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Omari H. Kokole
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century


Islam entered what is today the small, landlocked Republic of Uganda in the nineteenth century from two directions: from the east through the present republic of Kenya, and from the north through Egypt and the Sudan. However, the boundaries of present‐day Uganda were not stabilized until 1914. Since then Islam has remained one of the realities of the socio‐cultural life of this eastern African nation.

The precise date of Islam's introduction by Swahili and Arab traders from the east is in dispute. Some observers claim that Islam was introduced in the mid‐nineteenth century, while others believe it came in the last quarter of the century. It is clear, however, that as early as 1930 there were already thousands of Muslims in Buganda. Their chief leader and patron was a former king of Buganda, Nuhu Mbogo. Today up to half of all the Muslims in Uganda are to be found in the central region of Buganda alone. In this part of Uganda the Shāfi῾ī legal school predominates.

The entry of Islam into Uganda from the north occurred in the 1860s, when Khedive Ismā῾īl of Egypt sent a force, basically Muslim in composition, to occupy what is today northern Uganda as part of the Turco‐Egyptian empire. The Mālikī legal school predominates among the Muslims in the north. Whatever the precise dates, Islam was virtually unknown in Uganda before the nineteenth century.

Islamization in Uganda was not accompanied by arabization like what occurred in North Africa. Very few Ugandan Muslims speak classical Arabic (although their formal prayers are uttered in that language), and none identify themselves as Arabs. However, the Islam that came via the Sudan was accompanied by an Arabic creole called Nubi, a language that was politically significant in the 1970s and is still spoken in many parts of Uganda.

Virtually all indigenous Ugandan Muslims are Sunnī, although in the period prior to 1972 there was a tiny community of non‐Sunnīs, mostly from Muslim communities in South Asia. A few Ugandans have converted to the unorthodox Aḥmadīyah sect founded by Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad in British colonial India.

Dependable statistical information about the various religious communities in Uganda remains elusive. According to the first national census, taken in 1959, the population of Muslims in Uganda was less than 6 percent of the nation. Unofficially, however, many believed and continue to believe that the actual number of Muslims in Uganda was larger than the 1959 and subsequent official censuses suggested. Nonetheless, it is clear that whether Muslims in that country comprised 5, 10, or even 15 percent of the population, they were obviously vastly outnumbered by Ugandan Christians. According to the United Nations, by 1987 Uganda's population stood at 16 million; it was projected to reach 24 million by the year 2000.

Like many other African countries, Uganda has a triple religious heritage of indigenous African religions, Islam, and Christianity. Islam was the first to arrive of the two major immigrant Semitic monotheistic religions. The introduction of Christianity with British colonial rule in Buganda early in the twentieth century presented Islam with a serious rival. British rule naturally favored and facilitated the spread of Christianity; since colonial days political power has resided in Christian hands. Independent since 1962, postcolonial Uganda has consistently been ruled by Christians—almost all Protestants rather than Catholics—except for the Idi Amin years (1971–1979).

In Amin's Uganda Islam was clearly on the ascendant. In this period many non‐Muslims in the country converted to Islam, partly because the Islamic card promised greater access to influence and affluence. Amin surrounded himself increasingly with fellow Muslims, thus substantiating the belief that it paid to be a Muslim. For example, in 1971 Amin and a veteran Muganda politician, Abubaker Mayanja, were the only Muslims in his first cabinet. This contrasted sharply with the fourteen Muslims in a cabinet of twenty‐one ministers in 1977, two years before Amin's overthrow.

Uganda joined the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in the early 1970s and was fully represented at the OIC Summit Conference in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1974 [see Organization of the Islamic Conference]. The 1970s generally were a period when Islam was politically significant in Uganda. Since then it has been on the defensive, but there are several Muslims who remain politically conspicuous and influential. The Uganda Muslim Supreme Council headed by a chief kadhi (Ar., qāḋī) and established in the 1970s still exists. It is Uganda's main link with the worldwide ummah (Islamic community). The Uganda Muslim Students Association (UMSA) was also created in the 1970s to coordinate the activities of Muslim youths.

There are hundreds of mosques scattered across the country. The Qur'ān is widely read and is available in translation in at least two indigenous African languages, Kiswahili and Luganda.

Hundreds of Ugandan Muslims participate in the ḥajj to Mecca and Medina annually. The other major tenets of Islam are also widely followed, although not all Muslims perform the five daily prayers obligatory for practicing believers. The Islamic rules of diet and abstinence from alcohol are kept, as is fasting during the holy month of Ramaḋān, and afterward, ῾Īd al‐Fiṭr. Over the years many Ugandan Muslims have adopted Muslim dress, culture, and cuisine. Male circumcision is almost universal. Sharī῾ah is followed selectively and primarily in the private domain (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.). Islamic education is carried out in mosques and in a variety of Muslim institutions in the country. Today Uganda boasts a Muslim university funded by the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, an affiliate of the OIC. Located in the eastern city of Mbale not far from the border with Kenya, the university is still in its infancy but is likely to make a major contribution to Islamic life and the general education of Ugandan Muslims in the years ahead.

Fridays are no longer a holiday in post‐Amin Uganda, but many Muslims perform the Jumu῾ah prayer and both ῾Īd al‐Fiṭr and ῾Īd al‐Ḥajj remain national holidays.


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