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West Africa

West Africa extends from the Sahara in the north to the Gulf of Guinea in the south. It includes such countries as Nigeria, Mauritania, and the Ivory Coast. Berber traders first arrived in West Africa in the 800s and 900s. Islam spread slowly throughout the region. Some West African states acquired large Muslim majorities. Others resisted Islam and never developed more than a Muslim minority.

Some West African countries, such as Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal, are overwhelmingly Muslim. The nations of Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone are about 50 percent Muslim. Cameroon, Ghana, and Liberia have 20 percent or fewer Muslims in their populations. The non-Muslim people in these countries typically follow Christianity or African traditional religions.

Islam in West Africa

Muhammad established Islam in the mid-600s, unifying Arabian tribes for the first time. During the following centuries, Islamic empires came to dominate the Middle East. Muslims also gained control of regions as far apart as India and Spain. Some settled in parts of North Africa, and traders spread Islam throughout the continent. Muslim empires and centers of learning thrived in West Africa. In the 21st century, Islam continues to have a strong presence in the region. However, Muslims sometimes experience conflicts with one another and with other groups. Sufis and Islamic reformers often clash in their views of the role of Islam in the modern state.

Spread by Trade.

West Africans first encountered Islam when Berber merchants traveled south in the 800s. From North Africa, they developed trade routes across the Sahara that connected many towns and villages. As they traveled along these paths, they slowly spread Muslim culture and philosophy. Nomadic tribes and local traders adopted the religion and aided in its expansion.

During the Middle Ages, Islam gained widespread acceptance in West Africa. Several Muslim empires and states arose, including the Mali Empire (1200s–1400s), the Songhay Empire in present-day Niger (1300s–1500s), and the Kanem-Bornu Empire in present-day Chad (1200s–1800s). Cities such as Timbuktu (in Mali) and Kano (in Nigeria) flourished as centers of Islamic learning. As Islam spread throughout West Africa, it united tribal peoples with a common faith and rituals. When the celebrated Muslim travel writer Ibn Battutah visited West Africa in the mid-1300s, he noted the strong Muslim influence on the region.

In the early 1800s, Usuman Dan Fodio , a member of the Muslim Fulani tribe, declared jihad against rulers who had not truly accepted Islam. He became head of the Sokoto caliphate, which brought together many West African states for the first time. By the mid-1800s, the caliphate had assumed control over most of the northern region of Nigeria as well as parts of present-day Niger and Cameroon. The Fulani converted many West Africans to Islam.

Sufi orders also spread throughout West Africa during this period, including the Qadiriyah and Tijaniyah. Sufi leaders established Islamic schools and mosques, which became the chief Islamic social organizations. Disciples referred to their leaders as marabouts, a term derived from an Arabic word for a religious member of the military. The marabouts gained many followers, and Sufism became a popular and influential form of Islam in West Africa.

Colonial Period.

Virtually all the countries of West Africa became European colonies or protectorates in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Along with the colonizers came Christian missionaries who competed with Islamic religious leaders for the devotion of their people. While Western rulers promoted Christianity, however, they generally approved of Islam and took few steps to halt its progress. Islam grew in popularity during this time. Roads built by the Europeans allowed Muslim teachers and traders to travel into the interior of West Africa. Several Muslim scholars embarked on missions to spread Islam. They established Muslim communities, building mosques and religious schools.

Some colonial rulers regarded Muslims as more civilized than non-Muslim Africans. Because Muslims tended to have a better education as well as political experience, colonial powers recruited them to help administer certain regions. However, they also feared Muslim leaders as political rivals and usually monitored their activities.

Some Muslim groups played a significant role in stirring resistance to European control. Sufi marabouts raised large forces and declared a holy war against the Westerners. Eventually, however, they realized that they could not defeat the Europeans. To protect their economic and religious interests, the Sufis decided to collaborate with the colonial powers.

Islamic Reform.

To help strengthen Islam against colonial rule, some Muslim scholars initiated reform movements. Muslims who had attended universities in the Middle East or who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca promoted a return to the lifestyle of Muhammad and his early followers. One of the most popular and influential reform movements was the Wahhabi movement. It had no connection with the Wahhabi movement that arose in Saudi Arabia in the 1700s, but it was given that name by the Europeans, who saw similarities between the two. Wahhabi reformers encouraged Muslims to study the Qur'an and the hadith, to end the practice of saint worship, and to rid their rituals of animist elements.

Reform movements spread rapidly along trade routes, succeeding especially in areas where Sufism lacked a strong presence. The increasing popularity of the reform movements led to conflicts between Muslims of different groups. For example, Muslims disputed among themselves over the control of local mosques. These arguments often led to the formation of separate mosques in each town.

Most West African countries gained their independence in the mid-1900s. During this time, Islamic reform movements became even more popular. Young Muslims often rejected Sufi practices and criticized the marabouts for their cooperation with colonial powers. They also opposed national governments that tried to restrict Islam. These Muslims turned increasingly to Wahhabism and movements to promote social reform.

Beginning in the 1970s, Islamic organizations in North Africa and the Middle East began to support Arabic instruction and the development of Islamic culture in West Africa and other Muslim regions. Money for mosques, Islamic schools, health clinics, and cultural centers poured into West Africa from Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Egypt. These countries also provided scholarships for students who wanted to attend universities in the Middle East. Such contributions encouraged more Muslims to push for the creation of an Islamic state.

Islam in Selected West African Countries

Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali are all good examples of West African nations with Muslim majority populations. They illustrate the overall trends that have characterized West African Islam since its development. They also reveal key differences in the history and role of Islam in West African countries.


Mauritania is a republic with Islam as the official state religion. Islam became well established in the northern part of Mauritania by the 1500s and spread slowly throughout the south. The people who live in the north speak the Arabic language and claim Arab ancestry. In the south, tribal peoples speak local languages and have little in common with their northern peers. Sufi orders, especially the Qadiriyah and Fadiliyah, helped to spread Islam throughout both areas. In the 1800s, the French colonized Mauritania. Marabouts organized repeated rebellions against them. They remained largely unsuccessful, however, and most leaders decided to cooperate with the French.

Mauritania gained its independence in 1960 . Its first president, Moktar Ould Daddah , came from the northern part of the country and denied the southern Mauritanians prominent positions in government. The dominance of the northerners created tensions that the common bond of Islam could not dissolve. Starting in 1978 , one military regime after another took control of the country. In the 21st century, the military still holds power in Mauritania, and deep rifts continue to divide the north and south. The government of Mauritania keeps Islam under tight state control, forbidding Islamic political parties and running mosques and Islamic schools. The legal system follows shari'ah and French civil law.


Like Mauritania, Senegal is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, with 94 percent of its population following Islam. However, it has a secular government. In the late 1800s, internal wars and French colonialism shattered traditional tribal structures. The Senegalese people turned to Sufi marabouts for leadership. Sufi orders came to dominate society. Members did not strictly observe Islamic rituals such as daily prayer, however, and often lacked knowledge of Islamic law. Many believed in charms and magic, looking to the Sufi leaders for supernatural guidance.

Some Sufi orders became prominent in peanut farming, which flourished in the Wolof region. Founded by Amadu Bamba in the late 1800s, the Muridi order organized a vast peanut export industry during the colonial period. Because the brotherhood was so well organized and had such strong economic power, the French grew fearful of Bamba. To reduce his influence, the government sent him into exile three times. The French ultimately recognized his peaceful intentions, however, and accepted him as a spiritual and economic leader in the early 1900s.

Senegal gained its independence in 1960 . Unlike Mauritania, it is a relatively unified country. Most Senegalese speak the Wolof language, and Islamic leaders generally cooperate with government officials. Sufi orders play a large role in organizing society and providing social welfare. Nonetheless, tensions exist within Senegal. Some Muslims reject the authority of the marabouts and look to Mauritania as a model of a strong Islamic state.


The population of Mali is about 90 percent Muslim. Like Senegal, the country has a secular government. In the Middle Ages, several northern Mali cities became major centers of Islamic education. Sufi orders such as the Qadiriyah took root in northern Mali in the early 1800s. However, the southern part of the country resisted Islam until a series of movements and revivals in the late 1800s expanded it into tribal regions. When the French colonized Mali, Islam grew in strength and popularity.

Mali became an independent nation in 1960 . Since that time, the government has either broken up or taken control of many Islamic organizations. The government also regulates Islamic education. As in other West African countries, Muslims increasingly speak out against the Sufis for their unorthodox rituals and their reliance on magic. See also Colonialism; Nigeria; Qadiriyah; Sokoto Caliphate; Sufism; Tijaniyah.

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