About Islam

Can the Muslim presence in Africa be credibly counted? After what has happened in Nigeria, dialogue must still be pursued. A panoramic view of the sub-Saharan part of the continent. The words of Msgr Sarah and Fr Gheddo


Between the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, to the East, and from the Atlantic, to the West, a belt of sub-Saharan countries makes up a long terrain of direct contact between Christianity and Islam in Africa: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and others. After the fresh outbreak of conflict in Nigeria and the reappearance of Al-Qaeda on the scene in Kenya, Islam in sub-Saharan Africa seems to constitute a challenge to dialogue. But it is not as though relationships were easy before. In many documents of the Synod of Bishops for Africa, held in Rome in 1994, Islam is called an “important but difficult interlocutor.” Important, the prelates write, “because of its authentic values, its numerous adepts, and the deep roots it has put down in many African populations,” and difficult “because of the lack of a common concept and language for dialogue.” Nonetheless, this difficulty had never kept Christians from continuing to believe in dialogue. “Sometimes we have the impression of being engaged in a monologue,” says Msgr Robert Sarah, Archbishop Emeritus of Conakry and Secretary of Propaganda Fide. “But this should not discourage us as a Church. Instead, we must continue to seek a concrete and lively dialogue, like the Islam-Christian commissions present in various countries who are working toward mutual knowledge, because only by knowing each other can we build more solid relationships.”

John Paul II, too, is convinced of this. In all his pastoral trips, from the ones that took him to Senegal and Guinea (February 1992), Benin and Sudan (February 1993), Cameroon and Kenya (September 1995), up to Nigeria in March 1998, he has always insisted on meetings and dialogue with the non-Christian religious communities, with special attention to the problems of Islamic-Christian coexistence. Moreover, in many countries (Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, to cite just some) the Catholic bishops, sometimes with the leaders of the Islamic communities, never fail to remind all believers of the need for inter-religious dialogue, besides the need for peaceful coexistence and social justice. “In Africa,” Archbishop Sarah goes on, “relations between Christians and Muslims have always been based on brotherhood, communion, and collaboration, to the point that, in many countries, mixed marriages are not rare, and it is a frequent occurrence to find members of both religions in the same family. In my country, Guinea, the Church is highly respected because, even though a minority, she was the only one to challenge the dictatorship during the time of Sekou Touré, while Islam, the majority, was tamed.”

Points of view
How numerous are the faithful of Allah in this region? Even though numeric consistency is not very useful in defining the dynamism of any religion, it should not be forgotten that confrontation is played out also on the terrain of numbers, and many claims and tensions start out right from the statistics, which are very different from each other according to whether Islamic or Western sources are consulted. In Togo, for example, Muslims claim they make up 45% of the population, while other estimates put them at around 19%. In Uganda, Muslims say they are 40%, whereas more realistic estimates calculate the number between 5% and 2%. During a recent al-Jazeera program on Nigeria, Mufti Ibrahim Saleh al-Husseini stated that his Muslim fellow-countrymen are 68% of the population, compared with a meager 20% of Christians. “Nonetheless,” Husseini concluded, “the weight of Muslims in the current government cannot be detected, and Christians lead this country by themselves, just as they do in other Islamic countries of Africa, like Ethiopia and Djibouti.” He went on to say that “Africa knew Christianity only with colonialism.”

It becomes a very easy matter, if one starts with these altered data, to stir up social tension. In Nigeria, there are those who accuse the federal president, Obasanjo, of favoring his Christian “minority” in government nominations. Others urge opposition to “evangelization that causes apostasy among Muslims,” or denounce the mass media for “bombarding the Muslim majority with Christian programs.” In the face of the Christian insistence on the need to respect the secular character of the country and to deny any religion the status of supremacy by law, Muslims have found recourse in a ruse: the introduction of the Shariah, Koranic law, at the level of the individual states in the federation. In two years, a good twelve states have followed the example of the state of Zamfara, profoundly undermining relations between the two religions. Little was needed to light the fuse to this big charge of gunpowder. The most recent explosion caused more than one hundred deaths in two days after the exhibition of beauty by the participants in the Miss World contest offended the sensibilities of the most fundamentalist fringe. The commitment of the heads of the two communities in Kaduna not to incite people to violence, subscribed to on August 25th, thus collapsed miserably in front of a pure pretext.

Fundamentalist baggage
“Coercion in matters of faith is foreign to the African mentality and traditions,” Archbishop Sarah states. “However,” he adds, “in the past several years, a certain harshening of Islam can be noted. Many Muslims who go to study in the universities of certain Islamic countries, like Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, return home with fundamentalist baggage and a model of society that amalgamates politics and religion. But this should not lead us to assign the cause of every conflict in the region to religion, as some try to do with the Ivory Coast, presenting the conflict between North and South as a war between Muslims and Christians.” Fr Piero Gheddo, the “historian of missions,” is of the same opinion. “Even in countries that are traditionally open and tolerant, we see activity of Islamic propaganda; I would say, of conquest.” In what sense? “In recent years, also in non-Muslim areas, the number of Muslim schools, hospitals, and dispensaries with the label wahhabita saudita prominently displayed has multiplied. Arab, Pakistani, and Iranian preachers and businessmen come in and buy up everything or set up Islamic schools and businesses.” Do they perhaps want to work against the Christian missions? “They want to mark a presence in a Christian environment. Their propaganda is centered around polemical attacks on the West and aims at persuading Africans that their natural religion is Islam, and that Christianity is the faith imported by the colonizers. But the preachers also want to alter the soul of the local brand of Islam and do not tolerate whatever represents an adaptation of Islam to local tradition.” This is because the wahhabiti fight mainly against the practices of African spirituality that the Sufi confraternities have introduced into Islam, such as ancestor worship or the recourse to amulets and the forces of nature, which find no room in Orthodox Islam.