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Tigani Mustafa M. Salih - Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Alneelain University, Sudan

Prof. Issam A.W. Mohamed - Department of Sociology, Alneelain University, Sudan


It is believed that Islam is the most spreading religion in Africa. This paper critically assessed and evaluated the existing literature on conversion to Islam in Africa using the Zaghawa African Muslim community in Western Sudan as a case study. It also examined the impact of Islam upon their cosmology and traditional system of belief. The process of conversion to Islam in Africa has been scrutinized by many scholars but this study adopted Trimingham’s and Fisher’s tripartite or marginalization models, Horton’s intellectualist theory and Lewis’ syncretism model where relevant. The research indicated that the traditional Zaghawa society believed in a host of lesser spirits and a high god (ido) who was linked with certain objects such as caves and mountains. The research revealed that Islam first found its way to Dar Zaghawa peacefully and gradually from North and West Africa and the Nile Valley at different times by different agents during the reign of Suliman Solong. Among these agents the extramural activities of the long distance caravan traders across the Sahara desert, Ulama and sufi orders mainly Tijaniya and Sanusiya, returning pilgrims from Mecca who settled permanently among the ruling Zaghawa Families and Muslim clerics (wise strangers). The Zaghawa ethnography indicated that the marginalization and syncretism models are useful tools for analyzing the process of conversion to Islam in Africa, yet they are insufficient for they do not go far enough to explain why the Zaghawa continued to perform their pre-Islamic rituals even when their belief changed. Many scholars mistakenly based their analysis on a dichotomy of Islam and paganism whereas the tribesmen and women they studied like the Zaghawa including those who still implore rain from the gorbu manda (sacred rock) regard themselves as good Muslims. However useful those classificatory models may be, they represent an external observer’s perspective and do not necessarily convey the views of the natives themselves. For an adequate explanation we need to adopt the emic approach which gives full weight to the views and interpretations of the actors themselves to grasp why they do what they do. The Zaghawa society is internally divided into various categories which differ in their awareness of the proper religious knowledge and practice. This can justify why in the same society some intolerant religious activists burnt down the sacred trees, and rocks to put an end to what they called the performance of shirk (heresy) while others still believe in the efficacy of such sanctuaries in guaranteeing the flow of water underneath the sacred rocks and trees or the bore holes. The Participation of the educated and illiterate, men and women in the pre-Islamic rite of offering butter to the sacred rock suggests that fernandez’s analysis which differentiates between the social consensus and the cultural consensus as particularly useful for deeper analysis of the impact of Islam upon the Zaghawa society.

Full Length Research (PDF Format)