Islam in Africa and the Sahel

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.


Key Facts

  • A quarter of the global Muslim population live in Africa
  • Muslims were 30% of the total population of Africa (Christians are 63%) in 2010.
    • Greater fertility rates amongst Muslims mean that the Muslim population growth is expected to outpace population Christian growth. By 2050 Muslims are expected to be 35% population and Christian are expected to be 59%. (Pew, 2015)
  • The vast majority of African Muslims are in the North African, Sahel and Horn of Africa regions although there are significant Muslim minorities in all other African states.
  • Muslims have been present in Africa from the days of Muhammad himself for it is recorded that he sent some of his followers to take refuge from the Meccan persecution in Axum in modern-day Ethiopia.
  • The grand mosque at Kairoun (also known as the Uqba Mosque) is believed to be the oldest on the continent having been dated to 670 AD.
  • Islam in Africa has been spread both through conquest (as in the earliest years and sporadically in jihads such as that of Usman Dan Fodio in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries) and through trading routes.
  • It is estimated that millions of Africans were transported as slaves by Muslim slavers (many through the port of Zanzibar) from the 9th Century through to the early 20th Century. However, the numbers are highly contested. (Austen, 2008)
  • Muslim leaders and groups were often the main focus for organised resistance to European Colonial rule in North, West and East Africa.
    *This was not always violent resistance. For example the Bamidele movement in Nigeria sought to preserve Arab Muslim customs and culture in education, song and dress under British rule.
  • Al-Shabaab in East Africa and several jihadi affiliates in West Africa have had notable territorial gains in Africa over the past three years. The Jama’a Nusrat ul Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) who are affiliated to al-Qa’ida, along with ISIS affiliates ‘Islamic State in West Africa’ (ISWA- formerly Boko Haram) and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGA) have become increasingly bold and successful in their attacks. (Paquette, Mekhennet and Warrick, 2020).
  • The jihadi attacks in West Africa have resulted in 5,365 deaths up to October, already exceeding last year’s total of 4,825 according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
  • According to UN data, over a million people have already fled their homes as a result of the violence in West Africa.
  • Away from West Africa, a group calling itself the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP) have carried out sophisticated attacks in a number of Mozambique’s costal resorts – including Mocimboa de Praia (August).
  • Following their merger with al-Qa’ida in 2012, al-Shabaab have launched increasingly frequent and sophisticated attacks along Africa’s East Coast into Tanzania and Kenya heavily impacting the tourism trade in both countries. (Harshe, 2020)

As highlighted above, the history of Islam in Africa is a long one stretching back to the early years of the fledgling faith, before even the Arab conquests which swept all before them over the first fifty years after the death of Muhammad himself. North Africa had been an important region in the Byzantine Empire before the Arab conquests and some of the most important figures in the early church such as St. Augustine lived and worked on the North African coast. (Holland, 2019) Repeated wars between Islam and Christianity have periodically taken place, notably in the Horn of Africa, which had been a target for Muslim conquest for centuries.

Broadly speaking, Muslim and Christian Africa have a ‘border’ along 10° N line of latitude excluding Somalia which runs around the Horn of Africa itself down to the Equator. Along that ‘border’ lie many of the regions which are currently experiencing forms of Jihadi activity as noted in the previous section. Whether that be in the Nigeria, Ghana and Togo in the west, or in Ethiopia and South Sudan in the east, many of the centres of jihadi activity lie in the region immediately above and below the 10th Parallel. That being said, in the east, jihadi attacks are occurring well to the south of the Equator.

Its important to note that the tensions in the region are not just Muslim-Christin in religious terms. Muslims who refuse to convert to the brand of Islam (generally Salafi) being propagated by the ISIS and Al-Qa’ida affiliates, such as the Sufi and Animist communities are also being targeted. (Umar and Woodward, 2019) This process, according to McCloud, Hibbard and Saud (2013, p. 200) is part of African Islam’s long history of reform against unorthodox Islamic practices which stretch back into the 15th Century under the patronage of Askiya Muhammad, ruler of Songay. But, whether it is contextualised within that historical long lens, or whether what is happening is taken in its current context the aims of the jihadis are clear: to create what they believe to by ‘truly’ Islamic states. In seeking to achieve their aims, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mohamed Ibn Chambers observed in July 2020 that the terrorists are not simply focussed on religious divides but they have also been seeking to exploit ethno-tribal divisions. (UNSC, 2020)

Yet it would be wrong to say that the narrative of potential and actual violence is the only one to come out of Muslim Africa, for there are also stories of ongoing attempts at cooperation and coexistence on the continent, such as in Ethiopia. At the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian government organised an inter-religious conference over three days. Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa (after Nigeria) and the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has used his background as the son of Muslim and Christian parents (he himself is a professing Evangelical Christian) to encourage greater cooperation and coexistence between the faiths. (Ficquet, 2019)

Furthermore, as was noted in July’s briefing on Sudanese changes to Apostacy laws, there are movements towards moderation happening within the ‘House of Islam’ on the continent. So, whilst there is undoubtably a growing jihadi-salafi movement (or set of movements) taking place on the continent, it cannot be said that there is a uniform move towards literalist or extremist interpretations of Islam taking place across it. Furthermore there is considerable debate going on about theological interpretations taking place amongst Islamic religious and political leaders.

It seems clear therefore that the jihadi threat on the continent is long-term and is growing rather than diminishing. There are attempts at forging alternative pathways towards cooperation between faiths and there is considerable debate within Muslim communities themselves about theology and ideology. The situation is therefore very fluid and, in many ways, fragile for there is the potential both for widespread inter-religious violence whilst at the same time, strong moves towards embedding cooperation and coexistence. Should the violence erupt more widely over the continent that would not just be bad news for Africa itself but, because of the diaspora communities scattered across the west, it would also have repercussions across Europe and America as well.

Austen, Ralph (1992) ‘The Mediterranean Islamic Slave Trade out of Africa: A Tentative Census.’ Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 13(1): 214-248.
Ficquest, Eloi (2019) ‘Interfaith relations between Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia’ Observatoire international du religieux SciencesPo.
Harshe, Rajen (2020) ‘Al-Shabaab’s insurgency and the Somalian imbroglio in the Horn of Africa’ 7th July.
Holland, Tom (2019) Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind London: LittleBrown
Lapidus, Ira (2002) A History of Islamic Societies (2nd Edition) Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
McCloud, Aminah, Scott Hibbard and Laith Saud (2013) An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century London: John Wiley and Son.
Paquette, Danielle, Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick (2020) ‘ISIS attacks surge in Africa even as Trump boasts of a “100-percent” defeated Caliphate’ Washington Post 19th October.
Pew, (2015) ‘Future of World Religions: Population growth projections, 2015-2050’ Washington DC: Pew Research Center.
Umar, Muhammad and Mark Woodward (2019) ‘The Izala Effect: Unintended Consequences of Salafi Radicalism in Indonesia and Nigeria’ Contemporary Islam 14: 49-73.
UNSC (2020) ‘Situation in West Africa, Sahel “extremely volatile” as terrorists exploit ethnic animosities, Special Representative warns Security Council’ 9th July.

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