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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Christianity and Islam in Africa's Political Experience: Piety, Passion and Power

Ali A. Mazrui *

Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding


Has the impact of religion in developing societies declined? Today, modernization theories and their postulates about the imminent demise of religion in developing regions are increasingly being discredited by empirical evidence of the surprising resilience of religion. 1   Beliefs in the Hereafter, and in God, apparently are influential in terms of behavior here on Earth. 2   

Sometimes, these modes of behavior are paradoxical. Given the fact that Islam plays a major role in African affairs, this essay will discuss some of the paradoxes of Islam's relationship with Christianity in Africa's experience. Our agenda in this presentation will include the impact of colonialism on Christian-Muslim relations; the interplay between religion and civil-military relations; the influence of religious culture on levels of social violence; and the relevance of religious culture for the distribution of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Two points may be noted. First, I sometimes use the term "Islam" here metaphorically to mean followers of the religion rather than the pristine doctrines of the religion necessarily. Second, to facilitate our analysis, we may also draw on comparisons from non-Islamic and non-African states and societies. However, our focus will remain on the interplay between Islam and Christianity in the African experience.

Between Faith and Friction

Relations between Islam and Christianity can be conflictual as they currently seem to be in parts of the Nile Valley, or competitive as they seem to be in East Africa, or ecumenical as they have often been in countries like Tanzania. Christianity and Islam are in conflictual relations when hostilities are aroused, and the two great religions re-enact in Africa a shadow of the Crusades. Christianity and Islam are in competition when they are rivals in the free market of values and ideals, scrambling for converts without edging towards hostility. 

Christianity and Islam are in an ecumenical relationship when they appear to accept each other as divergent paths towards a convergent truth, different means towards a shared ultimate end. Minimally the ecumenical spirit is a spirit of "Live and Let Live." Maximally the ecumenical spirit is a spirit of cooperation. Muslim-Christian dialogues tend to fall in-between.

Whether it is conflict, competition, or ecumenicalism is itself determined by three forces - the import of doctrine, the sociological balance in a given society, and the legacy of history in that particular society.

Doctrinal, sociological, and historical forces help to shape relations between Christians and Muslims in a given part of the world.

In Africa, these two triads (conflict, competition, and cooperation on one side, and doctrine, sociology, and history on the other) operate within yet another triad--the triple heritage of 20th century Africa: indigenous, Islamic, and Western civilizations.

Africa in the twentieth century has been a confluence of these three civilizations. The Muslim parts of the populations of Nigeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia added together (140 million) account for more than a quarter of the total of the population of the African continent as a whole. Nigeria has more Muslims than any Arab country, including Egypt. In 1994, the Republic of South Africa celebrated not only its first multi-racial democratic elections, but also the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Islam in the country--a minority religion which has proven more historically resilient than any one would have expected. The Republic of Malawi elected its first Muslim president also in 1994.

Africa's triple heritage of indigenous culture, Islam and Western culture is sometimes a source of cultural enrichment, and at other times a cause of social and political tensions. Within the context of this triple heritage Christianity and Islam have sometimes been in conflict, sometimes been in gracious competition, and have increasingly sought areas of ecumenical cooperation.

The impact of the West came initially through colonization, and this impact had a direct bearing on the fortunes of Christianity, Islam and indigenous culture in Africa. The cornerstone of British colonial policy in Africa became Lord Lugard's doctrine of Indirect Rule--a strategy of ruling subject people primarily through their own "native authorities and institutions" [such as the Maharajahs in India, the Emirs in northern Nigeria, and the Kabaka (King) in Buganda].

In its application in Africa, Indirect Rule favoured Islam in those areas which were already Islamized before the British came, but favoured Christianity in areas where traditional African religion still prevailed. Thus, Indirect Rule favoured in northern Nigeria (which owed its Islam to pre-colonial times), but favoured Chris-tianity in Buganda and southern Sudan where the prevailing mores and beliefs were indigenous.

But in what ways did British indirect rule favour either Islam or Christianity? One extreme strategy was to keep Islam out of a particular area altogether. This was true of British policy for southern Sudan during the colonial period. Any Muslim missionary activity was kept out of the south.

In northern Nigeria the British rulers discouraged Christian missionary work in the most Islamized parts of the north such as Sokoto and Zaria, but permitted Christianization in parts of the North which were not yet under the sway of Islam.

In most other parts of their African empire, the British helped Christianity by facilitating and subsidizing Christian mission schools and Christian mission clinics. Even British language policy in the colonies favoured Christianity more than Islam. The British helped to promote a number of African languages and create orthographies for them. Missionaries became allies in this enterprise. The Bible has been translated into many more African languages than the Qur'an.

Have the consequences of Indirect Rule after independence promoted conflict, competition, or cooperation between Christianity and Islam? Some would argue that the most dramatic post-colonial consequences have been conflictual. In Sudan the colonial policies of ethno-religious apartheid separating north from south were a major cause of the first Sudanese civil war (1955-1972) and a contributory factor to the second Sudanese Civil War which started in 1983 and still rages.

British policies of Indirect Rule in Nigeria might also have deepened the north-south divide in the country, and aggravated ethnic and sectarian tensions. British policies were more respectful of Islam and indigenous culture than the policies of any other European power in Africa, but nevertheless British concessions to indigenous institutions did carry a post-colonial cost within the artificial boundaries which colonialism had created.

The French colonial authorities, on the other hand, had put great emphasis on a policy of assimilation. At its most ambitious French colonialism sought to turn Africans into Black French men and French women. And since for most of their history the French people had not been Muslim, the assimilation policy was implicitly a rejection of Islam - and a declaration of cultural war on indigenous traditions.

However, outside North Africa, French assimilationist policy hurt indigenous cultures more deeply than it hurt Islam. Paradoxically, assimilationist policies weakened indigenous resistance to Islamization--and therefore helped the spread of Islam in West Africa.

French assimilationist policy made Africans ashamed of their own native cultures--but that did not necessarily make them French. Islam therefore continued to thrive even in such long established French colonies as Senegal, which the French regarded as their own cultural showpiece, and part of which they had colonized for well over a century.

Other Muslim countries in French West Africa included Western Soudan (now Mali), Niger, Guinea (Conokry), parts of the Ivory Coast, and Mauritania in the north-west. In all of them, Islam survived French assimilationist policy, and was sometimes even inadvertently helped by it.

This configuration of doctrine, sociology, and history during the colonial period had consequences for the post-colonial era. Some of these consequences were dialectical, replete with contradictions, and paradoxes. Especially significant are the consequences in post-colonial political experience. It is to this political experience that we must now turn, with all its paradoxes.

On Governance and Religious Culture

Our first post-colonial paradox is at once stimulating and disturbing; it is both fascinating and disquieting.  

The paradox is as follows: Islam in military uniform in post-colonial Africa is more repressive than average; Islam in civilian robes in Africa is more tolerant than average. Militarized Islam in Africa is extradictatorial; civilian Islam in Africa is extra-tolerant.

What are the facts of the case? What are the causes? What are the consequences?

Nigeria's experience of maximum open society has been under civilian Muslim administrations. Nigeria's experience of maximum repressive society has been under military Muslim administrations. Nigeria's Muslim civilian rulers have taken the country so far in openness and freedom that Nigeria was at times on the brink of anarchy. Nigeria's Muslim military rulers have taken the country so far in repression that the country has entered the gates of tyranny. Nigeria's non-Muslim rulers have been Christian.

Every time Nigeria has held free civilian elections, it has produced a Muslim Chief Executive or Muslim President. The greatest period of the open society in Nigeria was under Al-Haji Shehu Shagari. 3   Under Shagari, political freedom was virtually unrestricted and economic freedom became license for plunder. The Shagari years of 1979 to 1983 were perhaps the greatest years of freedom of expression in Nigeria in the twentieth century. All shades of opinion could say absolutely anything--and the President of the Republic was subjected to the widest range of name-calling, from sheikh to satan, from maallem to monster. 4   Newspapers proliferated right and left, breathed or died in response to the market rather than to the musket. Newspapers were, more or less, instruments of party politics, and as such, were highly partisan. As Adigun Agbaje has pointed out:

. . .the newspaper press became an important part of the partisan struggles that wracked the Second Republic. . . 5

On the other hand, under Muslim military rulers, Nigeria experienced brutal repression. The most benign military rulers of Nigeria were Christian--especially the remarkably humane General Yakubu Gowon (Head of State 1967-1975) and General Olusegun Obasanjo (Head of State 1976-1979). Obasanjo was the only Nigerian leader to hand over power to a freely elected alternative government.

Differences in freedom from regime to regime in Nigeria are amply demonstrated by Figure 1, which shows the Freedom House Rankings for Political Rights and Civil Rights in Nigeria from 1972-1994. A "1" is the best possible score, while a "7" is the worst possible score. 6   As can be seen from the graph, it was in the Shagari years that Nigeria had the highest score on both Political Rights and Civil Rights; and even under the Gowon and Obasanjo regimes, Nigeria was better off than under the Babangida and Abacha regimes.

Somalia, before it got militarized, was one of the most democratic countries not only in Africa but almost anywhere in the world. A kind of pastoral democracy emerged after the unification of Italian and British Somaliland and the establishment of independent Somalia in July 1960. 7

This open society lasted for less than a decade. On October 21, 1969, a military regime was installed. For almost two decades, the country became a pawn in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Horn of Africa, switching sides between the former and the latter. The soldier Siad Barre remained in power as a military dictator, getting more and more repressive, until he was forced to leave the country in January 1991. 8

Somalia after 1969 once again demonstrated that Muslim political authority in Africa in uniform was often more repressive than average; whereas Somalia before 1969 illustrated the proposition that Muslim civilian authority in Africa was more tolerant than average.

Sudan has been a more complex case. Southern Sudan has been in turmoil on and off since 1955. The south is largely but not completely non-Muslim.

The majority part of the Sudan is the Islamized Northern Sudan. In the North it has indeed been true that Muslim civilian authority has been exceptionally tolerant--except with regard to the civil war in the South. 9

Like several other African states, Sudan has had both military and civilian regimes. 10   Under civilian rule in Sudan, political detainees were virtually unknown; the one-party state was unthinkable; political trials were never staged; political assassinations were not carried out.

But Sudan's military governments started by also being relatively soft. Lt. General Ibrahim ABBUD captured power in November 1958. It became the first military government in Africa to be dislodged by civilian demonstrations in October-November 1964. So soft was the regime that it let itself be pushed out by angry civilians.

Again the succeeding multi-party civilian rule in the Sudan was exceptionally tolerant. But this relative calm was ended in May 1969 when Col. Jaafar Muhammad Nimeiry, then left-wing, overthrew the civilians and established a so-called 10-man revolutionary council.

Nimeiry had himself elected president in 1971. He later dissolved the Revolutionary Council, and established the Sudanese Socialist Union as the only legitimate political party.

Unlike the Ibrahim ABBOUD military regime of 1964-1969, Nimeiry's military rule was not so soft. From a religious point of view, its most merciless action was the execution of an old man, Mahmoud Muhammed Taha, on charges of heresy and apostasy. On the other hand, Nimeiry did negotiate and reach the Addis Ababa accords with Southern Sudan in 1972 and gave southern Sudan a decade of peace.

And Nimeiry's regime was also soft enough to allow itself to be chased out of office by popular demonstrations in the streets of Khartoum in 1985.

After a brief Transitional Military Council for one year under General Siwar al-Dahab from April 1985 to April 1986, Sudan once again returned to civil rule under Sadiq el Mahdi as Prime Minister. It lived up to its reputation that Muslim civilian authority was above average in tolerance.

Indeed, as Figure 2 shows, Sudan enjoyed the highest rankings on Political Rights during this period (1986-1988), with scores of "4." However, the ranking of Civil Rights remained relatively unchanged from previous periods, although slightly better than Nimeiry's earlier years.


Unfortunately this civilian phase did not last long either. On June 30, 1989 the government of Sadiq el Mahdi was overthrown by General Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. His government was indeed to demonstrate that Muslim authority in military uniform was above average in repression. Bashir's regime is the toughest of all the military regimes Sudan has had. It also happens to be the most self-consciously Islamic. Figure 2 shows that in the 1972-1994 period, Sudan's rankings of "7," (the worst possible ranking) on Political Rights and Civil Rights were in the 1989-1994 period. They were even worse than under Col. Nimeiry, under whose regime the worst score that Sudan got was a "6." Sudan now completes both parts of our dual-interpretation--that Islamic authority in civilian robes is extra-tolerant; and Islamic authority in military uniform is extra-repressive.

Uganda has had a Muslim ruler in military uniform; but has had no Muslim ruler in civilian robes. The one half of our proposition does hold--the Muslim ruler in military uniform in Uganda was more repressive than were the Christian soldiers who ruled Uganda. Idi Amin (1971-1979) did more damage to Uganda than did any other ruler of Uganda, military or civilian. 11

Some have argued that Milton Obote's second administration was as bad if not worse than Idi Amin's rule. Possibly more people died under Obote's second administration (1981-1986). But we must remember that they died as much from a civil war as from tyranny. Most of Amin's slaughter, however, was due to tyranny or anarchy. 12   In any case, Obote himself was not a military ruler. 13

As Figure 3 shows, Ugandans' freedoms were most severely circumscribed under Idi Amin, with scores on the Freedom House rankings ranging from "7" to "6" on both Political Rights and Civil Rights. On the other hand, Ugandans' under Obote and successive regimes were better off, with scores ranging from "6" to "4" in the years following Amin's overthrow.

In Malawi there has been one ostensibly devout Christian ruler called Hastings Banda; and there is now a Muslim President called BAKILI MULUZI, elected President of Malawi on May 17, 1994.

Banda was in power from 1964 to 1994, ruling for 30 years in an arbitrary fashion. He was one of Africa's worst post colonial tyrants. Banda belonged to the Church of Scotland and was an elder in the church. Under Banda, Malawi plunged into desperate economic conditions and political staleness, since he ruled the country with an iron hand and prevented meaningful opposition. 14   In the period under Banda (1972-93) surveyed by Freedom House, Malawi, for the most part, (with the exception of 1993) received scores of "7" or "6" on the Political Rights and Civil Rights scale. On the other hand, with the ascension of Muluzi to power, it received a ranking of "2" on Political Rights and "3" on Civil Rights. The disparity is starkly illustrated in Figure 4.

The evidence so far is that Bakili Muluzi will be a much more democratic ruler of Malawi even if his present high standards deteriorate. 15   Malawi therefore authenticates the proposition that a Muslim ruler in civilian robes is above average in tolerance.

Tanzania may be heading for a system in which the President alternates between a Christian incumbent and a Muslim incumbent. The first Christian incumbent was of course Julius K. Nyerere who was chief executive from independence in 1961 until his resignation from the presidency in 1985. Nyerere was an exceptionally strong and creative chief executive. He was a Roman Catholic. 16

Tanzania's second President was Ali Hassan Mwinyi who held office from 1985 to 1995. President Mwinyi was definitely less charismatic and less energetic and less influential than his predecessor, Julius Nyerere. But President Mwinyi was also more gentle, more tolerant, than his great predecessor. President Mwinyi was a Muslim.

We now have the third round in Tanzania--a Christian president again. Benjamin Mkapa of Chama cha Mapenduzi is stepping into the presidential State House, though with many cries of "Foul" from the opposition.

Unless he changes under the pressures of presidential power, Benjamin Mkapa is also likely to be a gentle ruler. But will he be as gentle as his Muslim predecessor Ali Hassan Mwinyi? That remains to be seen.

Senegal poses even more intriguing questions about politics and religious affiliation. In the 1988 census 94 per cent of the population was identified as Muslim. 17   The population of Senegal has a higher proportion of Muslims than the population of Egypt.

And yet this overwhelmingly Muslim country, Senegal, had a Roman Catholic president in its postcolonial history not for five or ten years--but for twenty years. From 1960 to 1980, Roman Catholic Leopold Sédar Senghor ruled one of the more free governments on the African continent. 18   Senghor did bestride this narrow Muslim world like a colossus --not because everybody worshipped him, but because the Senegalese society was extra-ecumenical. Although a mostly Islamic society, Islam has emerged not as a competitor for state power, but as a locus for countervailing power in civil society that limits the reach of state action and thus acts as a check on state power. As Villalon has pointed out:

. . .the political importance of Islam in Senegal has been concentrated in the domain of state-society relations and not in the struggle for control of the state. 19

Since Senegal was a relatively open society, Senghor was called many abusive names--lackey of the French, Negritudist hypocrite, political prostitute. But he was almost never denounced as kaffir, or infidel.

Consider how far ahead this situation was of any political-religious situation in the Western world. After two hundred years as a secular state, the United States strayed only once from the Protestant fraternity for the White House. We are not even sure John F. Kennedy was truly elected - we only know that he became President. There was some hanky-panky in Illinois which might have robbed Nixon of victory. 20   Kennedy's victory was exceptionally narrow.

No Jew has become President of the USA. Jews are not even bidding for the office. There are now as many Muslims as Jews in the US, if not more. 21   And yet a Muslim President of the United States is still a mind-boggling concept. Yet there was Muslim Senegal with a Roman Catholic President for 20 years without upheavals in the streets or any attempted assassinations.

Now Senegal does at last have a Muslim President. But the first lady is Roman Catholic. Imagine one of the Presidential candidates in the United States going on the television programme "LARRY KING LIVE" and confessing:

"Oh, incidentally, my wife is a Shiite Muslim."

The candidate had better pack up his bags, leave the campaign, and find a corner to lick his wounds. By almost all standards, the Muslims of Senegal have been remarkably ecumenical in the twentieth century. This has undoubtedly been a critical factor in the remarkable durability of Senegalese liberal democracy in a region of the world where there are too few of these regimes. 22

Are there exceptions to this sweeping generalization that civilian Islam in Africa is more tolerant than average? Is there an exception to the generalization that military Muslim authority in Africa is more repressive than average?

There are indeed exceptions which hopefully prove the rule. Guinea (Conakry) produced a heroic Muslim leader, Ahmed Sekou Toure, who became one of the longest serving heads of state in Africa. He was President from 1958 until he died in hospital in the United States in March 1984. Sekou Toure stood up against the French, and served for a while as Chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Nevertheless, he was one of the worst civilian dictators post-colonial Africa has had. A quarter of the population fled into exile. Despite several real or alleged attempts to overthrow Toure, he was unshakable from power until his death in 1984. 23

Mali, another overwhelmingly Muslim country, has also produced bad rulers both civilian and military. Mali is therefore another exception. It does not fit my thesis about the dual-tendency.

Arab civilian regimes of North Africa basically do conform to my generalization. Under civilian rulers Tunisia and Morocco have been, at least until recently, more tolerant than average--both as compared with most other African countries and as compared with most other Arab countries.

At least since 1992, we may conclude that the Algerian military regime has conformed to the other part of my generalization. A brief blossoming of political liberalization since 1989 was abruptly aborted in 1992, leading to a severe civil war. It has become more repressive than average. Several countries, particularly France, are concerned about the prospects of Algeria becoming another Iran. 24

What about Egypt? How much of a military regime is Egypt's government? To what extent has it been civilianized by durability from 1952 to 1995? Egypt is more difficult to classify--but its regime conforms to the generalization that Muslim civilian or civilianized regimes in Africa are more tolerant than average.

Observers are divided about Muammar Gaddafy's Libya. Gad-dafy captured power in 1969. Has his regime become more repressive than average over the years? Or has it been a particularly generous military regime in material terms and a particularly egalitarian one in ideological terms? By the 1990s the arbitrariness of the regime had probably tilted the balance on the side of repression. The expulsion of Palestinian and Sudanese workers in 1995 was symptomatic of a deepening repressiveness in the regime. Libya was also facing problems with Islamists. 25

A Note On Culture and Violence

It is not clear why the twin-tendency of my thesis seems to hold up in Africa--that Islam in military uniform is extra repressive; that Islam in civilian robes is extra tolerant. But it may be related to another twin-tendency--that Muslim cities in Africa are routinely less violent than non-Muslim cities--but from time to time Muslim cities are nevertheless more prone to politicized riots or demonstrations. Islam does not inspire mugging in the streets, but it often inspires fiery protest.

Kano in Nigeria is much more of a Muslim city than Ibadan. On a day-to-day basis, Kano's streets are much safer than the streets of Ibadan from muggers and robbers. But Kano is competitive even with Lagos when it comes to politicized riots.

Mombasa, even in the 1990s, is more of a Muslim city than Nairobi in Kenya. The streets of Mombasa are still, relatively speaking, safer than the streets of Nairobi. But Mombasa is beginning to be competitive with the capital city in politicized riots.

As for the really protected small Muslim enclave of Lamu in North-East Kenya, it was for centuries almost entirely devoid of crime in the Western sense. There may be lots of secret vices, like adultery and extra mistresses, but no mugging or rape or murder. The prison was often almost empty most of the time before the 1980s.

Also, we may compare Cairo, the biggest city in the north of the African continent, with Johannesburg, the biggest city in the south. Although Johannesburg is less than a sixth of the population of Cairo, it has more than three times the rate of reported violent crimes.

Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam, is a semi-Islamized city culturally (and not just by its Arabic name). It has only a fraction of the crime rate of Kinshasa in Zaire.

Outside Africa, Tehran is about the size of New York City in population--about 10 million people. And yet in 1993 I witnessed in Tehran women and children picnicking in public parks late at night. I witnessed comparable phenomena of fearlessness about the streets at night in three other Iranian cities.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that in terms of pacifying the streets from day-to-day violence like mugging and the harassment drug-dealers and drunks, Islam is a force for peace in the relevant African cities. But in terms of politicized riots or demonstrations and potential civil disobedience, Islam can be a force of excitability. Whether or not these factors are related to our twin-tendency of Islam in uniform versus Islam in civilian robes is a matter yet to be explored.

Islam and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

In dealing with cities and lifestyles, we may now discuss the relationship between Islam and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Of course many individual Muslims have already died, and more no doubt will. None of us are safe from this deadly disease. I, for one, am terrified. Who knows how the virus might be transferred? And Africa has been most cruelly hit. According to an estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 31 December 1992, Africa has 71 per cent of the world's estimated 2.5 million cases of AIDS. 26   

But for the time being the distribution of the disaster has disproportionately hit non-Muslim Africa, especially the central belt of our continent. A large part of the reason is purely a historical accident. That is where the deadly virus erupted. 27

But a question persists: whether cultural factors are also relevant to the spread of the disease. Do these cultural factors include religious affiliation and religious practices? For instance, even accounting for underreporting, WHO estimates that the number of people infected with HIV in North Africa and the Middle East is probably about 75, 000 people--a small figure compared to the estimates of 8 million infected adults in sub-Saharan Africa. At least some AIDS workers believe that Islam may be playing a role in checking AIDS transmission because of "strong religious and cultural taboos about sex." 28

In some African countries, where both Muslims and non-Muslims live near each other, studies have shown that Muslims tend to have less cases of infection with HIV. As one report stated:

In Cote d'Ivoire, studies have shown that approximately half as many Muslims as non-Muslims in these countries are likely to be infected with HIV. 29

Relevant religio-cultural questions include the following:

A non-Muslim African man may be legally monogamous, but often has more than one sex partner (sexual pluralism outside marriage).

Muslim males are more likely to marry more than one woman (sexual pluralism within marriage).


Legalized polygamy is sexual pluralism with specific partners. African men married to only one woman may be practising partner-random sexual pluralism outside the home. (At one extreme, unprotected sex during one-night stands on Saturday night, as in the West, may be rife and instrumental in encouraging AIDS).

Is old style polygyny or polygamy a better protection against AIDS than monogamy in cultures where males insist on sexual pluralism? Are polygamous Muslims better protected than monogamous Christians? One analysis is at least ambivalent about the pros and cons of polygamy for controlling HIV transmission. "Continuing polygamy and surrogate forms of it in Africa thus present both advantages and disadvantages for controlling the HIV epidemic." 30

Secondly, Muslim societies have more discreet forms of sex outside marriage than one may find in cities with brothels and open prostitution are tolerated outside hotels. One is more likely to find open temptations outside motels in Port Harcourt than in Kaduna, in Cape Town than in Cairo, in New Delhi than in Islamabad, in London than in Riyadh. Where the prostitution is less aggressive, is the danger of spreading HIV reduced?

The institution of levirate, or "inheriting" the widow of a brother, has died faster among Islamized Africans than among non-Islamized. The levirate is intact among many non-Muslims in Africa. Nkrumah's widowed mother was "inherited" by his uncle. The widow of the assassinated Kenyan leader Tom Mboya was "inherited" by his younger brother (though a marriage ceremony was conducted). Today, an inherited widow may carry the HIV condition from her late husband. 31   It becomes one additional cultural area of transmission where religion can make a difference. If Muslims have abandoned levirate sooner than non-Muslims, are Muslims thereby protected from HIV?

Then there is the stronger discouragement of drugs among practising Muslims, sometimes reinforced by abstinence from alcohol. This can also reduce the kind of spread of HIV which was through shared drug needles. Islam can also reduce the temptations of promiscuity under conditions of inebriation.

Are there Islamic practices which could promote the spread of HIV and AIDS? There is considerable cultural surgery in some practices. Male circumcision invokes cutting and spilling blood and potential contamination. This could result in HIV infections. Baganda Muslims circumcise; non-Muslim Baganda do not. It must be noted that the jury is still out on the connection between circumcision and HIV infection; while the practice may lead to spilling of blood, at least in males it has also been linked to the prevention of other sexually transmitted diseases that then act as a gateway to AIDS. 32 

Female circumcision is not really Islamic but it is widely practised in many Muslim societies. It is practised in Egypt but not in Algeria, in Yemen but not in Saudi Arabia, in Somalia but not in Zanzibar and so on. Tradition and custom, rather than religion, dictates the prevalence of this practice. 33   Consequences of female circumcision could cause lifelong bleeding in a woman during intercourse, Does it increase the risk of AIDS?

Male homosexuality may be more rare in Africa than in other parts of the world, or at least underreported. But to the extent that it exists, there may be a higher incidence in parts of Muslim Africa than in non-Muslim Africa--partly for the sociological reasons of the purdah. Where the sexes are rigidly segregated, one potential risk is a slight increase in both lesbianism and male homosexuality. There is also the phenomenon of foreign tourists, particularly in North Africa, patronising male prostitutes. 34

Does that also increase the danger of the spread of HIV? It just so happens Africa's variety of HIV is in any case different from that of the United States. 35   It may be less subject to the distinction between homosexual love and heterosexual love. But it is a risk worth taking into account.


What is the balance between conflict, competition, and cooperation between Islam and Christianity as we approach the 21st century? In Africa, Christianity and Islam are divisive only if they reinforce pre-existing divisions of other kinds. Thus in Nigeria almost all Hausa are Muslims; almost all Igbo are Christians; and Yoruba are split between the two religions. Thus Islam reinforces Hausa identity; Christianity reinforces Igbo identity and the Yoruba people are caught in between.

In Sudan, the degree of Islamization is not the only difference between the north and the south of the country. The two sub-regions differ in a whole range of other cultural and historical differentiations.

But where Islam and Christianity do not reinforce prior divisions (as in Senegal) those two religions are not conflictual. It is in this way that sociology and history help to moderate the consequences of doctrine.

Levelling the field of missionary work between Islam and Christianity also helps to diffuse conflict and turn it into peaceful competition for the soul of Africa. The petro-wealth of the parts of the Muslim world has made available resources for tabligh, da'wa and propagation unheard of for hundreds of years.

Muslim missionary work is still less efficient, less well organized, less imaginative, and less well endowed than the Christian missionary work. But the gap has narrowed as a result of petro-da'wa, alhamdu lillah.  The sacred playing field is being slowly levelled.

A third factor which helps in reducing conflict and even promoting cooperation is an important change in the nature of the Christian mission in Africa. Many Christian groups have decided to concentrate on saving lives rather than saving souls, focussing more on service now than salvation for the hereafter. Such Christian groups will go to help in devastated Muslim areas like Somalia to save Somali lives rather than Somali souls. They would concentrate on easing pain rather than spreading the Gospel.

In Africa such service oriented activists have their Muslim counterparts. An association of Muslim doctors in South Africa spends a lot of medical hours and resources helping the poor in South Africa regardless of religious affiliation. They build clinics or serve them, and give of their time to the sick.

Between these two universalistic religions the three tendencies are still often there

     -- the risk of conflict

     -- the inherent competitive tendency

     -- the potential for ecumenical cooperation

In Africa the worst days of religious conflict north of the Sahara may unfortunately not be over, but South of the Sahara those worst days are probably receding into history. The days of rivalry between Christianity and Islam in Africa are alive and well--but the competition is getting more gracious and more considerate.

The days of ecumenical cooperation between Christianity and Islam in Africa are now unfolding--and Africa may be the best setting in the world for such a Christo-Islamic ecumenicalism in the 21st century.

In distribution Christianity is an Afro-Western religion--since almost all Christian nations are either in the Western world or in Africa. Asia, the largest continent in the world, has been far less receptive to Christianity. There are hardly any Christian nations in Asia apart from the Philippines.

In distribution Islam is an Afro-Asian religion--since most Muslim nations are either in Asia or in Africa. Apart from small Albania, and Bosnia, there are no Muslim countries in the Western world. Turkey is divided between Asia and Europe.

If Christianity is primarily Afro-Western, and Islam is primarily Afro-Asian, what the two religions have in common geographically is mainly the "Afro" part. Africa is therefore the pre-eminent theatre for ecumenical cooperation between these two great religions - moderated by the traditional doctrines, the sociology, and the history of the African peoples themselves.

About the Author:    Ali Mazrui is Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, State University of New York at Binghamton, New York. Dr. Mazrui is also Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large, University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria and Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

His more than twenty books include Towards a Pax African, Africa's International Relations, Political Values and the Educated Class in Africa, A World Federation of Cultures: An African Experience, and Cultural Forces in World Politics.  He developed and hosted the widely-acclaimed public television series, The Africans.

This lecture was delivered under the sponsorship of the Center for Muslim-Christian Unverstanding, Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. on March 7, 1996.

Note 1:  Consult, relatedly, Steve Bruce (ed.), Religion and Modernization: Socio-logists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1992); Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith: Religion, Morality & Society in a Secular Age (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991); and Edward Tiryakian, "From Modernization to Globalization," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Volume 31 (September 1992), pp. 304-10.

Note 2:  For example, on the religious connections to resurgent nationalism, see Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Note 3:  Biographical portraits of Shagari may be found in David Williams, President and Power in Nigeria: The Life of Shehu Shagari (London and Totowa, NJ: F. Cass, 1990) and A. Okion Ojigbo, Shehu Shagari: The Biography of Nigeria's First Executive President (Lagos, Nigeria: Tokion Co., 1982).

Note 4:  For an example of unbridled attacks on Shagari, see Adigun Agbaje, "Freedom of the Press and Party Politics in Nigeria: Precepts, Retrospect and Prospects," African Affairs Volume 89 (April 1990), p. 211. 

Note 5:  Agbaje, "Freedom of the Press and Party Politics in Nigeria," p. 223.

Note 6:  Freedom House, New York, compiles scores for Political Rights and Civil Rights (which we call Civil Liberties) for several countries which are then published in the "Survey of Freedom" in the periodical Freedom at Issue usually in the January/February issue for the preceding year. These scores are drawn from that source. While these scores are not perfect, they provide a useful basis for comparison since 1972.

Note 7:  A useful guide to Somali history and politics since independence is I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa (Revised, updated, and expanded edition) (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988).

Note 8:  Somalia's repression is well-detailed in Jama M. Ghalib, The Cost of Dictator-ship: The Somali Experience (New York, NY: L. Barber, 1995); on the Cold War connections, see Gerry O'Sullivan, "Another Cold War Casualty," The Humanist Volume 53, (January/February 1993), pp. 36-7.

Note 9:  This civil war has resisted settlement both by force and through mediation; for one discussion of the war, see M. W. Daly and Ahmed A. Sikainga, (eds.) Civil War in the Sudan (London and New York: British Academic Press, 1993); also consult Dunstan M. Wai, The African-Arab Conflict in the Sudan (New York: Africana Pub. Co., 1981).

Note 10:  Consult, for an overview of the various regimes in Sudan, Muddathir Abd Al-Rahim et al (eds.), Sudan Since Independence: Studies in the Political Development since 1956 (Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, VT: Gower, 1986).

Note 11:  On Uganda's experiences under Amin, a valuable tool for further reading is Martin Jamison, Idi Amin and Uganda: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992).

Note 12:  For a portrait of the hideous struggles of Ugandans under Amin, consult M. S. M. Semakula Kiwanuka, Amin and the Tragedy of Uganda (Munich: Welt-forum Verlag, 1979). Back.

Note 13:  For a biography of this recurrent figure in Ugandan politics, consult Kenneth Ingham, Obote: A Political Biography (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

Note 14:  See T. David Williams, Malawi, The Politics of Despair (Ithaca, NY: Cor-nell University Press, 1978) and Andrew Meldrum, "Legacy of A Dictator," Africa Report Volume 40 (March/April 1995), pp. 56-9.

Note 15:  On the transition from Banda to Muluzi, see Mike Hall and Melinda Ham, "From Tyranny to Tolerance," Africa Report Volume 39 (November/December 1994), pp. 56-7.

Note 16:  For an early biography of Nyerere, consult William E. Smith, Nyerere of Tan-zania (London: Gollancz, 1973); a more recent view may be found in Andrew Meldrum, "Julius Nyerere: Former President of Tanzania," Africa Report Volume 39 (September/October 1994), pp. 70-1.

Note 17:  Arthur Banks, (ed.), The Political Handbook of the World, 1994-1995 (Binghamton, NY: CSA Publications, 1995), p. 758.

Note 18:  For a close look at the various influences on Senghor, see Janet G. Vaillant, Black, French, and African: A Life of Leopold Sédar Senghor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Note 19:  Leonardo A. Villalon, Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal: Dis-ciples and Citizens in Fatick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 262.

Note 20:  One detailed account of the crucial but suspicious voting results in Chicago during the 1960 elections can be found in Edmund F. Kallina, Courthouse Over White House: Chicago and the Presidential Elections of 1960 (Orlando, FL: University Presses of Florida; University of Central Florida Press, 1988), pp. 96-114.

Note 21:  A figure of 5.944 million Jews in the United States is reported in Table 80 in the United States Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1991, 111th edition, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1991), p. 58; on the other hand, a New York Times (February 21, 1989) Section A, p. 1 report estimated the number of Muslims in the United States at 6 million.

Note 22:  For a discussion of the factors in Senegal's exceptionally democratic record, see Robert Fatton, The Making of A Liberal Democracy: Senegal's Passive Revolution, 1975-1985, (Boulder, CO: L. Rienner Publishers, 1987).

Note 23:  On Guinea under Toure, consult Ladipo Adamolekun, Sekou Toure's Guinea: An Experiment in Nation-Building (London and New York: Methuen, Harper & Row, and Barnes & Noble, 1976).

Note 24:  See, for instance, Edward G. Shirley, "Is Iran's Present Algeria's Future?" Foreign Affairs Volume 74 (May/June 1995), pp. 28-44.

Note 25:  Consult Dennis Sammutt, "Libya and the Islamic Challenge," The World Today Volume 50 (October 1994), pp. 198-200.

Note 26:  See United Nations, Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, AIDS and the Demography of Africa (New York: United Nations, 1994), p. 6.

Note 27:  For one figure depicting the different number of cases by country, see Figure 2.3 in Tony Barnett and Piers Blaikie, AIDS in Africa: Its Present and Future Impact (New York and London: The Guilford Press, 1992), p. 24; and for detailed studies of various subregions, see chapters 29-33 in Max Essex, et al (eds.) AIDS in Africa (New York: Raven Press, 1994), pp. 603-712.

Note 28:  Consult Catherine Tastemain and Peter Coles, "Can A Culture Stop AIDS in its Tracks?" New Scientist (September 11, 1993), p. 13; of course, their report is not conclusive.

Note 29:  Ibid. 

Note 30:  Consult Manuel Carballo and Patrick I. Kenya, "Behavioral Issues and AIDS," in Max Essex, et al (eds.) AIDS in Africa, p. 501.

Note 31:  This would of course increase the number of partners for the infected woman; see Carballo and Kenya, "Behavioral Issues and AIDS,", p. 501.

Note 32:  See the discussion in Seth F. Berkley, "Public Health Measures to Prevent HIV Spread in Africa," in Max Essex et al (eds.), AIDS in Africa, pp. 484-485. 

Note 33:  Critical works on female circumcision include Efua Dorkenoo, Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation, the Practice and Its Prevention (London: Mi-nority Rights Publication, 1994) and Fran P. Hosken, The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females, 4th rev. edition, (Lexington, MA: Women's International Network News, 1993). 

Note 34:  See Tastemain and Coles, "Can a Culture Stop AIDS in its Tracks," p. 14.

Note 35:  Relatedly, see Jon Cohen, "Differences in HIV Strain May Underlie Disease Patterns," Science  Volume 270 (October 6, 1995), pp. 30-31. In Africa, most cases of HIV are caused due to heterosexual transmission.