Bantus, like these women in traditional clothing, mixed with Arab traders in Kenya to create the Swahili people and language.
Bantus, like these women in traditional clothing, mixed with Arab traders in Kenya to create the Swahili people and language.

Islam reached Kenya quickly after the beginning of the major Muslim expansion following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Entrenched on its east coast and found sporadically throughout its interior and west, Islam is not the majority religion in Kenya. It has, however, played a major role in shaping Kenya's history, politics, culture, language and national identity.

Demographics

Islam is the second-largest religion in Kenya, behind Christianity, totaling about 11 percent of the population, or 4.3 million people. About three-quarters of the nation's Muslims are Sunni, though there is a population of Shiite and Ahmadiyya Muslims as well. The majority live on or near the coast, specifically in or around the city of Mombasa.

Early History

Islam first came to Kenya from the coast, where it remained concentrated for nearly 1,000 years. By the eighth century, pioneer Arab Muslim traders had arrived in the East African lands of modern-day Kenya and Somalia, bringing foreign goods and their new religion with them as they settled the coastal ports. Their arrival was part of a larger, wide-ranging spread of Islam that would entrench the religion on three continents less than a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Westward Expansion

Although the east coast was and is Kenya's Muslim stronghold, Islam spread incrementally through the interior and western border over the centuries. The tribal people living in the Kenyan interior resisted Islam more than the metropolitan coastal communities due to their insular societies and sparse rural populations. When Islam did take hold in the west, it assimilated into the local culture, unlike on the east coast, where communities much more closely resembled "foreign" Islamic centers in the Arab Middle East. Nevertheless, Islam did make it inland, bringing a prominent Muslim population and several mosques to the interior city of Nairobi.

The Swahili Connection

The original Islamic traders intermarried and assimilated with the indigenous people, called Bantu. The result was a new ethnicity, Swahili, which is also the name of their Bantu/Arabic hybrid language. Most Swahili people would eventually convert to Islam throughout the region, and the spread of Islam would put Swahili people as far away as the Arabian Peninsula. The coastal region of East Africa south of the Horn of Africa would come to be known as the Swahili Coast.