NAIROBI, KENYA: Every morning at 5.20 from my house I hear the muezzin call the faithful to prayer from the second largest mosque in Nairobi. Just over one hour later the bells of the nearby Salesian shrine follow suit and intone the Ave Maria, as if in friendly competition. This daily routine is a constant reminder that Christianity and Islam have been co-existing in Africa –- especially immediately south of the Sahara — for many centuries: a fault line that stretches from Sudan, northern Kenya, Uganda and southern Ethiopia across to the Ivory Coast and Senegal.
Christianity is thought to have arrived in the mountains of Ethiopia as early as the 4th century. From the 7th century the Christian state of Nubia (central Sudan) began to succumb to the gradual infiltration of Islam, but Nubian Christians lingered on in the southern part until the 16th century. Sudan was crucial to the Muslims because it provided access from North Africa to Mecca.
The east coast of Africa was settled by Arab Muslims from the 8th and 9th centuries, and they had some success in converting the local people from their traditional beliefs to Islam. According to some historians, Islam found easy acceptance because it was ready and able to accommodate witchcraft, magic and polygamy, and respected the communal way of life.
Islam also had the power and prestige of a world religion, with its own sacred text –- which new adherents would quickly be instructed in — a common founder and a proselytising mission, as well as the persuasion of the sword. Besides, Muslim slaves were treated better than infidel slaves.
When Christianity first reached the east African coast in the late 15th century, the Spaniards and Portuguese found Arabs there. Having only recently succeeded in expelling them from the Iberian peninsula after an occupation of eight centuries, they regarded them as enemies,. Prince Henry the Navigator even planned to sail around the Cape and attack the Arabs from the rear, joining forces with the Emperor of Ethiopia who had in mind to march on Jerusalem, which at that time was in Muslim hands.
Christianity had a mixed reception on the east coast, as the Portuguese, with whom the local people identified the new religion, were, like the Arabs, sometimes harsh rulers, and associated with slavery. But on the return of Christianity in the 19th century, when the missionaries came as the enemies of slavery and campaigners against the slave trade, they gained converts more quickly. In fact, the initial mission of the Spiritans on the Coast was to rescue slaves from the Arab traders, that is, buy them and then free them.
Even so, in 1631 when the Sultan of Mombasa, Jeronimo Chingulia, a Muslim who became a Christian and later apostatised, carried out a massacre of Christians who refused to embrace Islam, some three hundred died as martyrs -– about a half of whom were Portuguese and Goan, and the other half African and Arab.
The Crusades incited Sudanese Muslims to convert the Christians; even in the 13th and 14th centuries Nubian Christians were seen as a threat to Muslim territory. From the 10th century and for another 300 to 400 years, there were Christian rulers in parts of the Sudan, and attempts were made to win them over to Islam. It was only after the Crusader territories had been finally conquered, and the Mongol rulers of Persia and Iraq had converted to Islam, that Islam began to enjoy an unrivalled ascendancy in the region.
Some of the 19th century European explorers flirted with Islam and were captivated by all things Arab and Muslim. General Gordon of Khartoum found the worship of the Muslims sincere; they were not ashamed of God, and neither stole nor committed adultery. Richard Burton was intrigued by the Arab way of life; Stanley partnered with the brutal but thoroughly charming Zanzibari slave trader, Tippu Tib; Samuel Baker learned Arabic and took service under a Muslim prince. And an American preacher, George English, converted to Islam.
Was this widespread reaction due to the drabness, stuffiness and religious formalism of Victorian England? To the silent, monotonous, overpowering austerity of the broad expanses of desert, which can induce a kind of asceticism? Or to their shallow Christian faith which saw itself contrasted and challenged by the simple, direct, convinced piety of the Muslims?
In large areas of Africa people follow Islam or Christianity simply because of who arrived there first. In more mixed areas, where the lines are not so sharply drawn, Islam is appealing because it allows for ease of trade and movement; it is easy to prostrate oneself towards Mecca wherever one happens to be. It allows polygamy, which appealed to those communities where women were considered chattel. The rules and the rituals were simple, and there was a certain feeling of unity with fellow Muslims.
In some communities it did not attract precisely because it held back the advancement of women who were an economic support for the family, or because it was perceived as too socialist and opposed to personal independence. Some associated it with backwardness, disorder and lack of education, and the religion of warriors and slaves -– even a creed that countenances cruelty and trickery, perhaps with slave traders such as Tippu Tib and Zobeir Pasha in mind.
The African worldview is attracted by the idea of salvation, of redemption; it is characterised by a deep interior relationship between God and man, and so finds the humanity of Jesus Christ appealing. Basic to the African religious outlook is life as a kind of vital force, which finds its response in the Christian doctrine of grace and the personal encounter with God, the source of life.
Once people begin to receive Western education, their minds find certitude in the logic and rational explanations of Christian teaching. Christianity sees a purpose in suffering, which all Africans are very familiar with and live in their own flesh day by day. This has been backed up for over 100 years by the dedicated, self-sacrificing example of countless missionaries, bishops and priests, and by the martyrs. Christian-run schools offer discipline and good academic and moral standards. Many Muslims prefer to send their children there, some of whom receive generous bursary assistance.
The Christian-run clinics and hospitals are well and honestly managed, and well-stocked with affordable treatment, given with genuine human concern. And, Christianity is identified with progress and good Western values. Some might say that ideologically the fault-line lies between a revealed religion and a natural religion.
Many questions remain to be answered. Is there a prospect of Islam, especially the extremist type, spreading throughout Africa?
As the effects of evangelisation sink in deeper this is unlikely, even though, owing to the benefits of petroleum profits, Islam has become more proselytistic here in Kenya over the last 30 years.
Will the moderate factions of Islam manage to rein in the few fanatics and radicals? The moderate rulers and Islam itself gain nothing from the extremes of violence we occasionally witness.
Is it true that where Muslims are the majority –- as in Sudan or northern Nigeria — they will always try to impose sharia law on everyone, including non-Muslims? Is it, therefore, impossible for Christians and Muslims to co-exist peacefully? The likelihood of sharia law being imposed in such cases is always present, but other factors must also be taken into account, such as the temper of the people. Cases do exist of countries with majority Muslim populations which respect Christian minorities, even though Christians may never feel as fully at ease as if they lived in a predominantly Christian society.
And conversions from Islam to Christianity? This is normally seen as a betrayal, of religion and culture, of family and of the community and, when it occurs, can have serious consequences.
Are there positive signs and hopes for the future?
There are many areas of agreement and we have to build on these and consolidate them. For example, in matters of life, family morality and sexuality, and in social and civil rights issues. Several years ago the late Cardinal Maurice Otunga, archbishop of Nairobi, and the Chief Kadhi of Kenya on two occasions burned condoms together in a public park. Both came under attack from the national and international press. Genuine common areas of concern, such as these, help foster a sense of unity, and reduce misunderstandings and differences.
One thing is very clear: both Christianity and Islam are in Africa to stay, and it is in everyone’s interest to try to understand the other.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.