Islam in Uganda: Two Contrasting Perspectives

Islam in Uganda: Two Contrasting Perspectives by  Revd Robert de Berry and Revd Amos Kasibante 

1. Revd Robert de Berry  

Islam’s arrival in Uganda, pre-dating that of the coming of Christianity, was mainly transmitted by the Arab slavers and traders arriving in Baganda.   From the arrival of the first CMS and then Catholic missionaries, tensions between the three religious expressions grew enormously. For both Kabakas, Mutesa (1856-84) and Mwanga, (1884-88 & 89-97), there was understandable confusion as they weighed up the religio-political claims and counter-claims of the Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. These, along with the fears of European empire building, contributed to awful violence in the 1880s-1890s. Subsequently, with Uganda becoming a British Protectorate, and with Christian education and medicine being provided by both Catholics and Protestants, it could be claimed that Uganda had become a majority Christian country.

Islamic allegiance, although in a minority, was always significant. Statistics are very fluid, but it is possible that Islam now accounts for up to twenty percent of the population. It has certainly grown in power and influence during the current century. Today there are areas of Uganda where Islam is particularly strong – Iganga, Mbale, Pallisa and West Nile especially, with a growing presence in towns such as Jinja and Mbarara. The majority of Muslims are Sunni, though Shi’ite and Ahmadi Muslims are also increasing.

Twice in the early “noughties” of this century, I had the privilege of baptising mbbs (Muslim background believers) in the Cathedral of South Rwenzori in Kasese. Several of them were women escaping polygamous marriages, which led the Mothers’ Union to provide training for them, to equip them with new skills to “free them up”.  Marriage, of course, is an area of life which involves Sharia law and with the growing economic power of Muslims there are repeated attempts to extend Sharia law into the whole of Ugandan Society, along with attempts to extend Muslim rules on banking. The Church of Uganda has its own expert analysing these trends, who travels the country to alert churches and government about the growing influence of Muslim demands.

Islamic strategies are different from those of China or the West. China is solely interested in economic exploitation and does nothing to promote communism. For instance, human rights issues are never allowed to interfere with trade. Western liberalism is essentially secular and in the distribution of development aid would only give value to humanitarian aid, rather than for its religious motivation. Islam has no such reticence and so the monies pouring into Africa from Middle Eastern states are there not only to provide essential infrastructure. That infrastructure will include the building of mosques, at regular intervals, along all Uganda’s main highways. Much of what I have experienced is anecdotal, but similar patterns can be detected in the whole of Uganda – the offers of educational opportunities in Arabic universities, start-up capital for small businesses as inducements to convert, encouragement to Muslim boys to make Christian girls pregnant, thereby claiming Islamic patronage of all consequent off-spring.

Dominating the sky-line from lower Kampala is that mosque built with Gaddafi funding in 2008. Subsequently renamed the National Mosque, it generates, as it intends to, a sense of power. Islam is so completely different from Christian faith – Muhammad from Jesus. Jesus died on a cross, an outcast, whose last utterances were of forgiveness.  Multi-married Muhammad died of natural causes, but had many military campaigns behind him. Christians have often behaved wickedly over the centuries, but in doing so they have betrayed Jesus and adopted a wrong sense of domination. Though some disagree there are those who think that for Muslims to resort to arms reflects a right Islamic sense of domination and endorses the intentions of their founder.

The countries around Uganda, particularly Kenya, have experienced the worst of Islamic extremism: the shopping mall butchery in Nairobi and the killing of Christian students in Gerissa come to mind.   Dangers within Uganda have mainly come from family/domestic cases relating to people leaving Islam for an allegiance to Christ. RELEASE INTERNATIONAL in its last “prayer shield” tells of two Christian boys in Kibuku threatened with death because of their conversion to Christ and the burning of the home which had sheltered them.  It also asks us to pray for 27 Christians, many seriously injured, by a Muslim mob in Pallisa.  A third example is of Elfranse, a Christian widow, who was murdered after resisting pressure to donate land for a new mosque in Luuka district.  Sadly, I have seen accounts of many more such incidents.

As is the case in the UK, in Uganda, there are many fine Muslims – people attempting to obey God and living peacefully with their neighbours, but the aggressive side of Islam is growingly evident – mosques built within yards of churches and bombarding them with the megaphoned calls to prayer being one example.  I remember, though, some years ago Bishop Zak Niringye, formerly Bishop of Kampala (and before that with CMS UK and CMS Africa) urging Christians not to be motivated by fear in their reactions to Islam.  Islam had its most fearful and triumphant moments under Idi Amin, but in many instances, those were the days when Christians came alive.  In areas of Uganda, where Islam is pre-dominant, as in West Nile, vigilance must be exercised.  Here, in areas around Yumbe, it was pointed out to me how mosques were being built on church land, so one of the areas of importance for the Church of Uganda is church land registration.

As yet, despite two atrocious incidents in July 2010, when 76 were killed while watching the Rugby World Cup finals,  Uganda has not experienced anything on the scale of terrorism of northern Nigeria The US embassy has issued several warnings about possible attack since 2014, so the country is always vulnerable. There have also been terrible tensions within the Muslim community of Muslim murdering Muslim.

In Britain, Christians are woefully ignorant of the teachings and origins of Islam and few clergy are trained in any understanding of it. In Uganda, there is perhaps a lesser ignorance. In part this is because Christians are very closely affected.  Even so, there is often complacency. It is vital for the Church of Uganda and other churches to engage with Muslims so as to understand and pray for them, but also to be quite clear that that God’s way to God is through Jesus, His Son, who uniquely died for the world and rose into the glories of heaven. Jesus can so wonderfully change hearts and attitudes.  He embraces within His love every Muslim neighbour

For further understanding about the teachings of Islam, I would enthusiastically recommend Nabeel Quereshi’s book, SEEKING ALLAH, FINDING CHRIST.

Revd Robert de Berry, who at one time worked in Teso, has since continued to take an active interest in Uganda.

 2.  Revd Amos Kasibante


The Uganda Census of 2014 put the figures for religious affiliations as follows; (bracketed figures reflect the 2002 census). Out of a population of some 35 million, Catholics 39.3% (41.6%), Church of Uganda (Anglican) 32% (36.7%), Muslims 13.7% (12.4%), Pentecostals 11.1% (4.7%): other Christian denominations, other faiths and indigenous religions make up the balance. So compared with the 2002 Census the Pentecostals have grown far more than the Muslims. While the figures do not tell the whole story, they at least help to shed some light on the demographic strength of the different religious affiliations in the country.

Over the last three decades there has been a surge in Islamic mission and expression in the country, though this has been more in terms of developing their own infrastructure and gaining a firm grasp of their faith than converting Christians and other non-Muslims. To understand the new surge in Islam, one needs to appreciate the position and influence of Christianity and Islam on politics, economics and education in Uganda during the period of British rule and in the immediate post-independence period.

Islamic influence in the kingdom of Buganda, from which the new religions (Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) spread to the rest of the country, waned significantly after the mid-1890s. Thereafter, the political, economic and religious scene was dominated by Christians. Both Catholics and Anglicans excelled in building schools and hospitals, which Muslims also attended. The Muslims had few schools that were equal to those of the Catholics and Protestants. Muslims also made few strides in education, although some Muslims reached high academic levels. Overall, many Muslims were over-represented in low-level jobs such as butchers, taxi driving, and small shops.

This background partly explains the attempt of Idi Amin to promote Muslim power and influence and persecution of the church. But the other reason was to impress his backers in the Islamic world. One such backer was Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi who donated money for the construction of the Gaddafi National Mosque at Old Kampala, which perhaps stands more as a monument to Gaddafi himself than to the influence of Islam in Uganda.

1988 saw the inauguration of the Islamic University at Mbale in eastern Uganda, a project which had been conceived in the 1970s by the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). But since then both the Catholic Church and the Church of Uganda have opened their own universities which seem to have a higher profile that that of the Islamic University.

There has been a new energy among Muslims to raise their profile in the areas of mission, education, health, economics and politics. They will have received funding from friendly Islamic countries and organisations. Still, a major complaint of many educated Muslims – some being my personal acquaintances – is that they have received a raw deal when it comes to government political appointments and that the bulk of the positions go to Christians.

Part of the Islamic surge in Uganda has come in the form of a militant brand of Islam called the Tablikh. Their leadership today would be in their late 40s or mid-50s, but when it started in the mid-1980s, it was mainly a movement of youthful Muslims who felt that the old guard who controlled the mosques were reactionary and did not work for the good of Islam or the youth. While this group engaged in some violent actions in their attempts to take over mosques, their target was not Christians as such, even if some of them still see non-Muslims as infidels, but the Muslim establishment itself.

The growth of Islam in Uganda over the last decade pales into insignificance in comparison to that of the Christian Pentecostal churches. Moreover, many Muslims have been demoralised by the recent spate of murders of prominent Muslim Sheikhs without the police apprehending, bringing to court and securing the conviction and sentence of a single culprit.

For the most part, relations between Christians and Muslims in Uganda are cordial. There is even a National Inter-religious Council in the country.