Islam making in-roads in Zambia
Despite the declaration by the former president of Zambia Fredrick Chiluba that the country was a Christian state, Muslims in Zambia in this southern African country defied all odds in trying to make their religion thrive just as in other countries in this part of Africa. The country has seen a rapid development in the construction of mosques both in Moslem dominated areas as well as in areas chiefly dominated by Christians.
A recent report by a Christian organization, Frontline Fellowship, which spearheads the growth of Christianity in Africa, indicates that Islam is growing at a fast rate in this impoverished continent. Frontline Fellowship says one of the concerns in Africa in as far as growth of Christianity is concerned is the spread of Islam into southern Africa and Zambia in particular. It says Islam is growing twice as fast as Christianity in Africa. Much of this growth Frontline Fellowship says is due to the large amounts of money from the oil-rich Arab countries that are being funnelled into African missions.
Muslims are building primary and secondary schools in Zambia in an effort to convert the next generation of Zambians. Zambia now sits right at the edge of this Islamic advance into southern Africa, Frontline Fellowship says in its report. It adds, Muslim mosques and madrassas have been built all over, and there has been a concerted attempt to convert Zambians to Islam. Funded by oil money from Middle Eastern governments, Islamic Propagation Societies are offering "free education" to impoverished rural populations. Many Christian families have sent their children to these Muslim schools in the hope that an Islamic education is better than none. Others have said that they would no sooner send their child to an Islamic school than sell them into Islamic slavery.
Construction of mosques measured against Islamic growth
Responding to a questionnaire sent by this reporter, a Roman Catholic cleric in Zambia, the Reverend Benjamin* who belongs to a Christian missionary congregation confirmed that Zambia has seen scores of mosques being built in the country. But he was quick to say this alone can not be a genuine yard stick to measure the growth of the Islamic faith in the country. He said mosques have been built in different parts of the country but especially in Eastern and Lusaka provinces. He says the construction of mosques follows the pattern of already dispersed existing Muslim communities of the Yao tribe, chiefly, and cannot be termed as a deliberate venture into non-Muslim territories - with the exception of Lundazi and Petauke where the construction of mosques, spearheaded by the Indian Muslim communities, has led to the foundation of new Muslim communities.
Although the tendency has slowed down, it is surely continuing, sustained by material resources provided by both the local Asian community and external donors not identified by the local beneficiaries. There is a more steady, progressive visibility of the Muslim community among Yao adherents than there is net growth in terms of new converts, said Rev. Benjamin in an e-mail response. He confirmed that there were deliberate programs such as paying school fees for students and opening of orphanages that could be considered gimmicks to convert people to Islam. Such gimmicks have at times been denounced by Christians who used the same gimmicks themselves to garner support for their faith. Rev. Benjamin says that for an ever-growing number of Zambians Islam has become a real religious alternative to both Christianity and traditional religion .
The lead taken by Muslim associations in organizing the Muslim community locally has to be evaluated against the background of Islamic networks outside the country such as the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission (AMM), the African Muslim Agency (AMA), in Iran (through a network of Islamic university graduates, particularly from Razavi University) and Islamic universities in Arab and Asian countries that give more global discourse to local Islam, he said. Rev. Benjamin adds that Muslim networks outside the country have been able to exert influence on the development of Islam in Zambia through their close collaboration with local associations and the provision of necessary spiritual and material resources.
Islam in Zambia has not developed in total isolation from external influence. Its local development has been largely marked by contact with Muslims from outside the country. Such contacts reveal not only the great potential of local Muslim associations to respond to a global Islamic discourse but also the impact of the trans-national associations on the local Islamic discourse.
Muslim population in Zambia
There is a general consensus that Muslims represent only one percent of Zambia's 10 million people. However, the real figure according to Rev. Benjamin should be pegged at three percent. He says, although initially an insignificant minority group, within the past thirty years the Muslim community has undoubtedly become a non-negligible component of the Zambian society.
Through a more organized structural visibility such as mosques, schools, local associations and an ever-increasing number of indigenous converts, Islam has come to represent a significant change in the religious landscape of the country. It now constitutes a real alternative to tradition religion and indeed to the long established Christian churches, he says. That Islam has become an important component of the religious reality in Zambia is no longer questionable. Despite the National census of 2000 that puts Muslim population in Zambia at 41, 932 out of a total population of 9.4 million inhabitants, figures obtained from Muslim leaders peg it at 300, 000.
Influence of African immigrants on Zambia's gateway to Islam
Islam's gateway into Zambia has also been influenced by some African immigrants -especially those from the East and West African countries of Somalia, Tanzania, Congo, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria. Most of these stay in the country as illegal immigrants, according to Rev. Benjamin. Illegal or not, they do not come with their spouses and end up marrying Zambians, converting some along the way.
The typical way for women to embrace Islam has been through marriage with Muslim spouses. Some western African Muslims married local women. Although it is not an absolute pre-requisite of Islam for non-Muslim women to embrace Islam upon marriage, the majority of indigenous women married to Muslim spouses end up becoming Muslims, either by indirect coercion or for the sake of family unity. Associations such as the Lusaka Muslim Women Trust have helped women to come out in the public and present themselves in a way that has attracted other women to embrace Islam, says Rev. Benjamin.
On youths he says different reasons have motivated some without any Islamic background to embrace Islam. Firstly, he says, it has been a common occurrence in the past three decades for young people to break away from their traditional religious affiliations in favour of new ones. Embracing Islam is just one example of that. He says though scholarships to study abroad, mainly in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan etc offered to whoever declare themselves Muslims, hundreds of young men entered into the fold of Islam in the 1980s.
In addition, Muslim clerics have made sure Islamic literature is available for people to read and learn about the faith. This has also greatly contributed to the spread of the Islamic faith. The pattern experienced in Zambia is the same in Malawi, giving credence to the belief that the Islamic faith is indeed making strides in southern African states.