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TANZANIA. Although Islam was practiced in East African coastal enclaves and off-shore islands such as Zanzibar (that are now part of Tanzania) as early as the twelfth century CE, only at the end of the nineteenth century did it become a truly popular religion. Its spread from the coast to surrounding areas was linked to trade, and people along the three major routes from the coast to the interior became the most likely converts. These routes were nominally under the control of the ruling Zanzibari oligarchs, who were adherents of the Khariji Ibadi sect, the Muslims who plied them and played a key role in Islam’s dissemination, mainly Arab or part-Arab, were usually Sunni of the Shafi’i schoolas the majority of Tanzanian Muslims are today. (Less than two percent, mainly of Indian origin, belong to various Shi` i sects.)

The coming of European rule-first the Germans in 1891 and then the British in 1916-resulted in major gains for Islam. German government policies inadvertently fostered its growth; a subsequent vacuum of political and administrative leadership in the transition from German to effective British rule reinforced it. The period from 1916 to 1924 was in fact when Islam made its greatest gains ever in East Africa. As was true with earlier periods of expansion, upheaval, uncertainty, and crisis fostered Islam’s growth. From pre-World War I estimates of about 3 percent of the population, Muslims by 1925 estimates constituted about 25 percent. Although the percentage of Muslims has continued to grow, to about one-third of the population today, the rate of increase has never surpassed the post World War I period.

Islam’s growth after World War I was primarily led by African missionaries, almost exclusively Sunni. Until the imposition of European colonial rule, the `ulama’ class based in Zanzibar and under the tutelage of the sultanate exercised authority and influence on the mainland. Ethnically, this community consisted mostly of Arabs of Hadrami origin. Arabs of southern Somali Barawi origin also figured significantly within the `ulama’ The end of Zanzibar’s regional rule created opportunities for a learned class on the mainland, and Africans began to emerge as key leaders. Although Arabs disproportionately occupied such posts throughout the twentieth century, African Sunni leaders increasingly emerged, especially beyond the coastal enclaves.

The chief agent for Islam’s growth in the twentieth century was the Sufi order or brotherhood, the tariqah.

Although exact figures do not exist, today up to 70 percent of Tanzanian Sunnis are estimated to be affiliated with Sufi orders. The largest of these is the Qadiriyah, comprised of three major branches whose adherents account for about three-fourths of all brotherhood followers. Other brotherhoods present in Tanzania, ranked in importance, are the Shadhiliyah, the `Askariyah, the Ahmadiyah-Dandarawiyah, and the Rifa’iyah. [See Qadiriyah; Shadhillyah; Ahmadlyah; and Rifa’iyah. ]

Islam was africanized primarily through the brotherhoods. The historical hegemony that Arab elites exercised within the Sunni community was challenged with the advent of the orders at the end of the nineteenth century and their spread in the twentieth. Their emphasis on piety as opposed to the book-learning of the `ulama’ made it possible for the first time for Africans to assume positions of authority as tariqah heads. The dhikr rituals that involved singing and dancing were often looked on with disapproval by the Wama’, who tended to regard such practices as bid `ah. The combination of African leadership and ritual practices made the brotherhoods the key agent in recruiting the African masses to Islam.

African Muslims were particularly active in the struggle for independence. The challenge from the brotherhoods to the traditional `ulamd’, manifested mainly at the local level, in fact represented a nascent expression of African nationalism. African Muslims were most active in the Tanganyika African National Union (founded in 1954), the party that led the independence struggle. Tariqah leaders mobilized support for the party before and after independence in i 96 i . Their hope was that independence would redress the inequities of British colonial rule, under which Christians-also about onethird of the population-had relatively better educational and thus economic opportunities.

On both the mainland and Zanzibar, which united with the former in 1965, the ruling parties took stepsat times coercive-to ensure Muslim support in the postcolonial period. However, with the dismantling in the late i98os of Tanzania’s version of African socialism, ujamaa, and the adoption of more explicit procapitalist and pro-Western policies by the government, there are now signs of growing discontent among some elements of the African Muslim population. It is likely that free-market policies will exacerbate the inequalities that ujamaa never fully overcame and thus that such sentiment will increase. The fact that Islamic fundamen talism is getting a hearing today, which entails more aggressive proselytizing, may also indicate what is on the agenda. Historically, periods of uncertainty and instability have accompanied significant growth of Islam; whether this is the reality today in Tanzania remains to be seen.


Caplan, Ann Patricia. Choice and Constraint in a Swahili Community. London and New York, 1975. Detailed anthropological look at a community on Mafia Island, with some attention to Islam.

Iliffe, John. A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge, 1979. The best overview for understanding the twentieth-century social and political context of the Muslim community.

Martin, B. G. “Notes on Some Members of the Learned Classes of Zanzibar and East Africa in the Nineteenth Century.” African Historical Studies 3 (1971): 525-545. Biographical data on the leading `ulamd’, particularly the Hadrami Arabs.

Nimtz, August H., Jr. “Islam in Tanzania: An Annotated Bibliography.” Tanzania Notes and Records 72 (1972): 53-74. The only annotated listing and the most comprehensive to 1970.

Nimtz, August H., Jr. Islam and Politics in East Africa: The Sufi Order in Tanzania. Minneapolis, t98o. Still regarded as the best overview and introduction. In addition to a regional and national view, provides an in-depth analysis of the coastal town of Bagamoyo.

Prins, A. H. J. The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast. London, 1961. The most comprehensive ethnographic survey, with some reference to Islam. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in East Africa. Oxford, 1964. Still useful introduction to the region, although some of its claims have been refuted by more recent research. Contains a useful glossary. Westerlund, David. Ujamaa na Dini: A Study of Some Aspects of Society and Religion in Tanzania, 1961-1977. Stockholm, 198o. Argues that the country’s socialist course has both political and ideological roots in Islam.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/tanzania/

  • writerPosted On: July 8, 2018
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