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The Upper Nile Region and the Horn of Africa

The immigration of a group of Muslims from Mecca to Ethiopia, in the early days of the appointment of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), must be viewed as the first introduction of Islam in Africa, especially, considering the warm reception offered to the new arrivals by the Ethiopian king, Najashi, which some Muslim sources go as far as interpreting as a sign of his conversion to Islam. After the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), in spite of Ethiopia’s geographical proximity to the Islamic territory, no desire was expressed on the part of the caliphs regarding its conquest. None the less, the military activities of the Christian ruler of Ethiopia in the coastal areas of Hijaz compelled the caliphs to respond by sending naval expeditions to the Ethiopian littoral. 

As regards the upper Nile region, it should be noted that after his conquest of Egypt in 20 AH, `Amr `As sent part of his army to the south in order to remove the Christian kingdom of Nubih (Nubia) and to annex the region as part of the Islamic territory. However, the move proved futile and the Muslim army returned empty-handed. In the reign of the third caliph, a military force was sent to Nubia by the Muslim governor of Egypt, `Abd Allah b. Sa`d b. Abi Sarh, but it failed to make any headway and a peace treaty was concluded with the Nubian king. The treaty, which endured for several centuries, laid the groundwork for the Muslims to spread the message of Islam in the Upper Nile just as they were expanding, peacefully and over a long period of time, their economic and trading activities in the region. Scattered reports including that of the immigration, in the first half of the 3rd century AH, of Abu ’l-Zawa’id Muhammad b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan Makfuf, a Hasanite sadat of a Zaydi orientation, to Nubia and the settlement of his family in that region are indications of the gradual penetration of the Islamic culture into this part of Africa. 

At first glance, the region of Bajah, occupying a vast area in the Upper Nile, between the Nile and the Red Sea, appears to have been of great potential in terms of the expansion of the Islamic message beyond Egypt. However, historical sources, glancing over the conflicts taken place in this region, suffice by referring to a peace treaty concluded between the Muslims and the ruler of Bajah, soon after a similar agreement with the king of the Nubians. It seems probable that the caliphal power never extended into Bajah and that the Muslim army of Muhammad b. `Abd Allah Qumi sent to the capital of Bajah on the orders of the `Abbasid Mutiwakkil, in 241 AH, was a means of containing the raids by the Bajaean marauders into regions of the Upper Nile as well as protecting the security of the Muslim settlements working the gold mines in Bajah; in other words, a move intended to establish long-lasting peace rather than to overthrow the kingdom of Bajah. 

In the decade of the 80s AH another move is detected with regards to the spread of Islam in eastern Africa. When the Umayyad caliph, `Abd al-Malik, saw the timing ripe for initiating a fresh wave of conquests, while advancing in Byzantine territory, he opened a new front in Africa, including the Ethiopian littoral, where, in 84 AH, the Muslims captured a section of the coast in the region of Musawwa`, south of Bajah. 

As regards the spread of Islam in the southern shores of Somalia and the foundation of the city of Mogadishu, the reports note that in the days of the caliphate of `Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (reigned 65 – 86 AH) Muslim merchants made their first visit to the region, and they, along with dissidents fleeing Marwan, were the founders of the city of Mogadishu (Maqadshu). According to traditional sources, the first to rule over the region was a branch of the Qahtanid tribe. 

The spread of caliphal power to the coastal areas of Musawwa` was a starting point for the mounting economic influence of the Muslims in the interior regions of the Horn of Africa, whose gold mines had especially attracted the attention of merchants and led to the establishment of autonomous Muslim settlements in the region. Muslim immigrants, who included a number of religious scholars, settled around the gold mines in Hajar and other localities. The economic status of these Muslims may be compared with those in Bajah, who controlled a considerable volume of trade and agricultural production of the region. It goes without saying that this immigration must have flowed in both directions. In fact, there exist rock inscriptions from the early 4th century AH, indicating the immigration of Nubian converts to Islam to the Upper and, on occasion, Lower Egypt. 

In terms of religious orientation, all throughout the 2nd to 4th centuries AH, not only in Ethiopia but in Nubia and Bajah Christianity was the dominant belief, with various animistic religions running second. However, the gradual increase in the economic and cultural influence of Muslims put the region on a path to Islamization. The Muslim population of the area continued to rise as a result of migrations from the north and the east, as well as through the surging tide of conversion among the natives. 

In the 6th century AH, in the eastern Ethiopian highlands, the Muslim kingdom of Shuwa became a rival for the decaying Christian royal house with its tenuous hold over the western region. In around 530 AH, there was established a Muslim sultanate in the islands of Dahlak, which is declared as the “defender of the borders of Islam” in the rock inscriptions of the period. During this period, the important port of Zayla` took on an Islamic appearance, so much so that in the next century it was considered as part of the Islamic territory (dar al-Islam). 

In the 6th century AH, the number of Muslim and non-Muslim population among the tribes of Somalia was equal. In the next century, the Muslim settlement of Mogadishu was governed as a nation-state headed by the mutaqaddiman (the predecessors). It should be noted that in the 6th and the 7th centuries AH there appeared several other Muslim sultanates in the Horn of Africa. In the second half of the 7th century AH, in his reference to six petty kings of Ethiopia, Marco Polo indicates three as Muslim and the other three, including the great king, as Christian. He also notes the Muslim territory to have extended up to the region of `Adan. Maqrizi’s (d. 835 AH) Kitab al-Almam bi akhbar min barid al-Habashah min muluk al-Islam is devoted to these dynasties. 

In the 8th century AH, the rising tide of Islamization in Ethiopia and the efforts on the part of its Christian rulers to halt this expansion led to a series of anti-Christian wars of jihad, which reached their apogee in the two closing decades of the 8th and the first half of the 9th centuries AH. This impetus to jihad entered upon a new phase in the 10th century AH, when parts of Ethiopia were annexed to dar al-Islam. The seminal point of these wars of jihad was the capture of the city of Harar (Harare), which was soon transformed into the capital of an independent Muslim sultanate as well as one of the most important centers of Islamic propagation in the Horn of Africa and which came to be referred to as Madinat al-Awliya’. Yahya Nasr Allah, in his historical novel, The Conquest of the City of Harare, and Shihab al-Din Ahmad `Arab Faqih, in his Tufat al-zaman, provide a heroic and mostly religious account of this jihadi movement. 

In return to the subject of Nubia, it should be noted that the Christian kingdom of Danqalah, whose influence over the centuries had continued to diminish to the advantage of Islam, was at the point of internal disintegration. The existence of Islamic rock inscriptions in the capital of Nubia (Danqalah) dating from the 7th century AH is an indication of the popularity of Islam among the Nubian population. The attack on Danqalah, in 675 AH, by the Mamluks of Egypt, though failing to result in an outright overthrow of the kingdom, none the less, paved the way for its eventual disappearance. 

In 715 AH, the throne of Danqalah came to be occupied by a Muslim sultan appointed by the Mamluks of Egypt. However, this external influence was short-lived, for, a few years on, the Arabs of Jahinah, who by then had become natives of the region, took over the reins in Danqalah and spread their control over the Nilotic parts of Nubia as well as the interior regions, including the grasslands of Darfur and Kordofan. 

In the 9th century AH, the process of Islamization in eastern Sudan gathered steam. This gradual and long-standing advance of Islam in the region brought it within the fold of dar al-Islam, a development which owed much to the efforts of Sufi missionaries of various orders.

* source: Pakatchi , Ahmad "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.538 - 540

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