African Muslims, Christian
Europeans, and the Atlantic
When the first Africans were shipped to the New World, beginning in 1501, Islam was already well established in West Africa. The religion revealed to the Arabian trader Muhammad between 609 and 632 C.E. had been introduced to North Africa as early as 660. South of the Sahara it had been known since the eighth century through contacts with merchants from the north. Islam in its orthodox Sunni form started to spread, however, after the conversion of the two rulers War Diaby, from Takrur in northern Senegal—which, by applying the sharia, or Islamic law, became the first West African Muslim state—and Kosoy, from Gao in present-day Mali. Both conversions occurred at the beginning of the eleventh century. Within fifty years, Islam had expanded from the banks of the Senegal River in the west to the shores of Lake Chad in the east. Malian traders and clerics introduced it to northern Nigeria—where the Muslims became known as Malé, or people coming from Mali—in the fourteenth century.
In contrast to its arrival in North Africa, where it had been brought by the invading Arabs, the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa followed a mostly peaceful and unobtrusive path. Religious wars or jihad, came late—in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century—and Islam was diffused not by outsiders (except in the early years) but by indigenous traders, clerics, and rulers. These carriers of the faith were natives and therefore identified culturally and socially as well as ethnically with the potential converts. Some fundamental features of traditional religions and customs, such as the ritual immolation of animals, circumcision, polygamy, communal prayers, divination, and amulet making, also were present in Islam. Such affinities facilitated conversion as well as accommodation and tolerance of others' rituals and beliefs. Africans themselves considered Islam an African religion.