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Islam in West Africa Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2022


The continent of Africa is home to over a billion people, with a diverse pool of indigenous traditions, religions, and political systems. However, in recent history there has been a gradual spreading of Christianity and Islam with the former being directly associated with the settlement of Europeans. To understand the nature and impact of contemporary relationships between politics and religion in the region, it is important to consider the effects of European colonial rule in the nineteenth century. Theoretically, one major impact following colonialism was to separate the continent’s religious inclination from its seemingly secular-based piety and ultimately affect its political sphere. Generally, religions in Africa are intertwined with particular political trajectories of societies whether modern or traditional. Hence, it is analytically reasonable to consider both movements as having an interlinked connection that usually defies easy categorization in Africa.

Christian Evangelization in West Africa in the 19th Century

Religion is a system of behaviors, morals, texts, prophecies, and practices that links humanity to supernatural elements. Some of the most widespread religions across the globe include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Atheism. Christianity, the religion with the most following currently, was first introduced in Africa via North Africa, through regions of Egypt and Ethiopia as early as the 16th century (Religious Movements 337). Contrary to that, West Africa had experienced years of constant interactions with Europeans, but the focus was on the slave trade. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, expeditionary missions were launched by Catholics in Senegal and Gabon while Protestants settled in Sierra Leone (Religious Movements 338). The missionaries represented a wide spectrum of church denominations, such as Catholics, Protestants, and Anglican that were in constant competition and conflict to gain more followers. The religious situation intensified after the abolition of slave ownership and trade in 1972 (Religious Movements 342). Former slaves who had been converted into protestant Christians were settled back in Freetown, currently the Capital city of Sierra Leone.

After the abolition of slave trade, thousands of people of African descent were liberated over the subsequent years and resettled in Freetown. The British proclaimed the town a settlement area which was later on placed under the rule of a Britain governor. The freed slaves who spoke foreign languages and viewed themselves as thoroughly westernized did not interact well with local tribes. Similarly, liberated settlers who had been working on ships considered themselves cut off from their former cultures; hence, they were more susceptible to adopting western cultures, such as Christianity (Religious Movements 352). Religion was particularly more appealing to freed slaves because they were eager to learn about the Bible. Moreover, the trauma experienced during capture and enslavement made the settlers more receptive to preaching about salvation. A continued spread of Christianity brought about a fusion between African practices and European teachings, for instance, singing of hymns comprised of indigenous musical forms, such as hand clapping and vigorous dancing.

In Liberia, the settlement patterns were different in the post-colonial era. Freed black slaves were resettled in the coastal town of Monrovia with the aid of the American Colonization Society, a group that supported repatriation of formerly purchased Africans (Religious Movements 361). This society, which acted as the governing body in Liberia during the nineteenth century, equated civilization with the spread of Christianity, and as a result, the country experienced dramatic changes. For instance, a prominent Christian presence in this region outnumbered traditional practices over time (Religious Movements 361). Similar to Sierra Leone, Liberians started constructing their houses using bricks resembling the American architecture and were more inclined to western foods, including butter and cheese. The acceptance of Christianity solidified missionary beliefs that Africans can be persuaded to modify their traditional practices and embrace western culture, resulting in the changes in dress and mannerism. Following the influence Christianity in Liberia, the country adopted an American type constitution, flag, and dollars after independence.

Educating and training black missionaries, such as Bishop Samuel Ajayi and Edward Wilmot Blyden, had a great impact on the spread of Christianity across West Africa (Religious Movements 362). Black missionaries were responsible for influencing their fellow compatriots to accept change and western mannerism. For instance, Blythen encouraged Africans to learn new technologies by educating themselves in modern sciences with an aim of developing local resources and lessening their over dependence on western aid. The effect of Christianity in West Africa, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia, demonstrated the aggressive nature of religion and western culture compared to indigenous beliefs.

Islamic Revolution and Its Outcomes

Unlike Christianity, Islam was considered a religion less concerned with the democracy of interfering with indigenous African cultures. In fact, Islam and Africans shared a wide array of practices, including polygamy. The spread of Islam during the nineteenth century was anchored on peaceful doctrines carried out by indigenous clerics around major towns and trade routes. The peaceful aspect of the religion was disrupted when a number of jihads, a term used to refer to struggles or campaigns against non-believers, broke out across West Africa. These campaigns were not aimed at spreading Islam but to institute reforms in regions that had a large Muslim population (Levtzion 75). Associated with different variations of Sufism, the jihads followed the teachings of a Muslim saint who possessed mystical visions, attracting followers to form a fraternity commonly referred to as a brotherhood. Two of the most influential Sufi orders across West Africa included, Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya (Religious Movements 372). While the former order emphasized religious learning, the latter was more focused on following a strict moral code and was enthusiastic about spreading the faith.

A number of reasons aided the emergence of jihadist groups in West Africa; first, clerics declared that they had received mystical visions instructing them to institute religious practices, and second, Sufi doctrines ordered religious leaders to emphasize their prophetic beliefs in the Mahdi and Majaddid (Religious Movements 377). And Lastly, the brotherhood provided a systematic framework that could be used to mobilize people into taking action. Three of the notable jihads that emerged in the nineteenth century include the Sokoto caliphate led by Usuman Dan Fodio, Masina of Sheikh Ahmad, and one headed by Umar Tal (Religious Movements 377). Although all three jihads have contradicting teachings, they also share some common elements. The subsequent leader, Sheikh Ahmad, was a former disciple of Usuman Dan Fodio while Umar Tal married Fodio’s granddaughter (Religious Movements 377). All three leaders belonged to the same linguistic group and were staunch members of the Sufi brotherhood. However, these similarities did not prevent their jihad groups from conflicting with one another.

While Usuman and Sheikh Ahmad belonged to the same Qadiriyya brotherhood, their teaching greatly differed from Umar Tal’s Tijaniyya beliefs. The difference in doctrines led to an upsurge of religious warfare resulting in mass displacement of people and the reconstruction of the political and religious views of West Africa. The spread of Islamic religious beliefs in West Africa had significant social, economic, and political impact. Formation of jihads and brotherhoods promoted a sense of unity, whereby different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds were embraced under the Sufi doctrines (Levtzion 142). Their system of administration established diplomatic ties with neighboring communities, such as Mansa Musa and the Ottoman Empire.

Muslim leaders introduced the pilgrimage to Mecca and the five pillars of Islam encouraged, strengthening the believer’s faith (Religious Movements 383). Literacy and schools were established in cities and towns where Islam was practiced to encourage scholars to keep a record of historical events. Burnt brick architecture was introduced during this religious revolution signified by the construction of a Mosque in Gao and a stone palace for Mansa Musa in Mali. Islam also promoted economic growth across the region by widening the trans-Saharan trade, which was the main commercial activities of Muslims who had occupied towns and cities along the route leading to the establishment of towns, such as Timbuktu, Kano, and Gao.


Africa’s political and religious landscape has undergone several changes since the nineteenth century. Christianity was first introduced to the Western coast following years of European interaction during the slave trade. After the abolition of slave ownership, the freed settlers returned back to Sierra Leone and Liberia, where they advocated for the spread of Christianity. Samuel Ajayi, Bishop Blythen and other black missionaries were highly influential hence, used by Europeans to exert western authority, such as education, modern dressing, and food choices leading to a decline in traditional practices. Similarly, the eruption of Islamic jihads was instrumental in instituting the moral and religious practices that are currently being practiced. However, differences in their teachings resulted in political unrest in West Africa.

Works Cited

Levtzion, Nehemia. Islam in West Africa: Religion, Society and Politics to 1800. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2018.

Religious Movements and State-building Strategies in the Nineteenth Century. Routledge, n.d.

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