Islam is mainly present from the Sahelian zone to the rainforest, in a band stretching from Senegal to Somalia. It is found in the north of Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. While Central Africa has only small Muslim minorities, East Africa has a stronger and long-standing presence in some areas. Central and East Africa have only small Muslim minorities.
Caravan trade Islam
From the VIIIth century onwards, Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa via trade networks. From this set of exchanges and circulations, three distinct geographical areas emerged: firstly, the Horn of Africa and the upper Nile Valley, then the Swahili area, and finally West Africa. [i]
The presence of Islam in certain regions of Black Africa, precisely in the Sudano-Sahelian zone, is ancient. Since at least the XIth century, with the Almoravid dynasty (1050–1147), Islam has gained more and more followers south of the Sahara and it is still spreading progressively today. However, it must be emphasized that this is not a popular Islam, but rather, a court Islam, with converted rulers who surrounded themselves with Muslim scholars, as in the Mali empire for example. Throughout the period from the XIth to the XVIIth century, it was through trade and the presence of marabouts in the courts of the rulers that the Muslim religion was established in western Sudan.
On the spread of Islam in Africa Cartwright writes (2019): [ii]
‘’Once the religion had reached the savannah region which spreads across Africa below the Sahara Desert, it was adopted by ruling African elites, although very often indigenous beliefs and rituals continued to be practised or were even blended with the new religion. As Muslim traders penetrated deeper into Africa so the religion spread from one empire to another, taking hold first at Gao in 985 CE and then within the Ghana Empire (6th-13th century CE) from the late 10th century CE. From there, the religion spread eastwards to the Mali Empire (1240-1645 CE) and the Songhai Empire (c. 1460 – c. 1591 CE). With the adoption of Islam by the rulers of the Kingdom of Kanem (c. 900 – c. 1390 CE) between the 11th and 13th century CE and Hausaland from the late 14th century CE, the religion’s encirclement of Africa below the Sahara Desert was complete.’’
The Islamization of sub-Saharan Africa was essentially peaceful by trade (Ravane, 1982). The spread of the religion was relayed by the Sub-Saharan Africans themselves (Hausa, Fulani, Dioula) as part of their commercial activities. [iii] At the time the Arabs conquered North Africa in 680, the largest and most powerful political entity south of the Sahara was the empire of Ghana, [iv] whose wealth was based on the gold and salt trade. The influence of Islam was quickly felt: traders converted and became predominantly Muslim. [v]
The Senegal River area, where the kingdom of Tekrur [vi] dominated, was partly Islamized as early as the VIth century and was more massively Islamized in the IXth century. The kingdom of Kanem, [vii] which became the kingdom of Kanem-Bornou in the eleventh century, established since the VIIthcentury in the north of present-day Chad, was Islamized as early as the IXth century. Its leaders were among the first in sub-Saharan Africa to embrace Islam). [viii]
The Songhai, mixed with Berbers who fled the Arab advance, settled along the banks of the Niger in the early VIth century; they founded a small kingdom, Islamized in the IXth century, which became the powerful Songhai empire whose apogee was in the XVth and XVIth centuries. [ix] This empire played an important role in the XVIth century in the spread of Islam. [x]
The first contacts date back to the VIIIth century: Islam spread slowly and peacefully through Arab-Berber traders who crisscrossed the Sudano-Sahelian zone. At the turn of the tenth century, the time of the first Muslim empires, such as that of Ghana, Islam organized political life. It was the religion of dynasties, of merchants in the cities, but not yet that of the population. Timbuktu, from the XVth century, [xi] became the main focus of Islamic knowledge in the southern Sahara. In the XVIIth century, a more warlike Islam appeared, first in Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea, then more massively in northern Nigeria, where the movement culminated in the founding of the Sokoto caliphate [xii] in 1804. [xiii]
Islam is mainly present from the Sahelian zone to the rainforest, in a band stretching from Senegal to Somalia. It is found in the north of Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. While Central Africa has only small Muslim minorities, East Africa has a stronger and long-standing presence in some areas. Central and East Africa have only small Muslim minorities. [xiv] The Muslim population of sub-Sahara is estimated today at 330 million. [xv]
For Africans, Islam was an all-encompassing way of life as stated by the UNESCO General History of Africa (Vol III, 1988: 20): [xvi]
‘’Islam is not only a religion: it is a comprehensive way of life, catering for all the fields of human existence. Islam provides guidance for all aspects of life – individual and social, material and moral, economic and political, legal and cultural, national and international.’’
This is essentially Sunni Islam. In West Africa, Islam is marked by the influence of various brotherhoods – associations of disciples following a spiritual path under the teaching of a master, the shaykh -, stemming from Sufism.
There are a multitude of Muslim brotherhoods in Africa, but three major ones can be distinguished. The Qâdiriyyah is the oldest: founded in Iraq by Shaykh cAbdu al-Qâdir al-Jilânî (1077-1166), it is mainly present in Mauritania and Senegal.
The Tîjâniyyah is a Sufi brotherhood founded by Shaykh Ahmad at-Tîjânî (1737-1815), whose lodge is in Fez. It is present from Senegal to Sudan. Its most famous disciple is the Toucouleur conqueror al-HâjcOmar Tall (1794-1864). In Senegal, the Tîjânîs represent more than half of the Muslims. They consider themselves more intellectual and cultured. [xvii]
Finally, the Murîd brotherhood was founded by a former follower of the Qâdiriyyah, Ahmadou Bamba M’Backé (died in 1927). This Senegalese brotherhood is essentially for Wolofs, the most important ethnic group in the country. Ahmadou Bamba, whose figure was heroized after long deportation by the French, had made manual labor a pious activity as well as prayer. The center of the brotherhood is the city of Touba where every year an important pilgrimage takes place.
The diverse practices of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa are inscribed in architectural buildings that correspond to local traditions, far from the constructions known in the rest of the Arab-Muslim world. Madrasahs, zawiyyahs, and mausoleums, the places of worship are as numerous as the uses. They are often the work of Sufi brotherhoods that organized religious life within societies. If the rituals are different, they very often borrow from pre-Islamic traditions.
The four pillars of a shared spirituality of Morocco with Africa
This common spirituality is based on four pillars: The Commandership of the Faithful Imârat al-Mu’minîn(Toufiq, 2022), the Malikî rite, the Ashcarî doctrine, and Sufism. These religious constants expressed both through beliefs and the habits and customs of the populations, are shared by Morocco and several African countries – and this, through their common history, despite different political evolutions and an attachment to their own sovereignty.
1-The Imârat al-Mu’minîn
The definition of the first, the Imârat al-Mu’minîn, i.e., the Commandership of the Faithful, (Waterbury, 1970) refers to the institution of the king of Morocco and is based on a very ancient jurisprudence, and its legitimacy is enshrined in the current Moroccan Constitution (Morocco’s Constitution, 2011). [xviii] The monarch is the only African head of state to have solid spiritual authority on the African continent. Therefore, this pillar is precisely the true declaration of recognition of a spiritual guide in the person of the King of Morocco, not only for Moroccans but for all West Africans. This is a historical reminder of the Imârat of Moulay Idris I (743-791), founder of Fez in the VIIIth century, who had fled the persecution of the caliphate of the East. He is the first to be called “Amîr al-Mu’minîn” in the Islamic West where he had built an Islamic state independent of the Muslim East.
A map indicating the general direction and timings of the spread of Islam in Africa from the 7th to 18th century CE (Ancient History)
Ahmed Toufiq (2022: 176), [xix] in presenting the old institution of Imârat al-Mu’minînargues:
‘’The system of the “Commandership of the Faithful” in Morocco is not a mere reinvention of a traditional concept, the purpose of which being to restitute (somehow) the “dream of the caliphate.” It is rather both a historical and current reality motivated by a number of significant elements. Its history took place consistently amid a great paradox represented, on the one hand, by the Moroccans’ strong attachment to the spiritual and religious ties to the sources of Islam as they developed in the Mashriq; and, on the other hand, by a constant yearning for the preservation of political independence of this part of the Islamic West.’’
2-The Mâlikî rite
Secondly, it is about the adoption of the Mâlikî rite, [xx] which is one of the four legal schools of Sunni Islam, alongside Hanbalîsm, Shaficîsm and Hanafîsm. [xxi]Mâlikî Sunnism is based on the teachings of Imam MâlikIbn Anas (VIIIth century) and emphasizes the jurisprudence of the Prophet’sﷺ companions as well as a customary religious practice based on the general interest. It is distinguished in a broader way from the Hanbalî dogma, and particularly from its radicalization materialized in the creation of the Wahhabi movement (currently applied in Saudi Arabia) at the end of the XVIIIth century. [xxii] The qualities of progress, renewal, flexibility, and pragmatism, stand in sharp contrast to the extremist ideology, but also to that of the Gulf countries, which have a growing influence on the populations of North and West Africa.
3-The Ashcarî dogma
The third constant identified is the Ashcarî dogma, [xxiii] a school that was imposed late, under the influence of the theologian Abu Hassan al-Ashcarî, against the Muctazilî school, [xxiv] which had prevailed for several decades, especially in Baghdad under the influence of the caliph al-Ma’mûn (IXth century). Having become the majority school within Sunni Islam, Ashcarism refuted the idea that Man has total free will in the interpretation of sacred texts and in his life choices. Thus, Ashcarism is the best defender [xxv] of the “Islam of the Middle Way” al-wasatiyyah. [xxvi] Implicitly, the muctazilism which was sometimes very intolerant because of its imposed liberalism was able to lead to drifts in spite of its audacious concepts of free will and of the opening to the scientific knowledge of Antiquity and the extreme East: the literal interpretation of the texts without depriving them of their meaning by means of a shifted reading and analysis. [xxvii]
The fourth pillar is Sufism, [xxviii] a more mystical and esoteric school that is declined in different practices, from the Middle East to West Africa, and whose goal is the search for a transcendent state allowing access to a part of the divine knowledge. [xxix] It is indeed very present in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Senegal where the brotherhoods have a notable weight and influence on the whole society. In Morocco, although more discreet, it is very present, in Fez for example – and the links between Moroccan and West African Sufism have been underlined as factors of deep unity thanks to this common spirituality. In particular, it has played a key role in the spread of sub-Saharan Islam through the powerful influence of Sufi networks called turuq, which are very active and scattered throughout the continent. [xxx]