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The History of Islam in Africa
A book review by your African History Guide

The Islamic faith and Muslims have played a crucial role in the development of Africa, not only in North Africa and West Africa where it is still the dominant religion, but also in East Africa, where its dominance decreases as one moves south, and in Southern Africa, where it was introduced through slaves and political exiles and is most prominent today in the cities of Durban and Cape Town.

The History of Islam in Africa is the first book to approach the role of Islam in Africa on a continent-wide basis. Until now more emphasis has been put on Islam in West Africa than any other region. The 24 contributors to the book, who all have impeccable credentials, have focused on the historical, cultural, and environmental factors which influenced diverse, local forms of Islam. This diversity has produced widely varied religious meanings, beliefs, and practices that have molded African communities which at the same time adapted Islam to its new settings.

In the fourteen centuries since the introduction of Islam, Muslims have played important roles in Africa's development. Muslims were important in the process of state-building, in creating commercial networks between parts of the continent, in introducing literacy (which saw Muslim become scribes in charge of state records), as well as in exchanges of inter-state diplomacy within Africa and beyond.

The book is divided into four sections: Gateways to Africa (Egypt and the Maghrib from the north and the Indian Ocean from the east), West Africa and the Sudan, Eastern and Southern Africa, and General Themes. The latter section includes Islamic law, Muslim women in African history, Islamic education, Sufi brotherhoods, and Islamic art, literature and music.

The contributors' writing style - no doubt polished by the two editors - has produced a highly readable book instead of a dry, academic tome destined to gather dust. And it's fortunately been printed with generous margins as it'll soon be full of personal annotations. As for depth of information, here's an example. Rather than the usual cursory mention of the person regarded as the founder of Islam in South Africa, Shaykh Yusuf, there's a satisfying outline of his life: where and when he was born, his education, the reasons for his exile from Batavia by the Dutch, the name of the ship he sailed on, who sailed with him, where he was interned, the reaction by the authorities to his death, and where his religious writings are currently housed.

Anyone with an interest in getting a balanced view of African history will find this book fascinating. But be warned, it's some 600 pages long, so your friends may not hear from you for a while....

The History of Islam in Africa is a joint publication by three publishers: Ohio University Press in the US (ISBN 0-8214-1297-3), James Currey in the United Kingdom (ISBN 0-85255-781-7), and David Philip in South Africa (ISBN 0-86486-454-X).

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