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History of Islam in Africa

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Islam quickly spread from the Arabian Peninsula into Africa, and as this lesson shows, was able to move quickly throughout much of the continent. Read on to learn more about Islam and its spread throughout ancient Africa.

Rise of Islam

Few religions have spread as quickly as Islam. Within the lifetime of Islam's central figure, the Prophet Muhammad, Islam had spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. And while the Prophet Muhammad died in the year 632, Islam continued to flourish. Many people know about Islam's spread throughout the Middle East and into Asia, but fewer are familiar with Islam's spread southward into and across Africa.

The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia. Each year, millions take pilgrimage to this holy city.
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Since Africa sits below the Arabian Peninsula, Islam spread from the north downward. And so, while Islam became prominent in the north, west and east, it did not grow larger than a minority religion in South Africa. In this lesson, we're going to look at the spread of Islam throughout North, West and East Africa.

Spread Across North Africa

Islam began its spread into Africa from the north. Within a few years of the prophet's death, Islam had firmly planted itself in Egypt. But this was not the first Islamic community in Africa. In fact, Islam had originally been introduced to what we now call Ethiopia, where about two dozen Muslims first arrived around 614 for protection from religious persecution. Ironically, this is among the few places in Northern Africa where Islam never gained a substantial foothold.

Instead, Egypt served as the starting point for the spread of Islam across all of North Africa in a matter of decades. Islam carried the Arabic language with it, and so Arabic is the main language of North Africans. Islam would even spread into Spain from this North African foothold, although Muslims there were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Into West Africa

North Africa has long been a center of trade in the Mediterranean world. Despite the difficult terrain of the Sahara Desert, it maintained trade routes with West African countries, namely Mali. Along these trade routes, Islam spread.

In time, West Africa become home to great wealth--both economically and spiritually. Mali king Mansa Musa, the richest man of the 14th century and arguably in all of history, was a major proponent of Islam. and even took an historic pilgrimage from Mali to Mecca, Islam's holy city. The trade routes also brought learning to West Africa. For instance, one of the great trade hubs of the Sahara, Timbuktu, became famous as a center of Islamic learning.

A depiction of Mansa Musa, king of Mali and a vocal supporter of Islam.
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The religion's spread was not limitless. Islam remained a religion of the merchants. Where the trade routes stopped, so did Islam. As a result, the deeper parts of the jungles of Africa remained largely unaffected by Islamic expansion.

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