In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islamic Trends and Movements in Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Expansion of Islam
  • Islam and Colonial Rule
  • Sufi Orders

Islamic Studies Islamic Trends and Movements in Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa
Marloes Janson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0292


Sub-Saharan Africa—that is, Africa south of the Sahara—is frequently, but unjustly, seen as the periphery of the Muslim world, in terms of both geography and religious influence. By contrast, North Africa is considered to be directly linked to the alleged center of the Muslim world: the Arab Middle East. The underrepresentation of sub-Saharan Africa in Islamic studies is remarkable given that the region is home to one of the largest agglomerations of Muslims in the world today. Scholars have long written about an “African Islam,” reflecting the Sufi bias typical of scholarship on Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. The recurrent idea of an “African Islam” hampers a better understanding of the emergence of Islamic reform movements. The religious landscape in sub-Saharan Africa is marked by a wide variety of Sufi orders, reformist-oriented movements, and Islamist movements. These movements have been the subject of various studies in diverse disciplines, including anthropology, Islamic studies, religious studies, history, and political science. These various disciplines have examined trends, such as the role of traders and traveling scholars in the expansion of Islam, the emergence of the early jihadist movements, the role of the Sufi orders in popularizing Islam, varieties of Islamic reform, and Islamic militancy. Moreover, various studies have explored developments in specific areas, including gender and Muslim youth culture. These developments gave rise to new movements, demonstrating that Islam in sub-Saharan Africa is not a monolithic religion but is subject to change. Highlighting the heterogeneity of Islam in the region, we should distinguish between regions and countries that have a long tradition of Islamization (such as northern Nigeria, Senegal, and Zanzibar), and regions and countries that have become Muslim (at least partly) more recently (such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, and up-country Kenya). A distinction should also be drawn between regions and countries where Muslims form a majority of the population and areas where Muslims represent a minority. But where Muslims are a minority, such as in South Africa, they may still be in a strong position with respect to national politics.

General Overviews

Hiskett 1994 provides a concise historical overview of the development of Islam in Africa from the 7th century to the 1990s. More detailed sources that survey Islam in Africa from a broad historical perspective are Levtzion and Pouwels 1999 and Loimeier 2013. Levtzion and Pouwels 2000 looks at the history of Islam in Africa, spanning fourteen centuries. The authors consider how Islam has changed life in African communities and how these communities have, in their turn, affected Islam. Loimeier 2013 provides a concise overview of Muslim societies in Africa and studies Africa as a part of the wider Muslim world. Robinson 2004 is indispensable in providing a historical background to understanding contemporary Islamic movements and trends in Africa.

  • Hiskett, Mervyn. The Course of Islam in Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

    Considering a geographic stretch from North Africa to East Africa, the Horn, and southern Africa, Hiskett pays particular attention to the development of Sufism across the continent. The book includes a short bibliography with key works on Islam in Africa.

  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall L. Pouwels, eds. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999.

    This is the first comprehensive history of Islam in Africa. Whereas the focus is on sub-Saharan Africa, the volume includes references to Egypt and North Africa.

  • Loimeier, Roman. Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt16gz74b

    A concise, but comprehensive, study of Islam and Muslim societies in Africa, covering the entire continent including North Africa. This is a useful research tool in that the appendix includes sources for further reading.

  • Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History. New Approaches to African History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511811746

    Examining case studies from North, West, and East Africa, this book gives rich snapshots of Muslim societies in Africa over the last millennium. The distinction that Robinson draws between the “Islamization of Africa” (chapter 3) and the “Africanization of Islam” (chapter 4) gives a somewhat distorted image of a divide between an “African Islam” and an “Arab Islam.”

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