When most Americans think of Muslim countries, their minds immediately go to the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan – maybe they’ll think about Türkiye, or more rarely, North African countries like Tunisia. However, it’s rare that if you ask an American to name a country with a rich and vibrant Islamic history, they will mention a sub-Saharan African country. Yet, by the eighth century, Islam was well established through West Africa and along the Swahili Coast of East Africa.
This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Zanzibar, which is an island off the coast of Tanzania. If Americans have heard of it, it is likely either from the Billy Joel song or as Freddie Mercury’s birthplace. However, the country’s most interesting aspect might be its unique historical background – where Islam and over a thousand years of global trade meet to create a rich culture that blends East African, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences.
Islam’s presence on the Swahili Coast, which includes parts of Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Comoros, can be traced back as far as 1000 BCE. The oldest archaeological evidence of Islam in the region is the Kizimkazi Mosque in Zanzibar, whose Kufic inscriptions date back to the 1100s. While no one is exactly sure how Islam became widespread in these areas, the prevailing theory is it was introduced by Arab traders from Arabia, Persia, India, and beyond.
In Zanzibar, Islam acted as a unifying force. Merchants settled there permanently and intermarried with locals, creating a unique Arab-African culture. This included distinct Swahili architecture, with houses made of coral rag and coral stone (this building technique is still around today), the Swahili language (Kiswahili, which incorporates not only indigenous African Bantu words and grammar but also some Arabic terms), and, of course, the predominant religion of Islam. Today, over 99% of Zanzibar’s population practices Islam, and it is a part of all aspects of life, from the Arabic calligraphy on buildings to the lack of alcohol and abundance of Halal food in most regions. Walking through the winding streets of Stone Town, where hundreds of years old buildings made out of coral and rocks boast intricate, colorful carved doors, you can hear the call to prayer five times a day no matter where you are.
Stone Town, today a UNESCO world heritage site, is representative of the mix of cultures that have shaped the island. Originally, the site was inhabited by Africans who were slowly pushed further inland as new arrivals from India, Arabia, and finally Europe settled on the island, using Zanzibar as a major port of trade. Stone Town is the former capital of the island, and was the epicenter of the spice trade in the 1800s. Many of the buildings today date back as far as the 1700s. The buildings are typical of Swahili Coast trade towns, and are made out of coral, mangrove and lime mortar, with long, narrow rooms often surrounding an interior courtyard. Most buildings have a baraza, which is a long stone bench along the outside walls. This can be used not only as a bench, but also as an emergency sidewalk – it’s not unusual to be caught in sudden, heavy rains which flood the streets, making them practically unusable – something which happened to us several times, making me incredibly grateful for my water shoes. Indian-style bazaar shops also line the narrow streets, boasting all sorts of goods.
The colorful, ornate doors in Stone Town are perhaps the island’s most famous feature. There are nearly 600 such doors around Zanzibar, most over a century old. Many doors have Arab-derived elements, such as carvings along the door frame and above the beam, and blessings in Arabic on the door lintel above the entrance. Some of these carvings have meaning which can be traced back to ancient Middle Eastern cultures, such as the palm tree, which symbolizes plenty, or the fish, which symbolizes fertility. Many doors feature calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran, driving home the importance of the Islamic religion.
While Zanzibar is a mere boat ride away from the Tanzanian mainland, it was interesting how much the two diverged in terms of architecture and culture. Tanzania has a diverse array of religions, and prides itself on its protection of religious freedom, but is majority Christian and only 8% Muslim. Tanzania’s current president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, is a Muslim woman.
Tanzania has amazing ethnic diversity, with over 120 ethnic groups and more than 100 different dialects spoken across the country, with Swahili serving as a unifying language and cultural touchstone. Tanzania (which includes Zanzibar) enjoys a relatively strong democracy and is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
Too many Americans think of both Africa and Islamic countries as monoliths with little to no regional variation. In school, Africa, despite being the most genetically and linguistically diverse continent in the world, is largely glossed over aside from ancient history of human origins or in discussion of colonization – while also completely leaving out its ancient histories of global contact through trade. Islam is only taught within the context of the Middle East or the United States post 9/11.
The diversity within Tanzania – a single country that is only a bit bigger than Texas – should shatter these notions of homogeneity. Zanzibar, with its teal blue water, shell-filled beaches, and lush mangrove forests, completely challenges American assumptions of what a Muslim majority country looks like. The connections of human beings and their cultures and shared histories do not seem so surprising if we look at maps without national borders drawn in. European cartographers may have created a division between Africa and the Arab peninsula, but human beings created the connections. There is no singular “Africa” and there is no singular “Islam” – every place is a product of a complex, shared history.
Bryceson, Deborah Fahy , Mascarenhas, Adolfo C. , Ingham, Kenneth and Chiteji, Frank Matthew. “Tanzania“. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Apr. 2023
Cartwright, Mark. “Swahili Coast.” World History Encyclopedia, 1 Apr. 2019.
Derrick. “Zanzibar Doors – A Closer Look at Stone Town’s Wooden Masterpieces.” StickyMangoRice, 4 Dec. 2016
Fröhlich, Silja. “East Africa’s forgotten slave trade.” DW, 22 Aug. 2019
Lichtenstein, Amanda Leigh. “Kanga’s Woven Voices.” AramcoWorld, Dec. 2017
Madenge. “Islam in Zanzibar – History, Denominations, Institutions.” United Republic of Tanzania, 14 Sept. 2021
“Zanzibar Doors.” Focus East Africa Tours Blog
Darby FitzSimmons is an undergraduate student at the O’Neill School studying Law and Public Policy with a minor in Homeland Security. She currently serves as Muslim Voices’ undergraduate student coordinator. Previously, she worked at the Indiana University African Studies Department and has also ran social media for various organizations.