Islamic sects booming in Africa

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In July this year a global population study published in the Lancet gave a detailed insight into how the world’s population might look by next year. The study is definitely a far more realistic forecast compared to the overly optimistic and often wildly inaccurate United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projections that have tended to inflate everything from birth rates to population numbers. The Lancet study predicted global fertility would plummet, suggesting that humanity was facing a population decline beginning in 2064 — far earlier than previously expected.

But despite their differences, both the Lancet and UNFPA studies predicted significant population growth for Africa. Nigeria, for example, is projected to have 791 million people by 2100, outnumbering China. Yes, you read that right — Africa would become the world’s second most populous country behind India, and it is projected to have three billion people by the end of this century, triple that of the present population.

Part of this predicted population boom is likely because Africa’s population remains far more religious and socially conservative than many parts of the world. This means it has a low uptake of contraceptives, low rates of abortion and relatively high birth rates. Islam in particular is set to demographically benefit from the fecundity of its conservative African adherents. In 2015, Pew Research indicated that the average total fertility rate of a sub-Saharan African Muslim is at 5.6, significantly higher than the world average of around 2.3-2.5, with 46 percent of Muslims in Africa being under the age of 14.

The soaring African impact on Islam in demographic terms is clear. Currently, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation with a population of 260-270 million people. It is followed by Pakistan, with around 220 million people. But by the end of this century, Nigeria will become the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation overtaking both Pakistan and Indonesia. Many other African nations with large Muslim populations are also moving in the same direction. Niger, which currently has the world’s highest fertility rate at 7, will increase in population by 164 million people between now and 2100, while Egypt and Tanzania will become the world’s 9th and 10th most populous countries respectively.

However, perhaps the best indicator of Africa’s demographic influence can be seen in the recent history of two Muslim groups: the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, an extremely persecuted, yet aggressively proselytizing, sect which originated in South Asia, and Shia Islam, the second largest branch of Islam.

The Ahmadiyya

The Ahmadiyya are perhaps the most controversial Muslim sect in the Islamic world. Founded in the late 19th century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, British India, the Ahmadis believe in unorthodox teachings found nowhere else in the Islamic world. They do not believe in the key doctrine of the Finality of Prophecy, in which the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet because their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is, according the Ahmadi belief, said to be a prophet.

Ahmadiyya Muslims also believe that Ahmad is both the Promised Mahdi in Islam and the Messiah, and that Jesus lived and is buried in Kashmir. Their view on jihad is also very different from Islamists. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad believes that the military use of jihad is no longer needed in the present age and all violent actions do not have justification in the name of jihad. The sect also has a hereditary Caliph who is based in the Ahmadiyya global headquarters in the UK. In a sense, the Ahmadi people occupy a similar position to the Mormon Church in Christianity. They have beliefs that are eccentric and bizarre to mainstream coreligionists but they are largely a peaceful people.

However, unlike Mormons, Ahmadis are one the world’s most severely persecuted religious minorities. They are considered non-Muslim in their native Pakistan and are subject to decades of targeted killings, frequent bombings and demolition of their places of worship which are explicitly banned from being called mosques. They are denied Pakistani passports unless they denounce their founder. All of this is the result of a law called Ordinance XX, implemented since 1974 by Pakistan’s Islamist president Zia ul-Haq during his Islamisation campaign. Ahmadis are routinely charged with blasphemy and only last month, an American Ahmadi was gunned down in a Pakistani court while being tried for blasphemy. The shooter was instantly hailed as a “hero” in Pakistan.

Therefore, for the estimated 600,000 to 4 million Ahmadis living in Pakistan, life is unbearable and many have moved to the West, including the Caliph of the movement. But the intolerance towards them from other majority Muslims is spreading, with Ahmadis being attacked in the UK. Their mosques have been burnt down in other Asian Muslim majority countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Demographically, the growth of the Ahmadiyya is likely to be very limited outside of natural growth in its place of origin. Decades of anti-Ahmadi education has promoted the idea that “Ahmadis are infidels and blasphemers” in the psyche of South and Southeast Asian Muslims. Members of the sect are subject to severe persecution in Pakistan, making conversion and proselytism very difficult. In order to survive and grow, the Ahmadis need a breakthrough elsewhere.

Ahmadiyya in Africa

Enter Africa, the greatest mission field for the aggressively proselytizing Ahmadis. The Ahmadiyya have a long history of proselytizing and sending missionaries, with some of the first Islamic missionaries in the West being Ahmadi. They also aggressively converted their fellow Muslims in Asia prior to the hardening of attitudes in the subcontinent.

But the Ahmadis also have a long history in Africa. The first missionaries arrived a century ago in West Africa, and have had spectataular success among Africans, especially in Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Niger, which coincidentally are also going to be the world’s fastest growing countries in terms of population. As a percentage of the national population, Sierra Leone is estimated to be 10-16 percent Ahmadiyya, the highest percentage in the world and much higher than in Pakistan. In Ghana. Ahmadiyya Muslims also make up more than one sixth of the Muslim population and operate hundreds of schools, colleges and radio stations.

In Burkina Faso, Ahmadiyya radio stations compete aggressively with Sunni Muslim stations to proselytize Africa’s previously largely nondenominational Muslims who combine their syncretized traditional animist beliefs with Sufi mysticism. This move has paid off with hundreds of Ahmadiyya mosques being built in Africa, with Ahmadiyya events being well attended by dignitaries and even other Muslim clerics in Africa. (In Africa, many mainstream Muslims including clerics do not find the Ahmadiyya as heretical, in stark contrast to South Asia). The President of Sierra Leone attends Ahmadi events, something unthinkable in many other Muslim majority nations.

Out of the world’s estimated 12 million Ahmadis, an increasing majority of them are now living in Africa. According to Pew Research, 15 percent of Tanzanian Muslims are Ahmadi, which translates to more than 2 million people, and 3 percent of Nigerian Muslims are Ahmadi, which implies an Ahmadi population of 2-3 million. Outside of South Asia, the Ahmadiyya’s only demographic strength area is in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a sizeable minority which also enjoys far less discrimination and persecution, which are also important prerequisites for future expansion.

In many ways, it can be said that the Ahmadis hit a demographic jackpot. Tanzania and Nigeria are on their way to entering the world’s top 10 countries by population size. Both countries have a total fertility rate above 5, and Ahmadis are also benefitting from the religious diversity of Africa. Unlike countries in Asia and the Arab world, African countries with large Muslim populations also often have a large Christian and animist population. This means the abusive majoritarian attitude towards Ahmadis is politically and demographically impossible to implement in Africa unlike South Asia.

In the long run though, this growing demographic clout of black Africans in the Ahmadi world is bound to impact the leadership of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Ahmadiyya leadership is almost exclusively South Asian — not just the Caliph, but also the missionaries who come to Africa and are in charge of the affairs in their respective assigned countries. South Asians run the radio stations, deliver the opening speech when new mosques are opened and lead the missionary program. Here, a comparison with the Mormons is relevant, given the high level Mormon leadership from overseas — most coming from the US.

But as South Asian Muslims are bound to become a minority in the Ahmadiyya world as African Ahmadis convert and also procreate at far higher rates, that is bound to change. The Ahmadiyya are already establishing and expanding their seminaries (called Jamia Ahmadiyya) in Africa, opening new branches in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Kenya.

Inevitably, by the later part of this century, Africa will become the demographic centre of the Ahmadiyya movement. It may even become the secret formula for the Ahmadiyya to become the world’s fastest growing Islamic sect, as populations are expected to double, triple and quadruple in many African countries where the Ahmadiyya have a large following.

Shia spreading in Africa as well

Shi’ites, the world’s second largest branch of Muslims, are also looking to Africa to boost their demographic fortunes. They are in trouble in their demographic competition with their Sunni brethren. This is because in Iran, the most populous Shia nation, also has one of the Islamic world’s lowest birth rates thanks to an overly successful family planning program initiated by the Ayatollahs who drank the Malthusian overpopulation Koolaid.

Now deeply regretting their apparently suicidal policy as Iran is surrounded by vengeful and fecund Sunni neighbours who hate the Persians, the Ayatollahs have taken a U-turn and ordered a limiting of family planning provisions and an aggressive campaign to encourage Iranians to procreate. Alas, it may be too late as Iranian fertility has dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 from a TFR of 6-8 within a generation, and marriage rates have plummeted as well. Elsewhere, Shi’ite populated countries like Azerbaijan and Lebanon also have some of the lowest birth rates in the Islamic world.

But the demographic salvation of the Shia population may come from, of all places, Nigeria. Nigerian Muslims have traditionally been Sunni but, like the Ahmadis, Shia Islam is making inroads. Iran has aggressively promoted its own version of Islam in Africa from Senegal to Nigeria, and nowhere is it more successful than in Nigeria, where a man named Ibrahim Zakzaky has become the leader of the largest Shi’ite movement in the continent, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Zakzaky has millions of followers — the exact number is unknown, but independent estimates range from 2-3 percent of the Nigerian population, which would mean he has from 4-6 million followers.

Amazingly, this conversion itself only began in the 1980s wlhen Zakzaky himself was Sunni. But after being inspired by the 1979 Islamist revolution in Iran and after returning from years of studying in Tehran, Zakzaky converted many Nigerian Muslims in northern Nigeria who are disgruntled with the corruption of traditional Islamic leaders. This earned the ire of Sunni Islamists in Nigeria and Zakzaky has been imprisoned and his movement has been banned since July last year. But his millions of followers continue to grow in numbers, not least because they mostly live in the northern Nigerian states of Kaduna and Sokoto which have some of the highest birth rates in the world. Sokoto women have on average 7 children and Kaduna women average 5.9. This means the existing few million Shia Nigerians will become tens of millions by the second half of this century and will grow rapidly, coinciding with the decline of the Iranian population. It is possible that within a few decades most militia fighters recruited by Iran to fight its proxy wars will no longer be Lebanese, Afghan or Iraqi, but Nigerian.

For the Ahmadiyya and Shia Muslims, being a minority within Islam has meant persecution and sometimes the threat of extermination. But Africa (with its population boom continuing, given that it is only in the very early stages of its demographic transition) will become the demographic lifeline of these minority sects. Africa’s religious diversity is also helping to cushion the potential backlash against the expansion of the two sects. However, as their numbers grow, African Muslims regardless of sect or affiliation, will demand to enter the upper echelons of Islamic leadership, as the influence of other Asian and Middle Eastern Muslim countries begins to wane.

In short, the future of Islam is African.

William Huang is a product of the one-child policy as he is the only son in the family. Born and raised in China, it is only when he went overseas to study that he had an epiphany, realizing just how much… More by William Huang

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