Solidarity in a winning movement

The fundamental attraction of Islam must be religious, in the sense of relating people somehow to God and assuring them a happy destiny in the next life. But from the beginning Islam has operated on the strategy of a convinced elite group imposing itself on society and controlling the expression of opinion so that only Islamic ideology may be publicly tolerated until this ideology becomes second nature to the people.

The initial success of an Islamic coup or conquest depends upon its being popular, by bettering the lot of the people. In spite of initial looting and humiliating of conquered tribes and peoples, the peace and order that subsequently prevailed over a wide territory (except for slave reservoirs) was preferable to a state of constant inter-tribal or inter-clan raiding. Once the booty economy of conquest subsided, Islamic empires provided new opportunities for trade, which also gave the business community a vested interest in the continuation of the ruling power.

Islam assures success, in the next life for certain, and in this life normally. Muslims are reminded that they are the best people raised up on earth, commanding the good and forbidding the evil. For the Muslim, as for the book of Deuteronomy, success in this world is the sign of God's approval, while reversals are a sign of men's sin and infidelity. I say "reversals" and not "failure", because a Muslim never believes that he or the Muslim community has failed utterly. They have just been set back, and by renewed fidelity the Muslim community will enjoy success once more. Success comes to an individual, but above all to the community. Islam not only assures success; it also feeds on success. The common experience of both success and reversals is the major community building dynamic in Islam.

Reverses in political fortune, however, are a test of Muslim faith. In early Islam they were an occasion for the unassimilated opposition to assert itself, particularly the "hypocrites" who were forced to go along with the Islamic bandwaggon. Right to the end of Muhammad's life this movement was alive. It persisted for many years in North Africa until the conquest was irreversible. But once a Qur'ânic view takes over the culture of a people, reverses are attributed to the sins of the nation or as trials permitted by God for his own reasons. The backwardness and weakness of the Muslim world for the past century provoked some Muslims to regard the status of their faith as retrogressive and imitate the non-Muslim world. Other Muslims were ready to use foreign modernities but at the same time found apologetic reasons for defending Islamic superiority.

One of these apologetic arguments is to say that the industrial world got its start by borrowing from the Arabs, and that the Muslims should now simply appropriate what is their own. Another argument is that all modern science is contained in the Qur'ân, if we would only understand; so Muslims are again simply using what is their own by right. A different sort of argument is to admit the material and technical inferiority of the Muslim world, but to assert is spiritual and moral superiority; this superiority will eventually give Muslims the lead in other matters.

Whatever rationalization a Muslim uses, Islam always drives him to hold his head high. In harmony with Calvinist ethics, a Muslim normally expects to have the best of this world and the best of the next.

Economic solidarity

Productivity in Muslim areas is not generally notable. Traditional cottage or light industry rather than heavy industry and high technology prevail, although in mixed societies, such as the Yoruba, Muslims are just as professional and productive as Christians.

On the other hand, in traditional Muslim societies trade has always been one area where Muslims excel. The basic structure of large trading networks and companies consists of agents who buy and sell in centres of production and consumption and in a transport system. Dependent on this basic structure is another network of clients: petty traders or distributors, guards, small boys who do loading packing, tending animals and other miscellaneous jobs. Transport demands a basic investment in a fleet of lorries, but also provides jobs for drivers, attendants and mechanics. Along the route stoppng points have grown into villages and towns or sections of older towns whose whole economy is to provide service for the lorries in transit.

Participation in the trading network often depends on tribe (such as Hausa or Mande), but is open to others. The key to entry and bond of brotherhood is Islam. It is a fraternity quite like free-Masonry when it comes to mutual support and promotion. As a result, at each trade terminus and all along the way there are Muslim settlements with mosques and Qur'ânic schools. These settlements influence the local society and attract many of the indigenes to participate in their economy and, of course, religion.

Another economic attraction for the Muslim of moderate means is the opportunity to go on pilgrimage and buy all sorts of goods for sale at a hefty profit back home.

Political leverage

Since the first contact of West Africa with Islam in the 8th century rulers welcomed the presence of Muslims, although only in the 11th century did the more important rulers actually become Muslim. The factors which influenced the islamization of West Africa then are to some extent still operative.

The trans-Saharan export of gold was the mainstay of the economy of the Western sahelian states, particularly ancient Ghana, while slaves were the main export of the central sahelian states, particularly Kanem. Without this trade these states had no reason be exist as organized empires. The profits of the trade accrued mainly to the rulers and upper classes and these did everything they could to make their empires powerful, sucure and efficient, so that they could attract Arab traders.

Arab traders not only brought goods, but also services: a communication system in Arabic whereby orders, credit and banking were possible to any point in West and North Africa.

Another service was medicine. Islamic charms, even though of questionable legitimacy according to Islamic principles, competed seriously with traditional medicine.

There was plenty of incentive for a ruler not only to welcome Muslims but also to become a Muslim. It gave him a position of trust and prestige and brotherhood with his trading partners which could he could never have as a non-Muslim.

Also, once a number of his own people became Muslim through involvement in the Muslim trading system, the ruler would feel obliged to accept Islam so as to retain his authority over these influential people. This does not mean that he would abandon the traditional religion of the majority of the people. He would practice the two side by side, so as to be a father of all.

Another factor compelling the ruler to accept Islam is to preempt being attacked by neighbouring Muslim powers. It is not permitted for Muslims to attack Muslims, but they may attack non-Muslims to compel them to accept Islamic rule. In practice this gave religious justification to raids which would have been carried on for independent reasons, such as for food, slaves or control of trade routes. Arab or Berber forces seldom made direct war on Sahelian states, but intervened by supporting Muslim states against non-Muslims.

Politics and economy in the present time

Politics and economy are closely connected in any society and there is always some amount of patronage in contracts. In West African states the corruption that usually goes with this is more obvious and blatant than in Europe or America where it is covered by legality.

The traditional economy in West Africa was private enterprise heavily indebted to and exploited by chieftaincies, and in modern times by the civil or military governments. In the few places (like Benin Republic) where a socialist economy is attempted, the economy does not really succeed to the extent that it inhibits private initiative; also the government itself becomes the corrupt distributor of patronage.

Muslim societies in West Africa share all these problems and habits of non-Muslim societies. In addition, religious solidarity guides the distribution of patronage. Contracts, appointments, promotions go first to Muslims if there are non-Muslims also competing. Also the wealth of the Muslim leaders predominantly comes from controlling distribution rather than from production.

Social and cultural advantages

Islam is a high profile religion. Mosques are put on main roads or sites where they can be seen. Loudspeakers make sure they are heard. Festivities take place where they will be seen and noticed. The daily salât is performed on the streets, in public buildings and work places. Muslims display their Islam by distinctive and splendid dress. Alms are begged and given in a way that calls people's attention. Everywhere the message is "I am proud to be a Muslim."

A short term attraction to Islam is that it demands less of human nature in some basic areas. In marriage four wives are permitted, with easy divorce, and, by law at any rate, slave girls without limit. Revenge is permitted and self-assertion, particularly in relation to non-Muslims, is the norm.

In its initial stage Islam tolerates many of the practices of the traditional religion, although a stage usually comes when these are at last rejected.


The ultimate or fundamental legitimacy of Islam stems from the claim that it relates a person correctly to his Creator. The common Muslim view is that Islamic faith by itself alone justifies a person. The relationship between faith and deeds has long been debated, but the common Sunni position is that Islamic faith assures a Muslim of eventually going to Paradise, no matter what crimes he has committed, although he will pay for these by a temporary stay in Hell.

Guilt over sins still pursues many Muslims, but this is attenuated by the belief that good deeds compensate for evil ones and that Muhammad will intercede for his followers that they may be forgiven. In Muslim prayers petition for forgiveness is a prominent theme.

On the positive side, while Muslim theology allows the possibility that Christians invincibly ignorant of Islam can enter Paradise, Muslims are convinced that they have the final and perfect religion. The assurance that they are God's chosen people enables them to face death, suffering and the difficulties of life with equanimity. God has destined everything and will eventually make his own triumph.

God normally gives his people success in this life, but if for some reason he does not, Muslims can expect a heavenly reward in proportion to a person's good deeds in this life. The Qur'ân describes a sensuous Paradise, but it is hard to assess how the concrete Qur'ânic descriptions actually motivate Muslims here and now.


Islamic ceremonies, particularly salat, is attractive because of its body action, corresponding to the traditional African habit of expressing oneself through motion, dance or ritual action. By doing salat one feels he has accomplished something and merited a fitting reward.

Ramadan observances attract not because of the negative aspect of fasting, but because of the heavenly reward expected for doing something difficult and the night social gatherings and festivities and collective break from routine. The values of appreciating the plight of the poor and, above all, of meriting a heavenly reward are also appreciated.

Making the hajj has commercial side benefits, but is also appreciated as an accomplishment of one of the major duties of religion which bring God's favour and blessing, both for the next world and this world. An al-hajji has great prestige and respect on his return, and attributes his subsequent prosperity and success and other blessings to his having made the hajj.


To tap divine power is one of the main expectations Muslims have of their religion, as is the case for many Christians and followers of traditional religion. One way they believe they tap God's power is by following the injunctions and rituals of religion. Another way is Islamic medicine. Although disapproved by some reformist Muslims, charms and amulets are available for every intention, from getting health, money or a lover, to killing one's enemies. These take many grotesque and cabalistic forms, but usually utilize certain Qur'ân verses.

Many people are not searching for the truth, but simply shop around for whatever religious practice can deliver them what they need. Such an attitude is connected with those who become Muslim to get a job, a promotion, admission to a school, acceptance in some social circles etc. Becoming a Muslim can be the way of getting help in dire circumstances.

The Qur'ân itself claims to be an inimitable miracle of literary excellence. This seems to carry little weight in actually winning people. Muslim veneration of the Qur'ân as sacred, powerful and even magical is a result of faith in it, not the other way around. Yet its peculiar beauty and purported power does attract people. Certain suras, like Ya Sin, are read or kept as efficacious medicine. Qur'ân verses written on slates are washed and the ink drunk as medicine to gain some concrete objective, such as health, the love of a woman, or protection from an enemy. Recited, or better chanted, the Qur'ân sounds like an incantation. It seems all the more powerful because it is written in a mysterious language. Even if it is learned and understood, it contains mysterious letters and oaths which suggest a unique divine efficacy.

The person of Muhammad

Islamic teachings have an appeal because of the simplicity of its dogmas and basic demands, even though Islamic law is very complicated. The idea of a single God speaking through a definitive prophet is easy to grasp, and Muslim apologists boast that Islam teaches no mysteries. This is not to say, however, that all that Islam or the Qur'ân teaches is self-evident. This was the case at the beginning of Muhammad's preaching, when he presented himself simply as a "warner" or a "reminder", but as time went on he became an oracle of truth when the evidence was incomplete or absent. Take the case of A'isha's innocence or Qur'ânic narratives of Old Testament events which claim God's revelation as their source. Nevertheless, a blind or fundamentalist acceptance of Muhammad's prophetic word is itself a simple position to take. Truth and falsehood are like white and black, and such simplism attracts many people.

Muhammad himself is presented officially as simply a mortal conveyer of God's messsge, but Islamic theology views him as the first of God's creation (in the form of light), the perfect man and ethical model for all mankind for all time. He himself is Sunna, another form of revelation alongside the Qur'ân. Besides this, he is the eschatological intercessor who will deliver sinful Muslims from the punishment of Hell. In popular Islam, therefore, his person enjoys the highest reverence. Africans who do not want to be left out of any good opportunity might think they have nothing to loose and everything to gain by identifying with this important personality.

They have nothing to loose because Islam seems to have all the good that other religions have: the major Old and New Testament figures are all there in a place of honour. Muhammad realized that a mushroom prophet would not be accepted by Arabs, Jews or Christians. The Arabs looked for genealogical legitimacy, which Muhammad provided by tracing his line back to Ishmael and Abraham.

The Jews looked for continuity and succession in the revelation made previously; Muhammad failed to persuade them, since his message did not fit their messianic and nationalist expectations. The Christians always checked whether any prophet preached the same Jesus they knew or a new and unfounded gospel. Muhammad tried hard to lure the Christians by preaching Jesus, but by presenting Jesus as a supporter of his own claim to be the final prophet, greater than Jesus, he alienated many would-be followers among the Christians.

Be this as it may, Muhammad constructed a spiritual ancestry going from Adam to Abraham to Moses, David, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Mary and Jesus, with some Arab prophets added. Muhammad claimed to succeed this line of prophets and holy people. Some of these, like Jesus, are even said to have prophesied the coming of Muhammad. Jesus is quoted as saying: "I announce to you a prophet coming after me, whose name is Ahmad" (Q. 61:6). Little does it matter that these prophets have no permanent or independent value. Their sole function is to legitimize Muhammad's position by appearing in his entourage, and at the same time give Muslims a limited immunity against Christianity by innoculating them with a touch of its most potent elements. Muhammad and the Qur'ân are completely sufficient for a Muslim, and he need look nowhere else for some religious values he does not already have.

Easy membership

The ease by which one becomes a Muslim is another attraction. There is no catechumenate or test to be undergone, just the profession of the shahâda, usually before an imam. Also Islam is loosely organized, with little supervision or control. The clergy is not ordained, but take their authority simply from their learning.


Islam spreads spontaneously through all the attractions listed above. In addition, zealous Muslims and those who utilize Islam for other ends systematically exploit some of these features. Usually Muslims try to spread from the top, by creating favourable relationships with chiefs and those in authority. Sometimes, however, it spreads from the bottom, usually by mobilizing a people of one profession (e.g. traders in Liberia) or tribe (e.g. the Fulani) to become a force the government has to reckon with and eventually submit to.

Patronage is used as both a stick and carrot: People can be punitively denied jobs and amenities because they to not join or cooperate. On the other hand great magnanimity and generosity can be shown to prospective converts, with a minimum of pressure, just a gentle hint that they would be welcome to join the fold. Such converts then feel they are joining freely and with dignity.

Patronage takes many forms, from jobs to promotions, appointments, contracts, allocation of infra-structural amenities to one's community, and wives. A man must be a Muslim to marry a Muslim girl. Besides, Muslim men often make it a point to marry educated Christian girls who can grace public occasions by their presence. They are offered the prospect of money and a comfortable life without being forced to become Muslim, although in the course of time this is the usual step they take.

The triumphal character of Islam is used to give the impression that the Muslims have the upper hand. Every chance is used to make Islam seen and heard, even when it is annoying, as the morning harangues on loudspeakers after the call for prayer.

Muslims have been systematically trying to spread their presence to every corner of Nigeria and West Africa. Mosques and schools keep appearing in the most unlikely places, as in the heart of Igboland.

When Islam has the upper hand, but still does not have a large number or even the majority of the people, Muslim leaders often feel threatened and try by all means to consolidate power. By definition, an Islamic state has only one party, that of Islam. Divergence of views may be tolerated, but only under the umbrella of Islam, and this fundamental ideology may not be challenged in public. The principle strategy of Muslim leaders in such places as Nigeria today is to muzzle the churches, even at the expense of partially silencing Muslims. It seems one of the main aims of religious disturbances is to provoke the government into a general restriction of all religions, so as to stop Christian evangelism and pronouncements about the trend of events in the country.

The pilgrimage has strategic advantages as well as spiritual and material benefits. It is a exchange point for ideas and movements from all over the Muslim world. Islamic revival movements and plans for financial and military assistance are diffused on this annual occasion. If the hajj is a demonstration of world Islamic solidarity acting as a sort of confirmation for Muslims, it also provides concrete means and methods for the pilgrims to become true soldiers of Islam. It provides the motivation "to command the good and forbid evil" and enforce this in an organized way: internally by the institution of ihtisâb, or self-policing and informing, and externally by jihad.

Christianity's attractions

Islam should not be assumed to be more attractive or, as is often said, more African than Christianity. Some of the factors mentioned concerning Islam operate in favour of Christianity, while Christianity has some unique advantages.

Economy/ education

The Church has led education in West Africa. Its schools were means of conversion only because of the intense desire of the people for education. The Church's conribution to education has established its reputation as a progressive force for the advancement and development of the people. The schools have mostly been taken over by the governments, partly from a Muslim desire to check the Church. But the liberal attitudes that education inculcates have become an indelible part of the consciousness of the millions who have been exposed to it.

Hospitals and clinics have long demonstrated the compassion of the Church, even though they have not been means of winning many converts. More recently and a much lesser extent the Church has been involved in other projects of social development, such as agriculture, water supply, crafts etc. These have helped foster the image of the Church as progressive, and they do attract people.

Christian education and aid has primarily helped develop a professional class and people with various productive skills. In some areas these Christians are just a work pool for Muslims who control the economy. Elsewhere they are in business and well off. Much depends on how contract patronage is distributed.

The Church rejects the entire idea of using patronage to win converts. Besides, it has less money for the promotion of Christianity than Muslims do for the promotion of Islam. This may be because Muslims, especially rich ones, are more generous, or it may be because Islam has government funds at its disposal, as well as grants from foreign governments, which are much more than what Propaganda Fidei or Missio can muster.

Political involvement

Christians have been notably behind Muslims in the art of politics, in Nigeria at any rate. Where they are involved, the interests of Christianity are usually far in the background. This stems from Christian teaching that religion and state should be separate. But the Church has been negligent in the formation of lay leaders who would be involved in politics and have a strong interest in promoting social justice and defending the civil rights of the Church, without discriminating against other religions.

In questions of Church and human rights bishops have made approaches to governments and sometimes come into open conflict. Muslims leaders have been far more vocal, almost always when the interests of Islam are concerned. I know of only one other instance, when a Sokoto imam spoke against Shagari's expulsion of the Ghanaians.


Christianity of its nature is incarnational, and therefore translates itself in every place: not just the Bible, but every aspect of its life. Islam, on the other hand, descends from above as a complete system of life and culture and simply displaces what was there before.

This general difference gives Christianity an edge over Islam, even though in particular instances Islam is more accommodating, for example in the number of wives and divorce. In this area Christianity benefits from the image of being progressive, in standing for some of the right demands of the feminist movement.

Christianity has likewise been comfortable with a secular society, many of whose traits Muslims assume to be simply Christian.

Christian healing prayer is a phenomenon which was not prominent in the missionary stage of the Church in West Africa. It developed among Aladura movements and lately, through the Charismatic movement, to the Catholic and other older Churches. It has a very high influence on the masses of people, so much so that Muslim imitations have begun to emerge. These imitations, however, have no chance of having anywhere near the impact of the Christian healing movements.

While Christian healing prayer is an enormously strong initial attraction, there is also an enormous gap between this initial interest and converion to an authentic committed Christianity, just as the crowds who followed Jesus for bread and miracles had far to go to have real faith in him. The scene is complicated by the presence of charlatan evangelists, imitating the American TV evangelists, who exploit the faith of the people to make money. These are a real danger for leading Christians astray.

Religious attraction

Christian worship adapts to local culture as Islam would never do. For this reason it is far more popular. Qur'ân chanting over loudspeakers is a poor match for the vivacity of Christian singing. Even Christian use of foreign art forms, such as certain hymns or religious concert music, in an appropriate context is a positive attraction, since people want a taste of foreign masterpieces as well as their own productions.

The central teaching of Christianity, that we are initiated through Jesus into intimacy with the Father, and that this union includes our relationship with one another, is extremely potent and far reaching. It is constantly preached in many different forms throughout the liturgical year, and is the basic glue that will make Christianity stick.

Where people fail to grasp this teaching, for instance by seeing Jesus as just another moral teacher or prophet, little will hold them from jumping to Islam if is presented in an attractive package.

The Church as the body of Christ and extended familiy of God gives people a sense of belonging and acceptance which they need when they are uprooted from village culture and thrust into a changing urban society.

The sacraments are another aspect of the Church which show its incarnational character. These rituals are appealing to people coming from a background of African traditional religion.

The results


Islam has had an active presence in West Africa centuries longer than Christianity. It has had the political support of colonial and independent governments. Over this century it has been constantly spreading its presence over more and more places in West Africa. The process continues now as much as ever. Older cities like Ibadan and Lagos are being given an Islamic appearance. Minarets multiply and grow taller and microphones proliferate.

During all this time the political clout of Islam has also become constantly stronger.

Likewise there is no doubt that this century has seen a huge increase in terms of real numbers and in the proportion of Muslims to the whole population. Yet this great expansion seems, for Nigeria at least, confined to the period of colonialism. The independent period has been a period of slow growth in some areas, standstill in others, and actually reverse in some others. A detailed survey would be needed to formulate any statistical graph.


Christian missions in West Africa began in the 15th century, but significant spread of the Church began only in the late 19th. Since then it has continued to increase up to the present time. In many areas there are no more formal adherents of the traditional religion, and the Church is not increasing in numbers, but in some newly reached areas it still spreads like wild fire.

Generally, wherever Christianity and Islam have had a free hand among followers of traditional religion, Christianity has won the people. Such has been the case of most of Northern Nigeria since independence. Only where Christianity was slow in coming or its work was severely curtailed by the Muslim government has Islam been more successful, for example in several areas of Sokoto State.