Like a benevolent mother opening her arms to all the children in the neighbourhood, Africa held its arms open for successive waves of refugees from Arabia. In turn, the immigrants brought with them the light of Islam and shared it with the people of Africa. This was the quid pro quo (favour for a favour) between Africa and Arabia: Africa gave protection to the Arabs. In turn, the Arabs shared their faith and their knowledge with Africa.
It was the year 613, nine years before the Hijrah. Prophet Muhammed ﷺ was still in Makkah. Mighty was the struggle he was engaged in, teaching the message of the Unity of Allah and the brotherhood of man to a people steeped in layers of ignorance.
As conversion to Islam gathered momentum, so did the persecution of the Muslims. Conditions became so harsh in Makkah that the Prophet ﷺ ordered a group of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia or Habsha in Arabic, across the Red Sea from Arabia. There the Christian king received them with honour and gave them protection. Two years later, in 615, a larger migration took place. Many were the well-known Companions (RA) including the Blessed Prophet`s ﷺ daughter and son-in-law, the third Khalifah of the Muslims, Hadhrat Uthmaan bin Affan (RA). The second group stayed in Africa for a long period, returning TO Arabia much later, in fact by the time they returned, the Great Hijrah and the establishment of a Muslim community in the City of Madinah had already taken place.
This proves that Africa was the first continent that Islam spread into out of Arabia in the early seventh century. Almost one-third of the world’s Muslim population resides today in the continent. It was estimated in 2002 that Muslims constitute 45% of the population of Africa. Islam has a large presence in North Africa, West Africa, the horn of Africa, the Southeast and among the minority but significant immigrant population in South Africa.
Islam in West Africa
The first West Africans to be converted were the inhabitants of the Sahara, the Berbers, and it is generally agreed that by the second half of the tenth century, the Sahara had become Dar al-Islam that is the country of Islam.
After the Berbers’ Islamisation, the religion spread into the Western Sudan from the closing decades of the tenth century. First, Islam spread into the regions West of the Niger Bend (Senegambia, Mali), then into Chad region and finally into Hausa land.
According to some Arabic sources the first Black ruler to embrace Islam was the King of Gao who had done so by 1009. The first King of Mali to become a Muslim was Barmandana, who was reigning by the middle of the eleventh century. The Kings of Ghana, on the other hand did not embrace Islam until about the beginning of the twelfth century, after the Almoravid invasions.
In the Chad region, it appears from the Arabic sources that Umme Jilmi, who became the king of Kanem in 1086 was the first Muslim King. Islam was first introduced into Hausa land from either Kanem or Air in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, but it did not really take root there until during the second half of the fourteenth Century.
Islam in East Africa
The earliest concrete evidence of Islam and Muslims in eastern Africa is a mosque foundation in Lamu where gold, silver and copper coins dated 830 were found during an excavation in 1984. The oldest intact building in eastern Africa is a functioning mosque at Kizimkazi in southern Zanzibar Island dated 1007. It appears that Islam was common in the Indian Ocean by 1300. When Ibn Battuta of Morocco visited the East African coastlands in 1332, all the way down to the present border between Mozambique and South Africa, most of the coastal settlements were Muslim, and Arabic was the common literary and commercial language spoken all over the Indian Ocean. Islam thus seems to have arrived quite early to East Africa through traders. It certainly did not spread through conquest or settlement, but remained an urban and coastal phenomenon for quite long. Later it spread to the interior after 1729 when the Portuguese were pushed beyond the Ruvuma River that forms the present Tanzania-Mozambique border.
It would be erroneous to consider Islamic practices in eastern Africa as Arabic practices, and associate Islam with Arabs, since Islam did not arabise East Africans; on the contrary, Arab immigrants, Islam and Islamic practices got Africanised or swahilised, thereby developing Islam as an indigenous African religion! This is also linguistically evidenced by the fact that Arab immigrants became Swahili speaking, adopted the Swahili dress, food and eating habits and other cultural elements. Islam is therefore not a foreign but rather a local religion on the coast, and along the old trade/caravan routes. It is more of an urban religion also in the interior and inland ports of Tanzania and the rest of East Africa.