The role of Islam and Muslims in Uganda

Islam reached Uganda at the very latest in 1844

Islamic activist Muhammad Abdullah writes that Muslims have historically played a pivotal role in Ugandan society. However, since the removal of Idi Amin Dada Muslims have been persecuted and marginalised by the government.  

Most records indicate that Islam reached Uganda at the very latest in 1844, when Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim arrived at Kabaka’s palace. However, it’s also believed that Arab and Swahili Muslims came to Buganda in the late 1830s, during King Ssuuna II’ s reign. It is also possible that Islam could have reached Uganda earlier through the northern axis, from Egypt and Sudan. What is not under dispute is the fact that Islam arrived in Uganda at least 33 years earlier than Christianity.

Islam in Uganda

Although Islam was not introduced in Uganda through a well organised missionary system, many people in Buganda including King Mutesa I embraced it.

Islam was taught in the palace of King Ssuuna II. Ssuuna even received a copy of the Quran and by the time he died, King Ssuuna had memorised four chapters of the Quran. Mutesa I did not convert to Islam but also studied Islam, and directed his palace at Banda to become the first Islamic education centre.

Christianity in Uganda

The arrival of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries in Buganda in 1877 and the White Fathers in 1879 heralded a new era. Soon, Mutesa I’s belief in Islam was polluted and religious conflicts arose. Eventually religious wars erupted. The Muslims fought bravely although they were defeated.

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On October 12, 1888, they defeated the Christians and forced the Christians out of the capital of Buganda. They retreated to Ankole, organised themselves and returned.

The combined force of Christians and Mwanga eventually defeated the Muslims at the battles of Bankaabira, Kitebi and Balwaanyi. The Christians took over Buganda and European influence gained firm ground in the religion-politics of Buganada then eventually Uganda.

Many Muslims made hijra (migration) to different parts of Uganda spreading Islam outside Buganda. The hijra was the Muslim reaction to defeat, which later turned out to be the biggest achievement from the wars with the Christians.

The Muslims turned a defeat into an opportunity to sow the seeds of Islam whose frontiers extended well beyond the Buganda Kingdom. Today Muslims can be found in every part of Uganda.

European colonialism and post colonial era

The colonial period was very challenging for the Muslim community. They were denied education, access to land and opportunities of leadership – Muslims were sidelined to the peripherals of Uganda society.

After the country’s independence in 1962, the situation did not change much for the considerable Muslim population. With only one graduate at independence, Muslims in Uganda had to contend with menial jobs, driving taxis and tilling the land and trade.

Uganda being an agricultural country, a sizable number of Muslims did make big profits and it was not uncommon for the richest man in a village to be Muslim. Trading in agricultural commodities, Muslims created a niche for themselves in the meat industry, and monopolised the butcher business as the colonial laws had granted them the “assumed right” to slaughter animals for sale in public markets.

Economic power, absence of education and Idi Amin Dada

To address this deficit, Prince Kakungulu founded the Uganda Muslim Education Association, UMEA. Today, Muslim schools number hundreds. Muslims opened the first private university in Uganda, the Islamic University of Uganda in 1988.

However, Muslims are still a marginalised community in Uganda but have become more assertive over the years. They are financially weak, politically insignificant and critically deficient in civil society. Wrangles in the apex body, Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) have persisted, due to the government’s interference with no end in sight.

But we thank Allah (swt) for one man – Idi Amin Dada. It was during his eight year rule during 1971-79 that Muslims as a community made their lasting achievements.

For the first time Muslims had come nearer to the corridors of power, finance and education. Although Ugandan Muslims did not in any way participate in bringing Idi Amin into power (he did so via a military coup), Muslims overseas provided him with critical support. For doing so, they were later to pay a price when Idi Amin was overthrown on 11 April 1979.

In reprisal killings, hundreds of Muslims were massacred especially in Kampala, Bombo, West Nile and Westen Uganda. The lucky ones escaped into exile, mainly to Congo (then called Zaire), Sudan and Kenya. The Kakwa (Amin’s tribe) and Nubians faced the worse persecution.

Properties belonging to Muslims were destroyed by the Uganda Liberation Front (ULF) and later the UNLA together with the Tanzanian armed forces who toppled Idi Amin.

Societal decline

Muslims since then have been left out of many aspects of socio-political life. For instance, out of a cabinet of 69 ministers, there is only one Muslim minister. In the field of education, the Muslims are far behind Christians.

The illegal transfer of Muslim properties like Nsambya Sports Club, Masjid Noor on William Street, Nakasero mosque on Entebbe road and the Muslim Girls’ Primary School in Buganada to name just a few were illegally sold to businessmen and government officials involved in these ongoing scandals.

The level of poverty among Muslims is very high, which is a major concern that needs addressing. Poverty is mainly due to the low level of education especially among Muslim girls. Generally in Africa, women are left behind in education among other aspects of societal life, but Muslim women are at the lowest levels of education in Southeast Africa.

Currently, the Amir of Uganda has started a campaign to build new Muslim owned schools, hospitals, clinics, Islamic centres, universities, orphanage centres, where the poor can go and get some attention.

Ugandan Muslims are working on many aspects of society to improve their status. The odds are low, but thanks to Allah (swt) steps are being taken in the right direction and as a community we pray that there will be success.

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