Even though Christianity came to Uganda 33 years after the arrival of Islam, the Christian missionaries’ organization and education allowed them to surpass Muslims in spreading their religion. This is the statement made evident by Dr. Ahmad Kawesa Sengendo, Rector of the Islamic University in Uganda.
Interview conducted by: Sara Takroni and Najeeb Al-Yafie
Can you tell us about the Muslim community in Uganda?
Islam reached Uganda in 1844, where the first group of Muslim traders came to Uganda through the east African coast, they were mainly from Oman. Because they were traders, they did not spend a lot of time in Dawah in Uganda, but with Islam being a practical religion, these traders used to pray, and used to fast. The Africans who were helping them used to see what these Muslims were doing and would learn Islam. Eventually, Islam started spreading to other parts of the country and now the Muslim community in Uganda constitutes 30% of the population—that’s about 10 million people, because the population of Uganda in about 33-34 million people. So, Uganda has more Muslims than Libya, more Muslims than many other Arab countries.
You said that the rate of Muslims in Uganda in 30%, is that the official rate? Is it accurate?
Since historical times, the official number of Muslims has always been lower than in actuality. I can recall the first census was in 1959, the percentage of Muslims was officially stated to be 10%. To this day, they say that the Muslims are about 12%, when clearly the rate of population growth is much higher in Muslims than Christians, because many Muslims have more than one wife and have many children—a Muslim family on average has about 10-15 children. I know a Muslim family that has 50 children.
So we believe that the official figures are deliberately lower, but many studies indicate that Muslims make up at least 30% of Uganda. If you go to the neighboring countries, Tanzania is 65% Muslim, but you never hear about it at all—it’s a Muslim majority country, Kenya is about 40%, Ethiopia is supposed to be about 55% Muslim, Malawi is about 40%. So, these are sizable Muslim minorities, and in some cases majorities, but because of the lack of effective education, many of these Muslims have not been able to play an effective role in the socio-economic situation of their countries, and that is where the real strategic thinking must be, how to empower Muslims in Africa to be able to get a good education, knowledge, profession, and of course good Islamic values and morals so that they can better contribute to their country, and to also show a good image of Islam. This is where the challenge is—empowering the Muslims with knowledge and skill to be able to fend for themselves and also contribute to the socio-economic development of their countries.
Who represents Muslims officially in Uganda?
In 1972, there was an attempt to unite Muslims, so the United Muslim Supreme Council was created. That is the official body representing Muslims. Unfortunately, like in other countries, the Muslims find that in spite of that structure, the Muslims are always divided for one reason or another. We have much work to do amongst ourselves; to be able to unite ourselves, resolving our differences, and working together for the common good.
That being said, in every problem, there are advantages; you just need to look for them. That kind of disunity, has enabled Islam to expand. It’s miraculous; Allah works in many different ways. You see, when the Muslims are in one group, and they disagree and separate into two groups, both of these groups remain Muslim. One group will build a mosque, and another will build a mosque as well; where you would have had one mosque, now you have two. One group will build a school, and another will build a school as well; where you would have had one school, now you have two. So, in the process of this apparent problem, there are many advantages, which in the long run, could be useful for Muslims, Allah knows best. Nonetheless, unity is important.
Are there specific tribes that are a Muslim majority?
Africa is an interesting continent. First of all, it is the only continent where the Muslims are a majority; Africa is a Muslim continent. In my country, Uganda, alone we have over 60 tribes. Is there a particular tribe that is more Muslim than another? Not really, especially in eastern Africa. In some tribes there are few Muslims, in others there are many Muslims. If you take West Africa for instance, most of the Hausa are Muslims, while the Igbo would not have many Muslims. In Uganda specifically, most Muslims are from a tribe called Baganda, we also have tribes in the west Nile region who are Muslims.
When it comes to other tribes like the Karamojong, who are cousins of the Maasai, there are not many Muslims, but in the coast, due to the influence of the middle-east, you find many Muslims. So basically, many Muslims live in urban areas as opposed to rural areas, because of trade. But by and large, you would not be able to find a tribe where there are no Muslims—this is the beauty of Islam in Africa.
Terrorism has no religion
How integrated is the Muslims community in Uganda with the remainder of the society?
The Christian missionaries came to Uganda about 33 years after Islam, but because they were well organized as missionaries, they were able to spread Christianity very fast. Where ever they went they would build a church, build a hospital, and a school. In the process, they were able to overtake the Muslims in numbers. When the British colonialists came, they assisted the Christian missionaries. So, as of now, Uganda is a Christian majority country; the Muslims are a sizable minority, but Thanks to God, the political system enables the Muslims to practice their religion freely. We have no hindrances, we can build our own schools, build mosques, we can teach our children Islam, women can wear hijab, and we can do many other Islamic activities.
Of course, because the majority of people are Christians, Muslims sometimes feel left out in some aspects of social life and political life. For instance, out of a cabinet of 69 ministers, there would only be 6 Muslim ministers. In the field of education, the Muslims were left behind, so much so that at the time of independence, there were only 2 Muslim graduates, but Thanks to God and thanks to the various efforts including that of the Islamic University in Uganda the number of Muslim graduates has increased, and Muslims are able to play a more effective role in the socio-economic development of Uganda.
Now that you mentioned the Muslims’ socio-economic role in society, can you tell us specifically what kind of developments they made?
The Muslims have made tremendous strides in the field of education. The number of schools has increased. We also have a university, which was the first private university in Uganda. We have many Muslims in trade. We have many mosques. In agriculture, the Muslims are also there. In business, we have many Muslims engaged in businesses.
Of course, the level of poverty among the Muslims is still high, which is a major concern that we need to be able to address. This poverty is mainly due to the low level of education, which is what we are trying to address as of now, especially among the Muslim girls. Generally in Africa, women are left behind in education among other aspects, but among the women, the Muslim women are even worse off. So we are trying to make some deliberate attempts to address the issue of education and healthcare among women. Now, a hospital is being built, where some female Muslim doctors have started a clinic where the women can go and be able to get some attention. We are working on many other aspects. The odds are many, but Thanks to God there is progress. Given the fact that the political leadership does not interfere in the affairs of Muslims, that gives us the capacity to be able to move forward in a more coherent and strategic way.
In light of the events currently taking place in the world, and especially after September 11th, has the Islamophobia phenomenon been evident in Uganda?
The Islamophobia virus has spread to all parts of the world, and Uganda is not an exception, especial now that we are living in a global village where the media creates the barriers. In Uganda, we have had problems relating to terrorism—in July last year, we had a bomb blast in Kampala, killing people. Of course, the usual excuse is to blame it on Muslims. So, we’ve had our own share of the difficulties associated with 9/11, Islamophobia, and equivocating Islam to terrorism. But, as time goes by, people would understand that there is a difference between Islam and Muslims. Islam is not the same as Muslims. There are many good Muslims who do good things to improve the image of Islam, but there are also Muslims who do wrong things that are out of the fold of Islam, and it would be wrong to associate that with Islam; just as we have Christians who do good things and Christians who do bad things. The person responsible for the Oklahoma bombing was not a Muslim, the people who committed atrocities in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina were not Muslims, the people who started the First and Second World War were not Muslims, the people who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not Muslims. So, terrorism is not confined to a specific religion, it is the mental state of certain individuals, regardless of their religion, color, or race, and it is wrong for anyone to equate it to a particular faith or way of belief.
We as Muslims have a duty to improve the image of Islam and to project the correct image of Islam. There are many Muslim who do not understand Islam—and to me that is the biggest threat—and therefore, do things in the name of Islam. We also have Christians who do not understand Islam and think that they do. Once we have this cocktail of ignorance, and social and economic pressures, you have a recipe for worldly competition and many social evils.
But we must all try to find a common ground, because theoretically, the dividing line between Islam and Christianity is very thin and very porous. As a Muslim, I cannot be a Muslim unless I believe in Jesus, in his miraculous birth, in the miracles he performed with God’s permission, and his second coming. Where the Muslims differ fundamentally is when the Christians say that Jesus is the son of God. Muslims would then say: no, he is an honorable prophet of God, yes born miraculously, but that is not the biggest miracle; Adam, the first man, he did not have a father or mother. So we have many common aspects with the Christians and in many cases the Jews. It is up to us as human whether we want to concentrate on the things that bind us together or the things divide us. If we were to concentrate on what binds us together, we would be able to make the world a better place for all of us.
How involved are the Ugandan Muslims in media?
Well, media is one of our weaknesses, but now, everyone is now realizing the power of media. There have been some efforts in media however. We have FM radio stations that are operated by Muslims; even though, they are few compared to the Christian stations, but they are able to convey the message of Islam. We are not involved in printed media yet, there are few, but they are not consistent. We also do not have a television station yet.
However, in the Islamic University, we have a department of mass-communication, where we train many of our students in mass-communication, and are now working on starting our own FM radio station. The government has already approved a license for us, we bought some of the equipment, but we need assistance in buying the remaining equipment and to put up our own towers. We are making strides, but we are still way behind in that area, which is extremely crucial.
The Islamic University of Uganda
Can you tell us about the Islamic university?
The Islamic University in Uganda is an institution established by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was established to address a historical imbalance. The colonialists in east Africa, just like elsewhere, deliberately left out the Muslims in education. So the Muslim heads of states met in 1974 in Lahore, Pakistan, and asked why the Muslims were so weak? What went wrong in the past? They realized that one of the historical problems was the lack of education in Muslims. So they decided to set up Islamic universities; two in Africa, one in Niger to support the French speaking countries, and one in Uganda to serve the English speaking African countries. Of course they also established one in Pakistan, one in Malaysia, and many other Islamic universities.
However, even though the decision was made in 1974, the university did not start until 1988—that’s a gestation period of 14 years. When we started in 1988, we had 80 students, and two degree programs. Since then the university has developed to serving 7,000 students from 21 countries. So far, we have had 13,000 graduates, who are now serving in the public and private sector. In Uganda, one of the governmental ministers was a student of ours, we also have over 20 members of parliament, many in the civil service, the police, the army, and the commander of the Ugandan air force was also a former student of the Islamic university.
Of course, we also have non-Muslim students as well in the Islamic university; about 30% of ours students are Christians. We have 6 faculties; the faculty of Islamic studies and the Arabic language, the faculty of education, arts and social sciences, management studies, science, and the faculty of law. We also have a center for post-graduate studies.
What effect do your students have on economics, politics, social services etc.?
Our graduates have played a very significant role. For instance before we started graduating teachers from our university, you would go to a Muslim secondary school and realize that all the teachers are Christians. You would even find in some schools Christians teaching Islam. Now, we have enough Muslim teachers to run all our schools and more. We are now exporting some of our teachers to other countries. As I said previously, our students were able to contribute to society greatly. Thanks to God, the social impact of the university in real. The university also enjoys much legal support from the government.
The challenges are still many. The funding of the university is still not very good, because we get limited funding from the OIC, along with a few donations from Al-Nahyan foundation of Emirates, and the Zakat house of Kuwait, along with Iqraa and other organizations. But by and large, we are 90% dependent on student tuition fees, which is a problem, because many of the students come from poor backgrounds, and about 20% of them fail to pay their fees. It is very painful to see a bright young girl or boy who could have become a future professor failing to move forwards due to poverty.