As non-African Muslims, we rarely vocally express that we often – subconsciously – tend to believe that Islam is ours. When we mention the Muslim Ummah, the first people we think about are mostly Arabs, Turks, North Africans, and Asians. Strangely enough, experience shows that many Muslims seem to have a hard time in associating Black Africans with Islam. In fact, even most North Africans – who are geographically (and in many cases ethnically) the closest to their Sub-Saharan brothers and sisters – have problematic views concerning black African Muslims being a full-fledged part of Islamic civilisation and history.
Although we should consider underlying racist tendencies, these views are, for the most part, not held with evil intentions. The view of not considering Sub-Saharan Africa to be a part of the Islamic world is the result of a paradigm that is formed by shared historical developments in a certain interconnected geographical area. In these developments, Sub-Saharan Africa seems not to have played a significant (political) role great enough for historians to include it as a part of the dominant narrative of Islamic history. As a result, many Islamic historians who focused on the history of political power have unfortunately ignored Sub-Saharan Africa.
You will often read respected historians write things such as the ‘Amr b. al-‘Ās Mosque in Cairo being the first mosque in Africa. I recently heard someone in my local masjid express his happiness for seeing ‘so many African brothers and sisters in our mosque’, indicating that these were somehow guests or newcomers to Islam. Do we realise that, for Black African Muslims, Islam is not something new at all? Do we even realise that Islam has been a part of Africa right from the beginning? Do we realise that the first Islamic community that settled in the African continent started spreading the religion years before the Islamic city-state of Madina even existed?
In this short article, I would like to share some historical notes about Islam’s first connections with Sub-Saharan (i.e. Black) Africa. My aim is not to present exhaustive information about this part of early Islamic history, but instead to create at least some awareness about Black Africans being an important and inextricable part of Islamic civilisation and of what its historical narrative should be.
Only five years after the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) received his first revelation, the situation in Mecca became so problematic that Muslims started to migrate and seek refuge overseas against the tyranny they faced in Mecca from their polytheistic family members. The Prophet commanded a small group of his followers, consisting of ten or eleven men and four women, to head off to the port of Shu’aybah, an old port that is today Jeddah. From there, the group was to depart to the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, then known as Al-Habasha. The Prophet told his followers that the ruler of Al-Habasha was a just king who would never do any injustice to anyone. So, in Rajab of that year, the first batch of Muslim migrants arrived at the court of As-hamah, the Najāshi (Negus) of Greater Ethiopia. The group included Ruqayyah (the daughter of the Prophet) and her husband ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān.
Although some of this first group returned to Mecca a few months later because of some baseless information, a larger second group containing almost one hundred Muslim men and women later arrived at the shores of the Horn of Africa. This group went to the court of the Najāshi and requested his protection. Their leader, the famous and charismatic companion Ja’far b. Abu Tālib, managed to win the sympathy of As-hamah for the Muslims. As-hamah gave them the asylum they needed to establish the first overseas Muslim community.
The story of these first two migrations (hijrah) to Abyssinia is mentioned in almost every work of sīrah that we know. Unfortunately, this Islamic connection with Africa only pops up a few times in later parts of the biography of the Prophet. Besides the few references that our early Islamic sources recorded, and a few ahādīth here and there, we have almost no clear and reliable information about the daily lives of these migrants and how they spent their time in Africa. This might be one of the reasons why many Islamic historians treated this period as a side note of early Islamic history. But we are not completely ignorant about it. Departing from the scarce information that we do possess, historians can try to fill in as much details as possible to reconstruct some kind of reliable narrative about the beginning of Islam in Africa.
To begin with, let us realise that this community is the first Muslim community in history that could live a relatively comfortable Islamic life without being harmed (directly) by society. This means that the historical honour of being the first people to tolerate such an Islamic way of living goes to Black Africans. A second point that one should realise is that such a significant group of Companions of the Prophet, which included some very prominent names with leadership characteristics, could not possibly sit still for such a long period, as some stayed there almost fifteen years! History teaches us that wherever such Companions are left unharmed, Islam flourishes.
Sources indicate that there must have been regular contact between the Islamic community of Africa and the Prophet. At the same time, we see clearly that there were good relations between the leader of the Muslim community in Africa and the Najāshi himself. A detailed anecdote recorded from the earliest works of sīrah gives us good insight about the nature of this relation. At a certain point in time, not very long after the second migration, ‘Amr b. al-‘Ās (whose mosque some claim to be the ‘first mosque in Africa’) arrived in Africa not as the formidable Muslim statesman and ‘Conqueror of Africa’ as he would later become known, but as an envoy of the pagans of the Meccan elite.
‘Amr b. al-‘Ās came to the court of As-hamah to request him to hand over the Muslim refugees. To win the sympathy of the Najāshi, ‘Amr brought with him huge amounts of Meccan leather as a gift, which was the most popular trading good to Abyssinia. Although some in the court of As-hamah seemed to be sympathetic to the idea of handing over the Muslim refugees, As-hamah first called Ja’far b. Abu Tālib to his court to hear his side of the story. ‘Amr, who knew how charismatic Ja’far could be, already expected that this cousin of the Prophet would be able to convince the king. To prevent this, ‘Amr decided to go to As-hamah again the next day to attribute blasphemous statements about the Christian faith to the Muslim community of Africa. Although this angered some court members, As-hamah again decided to hear the reaction of Ja’far. This time, the Muslim leader explained what Muslims believe about Jesus (‘alayhi al-Salām) and his mother Mary (‘alayha al-Salām). The Najāshi, together with his Christian clergy and other court members, burst into tears. The Najāshi responded that he believed that the source of the Muslim religion is the same as that of his own. He turned down the gifts of the Meccan envoys and swore that the Muslims would be safe in his kingdom.
The Muslims favoured the special protection of As-hamah, and their contact with the African ruler became so intense that some sources even claim that Ja’far’s wife Asmā’ b. Umays became the foster mother of one of the sons of As-hama, making the prince a foster brother of Ja’far’s three sons, all of whom were born in Abyssinia. Until the bulk of them returned to the Islamic city-state of Madinah seven years after its establishment, the Muslim community in Africa flourished in Abyssinia. Relationships were built, children were born, and sources indicate that there were a number of locals who accepted Islam as their new way of living. These native Black African Muslims grew in number. It has been reported that many of them went back and forth to Arabia to meet the Prophet, even to support him in his rise to political power, if their ships did not sink, as some did.
Other Muslims maintained good contacts with the Najāshi of the Horn of Africa. They even backed him in a dangerous internal war against one of his competitors for the throne. When As-hamah won, it is not surprising that his sympathy for Muslims grew and that they must have enjoyed more privileges as a result. This good relationship resulted in the conversion of As-hamah to Islam between 6-8 AH, when the Prophet sent him a letter in which he invited him directly to Islam. When this happened, As-hamah sent the Prophet several gifts. He even paid the dowry of the Prophet (a massive amount of 4000 dinars!) when the Prophet married Umm Habibah, one of the earliest migrants to Al-Habasha.
For some migrants from the Companions, Africa was the place where they drew their last breath. In several parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, local Muslim communities attribute certain graves to some of these first and second batch of migrants. The presence of these graves, and the way the local communities appreciate them, is only one of many manifestations of their awareness of the centuries-old presence of Islam in Africa. Not only are these African Muslims proud of the graves present in their areas, they also claim to possess the oldest mosques, not only of Africa, but of the entire Islamic history! As I once stated in a video I recorded in front of Masjid Qubā in Medina (which some historians consider the first purpose-built mosque in history), I am quite sympathetic to the idea that there might be older opponents for this title in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.
One of the mosques making this claim (although there might even be older ones) is the Najāshi Mosque in Negash, northern Ethiopia. This mosque was renovated in 2018 by the Turkish government. There are fifteen graves besides the mosque that are claimed to belong to some Companions. The locals claim that another grave belongs to As-hamah himself, may Allāh have mercy on him. When the just king, who was the first great helper of the Muslim community, died in 9 AH, the Prophet testified of his status by saying the legendary words: “Today a pious man from Ethiopia [Najāshi] has expired. Come and offer the funeral prayer.”
Although much more can be said, these notes mark the beginning of a long history of Islamic presence in the Horn of Africa. In the area of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Islam itself did not really establish strong political power in pre-modern times. However, archaeological research, textual sources, and common logic show us that, during history, Muslims were always present in the region, and that in some areas, they even enjoyed demographic dominance.
Much research has yet to be done, and I urge Muslim historians, especially those with African backgrounds, to continue serious academic research on Islamic history from a more African-centric perspective. This is necessary for the benefit of producing a relevant narrative of our shared Islamic civilisation.
I would like to conclude by saying that Muslims should realise that these historical notes are concentrated on a period long before Islamic rule crossed the borders of ancient Arabian territories. We should realise that Islam is part of Africa and that Black Africans are part of Islam. All of this may start when we actually realise that, before most Arabs even became Muslims, before Islam reached the Berbers of North Africa and the Turks in Central Asia, and that before Islam reached the Indian subcontinent, Black Africans were not only accepting Islam, they even produced the first Muslim king in its magnificent history.
 Sahīh al-Bukhāri 1320, Book 23, Hadith 78.