"The Mohammedan Negro has felt nothing of the withering
power of caste. There is nothing in his colour or race to debar
him from the highest privileges, social or political, to which
any other Muslim can attain."
-Edward W. Blyden, Liberian writer and thinker.
According to Arab oral tradition, Islam first came to Africa with
Muslim refugees fleeing persecution in the Arab peninsula. This
was followed by a military invasion, some seven years after the
death of the prophet Mohammed in 639, under the command of the
Muslim Arab General, Amr ibn al-Asi. It quickly spread West from
Alexandria in North Africa (the Maghreb), reducing the Christians
to pockets in Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia.
Islam came to root along the East African coast some time in the
8th century, as part of a continuing dialogue between the people
on the East coast and traders from the Persian Gulf and Oman.
Like early Christianity, Islam was monotheistic, that is, Muslims
worship only one God.
Islam was a modernising influence, imposing a consistent order
among different societies, strengthening powers of government
and breaking down ethnic loyalties.
Unlike Christianity, Islam tolerated traditional values, allowing
a man to have more than one wife. For many, this made conversion
to Islam easier and less upsetting than conversion to Christianity.
The Coast of East Africa has had a long history of trade, involving
constant exchanges of ideas, style and commodities for well over
two thousand years. Marriage between women of Africa and men of
the Middle East created and cemented a rich Swahili culture, fusing
urban and agricultural communities, rich in architecture, textiles,
and food, as well as purchasing power..
In the early centuries of its existence, Islam in Africa had a
dynamic and turbulent history, with reforming movements and dynasties
clashing and succeeding each other. Gaining power depended on
securing trade routes into gold-producing areas in Sub-Saharan
Africa. Islamic rulers expanded north as well as south. In the
last quarter of the 11th century, Islam dominated the Mediterranean
In the 14th century the Black Death came from Europe and seriously
undermined the social and economic life of North Africa, or the
Maghreb, as it is known. However Islam remained the dominant religion.
From the 16th to the 19th century, much of the Maghreb was under
Ottoman rule. By the 1880's, Islam had taken root in one third
of the continent.
All dates are given according to the western calendar but can
be converted online.
Listen to The Coming of Islam, the seventh programme in the BBC
landmark radio series The Story of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie