Islam in Tanzania

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Islam is the religion of about 35 percent of the people of Tanzania mainland and more than 99% of the population of the Zanzibar archipelago.[1] The majority are Sunni with unusually significant Shia and Ahmadi minorities in sub-Saharan Africa. Pew Forum identifies 20% as Shia while 15% as Ahmadi.[2]


The Great Mosque of Kilwa is one of the earliest surviving mosques in East Africa
Gaddafi Mosque in Dodoma is one of the largest in the region

The earliest concrete evidence of Muslim presence in East Africa 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.[3]

The history of Islam in the country can be traced to around 960-1000 AD with the arrival of Arabs. Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi was one of the seven sons of the Shah of Shiraz in Persia. His mother was an Abyssinian slave. Upon his father's death, Ali was driven out of his inheritance by his brothers. Setting sail out of Hormuz, he and a small group of followers first made their way to Mogadishu, a commercial entrepot on the East African coast slave trade routes.

Steering down the African coast, Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi is said to have purchased the island of Kilwa from the local Bantu king 'Almuli' and connected by a small land bridge to the African mainland that appeared only in low tide. The king agreed to sell Kilwa to Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi for as much colored cloth and silk as could cover the circumference of the island. Immediately after purchasing Kilwa the Shirazi's had dug up the land bridge, and Kilwa was now an island and later the capitol of the Kilwa Sultanate.

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 Mombassa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Mafia, Comoros and Inhambane - essentially ruling what is now often referred to as the Swahili Coast.

The oldest intact building in East Africa 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. When Ibn Battuta visited the East African littoral in 1332 he reported that he felt at home because of Islam in the area. The coastal population was largely Muslim, and Arabic was the language of literature and trade. The whole of the Indian Ocean seemed to be a "Muslim sea". Muslims controlled the trade and established coastal settlements in Southeast Asia, India and East Africa.

Islam was spread mainly through trade activities along the East African coast, not through violent conquest and territorial expansion as was mostly the case in North Africa, but 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 and almost all the ruling families had ties of kinship with Arabia, Persia, India and even Southeast Asia owing to their maritime contacts and political connections with the northern and eastern parts of the Indian Ocean. In 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 coast of East Africa.

During the time when Oman dominated the coast politically, the spread of Islam intensified also in the interior of East Africa. Trade contacts with peoples in the interior, especially the Nyamwezi, gained importance and 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 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]

Shia Islam came to Tanzania before any other African country and is practiced by several people of Tanzania including Arabs and Indians.


  1. ^ The World Factbook - Tanzania
  2. ^ "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity". Pew Forum on Religious & Public life. August 9, 2012. Retrieved August 14, 2012. 
  3. ^

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