Afro-Arab Relations in Retrospect How we got to today’s situation

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Afro-Arab Relations in Retrospect

How we got to today’s situation
Extracted from ‘The Arabs and Africa’ edited by Khair El-Din Haseb; published in 1984 by Croom Helm, London, for the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, Lebanon Being the proceedings of a seminar co-sponsored by the Arab Thought Forum, held in Amman, Jordan 24-29 April 1983
The Historical Roots of Afro-Arab Relations
Part VI
Yusuf Fadl Hasan
Afro-Arab relations can be traced back 20 centuries to the time when Africa and the Arab East were physically one territorial entity, before the Red Sea separated them. Even after this event human links between them continued through the Bab El-Mandab Strait and Sinai. The African and Arab coasts of the Indian Ocean have traditionally constituted an important area of interaction between the two regions.
The traditional links are manifest in the considerable racial, linguistic and cultural similarities between the Hamitic and the Semitic peoples, and this has led some scholars to maintain that these peoples may have originated in the same areas and in the distance past may have been one people. The original Heitics lived on the coasts of East and North Africa, and include the Somalis, some Eritreans, the Nubians, Ancient Egyptians and Berbers; their languages had some Arabic words, due to the cultural influence of the Arabs.
Pre-Islamic ((jahiliyya) society was characterized by a number of African groups which settled among the Arabs, and melted into the Arabian tribal pot. Some of them found their way to the Arabian peninsula for reasons of invasion or robbery, such as the Ethiopian invaders of Yemen, while others, including the Somalis and Eritreans, had a presence in the Arabian peninsula before Islam, either as a result of slavery or of voluntary immigration and were completely assimilated into Arab culture. Before Islam some Africans excelled in Arabic poetry, like Antara Ben Shaddad who turned his dark colour to his advantage.
With the advent of Islam in the seventh century AD the ties between the Arabs and the Africans were further strengthened. Islam endowed the Arabs with a religious and intellectual fence behind which they created national unity and introduced a cultural renaissance. Indeed, Islam became the basic asset of the new Arab culture and Arabic, the language of the Qoran, provided the framework of Islamic thought and culture. Under the banner of Islam, Muslims headed east, west and north to spread its call and in a short time succeeded in extending its influence throughout large areas of Africa; many trod the same routes which their ancestors had trodden as immigrants or traders. This migration led to a qualitative change in cultural relations between the Arabs and the Africans and the Arabs played an active role in spreading Islam and its political influence in Africa which helped to spread their culture, especially the Arabic language.
The Muslim migration to Ethiopia was the first recorded contact between Islam and Africa and it was there that Muslims were accorded protection by a Christian monarch.
After the Islamic conquests of North Africa, the immigration of Arab tribes became more frequent, and Islamic civilization and Arab culture became established. Thenceforth, North Africa and the Nile valley in Sudan became inseparable parts of the Arab nation. The Arabs imprinted their characteristics on the group with whom they cohabited, especially the Egyptians, Berbers and Nubians. The assimilation of the local populations into the Arab culture and tribal organization and their shared pride in Arab ancestry blurred any differences between the original Arabs and the Arabised.
Arab traders and Bedouins performed a pioneering role in disseminating Islamic teachings in African societies. When Islam overcame Christianity and African religions, the African peoples (Berbers, Nubians and black Africans) took the initiative to preach Islam among their compatriots in a mostly peaceful movement.
From the African North, Islamic-Arab influences penetrated the continent across the Sahara and Bilad El-Sudan, where the Sudanese Islamic sultanates were established, combining in their political systems local and Islamic patterns. In these areas Arab-Islamic culture interacted with African influences and resulted in the expansion of the Islamic fold to include most of the northern part of the continent, also becoming predominant in some pockets on the eastern coasts of its southern part. Muslims had a constructive role in this area and constituted an important political force. They maintained close relations with the Arab world in the east and in North Africa thanks to religious and cultural ties, educational missions and extensive trade relations, and this led to the emergence of today’s political and economic cooperation.
Due to the strategic and economic importance of the Arab lands and Africa, both had similar experience with the colonialists; and owing to geographical proximity, history, and the religious links which encompassed the peoples of the two regions, the relationship between them was reinforced in the course of their common struggle against colonialism, dependence and backwardness.
Those are briefly the highlights of Afro-Arab ties. This paper will deal with three facets of these historical relations: East Africa and Ethiopia; Egypt and Sudan; and central Bilad El-Sudan and West Africa.

East Africa and Ethiopia


As mentioned earlier, Islam’s relationship with Ethiopia was a peaceful one. The Prophet Mohamed encouraged his people to emigrate there and they were protected by its Christian monarch. Trade, especially the slave trade, was an important Arab activity in this country. Besides the Ethiopian cities which were full of Arab traders, new trade centers were established by Yemeni farmers and Hadrami, Omani and Hejazi traders. Economic reasons were the major inspiration for these migrations. However, some groups, like the Shiites, migrated for political reasons. The immigrants mixed with the local populations, thus paving the way for the spread of Islam. Until the tenth century AD Islam was confined to the Ethiopian coast, possibly because of the difficulty of penetrating the highlands. From the ports of Zeila and Massawa, the Islamic-Arab influences found their way to the Ofar (Danakel) bedouins through trade routes. From the ports of Suakin and Bada other Arabs moved to Eritrea. But the Christian presence stood in the way of any southward move.

The infiltration of Islam from Zeila led to the rise of a number of principalities known as the ‘Islamic model’ states, which were located on the Red Sea coast and were a model for those inland. In the ninth century AD, these principalities formed an Islamic alliance under the leadership of the Ofat principality, which enjoyed considerable political influence and controlled a large part of the region’s resources and external trade. This economic domination was facilitated by the fact that the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade was in Arab hands. Many of the Ethiopian Muslims, known as Gabarts (or worshippers of God), went to Yemen to receive education.
The Arab expansion, in its religious, political and economic dimensions, antagonized the Ethiopian Christian kingdom under the leadership of the Suleimaniya dynasty which fought back, restored the country’s unity and spread Christianity among the Ethiopian idolaters in the highlands. Ofat, and the rest of the Islamic Alliance, reunified their ranks from the middle of the fourteenth century through continuous wars with the Suleimaniya dynasty which ended with the shrinking of Ofat’s influence and the agreement by the Islamic Alliance to pay war duty (jizya) to the king of Ethiopia.
At times the Muslim leaders sought protection from the king of Yemen and Egypt’s sultans whenever they felt persecuted by the Christians. This situation eventually deteriorated with each country assuming responsibility for protecting its minorities in the other. The Ethiopians periodically threatened to exterminate the Muslims and divert the Nile waters from Egypt so that its people would starve to death. With this in mind the Ethiopians contacted their co-religionists, the Crusaders in Europe, and tried to persuade them to surround Egypt and foil its monopoly of trade in the East. (The Ethiopians were also aware of the Europeans’ desire to reach St John’s Christian kingdom, i.e., Ethiopia, for the purpose of concluding political, trade and religious cooperation against Islam).
The main reaction to this was from the princes of Haar who, under the leadership of Iman Ahmed El-Karran (1527-_2), scored many victories against the Ethiopians. However, these victories ended with his death and the Portuguese eventually intervened on the Ethiopians’ side.
Despite this setback Islam kept spreading through the efforts of Muslim traders and clergy. Among those who converted were the Qala Bedouins in the Ethiopian highlands. Many Takaris in Eritrea were also converted. But all these efforts were met by resistance from the state, which launched Christian missionary campaigns. The Ethiopians upheld their Christian faith which generally limited the spread of Islam. Thus the influence of the Muslims remained limited during this era and their connections with their Muslim neighbours were weak. Arab culture did not take root among the Muslim communities of the coastal areas (Beja, Ofar, Eritrea, Qala and Somal) as it did in the central region of the Nile valley in Sudan and these communities maintained their languages and many of their tradtions.

In the nineteenth century the Ethiopian region witnessed two Arab interventions, one from Egypt and the other from the Nile valley in Sudan.

Although the religion factor was the basic one in the struggle between the Christian Ethiopian Suleimaniya dynasty and the Islamic Alliance, this factor gradually lost importance and the Egyptians did not spell out any Islamic objectives at the outset of their expansion into Ethiopia and the upper reaches of the While Nile. Besides geographical exploration, their expeditions aimed, ostensibly, at securing control over the sources of the Nile. However, it is possible that there may have been more to their motives than this, since any extension of Egypt’s borders was a de facto extension of the Islamic realm, even if this was not explicit. Colonialist forces were certainly aware of the reality of the Egyptian position and when the Egyptians were defeated by the Ethiopian army at the battle of Kora’ on 7 March 1876, their forces joined to terminate the Egyptian presence in the region.
Ten years after this battle, a religious state with reformist goals was established in the Nile valley in Sudan under the leadership of Imam Mohamed Ahmed El-Nahdi, a phenomenon that is indicative of the leadership role which Arab Sudan assumed at the end of the nineteenth century. El-Mahdi called on the Ethiopian monarch to join the Mahdist sect, but due to the border dispute between the two countries tension escalated into a state of war between them and when European pressure increased against both sides in the later nineteenth century, King John of Ethiopia called for African cooperation between the two countries to confront the European danger. Even though this initiative came to nothing, it was an indication of the future trend of Afro-Arab relations.

East Africa

Arab geographers used to call East Africa’s coast the ‘Negro Coast’. The oldest written reference to Arab links with this area is in The Navigational Directory (Periplus) of the Eritean Sea (third century AD), which mentioned the traffic of Arab ships along this coast, and the number of mixed marriages between Arabs and Africans. The reason for both was trade.

After the rise of the Islamic state the traffic in ivory, slaves and gold increased. The number of political exiles settling there also increased: Shiites and Sunnites from Al-Ahsa’ and Abadites from Oman. These Arab migrants mixed with the local populations and established trade centers in Kilwa, Zanzibar, Mombasa, Pemba and Atondo. Such activities centered on the coastal area and were directed to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries the African coast witnessed the emergence of an Arab-Islamic culture which came to be known as Swahili and flourished until the Portuguese took control of the sea routes and monopolized Eastern trade, depriving the Arab communities of their commercial monopoly.
Two centuries later the Arab communities sought Omani help, driving the Portuguese out and wresting control of the entire coastal area from Wadi El-Sheikh to Ras Dalkado. This was followed by new Arab migrations from Oman and Hadramaut. Omani interest under Said Ben Sultan (1806-56) in lands in Africa, was an important development in the history of the Arabs and Islam in this region. Arab-Islamic influence advanced to the central parts of the continent in pursuit of ivory and salves. The Omanis, who were in competition with the British then trying to establish control of the Indian Ocean, administered their African possessions from Zanzibar, having previously been forced to relinquish their valuable trade in the Gulf by the British. Anglo-German agreements later diminished the influence of the Omanis in Zanzibar still further.
Among the most important outcomes of Afro-Arab interaction in this region, for a number of centuries, was the emergence of Swahili culture and language which was concentrated on East Africa’s coast and some offshore islands. The Swahili language reached some parts of Central Africa during the colonial rule and in 1960 it was adopted by Tanzania as its national language.
Swahili culture was created by the interaction of Africa, Arab and Persian influences in an Islamic context. The Swahili person is the descendant of Arab and African ancestors. Some scholars maintain that the structure of the Swahili language is African but it borrowed some foreign words, most of them from Arabic (20 per cent of the dialect, 3 per cent of the written language, and 50 per cent of the old poetic language). It was initially written in the Arabic script, as many other African languages were, but after East Africa fell under colonial rule the Roman script replaced the Arabic and further distanced it from its Arabic roots. Some African writers ignore words of Arabic origin and use words of English origin instead in an attempt to attenuate the Arab influence on the Swahili culture and language.
In the context of these ties the slave trade occupied an important place but was not, as some European writers allege, the common denominator. The slave trade flourished in two eras. The first was between the eighth and tenth centuries, when many African slaves were sent to Iraq to cultivate the lands in the north. This led to the well-known ‘Negro Revolution’, which ended the traffic. The second was linked with Omani expansion in East Africa when it reached the central parts of the continent in the eighteenth century and later. Many Negro slaves were used to cultivate Arab lands on the coast for growing grain, mangos, coconuts and other crops.
The Arabs have been condemned for slavery but they were not the ones who started it. The Africans experienced it before the Arabs arrived and after the Europeans arrived it expanded even further. There are no accurate statistics on this trade in East Africa but it is estimated that 25,000 slaves were taken in the early nineteenth century, rising to 40,000 in the 1830s, and it is estimated that the number of slaves exported from West Africa to the two Americas before the middle of the nineteenth century was between 30,000 and 40,000. In the assessment of the British writer, Basil Davidson, ‘slavery was not really their [the Arabs’] trade. Rather it was used as a pretext to burden them with all kinds of disgrace while the Europeans have a much worse record. At least the Arabs had extremely humane relations with their slaves.’
But slavery is slavery and cannot be beautified by cosmetics. It left extreme bitterness in the central parts of the continent against the Arab minority which lived on the coast and among its consequences was the 1964 Revolution in Zanzibar. The Europeans exploited this issue to widen the gap between the Arabs and the Africans, while intentionally ignoring that they themselves were the biggest slave traders in Africa. Because this issue disturbs Afro-Arab relations it should be studied courageously and objectively.
Arab influences extended from the east coast of Africa to the equatorial regions (Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo) in the nineteenth century for the purpose of obtaining ivory and slaves. At the beginning the Arabs used three main routes to Tanganyika and beyond, to the Congo and Nyasaland, where they established a number of trade centers similar to those in the Lakes region. The Sultan of Zanzibar and Arab and Swahili traders were the sponsors of these economic activities which the Indian traders in Zanzibar financed. In 1830 the Arabs established an important centre in Tabora in Tanganyika, then another in Ogingi on Lake Tanganyika. They ten crossed the lake and spread throughout the Lakes region until they reached Rwanda. The Zanzabaris established trade centers in the Congo basin. In addition, this area witnessed some immigration from Bahr El-Ghazal province in Sudan, and by a few Nigerian, Senegalese, Malian and Guinean traders in the late nineteenth century.
Hamed Ben Gom’a El-Margibi, well known as Tibotib, was among the most famours Arab traders who contributed to the extending of Arab influence. He succeeded in controlling the entire area south of Lakes Tanganyika and Mweru. In 1870 he annexed large parts of the Congo basin and acquired political authority in collecting taxes, appointing governors and resolving citizens’ disputes. He also succeeded in securing the economic influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar in the region between 1883 and 1886. But his influence was soon contested by the British and the Belgians. When the colonial powers recognized, at the 1885 Berlin Conference, the free state of Congo, El-Margibi was expelled and King Leopold of Belgium took over his trade. With this decline in Arab political and economic activities in the Lakes region, all Arab hopes of founding an Arab sultanate similar to that in Zanzibar ended. Soon afterwards Britain and Germany divided all Zanzibar’s possessions between them.
At the outset the Europeans, in general, and the Belgians, in particular, benefited from the trade centers established by the Arabs and from their knowledge of the region to complete their geographical explorations. They sought Arab help in this in the same way as the Portuguese had earlier relied on Arab navigators in the Indian Ocean. Those among the local population who had converted to Islam were subjected to strong pressures from Belgian colonialists who destroyed their mosques, devastating all that the Arabs had built. In Kenya the Arabs did not have as much influence as they did in Tanganyika. However, they reached the furthest western and northern parts of the country and spread Islam among the local populations.
Despite the remoteness of Uganda from the centre of Islam in the East and the North, the Arabs did exert some influence there, largely through the efforts of the Zanzibari and Khartoum traders. They were encouraged by the Kabaka and Moutisa people, and invited people to adopt Islam and established mosques. The Moutisa took advantage of Muslim sympathy to try to expand their influence in the region but did not succeed.
The efforts of the Zanzibari traders in Uganda were also bolstered by Islamic influences from Egypt and Sudan through the Egyptian missions to explore the Nile sources and the presence of some Sudanese soldiers in the Egyptian army. The Moutisa hesitancy to be converted to Islam caused some problems with the conflicting forces in the region, such as the Egyptians and the Christian missionaries backed by some European countries. This in turn curtailed the spread of Islamic culture in Uganda. Khedive Ismail, Egypt’s ruler, relied on some Europeans, like Baker and Gordon, to carry out out his expansionist ambitions in the Equatorial region, which also led the Europeans to dissuade the Moutisa from sympathizing with the Muslims. Gordon was keen to prevent any Islamic expansion into the Lake Victoria area and it seems that Britain knew about the Egyptian attempts to coordinate efforts with the Sultan of Zanzibar against European ambitions.
The efforts of the Arab traders were individual and voluntary and the spreading of Islam and Arab culture was not their primary objective. The Christian missionaries, on the other hand, who were working throughout the continent, were supported and protected by the European powers which extended their influence to large parts of Equatorial Africa. Both the European secular authorities and the Church were determined to stop Arab-Islamic penetration beyond the tenth parallel north of the Equator. Whatever was achieved by the spread of Arab-Islamic culture in the Lakes region was the result of individual Arab efforts. It is therefore not surprising that the number of native Muslims remained small, and this also explains why the number of converts to Islam decreases as one proceeds from the east coast inland.

Egypt and Sudan

Egypt was one of the first African countries to assimilate Islam and Arab culture; it expresses all aspects of Islamic civilization and Arab culture and occupies a prominent place in the Arab world. Throughout history Arab influences have radiated from it to neighbouring areas as they did from the Arabian peninsular itself. Its geographical location also linked it strongly to Africa and its history reflects the extent to which it has both influenced and been influenced by its cultural environment. To this extent Egypt can be considered the bridgehead between Arab culture and Islam both of which were reinforced by its commercial ties. In the modern age, Egypt’s Afro-Arab culture has extended across Sudan to the Equatorial Lakes area and Ethiopia.
Through Egypt and the Red Sea, Arab-Islamic influences flowed vigorously to the Nile valley in Sudan. Extensive Arab migration to the latter has had two important results: firstly, the predominance of Arab culture and the Arabic language in large parts of the country; secondly, the spread of Islam among the natives whose religions were either Christianity or local cults. The process of conversion was both slow and generally peaceful and in time Islam became an important agent of social cohesion which brought together Sudanese peoples of different racial, cultural and linguistic origins. The interaction of the Islamic culture with the national heritage led to the emergence of new centers of power that underlay the rise of Islamic states, such as Abdalab, Fong, Fur, and Takli. Eventually, generations of mixed descent (Arabised Nubians and some of the Jalite group of Arab origin) spread Islam in more remote areas.
While the northern part of Sudan acquired a considerable degree of cultural, social and spiritual homogeneity, thanks to the Islamic and Arab influence, the central area, which has for a long time been Sudan’s political and cultural centre of gravity, was subjected to even more Arab influence. It is notable that the further we go from the central area of Sudan, the less we find Arab influence and the more we find surviving local languages, even with the Arabic words they borrowed. This demonstrates the vitality of African culture, despite its retreat before the wave of Arab culture. Furthermore, in its interaction with the new society, the Arabic language had to borrow some words from these local languages. But whatever the degree of cultural interaction and cross-breeding, most of the population of the northern part of Sudan speak Arabic and are Muslims. This development qualified Sudan to become a centre for the spread of Arab-Islamic culture to the heart of the African continent.
The southern part of Sudan was annexed to the northern part during the middle of the nineteenth century in the early years of Ottoman-Egyptian rule. However, it continued to live in some isolation from the northern part. Arab migration, which overwhelmed northern Sudan, stopped at the edges of the equatorial jungles, around Bahr El-Arab, Bahr El-Ghazal and the marsh area because of the heavy rains and a type of mosquito harmful to cows, which were the main resource of Arab herdsmen. Besides, the Nile tribes constituted a human barrier that could not easily be crossed until the Ottoman-Egyptian administration opened it up for organized trade (especially trade in ivory and slaves). From this point on the Arab Muslims started to penetrate the area and spread Islam, as they had done in other parts of Equatorial Africa under European control. Traders and functionaries were basically the ones who carried out this task. The same era witnessed efforts by Christian missionaries in southern Sudan. When Sudan fell under joint British-Egyptian rule, only a small proportion of the population was Muslim, an equally small number were Christians, and the majority adhered to local cults.
The ‘bilateral’ administration was actually unilateral (British) and the British tried to stop Islamic-Arab influences in religion, language, fashions, etc, while allowing Christian missionaries to spread their faith among the natives, as a prelude to separating the southern part from the rest of the country. This was what was known as the ‘Southern Policy’. It was a policy which had been adopted at the Berlin Conference of 1885 and was aimed at spreading Christianity and European civilization as a means of dividing Africa. This policy was derived in response to the strong opposition by African Muslims to European colonialism. As a result, political relations between southern and northern Sudan deteriorated to the point of civil war, which was only averted by the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement. But despite all that, the Arabic language prevailed in southern Sudan and became a language spoken by large sections of the population.

West Africa and Central Bilad El-Sudan

Islamic and Arab culture spread in the Arab West (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) at an early stage, as it did in Egypt, through the Muslim Arabs who conquered the region. The Arabs who migrated to this region found its climate similar to that of the Arabian peninsula and those who chose to settle there lived a predominantly Bedouin life. They mixed totally with the idolatrist Berbers and thus facilitated their conversion to Islam and the adoption of Arabic as their new tongue. From this beginning a new generation of Arabised Berbers emerged to carry the banner of Islam and Arab culture across the Sahara. The Arab West’s geographical location made it an integral part of the African continent. The rough and arduous paths of the Sahara did not impede the connections between North Africa and Bilad El-Sudan. Rather, it was just like an ocean linking two coasts. The camels were the desert ships, and remained the means of commercial communication from ancient times until the early part of this century. Arabs, Berbers, and Zaghawas were the operators of this trade.
The Arabs and the Berbers carried the torch of Islam and Arab culture across three trade routes linking the continent’s north with its west and centre. This first linked Libya and Tunisia with Lake Chad. The second linked Tunisia with Hausaland. The third linked Algeria with the Niger and Senegal rivers. The trade consisted mostly of the exchange of salt for gold. Gold was found in large quantities between these two rivers and the area was the world’s main source of this metal until its discovery in America. But these trade relations also included the exchange of ivory and slaves for textiles, perfume, horses, weapons, copper and iron. It seems that this trade was carried on by people of similar development and no coercion was involved on either side.
Slavery had a number of negative effects, as it did in East Africa, even though it was smaller than the transatlantic slave trade. It was relatively small because of the Islamic sultanates’ reliance on gold as their source of revenue which reduced their need for importing slaves in their trade exchange with sub-Saharan countries.
The outcome of these relations was increased emigration from the Arab West to sub-Saharan Africa and mixed marriages between the Arabs and tribes such as the Takrours, Folanis, Woloofs, Sonankis, Diolas, Songhis, Mandekos, Hausas, Canouris, and Canmions. As was the case in the Nile valley in Sudan, the Arab traders performed both the function of traders and that of Islamic propagandists. Hence the spread of Islam, Arab culture and the Arabic language.
There were also a large number of Berber migrations. Owing to political events, Berber tribes, such as the Lemtouna and Gadala, moved from the tip of Arab West to the Senegal river area. Other groups migrated southeast to Chad. Pressure from the Murabiteen in the eleventh century weakened the kingdom of Ghana and they established the city of Tanbikt (or Timbuktu) which attracted traders and clergymen from Morocco, Andalusia and Egypt. The city became a flourishing centre of Islamic studies and Arabic literature. Among its graduates were Ahmed Baba, El-Saadi and Judge Mahmoud Kaat.
The Islamic-Arab penetration of West Africa and central Bilad El-Sudan went through three phases. The first was mainly peaceful and was conducted by Arab and Berber traders. The second was dominated by the Murabiteen struggle which gave the growing Islamic economic and cultural influences a political base. The third phase was a combination of force and peace. The Islamic call was accompanied by the furthering of Islamic understanding among the people and a number of religious, cultural, political and economic positions were assumed by the natives after they had absorbed the spirit of Islam. A number of Sudanese Islamic sultanates ruled the area successively between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, reinforcing Islam (e.g. Mali, Songhi and the Hausa principalities).
At the end of the eleventh century, Islam dominated the area between Darfour (where the Arab migration from the Nile valley stopped) and Lake Chad, Bornu, Kanum and Wadai. The Arabs had a large presence there and were called the Shawas, or roaming shepherds, to distinguish them from Waslis, or middlemen, who were nomadic traders. From the Shawas descended the Hasawnas, Hohinas, Salamat, Rasheds and Maseerigahs. The Canmions were known to enjoy wide commercial interests and spread Islam among idolatrist tribes. The kings of Bornu and Wadai performed similar roles.
The central Bilad El-Sudan kingdoms did not differ from other Islamic kingdoms in West Africa. All had the characteristics of Islamic-Sudanese civilization. Their administrative systems combined Islamic and African practices and their predominant culture had a Moroccan character. The Islamic Malikite doctrine was paramount and tolerance characterized the societies in which Islam and African religions coexisted. The Arabic language became the official language of trade, diplomacy and education. The Arabic script was mostly used in African languages such as Hausa and Folani. The people of Bilad El-Sudan emulated the Moroccans in their fashion and architecture. The rulers of these kingdoms used to go on the Islamic pilgrimage in big carnivals and their journey were a great factor enhancing cultural interaction. Among their traditions was the exchange of books and the urging of Muslim clergymen from the east and west to settle in their kingdoms. Pilgrims were inundated with gifts and paid generously. Missions to Fez, Hejaz and Cairo were also encouraged.
The list of books written by Bilad El-Sudan writers, in both Arabic and African languages, and the architectural achievements of this area, attest to the extent of its contribution to Islamic civilization. This cultural renaissance reached its peak in the Sultanate of Songhi. However, the Moroccan invasion of 1591 affected the sultanate’s economic ties across the Sahara. Some scholars believe that this invasion, followed by the fall of the sultanate, underlay the political and economic decline of the area and its cultural decadence. But there were actually aspects of the general decline which hit the Mediterranean region at the beginning of the sixteenth century as a result of the great commercial transformation caused by Portuguese control of the eastern trade and the diversion of this trade from the land routes, across the Arab world, to the sea route by the Cape of Good Hope. Before the Portuguese intervention, a large part of this trade passed through Egypt and Arab traders to Italian cities, and as a result the centre of economic gravity – or of mercantile capitalism – switched from the Mediterranean basin, first to Portugal, then gradually to other Western European countries. Its effects reached Bilad El-Sudan and West Africa, since a large part of this trade was taken from its centers, at the edge of the Sahara, to the southern and southwestern coastal areas controlled by the Europeans.
Thus, Portuguese intervention was the prelude to integrating African trade in the world economy which was controlled by Western Europe. This control was reinforced by European control of large parts of Africa’s coastal areas and the Arab world and it resulted in the integration of both regions into the world capitalist system. Consequently trans-Saharan economic relations between the Arabs and the Africans decreased, although they did not end totally. The level of religious and cultural relations remained the same as it had been at the beginning of the century.
Although the weakening of Islamic societies in West Africa started in the late sixteenth century, a religious reformist movement, led by some men who were influenced by reform movements in other parts of the Islamic world (like the Wahhabite, Mahdist and Senousi), was launched to form new and proper Islamic societies. Holy struggle (jihad) was the method used to expand the arena of Islam and spread its teachings among the idolaters. This coincided with the beginning of European colonialism, which the peoples of this region resisted mainly through jihad. This trend was reflected in Mahdism, for example.
These reformers were from Bilad El-Sudan in general, and some came, in particular, from the Folanis. At the western tip of Africa Ibrahim Mousa (who died in 1776) led the struggle in Vota Kalon, where he succeeded in spreading Islam. Suleiman Bal (who died in 1776) did the same in Fotatoro, Senegal. The same was done in northern Nigeria by Sheikh Othman Dan Fouday (who died in 1804). His descendants expanded the realm of the Sokt (Sokto) caliphate to encompass large parts of the region and this ended only with the British. The Foudy movement had a great impact on central and western Bilad El-Sudan where many revolutionaries imitated it. In Masina, Hamad Berry led a similar revolution (1810-18), ending with the foundation of an Islamic state which fell as a result of another movement led by Haj Omar Ben Said, who controlled most of the provinces of Senegal and Niger until his own state was put down by French intervention at the end of the nineteenth century.
But despite the positive results which these jihad movements yielded, not least of which was to create an awareness of colonialist conspiracies, none of those who were involved in them raised a finger to help their fellows in North Africa against colonialism, which indicates that Afro-Arab relations were of little significant at the time.
Morocco was the first North African country to be subjected to the Portuguese danger. Portugal tried to drive a wedge between the Moroccans and the West Africans in order to realize some commercial benefits for itself. It seems that Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansour Al-Dhahaby of Morocco launched a campaign against Songhi in 1591 as an ‘attempt to unify Arab and African ranks and resources, so as to reinforce the Moroccan sultanate in the face of Spanish and Portuguese colonial pressures in the southern Mediterranean and the coasts of the Arab West.’
The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the beginning of the end of trans-Saharan trade. This can partly be attributed to the wars which swept the region in the early part of that century but the major causes were European pressures against the southern part of the Mediterranean where the Saharan trade ended; the wars against the Muslim corsairs; the French occupation of Algeria; and the establishment of a number of British consulates inland and the subsequent attempts to abolish slavery. But after the era of European invasions was over and the Senousis extended their control over several oases, trade traffic to the northern coast was resumed, especially along the Kano-Tripoli route. The value of ostrich feathers and leather, exported from Kano and Katsina along this route in 1915, was estimated at £100,000.
When British and French colonialism tightened its grip on the region in the early part of this century, trans-Saharan trade became unprofitable. Colonialism entered from the coast and it was there that the colonial administrations were established. The colonial powers could compete with the ‘desert ships’ (the camels) by transporting goods in their commercial ships, and railways were constructed to enhance their control. Few administrators paid any attention to the local leaders who still considered North Africa and Mecca their only points of communication. As someone put it, neither the Arabs nor the West Africans were any longer in control of regional trade. West Africa’s Muslims were unable to get their education in the Arab West, or to make pilgrimages to the holy places in Hejaz easily without using transportation controlled by the colonial authorities. As a result of this radical change, cultural and religious communications between the Arabs and the Africans declined and it was only when the governments of the Maghreb and West Africa constructed roads between their cities that communication resumed.
The colonial authorities did not prevent the Muslims from exercising their religious practices but they were quite aware of their potential and wary of what they called the ‘Islamic peril’ as illustrated in the jihad phenomenon, described above. Thus they vowed to weaken the political influence of the Muslims and tried to mitigate the moral effectiveness of Islam by dividing the Islamic states into small administrative units in which the influence of Muslim rulers was weak. They also encouraged the application of local customary laws to replace Islamic law and restricted the use of channels of communication between the Muslim Africans and the Arabs, such as the Arabic language which had been the intellectual conduit for political ideas from the contemporary Arab nation. They allowed Arabic to be taught only at the primary school level in the context of basic Islamic and Qoranic teachings and it was only within that narrow educational, political and economic framework that the colonial authorities allowed the Muslims to practice their religion and even then their purpose was to defuse its political effectiveness. Some Arab scholars labeled the belief system that ensued ‘black Islam’ because it was diffused with black African practices and values. This led the colonial authorities to distinguish between ‘black Africa’ and ‘Arab Africa’. With this, intellectual and political interaction between the Muslims of the region and the Arab and Islamic worlds was weakened, if not ended, while their ties with the European intellectual establishment increased.


This is the overall picture of the historical roots of Afro-Arab relations. It is the outcome of interaction between geographical, human, economic and cultural factors. The Africans assimilated the Arab-Islamic culture and became part of it, participated in spreading it and relating it to their own cultural needs, and defended it. It took root to varying degrees in many parts of Africa, though some remote areas were never affected by it.

When colonialism took over, it obliterated such Afro-Arab relations as existed in both East and West Africa. When the Arabs and the Africans began their struggle against colonialism, no coordination between them existed. The struggle of the Arab people against colonialism did not attract much attention in West Africa and central Bilad El-Sudan, nor did the call for Arab and Islamic unity. It seems that the African Muslims were so overwhelmed by the European distinction between black Africa and Arab Africa (as two entirely separate worlds), that they forgot their Arab and Islamic links.
The African nationalist movement was a secular one. It was started by black Americans as a reaction to racial discrimination and its call for African unity centered around Negritude. After the 1945 Manchester Conference, the movement transferred to Africa but was kept out of North Africa and it seems that the role of African Muslims was limited from the outset.
Communication between the two regions resumed in the 1950s. The Egyptian Revolution of July 1952, under Nasser’s leadership played a pioneering role in reinforcing this trend by resisting colonialism and racism and supporting African liberation movements. Egypt’s effective support for these movements revealed its African face for the first time in modern history and was clearly demonstrated by Nasser’s concept of three circles – outlined in his book Philosophy of the Revolution – the Arab, the African, and the Islamic. Africa was one of these three circles, with which the other two overlap, and this policy statement was the first of its kind by any Arab state. It thus represents a landmark on the road to Afro-Arab solidarity. The 1955 Bandung Conference was a further move in the direction of establishing solidarity between the Arab and African peoples.
Unfortunately Egypt’s move was not warmly received by some African leaders who considered Egypt as first and foremost an Arab country. Some, like Oluwo and Senghor called for the unification of black Africa before establishing cooperation with Arab Africa. Furthermore, many Arab countries did not have much concern for African issues and were preoccupied with their own problems. But after the OAU was established and following the war of June 1967, the apathy which dominated Afro-Arab relations started to disappear.

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