Islam in Africa:From Abysinia to Madagascar

In the Beginning

The Eminent companions of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) including the likes of Uthmaan bn Affaan, Abdur Rahmaan bn Awf, Zubayr bn. al-Awwaam, Abu Salamah, Abdullah bn Masud, Abu Moosah al-Asharee and Jafar bn Abee Taalib took solace in Abyssinia. Some of them were there for at least twelve years freely practicing their Deen without fear and in fact with support from the overall leader of the Abyssinian Kingdom- An-Najaashee (Negus). The Negus accepted Islaam and dispatched a delegation of seventy priests to Makkah to meet Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) and learn more about Islaam.

A Strong Base Maa shaa AIlaah Islaam took another base outside Makkah in Abyssinia. The Muslims established themselves such that many of the Companions even gave birth to children in the area and interacted with the larger community of Abyssinians and other East African neighbour’s through commercial exchange with the coastal people. These Muslim traders were mostly literate and pious, with excellent record of moral conduct. A number of Muslim scholars and historians of East Africa have all articulated this fact. Also, what the historians have described so far does not leave out a possibility of some of the Muslims getting married to local East Africans who had accepted Islaam. No doubt, the invitation to the worship of none besides Allaah and the Messengership of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) went on while they involved in trade and commerce for their living. Mosques and learning centers were established where those who accepted Islaam where taught the details of the Deen as it was being revealed and as they got instructions from the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) in Makkah.

lt is also reported that Umar bn al-Khattaab during his Khilaafah sent delegations to these East African Communities who had accepted Islam at the time. The establishment of Deen witnessed at this time and those of subsequent years saw Islaam in deep East Africa such as in Harar- a present day Ethiopian city with about 130,000 population which is 100% Muslim and literate, the hinterland of Kenya up to the Mumias in western Kenya to Mombassa also in Kenya and then into Uganda and Zanzibar which now has 97% Muslim population with a mosque in Kizimkazi known today to be the oldest building in Zanzibar. Southwards, the spread went up to Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean and to as far as Madagascar. The Discoveries of Shanga Evidences from archaeological findings also prove the aforementioned conclusions further indicating that the East African coast was the scene of the earliest sub-Saharan Islaamic community.

The earliest and most detailed evidence so far discovered of an Islaamic presence in East Africa has been at Shanga in the Lamu archipelago. Dr. Mark Horton and Dr. Richard Wildings team of National Museum of Kenya have recovered the site in 1987 during a research project initiated to investigate the origins of Islaam in eastern Africa. At this site they uncovered among other things, two mosques one above the other (usually known by their various heights above sea level) the lower being the older. The lower mosque was a simple unroofed enclosure, without a Mihraab and its Qiblah was not oriented towards the Kaabah in Makkah but towards Jerusalem.

A large number of tombs were also discovered in the area facing the same direction (Jerusalem). Other tombs lying in a ground north of the lower Mosque as well as the Mosque on top, considered a few years older, has a Mihraab and is aligned towards the direction of Makkah. Historical Implications of Shanga Authentic narrations in the books of Hadeeth show that the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) after, his Hijrah from Makkah to Madeenah for about sixteen months performed Salaah facing Bayt al-Maqdis in Jerusalem. Thus, the corpses of Muslims who died at the time would also be buried facing the same direction. Therefore; this implies that the Shanga Muslim Community in East Africa also performed Salaah and buried their dead facing Jerusalem just like their brothers in Makkah and Madeenah prior to the change of Qiblah, which later took place in Madeenah.

Concerning the absence of a Mihraab (a small concave portion of the mosgue which marks the direction of Qiblah where the Imaam takes his position to lead the congregation in salaah) in the lower Mosque at Shanga, it is noted that this was the style of the mosques built before 65AH- they only had what can be described as a "symbolic Mihraab" which showed the Qiblah direction. (The Prophets Mosque in Madeenah also initially had this symbolic Mihraab- a stone embedded in the Qiblah wall). The Upper Mosque of Shanga faces the Kaabah in Makkahand has a Mihraab. This would be an indication that the Muslim community in Shanga responded to the change in Qiblah, which took place while the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) was alive, and to the 65 AH changes in the architecture of Mosques, (the Mihraab).

All these show that the East African Muslim Communities were in a continuous religious interaction with other Muslims of the world at the time. Cultural Assimllatlon The symbols of the Unity of the Ummah Congregational performance of Salaah in the Mosques, the performance of Hall, fasting in the month of Ramadhaan, and intermarriage amongst the Muslims, learning and teaching the Quraan and Prophetic narrations in Arabic amongst other things were the binding forces between the local Muslims and their brothers from other parts of the Muslim world with whom they interacted. The interactions were so deep that there are records of the descendants of the earliest Arabs speaking the language of Zinji - a form of Swahili language since the Fifth Century AH (10 Century CE).

Noteworthy is the fact that when the Christian Portuguese came to East Africa in the Eleventh century AH {16th Century CE}, they classified the population of the East Africans as Arabs, Moors and Negroes. While the Negroes are no doubt the East African natives, the Arabs were Arabs who had migrated to the area for one reason or the other and the Moors were descendants of the earliest Arabs most of whom were products of their intermarriages with the East African locals who now look like the Muslims of North Western Africa who ruled Spain and Parts of Portugal and France and were so called.

In his work- The Penetration of Islam in Eastern Africa, Ahmed Badawy Jamalilyl said, "The Portuguese and the Christian Missionaries were confronted with two main obstacles at the coast; Literacy (which the madrassah system of education had imparted), and the rich Swahili Islamic culture. With regard to madrassah system of education its curriculum was concentrated on literacy in Arabic as a key to the recitation of the Quraan. The Portuguese noticed the influence of Islam at the Coast, and recorded that the general system of life and the material culture at though distinctively Swahili in many manifestations was in broad terms comparable to the Islamic modes of living in the Gulf area; southern Arabia and Hadhramaut.

This is what led them to refer to the Muslims of East African Coastal towns as Moors." Conclusively, lslaam got to East Africa as early as the fifth year after the commencement of the call The Deen got well established deep into the region to as far as Madagascar. Islaam became a dominant way of life for the majority of the people in the area for about eleven centuries before the appearance of the Colonialists.



This article was culled from the publications of Deen Communication Limited


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