Many people often forget that the first place that Islam spread after the Arabian peninsula was Africa. Islam gets associated so much with the civilizations of Persia, Turkey, Spain, India, etc but the African link with Islam is forgotten more often than not. Africa is in fact home to 1/3 of the world’s Muslim population. The first hijrah of the Muslims took place when the early Makkan Muslims fled to Ethiopia because of persecution in their homeland. Islam has had a lasting impact on the continent, and today more than 55% of the continent adheres to Islam. Muslims specifically have a strong presence in North Africa, the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti), East Africa and large swathes of West Africa.
Many of the Prophet’s (saw) companions had roots in Africa. Bilal ibn Rabah was one of the dearest companions and he was descended from Ethiopian nobility. In the Prophet (saw) own household, there were Africans. Barakah, or more also called Umm Ayman was the slave girl of the Prophet’s (saw) parents.
Africas’s oldest masjid is the Mosque of the Companions in the Eritrean city of Massawa. Massawa is a city just right across the Red Sea. The early Muslims then sought refuge from the Christian Ethiopian king, Al-Najashi who welcomed them and provided them with excellent hospitality. Later, during the Caliphate of Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra), Muslims then took over Egypt and swiftly moved westward to capture all of Libya and Tunisia. In 61 AH, the Muslims took over Algeria and Morocco. Morocco was the launching pad from where the Muslims would launch their conquest into Spain. Within 100 years of the hijrah to Madinah, Islam had reached Europe.
In later centuries, Muslim colonies began being set up in East African lands. The island of Zanzibar became entirely Muslim during this period. In addition, many of the coastal lands of Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania embraced Islam. Centers of trade such as Mombasa and Dar es Salaam gained prominence around this time.
Perhaps one of the greatest African Muslim figures was Mansa Musa who ruled the West African Mali Empire. The Mali Empire consisted of lands that today are in modern day Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. It is reported that during his reign, Mali may have been the largest producer of gold in the world. He was no doubt one of the richest people in history. Time magazine reported, “There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth.” In March 2019, BBC described him as “The richest man of all time.” With all this enormous amounts of wealth, Mansa Musa made sure to use it wisely in the service of Allah (swt).
Mansa Musa’s year long journey to Hajj included 60,000 men, 12,000 slaves who each carried 4 lb. of gold in various forms, horses, and camels. It is reported that each camel would carry anywhere from between 50 – 300 lb. of gold. He was an generous personality and made sure to distribute gold to the poor he met along his route. Many sources say that he built a masjid every Friday.