In contrast to its arrival in North Africa, where Islam had been brought by invading Arabs, the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa followed a mostly peaceful and unobtrusive path.
Religious wars of jihad came late – in the 18th and in the 19th centuries – and Islam was diffused not by outsiders (except in the early years) but by indigenous traders, clerics and rulers. These carriers of faith were natives and therefore identified culturally and socially, as well as ethnically with the potential converts," writes Sylviane A. Diouf in her historic 1998 book, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in The Americas.
So when the Western press reported that Timbuktu, the historic African city of learning and scholarship, fell under the domination in 2012 of the Islamist group Al-Qaeda, it failed to mention that its inhabitants were Muslim and the city had historically been home to early Islamic literature and learning.
"The early Arab writers that looked at Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, as some kind of syncretic (blending) or mixture between African tradition and Islam…That is the wrong word to use," said Chekh Anta Babou, a Ph.D. who specializes in Islam in Africa.
"As it relates to (the advent of) Islam, there has been a long process of what I call incubation, or what you might say a long conversation that (has) lasted for centuries between Islam and African traditional religions," said Babou, an associate professor in history at the University of Pennsylvania. "So what resulted is the consequences of a very long conversation rather than the imposition of a dominant political and military power."
Islam, according to Babou, was brought to sub-Saharan Africa "by traders, by holy men and by teachers, across the Sahara.
Babou also cautioned that Muslims shouldn't reduce the religion to mandates of "a long beard or short pants … or dressing a certain way. "That's what (makes) transforming religion into a bunch of gestures dangerous." He said Muslims must take the "spirit of the law instead of a directional approach because then wherever you are," your outward expression still helps define your faith.
In Senegal, his native land the weather is quite warm, and he said women can wear what they want, as long as it is modest.
"When the book says to Prophet Muhammad's wife to dress modestly, don't show your adornment. That is what the message (to the wider community) is. A women can dress in a way that respects modesty in the local culture," Babou said.