The Great Mosque of Djenne is an Islamic landmark in Mali.
The Great Mosque of Djenne is an Islamic landmark in Mali.

Following Asia, including the Middle East, Africa has the largest number of Muslims in the world. A map of religions in Africa shows that while Christianity dominates the southern part of the continent, Islam has majority control of the north and center. Indigenous African religions survive throughout the continent, and in some regions multiple religions co-exist. Islam arrived in Africa via traders from Arabia making their way across the Red Sea.

Accessing Africa

Only the narrow stretch of the Red Sea separates the Arabian peninsula from North Africa, and Islam reached Africa quickly after the birth of Islam in A.D. 610. Consequently, Egypt was the first country to come under Islamic influence and provided the Arabs with an important gateway into the rest of Africa. The Arab traders were accomplished seafarers who were able to cross this route and the Indian Ocean. They also used the Nile River to take them south. In addition, the prospect of crossing the Sahara Desert to head west did not faze these desert dwellers.

North Africa

One of the primary effects of the spread of Islam into North Africa was the acceptance of the Arabic language. Language is one of the main cultural influences left behind by most invading forces: the Romans brought Latin to its European conquests, providing the roots of modern Romance languages and much of English, and through political control, the Arabs made Arabic the predominant language in North Africa. There is no other part of Africa where political control went hand in hand with the spread of Islam. Islamic expansion into Morocco also paved the way for the invasion of southern Spain that introduced Islam into Europe.

West Africa

The Arabs followed the established trade routes of the nomadic Berbers. These North African nomads had established trade with the West African kingdoms that were wealthy in gold and ivory. Although the Berbers who converted to Islam never tried to convert the West Africans to Islam, by the start of the 12th century, Muslim scholars and clerics started accompanying the traders. These educated Muslims advised local rulers on political matters and eventually ended up in powerful positions. Although nations like Mali didn't convert immediately, the political influence eventually led to Islamic dominance of the kingdoms of the Sahel region. These included Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria.

East Africa and Beyond

Arabs on the East Coast were more interested in trade than politics. In this region, Islam also faced more competition from Christianity than in North and West Africa. Arab traders maintained successful businesses in Mombasa, Dar-es-Salaam and the island of Zanzibar. They created a vibrant culture that blended Arab and indigenous cultures. The cultural blend even created a new language, Kiswahili, which mixes Arabic with African languages such as Swahili. It remains the dominant language of East Africa. Islam only appeared in southern Africa in the 19th century, due to the introduction of slave labor from Malaysia and Indonesia. It is not a major cultural influence in this region compared to Christianity.

The Acceptance of Islam

The spread of Islam in Africa can be attributed to its respect for local cultures. Muslims didn't force Africans to convert to Islam and tolerated converts combining elements of indigenous religions with Islam. The Arabs also brought education and established impressive centers of learning in Cairo and Timbuktu. The sense of brotherhood between Muslims also fit well with the African sense of community, and their belief in caring for the less fortunate has had an impact on numerous African communities.