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Islam in Africa

Islam is one of the main religions in Africa to this day, along with Christianity and many other traditional religions.

Just under half the population of Africa are Muslims, but Christianity is still the most popular religion in Africa.

traditional religions

When did the religion of Islam begin?

religion of Islam

The religion of Islam began in a region called the Middle East during the early 600s. Someone who practices Islam is called a Muslim. The main prophet was called prophet Mohammed.

When prophet Mohammed died in 632 CE, Islam began to spread all over the world.

When did Islam start in Africa?

Islam came to Africa on the East African coast in around the 8th century. Like many religions, Islam spread through trade and contact with others.

Islam start in Africa

Islam also began to take root in North Africa in the 700s after the Arab people invaded.

Arab people from the Middle East first invaded North Africa in 647 CE, but they didn’t stay around. They asked the country of Libya for payments called tributes.

This invasion was just one of many invasions to come. Arab Muslims invaded again in 665 and conquered nearly the whole of North Africa. Their new territory in North Africa stretched from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean and Morocco.

Local people at the time were called Berbers. The Arabs and the Berbers fought for many years but by 709 CE all of North Africa was under Arab control.

Who were the Berbers?

The Berbers came from North Africa. The Berbers are lots of different groups of people really, who all speak a group of languages called Berber languages.

Berbers were converted to Islam over time, after the Arab invasion.

Arab invasion

The Berbers lived in the area that stretched from Egypt and Libya to Mauritania. This area was called the Maghreb. It includes the modern-day countries Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.

Who were the Moors?


‘Moors’ was the name for the group of people who lived in north Africa after the Arab invasion. The Moors ruled over much of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages.

They controlled northern Africa and invaded Europe, ruling over Spain and the island of Sicily (which is in Italy).

How did Islam spread in Africa?

After the Arab invasion of northern Africa in the 7th Century, the religion of Islam was spread throughout Africa and it became very popular. It was spread in a peaceful way through traders, scholars and missionaries.

How did Islam spread to West Africa?

Traders travelled across the Sahara towards West Africa. They brought their religion with them, along with lots of goods from the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Islam was a popular choice for many African kings and their followers too. This is possibly because it offers a way of life and gives people guidance about wealth, morals and politics.

For kings, it is believed that it could have helped them to govern. Some scholars believe that Islam was very good for trade.

Rather than being forced to convert (change) to Islam, many kings, like those in Ancient Ghana and Ancient Mali in West Africa, chose to become Muslim.

There were some cases where places were invaded and converted to Islam.

Where else did Islam spread in Africa?

Islam also spread along trade routes from the Sudan to below the Sahara desert. Along the east, Muslim traders had crossed the Red Sea and brought Islam with them.

What was Islam like in Ancient African Kingdoms?

Islam was adopted by African rulers and elites (people who are in charge or who have lots of wealth and power).

Ancient African Kingdoms

Picture: In der Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Scholars have found that Islam mixed with local religions and practices (called rituals), especially at first.

Ibn Battuta found that people still believed in spirits and worshipped ancestors when he visited Ancient Mali in 1352 CE. He later wrote about it.

In written traditions, the founder of Ancient Mali Sundiata adopted Islam as his religion but in oral traditions, he was a great magician of traditional religion.

Some Islamic names like Mohammed were made more African and became Mamadu. And the name Ali became Aliyu.

Islam started in Ancient Ghana (6th -13th Century) and then spread east to the Mali Empire (1240-1645) and the Songhai Empire (1460-1591).

Sunni Ali of the Songhai Empire was not Muslim but another Songhai King, Mohammad I (1494- 1528) was a Muslim and he forced Islamic law on his people.

The Kingdom of Kanem (c.900-1390 CE) also had Muslim leaders and nearly the whole of the Sahara region was Muslim.

On the Swahili coast, Muslim traders from Egypt began to settle and Islam mixed with local Bantu culture and languages. Islam became a big part of Swahili identity.

Ancient Mali was the first Kingdom to truly adopt Islam. Mansa Musa was one of the most famous Muslim kings who did a huge pilgrimage to Mecca (the centre of Islam).

Mansa Musa brought back lots of Muslim scholars and built great mosques (where Muslims pray).

What did Islam bring to Africa?

Islam brought to Africa certain forms of writing and numbers. The Muslim traders also developed weights and measurements.

Muslim scholars also wrote very important texts about African history that we still use to this day to learn about the past.

These books showed the whole world how interesting Africa’s history is and how much happened before the Europeans arrived much later in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries.

These texts contained beautiful passages about life in Africa. Before the discovery of these texts, some Europeans held the racist belief that Africa had not become civilised until the arrival of European colonies.

As late as the 1960s, some historians still believed that the large continent of Africa, with lots of important activity and riches, had no history. Do we think this is true?
Islam bring to Africa

Quiz Time!

When did Islam come to Africa?

Which countries were Muslim?

How did Islam spread?

quiz activity for kids
Which Empires of Africa were Muslim?

What is the African version of the name Mohammed?

Ancient Africa

lioness in africa

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