African societies were neither backward nor primitive, as Western versions of history usually claim. This article quotes African, European and Arabian sources to show a civilization whose architecture, education, industry, justice, morality and trade were the equal or superior to its contemporaries. Europe, for its part, could only surpass it in terms of gunfire.
Dawn of a New Era
The impact of Islam on African society is summed up by Trimingham. Islam for the ordinary adherent is not an intellectual exercise. It is absorbed and maintains its hold because it is a system of life(1). Islam brings a fixed system of belief and action, not variable according to family of locality. Pilgrimage to Makkah has played an important role in giving African Muslims a conception of Islam as a world religion and the consciousness of possessing a common religious inheritance. Travelling the whole way through Muslim lands gave the impression that Islam was the religion of Africa(2).
In practical Islam moral conduct is following what God allows and refraining from what He forbids. Theoretical and practical morality for the Muslim means the study and practice of the way of life (sunna) of the Prophet, the exemplar who followed the right path; but since all this has been codified it is simply a matter of following the law. The social ethics of Islam are directed to maintain the harmony and solidarity of the community, the consensus (ijma’) of the community being the criterion (3). The duties incumbent upon the community are summarised in the maxim ‘to command right and forbid wrong’; right and wrong are defined by the law (4). Social harmony involves the stressing of positive virtues such as benevolence, humility truthfulness, condemnation of envy, and care of orphans (4).
Although the communal aspect of moral conduct has been stressed, it should be mentioned that personal responsibility is a keynote of the Qur’an (5) and its outreach in institutions; the five pillars, for example are duties incumbent upon the individual. Observance of Islam means avoiding the tabooed such as: intoxicants, eating pig and carrion; contact with dogs; whistling; mutilations, incising and tattooing.(6).
Observing such precepts of Islam brought considerable changes to African society, which have been observed at all times by travellers and writers on Africa.
Shortly after the adoption of Islam, Kanem rose to be a state of considerable importance and extended its sway over the tribes of the Eastern Sudan to the borders of Egypt and Nubia; the first Muslim king of Kanem is said to have reigned either towards the close of the 11th or the first half of the 12th century (8).
Ibn Battuta gives a good description of the people of Mali under Islam:
‘The Black people possess some admirable qualities. they are seldom unjust, and have greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. their sultan shows no mercy to anyone who is guilty of the least act of it. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.
They are careful to observe the hours of prayer, and assiduous in attending them in congregations, and in bringing up their children to them. On Fridays, if a man does not go early to the mosque, he cannot find a corner to pray in, on account of the crowd. It is a custom of theirs to send each man his boy [to the mosque] with his prayer-mat; the boy spreads it out for his master in a place befitting him [and remains on it] until he comes to the mosque. Their prayer-mats are made of the leaves of a tree resembling a date-palm, but without fruit (9).
Another of their good qualities is their habit of wearing clean white garments on Fridays. Even if a man has nothing but an old worn shirt, he washes it and cleans it, and wears it to the Friday service. yet another is their zeal for learning the Qur’an by heart (10).’
The positive impact Islam had on African society was observed by later Western writers and travellers. Smith notes how:
‘We hear of whole tribes laying aside their devil worship, or immemorial fetish, and springing at a bound, as it were, from the very lowest to one of the highest forms of religious belief. Christian travellers, with every wish to think otherwise, have remarked that the Black person who accepts Islam acquires at once a sense of the dignity of human nature not commonly found even among those who have been brought to accept Christianity (11).’
‘Nor as to the effects of Islam when first embraced by a Black tribe, can there, when viewed as a whole, be any reasonable doubt. Polytheism disappears almost instantaneously; sorcery, with it attendant evils, gradually dies away; human sacrifice becomes a thing of the past. The general moral elevations is most marked; the natives begin for the first time in their history to dress, and that neatly. Squalid filth is replaced by some approach to personal cleanliness; hospitality becomes a religious duty; drunkenness, instead of the rule becomes a comparatively rare exception. Though polygamy is allowed by the Koran, it is not common in practice…; chastity is looked upon as one of the highest, and becomes, in fact, on of the commoner virtues. It is idleness henceforth that degrades, and industry that elevates, instead of the reverse. Offences are henceforth measured by a written code instead of the arbitrary caprice of a chieftain-a step, as every one will admit, of vast importance in the progress of a tribe (12).’
The Islamic impact is also on the economic and cultural levels. Muslims proved to be excellent traders and came to dominate the commercial world, helping to foster progress in sciences, philosophy and technology wherever they settled. Merchants from Arabia and the Gulf opened up the eastern coasts of Africa, from the Horn to Madagascar, to international trade (13). The rich trading settlements of Sofala, Kilwa and Mogadishu became Africa’s outlets to the Indian Ocean. Along the coast, from the Horn to Madagascar, the original Muslim civilisation developed around the Muslim trading settlements: the Swahili civilisation (14).
Browne, and Englishman, who undertook extensive travels in Central African in the years 1799 and 1806 (15), remarks that, among the idolaters of Sheibon and other places, the only persons he saw wearing decent clothes, or indeed clothing at all, were Muslims; that it was to the introduction of Islam a century and a half before his time that Darfur owed its settled government and the cultivation of its soil; and that the people of Bergoo were remarkable for their zealous attachment to their religion, and read the Qur’an daily. In this summary we hear of the use of decent clothing, and the arts of reading and agriculture, attributed to Islam (16).
Mungo Park, educated as he was for the Scotch Church, and cruelly persecuted as he was throughout his travels by the ‘Moorish banditi’, Smith notes would not be likely to be a friend of Islam, and many of his remarks show a strong bias against it: his testimony, therefore is all the more valuable. His travels lay almost exclusively among Muslims or semi-Muslim tribes, and he found that the Black people were everywhere summoned to prayer by blasts blown through elephants’ tusks. On reahing the Niger, the main object of his wanderings, he found, to his surprise, that Sego, the capital of Bamharra, was a walled town, containing some 30,000 inhabitants, that the houses were square and very often white-washed, and that there were Muslim mosques in every quarter. ‘The view of this extensive city,’ he writes, ‘the numerous canoes upon the river, the crowded population, and the cultivated state of the surrounding country, formed altogether a prospect of civilisation and magnificence which I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa’ (17).
His impression of the women was most favourable. ‘I do not recollect,’ he says, ‘a single instance of hard-heartedness towards me among the women. In all my wandering and wretchedness I found them uniformly kind and compassionate.’ One of the first lessons in which the Mandingo women instructed their children was the practice of truth. (18)
Mungo Park adds: ‘the beverages of the pagan Negroes are beer and mead, of which they frequently drink to excess. The Muslims amongst them drink nothing but water’ (19).
As to education, Mungo Park found schools and active teachers everywhere (20). In Africa, we are assured, at all hands, that the Muslim population has an almost passionate desire for education. Wherever Muslims are numerous, they establish schools themselves; and there are not a few who travel extraordinary distances to secure the best possible education (21).
The Reverend Edward Blyden, a native Black African and Christian missionary, counters those who attack Islam, and says:
‘If those Christians who are so unmeasured in their denunciations of ‘Mohammedanism’ could travel, as I have travelled, through those countries in the interior of West Africa, and witness, as I have witnessed, the vast contrast between the pagan and ‘Mohammedan’ communities- the habitual listlessness of the one, and the activity and growth, physical and mental, of the other; the capricious and unsettled administration of law, or rather the absence of law, in the one, and the tendency to order and regularity in the other; the increasing prevalence of ardent spririts in the one, and the rigid sobriety and conservative abstemiousness of the other- they would cease to regard the ‘Mussulman’ system as an unmitigated evil in the interior of Africa’ (22).
Western Efforts to Block the Progress of African Civilization
The Western slave trade, which reached its peak in the 18th century, shattered not just Muslim communities, but the whole of African society and economy, and permanently. Garaudy and Howitt explain how this disastrous impact in great detail (23). It is not that African society, as generally held in Western writing, was initially backward, thus clearing the conscience of the slave traders from their responsibility in its backwardness, but rather, as a whole, Black Africa, in the 15th century, before slave trading, Garaudy explains was not inferior to Europe (24). Coming from Goa or Egypt, Islam penetrated as far as Chad, and met in Nigeria and old black civilisation, which was remarkable for its art, possibly tributary to Mediterranean classical influences, which it soon adopted (25). The African states of Ghana, Mali and songhay shared in the great age of Islamic civilisation from the 9th to 16th centuries (26). On his return from his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1324, Mansa Musa brought back with him the Muslim poet and architect Es Saheli, who built the famous mosques and learning academies of Timbuktu and Gao (27). Timbuktu ranked with Alexandria, Fez, Seville, Cordova and Constantinople as a great centre of learning (28). Blyden speaks of the story of the Hejazi jurist who sought employment in Timbuktu, but who, finding too many scholars went on to Fez where he found employment more easily. He quotes with relish many honourable appearances of a black skin in Islamic literature, as an encouragement to African learning (29).
Economically, the textiles of Congo and Guinea were as high quality as those of Europe; Nigerian decorated hides and leather were appreciated in Europe, getting to it via North Africa; and metal works, of copper in particular, of Katanga and Zambia, and iron works of Sierra Leone, were much superior to those they were made to import by force later from Europe (30). The Empire of Ghana was a thriving commercial centre, and its large capital, Kumbi Saleh, was an important centre of trade and scholarship, where Islamic theology and history were studied (31). In Zimbabwe, Rhodes mercenaries and traffickers found huge constructions, and mines well exploited. Bronze metal in Benin was better quality than the Portuguese. European superiority was only in terms of gun fire (32).
It was Western Christendom, and above all the slave trade it inflicted on Africa, which destroyed these progresses of the African continent, and made the prosperity of the slave-trading nations (33). In 1540, only 400 Africans were deported, a figure which rose to nearly 300,000 every year in the 18th century (34). Due to losses during capture, transportation, deaths at the plantations, etc., 100 million Africans perished as a result of the slave trade (65).
This article was an excerpt of al-Djazairi, S.E., A Short History of Islam, The Institute of Islamic History, Manchester: 2006
(1) J.S. Trimingham: the Influence of Islam; op cit; p. 53
(2) Ibid; pp. 62-3
(3) Ibid; p. 67
(4) Ibid; p. 68
(5) Ibid; pp. 68-9
(6) on the day of Judgement each person will be held responsible for his deeds. ‘The fate of every man have We bound upon his neck…, neither shall any laden soul be charged with the burden of another’; sura xvii.13, 15, vi 34 [Qur-aan 17.13, 15; 6.34]
(7) J.S. Trimingham: The Influence of Islam; op cit; p. 57
(8) C. H. Becker: Geschichte des ostlichen Sudan; Der Islam; vol 1; Strassburg; 1910; pp. 162-3
(9) Ibn Battuta: Voyages d’Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by Fr tr by C. Defremery and B.R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV, Paris, 1968, repring of the 1854 ed; vol 4; pp. 421-2
(10) Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa; tr and selected by H.A.R. Gibb; George Routledge and Sons Ltd; London, 1929; pp. 329-31
(11) R.B. Smith: Mohammed; op cit; p.38
(12) Ibid; pp. 42-3
(13) D.T. Niane: General History of Africa; op cit; p.2
(14) Ibid; p. 3
(15) See Pinkerton: Voyages; vol xv and xvi
(16) In R.B. Smith; Mohammed; op cit; p. 44
(17) Mungo Park’s Traves; Cap I. Nd fin; in R.B. Smith: Mohammed; op cit; p. 45
(18) In R.B. Smith; Mohammed; op cit; p. 46
(19) Mungo Park; Cap VII; in R.B. Smith: Mohammed; op cit; p. 46
(20) In R.B. Smith: Mohammed; p. 47
(21) Ibid; p. 41
(22) Ibid; pp. 50-1
(23) R. Garaudy: Comment l’Homme; op cit. W Howitt: Colonisation an dChristianity. op cit.
(24) R Garaudy; Comment l’Homme; op cit; p. 271
(25) E Perroy: Le Moyen Age, Presses Universitaires de France, 1956; p. 525
(26) D. M. Traboulay: Columbus and Las Casas; University Press of America, New York, London, 1994. p. 69
(27) Ibid; p. 70
(28) G.O. Cox: African Empires and Civilisations; New York; 1974; p. 161
(39) Blyden in N. Daniel: Islam, Europe and Empire; Edinburgh University Press; 1966; p. 314
(30) R. Garaudy: Comment l’Homme; op. cit; p. 271
(31) D.M. Traboulay: Columbus and Las Casas; op cit; p. 69
(32) R. Garaud: Comment l’Homme; op cit; p. 271
(33) E. Williams: Capitalism and Slavery; North Carolina; 1944. Catherine C. Vidrotitch: Villes Africaines; op cit; at p. 1390. M. Craton: Sinews of Empire: A short history of British slavery; Garden City; NY; Doubleday; 1974
(34) R. Garaudy; Comment l’Homme; op cit; p. 275