In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islam in Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Early Muslim Scholarly Networks
  • Muslims, Kings, and Courts
  • Recent Patterns in Conversions to Islam
  • Education and Muslim Schools
  • New Media
  • Women and Gender
  • Healing and Possession
  • Art and Architecture
  • Relations between Muslims and Christians

African Studies Islam in Africa
John H. Hanson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0007


Islam in Africa has its roots in the origins of the faith, as Ethiopia was a refuge for Muslims who fled Arabia during the time of Islam’s prophet Muhammad (b. c. 570–d. 632 CE), and then Muslim Arab conquests in the decades after Muhammad’s death brought northern Africa into a Muslim imperial domain that came to encompass southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean world. Smaller states eventually succeeded the empire, and Islam gradually became the dominant faith of northern Africa within several centuries. In sub-Saharan Africa, connections with Muslim-dominated commercial spheres in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds brought economic and cultural exchanges, and Islam eventually became the dominant religion along the eastern Africa coast and one of several in the pluralist religious context of the bilad al-Sudan (“land of the blacks” in Arabic), the savanna lands below the Sahara from the Atlantic coast in western Africa to the Red Sea in northeast Africa. South of the Sahara, African Muslims forged ties with political elites and in some contexts rulers converted to Islam. Muslim scholarly networks fostered cultural and religious exchanges throughout Africa, and transformations in these networks in the 18th and 19th centuries encouraged the expansion of dynamic Sufi orders; leaders of some of these orders created political movements that challenged established elites. At the same time, growing European economic power influenced commerce, increasing transcontinental slave trading and expanding slavery on the continent, including in Muslim Africa. European imperialism culminated in colonial interventions, and Muslims engaged in diplomacy and armed resistance in response to this expansion. Some Muslims found ways to accommodate colonial administrations, for example by serving as Muslim judges in circumscribed courts, whereas many others focused on spiritual concerns and the expansion of Islam. The colonial era’s abolition of slavery brought some former slaves to the faith, often as disciples in expanding Sufi orders, but other Muslim groups also were active, such as Salafist movements in northern Africa. In the postcolonial era, African Muslim reformers continue to draw on local understandings and engage global Islamic discourses, now unhindered by colonial restrictions. Reformers focus attention on individual self-improvement through education and moral acts; Sufi orders remain important and adopt many of the educational practices and new media used by reformers. In building new nations, African Muslims participate in political processes by voting and organizing advocacy movements; only in selected contexts have radical Muslim groups turned to militancy.

General Overviews

Earlier European-language overviews of Muslim Africa stressed center-periphery relations in the expansion of Islam, distinguishing between northern and sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Trimingham 1986), but recent works emphasize initiatives in all contexts and interactions in and across frontiers. Loimeier 2013 provides an overview in regional chapters, Robinson 2004 has several thematic chapters before moving to case studies, and Levtzion and Pouwels 2000 combines regional and thematic chapters by scholars in several disciplines. Ende and Steinbach 2010 offers an overview of the Muslim world with regional coverage of Africa in chapters on Egypt by Alexander Flores, the Maghreb (northern Africa west of Egypt) by Franz Kogelmann, sub-Saharan Africa by Hans Müller, postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa by Jamil Abun-Nasr and Roman Loimeier, and Libya and the Sudan by Hanspeter Mattes. Robinson 2012, the fifth volume in The New Cambridge History of Islam, provides an overview of the Muslim world during the last two hundred years with regional coverage of Egypt before and after 1919 by Kenneth Cuno and Joel Gordon, respectively; northern Africa, the Sudan, and Somalia before World War I by Knut Vikør; northern Africa after World War I by Kenneth Perkins; the Sudan after World War I by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban and Richard Lobban Jr.; and Africa south of the Sahara before and after World War I by Roman Loimeier and John Hanson, respectively.

  • Ende, Werner, and Udo Steinbach, eds. Islam in the World Today: A Handbook of Politics, Religion, Culture, and Society. 5th ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

    An English translation of the classic German work, Der Islam in der Gegenwart, now in its fifth edition, that offers comprehensive coverage of the history of the Muslim world with thematic and regional chapters, including several on northern, western, and eastern Africa.

  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall Pouwels, eds. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000.

    An anthology with chapters by leading scholars who cover the history of Muslim Africa in both regional and chronological chapters followed by thematic essays on a broad range of topics. Hanretta 2005 (cited under Review Articles) provides an assessment.

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

    A comprehensive account of the history of Muslim Africa, organized regionally with detailed discussion of religious and social issues and a concluding chapter on European colonial rule and its aftermath.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511811746

    A thematic treatment of Muslim Africa discussing both the Islamization of Africa and the Africanization of Islam, followed by case studies on Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, the Sudan, and Uganda. Hanretta 2005 (cited under Review Articles) provides an assessment.

  • Robinson, Francis, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 5, The Islamic World in the Age of Western Dominance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    A completely revised edition of a classic work with a thematic overview of the era by Francis Robinson and several regional chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Influence of Islam upon Africa. London: Longman, 1986.

    A summary of Trimingham’s previous books on the history of Islam in regional contexts written between 1949 and 1964 with an additional analysis of religious change and discussion of Muslim cultural zones, including a distinction between “Hamitic” and “Negro” regions that reflects the discredited racial thinking of the era. First edition published in 1968.

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