Islam is one of the largest religions in Africa, making up of over 40% of the African population. To ignore Islam is the greatest mistake practicing Christians in Africa can make. Every minister of the gospel in Africa must have an understanding of Islam. The word “Islam” comes from an Arabic word which means “submission.” A Muslim, therefore, is a person who has submitted themselves to God (or Allah). Others believe the meaning of Islam is also related to the word for peace (Salaam in Arabic).
Islam is one of the largest religions in Africa.
There are many books and articles written on the history of Islam. In this article, I merely outline the five different faces of Islam on the continent. These faces are not necessarily taught by the Qur’an or Muslim scholars, but they are a result of what other non-Muslim scholars have observed. But before we get to those five faces, I will offer two broad categories for thinking about Islam in particular, and religion in general.
Two Broad Classifications of Islam
As in many religions, Islam can be classified into two types: official or formal Islam and unofficial or informal Islam. Informal Islam is what is referred to as folk Islam or popular Islam.
As in many religions, Islam can be classified into two types: formal and informal.
A Christian missiologist, Paul Hiebert, and his colleagues distinguish between formal and folk (informal) religions. They write, “formal religions are concerned with ultimate reality, and issues of truth and logical consistency,” while folk religions are “concerned with existential problems of everyday life and less with ultimate realities.”
The Five Faces of Islam
Islam is one religion, but this classification helps us understand Islam better. Scholars of Islamic Studies have come up with five main faces of Islam. These five faces help us understand Islam deeper. Each explains what the scholars have seen in Islam and the practices of Islam, both in Africa and abroad.
1. Missionary Face (Da’wa)
Several religions aren’t concerned about converting people. Islam isn’t one of them.
This face is also known as the polemical face of Islam. Several religions aren’t concerned about converting people. Islam isn’t one of those religions. Islam is a strong and active missionary religion. Its followers work day and night to spread Islam in order to convert all non-Muslims to Islam. The Arabic word Da’wa means “call” or “invitation.” It contains the mandate for the evangelisation of non-Muslims.
2. Political Face
Islam cannot be separated from politics.
This face can also be known as the ideological face. It is because the politics practiced is an ideology informed by the teachings of Islam. Islam cannot be separated from politics. In other words, Islam is a religion with a political agenda. It presents itself as a religious and political ideology. This means the political state and the religious system are intertwined. For this reason, a Muslim religious leader can also be the head of the state.
3. Militant Face
Others term this face as the violent face of Islam. Many Muslims who prefer peace differ with this ideology, but the ideology itself exists among a number of Muslims. If you are familiar with Al-Qaeda and what they have done, you then know about this face. This face is often referred to by many non-Muslim Westerners as “Islamism.” It is an Islamic reform movement, or Islamic revivalism.
4. Progressive Face
This is also known as the liberal face of Islam. It is a more peaceful and moderate expression of the Islamic faith. Peace and tolerance are paramount in this face. There is a high consideration for human rights including the rights of non-Muslims.
5. Popular Face of Islam
This is also known as the mystical face of Islam or folk Islam. It is the type of Islam practiced by most ordinary Muslims in their everyday life—especially in Africa and some parts of Asia. It is where Islam is mixed with local traditional practices such as saint veneration, washing, ingesting a Qur’anic verse, magic, and so forth.
How to obey Allah and eventually enter paradise is not the concern of folk Islam.
The practices in folk Islam are for the sake of obtaining more Baraka (or healing) and warding off evils. Alexander Pierce says, “The purpose of all these practices is to obtain blessing or power and avoid fear due to evil spirits or influences.”
How to obey Allah and eventually enter paradise is not the concern of folk Islam. Its concern is how to protect oneself from evil. Folk Islam deals with current issues at hand as far as people’s cultures are concerned, more than orthodox Islam.
Get to Know Your Neighbours
Islam is around us and we should spend some time getting to know and understand it and its faces.
The five faces of Islam discussed above does not mean there are five types of Islam. These are just ‘faces’ of the same religion. As ministers of the gospel in Africa, we cannot ignore Islam. Islam is around us and we should spend some time getting to know and understand it and its faces. This helps us in our ministry in Africa and beyond. In another article, I will write about the basic beliefs and practices of Islam.