“Islam penetrated several parts of Africa at different times, and its presence in the continent predates Christianity. For instance, the initial spread of Islam in West Africa dates back to 800 CE when the Almoravid warriors (Berber Muslims) pushed the religion southward into the Ghana empire from Morocco. On the east coast of Africa, Arab traders in Mombasa, some of whom had taken part in the trans-Saharan long-distance trade, were able to spread Islam to that part of the continent with ease because of the similarities of the local inhabitants’ culture and those of Arab traders.”“The growth of Arab power did not mean the total collapse of Berber resistance. To the contrary; the processes of Arabization and Islamization were accompanied for several decades by violence and coercion. In fact, so unstable and rebellious were the Berbers that they “apostatized twelve times before Islam gained a firm foothold over them”.
“These traders brought Islam with them to places like Zanzibar, Mogadishu, and Mombasa. Evidence suggest that these traders had traveled from as far away as the Middle East and the Orient, and many of them had knowledge of the geography and topography of the continent because of the advanced trans-Saharan trade roots that linked the Arabian Peninsula to several parts of Africa and the middle east. Because of the booming business in spices and ivory with Africans, Arab traders decided to gradually settle down along the east coast of Africa. They married local women and soon began to spread the religion of Islam. The mingling of Arab culture with local African cultures, languages, and dialects eventually gave rise to what is now known as the Kiswahili culture. Thus, one can surmise that the acceptance of Islam in black Africa, especially wester Africa, can be traced to the internaction with Arabs in countries such as Tunisia, Lobya, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. In Central Africa, Islam was spread by the Shirazi merchants and Arabs traders, may of whom had also traveled far from their native land. But unlike East and West Africa, it took a while before the new arrivals began to settle down and internmingle with the Africans. However, with political turmoil back in thier homeland, especially in Arabia and Iran, many of these merchants found it convenient to settle in towns along the East Africa coast and eventually Central Africa.”
“The Berbers seemed to have been chosen by history to carry the banner of Islam into West Africa because of their geographical location and their historical role as middlemen between Arabs and black Africans.”
“The first Berber tribe in the Sahara to play a major role in the Islamization process as implemented by the Sanhaja. This ethnic group became Muslims as a result of their interaction with Muslim traders who had settled in thier midst.”
“The historical evidences seems to point out that such politically astute decisions were taken only under circumstances of grave danger; the most interesting example that is directly related to our discussion of early Islam in the Sahara and the west of the Sudan occured in about 1020 CE. This act of unity by the different Berber tribes was motivated by their collective desire to bring down the Ghanaian kingdom. In fact, this much needed unity thatt the Lemtuma, Godala, and Masufa Berbers hoped for was based on the ideas acquired by one of their leaders, Tarsina the Lemtune, whose pilgramage to Makkah inspired him to rationalize his campaigns against black Africans in the name of the Islamic Jihad.”
“The end of the Almoravid dynasty and the collapse of Ghana did not necessarily mean that Islamization ceased with the death of the Almoravid movement. The process of propogation continued and Islam began to penetrate more and more into the West Sudan. This phase in the propogation of Islam in Africa was made possible by the activie involvement of three different groups of Arab-Berber and Sudanese-Muslim cultivators of Islam in West Sudan. These three groups, according to J.R. Willis and his fellow contributors in the volume entitled Studies in West African Islamic History (1979), are the Zawaya clerisy, the Mande-Islamic clerisy, and the Torodbe clerisy. The first group has been traced to a community of Berbers who suffered oppression at the hands of fellow Berbers and Arabs. According to Willis in his comprehensive introduction to the volume cited above, the Zawaya formation began to take shape in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They decided to be pacifist and so laid down their arms and took up the life of Muslim scholars dedicated to the propogation of Islam in the area. The Mande-Islamic clerisy emerged from the numerous trading centers created by Mande Muslims throughout the West Sudan.”
Source: Islam in Africa South of the Sahara: Essays in Gender Relations and …edited by Pade Badru, Brigid M. Sackey