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East Africa

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    East Africa

    East Africa includes the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Islam came to the region in the early 700s, eventually giving rise to an African-Arab civilization. Today Muslims are a political minority in most parts of East Africa, generally focusing their attention on religious and educational activities rather than on creating Islamic governments. In recent decades, however, some Muslim groups in East Africa have begun to fight for a closer connection between Islam and the state.

    Islam Comes to East Africa

    Arab and Persian traders and missionaries brought Islam to East Africa beginning in the 700s. They arrived either by traveling up the Nile River or by crossing the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. Eventually, the Muslim merchants settled in the coastal region of East Africa, intermarried with local people, and became the leaders in their communities. Converts to Islam adapted the beliefs and practices of this new religion to traditions of tribal religions. By the 1200s, trade between East Africa, Arabia, and the countries that border the Persian Gulf was well developed. The cities along the coast, including Kilwa, Mogadishu, and Zanzibar, flourished with the export of copper, iron, cloth, ivory, gold, and slaves.

    As the Bantu peoples of East Africa mixed with the Muslim population, they adapted their language to include many Arabic words. Eventually a distinctive language and culture, known as Swahili, developed. The term Swahili comes from the Arabic word sawahili, which means “of the coast.”

    Exploration and Colonization.

    By the early 1500s, Portuguese explorers engaged in the spice trade dominated the East African ports, and Arab merchants lost control of the region. Portuguese rule lasted until 1696 , when forces from Oman conquered the area. Omani leaders restored Arab supremacy for a brief period, after which many of the coastal towns gained their independence from foreign powers. During the early 1800s, Oman recaptured the coast of East Africa, and the island of Zanzibar became the regional center of Muslim culture. The Arabs, who owned most of the land and controlled the government and law enforcement, comprised the social and political elite of Zanzibar. Smaller groups of Muslims from India managed the trade network. The majority African population, employed as artisans, fishermen, and workers, held no real political power.

    Zanzibar had a prosperous economy, which was based on a thriving slave trade and a growing demand for ivory and cloves. According to some estimates, slave traders sold as many as 50,000 Africans annually in the Zanzibar market. Slavery, which was not officially abolished in the region until 1873 , caused extreme devastation across East Africa. Whole populations fled their ancestral lands to escape capture. Even after abolition, some slave trading continued into the early 1900s.

    Commercial success in Zanzibar motivated Arab merchants to establish new trading routes and to build towns in the East African interior. In the process, they extended the influence of Islam, which until that time had been confined to the coastal cities.

    At the end of the 1800s, European nations established colonial rule over Zanzibar, Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), Kenya, Uganda, and other East African territories. Trade between the interior and the coastal cities increased, facilitating the spread of Islam. Exposure to Islam also grew because colonial administrators employed Muslims throughout the region as government officials, teachers, police officers, and soldiers. Furthermore, the use of Swahili in many regions of East Africa provided Muslims with a common language.

    Independence and Conflict

    After achieving independence from colonial rule in the 1900s, most of the territories of East Africa became secular nation-states. Although Muslims accounted for a substantial segment of the population in these countries, they were still a minority, and Islam did not shape the political character of the new regimes. Only in areas where Arabs constitute a majority or where Arab identity is particularly strong, such as Somalia, has Islam been incorporated into the national political system.

    Zanzibar and Tanganyika Merge.

    East African states followed various patterns of development from colonialism to independence. In Zanzibar, which was controlled by the British, the ban on slavery weakened Arab power and eliminated a vital source of income. As a result, the island's African population made significant political and economic gains. World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ) fueled an independence movement and a political struggle between the Arab and African populations. The Zanzibar National Party, founded in 1956 , emerged as an advocate for Arab interests. During the early 1960s, the Arab minority tried to oust the British and create an Islamic state. Arab parties gathered enough support from the African majority population to win elections in 1961 and 1963 . After Zanzibar achieved independence (in December, 1963), however, African revolutionaries seized control of the government and established a socialist regime hostile to Arab interests. In 1964 Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika, creating the new country of Tanzania. Muslims constitute more than 99 percent of the population of the island of Zanzibar, but only 35 percent of the population of mainland Tanzania.

    In Tanganyika, Sufi Islam had spread as a way to resist colonial rule. The Muslim brotherhoods became active in politics in the 1930s, and they later achieved considerable success in promoting Muslim interests at the national level.

    Tanganyika gained independence in 1961 , and Julius Nyerere (a Roman Catholic) became president. He worked to create a democratic political society, but his policies failed. Nyerere was president in 1964 when Tanganyika became Tanzania. He retired in 1985 , and since then, Tanzania has been plagued by economic stagnation, unemployment, and conflicts among its Asian, Arab, and African communities. In recent years, reformist Islam—a version of the faith that emphasizes the teachings of the Qur'an and sunnah and rejects the integration of Islam and traditional African beliefs—has gained considerable influence in the country.

    Muslim Nations.

    Djibouti and Somalia are almost entirely Muslim. Djibouti won its independence from France in 1977 . Its population is 94 percent Muslim. Somalia, which gained independence from Great Britain and Italy in 1960 , is a Sunni Muslim nation, but its people are not Arabs. During the 1970s, the government of Somalia claimed a right to territory where ethnic Somalis lived in Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, but these states rejected Somalia's demands. In 1977 the French withdrew from Djibouti and revolution broke out in Ethiopia. Somalia decided to take advantage of the turbulent situation and began a guerilla war against Ethiopia. The Soviet Union and Cuba—former allies of Somalia—chose to support Ethiopia. The war, which was inconclusive, sharpened the interest of Somalis in their Muslim identity. Somalia has been without a central government since 1991 , when its ruler, Mohamed Siyad Barre, was deposed.

    A Part of Ethiopia.

    Muslims comprise about half the population in Ethiopia, a nation that has a long history of conflict and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Christian rulers of Ethiopia felt threatened by the growing influence of Islam in the region. When Teodoros ascended the throne in 1831 , he set out to abolish Islam. Teodoros established a lineage of rulers that culminated with Haile Selassie, who became emperor in 1930 . The Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1934 , forcing Haile Selassie to flee the country. With the help of the British, he returned to power in 1941 . Haile Selassie remained at the head of the Ethiopian government until the early 1970s, when socialist revolutionaries overthrew him.

    In 1978 Mengistu Haile Mariam formed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Widespread uprisings followed. Muslims took this opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the long-standing discriminatory policies of the Ethiopian government. Somali and Galla Muslims who lived in the Bale province rebelled, and other Islamic groups also revolted. Ethiopia, however, succeeded in suppressing the opposition and averting a Somali invasion.

    Eritrea, which is almost equally divided between Muslims and Christians, has also been the site of conflict. In 1952 Eritrea (a former Italian colony) was made an autonomous, or self-governing, part of Ethiopia. Selassie tried to integrate its population into mainstream Ethiopia by banning Arabic and Tigriniya as its official languages. This and similar policies gave rise to a resistance movement in which both Muslims and Christians participated. Students, workers, and intellectuals led the movement. After Ethiopia formally took over Eritrea in 1962 , fighting broke out between armed rebel groups and the government. Eritrea finally won its independence in 1993 , but the country fought another war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 .

    Kenyatta and Amin.

    Kenya, under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, won its independence from Great Britain in 1963 . The Muslim population in Kenya, which accounts for about ten percent of the total, is particularly diverse and includes peoples of African, Asian, and Arab ethnicity. Muslims have had limited influence on the political development of the country, however, in part because they lack organization and are concentrated, in communities along the coast. In 1992 a radical group established the Islamic Party of Kenya, but the country's Muslim leaders oppose this party.

    Uganda, which won its independence from Great Britain in 1962 , has a Muslim population of 16 percent. The colonial powers limited Muslim participation in the government and restricted financial support of mosques and Islamic schools. During the early 1920s, Ugandan Muslims split over differences in the interpretation of religious traditions. This event impeded the development of a united Muslim community in Uganda and further weakened Muslim political influence. The situation did not improve until Idi Amin took power in 1971 . A Muslim himself, Amin provided official support for Muslim interests. When he was deposed in 1979 , many Muslims fled Uganda, and anti-Muslim groups destroyed many mosques and schools. Under succeeding regimes, Muslims have had very limited political influence. See also Colonialism; Slavery; Swahili.

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