Islam: Conquering lands & hearts

by Hervé Pugi.

More than simple conquerors, the Arabs forging ahead through Africa, through the Maghreb from the 7th century, appeared as bearers of a revolutionary message: progress. This fledgling and soon triumphant Islam was going to find in this region of the world a sufficiently rich breeding ground in which to plant its religious seed that has blossomed, despite the trials and tribulations of time for nearly fourteen centuries. Set off on a conquest for lands as well as hearts, the Arab warriors found out, according to circumstances, how to manage the sword as skillfully as the book. And with far less violence than has sometimes been said.

But war did rage! There were many battles! In order to invade ancient Ifrîqiya, a nearly autonomous region of the Roman empire, the price was obvious: violence. But if winning were one thing, persuading local populations to accept them was another. This state of affairs that has proven itself again and again all throughout history. The natives could only adhere to what could be considered the “life project” of the Muslim world.

This was the time of Byzantine domination and the incessant dogmatic bickering of the Christian world. It ushered in an official Trinitarianism hardly compatible with the spirit of the place. What could ultimately be more logical on the southern coast of the Mediterranean than the wind of change blowing from East, at the same time so far yet so close, that could be considered liberating? Especially since the Arabs were, quite frankly, not evil strangers on the African continent. Their caravans furrowing the slopes in search of gold, slaves and other rare commodities. Some had heard people speak of this Islam. They had directly rubbed shoulders with these Muslims notably at the shops they founded all along the East African coast.

So why fight it? With Islam, everything was becoming simpler: one God, one prophet, one code of values (but also honor) and an egalitarian and united social system in a context with clearly different norms to today. And if not everyone were sensitive to the message of the seal of the prophets, some understood what was to be gained from the new arrivals. They also converted to escape taxes, to shed the chains of slavery or to trade. The promulgation of Arab as the official language, the establishment of a stable administration and the ongoing tolerance towards other religions, through the Jizyah (tax on non-Muslims), have also clearly contributed to the planting and rise of Islam in Africa.

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