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The Spread of Islam

by Richard Lobban, Jr.

Just six years after Muhammad, the founder of Islam, died, his general and follower 'Amr ibn al-As conquered Egypt. That same year - A.D. 638 - 'Amr introduced Islam to Egypt. From Egypt, the religion spread rapidly across North Africa to West Africa and Europe. It was not for another 700 years that Islam reached south to Nubia. Why? At the time, three Christian kingdoms ruled Nubia.

When the armies of 'Abdallah ibn Sa'ad ibn Sarh, the first Muslim ruler of Upper Egypt, were stopped at the Christian capital of Dongola in A.D. 652, 'Abdallah signed a peace treaty with Nubia's king. The treaty guaranteed safe conduct for Egyptians and Nubians, an agreement not to attack one another, and religious freedom. Runaway slaves and rebels from Egypt were to be returned, and 360 healthy slaves were expected from Nubia each year.

Change Comes Slowly

The first Nubians to accept Islam were those near the border with Egypt. Their situation was complicated: As Muslims they shared the religion of the Islamic rulers of Egypt to the north. Yet, as Nubians, they were ethnically and linguistically tied to the Christian Nubians in the south. In A.D. 1311, the Christian king Kerenbes was the last ruler to pay a peace tribute to Egypt from Dongola. During a dispute for succession to the Nubian throne at Dongola, Kerenbes had gone to Cairo to promise his loyalty to the Mamluke sultans who ruled Egypt. The sultans, however, had chosen to topple Kerenbes. They then installed Barshambu, a Muslim convert, in his place. When Barshambu was murdered, the Mamlukes briefly returned Kerenebes to power. Nubian Christianity, however, was officially at an end.

In the decades that followed, Muslim merchants and teachers who settled and married in the area helped spread Islam in northern and central Nubia. The process continued until 1504 with the fall of the last Nubian Christian kingdom at Soba. Today, almost all Nubians are Muslims, and their dialects include Arabic words.
Richard Lobban, Jr., is a professor of anthropology and the acting director of the Program of African and African American Studies at Rhode Island College, where he holds the Thorp and Alumni Awards. His Ph.D. from Northwestern University was on Nubian urban ethnography.

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