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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


The coming of Islam

In the sixth century A.D. the Arabs held beliefs very similar to those which have been described for Africa. But in the year 570 Mohammed ibn Abdullah was born in the important trading centre of Mecca, which drew much of its wealth from visitors to its famous religious shrines. When he grew up, he became overwhelmingly convinced that there was only one God, Allah, who had called him to be his messenger. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, he spoke openly and insistently against social injustice and fraud and against the polytheism of his people. God would shortly judge them for their wickedness; and repentance was essential. Islam ('submission') was the only way. The corresponding adjective is Muslim (the older spelling was Moslem); and that was the name given to his followers. They dislike being called 'Mohammedans' because it suggests that they regard Mohammed as Christians regard Christ. For them, he is the greatest and last of the prophets, but no more than that.

In Mecca he found few followers; and they were persecuted. But in 622 he was invited to become king of Medina; and from that position he conquered the Arab world in the name of Allah. After his death, Arab armies took Islam through Egypt and North Africa to Spain; through Palestine to the borders of Syria; eastwards as far as China. There seems to have been an expansive force latent among the Arabs which needed only the spark of a fierce monotheism to set alight a great imperial achievement. They did not, on the whole, convert others by force - though many of their subjects found it easier to live if they became Muslim. But there was a conviction of a divine calling which made Islam, for many centuries, a great political, intellectual and aesthetic force.

It spread into West Africa, where many of the tribes were fully Muslim before they had any contact with Europeans and where Islam - after more than a century of contact - is still gaining adherents. Probably about the eighth century A.D. Arabs began to settle on the east coast of Africa. From the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries (when the Portuguese for a time interrupted the Arab influence) there was a vast extension of trade and building of cities. From the late eighteenth century onwards Arab trade-routes extended into the centre of the country; and they carried back gold and ivory slaves.

Unlike most Britons, the Arabs mixed freely with the darker-skinned people among whom they were living, intermarried with them and developed a new hybrid language - Swahili - which is now the official language of Tanzania and spoken widely in Kenya and in parts of Uganda and Congo-Kinshasa. Moreover, Islam was part of their whole life. Unlike Christians, they did not employ special missionaries; but every trader took Islam with him; and it became part of the new Arab-African culture, which sprang up in Zanzibar, on the coast and wherever Arabs settled along their inland trade-routes. For an African to become 'Arabised' was at the same time to become a Muslim.

For Muslims, Allah is absolute power. The only virtue is submission to his will; and, at the Last Day (which will come suddenly,) the righteous will be admitted into everlasting Paradise, the wicked thrown into unending Fire.

Allah is One. But Islam recognises both good angels, who are his messengers, and jinn, psychic forces which may be either good or evil. Both these beliefs can readily be made to fit traditional African beliefs about spirits. Many Muslims also continue to practise sorcery and divination; and in some African tribes they are reputed to be more skilled at these practices than any others.

The will of Allah is revealed, complete, in the Qur'an (sometimes spelled Koran), which came down from heaven in written form. It supersedes the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), the Psalms of David and the Gospels, which were earlier revelations of the same kind, and in which the coming of Mohammed is said to have been foretold.

There are five compulsory duties - the 'five pillars of Islam':

(i) The regular recital of the creed: 'There is no god but Allah and

Mohammed is his prophet';

(ii) Prayer and ritual washing at five set times in the day;

(iii) Fasting, especially during the forty days of Ramadhan, when neither

food nor water is taken between sunrise and sunset (on the Equator

this means a period of twelve hours);

(iv) Almsgiving;

(v) The pilgrimage to Mecca. (This, of course, can be undertaken only

by those who are rich enough; but many Muslims save up for years

in order to go.)

There is prohibition of usury and games of chance, the consumption of pork or alcohol and the use of images. Men are allowed up to four wives, whom it is relatively easy to divorce; and the position of women is in general lower than in Christian countries. On Fridays (the Muslim holy day) attendance is expected at the mosque, where there is a sermon as well as prayers and readings from the Qur'an. Circumcision is regarded as compulsory for men, though it is not mentioned in the Qur'an. The Qur'an regulates the size of dowries, the guardianship of orphans and inheritance. It provides penalties for murder, homicide, stealing and minor offences. It accepts the institution of slavery but bids masters be kind to their slaves.

The horrors of the Arab slave-trade in East Africa are sufficient indication that the provisions of the Qur'an are not always observed; and Africans who became Muslims - provided they observed the first three pillars - had little difficulty in fitting it into their traditional way of life. At the same time, it provided the very real ideal of a world-wide brotherhood of Muslims and thereby opened up wider horizons.

In Buganda, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there is some evidence that the traditional religious ideas were becoming ineffective. Partly this may have been because the weakening of belief in a creator God (Chapter Eight), and the emphasis on the king as the sustainer of the social order, left an uncertainty as to the stability of the natural order. But, partly also, it was due to disturbing outside influences. Arab trade goods from the coast had been entering the country from the end of the eighteenth century. The first Arab trader appeared at the king's court in 1844 and, in the name of Allah, rebuked the king for wanton massacre of his subjects. There was continuing centuries-old war with the Banyoro in the north-west and the serious threat of invasion by Egypt in the north. In 1862 the English explorer, Speke, reached the court of King Mutesa I; and there was news of other white men elsewhere in East Africa. All these events might mean becoming involved with the wider world of which traditional religion could give no account.

Mutesa himself received instruction in Islam and Arabic, read and explained the Qur'an to his chiefs, kept Ramadhan, ordered the building of mosques and encouraged his subjects to follow Islamic customs. But he himself would not be circumcised nor follow Islamic food laws; and how serious he was is open to question. There is more than a suggestion that he favoured Islam in order himself to gain favour with, and avoid invasion by, Islamic Egypt; and, when the explorer, Stanley, visited him in 1875, he saw a still more exciting possibility of favouring Christianity and thus gaining the favour of Britain. He asked Stanley to send missionaries to teach his people.

But, if Mutesa saw religion almost wholly in political terms, some of the young men about his court were more serious about Islam. They began to be absent from prayers, led by the king himself in the palace. As an uncircumcised person, he was not entitled to do so. They refused to eat meat killed by the king's non-Muslim butcher. This was too much for the king. He claimed supreme authority. His subjects must pray as he told them and eat what he offered. To refuse was treason. It must be punished by death. Seventy of them were burnt to death. Perhaps three hundred escaped with Arab caravans to the coast. Perhaps, in the rest of the country, a thousand others were brutally murdered. 'They were men', says a Muganda Christian writer, comparing them with Baganda Christians martyred at a later date, 'of outstanding courage'.

Something extraordinary had happened in Buganda. In a country where absolute obedience to the king was taken for granted, a few young men had discovered that they 'must obey God rather than man'. Buganda did not become Muslim. Mutesa's request to Stanley resulted in the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1877. Between 1885 and 1887 Christian Baganda were martyred by Mutesa's son. In 1888 he tried to eliminate Christians and Muslims alike. They joined forces to depose him. Armed by the Arabs, the Muslims turned on the Christians who fled to Ankole. Armed now by an English ex-missionary, and in league with their deposed king, the Christians returned triumphant. In 1890 appeared the first British administrator with a small armed force; and in due course Buganda became a British protectorate. She had found the immediate solution to both her political and her religious problems by becoming a nominally Christian kingdom in alliance with the British.

In early days it was the ghosts who stood for the solidarity and continuity of clan society (Chapter One). At a later date it was to be the king (Chapter Six). For the next period it was to be the Christian God. But, just as the Arabs became at the same time Muslim and invincible because one man, Mohammed, held out against his contemporaries and remained firm in his deep religious conviction, so the change in Buganda came about because first Muslim, and later Christian, young Baganda were ready to be martyred for their faith.

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