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Omari H. Kokole, Aili Mari Tripp
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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 from Egypt via Sudan. Since then, Islam has remained part of the sociocultural life of this eastern African nation.

According to the first nationwide census, taken in 1959, Muslims in Uganda represented less than 6 percent of the population. By 2002, a new census indicated that Muslims made up 12 percent of the population in a country of 26.8 million, making Islam the second largest religion after Christianity, with Catholics representing 42 percent of the population and Anglicans 36 percent of the total. At present, the majority of Muslims are found in the central region of Buganda and to its east in Busoga. In this part of Uganda the Shāfiʿī legal school predominates, while the Mālikī legal school predominates in the north.

The entry of Islam into Uganda from the north occurred in the 1860s, when Khedive Ismāʿīl of Egypt sent a force to occupy what became northern Uganda as part of the Turco-Egyptian Empire. Islamization in Uganda was not accompanied by Arabization. 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 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.

The Qurʾān is widely read and is available in translation in at least two indigenous African languages: Kiswahili and Luganda. Over the years many Ugandan Muslims have adopted Muslim dress, culture, and cuisine. Sharīʿah is followed selectively and primarily in the private domain (marriage, divorce, and inheritance). Islamic education is carried out in mosques and in a variety of Muslim institutions in the country. The Islamic University in Uganda was inaugurated in Mbale in 1988; it was funded by the Islamic Development Bank in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, an affiliate of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). In 2001, the Aga Khan Foundation established the Aga Khan University Advanced Nursing Programme.

Most indigenous Ugandan Muslims are Sunnī. A few Ugandans have converted to the Aḥmadīyyah sect, founded by Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad (1835–1908) in British colonial India in 1889. Aḥmad is considered the personification of the Messiah among Ahmadiyyah followers, who number in the millions throughout the world. The Ahmadiyyah first spread to Africa in 1915, when the first Ahmadiyyah mission was established in Mauritius. Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs migrated to Uganda in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their influence was strengthened in 1945, when the Aga Khan Ismaili community established the East African Muslim Welfare Society and started building schools, mosques, and community centers. In 1972 Ugandan president Idi Amin expelled all Asians from Uganda, including the Ismāʿīlīs and other Shīʿī groups such as the Bohoras and Ithnā ʿAsharīs.

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. Independent since 1962, postcolonial Uganda has consistently been ruled by Christians, except during the Idi Amin years (1971–1979). Amin’s successor, Yusuf Lule, was born Muslim but converted to Anglicanism by the time he took office.

In Amin’s Uganda, Islam was declared the state religion even though the majority of the population was Christian—and although the declaration was more aspirational than a reality. Amin surrounded himself increasingly with fellow Muslims and gave preference to Muslims in public-sector hiring. In 1977, there were fourteen Muslims in a cabinet of twenty-one ministers. By 2013 less than ten of the seventy-one cabinet ministers were Muslim. Under Amin, Uganda joined the OIC.

Factionalism plagued the Muslim community after the death of the Bugandan Prince Nuhu Mbogo in 1921, resulting in violence as well as legal actions. The major division was between the Kibuli Muslims and those of the Butambala group. Efforts by the colonial government and Tanganyikan and Saudi Muslim leaders to mediate the disputes failed, and factional differences became politicized, especially during the Amin era and following his ouster. Court rulings failed to end the factional acrimony, as did further mediation efforts during the 1980s and early 1990s. Eventually the Supreme Court advised Muslim leaders not to use the courts to solve their differences, but rather to use their own institutional mechanisms.

Upon coming to power in 1986, president Yoweri Museveni declared neutrality and impartiality in religious matters. However, he soon confronted serious leadership contestations within the Muslim community, including violent outbreaks among factions. He took steps to reconcile the differences and backed Shaykh Saad Ibrahim Luwemba, a muftī who had been rejected by the 1993 Muslim Supreme Council’s General Assembly. According to most accounts, the government’s efforts to intervene, coupled with its lack of impartiality and unwillingness to accept the results of the General Assembly election, aggravated the conflict. Luwemba died in 1997 and was succeeded by Muftī Shaykh Mohammad Semakula (1997–2000) and later Muftī Shaykh Shaban Mubajje (2000), who currently heads the Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC), created by Amin in 1972. President Museveni attempted in vain to intervene again in 2012 to reconcile the two factions as tensions continued to mount between the old Kampala group, led by Mubajje, and the Kibuli group, led by Supreme Muftī Shaykh Zubair Kayongo. The conflict is over who is the rightful leader of the Muslim community in Uganda.

In 1996, a small group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) launched an insurgency to overthrow the Ugandan government. The ADF was a Khartoum-supported rebel group backed by the Sudanese Islamic leader Ḥasan al-Turābī, with bases in Kasese district and eastern Congo. For years, the ADF sponsored almost daily killings of five to fifty citizens in the west and northwest of Uganda, even reaching Kampala, where ADF forces killed dozens in random grenade attacks in 1998. In 2001 they briefly captured the UMSC headquarters as part of their opposition to the administration of the government-backed muftī Luwemba. By May 2007 it appeared that the ADF command in eastern Congo had been destroyed and the remnants of the group had surrendered.

The Muslim community in Uganda continues to express discontent in the media with their perceived marginalization in the government. They point to the lack of Muslim representation in government: As of 2013, Muslims comprised only one of twenty-one permanent secretaries; nine out of 112 chief administrators of districts, one out of twenty-nine cabinet ministers, and four out of forty-seven state ministers. Muslims constitute twenty-eight out of 386 parliamentarians. The highest-ranking Muslim in government is Gen. Moses Ali, who is third deputy prime minister and deputy leader of government business in Parliament and is a former military officer.

In 2012, Muslim leaders sought the passage of a Khadi courts bill that would assist in reducing a backlog in cases in the secular courts. The constitution provides for the creation of Khadi courts to deal with marriage, divorce, inheritance of property, and guardianship.

[See also African Languages and Literatures, subentry on East Africa; and Islam, subentry on Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.]


  • Conn, Harvie M. “Islam in East Africa: An Overview.” Islamic Studies 17 (1978): 75–91.
  • Constantin, François. “Leadership, Muslim Identities and East African Politics: Tradition, Bureaucratization and Communication.” In Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Louis Brenner, 36–58. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Kanyeihamba, George W. Reflections on the Muslim Leadership Question in Uganda. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain, 1998.
  • Kasozi, A. B. K. The Spread of Islam in Uganda. Nairobi, Kenya, 1986.
  • Kiggundu, Suleiman I., and Isa K. K. Lukwago. “The Status of the Muslim Community in Uganda.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 14, no. 1–2 (1982): 120–132.
  • Oded, Arye. “A Bibliographic Essay on the History of Islam in Uganda.” Current Bibliography on African Affairs 8, no. 1 (1975): 54–63.
  • Soghayroun, Ibrahim El-Zein. The Sudanese Muslim Factor in Uganda. Khartoum, Sudan: Khartoum University Press, 1981.
  • Twaddle, Michael. “The Emergence of Politico-Religious Groupings in Late Nineteenth-Century Buganda.” Journal of African History 29, no. 1 (1988): 81–92.
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