Islam in Tanzania

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Gaddafi Mosque in Dodoma is one of the largest in the region

Islam is the religion of about 35% of the people of Tanzania according to CIA.[1] On the mainland, Muslim communities are concentrated in coastal areas, with some large Muslim majorities also in inland urban areas especially and along the former caravan routes. More than 99% of the population of the Zanzibar archipelago is Muslim.[2] The majority of Muslims in Tanzania are Sunni of Shafi school of jurisprudence, with unusually significant Shia and Ahmadi minorities in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Pew research center, two-thirds of the Muslim population of Tanzania is Sunni, while the rest is either Shia (20%) or Ahmadi (15%).[3]


The Great Mosque of Kilwa is one of the earliest surviving mosques in the African Great Lakes.
Religious distribution in Africa

The earliest concrete evidence of a Muslim presence in the African Great Lakes is the foundation of a mosque in Shanga on Pate Island, where gold, silver and copper coins dated from 830 were found during an excavation in the 1980s. Islam arrived to Tanzania with the Arab slave traders. The route from Ujiji at the shore of Lake Tanganyika to Bagamoyo, just opposite of Zanzibar on main land Tanzania was one of the main routes of Muslim slave routes according to UNESCO data.[4]

The history of Islam in the country can be traced to the establishment of the Kilwa Sultanate in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi,[5] a Persian prince of Shiraz.[6] At the zenith of its power in the 1300s-1400s, the Kilwa Sultanate owned or claimed overlordship over the mainland cities of Malindi, Sofala, and the island-states of Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Mafia, Comoros and Inhambane -- essentially ruling what is now often referred to as the Swahili Coast.

The oldest intact building in the African Great Lakes region is the Kizimkazi Mosque in southern Zanzibar dated from 1107. It appears that Islam was widespread in the Indian Ocean area by the 14th century. In 1332, Ibn Battuta visited the Kilwa Sultanate. The coastal population was by then largely Muslim, and Arabic served as the language of literature and trade.

Islam was spread mainly through trade activities along the Swahili Coast rather than through conquest and territorial expansion. However, the faith remained an urban littoral phenomenon for a long time. When the violent Portuguese intrusions in the coastal areas occurred in the 16th century, Islam was already well established there. Almost all the ruling families had ties of kinship with other Muslim potentates in the Arabian peninsula, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, owing to their maritime contacts and political connections with the northern and eastern parts of the Indian Ocean. At the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century, the coastal Muslims managed to oust the Portuguese with the help of Oman. The Omanis gradually increased their political influence until the end of the 19th century when Europeans arrived at the Swahili Coast.

During the time when Oman dominated the coast politically, the spread of Islam intensified also in the interior of the African Great Lakes region. Trade contacts with peoples in the hinterland, especially the Nyamwezi, gained importance. Places like Tabora in Nyamwezi territory and Ujiji at Lake Tanganyika became important centers in the ever-increasing trade in slaves and ivory. Many chiefs, even in parts of Uganda, converted to Islam and cooperated with the coastal Muslims. Trade served to spread not only Islam, but also the Bantu Swahili language and culture. Before the establishment of German East Africa in the 1880s the influence of the Swahilis was mainly limited to the areas along the caravan routes and around their destinations.

There is also a large number of people who adhere to the Ahmadiyya Islam, who believe in the 19th century reformer, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, originating in India who claimed to be the Messiah.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The World Factbook - Tanzania
  2. ^ The World Factbook - Tanzania
  3. ^ "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity". Pew Forum on Religious & Public life. August 9, 2012. Retrieved August 14, 2012. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ شاكر مصطفى, موسوعة دوال العالم الأسلامي ورجالها الجزء الثالث, (دار العلم للملايين: 1993), p.1360
  6. ^ James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 24, (Kessinger Publishing: 2003), p.847

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