Amani Ali writes that Ugandan Muslims were persecuted by the majority community after the fall of the dictator Idi Amin in 1979. But, as she learned during a recent visit to the largest mosque in Kampala, the community is now prospering under new leadership.
Islam was the first foreign religion to enter Uganda in 1844, 40 years before Christian missionaries arrived. Yet Muslims in Uganda still only make up approximately 20% of the population. The majority are, of course, Sunnis but there are also Shia and Ismaili communities living in the country.
Ugandan Islam was spread by merchants and traders from Oman who arrived to pick up slaves and dig for minerals. They passed on Islam to their workers who then went back to their families and spread the word. The King of Uganda followed suit and converted to Islam but later abandoned the religion after learning that he had to get circumcised!
In the following years, there was much repression of Islam until Idi Amin (a Muslim) came to power in 1971. Amin realized that Muslims were disenfranchised, third-class citizens who only did low-paid jobs such as driving taxis, farming and working as market vendors. Muslim elites simply didn’t exist.
During my visit to Uganda, I prayed my Friday prayers at the largest mosque in Kampala which – to my surprise – was called the “Gaddafi Mosque,” after former Libyan leader Muammer al Gaddafi. The mosque was built exactly where the British colonialists first placed their flags.
It was opened officially in June 2007, can host around 20,000 worshippers and houses the head offices of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council.
While walking to public relations office I met a young German woman called Leoni, I later found out that she was planning to convert to Islam after 4 years of being an atheist.
When I asked her what attracted her most about Islam she replied: “Muslims.” Apparently she was introduced to Islam by her Muslim friend in Uganda who she described as “badly off,” but she was inspired by the hope her friend had and the faith in Allah regardless of all the obstacles in her life.
I also met a brother named Ashraf at the public relations office whose job was to deal with visitors, and talk to them about Islam in Uganda and the mosque itself.
He told me that initially the hill that the mosque is built on was given to Muslims by Idi Amin after he came to power.
“The mosque was there before but it was small and not well-built,” he said. “It was left that way until Gaddafi visited Uganda a few years ago. He was taken to different Muslim places and wanted to help the Muslim community so we appealed to him to help us build a good mosque. And with no hesitation he paid every shilling that had this mosque re-built.
“If it wasn’t for Idi Amin and Gaddafi the Muslim community would not have prospered. Idi Amin made a Muslim Supreme Council and during Gaddafi’s several visits to Uganda he donated so much to us for nothing in return. Idi Amin is the reason Uganda is part of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. And Gaddafi actually didn’t just help the Muslim community here he helped all the poor, built orphanages and hotels and banks so many people got employed. We are forever grateful, may they both rest in peace.”
“That was all just political propaganda because he brought the Muslims of Uganda to the limelight and he had contact and relations with the Arab world in the Gulf,” Ashraf said. “That is why there is so much propaganda against him.”
“But after he was overthrown I am sorry to say that Christians here took it upon themselves to take revenge on Muslims; they destroyed our homes and mosques and killed Muslims. It is the current President Museveni who put a stop to this. I am a victim, in fact my village home was destroyed. Thankfully we are all united now.”
And given that Ghaddafi contributed a huge deal towards Muslims in Uganda, how do Muslims here feel about what happened in Libya? About the 2011 revolution which toppled him and the way he was lynched?
“To be frank, immense sadness swept across the country after his death, it was suck a shock to us. We know he made mistakes maybe to his people but as far as Ugandans are concerned he contributed nothing but good things to us. We were hoping the issue could have been resolved peacefully as he was precious to us. May Allah save us from conspiracies.”
I also wanted to know how the different Islamic sects in Uganda got along, especially given the lack of unity in other parts of the Muslim world which have been exacerbated by the Arab Spring.
Ashraf said: “Most of the Muslims here are Sunnis but even within Sunnis here there are different sects. There are some Shiites and some Ismailis who are not Ugandan. The Shiites have their own mosque and we do not see them a lot, they are small in number and keep to themselves but are registered under the Islamic Supreme council here. The Ismailis are many and we see them around but unfortunately there are no joint activities between us.”
Again, somewhat to my surprise, Ashraf voiced concern about the growing influence of Saudi Arabian Islam in Uganda, which is fuelled by petrodollars.
“There are many Salafis here, but we do not like to engage with them. Many Ugandan sheikhs who were trained by Saudi Arabia came back and taught Salafi and Wahhabi thought. They have mosques here and I used to go there when I was young; they preach hate against other sects and religions. My mother is a Christian and when I would ask the sheikh about how I should act towards her he called her an infidel.
“I knew there was something wrong then, they think we are all wrong and attack this mosque sometimes claiming that we are bad Muslims. They say they want to follow the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and live like him. A few years ago they even demanded Shariah in Uganda.”
As Ashraf was finishing what he was saying, I could see worshippers outside approaching the mosque as the Azaan was called in remembrance of Allah and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It was time to pray.