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Southern Africa

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Southern Africa

    Southern Africa is a large area that includes the nations of South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia. Each of these countries has a relatively large Muslim minority population. Many Muslims in Southern Africa are descended from Indians or Southeast Asians brought to the region by European colonizers. Other Muslims adopted Islam after Arab traders introduced the faith to the area. The tolerant nature of traditional African religions enabled Islam to spread relatively easily throughout Southern Africa. Because local faiths do not preach the conversion of others, they never came into conflict with Islamic doctrines. Many Southern Africans adopted Islam while retaining local beliefs and rituals.

    South Africa and the South Asian Influence.

    South Africa's 900,000 Muslims make up nearly 2 percent of the country's total population. Most Muslims are either of Indian or Malay ancestry, and less than 3 percent are purely African.

    Dutch colonists arrived in South Africa in the mid-1600s. They consisted mostly of peasant farmers who settled on the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Southern Africa. Shortly after 1800 , the British seized the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch settlers (called Boers), who went north to build new settlements. Both the Dutch and the British brought Muslims to the region from other parts of the world.

    Muslims arrived in South Africa in two main groups. The first came during the 1700s, when the Boers imported prisoners and slaves from Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia to work on their farms. Most of these workers were Muslims and they settled on the Cape of Good Hope. Because many of them came from the Malay area of Southeast Asia, they became known as “Cape Malays.” After slavery ended in the 1830s, the Cape Muslims maintained a peaceful relationship with their Boer neighbors. However, they did not always agree with or obey the Boer—and later English—authorities. For example, they protested against enforced smallpox vaccinations in the 1840s and promoted various Islamic causes. Nonetheless, the Cape Muslims generally prospered in Southern Africa. They became tailors and merchants and eventually gained representation in all professions.

    The second group of Muslims arrived in Southern Africa between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, after the British had taken over the region. The British, like the Boers, needed cheap labor. They imported indentured servants and other laborers from the British colony of India. Around half of these workers were Muslims. Most of them settled in the Natal province of South Africa, where the British had established huge sugar plantations. The laborers were soon followed by Muslim merchants from India, who developed trade in Natal. The Union of South Africa was established in 1910 .

    Muslims in both the Cape and Natal formed a number of organizations during the 1900s. Early groups, such as the Cape Malay Association, arose to negotiate with the colonial government for Muslim rights. Muslim scholars and teachers also formed organizations to serve the religious needs of Muslim communities. These groups generally had little interest in politics. Some individuals, however, fought against laws they considered discriminatory and even endured punishment and exile. South African Muslims also established many social welfare and educational organizations, including Islamic primary schools, religious schools, and colleges to meet the educational needs of Muslims. Students learned about the ideas of leading Islamic thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi .

    During the late 1900s, a revivalist movement spread throughout the Islamic world. The Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa (MYMSA) helped promote Islamic pride, bringing prominent scholars to the country to share their ideas and guide Muslim leaders. The MYMSA also led to the formation of many other Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Medical Association, the Women's Islamic Movement, and the South African Association of Muslim Social Scientists. Other organizations emerged to spread or reform Islam and to bring about political changes that would benefit Muslims.

    In the 1990s, the policy of apartheid, or separation of races, ended in South Africa. Muslim activists played an important role in bringing about this change. A new, popularly elected government, composed mainly of black Africans, came to power once apartheid ended. Before the first election, representatives of Muslim organizations throughout South Africa met to discuss how Muslims, who were a minority, could ensure their representation in the new government. Some Muslims decided to support non-Muslim political parties. Others decided to form their own political parties, such as the Africa Muslim Party. No Muslim parties won seats in the National Assembly, but the government appointed a Muslim named Abdullah Omar as Minister of Justice, and Muslims gained several provincial and federal positions.

    Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia.

    Muslims made up 10 to 20 percent of the populations of Mozambique and Malawi. Zambia has a large number of Christians, but Hindus and Muslims represent important minorities.

    Islam spread to all three countries primarily through trade with Arab Muslims. By 1000 the Arabs had established thriving trade routes along the coast of Mozambique. Trade routes also ran across Southern Africa from the coast to the interior. Both goods and ideas were transported in this trade. Islam spread from the Mozambique coast to Malawi, Zambia, and even further inland.

    Mozambique existed as a Portuguese colony for hundreds of years before gaining independence in 1975 . After independence, Mozambique's government discouraged the public practice of religion. Since 1979 , however, the government has relaxed its policy, allowing religious groups to operate freely and to fund schools and hospitals. Most Muslims in Mozambique still live in the north, where Arab traders were most influential in the past.

    Malawi was a British protectorate that became independent in 1964 . Even after adopting Islam, many people in Malawi held on to some their traditional African religious practices. Since the 1970s, an Islamic revivalist movement has swept through the country. Islamic reformers study the Arab language and Islamic law and criticize people who follow traditional religious practices. The Malawi government has established ties with many Arab states. Christians in the area worry about the building of new mosques and the growing influence of the Middle East.

    Zambia existed as the British colony of Northern Rhodesia until 1964 , when it gained independence and became the Republic of Zambia. The government proclaimed Zambia a Christian nation in 1991 . Many Muslims and members of other non-Christian faiths complain of discrimination in state policies. See also Central Africa; Colonialism; East Africa; North Africa; West Africa.

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