The relationship between Islam and geographic determinism in Trans Saharan Africa between 3500BCE to 400CE and 400CE to 1200CE is far from straightforward. As [Module 3] argues, “[t]he appeal of Islam…can be found in an uncomplicated monotheism and in the simple code of ethics taught by the Prophet,” yet, the relative simplicity also made the religion easily acceptable to a range of people. Nomadic people in areas of north Africa adopted the religion in large numbers between 3500BC and 400CE. Geographic determinism, as the theory that geographical conditions determine human actions, could potentially link to this high rate of adoption, too, since it is the relatively simplicity of the religion that made it so widely acceptable.

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The initial lack of a central power structure to support the religion was likely partly the result of the conditions under which the religion emerged in the first instance. The origins of Islam are recognized as connecting to specific geographical conditions. Ahmed Afzaalt traces the origins of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula to certain conditions: he argues that, although the changes that Muhammad initially wanted to implement “would not have been possible without active engagement with the socio-political structure and processes,” it can also be argued that his teachings manifest a religio-ethical model that challenged the existing socio-political structures and sought to offer an alternative that was, again, very flexible, and likely appealed to those who lived within the Trans Saharan region. Another factor, however, was also conquest: accounts describing the Arab conquest of Egypt specifically, point to the way in which Islam was also spread through war and the takeover of particular regions of Africa with force. Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa describes how, in regions where there were Jews and Samaritans, the arrival of warriors from Arabia, including areas such as Mecca, speaking of Islam and Muhammed, were able to encourage the acceptance of Islam and its teachings as an alternative to the already shared wisdoms.

The relatively disjointed spread of Islam, however, is as much the product of the landscape as it is the political and social developments between the two periods in question. As Baz Lecocq explains, the division often recognized between the areas of North Africa and the southern regions of the Sahara is both “an intellectual construct and a physical reality,” somewhat explaining why the adoption of Islam was most rapid and effective in the northern parts of Trans-Saharan Africa rather than the southern regions. Lecocq also mentions the desert and the Saharan barrier that create natural geographical divisions that manifest in political and social divisions, too, again explaining a disparity in the way Islam initially spread through the region between 3500BCE to 400CE.

Between 400CE and 1200CE, however, the spread or rather the strengthening of Islam in Trans-Saharan Africa likely had much to do with the way in which political authority manifest in relation to social unity and religious authority. The Islamic caliphate created a definite focus of power and, although its power center was a considerable distance from Trans-Saharan Africa, the relevance of trade to the region helped to integrate the commercial city states of Africa where Islam was firmly established.

Comparing the impact of Islam, then, on Trans-Saharan Africa between 3500BCE to 400CE and 400CE to 1200CE must surely lead to the understanding that Islam first helped to unify disparate, nomadic groups during the first period, and then it happened, as it grew in sophistication and strength, to provide the means of developing more concentrated geographical power bases, coinciding with the further development of trade routes and the creation of city-states in the Trans-Saharan region that increasingly offered formal power bases.

  • Afzaalt, Ahmed. “The Origin of Islam as a Social Movement.” Islamic Studies 42, no. 2 (July 1, 2003): 203–43.
  • Lecocq, B. “Distant Shores: A Historiographic View of Trans-Saharan Space.” Journal of African History 56, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 23–36. doi:10.1017/S0021853714000711.
  • Module 3: New Patterns and Old, 400 to 1200 CE [add details].
  • Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa, History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, trans. Basil Evetts, (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1904), pt. I, ch. 1, from Patrologia Orientalis, Vol. I, pp. 489-497, reprinted in Deno John Geanakoplos, Byzantium: Church, Society, and Civilization Seen Through Contemporary Eyes, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 336-338.