Islam and Indigenous African Culture

Rural mosque at Bougouni, Mail, built c. 1890.

Islam has been a highly influential factor on the African continent for over a millennium, adding much to the fabric of indigenous African cultures through various dimensions of its religious faith and visual language. As in other parts of the world, Islamic conversion was effected through trade and migration far more often than by force. In Africa, Islam has taken many unique forms as the product of many different conversion experiences. In West Africa, much of this conversion prior to the 18th century occurred through interaction with Islamicized Berber traders, who controlled the trans-Saharan trade routes. On the Swahili coast of East Africa, there are many legends of Muslim princes who came to the coast in the ninth century and settled. More accurately, it was likely Arab or Omani traders who settled, but the legends are valuable testaments to the unique weaving between Islam and indigenous cultures that has occurred throughout both Africa and the world.

The centuries of interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in Africa brought about many changes in political, social and artistic structures in Africa, and the mosque is the quintessential expression of the symbiotic relationship between Islam and indigenous African culture. As in the rural mosque of Bourgouni illustrates, the built environment is the spatial representation of both Islamic faith - illustrated by the ??? as well as indigenous belief Ð the use of ostrich eggs, a symbol of fertility and purity.

This mixture of the imported and the indigenous is not unique to the meeting of Islam and indigenous African cultures, however, the effects of Islam on indigenous African practices is far more profound, for it changes the ways in which creativity is regarded mentally, and, in some instances, changes the very identity of the maker herself/himself. Furthermore, this interaction shows the intricate relationship between creativity and societal change, for the introduction of Islamic visual practices brought with it new ways for indigenous African to express not only their beliefs but also a more diverse range of patrons and audiences.

It would be shortsighted to see Islamicization as contributing to the death of indigenous African institutions; moreover, to do so would result in a failure to understand both African cultures as well as Islam. The narratives that follow are intended to give a brief overview of Islam in Africa, and, through using mosques as illustrations, the ways in which this relationship has enriched both African cultures and questioned ingrained definitions of Islamic artistic expression as well.