Impacts Of Islam On The African Culture

More than one thousand years ago, a group of twenty-three desert-dwellers left their land of birth to seek asylum in a faraway land. They had journeyed from a land where idolatry was well established, so it was only natural for persecution to follow their acceptance of a new creed, which was considered a threat to the existing one by their kinsmen. These people, along with many others, endured torture for a long time in the hands of the people with whom they once wined and dined. But when the persecution grew to such an unbearable extent, Muhammad (peace be upon him), their leader and the bearer of the Islamic faith, advised that the twenty-three leave Makkah, and travel across the red sea to seek refuge in the northern part of Africa, in a land called Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia). This- according to the Muslim tradition- is known as the first hijrah, or migration.

While this was a short-lived encounter, Muslims eventually left a lasting influence in North Africa which has since spread to western, eastern and central Africa. Mainly, this was achieved through trade and migration. And while the Arab merchants were at it, they interacted greatly (based on the principles of Islam) with local cultures, thereby enriching the designs of these cultures.

Previously, Africa was known to be underdeveloped and regressive. But the sacred touch of Islam spurred a rise in education. As a result, Africa enjoyed unequalled scholarship and academic reinforcement. Under the Muslim rule, cities such as Cairo and Timbuktu served as educational centres which attracted scholars and travelers from far and near. For instance, in Timbuktu (empire of Mali), which was famous for its two large mosques, Muslim scholars would gather to discuss theology and try to refresh the asceticism of fellow African Muslims from the paganism of the past, thus making them true to the doctrines of Islam [1]. This allowed for prevalent cross-cultural interactions in Africa, as people from all walks of life came to share and spread ideas, particularly of the Islamic faith. Moreover, becoming a Muslim involves offering prayers in a mosque frequented by members of other ethnic groups.

Also, Africans who considered education an honorable quest took advantage of the popularity and the accessibility of this Islamic form of education to participate in higher learning. In the process, their religions and ideals were rendered antiquated and repainted in the Islamic light. For example, the sub-Saharan Muslim clerics known as marabouts fabricated amulets (for different purposes) with Quranic verses which came to displace indigenous talisman (Brenner, 2001). Furthermore, local shrines were transformed into mosques, while the former retained their physical configurations.

It is worthy to note that the spread of Islam in Africa could be attributed to its respect for local cultures. Muslims never forced Africans to accept Islam, as this was clearly against its teachings: “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut (false deities) and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. Allah is all-hearing and all-knowing [3]” Instead, these Muslims, because of the supra-ethnicity of Islam, tolerated converts by combining some elements of indigenous culture with Islam.

One of the primary effects of this cultural balance is the acceptance of the Arabic language. Arabs that traded along the east coast maintained such a successful business transactions in places like Darussalam, Mombasa, and so on that eventually led to the creation of a vibrant culture that merged Arab and indigenous culture. As a result, a new language- Kiswahili- was formed. This language is a mixture of the Arabic language and African languages (Bantu languages) [4], and it remained the principal language of East Africa (used mostly by people with different first languages). Similarly, through their political influences, the Arabs made Arabic the predominant language in North Africa.

Furthermore, as stated earlier, the amulets fabricated by the marabouts were featured in the designs of many traditional African artifacts. The reason for this is to retain some level of African feel, as a way of exhibiting- to a considerable extent- the tolerance which Islam speaks highly about: “Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a paradise whose width is that (of the whole) of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous; those who spend (freely) whether in prosperity or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men; for Allah loves those who do good [5].”

Also, Prussin and Rene Bravmann observed with respect to the shrine-mosque transformations that some of the mosques that were built in Mali had mihrabs (which also served as minaret) that evoked the image of an African mask, which traditionally represented powerful forces [6].

More than this, Islam also strengthened the African fondness for visual art by decorating the surfaces of textiles and crafted objects using geometric designs and the repetition of patterns. Some, such as the head of the Asante confederacy in Ghana, even wore clothes designed with Arabic writings of different colours [7]. However, historical architecture still remains the best-conserved legacy of Islam’s first appearance in Africa, and mosques are the best examples of the remarkable artistic diversity generated by the interaction between the people of Africa and the Islamic faith.

With all these in mind, we would realize that the power and popularity of Islam impacted Africa in tremendous ways, changing the continent and its people forever. Educational, aesthetics and political aspects were all altered and never returned to their untouched, original states. More importantly, it would be quite impossible to fathom the levels of forbearance, tolerance and resilience of these Arabs, whose paths across the oceans and hot deserts that filled the expanse of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were created by a bunch of twenty-three brave and steadfast Muslims. And in spite of their being strangers in strange lands, the Africa we see today is a true manifestation of their past historical efforts.

1. “Impacts of Islam in Africa: 1000 – 1750 AD.” Hub pages. . Retrieved February 10, 2018 from
2. Brenner, L (2001) Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Google Scholar
3. Suratul Baqarah (Quran 2 vs 256)
4. “Trade and the spread of Islam in Africa.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. . Retrieved February 09, 2018 from
5.  Suratul Imran (Quran 3 vs 133-134)
6. "African Culture and Islam." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . Retrieved February 09,            2018 from
7. "African Culture and Islam." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . Retrieved February 09, 2018 from

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