Islam in North Africa
Islam had a great impact on the culture of North Africa. It affected the way people lived including their government, trade, and education.
The religion of Islam began in the Middle East during the early 600s CE. Not long after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, the Arabs began to expand their empire. They first invaded northern Africa in 647 CE. They conquered much of the land, but turned back after defeating Libya in return for tribute (payment).
The Arabs once again invaded in 665 CE. This time they conquered virtually all of north Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean and Morocco. They continued to fight against the armies of the Byzantine Empire and the local peoples (the Berbers) for several years. By the year 709 CE, all of northern Africa was firmly under Arab control.
The Great Mosque of Djenne from the USDA
As a result of Arab rule, many northern Africans were converted to Islam. Islam had a significant impact on the culture of northern Africa. Although some local traditions and values were often incorporated into the religion, Islam had a unifying influence in the government, the culture, the architecture, and the economy.
The area of northern Africa that came under Muslim rule is called the Maghreb. The Maghreb stretches from the border of Egypt and Libya all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the country of Mauritania. It includes the modern day countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania.
The people who originally lived in the Maghreb are called the Berbers. The Berbers are similar in ethnicity and speak similar languages, called Berber languages. Although the Berbers initially fought back against the Muslim conquest, they were eventually converted to Islam and took on much of the Muslim culture.
Map of Maghreb by Ducksters
After northern Africa (the Maghreb) was conquered by the Arabs, the people of northern Africa became known as the Moors. The Moors were a very powerful people in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. They not only controlled all of northern Africa, but invaded Europe at one point controlling much of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) and the island of Sicily (Italy).
Expansion into Europe
In 711, the Moors invaded Europe with an army led by General Tariq ibn Ziyad. Tariq and his men captured much of the Iberian Peninsula (the region that is today Spain and Portugal). The Moors held control over this land for hundreds of years until they were finally forced out by the Christian Reconquista in 1492.
Islam also spread to the empires of Central Africa mostly through trade relations across the Sahara Desert. Islam played an important role in both the Empire of Mali and the Songhai Empire. Perhaps the most famous Muslim of Central Africa was the Mali Emperor Mansa Musa. After Mansa Musa was converted to Islam, he made a legendary pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia). Records indicate that as many as 60,000 people traveled with him on his journey.
Interesting Facts about Islam in Africa
- Islam is still the dominant religion in north Africa today.
- When under the rule of the Arabs, North Africa was part of a kingdom called the "caliphate".
- In William Shakespeare's play Othello, the lead character Othello is a Moor from Italy.
- The oldest Islamic mosque in Africa is the Great Mosque of Kairouan which was built in 670 CE.
- The Muslims brought with them many technological advancements including mathematics (numerals and algebra), astronomy, medicine, and geography.
- Much like Medieval Europe, northern Africa suffered from the Black Death plague in the 1300s. At least 25% of the population died from this disease.
To learn more about Ancient Africa:
History for Kids >> Ancient Africa >> Islamic Empire for Kids