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East Africa, Conversion to Islam in

Chanfi Ahmed
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East Africa, Conversion to Islam in

From the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, the Qādirīyah and Shādhilīyah ṣūfī brotherhoods (ṭarīqa) were the principal vehicles of conversions to Islam in the East African hinterland. Today this role has been taken over by the new “missionaries” of Islam (the Salafī ʿulamāʾ, the Wahubiri wa kislamu (Muslim preachers/Muslim Bible’s scholars), and the supporters of several Islamist ideologies. The most important of these new “missionaries” of Islam, however, are Salafī activists.

International and Regional Historical Context

The Salafī movement has been present in the region since the late nineteenth century, albeit in a rather marginal form. It was represented by the Comorian Sheikh Mlomri, who carried on a correspondence with the great Muslim reformer of that time, Sheikh Muhammed Abduh, followed at the beginning of the twentieth century by Sheikh al-Amin al-Mazrui of Mombasa (1891–1947) and his disciple Sheikh Abdallah al-Farsy of Zanzibar (1912–1982). This current has gained increasing influence over the years, reaching its peak in the early 1980s. The efforts of local and international initiatives have further promoted this phenomenon. In fact, since the 1970s, many young people from the region have benefited from grants given by the Persian Gulf countries permitting them to pursue religious studies in the Gulf. These study grants were one of the results of the oil boom. After finishing their studies in the Gulf region, these young people would return to their home countries and convert to Islam through teaching and other activities.


Both “Islamic diplomacy” and the young returnees from the Gulf have attempted to address the resentment that many Tanzanian and Kenyan Muslims have held toward their governments and Christian fellow citizens. Tanzania’s Muslims had in fact always reproached President Julius Nyerere’s government (1964–1985) for pursuing an anti-Muslim policy in collaboration with the churches, particularly the Catholic Church. According to Muslim activists, the Catholic Church and the Nyerere government simply resumed the policies of the former British colonial administration, continuing to discriminate against Muslims with regard to education, professional training, and the distribution of influential posts. This is particularly striking since Tanzanian Muslims were among the most active in the anticolonial struggle for independence. Furthermore, according to the Tanzania National Demographic, 40 percent of the estimated thirty-three million Tanzanian inhabitants in 1973 were Muslim, 38.9 percent Christian, and 28 percent followers of traditional religions. In an unpublished article, Mohammad Said (“Islamic Movement and Christian Hegemony”) goes as far as placing the Muslim population at 60 percent. At any rate, the actual percentage of inhabitants within each community is commonly debated among Muslims and Christians of Tanzania and Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa.


In 1998, five million (20 percent) of Kenya’s thirty-two million inhabitants were Muslims. Most of them were concentrated in the coastal regions. (As with Tanzania, some insist on a much higher figure.) Muslims had complained of being neglected and discriminated against by the British, who, together with the Christian missionaries, allegedly favored the non-Muslim population. Educated in Christian missionary schools and hence acquainted with modern Western knowledge, Christians filled important posts in the colonial administration of Kenya. Thus, in the 1980s, a number of Islamic NGOs in the Muslim states of the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, launched a campaign of Islamization and re-Islamization (with the support of local Islamic associations) in Kenya, taking advantage of Muslim frustration that has accumulated since colonial times.

Institutions and Agents of Islamization in East Africa

Consequently, there are many local and transnational institutions and agents active in East Africa today in diffusing Salafī Islam, and, to a lesser extent Ithnā ʿAsharīyah Shīʿī Islam. I will limit myself here to the most important institutions, highlighting the discourse of conversion they uphold in their teaching and preaching. (For more information on these institutions, see Ahmed, 2008.)

African Muslim Agency.

The African Muslim Agency is a nongovernmental foundation for charity and development created in 1981 by the Kuwaiti physician Abdurrahm ân Hamm ûd Sumayt. According to agency leaflets, he established the foundation after a visit to Malawi. He noticed that Malawi Muslims lived in poverty and, despite their great numbers, were not represented in decision-making posts (Malawi has a population of 11,906,855 of which 55 percent are Protestant, 20 percent Muslim, and 20 percent Catholic; 3 percent belong to traditional religions, and 2 percent to others). He thereupon decided to set up this active, Moroccan and Sudanese officials have directed it.

The agency has opened a faculty of Islamic law in Thika (Kenya) and a College of Education in Zanzibar. Education and vocational training constitute the agency’s main fields of activity. Agency representatives claim that most key positions in African countries are held by Christians and not by Muslims because of better education among Christians. Christian Africans have gone through the educational system established and directed by European colonizers and Christian missionaries. For a number of reasons, Muslims were unable to benefit in the same way from the education offered by these institutions. Therefore, the African Muslim Agency provides secular teaching together with Islamic religious knowledge. It has also been active in constructing mosques and primary schools, as well as in digging wells and providing medical care.

The African branch of al-Haramayn.

Al-Haramayn was a charitable foundation to provide support for the Muslim poor all over the world. It was founded in 1412/1991 in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by a group of Saudi ‘ulamâ’. The foundation’s general meeting was chaired by Sh. Sâlih b. þ. Abdul’azîz Âsh-Shaykh, minister for Islamic affairs Awqâf, and moral instruction.

Al-Haramayn was established by the Saudi Aqîl A. al-ʿAqîl in Quetta (Pakistan) in 1988. Al-Aqîl had originally planned to officially inaugurate the organization on his return to Riyadh in 1991. His four years in Pakistan had been dedicated to daʿwah, and to the support of the Afghan jihād against the Soviet Union.

From the moment of its creation until January 2004, Sheikh Aqîl al-Aqîl served as al-Haramayn’s general secretary. He had to resign after the organization was accused of having given financial support to the Islamic terrorist movement al-Qaʿida.

In East Africa al-Haramayn introduced institutions for secondary Islamic studies (maʾâhid islâmiyya), especially in Dar as-Salaam, Tanga and Moshi (Tanzania), and Nairobi and Mombasa (Kenya). All of al-Haramayn’s administrative offices in the region have been closed pending further notice. The educational institutions are continuing their work but face considerable financial problems due to the temporary freezing of the institution’s bank assets, for reasons mentioned above. Al-Haramayn and the African Muslim Agency fulfill almost the same tasks (digging of wells, construction of schools, medical care centers and hospitals, as well as medical campaigns). However, there are decisive ideological differences between the two organizations. The African Muslim Agency is based on the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. It easily adapts to the legal system of the host country, in particular with regard to the national education program. Its only request in this matter is that education should be bilingual (Anglo-Arabic or Franco-Arabic) and that Islamic studies should be included as a subject.

The main concern of both the African Muslim Agency and al-Haramayn is education and the transmission of knowledge, enabling them to compete with Christian missionary institutions. Yet, while al-Haramayn’s educational institutions merely transmit religious knowledge in the Wahhābī-Salafī version, the African Muslim Agency seeks to offer both religious and secular instruction.

Bilal Muslim Mission.

The Bilal Muslim Mission takes its name from Bilal, the Ethiopian slave who was one of Muhammad’s earliest converts, whose purpose is to convert black Africans to Islam. It was created in 1964 at the tri-annual Conference of the Federation of the Shīʿī Ithnā ʿAsharīyah congregations of Africa held in the Tanzanian city of Tanga, and officially registered in 1968. Its headquarters is in Dar as-Salaam, Tanzania. The second main office is located in Mombasa, in Kenya. In both countries, the Bilal Muslim Mission also has offices in other cities. The organization aims to improve standards of education in general and religious education in particular among Ithnā ʿAsharīyah young people, but also caters to other Muslims, especially African Sunnīs. It is an institution dedicated to conversion, charity, and tablīgh (a word used by Shīʿī Muslims in the same sense as Sunnī Muslims use daʿwah ). Its creation goes back to ʿAllama Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi, an Ithnā ʿAsharīyah ʿalim. Born in 1927 in Bihar (India), he was sent in 1959 to Tanzania (Tanganyika) as dâʾî (missionary) by the Khoja Shia Itna ʿAsheri Supreme Council, before becoming resident ʿalim of the community.

Although the Bilal Muslim Mission existed before Ayatollah Khomeini (1902–1989) came to power in 1979, it is undeniable that the Islamic Republic of Iran, through its embassies and cultural services, managed to gain strong influence within the Bilal Muslim Mission and the Ithnā ʿAsharīyah khojah community in general.

YMA, WAMY and the Jamia Mosque of Nairobi.

The Young Muslim Association was founded in 1964 as part of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), established in 1972 in Riyadh. Today the WAMY comprises around five hundred Islamic youth associations and is represented in roughly fifty-five countries. The YMA now virtually manages the Jamia Mosque in Nairobi.

Muslims in most Kenyan towns are usually organized in autonomous associations responsible for leading the affairs of the community. However, the YMA has controlled these associations by giving them financial aid and Salafī imams and ʿulamāʾ. In 1969, the YMA founded an orphanage and a primary school for more than eight hundred children, boys and girls, in Garisa in the northern part of Kenya. At school, religious issues were taught alongside subjects on the curricula of state schools. The idea behind the creation of these two institutions (and many other charitable activities of the YMA) was to act as counterweight to Christian missionary activities among the Muslim populations.

Ansâr as-Sunna Youth of Tanga (Tanzania).

This Salafī association was created in Tanga in the 1980s. The association is also a member of the WAMY. The founding members were young Muslims from Tanga who had studied in the Islamic universities of Saudi Arabia. Until 2004, the association built kindergartens and elementary schools in Tanga, Arusha, Pangani, Muheza, and Kigombe, as well as three secondary schools in Tanga, one of them in accordance with the national educational program, the two other (one for boys, one for girls) religious schools. As for charitable services, the association in Tanga directs two orphanages and one medical care center, and has built ten cisterns that pump ground water. It keeps a social service station in its locations in Barabara where the needy (mostly young students and their families) receive cash donations.

The expansion dynamic of Salafī Islam evident in Tanzania, starting from Tanga, is mainly the effort of one man: Sheikh Sâlim Barahiyân, from Tanga. He studied at King Saud University in Riyadh in the 1980s. After finishing his studies, he worked for the Tanzanian embassy in Saudi Arabia but resigned shortly after to dedicate himself entirely to daʿwah. It is obvious that the principal activity of conversion for the Ansâr as-Sunna is education, both religious and secular.

Wa Hubiri wa Kislamu/Preacher of Islam or Muslim Bible Scholar.

The term wahubiri (sing. mhubiri) is the same term Christian preachers use to name themselves. The well-known group Wa Hubiri wa Kislamu is the group AL-MALLID (Islamic International Propagation; in the Bantu language Kiswahili, Kituo cha kuwazindua walio ghafilika katika Din). Unlike the transnational institutions mentioned above, which originated along the coast or overseas and then spread across East Africa, AL-MALLID has moved in the opposite direction, starting from the hinterland and expanding outward to the coast. The institution was registered in July 1992 as a religious organization. Its main objective is to convert Christians to Islam through public conferences (most of which take place in football stadiums), which essentially consist of a comparison between the Qurʾān and the Bible. Another important element of their conversion strategies are the publication of books and pamphlets and the distribution of conference audio recordings, videotapes, and CDs. Funding for these activities comes in the form of donations from various local supporters, the sale of propaganda material, agricultural activities (for example, grinding the peasants’ corn or other crops with special machines in return for payment), transport, restaurants, hotels, digging wells with modern machines for different regional communities or individuals, and so forth.

AL-MALLID’s discourse of conversion.

AL-MALLID’s strategy of conversion consists essentially of a deconstruction of biblical texts in favor of Islam and the Qurʾān. Yet they do not consider this to be deconstruction, but rather as correction. In their opinion, Christians falsified biblical texts which stated that the prophet to succeed Jesus would be Muḥammad. The text allegedly proving this “truth,” the so-called Gospel of Barnabas (Injili ya Barnaba’ in its Swahili version), is probably by far the most successful bestseller in the streets of Dar es-Salaam and Nairobi.

Moreover, the Kiswahili translation of the Qurʾān edited by the Aḥmadīyah in the 1930s contained arguments refuting Christian doctrine. The fact that the Aḥmadīyah were much more dominant in the region of Kigoma at that time must have had an influence on the first well-known Wa Hubiri wa Kiislamu who came from this region, such as Sheikh Mussa Hussein, Ngariba Mussa Fundi, Kawemba Muhammad Ali. But, considerable success gained by the Wahubiri wa Kiislamu movements goes back to the South African Ahmed Deedat, who was the true modern precursor of the subsequent methods applied by the “preachers of Islam” in East Africa.


This article deals with the new dynamics of Islam in East Africa and its attempt to expand through conversion and greater presence in the public sphere. Although these dynamics are nourished by contributions from transnational networks, their origins go back to the Muslim community’s frustration with politics, education, and professional training. As Muslim reformers have done elsewhere in the world, the reformers in East Africa are fighting for what is today called as-ṣaḥwah al-islāmīyah (Islamic awakening). Unfortunately, the issue for them is not about an Islam in Africa adapted to the sociocultural realities of the continent, and yet in solidarity with the ummah and open to non-Muslims. They do not provide an African theology in Islam as we have an African theology and an African Church in Christianity. Thus, it seems that the evolution of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa takes quite the opposite direction to Christianity.


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