Many people underestimate the role of Islam in coastal West Africa. But those who visit or live there soon learn that, during the lifetime of the present generation, Islam has spread with relatively little fanfare beyond its historic Saharan heartland to become the faith of a near-majority of people in the lands along Africa's Atlantic coast.
This has been particularly true in Côte d'Ivoire, a New Mexico-sized nation on the underside of Africa's western bulge. The country's 1961 census showed only 25 percent of the population Muslim; by 1988 the figure had risen to 39 percent. Now it is increasingly accepted that Muslims make up at least 50 percent of the population.
It was in the 11th century that Islam first crossed the mountains and savannas that divide the parched Sahara from the more hospitable, forested tropics that are now the nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. Following the conquest of Ghana's Saharan empire in 1076 by the Muslim Almoravid confederation of Marrakesh, Islam gained a toehold as the religion of chieftains and traders. Among the majority of the people, however, it took hold only superficially. When Ibn Battuta visited Mali in 1352, he recorded that Islam was scarcely practiced outside the ruling circles.
This changed little until the 18th century. Then, through studies of long-neglected writings on the Islamic state, clerics in the western Sahel recognized Islam as a force that could unify the diverse peoples of the region. At the same time, Muslim Dyula traders, who had carried on commerce among the region's coastal and desert lands for centuries, settled in northern Côte d'Ivoire. Some of the country's oldest mosques date from this period.
The 19th century saw leaders whose political fortunes rose with the unifying wave of Islam. The French colonial rule under which they operated brought advances in trade, transportation, communications and the consequent flow of ideas,
including Islam. Colonial rule also provided a target for nationalism that crossed all tribal boundaries. And in World War II, Côte d'Ivoire, as a French colony, provided large numbers of troops who served mostly in North Africa, where they were exposed to Islam in countries that had been predominantly Muslim for centuries.
Today in Côte d'Ivoire, the country's broad religious tolerance is considered a legacy of the late President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who, after leading the nation to independence in 1960, served as its president until his death in 1993. It was Houphouët-Boigny, a Catholic, who kept Côte d'Ivoire's borders open to workers from neighboring countries, the majority of whom were Muslims. In addition to indigenous Ivorian Muslims and Muslim guest workers from nearby countries, a Lebanese Muslim community of some 50,000 has resided in Côte d'Ivoire since before World War II.
In response to increasing calls from Ivorian Muslims for official recognition commensurate with their growing numbers, the government in 1993 recognized as national holidays two holidays widely celebrated in Muslim countries. One of the first acts of Houphouët-Boigny's successor, President Henri Konan Bedie, was the announcement of a grant of land for the construction of a long-awaited mosque in downtown Abidjan. And in August 1994, Bedie dedicated the first mosque to be built on an Ivorian military base.
Côte d'Ivoire remains relatively prosperous, by regional standards, despite the fall in coffee and cocoa prices during the 1980's, which depressed the nation's two major export industries. The country's borders remain open to both guest workers and to immigrants, many of the latter also Muslims. Barring a reversal of this pattern of in-migration, it seems likely that Islam will continue to gain strength in Côte d'Ivoire well into the next century.
Charles O. Cecil served with the US Department of State in Abidjan for three years. He is required to note that "the opinions and views expressed are the author's own, and not those of the Department of State."