Factbox: Islam in West Africa

(Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Islamists declared on Thursday they had secured full control of Mali’s desert north from separatist rebels with whom they had temporarily joined forces to seize territory earlier this year [ID:nL6E8HSFJ7].

Separatist Tuareg-led MNLA rebels and armed Islamist groups, swept through northern Mali in March and April and declared an independent state of “Azawad” in the north after routing the regular troops, in disarray after a March 22 coup in the West African country.

The Tuareg separatists said they wanted an independent secular state while the Islamists said their objective was to impose sharia or Islamic law across the whole of Mali, which mostly follows a moderate form of Islam.

The relationship between the state and Islam differs significantly across western Africa, in part because of variations in the complex interaction between Islam and ethnic politics.

Here is a look at Islam in a few West African countries:


- Islam arrived in sub-Saharan West Africa as early as the 8th century, travelling with Arab traders from North Africa. The Muslim merchants brought trade and goods to exchange for gold and facilitated trade by introducing concepts such as contract law and credit arrangements. They were valued also for the literacy they brought, which African rulers quickly discovered could help them administer their kingdoms.

- It was not until the Middle Ages that Islam really began to flourish with the conversion of some of West Africa’s most powerful rulers. The Islam they practiced, however, would not be recognized by the purists; it combined Islamic beliefs and aspects of traditional African religions.

- Today, countries to the north of the region such as Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali and Niger are predominantly Muslim. To the south of the region, in countries such as modern Ghana, Muslims are in the minority.


- Countries in the middle, notably Nigeria, are split, with their northern regions being largely Muslim and the south largely Christian. Nigeria’s 160 million people are roughly divided between Muslims and Christians, who mostly live side by side in peace.

- However tension between the two communities has been a part of the landscape of Nigerian politics since independence in 1960 and problems have been exacerbated recently by the election of Goodluck Jonathan as president. He is a Christian southerner, and in the eyes of many Muslim northerners it was a northerner’s turn to rule.

- The shadowy Islamist sect Boko Haram has attacked Christians, possibly hoping to trigger a religious conflict.


- A religious, economic and social force with no real parallel elsewhere, Senegal’s Brotherhoods are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam espoused by over 90 percent of the nation who co-exist with minority Christians and others.

- Far removed from Islamist insurgents like Boko Haram, the Brotherhoods accept Senegal’s secularism and do not use their influence to press demands for sharia.

- Despite an awkward cohabitation between Islam and French colonizers from the late-1600s, the religious chiefs, or “marabouts”, grew in stature. By the 19th century, the two biggest Brotherhoods of today - the home-grown Mourides and the Tidianes from Morocco - were firmly established in Senegal.

- Their deep-rooted pacifism is one factor why there is little local sympathy for al Qaeda, despite its establishing bases in neighboring Mauritania and Mali. In 2001, Senegal’s marabouts condemned the 9/11 attacks as un-Islamic.


- In Mauritania throughout the 1990’s, political liberalization allowed Islamists to participate in elections as participants and the Tawassoul party became a significant minority moderate voice. However there are more hardline Salafi activists in poorer areas.

- Islam, introduced to Mali in the 11th century, has always been practiced in a rather moderate, tolerant form, with leeway given to practitioners of Islam mixed with traditional African religions and to those who favor African religions in a purer form.

- However Bamako has accused the Tuaregs of lending support to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by sharing their desert expertise and navigational skills, opening up their trade networks. It would be impossible for AQIM to operate in northern Mali without some sort of acceptance by the Tuaregs, some Sahel researchers have said.

- AQIM had its roots in Algeria’s Salafist movement, but has pushed south into the lawless Sahel region in recent years where it funds operations by collecting kidnap ransoms and by siphoning off the West African drugs trade. AQIM has established an operating base for itself in the Sahara desert - spanning northern Mali, Niger, Mauritania - by exploiting the vast expanses, official corruption and weak militaries in the region.

Sources: Reuters/ endowment/here

Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit