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Liberian Muslims and the African Napoleon

Liberian Muslims and the African Napoleon



The whole world has recently been preoccupied with Liberia and the bloody civil war there, but nobody referred to, or even hinted at, the political position of Liberian Muslims and their role in the war. Even in the Muslim world, very few know that 25% of the Liberian population are Muslims who have established a great civilization embellished with four centuries of glories!

How Islam Spread in Liberia

In West African countries, such as Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, Islam spread out in a peculiar and distinctive way. Many tribes embraced the monotheist faith, reverted to paganism when the presence, and hence the influence, of Muslim da`wah diminished, and embraced Islam once again when someone called for it.

During the tenth century AD, a number of Moroccan Muslim marabouts headed for the south Sahara to propagate Islam among the pagan tribes. The famous Sheikh `Abdullah ibn Yassin managed to convince Wur Jay, King of Senegal, to accept Islam. Many of the kingdom’s tribes—headed by the Mandingo, Fullani and Soninki—followed their king.

The new Muslim tribes were enthusiastic to spread Islam. The Fullani tribes that had settled on the Fouta Djallon highlands spread out east towards what is now Nigeria, where they founded many Islamic states that laid hold of, and brought Islam to, several pagan kingdoms and principalities, especially in the north.

The Mandingo tribes expanded southeast as many of their members traded in the southern regions known today as Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mali. The Mandingo traders were known for their fervent adherence to Islam. They founded Muslim centers on the Fouta Djallon highlands, north of modern Liberia, and spread Islam on a large scale among the tribes of the pagan kingdom of Ghana. When that kingdom declined, the Mandingos managed to establish a small state called Meli or Mali, expanding in no time northeast during the thirteenth century AD to control the city of Timbuktu, now located in the current state of Mali.

When the Mandingo state of Mali collapsed, the state of Sukotto took over Mali’s possessions but could not fully control the pagan tribes near the Atlantic coast.

On the other hand, the members of the Fullani tribe, which set up the state of Sukotto, moved south and established Islamic colonies on the Fouta Djallon highlands, near present-day Liberia, where they taught the Holy Qur’an and bade the pagan tribes to accept Islam. Receiving a hostile response, both Sheikh Ibrahim Musa and Sheikh Ibrahim Soori declared jihad against those pagans but failed to lay the foundation for an Islamic kingdom. The Muslim tribes then selected four persons who would select an imam for their principality. The several Islamic principalities already established managed to spread Islam in the south of Guinea and north of Liberia. The Jurist Sulaiman then appeared and, before his death in 1869, set up an Islamic state that contained the tribes of Mandingo and  Soninki.

Imam Samuri

The state soon collapsed before Imam Samuri ibn Laviatori (1830-1900) appeared. The imam, who as a child had been held captive with his mother by an army of pagans among whom he learned martial arts, managed to escape and found the imamate (or principality) of Samuri on the Niger River. He even expanded his state to include north of Liberia and imported firearms from Sierra Leone and south of Liberia, where there was an independent state at the time.

During his reign, Imam Samuri was known for his passion for erecting new mosques, giving prizes to the children who learned the Qur’an by heart, and spreading Islam as far as possible.

During Samuri’s Islamic reign, two major events passively influenced the spread of Islam in Liberia. Since 1822, the Americans had been repatriating emancipated black slaves to the coasts of Liberia. In 1847 these former slaves declared the establishment of the state of Liberia (the Land of Liberty).

The emancipated slaves of America formed only one percent of the total population, but they kept expanding their power inland and managed to suppress the revolt of the pagan tribes and the Muslim Mandingo tribes with the aid of modern American firearms. Supported by US Navy firepower, the newcomers laid an American-style constitution, holding that a president and vice president be elected every two years. They also set up a House of Representatives and a Senate and approved English as the official language of the country. Their aim, they believed, was to establish the Kingdom of Jesus in Africa, and hence Liberian churches have become subsidiary to the mother churches in the US. It is even astonishing that all Liberian presidents until the year 1980 were bishops! This minority, supported by Christian missionary movements that have invaded Africa, have since been working hard to spread Christianity all over Liberia.

The Imamate of Samuri, at the same time, could not come to the rescue of the Muslims residing south of the Fouta Djallon highlands because it was engaged in a 16-year war (1882-1898) against the French, in which Imam Samuri fought gallantly and showed such exceptional military genius that the French themselves called him the African Napoleon Bonapart. However, he was defeated at the end and fled to Liberia, where he was arrested and exiled to Gabon, where he remained the rest of his life until he died in 1900.

Liberian Muslims in the Twentieth Century

Liberian refugees

With the French controlling the Muslim countries surrounding Liberia (Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire), with the British laying hold on Sierra Leone, and with the Americo-Liberians controlling the coast region, Liberian Muslims were trapped in between. The French colonizers were constantly closing Islamic schools and killing Muslim scholars in the neighboring countries to Liberia. Christian missionaries, meanwhile, were pouring into West African states, Liberia being one of their most important stations. They held sway over 80% of Liberia’s schools with the remaining 20% under the governmental control of American repatriates. Ignorance and poverty proliferated among the Muslim tribes of Mandingo, Bambra, Siri and Fullani, who were deprived of holding governmental positions that were totally monopolized by the Americo-Liberians.

Ignorance even pervaded knowledge of religious matters among Muslims. Men married more than four wives and married two sisters together! Each tribe enforced the provisions of the Shari`ah (Islamic Law) according to the tribe’s knowledge of it. Islamic zeal, however, remained intense, especially as Sufi orders, especially Al-Qadariyyah, spread among the Mandingo and Fullani Muslims who rose to resist the French colonization in the neighboring countries.

This coincided with Liberian President William V. S. Tubman (1941-1971) adopting an open policy towards the native Muslims and pagans. He allowed them, for the first time, the right of election and appointment in governmental positions. The Muslim Congress of Liberia, thereupon, was established in 1960. The status of Muslims gradually improved, especially after William S. Tolbert became president. He was known for his impotency and laxity so that corruption and instability spread dangerously across the country, in which several popular movements and protagonists emerged. Demonstrations erupted across the country demanding equality with the Americo-Liberians and were intensified by the spread of Socialism and Communism in Africa at the time. The educated national leaders, moreover, were inciting the people to revolt against the Americo-Liberians. In 1979, the increase in the price of rice triggered violent demonstrations and unrest.

Muslims and the Harsh Equation

As the government failed to impose authority on the country and chaos spread all over Liberia, Sergeant Samuel Doe and 15 soldiers of the presidential palace shot President Tolbert before TV cameras and laid hold of the main radio broadcasting station, marking a new phase in the history of Liberia. The new president was not Americo-Liberian but a member of the local Krahn tribe. He declared the second republic chanting the slogan “Government is the majority’s!”  It was the first time Americo-Liberians were denied power.

Turbulence and wars among tribes, however, continued. Samuel Doe had to form an alliance between his tribe, which included some Muslim members, and the Mandingo tribe, mostly Muslims, and provide them with weapons.

The influence of the Islamic movement, meanwhile, increased across the Muslim world. The prosperity of the Gulf states, based on oil, contributed to the high standing of West African Muslims. The religious spirit of Liberian Muslims, in turn, increased so that the number of Liberian pilgrims to the Ka`bah in Makkah increased to 230 in the year 2002.

Samuel Doe got himself involved in disputes with his adversaries at the time his tribe, the Krahn, persecuted other tribes. Of these were Muslim tribes that helped Charles Taylor steal into Liberia from Cote d’Ivoire along with 40 fighters in 1989 to oust Doe, who had been butchering Mandingo Muslims and members of other tribes. Muslims supported Taylor, who came to control 60-90% of the country but who failed to control his own forces, which plundered and pillaged tribes, on top of which were the Mandingo Muslim tribe, which, in turn, broke away from him. The Mandingo had been led by Al-Hajj Kromah, who was detained by the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) forces for refusing to participate in the peace talks!

Revolt of the Muslims

After several rounds of civil wars, the conflicting parties agreed to hold elections in 1997, which Taylor won.

Taylor advocated an anti-Muslim policy and worked hard to christianize his country’s Muslims, bearing down heavily on their leaders, who considered it a scheme to uproot Islam and marginalize Muslims. Taylor’s forces also killed a number of Mandingo Muslims, upon which the Mandingos formed the United Liberian Movement for Democratic Reconciliation, led by Muhammad Gomando, which anti-Taylor non-Muslim allies joined. Other tribes formed their own private forces, about 7,000 to 25,000 fighters. The Movement had managed to take control of most of Liberia before it reached Monrovia, demanding Taylor to give up power. Taylor, in turn, accused Guinea of supporting “Islamist terrorists” but finally gave in and resigned, in August 2003, under international and local pressures.

Liberian Muslims: Present Challenges

Liberian Muslims number approximately 750,000, or 25% of the total Liberian population of three million. Christians represent 10%, whereas 65% believe in paganism and other creeds. Muslims, therefore, are a large and homogeneous minority, naturally nominated to be an acting power in the country. Many factors, however, have contributed to their inactivity, primarily the spread of ignorance and poverty among the Muslim tribes, which have only one three-floor public school, established by the Muslim World League, for the purpose of learning the Qur’an and the Arabic language. Christian missionaries, meanwhile, control most of the other schools, to which entry of Muslims is denied and which require embracing Christianity in return for free enrolment. Muslims also do not possess any private hospitals of their own.

The small number of Muslims in the capital, Monrovia, represents another problem. Only 15,000 Muslims live there, and there are only 5 mosques versus 43 churches.

One of the other problems is the American-Israeli infiltration into the country. The largest American espionage station in Africa is located in Liberia, and one of the principal exports, rubber, is controlled by Firestone, an American company, under a 99-year concession granted in 1926. In fact, all the Liberian economy is controlled by Western powers, especially the US.

Liberia, moreover, has had friendly relations and diplomatic representation with Israel since 1960. President Tubman even visited the Jewish state in 1962. The Israeli ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire carries out the Israeli diplomatic duties in the Liberian capital.

The conditions of Muslims have recently been improved thanks to the support of the neighboring Muslim-majority countries, such as Guinea and Sierra Leone, and to some powerful Muslim leaders like Mr. Muhammad Kromah, head of the Union of American-Liberian Associations. Muslims have, as well, set up two Islamic organizations in Monrovia: The Arabic Organization for Studies, which propagates Islam among non-Muslims, and The Islamic Organization for Education, which established two centers for educating imams, teaching the Noble Qur’an and Arabic to new converts, and providing them with new sources of income according to their new economic status. Still, the attention and support given to Liberian Muslims by Islamic groups and organizations is very scanty and does in no way rise to what calling to Islam in West Africa requires.

Arabic Sources:

                 The Spread of Islam and Arabism Beyond the Great Sahara. Dr. Hassan Ibrahim Hassan.

                 Islam and the Arabic Culture in Africa. Dr. Hassan Ahmad Mahmoud. Dar Al-Fikr Al-Arabi, 1986.

                 The Political Encyclopedia, Vol. 5.

                 Sierra Leone and Liberia. The One Thousand Books Series, Mohammad Isma`il, 1963.

                 International Politics Magazine, Editions 61 and 68, July 1980 and April 1982.

                 African Strategic Report 2001/2002. African Research Institute.

                 The Roots of Islamic Civilization in the African West. Uthman Brima Barry, Dar Al-Amin 2000.

                 Encyclopedia of Conflict Areas in Africa. Dr. Mohammad Sadiq Sabour.

By Sabir Abdellatif 
Translated by Abdelazim R. Abdelazim

Sabir Abdellatif is an Egyptian Journalist; the article has been published originally in Arabic on, 07/09/2003.

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