Courtesy Reuters

Black Africa and the Arabs

Black Africa and the Arab world have been linked by a fluctuating pattern of economic and cultural connections for at least 12 centuries. In the secular field the Arabs have up to this time played two major roles in black Africa: first as accomplices in African enslavement, and then in the twentieth century as allies in African liberation. In the past several years they have built this alliance into a comprehensive political partnership, aimed at maintaining a solid front, particularly with regard to the Middle East and Southern Africa. The critical question for the future is whether the Arabs will also become partners in African development.

The relationship between Arabs and black Africans has always been largely asymmetrical-with the Middle East usually the giver, and black Africa usually the receiver. Throughout the history of their involvement in black Africa the Arabs have been both conquerors and liberators, both traders in slaves and purveyors of new ideas. Trade and Islam have been companions throughout, with the crescent following the commercial caravan, the muezzin calling believers to prayer from the marketplace.

The Arab slave trade was a significant part of this commerce from the ninth through the nineteenth centuries. While the transatlantic slave trade on the West coast of Africa was certainly larger and more important, the activities of Arab slavers on the Eastern seaboard lasted a few decades longer-until they were officially outlawed in the late 1800s. Thus Islam may have been somewhat compromised in East Africa by the nature of its purveyors (who, in addition to slaving, also created Arab city-states along the East coast). European colonization did, at any rate, arrest the spread of the religion in East Africa more effectively than in the West. In the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, Islamization came to an almost abrupt halt in the face of the Euro-Christian challenge.1 In West Africa, on the other hand, Islam has continued to expand in spite of the impressive countervailing efforts of Christian missionaries

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