"The Mohammedan Negro has felt nothing of
the withering power of caste. There is nothing in his colour or race to
debar him from the highest privileges, social or political, to which any
other Muslim can attain."
Edward W. Blyden, Liberian writer and thinker.
According to Arab oral tradition, Islam
first came to Africa with Muslim refugees fleeing persecution in the Arab
peninsula. This was followed by a military invasion, some seven years
after the death of the prophet Mohammed in 639, under the command of the
Muslim Arab General, Amr ibn al-Asi. It quickly spread West from Alexandria
in North Africa (the Maghreb), reducing the Christians to pockets in Egypt,
Nubia and Ethiopia.
Islam came to root along the East African coast some time in the 8th century,
as part of a continuing dialogue between the people on the East coast
and traders from the Persian Gulf and Oman. Like early Christianity, Islam
was monotheistic, that is, Muslims worship only one God.
Islam was a modernising influence, imposing a consistent order among different
societies, strengthening powers of government and breaking down ethnic
Unlike Christianity, Islam tolerated traditional values, allowing a man to have
more than one wife. For many, this made conversion to Islam easier and less
upsetting than conversion to Christianity.
In the early centuries of its existence, Islam in Africa had a dynamic and turbulent
history, with reforming movements and dynasties clashing and succeeding each
other. Gaining power depended on securing trade routes into gold-producing areas
in Sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic rulers expanded north as well as south. In the
last quarter of the 11th century, Islam dominated the Mediterranean world.
In the 14th century the Black Death came from Europe and seriously undermined
the social and economic life of North Africa, or the Maghreb, as it is known.
However Islam remained the dominant religion.
From the 16th to the 19th century, much of the Maghreb was under Ottoman rule.
By the 1880's, Islam had taken root in one third of the continent.
dates are given according to the western calendar but can be converted online.
to The Coming of Islam, the seventh programme in the BBC landmark radio series The Story
of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie