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Lesson Plan: "Islam in East Africa"

Rüdiger Seesemann
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Northwestern University

Course: Religion in Africa; African History; Islam outside the Arab World
Syllabus Section: Islam in East Africa


Islam has been present in parts of East Africa—here understood as comprising Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania—for at least a millennium. Trade relations between the East African coast and the Arab Peninsula go back to pre-Islamic times. From the thirteenth century CE onward, there is evidence for larger settlements of Muslim merchants of Arab origin along the East African coast. Over time, the Arab newcomers mixed with the local population, resulting in the emergence of the Swahili (literally, "coastal people") as an ethnic group with their own language, based on Bantu grammar and an extensive body of Arabic loanwords. The issue of Swahili identity has, however, been a protracted one, and subject to long and as yet unresolved debates among scholars. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Islam made significant inroads into the hinterlands, areas hitherto used as slave reservoirs by Arab slave traders based on the coast. Indian Muslim immigrants, arriving in East Africa in the wake of British colonization, were instrumental in the construction of mosques and schools that became avenues for the spread of Islam among the local population. In the period after national independence, the fortunes of Islam have varied according to political circumstances and the size of the Muslim population. In the modern nation-states of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Muslims are in the minority, with numbers varying between 12 percent (Kenya, according to the 2010 census), 16 percent (Uganda), and 35 percent (Tanzania; note the special status of Zanzibar, which is almost entirely Muslim) of the total population.

Questions for Discussion

  • What have been the main forces in altering Islam since its arrival in East Africa?
  • Do you see significant similarities or differences between Islam in East Africa and elsewhere?
  • In the contemporary world, is it possible (or even desirable) to keep Islam as homogenous as possible?

Inter-Muslim and Christian-Muslim Relations

Since the 1970s, the Sunni Muslim community has been plagued by recurring controversy and conflict. Fault lines separate Muslims connected with the Shafii-Hadrami tradition from those committed to more recent movements of Islamic reform, often referred to as Salafi and occasionally—particularly by the movement's opponents—as Wahhabi. Shaykh al-Amin al-Mazrui (d. 1947), one of the forerunners of Islamic reform in East Africa, challenged the authority of the Shafii-Hadrami establishment and propagated a new approach to Islamic education, encouraging students to read religious texts, the Qur'an included, in Kiswahili, rather than reciting the original Qur'an "like parrots." A major point of contention between the opposing factions is the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, maulidi in Kiswahili (derived from Arabic mawlid), which the reformers brand as bid'a, or reprehensible innovation. However, maulidi is still a popular festival in large parts of East Africa and epitomizes the devotion to Muhammad that lies at the heart of what many East African Muslims consider authentic Islamic spirituality. The Qadiriyah Sufi order, and its Uwaysi branch in particular, was instrumental in the spread of Islam in Tanzania at the turn of the nineteenth century and has also been at the forefront of the disputes with reformist Muslims.

In addition to their attempts to eradicate purportedly un-Islamic practices among Muslims, activists affiliated with reformist trends have also engaged in calling non-Muslims to Islam, an activity referred to as da'wah. Christian missionaries have also stepped up their efforts to convert Muslims, leading to heightened competition and occasionally outright tensions between adherents of Christianity and Islam. Following the model of the hugely popular South African preacher Ahmad Deedat (d. 2005), many young East Africans have pursued the career path of the so-called Muslim Bible Scholars challenging Christian preachers in public debates with large audiences. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998, and even more so after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Muslim communities in the three East African countries have found themselves mired in an increasingly volatile situation. Investigations tied a number of East Africans to the group responsible for the attacks, the al-Qaeda terror network, and many Muslims became the target of repressive government measures justified in terms of the "war on terrorism." Insecurity in neighboring Somalia, where radical Islamists have moved into positions of power and widened the geographical scope of their recruitment for their jihad to include other East African countries, has fueled tensions further. More recently, there has been a rapprochement between Sunni Shafii Muslims and Twelver Shiites to counter the influence of the extremists, a development that is quite remarkable given the history of dissension between the two groups.

Questions for Discussion

  • On the basis of background information about the various branches of Islam, assess the heterogeneity of Muslim religious life in East Africa.
  • What are the implications of race and ethnicity for the historical and contemporary development of Islam in East Africa?
  • What are the peculiar challenges Muslims face or pose as a minority in the modern-day nation-states of East Africa?

Further Reading

An overview of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa can be found in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (OEIW). For more on the archeology of Islam in East Africa, see the entries in the Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture on Kenya and Zanzibar. For background on the institution of slavery in Islam, see "Slavery" in the OEIW; the role of slaves of East African origin under the Abbasid caliphate is discussed in "Zanj." An excerpt from Shaykh al-Amin al-Mazrui's writings, addressing the challenges Muslims faced in colonial Kenya, can be accessed here. The OEIW entry "Christianity and Islam" provides a useful overview of Muslim-Christian relations.

Additional Print Resources

  • Bang, Anne K. Sufis and Scholars of the Sea: Family Networks in East Africa, 1860-1925. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
  • Becker, Felicitas. Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania, 1890-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kresse, Kai. Philosophising in Mombasa: Knowledge, Islam, and Intellectual Practice on the Swahili Coast. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
  • Loimeier, Roman, and Rüdiger Seesemann. The Global Worlds of the Swahili. Interfaces of Islam, Identity, and Space in 19th and 20th-Century Africa. Berlin: LIT, 2006.

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