Here are just 10 of some of the most famous African Muslims, who have contributed so much to both Islam and the Muslim world.
The 10 Most Famous African Muslims in History
Islam came to Africa in around the 7th century, and it is believed that it is the first continent to embrace Islam after Southwestern Asia. Today, about one-third of the Muslim population resides in this continent.
In 2002, it was estimated that Muslims constituted 40% of the population of Africa. From North Africa to South Africa through the Swahili Coast down to West Africa, Muslims are all over the continent.
Since the emergence of Islam, Muslims of African descent have played crucial roles in the propagation of the religion – and their legacy cannot go understated. Here are just some of these famous Muslims, who have contributed so much to the history of Islam:
1. Summaya bint Khayyat
She was among the first women to accept Islam. Sumayya is the wife of Yasir bn Amir and the mother of Ammar bn Yassir. She was a slave before she regained her freedom after she gave birth to Ammar.
According to numerous traditions, Summaya is the first martyr in Islam. She attained martyrdom after being tortured by Abu Jahl Amr bn Hisham alongside her husband. She died in 615 AD.
2. Bilal bn Rabah
An Ethiopian slave who was later emancipated and became one of the closest and most trusted companions of Prophet Muhammad (s), Bilal was also the first muezzin to call prayers in Islam.
It was narrated that Bilal was appointed the custodian of the public treasury during the lifetime of the Prophet, and was also part of the Prophet’s many expeditions and battles.
In the aftermath of Prophet Muhammad’s death, he was among the few people that supported Ali’s claim to the Caliphate. Bilal died around 640 AD in Syria and is buried in Damascus.
3. Muhammad bn Ali al-Jawad
One of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Jawad is considered as the ninth Imam by Twelver Shias. His mother, Khayzaran, was of East African origin and regarded as one of the most knowledgeable women of her time.
Muhammad is regarded as an Imam by the Shias and a revered Islamic scholar by the Sunnis. He became Imam at 8 years and died at 25 years. He died in 845 AD after being poisoned on the orders of Abbasid Caliph, Mu’tasim.
4. Umm Ayman
Also known as Barakah, Umm Ayman was an emancipated Ethiopian slave and regarded as one of the few people that knew the Prophet from birth to death. She participated in the Battle of Uhud, caring and tending for the wounded.
Umm Ayman was married to Zayd bn Harith, the adopted son of the Prophet Muhammad. She was also among the closest and most trusted confidants of the Prophet.
Umm Ayman died in 644 and is buried in Jannatul Baqi Cemetry in Medina.
5. Ammar bn Yasir
Ammar ibn Yasir was the son of Summaya and Yasir. He migrated to Abyssinia in 616 AD as one of the early converts of Islam. Ammar was known for his courageous support for justice and righteousness throughout his lifetime.
He died as a staunch supporter of Ali bn Abu Talib when the latter fought Muawiya bn Abu Sufyan in Battle of Siffin, and was buried in Syria in 657 AD, where his tomb became a tourist attraction until its destruction by Salafist-Jihadists in March 2013.
6. Mansa Musa
Formally known as Musa Keita, Mansa Musa was the tenth Emir of the Mali Empire. He reigned for 25 years over the Mali Empire from the early 1300s.
Prior to his pilgrimage to Mecca, he was not well-known outside of his empire – but during the voyage that brought him to the limelight, Musa took 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold. It is narrated that his passage through Egypt collapsed its economy for a period of 12 years.
On his return, the 14th-century ruler came back with architects and Arabian scholars. It was then that he built the Djinguereber Mosque, a building that has remained active for about five centuries.
By the end of his reign, the library at Sankore University became the best in Africa – having about 400,000 to 700,000 manuscripts, with only the Library of Alexandria ahead of it.
Mansa Musa died in 1337 AD.
7. Ibn Battuta
A Muslim Berber from Morocco, Ibn Battuta was a scholar and explorer who in the period of 30 years visited most of the Islamic world.
In June 1325, Ibn Batutta was then 21 years old and set off from his hometown on pilgrimage to Mecca, which was his first journey. The journey that would ordinarily take 16 months took him 24 years before he came back to Morocco after decades of exploring the world.
Towards the end of his life, Ibn Battuta wrote an account of his journey titled A Gift To Those Who Contemplate The Wonders Of Cities and The Marvels Of Travelling. He travelled more than any other explorer as he covered a distance of around 117,000 km.
Ibn Batutta died in Marinid, Morocco around the age of 64.
8. Ahmad Baba
One of the greatest Muslim scholars to ever emerge from Timbuktu, Ahmad came from a family of Muslim scholars and lived during the Songhai era – remembered today for being a renowned jurist, grammarian, theologian, political writer, and historian.
Ahmad Baba was later imprisoned in the Moroccan capital of Marrakesh in 1593 after the conquest of Timbuktu by the invading Moroccan forces of Ahmad al-Mansur in 1591, as many leading intellectuals were.
But following the death of Ahmad al-Mansur in 1603, he performed pilgrimage to Mecca before returning to Timbuktu, where he continued his work as a practicing Maliki jurist and theologian until his death in 1627.
9. Uthman Dan Fodio
Also known as Shehu Usman Bn Fudi, Fodio was a religious scholar, jurist, ascetic, reformer, and revolutionary. He founded the Sokoto Caliphate in 1804, which is part of northern Nigeria today.
The follower of the Qadriyya Sufi order, Fodio was also a Maliki jurist who laid much emphasis on political and religious reforms.
He was also an advocate of learning and education, and wrote numerous books on politics, theology, philosophy and mysticism in Fulani and Arabic languages. Fodio spearheaded a religious revivalism that sought to correct the status quo during his lifetime.
He died in 1817.
10. Nana Asma’u
The daughter of Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, Asma’u was a poet, historian, educator and religious scholar who played a vital role in the political, cultural and intellectual development in West Africa for about 50 years after the demise of her father.
Nana Asma’u believed strongly that education is the tool for emancipation, and contributed to helping educate Muslim women throughout her lifetime.
In addition to her lifelong work towards education, Nana Asma’u was quadrilingual and spoke Arabic, Hausa, Fulfude and Tamachek. She was also an adherent of the Qadriyya Sufi order.
Nana Asma’u died in 1864.