The Rise of Muslim States in Africa

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  • 0:01 The Rise of Muslim Africa
  • 0:46 Islam & Trade in Africa
  • 2:30 Warfare & the Spread of Islam
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the rise of Islam in Africa and discover how Muslim states grew in size and power. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Rise of Muslim Africa

Today, Africa is one of the major centers of Islam in the world, boasting a major Muslim population. But it wasn't always this way. The rise of Muslim states in Africa was the result of a dramatic power struggle for political, religious, and cultural control of the region.

Islam is an Arabic religion that was founded around 613 by the prophet Muhammad. It spread quickly across the Arabian Peninsula and into Africa and from there, just kept growing. Today, it is the second most popular religion in the world, with over 1 billion followers. The history of its expansion began back in the 7th century, when the religion was still young. It spread very quickly, especially into Africa, traveling through two primary means: trade and warfare.

Islam and Trade in Africa

One of the main ways that Islam spread into Africa was through trade. The people of the Arabian Peninsula were skilled traders, being connected to international trade for generations. Some of these routes stretched as far as China. The east coast of Africa was already full of powerful trading cities, urban kingdoms with economies that were almost completely dependent on export and trade. Their success was largely geographic. Sitting at the intersection of the Red and Arabian Seas gave them access to maritime routes to India and China, and their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea connected them to the trade networks of the Middle East and Europe.

As the Islamic merchants from the Arabian Peninsula moved in, they quickly became a major influence due to their expertise, established trade connections, and strong family links to other cities. Islam became a major influence along East Africa, but the rise of the religion through trade first occurred in Somalia.

In the mid-7th century, early Muslims fled the Arabian Peninsula to escape persecution and went to the powerful commercial center of Somalia. They became enmeshed in the import and export business there and developed a strong presence. Somalia became the first true Islamic state, formally adopting the religion even before Arabia did.

As Islam spread across Africa, trade remained one of the vital means for its transmission. Three trade routes soon emerged as the dominant pathways for Islam. Trade routes jumping from city to city across the Sahara desert brought Islam into central Africa and then into the southern part of the continent. The trade routes through the Nile Valley helped Islam spread from Sudan through Uganda. And maritime routes from Arabia across the Red Sea to major ports like Zanzibar spread Islam along East Africa. Islam did not arrive in all parts of Africa at the same time or the exact same way, but trade routes remained a consistent and critical means of dissemination.

Warfare and the Spread of Islam

The other major way that Islam was introduced into Africa was through military conquest. From the beginning of the religion, this was a way to spread the religion across the Arabian Peninsula. After the death of Muhammad, the budding empire continued to use military might to expand into Africa. The very first invasions of Africa occurred in 639.

Egypt was a major political and cultural center, so bringing it under Islamic influence was crucial for the cultural and political spread of Islam into Africa. In 647, the Muslim political and religious leader, called a caliph, named Iman began the conquest of Northern Africa. It did not take long for most of the African coast along the Mediterranean Sea to fall under the control of Islam.

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