During the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (saw) a group of Muslims escaped Meccan persecution (615) by fleeing to Ethiopia, where the Negus gave them protection. The spread of Islam in Africa began in the 7th and 8th cent. with the Umayyads, who brought the religion to the Middle East and to the littoral of North Africa. Along the coast of Africa Islam spread among the Berbers, who joined the Muslim community and almost immediately drove north across the Mediterranean into Europe. In Morocco, Muslims founded the city of Fès (808), which soon thereafter gave refuge to Andalusian Muslims fleeing an uprising in Córdoba (see Idrisids). On the east coast of Africa, where Arab mariners had for many years journeyed to trade, Arabs founded permanent colonies on the offshore islands, especially on Zanzibar, in the 9th and 10th cent. From there Arab trade routes into the interior of Africa helped the slow acceptance of Islam and led to the development of Swahili culture and language.
Prior to the 19th cent. the greatest gains made by Islam were in the lands immediately south of the Sahara. The Islamization of W Africa began when the ancient kingdom of Ghana (c.990) extended itself into the Sahara and the Islamic center at Sanhajah. Mansa Musa (1307–32) of Mali was among the first to make Islam the state religion. By the 16th cent. the empire of Mali and its successor-state Songhaj included several Saharan centers of trade and Muslim learning, such as Timbuktu. In the region of the E Sudan, Islamic penetration followed the route of the Nile. By about 1366, Makurra, the more northerly of the two Christian kingdoms of the E Sudan, became Islamic. The other kingdom, Aloa, was captured (c.1504) by the Muslims.
In the 16th cent. the Somali conqueror Ahmad Gran unsuccessfully attempted to convert Ethiopia to Islam. In the late 18th and early 19th cent., Africa, like the rest of the Muslim world, was swept by a wave of religious reform. Militant reformers, such as the Fulani and the followers of Hajj Omar, greatly extended the area over which Islam held sway in W Africa. Usumanu dan Fodio (1809) founded the Sokoto caliphate, which was eventually incorporated under British rule into Nigeria.
The famous Arab historian Ibn Khaldun says that the name Ifriqiya was given after Ifriqos bin Qais bin Saifi, one of the Kings of Yemen. To Al-Bakri, the boundries of Ifriqiya were Barga on the East and Tangier on the West, which means that in addition to the Africa proper of the Romans, it included Tripolitania, Numidia and Mauritania. Today, by the use of the word Ifiriqiya or Africa, the Arabs as well as non-Arabs mean the entire continent of Africa which includes North Africa (including the Maghrib), East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, and South Africa. It was significant that the first shelter of early Muslims was in Africa (Abyssinia, 615 CE). By the time Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) began his mission, the Egyptians and Syrians had partially severed their active
link with the Roman Empire.
The true factor of Islamization lies in the religion of Islam itself. Every Muslim has been asked to carry the message of the Prophet to others. The Prophetic Tradition says: “Preach even if it may be one verse.” Wherever the Muslims went, they took their religion and culture with them. The Arabic language formed almost a part of their religion, as the Qur’an was in Arabic. There were long-distance trade routes, running from North to South. The Arab traders and business men and some quiet missionaries, who had dedicated their lives to the cause of Islam, carried the message of Islam wherever they travelled. It is also true that wherever the Muslim conquests took place a large number of Muslims chose to settle down in newer places. The period between 660-670 C.E., was remarkable for the expansion of Islam further into Africa along the Mediterranean coast. Morocco came under Islamic influence in the 8th century and the Berbers began to join the Muslim armies. Islam spread in North Africa with remarkable speed, and by the year 732 C.E., which marked the first centennial of Muhammed’s death, his followers were the masters of an empire greater than that of Rome at its Zenith, an empire extending from the Bay of Biscay to the Indus and the confines of China and from the Aral Sea to the lower contracts of the Nile. The name of the Prophet, as Messenger of God along with the name of God [Allah] was being called out five times a day from thousands of minarets scattered all over North Africa, South-Western Europe, and Western and Central Asia.
Islam is the largest religion in Africa with about 45 % of the population being Muslims, in contrast to 40 % being Christians and less than 15 % being non-religious or adherents of African traditional religions. Islam is still increasing in Africa as many Africans Bantu speakers embrace Islam especially in the central and eastern part of Africa.