Source Book for African Anthropology



Mohammed, who was born in the year 571 of the Christian era, sought to remedy the abuses of his time by denouncing all divine powers except the supreme Allah. The creed, "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet," forms the basis and the initiatory declaration of the Mohammedan faith. Trial by ordeal, cannibalism, infanticide, human sacrifice, and wooden idols were all proscribed, and in later times various sects introduced prohibitions of their own against alcoholic beverages, tobacco, coffee, and representation of human and animal forms in art.

An abstemious life was enjoined by the Prophet, and in compliance with this requirement all true believers now annually observe the fast of Ramadan; this is a movable festival lasting from a certain new moon to the appearance of the next new moon. During this fast no food may be consumed between sunrise and sunset. Mohammed ordered his followers to pray five times a day, and to precede the prayers with ceremonial ablutions. The giving of alms, circumcision, rules for warfare, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca are all important requirements.

The Koran (Rodwell’s Translation, 1909) gives a description of paradise as a fair garden of streams and fruit trees, where attractive women minister to the needs of the faithful. A graphic description of the torments of hell is the antithesis of this picture of paradise. Many stories of the Koran are taken from the Old Testament, which has contributed the story of Joseph, the Fall of Man, and the Deliverance of the Jews. From the New Testament, extracts relating to the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the Apostles have been adopted. The religion of Mohammed is monotheistic, yet the Koran recognizes minor spiritual powers both good and evil; benevolent angels guard against the machinations of demons. The Koran teaches the value of humility, gentleness, patience, return of good for evil, truthfulness, adoption of orphans, care of the sick, and avoidance of malice. As with other religions the precepts are excellent, but the practice is often negligible. Mohammedanism is popularly coupled with fatalism, but in the recognition of Allah as supreme ruler of the lives of men Mohammedanism is not inherently more fatalistic than Christianity.

Behind the religious concepts of Mohammedanism lies a political theory that the Caliph as God’s representative on earth is the head of an undivided Islamic state; but in practice deep rivalry has existed between political and religious divisions. The main sects, which are divided on points of theology, law, and ritual, are the Hanifites, Malekites, Hanbalites, and Shafeites, which are named after their founders. Of these schisms only the Hanifites and the Malekites are important in Africa.

For all sects the Koran (the reading) is the supreme source of law, but disputes have arisen concerning the interpretation of passages. According to Mohammedan law, forcible conversion by warfare and the capture of slaves are legitimate practices. Slave raiding of Arabs among Negroes was accompanied by cruelty and forced marches, followed by sales that separated the members of families. But domestic slaves, when fully incorporated into a Mohammedan household, found reasonably kind treatment. They often rose to high rank, and a woman who had borne a child to her master could not be sold. At his death, the woman and her child became free.

The Mohammedan criminal code has been harsh in its adoption of punishments by mutilation, and in the maintenance of foul

FIG. 74. a. HOuse in Kano, Nigeria, north African Mohammedan style. b. Musicians at Ilorin. On left, player of algaita, a north African instrument.

prisons for debtors and malefactors. But in this respect Mohammedanism is no more reprehensible than Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, and later.

Polygyny and concubinage are part of the social system, and women are at a disadvantage under Mohammedan divorce laws; but in Turkey and Egypt modern movements for the emancipation of women have recently advanced the social standing of females. In order to keep property within a family, marriage between the children of two brothers is favored. Bequests are made in the male line, and succession to office follows the same lineage. The levirate, by which a man marries his deceased brother’s widows in order to beget children for him, is an ancient Semitic custom which was practiced by the Hebrews, and the usage still operates under Mohammedan law. Inheritance of a brother’s widows is a frequent practice among Negro tribes, but the origin is not known to be Semitic, and the Negro institution may be of independent origin.

In addition to these main characteristics of Mohammedanism, several secondary usages, beliefs, and economic patterns should be considered. The Prophet met with determined opposition which caused his flight from Mecca in A.D. 622, from which date Mohammedans make their historical reckoning. Therefore, events have different dates in the Mohammedan and Christian calendars. The Mohammedan year has a length of 354 days, 8 hours, and 48 minutes. Consequently, the Mohammedan year lags behind the solar year about eleven days annually. The Mohammedan year is referred to as A.H. (Hegira, the flight), and a formula is used to convert a date A.H. to an approximate date A.D.

Thus, A.H. 700 is approximately A.D. 1300. A.H. 1329 is A.D. 1911.

A definite pattern of industrialism, which is focused in large markets, is a trait of Mohammedan life. Large bazaars are characteristic of Egypt, Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. On the south side of the Sahara—Kano in northern Nigeria, and Tim-buktu on the bend of the Niger—are similar emporia where artisans congregate and caravan trade thrives.

In the markets may be seen water-carriers with their goatskin containers, conjurers, wrestlers, buffoons, snake charmers, story tellers, diviners in sand, Punch and Judy shows, and marionettes. Musicians play pottery drums, instruments strung with horsehair, and wind instruments of the algaita type (L. Williams, 1934,

FIG. 75. African horsemen. a. Dejanzmatch Ayalu, ruler in Simien Mountains, Abyssinia (from photograph by A. M. Bailey). b. Horseman with mail shirt, Potiskum, Nigeria.

pp. 77–98, has described Arab music). Itinerant barbers carry their implements in leather satchels which contain cupping horns for bleeding patients, knives for circumcising, razors for shaving, tweezers, and other toilet requisites. On the booths are displayed henna for staining the nails, kohl for darkening the eyes, and perhaps an outfit for tattooing.

In some secluded corner of the market, a mallam sits writing charms, or he may be in charge of school children, who are writing Koranic texts on smooth boards, with ink and reed pens. At times they cease writing to chant the texts in unison. Certain sections of the markets are given to particular industries. Leather work for personal use and for use as trappings for horses and camels is a staple industry. Dye pits where indigo of native make is used are often seen, and a section of the market may be given to weavers, who use their own primitive African looms. Metal workers include blacksmiths, silversmiths, and artisans, who expertly beat and cast objects in brass.

With Mohammedanism are associated several distinctive types of architecture in which domes and minarets are prominent features. Interior decoration consists of tiles, mosaics, and geometrical drawing of great beauty and intricacy. Arabic script has contributed to much of the geometrical designing. A discrimination against human and animal forms in art is early Semitic, not specifically Mohammedan. The Hebrews were instructed not to make any image of anything on earth, in the firmament above, or in the sea beneath. Some Mohammedans follow this precept, and art is mainly geometrical, but exceptions occur. The fronts of houses are sometimes elaborately molded (Fig. 74, a). This type of architecture has spread from north Africa into the western Sudan. Clothing includes a flowing riga for men (Fig. 60, b), the use of turbans, and several special articles for women (Figs. 58, 59, b). For studying the penetration of material traits of Mohammedan culture into the Sudan, Paulitschke (1885), Gleichen (1905), and Frobenius (1897, 1923) are useful.

In Mohammedanism religious concepts relating to morality, theology, literature, art, and philosophy are associated, as in other religions, with crude fanaticism, which is a degraded form of spiritual expression. The origin of bori dancing is unknown, but it is one of the baser elements attached to the Mohammedan faith. The bori are said by the Hausa communities of north Africa and the western Sudan to be a link with the world of demons. Each bori represents a particular disease, misfortune, or the evil eye, and in the dance of exorcism men are dressed to represent the bori demons (Tremearne, 1913, 1914).

The Hamaches of Morocco beat one another with whips and clubs as they parade the streets chewing thorny cactus, while the tearing and devouring of a living sheep is another of their practices. A zikr, as I saw it in the eastern Sudan, consisted of a dance given by men only, to the accompaniment of drums. The performers swayed to the rhythm of the instruments, meanwhile chanting the Koranic creed; this they did until they appeared dazed and intoxicated. Sometimes whipping one another with rawhide whips is part of the ceremony. These practices are comparable to the flagellation and self-persecution of Christian devotees. The exercises are not a necessary part of the religion, but certain sects have become devotees of crude cults and practices.


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Chicago: "Mohammedanism," Source Book for African Anthropology in Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886- 388–393. Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2023,

MLA: . "Mohammedanism." Source Book for African Anthropology, in Source Book for African Anthropology, edited by Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886-, pp. 388–393. Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Mohammedanism' in Source Book for African Anthropology. cited in , Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. , pp.388–393. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2023, from