Universities And Islamic Institutions In East Africa

1. Introduction 

   Traditionally, the region described as East Africa was composed of three countries – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. However, the broader definition includes other countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique.   Politically, today the East African Community is composed of five countries: - Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. In this paper, when we refer to the region called East Africa, we shall be restricted to three countries – Kenya, Tanzania   and Uganda. However it should be noted that we shall say about Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda will in many ways be applicable to the other countries of the bigger Eastern African region with the exception of Somalia.

               Map of East Africa

tanzania map

Map of Eastern Africa

  1. Historical background

Historians seem to agree that East Africa was the home of first Homo sapiens – that oldest human remains have so far been fund in present day Tanzania. As Muslims we question this because we know that Prophet Adam (AS) was first human being created by Allah and he probably did not live or die in East Africa. What is however un disputed, is that the eastern part of Africa was the first Dare s Salaam for Muslims. The first  Hijra of Muslims from Mecca was to Africa to a kingdom then called Abusiniyyah (present day Ethiopia) which was under a Christian king at that time. Hence, the contact between Africa and Islam is more than 1434 years.

Two groups of people significantly influenced the past, present and future of East Africa. They are the Arabs and the Europeans. Without the influence of both the Arabs and the Europeans, certainly the lives of the eastern African peoples would be completely different. So, what was the inpact of these two groups of people of the Eastern African region?

2.1       The impact of the Arabs of Eastern Africa

As already stated, the first known Arabs to arrive in East Africa was probably before the first Hijra of Muslims from Mecca to Abusiniyyah. The first Hijra, however, marked the beginning of the contact between Africa and Islam. Later, Arab muslim traders came to East Africa and set up markets and towns along the East African coast in places like Zanzibar, Pemba, Lamu, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam.

It is important to note that the main driving force for the Arab Muslims to come EA was to trade and not spread Islam. So they were traders and not missionaries. However, the greatest and most enduring thing that the Arabs introduced to EA was the deen of Islam although this was a collateral outcome from trade. This in itself, exemplifies the strength, nature and character of Islam as a way of life. While the Arab traders came to EA to do commerce, they were able to spread Islam because of the practical nature of Islam. The MuslimArab traders used to pray five times a day, fast during Ramdahan, and carry out other Islamic practices and rituals on a daily basis as their African aides curiously watched and eventually learned and reverted to Islam. At most of the trading centres and towns, mosques were built for the growing number of worshippers. Eventually some schools, madaras as they were known were built to provide Islamic instruction for the converts and their children.

The madaras and in some case the mosques were centres of learning in which reading, recitation, memorisation, writing, counting, Islamic studies, etc, were taught. By the time the European explorers and later missionaries and colonialist arrived on the EA coast, many Africans were already literate. Of course Arab was the medium of instruction and all the writing was in the Arabic language.

As the contacts between the Arabs and Africans continued, a new culture and language emerged. This was the Swahili Culture which was strengthened by inter-marriages between the Arabs the Africans. Consequently, a new way of life evolved influenced by the goods such as clothes, soap, sugar, etc, that were brought by the Arab traders. The economy of the EA coast and eventually the hinterland also changed due to the trade introduced by the Arabs.

2.2       The impact of the Europeans

            The first Europeans explorers to come to the EA coast were probably the Portugeese around 1498 , long after the Arabs had arrived on the coast.These were soon followed by the Christian missionaries who later paved the way for the colonialist. By the time the Europeans arrived on the EA coast, they found the people already literate and the Islamic civilisation was the main way of life for the people at the coast. As Mohammed Saidi ( --  ) noted : “When colonialists and missionaries set foot in the East African coast then known as Zanj their main aim was to wipe out Islam. Muslims in the East African coast had their first glimpse of what Christianity was all about in 1498 with the arrival of the Portuguese. In 1567 the Augustinian order was established in the East African coast to counter the influence of Islam so that Christianity becomes the religion of the whole world. Christianity extended its influence further when Cardinal Lavigirie founded The White Fathers, the Catholic institution whose purpose was and still is to confront Islam.(1) About the same time period Church Missionary Society (CMS) imposed upon itself the duty to deliver the world from Islam, ignorance and darkness.(2) The White Fathers are in Tanzania and are still involved in the work which brought them to the country more than a hundred years ago.

            When the Germans first arrived in Tanganyika they found Muslim already literate, they could read, write and count. The missionary Ludwig Krapf when he appeared at the court of Chief Kimweri of the Sambaa in 1848 he found him and his children          literate. They could read and write with ease. (3) The alphabet in use was the Arabic script. Being educated Muslims were employed by the German colonial government      as teachers, interpreters and administrators. The institution responsible for all this excellence and achievement was the madras. Missionaries and colonialists were envious of the level of educational advancement achieved by Muslims and therefore initiated plans to subvert its progress.”

Unlike the Arab Muslims, the Christians who came to EA were missionaries. Their mission was to spread Christianity and stop and reverse the advance and spread of Islam. The Christian missionaries worked and collaborated with the colonialist in their struggle to fight Islam. But they were also very well organised and knew how to capture and attract Africans to their faith. Wherever the Christian missions settled, they put up three major isntittutions which they used as the vehicle of attracting the Africans to Christianity. These were:

  1. The Church to take of the spirituality of the Africans;
  2. The Schools to influence the thinking of the Africans as well as create a work force for the church and the colonial empire; and
  3. The Hospital to cater for the well-being of the body.

Clearly, this was a well organised system and outpaced and over-manoeuvred the Muslims approach. As competition between Muslims and Christians intensified, some religious wars erupted which were eventually won by superior fire power and organisational capacity of the Europeans. So the Europeans introduced to EA the following key innovations:

  1. A secular education system that was based on Christian ideals. It was also better organised, supervised and maintained than the Qur’an school or madarasah  system.
  2. A new faith called Christianity that competed with Islam;
  3. A new administrative structure and soon out-paced the one used by Muslims;
  4. New technologies, goods and services that further changed the way of life of the Africans.

Clearly, by the end of the 19th century, EA had fallen under the full control of the Christian European colonialist who worked very closely with the christian missionaries to dominate the affairs of the EA peoples. Christianity became the official religion and English as the lingua franca replacing Islam and Arab language respectively. The Muslims became the underdogs and in many ways second class citizens in their countries. This scenario continued even after independence.

  1. Muslim education in EA

3.1       During the Colonial Period:    Education in EA during the colonial period was largely under the control of Christian missionaries. Most of the budget for education during the colonial period was given to the Missionaries who used it build good Christian schools. For example it is reported that in 1956 out of a total budget for education of £134,000 in Uganda, the muslims were given only £156!

            In most parts of the EA, the good schools were for Christians. It was a pre-requisite to be baptised first before being enrolled in these schools. Indeed, some of the first Muslim children who went to such schools were converted to christianity which angered most Muslim parents and they withdrew all their children from secular education schools. Many parents equated western education to kufr. As a result, Muslims lagged behind in secular education.

            In order to educate their children in Islamic Religious knowledge, muslims relied on the madarasa schools. Where there were no Qur’an school nearby, the other strategy used was to take their children to study from the homes of the few learned Muslims, popularly called Bawalimus  (basically menaing teachers from the Arabic word for teacher – Mu’alim) in Uganda. The children come from far places would stay at the Mu’alim’s home where they would also do a lot of house-hold work to contribute to their stay. The children would study on the veranda (kifugi in Luganda or Baraza in Kiswahili) of the house of the Mu’alim since they could not fit in the small sitting room of the house. This gave rise to what was called Kifugi or Veranda schools in Uganda.

            Eventually some few schools were established to teach Muslim children some secular education. In these schools very little Islamic knowledge was taught if any. Therefore, they remained unpopular and suspected of having been built to convert Muslim children to Christianity. So the few Muslim children who went to such schools learnt English and other secular subjects but lacked Islamic knowledge and indeed many of them were just Muslims in name but not practice. Other eventually either converted to Christianity or got married to Christians or simply remained marginal Muslims. Most of the teachers in such schools were Christians who had been dismissed from Christian schools for bad behaviours or poor teaching. There were very Muslim teachers qualified to teach secular subjects in Muslim schools. As a result, by the time of independence of the EA countries, there were very few muslims who had received both secular and Islamic education.  For example, at the time of Uganda’s independence in 1962, there were only two Muslim graduates! The situation was not much better in Kenya and Tanzania.

3.2       After independence:

3.2.1    As already stated, at the time of independence in the early 1960s, there were very few Muslim graduates. As a result, the colonialist handed over the independent EA countries to Christians as the new leaders and administrators. The christain run post-independence administrations simply continued most of the policies of the colonial governments especially in the field of education. As a result up to the present day governments in EA are dominated by Christian civil servants, technocrats, and key decision makers. Christian founded schools and other institutions such as hospitals are more and of better quality than those of Muslims. For example, in the A level examination results in Uganda released in February 2013, out of the best performing 100 secondary schools, only ------ were of Muslim foundation.

Dr Ahmad Kawesa Sengendo

3.2.2    The Qu’ran schools in Post-independence EA: The Qu’ran schools have remained the main avenue for the teaching of Islamic knowledge to muslim children in EA even after independence. The number of such schools has also increased and some of them have improved in terms of their facilities especially those that have been built by international Muslim NGOs such as Africa Muslims Agency, International Islamic Charitable Organisation, Muslim World League, Munadhamat Al-dawa Al-Islamiyyah, etc. However, inspite of some improvements in the Qu’ran schools, serious challenges still exist that need to be sorted out if these schools are prepare Muslim children for the challenges of living and working in the 21st  century. These include the following:

            Challenges of Qu’ran Schools:

  1. Lack of a common and standardises curriculum (syllabus);
  2. Lack of common and standardised examinations and certificates;
  3. Lack of pedagogical skills for the teachers;
  4.  Lack of enough qualified teachers;
  5. Poor facilities – lack of classrooms, teachers’ houses, pit latrines, books, etc.
  6. Poor management of the schools
  7. Lack of role models for pupils to copy
  8. Lack of or poor integration of secular knowledge in such schools;
  9. Small enrolments especially of girls;
  10. High dropout rates especially for girls;

As a result of the above challenges, the certificates given out by the Qu’ran schools are not recognised as opposed to certificates awarded by Christian seminaries which are well organised.

Inspite of the challenges that the Qu’ran schools face, one can say without any fear of contradiction, that the biggest achievement of the Qu’ran schools in EA is that they managed to keep the candle of Islam burning. Most of the sheikhs and Ulammahs in EA have been products of these Qu’ran schools. Some of the graduates of some of the Qu’ran schools have been able to go abroad in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, UAE, etc, where they joined famous universities such as Al-Azahr, Islamic University in Madina, Umm Al-Qura, etc, where they studied, some up to Ph.D, and came back as accomplished learned Sheikhs in their fields of specialisations. The main dilemma, however, remains that such graduates cannot find jobs in the traditional civil service in EA unless they in addition have studied secular professions.

Strategies for improving Qu’ran schools in Uganda

In order to streamline the operations of Qu’ran schools in Uganda, the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) has set up a panel of experts that has designed a common standardised curriculum for all Qu’ran schools in Uganda. This task has been accomplished and it is now being piloted in about 50 Qu’ran schools in Uganda. The panel has also set common examinations that have been running for now 3 years for both Idaad and Thanawi levels. Common certificates have also been awarded by the IUIU Qu’ran school examination secretariat.

After we are satisfied that the curriculum meets the intended goals and objectives, and that the examinations are well managed and meet the required standards, we shall request the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) and the Ministry of Education of Uganda to recognise the Idaad and Thanawi certificates as equivalent to the national O and A level certificates respectively. Once the experiment succeeds in Uganda, then we can replicate it in the other EA countries.

The need for a permanent Qu’ran school Secretariat: In order for the strategies put in place by IUIU to work very well, there is need to have a permanent secretariat to oversee the implementation of the standardised curriculum, set and manage examinations, organise in-service training and retraining of teachers, oversee the writing of appropriate books for the curriculum, source for teaching aids, etc. The University needs support to set up the permanent secretariat.

  1. Islamic Universities in EA

            Throughout the colonial period, higher education (HE) in EA was in the hands of the colonialist. Basically university education in EA was offered by the University of London which was setting the curriculum and examination system. English of course was the medium of instruction. Makerere University College in Uganda was the first university to established in EA but as a college of the University of London. Later it became the University of East Africa with branches in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In 1970, the branches in Nairobi and Dares Salaam became full universities of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam respectively. The three universities remained the only ones offering degrees in EA for a long time.

 The majority of students in these universities remained Christians up to an average of about 92% as Muslims constituted approximately 8% in Makerere and Nairobi universities. Even in Tanzania where Muslims are about 65% of the population, the percentage of Muslims in Dar es Salaam could not reach 20% as indicated in the two tables below taken from Mohamed Said’s article entitled “Intricacies and Intrigues in Tanzania: The Question of Muslim Stagnation in Education.)

            Religious Distribution University of Dar es Salaam 1971/72-1973/74          


Muslim %

Non-Muslim %

































  1. -





















                * Official Statistics not available

                ** Students selected for Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Science and  medicine not included.

                Source: 1969/70-1978/79 University of Dar es Salaam Students Directory.

                1979/80-1981/82 Daily News June 1979/1981.

              University of Dar es Salaam Student Enrollment (1985 – 1990)
















Because of lack of a critical mass of educated human resources, Muslims in EA could not participate effectively to development processes of their countries. What is more, they could not even properly and effectively manage Muslims institutions. They were also prone to internal contradictions and manipulations which made difficult for them to have a united effort towards improving their own situation.

5.1       The establishment of the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU)

The decision to establish IUIU was made in 1974 at a summit conference of the heads of states and kings of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) that was held in Lahore, Republic of Pakistan. The main goal of the University was to provide educational opportunities to Muslims in English-speaking African countries so as to enable them acquire knowledge and skill that would enable them to effectively participate in the socio-economic development of their countries. A second university would be built in Niger to cater for the French-speaking countries of Africa.

Due to political instability between 1978 and 1986, the university did not start until 1988. The University started on 10th February 1988 with 80 students and two degree programmes – i.e. Bachelor Islamic Studies and Arabic Language and Bachelor of Arts with Education. Inspite of many challenges that the University has experienced, it has far made significant achievements. These include the following:

  1. The number of students has increased from 80 in 1988  to now 8,553.
  2. The students come from 23 countries.
  3. The number of Faculties (colleges) has increased from 2 in 1988 to now 6 – i.e.
  • Faculty of Islamic Studies and Arabic Language,
  • Faculty of Education,
  • Faculty of Arts and social sciences,
  • Faculty of Management Studies,
  • Faculty of Science, and
  • Faculty of Law.
  • In addition there is a Centre for Postgraduate Studies.
  1. The number of academic programmes has increased to 57 offered in 22 academic departments.
  2. The number of campuses has increased from 1 in 1988 to now including a Females-only campus.
  3. The university has graduated over 14,000 students in various specialisations and disciplines. The IUIU graduates are found all over the world.
  4. The number of secondary school teachers so far produced can run all the Muslim founded secondary schools in Uganda.
  5. The university has so far produced over 500 masters degree and 40 Ph.Ds in various disciplines.
  6. Improved teaching facilities such as computers, lecture-rooms, books, science equipment, etc.
  7. Encouraged the establishment of other Islamic universities in EA.

     Future Plans of IUIU: The University is working on establishing a Faculty of Health       Sciences in 2013 and a Faculty of Engineering and Technology in 2015. We are also      working on introducing a Bachelor of Nursing degree in 2014. Other plans include      improving our research capacities, facilities and outputs.

5.2       Other Muslim-founded Universities in EA

            There are two other universities in Tanzania that are of Muslim foundation. They are:

  1. Zanzibar University

                        This is located in Zanzibar island. It was founded in 1998 and sponsored by the Darul Iman Charitable Association, an Islamic religious organization in Ontario, Canada.“ Zanzibar University received a Certificate of Provision Registration in 1999 and a Certificate of Full Registration on 4 May 2000”, according to its website.  It has 04 faculties and 02 institutes and offers 09 undergraduate and 2 postgraduate degree programmes and is introducing 5 new ones.                      

The faculties and Institutes are:

  • Faculty of Business Administration
  • Faculty of Law & Sharia
  • Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
  • Faculty of Engineering
  1. Institute of Postgraduate studies and Research
  2. Institute of Continuing Education
  1. The Muslim University of Morogoro

This located in Tanzania Main land in the town of Morogoro. Itws founded in October 2004 by the Muslim Development Foundation (MDF). It has five faculties offering seven (07) degree programmes – i.e.

  • Bachelor of  Arts Education
  • Bachelor of Science Education
  • BA Islamic Studies,
  • Bachelor of Business Studies
  • Bachelor of Shariah and Law
  • Bachelor of  Languages & Interpretation,
  • BA Mass communication

This university, like the other two, still need a lot of financial and material support.

  1.       Recommendations

      At anyone time in human history there is a driving force that propels society forward – an imperative. The imperative of the 21st century is education – more specifically         science and technology (S&T). Universities are the pinnacle of the educational system   all over the world. It is therefore critical that Muslims have universities that offer quality education especially in the S&T. The following recommends are worth       considering:

  1. More Islamic universities are needed in EA, especially in Kenya where there is none at all.
  2. There is need to develop the existing Muslim universities in EA so that they increase their capacities to admit more students and offer more programmes.
  3. The necessary facilities and resources must be found to introduce S&T programmes in all Muslim universities in EA.
  4. The research capacities of Muslim universities in EA must be developed to international standards.
  5. There is urgent need to training more academic staff for the Muslim universities in EA. Scholarships for masters and Ph.D programmes are urgently needed.
  6. There is also need to provide scholarships for poor students to study undergraduate programmes offered in the Muslim universities in EA.
  7. Linkages should be formed between Muslim universities in EA and those already advanced and developed universities in the Muslim world. This would enable collaborations in various fields including student and staff exchange, research, etc.
  8. An association bringing together Muslim universities in EA needs to be formed to enable these universities work together for the common good.
  9. Student and staff exchange between the Muslim universities in EA needs to be established.
  10. The environment in Muslim universities must be such that it enables the students to learn their religion besides the other disciplines. Indeed, the curriculum in Muslim education must be based on the Tawheed epistemology. The Islamic core values must form the basis of all activities in the Muslim universities. Hence academic excellence and moral uprightness must be the twin yardsticks for judging quality in Muslim universities.
  11. A Muslim Education Fund for EA needs to be established. Such a fund would offer scholarships, help to establish Awaqf for Muslim universities, and help with the capital development of Muslim universities in EA.
  1.       Conclusion

      As the World Bank clearly noted, “the welfare of nation cannot be greater than the education of its people.” The 21st century is one where socio-economic development depends more on the levels of S&T as well as research and development (R&D) than on possession of natural resources. Hence the 21st century society is a knowledge- driven society running a knowledge economy. If the Muslims of EA are to contribute effectively to the development processes of their countries, they must acquire quality education. They must also produce a critical mass of specialist in S&T as well as R&D. Living and working in a knowledge-driven society requires that one must continue learning well beyond the gates of the universities. Therefore, Muslim     universities in EA must of necessity teach their students to learn how to learn. This is in line with the Prophetic Hadith that states that one must learn from the cradle to the grave – obviously even in the grave one has to learn how to live there!

      Muslim universities in EA provide the best possible chance for elevating Muslims in this region to a level where they can be part of the solution, and not part of the problem, in solving the many problems that the citizens of EA still face. These universities still face many challenges and therefore need a lot of support from all stakeholders.

Written by Dr Ahmad Kawesa Sengendo

Rector of Islamic University in Uganda