The Islamic community this year looks closer to clocking two centuries as it celebrates its 170th year. In a history that has been both rosy and rocky, the community hopes to take full advantage of reaching such a milestone.
Whoever ignores history, philosophers argue, might not be in position to move forward. They add that self-evaluation is vital in overcoming mistakes and doing more valuable works. One hundred and seventy years later, this is the highlight of the celebration of this remarkable milestone in the Islamic community. According to Uganda National Population and Housing Census 2002, Muslims constitute 12.5 per cent of the population. However, the CIA Fact Book puts the figure at 16 per cent.
Tracing the roots
The roots of Islam can be traced to the 17th century in the era of coastal trade. According to Muhammad Sekatawa, a historian, it was the Sudanese Muslim soldiers employed by Khedive Ismail of Egypt who brought Islam to northern Uganda, West Nile and some parts of Bunyoro in the 1830s. He and Musa Khalil, the Acholi District Khadhi revealed that before the 1830s, some Egyptian, Sudanese and Turkish traders had penetrated northern Uganda hunting for slaves as early as the 17th century. They established trade routes and introduced Islam informally wherever they passed. Later, the Nubian soldiers strengthened the Islamic influence in Acholi through intermarriages.
Prof A.B.K. Kasozi says Islam was introduced in Buganda in 1844 when the Arab traders received a warm welcome from then Kabaka of Buganda, Suuna II (1824-1854). It is important to note however that the traders were not propropagators of Islam. It was through their commercial and social contacts that indigenous Africans adopted the new faith. Suuna’s son, Muteesa I, accepted Islam and worked towards its propagation within and outside the kingdom. Islam was at the peak in Buganda and Uganda generally between 1860s and 1870s and Prof Kasozi refers to this period as the golden age of Islam.
In Busongora, western Uganda, Islam was introduced by Arab traders from Tanzania through Nyamitanga in Mbarara and the Baganda who were in exile due to wars. Yet the traders from East African coast, Sir Samuel Baker’s Muslims soldiers and Baganda chiefs introduced Islam in eastern Uganda. Sheikh Abdallah Sabila, the Kapchorwa Muslim District Khadhi, says it was three soldiers having got Islamic influence in Egypt and Mombasa who introduced Islam in the Sebei land.
Spreading its wings
The Arab traders and soldiers did their part in introducing Islam to different parts of Uganda through commercial and social interaction as Sekatawa argues. The influence of Buganda Kingdom appears to be clear as an important factor in the spread of Islam in Uganda.
Muteesa I embraced Islam and taught it. Kalema (1888-1890) embraced Islam, got circumcised and fought for Islam. Prince Nuhu Mbogo (1833-1921) led Muslims and fought for it and his son, Prince Badru Kakungulu (1907-1991), made remarkable contributions to Islam that are still visible, for example the formation of Uganda Muslim Education Association (UMEA) in 1940s.
Prominent elders like Sheikh Swaibu Semakula and Juma Tamusange started teaching Islam in their homes later. Mosques were established as well and their verandas acted as schools. Maulana Sheikh Abdurazaq Matovu, the first Mufti of Uganda, introduced the formal teaching of Islam in a school environment with a syllabus between 1963 and 1964 when he established Nadwat-Ulama (currently known as Bilal Schools Bwaise).
Celebrating the strides
As the community draws closer to marking two centuries of existence, faithfuls look back with optimist and festivity at the strides over the years. Imam Idi Kasozi, Vice Chairman Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly, believes that Muslims ought to be grateful to Allah for continued existence and remarkable developments they have made to Uganda as a nation. “Muslims have been in all political struggles of Uganda.
Uganda National Congress had the late Abu Mayanja, Idi Amin Dada’s reign was also an achievement for Uganda, the first NRA army commander Ahmed Seguya was a Muslim and many NRA fighters were proud to associate with Muslim names. People like Salim Saleh, Chef Ali, and Shaban Bantariza still maintain such names,” he says.
Education by far has been an area of pride for the community since 1935 with the traditional academic giants like Kibuli, Nabisunsa, Kawempe and Gombe leading the lot. Statistically, there are over 1,500 Muslim-founded primary schools, more than 160 Muslim secondary schools, five technical institutions, two primary Muslim teacher training colleges and two universities.
Nearly in all cases these figures above represent 10 per cent of the general national picture. “We have greatly made a contribution in education sector. IUIU alone has graduated more than 17,000 students in different fields and we have expanded the university into four campuses to benefit all people in the region. Our impact is in about 16 African countries that send us students,” remarks Dr Ahmad Kaweesa Sengendo, The Rector, Islamic University in Uganda.
IUIU, an affiliated institution of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), was established by an Act of Parliament in 1988. The late Idi Amin Dada registered Uganda in OIC by 1974 and Uganda as a country has benefited from this institution especially through the Islamic Development Bank (IDB).
Dr Wardah Mummy Rajab Gyagenda, who works at IUIU as Director of Research, Innovations and Publications, says the numbers have grown and many are aware of Islam. She is however skeptical about the moral degeneration in Uganda generally that might challenge this fast- growing community.
To Hajjati Khadijah Kibira, Chairperson, Uganda Muslim Women Vision, the 170 years of Islam in Uganda is a great milestone for Muslim women too. “Today, we have female students at university levels, PhD holders, schools dedicated for girl child, young girls are memorising Qur’an and women are fully participating in the propagation of Islam,” she argues.
Sekatawa, observes that Muslims who were only in petty jobs of driving vehicals and managing restaurants and slaughter houses are now managing companies, outstanding businesses, articulating in parliament, running law firms and consultancies.
District Khadhis like that of Mbarara, Sheikh Ramadhan Khamis, Kapchorwa’s Abdallah Sabila, and Kayunga’s Abdunoor Kakande, say Muslims now have mosques that enable them to worship and teach the religion with less difficulties. They add that Muslim children are also being subjected to a dual curriculum (Islamic and academic sciences) in many schools throughout the country.
According to Mr Jaffer Senganda, President of the Muslim Centre for Justice and law, a one-day symposium to commemorate the 170 years intends to present a balance sheet of the contribution of the Muslim community and to suggest ways forward for the community in a free democratic Uganda. Senganda, who is also the chairman of the organising committee, adds that the function, spearheaded by The Muslim Centre for Justice and Law in conjunction with Uganda Muslim Network (UMnet), a network of Muslim civil society organisations, slated for March 2 at Hotel Africa. It will ride on the theme “170 Years of Islam in Uganda: Way Forward for the Muslim Community”.
It will be addressed by veteran political activist Al-Hajj Kirunda Kivejinja and Dr Salim Simba from Makerere University. Other development partners from civil society will also be given platform to highlight their experiences and there will be an exhibition where Muslim civil society organisations, Muslim institutions and businesses will showcase their products and services.
No absence of glitches
The colonial era between 1894 and 1962 was a real disaster to Muslims. Sekatawa argues that the colonialists marginalised Muslims in all spheres of life. “Amidst the marginalisation in education, land ownership, political leadership, factionalism was undoingo of the fortunes of the Muslims during the colonial era,’’ he says. To-date, Muslims are still marginalised in the sharing of the national cake. Out of the 75 Ministers, Muslims have one substantive Cabinet Minister and five State Ministers in the less influential sectors. He calls for more political participation, honesty, professionalism in all services and investments in lucrative businesses as a solution.
According to reports, between 1979 and 1985, Muslims in Ankole, Bushenyi, Arua, Acholi, Masaka, and Kampala were brutally murdered as a celebration of Amin’s downfall. In Kiziba now Sheema District, Muslims were said to have been killed and dumped in River Rwizi. This case is not yet resolved and Muslims are still demanding for justice. According to, Dr Abas Kiyimba, An Associate Professor of Literature at Makerere University, the state must apologise for this, compensate the victims and the perpetrators be prosecuted.
Seeds of disunity
Disunity that dates back to the1890s has affected the successes of Muslims. The division peril has always been over who should lead but not majorly doctrinal as Imam Kasozi argues. “Islam in Uganda has been growing through factions. The differences have not been doctrinal but rather on who should lead. These differences have not enabled us to put up infrastructures but just to be shared by enemies,’’ he says. There is consensus that if the community is to prosper, unity must be given priority. Sheikh Abubakar Musoke, a former Principal of Bilal Islamic Institute, says unity is very expensive, but appeals to every Ugandan Muslim to pay what he/she can for it.
Mbarara District Kadhi, Sheikh Ramadhan Khamis, appeals to the Muslim community to focus on income generating projects that can support primary Qur’an schools, health centres and other Muslim administrative structures from mosque level.
Hajj Isac Kapalaga, a forester, Sheikh Kakande, District Khadhi of Kayunga and Sheikh Amru Khamaad former Rwenzori Regional Khadhi, argue that Muslims need to invest in primary education that must feed the giant ‘super’ Muslim secondary schools. They add that teacher training must be emphasised and existing institutions be strengthened to match with others. Hajj Kapalaga in particular, calls for more community spirit than individualism.
Upcountry regions like Acholi, Karamoja, Kapchorwa, western Uganda, Teso, need Islamic primary and secondary Muslim schools that can inculcate the Islamic values at an early stage. Acholi Khadi, Sheikh Khalil calls upon Uganda Muslim Supreme Council to put up Qur’an schools in his area, that can be a convert centre, and attract donors to the war ravaged area as well as regain property that was vandalised with the fall of Amin and provide more scholarships for excellent but poor children.