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Islam in Rwanda

Islam in Rwanda



Islam was first introduced into Rwanda by Muslim traders from the East Coast of Africa in the 18th century. Since its introduction, Muslims have been a minority in the territory, while the Roman Catholic Church, introduced to Rwandans during the Belgian Invasion, occupation and colonisation by French missionaries in the late 19th century has considerably more adherents.

For the first time in its history in Rwanda, Islam is accorded the same rights and freedoms as Christianity. Estimates show that there are equal numbers of Muslims amongst the Hutus as there are amongst the Tutsis. The estimates can't be verified since in the wake of the genocide, the government has banned all discussion of ethnicity in Rwanda.


Compared to east African countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, the history of Islam in Rwanda is relatively modern. While a few written sources are available regarding its origins, it is claimed that Islam came through Arab merchants who first entered the country in 1901. Others say that Islam came when Europeans brought in Muslim clerks, administrative assistants, and merchants, from the Swahili-speaking coast of Tanzania. Islam was also bolstered by Muslim merchants from India, who married local Rwandans. Rwandans built their first mosque in 1913.[1] This mosque is known as the al-Fatah mosque.

During its history, many efforts were made to impede the spread of Islam in Rwanda. These efforts generally exploited anti-Arab sentiment, and presented Muslims as foreigners. Catholic missionaries often went to great lengths to counter what they perceived influence of rival religions, such as Islam and Protestantism.

Muslims were further marginalized by the fact that most Muslims settled in urban areas, whereas 90 percent of the population was rural. As neither Arab nor Indian merchants ever attempted to further their faith, there was little spirit of preaching amongst Muslims. Only a few conversions took place, mostly amongst the marginalized urban population: women who had married foreigners, illegitimate children and orphans. Even these conversion were sometimes superficial, motivated by desire for social and economic security that Muslims provided, than for religious conviction in the Islamic faith.

Under the Belgian administration, Muslims in Rwanda were to some extent marginalized. Since Muslims had no place in the Catholic church, which maintained great influence over the state, Muslims were often excluded from education and important jobs in the government. As a result Muslim employment was largely confined to engaging in petty trade, and taking up jobs as drivers.

In 1960, the former government minister Sebazungu ordered the burning of the Muslim quarter and the mosque in Rwamagana. Following this event, Muslims were terrified and many of them fled to neighbouring countries. It is alleged that the Catholic Church was involved in these events, which aggravated the bitterness between Muslims and Christians.

Before the 1994 Genocide, Muslims were held in low regard, because they were seen as traders, in a land where farmers are highly regarded. The Muslim population before the genocide was 4% which was unusually low compared to that of neighbouring countries.

Rwandan genocide

Main article: Rwandan genocide

During the Rwandan genocide, Islam as a faith was not the main target of the genocide. Muslims were able to shield most Muslims from the massacres, as well as many non-Muslim Tutsis. According to Marc Lacey of The New York Times, the safest place during the genocide was a Muslim neighborhood. In Kigali, many of Rwanda's Muslims crowded together in the Biryogo neighborhood. When Hutu militias surrounded the place, Hutu Muslims did not cooperate with the Hutu killers. The Hutu Muslims say that they felt far more connected through religion than through ethnicity, and Muslim Tutsi were spared.[5] While Hutu Muslims saved most Muslim Tutsis, they also saved the lives of thousands of Christian Tutsis as well. Imams spoke out publicly against the killings, urging their congregations to not partake in the massacres.[1] Nevertheless, there are allegations against one Muslim, Hassan Ngeze, that he incited Hutus to violence against Tutsis.

There were only a few incidents in which Tutsis in mosques were attacked. The most widely known example occurred at Nyamirambo Main Mosque, where hundreds of Tutsi had gathered to take refuge. The refugees in the mosque fought off Hutu militias with stones, bows and arrows, putting up stiff resistance against the soldiers and militiamen of the Interahamwe. Only once the soldiers attacked with machine gun fire were the Interahamwe able to enter the mosque and kill the refugees.

In some cases Hutus were afraid of searching Muslim quarters for Tutsis. The widely believed myths that both Muslims and their mosques were protected by the power of highly efficacious Islamic magic, and the fear of the jinn (creatures of fire mentioned in the Qur'an), turned out to have saved the lives of Tutsis who sought refuge with Muslims. In one case, a mosque was set ablaze in Cyangugu, but the arsonists ran away instead of destroying the mosque and its inhabitants because they believed jinn were inside the mosque. In some cases when a Muslim was inclined towards killing, one Tutsi testifies : "If a Hutu Muslim tried to kill someone hidden in our neighbourhoods, he would first be asked to take the Qur'an and tear it apart to renounce his faith. No Muslim dared to Post-genocide

See also Aftermath of the Rwandan genocide

The number of Rwandan Muslims increased substantially after the 1994 Genocide due to conversion to Islam in large numbers. One reason for this shift is that many Muslims had sheltered refugees - both Hutu and Tutsi - in Muslim homes, villages and suburbs. Many converts explain that they converted to Islam because of the role that some Catholic and Protestant leaders played in the genocide. Human rights groups have documented several incidents in which Christian clerics permitted Tutsis to seek refuge in churches, then surrendered them to Hutu death squads. Instances of Hutu priests and ministers encouraging their congregations to kill Tutsis have also been documented.

Personal accounts of some Tutsi converted have converted for safety, as they feared continuing reprisal killings by Hutu extremists, and knowing that Muslims would protect them from such acts. Many Hutu converted as well, in search for "purification." Many Hutus want to leave their violent past behind them and to not have "blood on their hands." There are also a few, isolated instances, where Hutus have converted in the hope that they could hide within the Muslim community and thereby escape arrest.

The rate of conversions slowed down in 1997. According to the mufti of Rwanda, the Islamic community has not seen any increases in conversions in 2002-3.[8] Christianity remains as the country's leading religion. Catholicism (it arrived in the late 19th century with the White Fathers order of the Roman Catholic Church) is still deeply embedded in the culture. According to Rwandan Muslim leaders, Muslims make up 14 percent of the 8.2 million people in Rwanda, Africa's most Catholic nation, twice as many as before the killings began.


Muslims in Rwanda are also actively involved in jihad activities, such as their jihad to "start respecting each other". Many Rwandan Muslims are engaged in efforts to heal ethnic tensions after the genocide, are Islamic groups are reaching out to the disadvantaged, for example by forming women's groups that provide education on child care. Western governments have worried over the growing influence of Islam, and some government officials have express concern that some of the mosques receive funding from Saudi Arabia. However, there is little evidence of militancy. Pakistani militants who have attempted to take over one mosque were kicked out.

The Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Fitr is observed by the government as one of the four religious official holiday (alongside Christmas, All Saints' Day, and Assumption). Muslims also operate private Islamic schools. In 2003, the US Embassy oversaw the renovations of an Islamic secondary school in Kigali. Embassy leaders also met with Muslim leaders, alongside members of Catholic and Anglican Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, to hold interfaith talks.

Rwanda used to have a religious political party, the Democratic Islamic Party (PDI), with non-Muslim members. However, it changed its name to Ideal Democratic Party, after the constitution mandated no party may be formed on the basis of religion.


There is a considerable range in the estimates of the Muslim population of Rwanda. No accurate census of the Muslim population has been done.

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Population (000s)  ↓

Population (%)  ↓

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The Washington Post





The Washington Post



1993 "before killings began"


CIA World factbook





The New York Times





Worldmark Encyclopedia of Culture & Daily Life





US Dept. of State (UN Population Fund survey)





US Dept. of State (university study)





A more recent report from the Rwandan government reported on November 1, 2006, that 56.5% of the Rwanda's population is Roman Catholic, 26% is Protestant, 11.1% is Seventh-day Adventist, 4.6% is Muslim, 1.7% claims no religious affiliation, and 0.1% practices traditional indigenous beliefs.

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