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East Africa

In contrast to North Africa, East Africa was never subject to one wide, sweeping Muslim takeover. Islam came to the East African coast in many waves and at different times. There is no single date in the records, but it is thought that Islam had taken root by the 8th century. The first Muslims came from different directions:

  • Most obviously from the Arab peninsula, which at one point is separated by less than fifty miles of sea from the Horn of Africa.
  • Egypt, where Islam first came to North Africa.
  • Somalia further up the coast, where the port of Zeila became very important in the 10th century in response to the political centre of the Muslim world moving from Mecca to Baghdad.
  • And Persia. There is a tradition that the first Muslims came from Shiraz in Persia. They are know as the Shirazis.
"Then came Sultan Ali bin Selimani the Shirazi, that is, the Persian. He came with his ships, and brought his goods and his children. One child was called Fatima, the daughter of Sultan Ali: we do not know the names of the other children. They came with Musa bin Amrani the Beduin; they disembarked at Kilwa, that is to say, they went to the headman of the country, the Elder Mrimba, and asked for a place in which to settle at Kisiwani.

This they obtained. And they gave Mrimba presents of trade goods and beads. Sultan Ali married Mrimba's daughter. He lived on good terms with the people."
Excerpt from East African Coast, Select Documents, G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville.

Undoubtedly there was early contact and dialogue between peoples on the East African coast and the peoples of the East - Arabia, Persia, India and even China, going back long before the prophet Mohammed was preaching in the 600's.There is also some oral evidence of a pre-Islamic empire, called the Shungwaya empire, exercising power along the coast.

What is clear, is that once people arrived they intermarried with the people of the coast very early on, forming a new kind of coastal society, the Swahili, with their own architecture, style of dressing and music.

Listen to Tarab Music typical of East Africa

Muslim outsiders did not arrive on the Coast with the main aim of converting people; they came as traders, with influence. Not everyone became Muslim. There was a constant movement of slaves and traders coming from inland to the coast. On the whole, they only converted to Islam if they attained some permanent position in coastal society, as a leading trader, or craftsman, or in the case of women, as a wife or concubine to a rich man. There are few accounts of how these people came to be converted to Islam.

As in North Africa, trade was a powerful strand in the conversion of people to Islam. East Africa offered gold, ivory and slaves, and later on very fine woven cotton. In return, traders from the East and Persian Gulf brought textiles, spices, porcelain and other finished goods.

In the 19th century, Tippu Tip followed in this trading tradition, making himself a hugely rich and influential man in the region. A ruthless and commercially clever man, he specialised in long and dangerous treks into the interior to buy and capture slaves to sell at the coast. He had the monopoly of trade across an enormous territory stretching back from the coast.

"A group of Persian sailors were shipwrecked off what is present day Mozambique. They were taken to the court of a local king who helped them resume their journey. Before they went they tricked the king into boarding their ship. They then kidnapped him and sold him into slavery in Oman.

Years later, after many adventures the king succeeds in reclaiming his throne. By this time he has converted to Islam. By chance the sailors who originally kidnapped him turn up at his court. They are amazed and terrified to find him back in power. But he forgives them, saying they were the instrument of his becoming a Muslim."
Summarised from a 10th century account by Persian sailor, Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar. Taken from East African Coast, edited by G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville.

By the 14th century Kilwa was the most powerful kingdom along the coast - situated on an island some 200 miles South of Dar Es Salaam. But the power of Kilwa met a serious challenge in the late 15th century when the Portuguese arrived. The latter added a third and violent strand to the African and Arab interests making up the economy and politics of the coast.

By the end of the 17th century the Portuguese began to lose their commercial hold over the trade routes, confining their activities to the southern part of the Coast. French and British commercial forces emerged but accepted the rule of local rulers. The Swahili fell under the control of the Sultans of Oman. Attempts at converting Coastal Muslims to Christianity, whether in the 16th century or in David Livingstone's day in the mid 19th century, were rarely successful.

"In that place there was a Moorish woman who had two small sons; I wanted to baptize them, thinking that they were not the sons of Moors. They went running from me to their mother, and told her that I wanted to baptize them; and she came crying to me asking me not to baptize them because she was a Moor and did not want to be a Christian, still less did she want her sons to be."
St Francis Xavier: A visit to Malindi and Socotra, in 1542.