African Muslims In The Islamic World

Nigeria has been convulsed by religious violence triggered by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper months ago. The violence began in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri during a protest by Muslims against the cartoons, with the Christian Association of Nigeria reporting at least 50 Christians killed. Reprisals were swift, and at least 50 Muslims were killed in three days of violence in the southeastern (predominantly Christian) cities of Onitsha and Enugu.

The Nigerian protests against the cartoons (so far the most violent in Africa) raise the question: what is the role and position of African Muslims (or more accurately, sub-Saharan African Muslims) in the “Islamic World”? When people in the rest of the world use the term “Islamic World” do they include in it sub-Saharan African Muslims, or do they have in mind only the Muslims of the Middle East and Asia?

Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa do not share many characteristics with Muslims in other parts of the world, especially those of the Arab world. Sub-Saharan African Muslims are less assertive, and they face considerably more difficulties in their attempts to articulate their rights and establish their presence in their respective states and regions.

Part of the difficulty arises from the perpetual African dilemma of identity. Africa has been described as a continent having a triple heritage, and the African Muslim, too, has a split personality. He must decide whether he is a Muslim first, then a member of his tribe, say, Hausa, and then of his nation, say, Nigeria. Even though Muslim practice is strong in Africa, there is widespread incorporation of traditional African rituals in ceremonies like weddings and funerals. For example, among the Luhya in Western Kenya, it is not uncommon for Muslims to slaughter animals during funerals, even though, strictly speaking, there is no such provision in Islam.