religious doctrine, and seeding it into the local environment enough to ripen local fruit, is not a process to be confused with passive or coerced reception.

A friend of mine said, “If Islam and Christianity are now indigenous religions, why are they persecuting the indigenous religions that were there before these imperialistic foreign products?”. In my opinion, this only confirms that my friend is stuck on associating Islam and Christianity to the actions of certain historical groups who claimed to represent them. My friend practically accepted, and took for granted, their claim that they are the original representatives of the faiths, and with that he effectively disregarded those who disagree and counter the claim with legitimate evidence. That is why I consider my friend’s approach reactionary to this point; It does not address Islam or Christianity as ideological doctrines, shaped and reshaped through histories of many groups and many intents. These religions to him are only manifestations of certain oppressive schemes. That is what I call ahistoric understanding.

“The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, originally built in the reign of King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire in the 13th century. 
A prime example of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style of West Africa.” (Wikipedia)

Islam and Christianity were influenced by African dialectics. The Abyssinains, for example, did not only shelter Muslims; they accepted their claim to a new religion as a continuation of a revelation they – the Abyssinians – associate with. This is not a simple stance; it shows reflection and engagement in theological debate, and it also represents a manifestation of all that into a direct political will (i.e., deciding to protect the Arab Muslim refugees from being persecuted by their own people). The history of Islam and Abyssinia, and then the history of how Sufi Islamic conceptions permeated Africa without systemic coercion, is a strong account to contemplate.

Racism and Arabic Prejudice

While European racism towards Africa and Africans has been widely addressed and condemned, Arab racism seems to have not gone through such scrutiny. Therefore it still persists without substantial challenge. The topic of African-Arab relations surely needs much more attention than it receives today. Islamic fundamentalism’s operations in Africa, and Arab racism towards the indigenous peoples of Africa, are clear realities that many choose to bypass for many reasons.

Arab-based racism is more ‘mental-slavery’ than its European counterpart. Many black Africans have gone through genealogical gymnastics to assert some type of Arabic lineage in order to justify a higher status claim to the rest of their country men and women. It happens so many times that there are no apparent physical (phenotype) differences whatsoever between those who claim to be ‘Arab’ and those who are comfortable with their indigenous and ‘negroid’ African identity. This is evident in Mauritania, Sudan, Chad, and other parts of the larger Saharan and Sudano-Sahelian regions.

This is surely related to the history of Islam in Africa, since Islam emerged, as a distinct religion, by the prophet Mohamed in the Arabian peninsula. Arab-African relations enhanced, in degree and kind, after Islam appeared in the picture. For this specific topic I can refer the reader to my other blog: Arabic Identity and Prejudice


1- Islam started its relationship with Africa way before ‘Arab colonization’, since the very early years of Islam’s emergence. Islam is now inseparable from the histories and identities of many African peoples. A large percentage of Africans embraced Islam from early ages without coercion, and their history is essentially an African history. Islam, in this version, is an African religion, witnessed in many native cultures in the continent.

2- While Islamic fundamentalism and the justification of slavery are two destructive forces within the Islam practiced and/or approved by many today, they’re not necessarily ‘foreign to Africa’, or legitimate representatives of Islam by default. Both Muslim and non-Muslim Africans have enslaved, colonized, and continue to oppress their own brothers and sisters, and they have used cultural notions to justify their actions. There have also been, on the other hand, many religious and political movements/leaders for the liberation of Africa and African peoples that are of Muslim backgrounds, and based on African Muslim perspectives (Such as  the struggle history of anti-colonial Sufi-based movements in the Sahel, and the intellectual work of the Muslim Sudanese writer and socio-political leader Mhamoud M. Taha). 

Some References (for further reading)

– Abdulhadi As-Siddig (2005). The Sudanic Belt: its geography and history of civilization.
Arabic. (عبد الهادي الصديق: الحزام السوداني)
– Cheikh Anta Diop (1989). The African Origin on Civilization: Myth or Reality.
– Mahmoud M. Taha (1987). The Second Message of Islam. (translated by Abdullahi An-Na’im)
– Ronald Segal (2001). Islam’s Black Slaves: The other diaspora.

Gussai H. Sheikheldin
(published in the Citizen Newspaper, Sudan, May 29, 2013)

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