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