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The Significance of Ramadan Across the Continent

Aired December 8, 2001 - 12:30:00   ET


TUMI MAKGABO, CNN ANCHOR: On this edition of INSIDE AFRICA: Observing Ramadan -- a look at what this holy month means for millions of Muslims on the continent. We'll travel to Africa's largest city, Cairo, for an evening of feasting after a day of fasting. Then, to South Africa, where professional Muslim soccer players who've given up food and drink continue to successfully compete. And, excavating the Islamic roots of an ancient archaeological site in Morocco.

Hello. I am Tumi Makgabo. Welcome to INSIDE AFRICA as we look at news and life on the continent.

Now this week, we are focusing on the Islamic faith in Africa, as Muslims approach the end of the holy month of Ramadan. How was the month observed in some countries? Well, our camera lens has followed a few people, hoping to get a better understanding of what Ramadan means for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

To do that, we must first explore the history of the religion on the continent, and for that, we turn to Gordon Robertson.


GORDON ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A call to prayer in Nigeria, one of the many African countries with a majority Muslim population. Islam was once an alien religion in Africa, but after centuries of expansion and growth, today, it is the faith of a large percentage of the population. Islam arrived on the continent in the 7th century when people fleeing persecution in Mecca sought refuge in Abyssinia, today's Ethiopia. But it made no significant gains there.

In 641 A.D., Arab commander Amr Ibn El-As led his army into Egypt and established a stronghold there. Islam then began to spread rapidly throughout North Africa.

MARY JANE DEEB, ISLAM EXPERT: By the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 8th century, in fact, the whole region had been impacted by Islam. It doesn't mean they became Muslims. It simply means that the leaders in North Africa were -- the military leaders and the political leaders were Muslims.

ROBERTSON: A century later, Islam reached West Africa and other countries south of the Sahara. It spread primarily through trade and military conquest.

DEEB: Islam in sub-Saharan Africa spread also in the first 300 years -- that is the region from Somalia and then today, Chad, Mali, Niger, Senegal. It was, first, by military conquest. It was, second, by trade. And Africa -- North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have been trading for centuries, even before Islam. And during the spread of Islam, ideas as well as products moved from the Arabian Peninsula through Africa. And over the next 500 years, that is from the 8th to, let's say, the 12th/13th century, Islam really spread in the northern third, if you want, of the African continent.

ROBERTSON: The conquering Muslims established political kingdoms. In West Africa, there were three ancient kingdoms that helped the rapid spread of Islam. They included the Ghanaian Empire -- no relation to today's Republic of Ghana, the Malian Empire, and the Kingdom of Songhai. Leaders like Mansa Khan Khan Musa of the Malian Empire made Islam the state religion, stepping up, what some call, the "Islamization" of the continent.

Even today, the religion is said to be growing rapidly.

MELVIN FOOTE, PRESIDENT, CONSTITUENCY FOR AFRICA: West Africa, you have large Muslim communities. I think Islam is a growing presence in Africa. Yes, I think I am going to, you know, deviate from radical Islam versus, you know, secular Islam. I think Islam is a growing presence on the continent, and it's going to continue so as we move through the century.

ROBERTSON: Today's statistics vary on the number of Muslims on the continent. Some experts say about 33 percent to more than 50 percent of the nearly 800 million people in Africa are Muslims. In countries like Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, Muslims represent a significant portion of the total population. Countries where more than half the population is Muslim include Nigeria, Benin, Chad, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Togo and Sudan. And in North Africa, more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim.

Gordon Robertson, for INSIDE AFRICA.


MAKGABO: Now, with that in mind, where else to begin our look at Ramadan? That's in North Africa, the stronghold of the Islamic faith on the continent. In a region where nearly everyone is Muslim, this is a period of atonement.

James Martone is in Cairo.


JAMES MARTONE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A canon sounds the end of the fast. In Africa's biggest city Cairo, millions begin to eat after the long day of abstention. Many choose to do so outside famous religious sites such as this mosque dedicated to Hussain, a grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammad.

"It is an antique, ancient Islamic place," says Magdi Mohammad (ph), "and here you get the true feeling of Ramadan."

Most of Egypt's population of 67 million are Muslim, and they adhere to the strict rules of the fast: no food, no drink and no sex from sunup to sunset. Prayer, essential for most Egyptians at all times, becomes even more so at Ramadan, which marks Angel Gabriel's revelations of the word of God, "Allah," to Prophet Mohammad in the early 600s.

It's a time to love each other, says Egypt's highest authority on Islam.

MOHAMED SAYID TANTAWI, SHEIK AL AZHAR (through translator): Ramadan is the month when every gather on the basis of love, affection and cooperation and obedience to Allah and charity, and rejection of sin and aggression.

MARTONE: Mervith Ebrahim (ph) says she teaches her kids to be humble during Ramadan and think of others.

"I am severe with them, make them pray and think of others, and think of what it would be like to live without," she says.

(on camera): As the end of Ramadan approaches, so do preparations for the "Eid-e Sohaiyar (ph)," Arabic for the small feast which comes after it. There'll be presents and new clothes for children, an expensive but welcome tradition for parents.

James Martone, CNN, Cairo.


MAKGABO: Now, if you have access to the Internet and would like to read a little bit more about Ramadan, you can logon to our Web site at And while you're there, remember to take part in our quick vote, and post your thoughts on our message board.

Now, still to come on INSIDE AFRICA: Bringing history to life. Moroccan experts work to restore the remnants of an ancient Islamic civilization. Stay with us.


MAKGABO: In focus this week, Tunisia. This North African nation is 98 percent Muslim. It's home to the sacred Islamic city of Al-Haroon (ph), designated a world heritage site in 1988. Tunisia is famous for its great mosques, such as this one in the capital, Tunis. Other attractions include its French Colonial architecture, its beach resorts, and its fine cuisine. These features bring nearly five million tourists to the country each year.

MAKGABO: Now, still in North Africa, we turn our attention to efforts to preserve the treasures of early Islamic civilization in Morocco. And with that story, is Femi Oke -- Femi.

FEMI OKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello there, Tumi. Hello, everybody there watching INSIDE AFRICA at home. We've had a special favorite word this week as we've been putting together the Ramadan program for you. That word is "Volubilousness (ph)"; sounds excellent, doesn't it?

What does it have to do with the development of Islam in North Africa?

Well, Sylvia Smith has the story.


SYLVIA SMITH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The ancient site of Volubilis, the best-known archaeological site in North Africa. It's here the Romans made their capital when Morocco was part of the Province of Mauritania-Tingitana. It's here in the middle of a vast sun-bleached plain that the Emperor Kara Kala (ph) built his celebrated triumphal arch. Marking something we all appreciate today: a tax break.

But today, Moroccan experts have another focus: the city's other incarnation, that of an Islamic settlement.

YOUSSEF BOKBOT II, ARCHAEOLOGIST (through translator): Starting in the 1980s, we began training Moroccan archaeologist, either in Rabat or abroad. I'm one of the first generation of Moroccan archaeologists, and we have another focus. That's why we are interested in pre-Roman and Islamic periods.

SMITH: The Moroccans have teamed up with British scholars to preserve the treasures of this historic city. The work will offer clues, if not answers, to many questions concerning early Islam, as it's swept across the entire region and up into Spain.

LISA FENTRESS, UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON: What we're here for? We knew so much about the Roman town, and we know so very, very little about the Islamic side. And what our Moroccan colleagues wanted very much of this mission with the joint mission concentrating on what happened after Rome. It's a bulk (ph) subject elsewhere, but it's particularly important in Morocco, where we know so very, very little about the archaeology of the Islamic world.

SMITH: These spectacular mosaics found in the remains of affluent Roman mansions are being scrutinized for damage. Since the roofs fell in they have been exposed, and plants and moss are beginning to cover the scenes they depict. The mosaics may be a big pull. Over a hundred thousand tourists visit Volubilis each year.

But even more visitors are expected, once the Islamic site is excavated.

BOKBOT II (through translator): Here we came across structures from the medieval Islamic village. You can see the walls and entrance. There are techniques that are representative of the Islamic era.

SMITH: For the Moroccans, this joint project is an opportunity to learn about one of the oldest sites in the country and to raise the funds to preserve it.

BOKBOT II (through translator): It's very likely that we'll find the mosque that goes with this Islamic town, a mosque that could date from the 7th to the 11th centuries.

SMITH: Recovering the mosque will undoubtedly draw even more visitors to the site.

For CNN's INSIDE AFRICA, this is Sylvia Smith in Volubilis, Morocco.


OKE: You can always rely on Sylvia Smith to give us a fascinating view inside North Africa.

That's it from me, and I'll see you a little bit later. But in the meantime, here's Tumi.

MAKGABO: Femi, thank you very much.

Now, during Ramadan, there is no halt to the basic routine of life. Although Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex, schools and workplaces remain open. So do recreational facilities. And the continent's number one sporting activity, football, definitely goes on.

Paul Tilsley followed the Muslim players and coaches of one team during a recent visit to Durban, South Africa.


PAUL TILSLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Santos touched down in Durban for a premiere league fixture with the mighty AmaZulu. The owner, manager, assistant coach, and captain of these Cape Town based team are all Muslim. It's now 11:30. They last had something to eat and drink eight hours ago. While non-Muslim players tuck in to a hearty pre-match feast at the team hotel, Captain Esdrin Burton sits patiently nearby. Upstairs, assistant coach Abubakaar Solomons washes in preparation to turning East before kick off. It's 2:00 p.m. and alert, focused, Burton is en route the game.

EDRIS BURTON, CAPTAIN SANTOS: I think I'm ready for the game now, you know. I relaxed a couple of hours. So, I think (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the weather and everything else and that's overcast, it's raining. Normally it's hot here, but it should be OK.

TILSLEY: But it's still 25 degrees and humid, and the fasting players can't drink to stave off dehydration, can't eat if they feel hungry.

ABUBAKAAR SOLOMONS, ASST, COACH. SANTOS: When you've got an empty stomach, you actually play better. You just need the energy, you know, but you play much better and you think better on an empty stomach.

TILSLEY: Burton leads by example in the pre-match warm-up. Craggy coach Gordon Ingesund, the only non-Muslim senior squad member, says religion itself is not an issue between himself and the captain.

GORDON INGESUND, COACH, SANTOS: Not at all the religion, but, you know, when he does fast -- everybody knows a good football players has a good diet as well, you know. And he doesn't eat, you know, for so many -- for so long. So obviously, he needs his strength, and it does affect us a little bit.

TILSLEY: Certainly, there is no outside sign of weakness from the captain. Perhaps, with reason.

(on camera): Every player here is professional. So fasting Muslim players must somehow stay at peak physical condition so that they can remain competitive and keep their jobs.

BURTON: It's very difficult; you may put it that way. And I think if you are not of strong belief, strong of character, it's going to be even worse for you. And I think I'm that type of person and that type of individual. As a captain, you know, you got to lead. So it puts that sort of added pressure on you as well.

TILSLEY: Manager Afzal Khan recognizes that in countries like Nigeria, it's quite common for soccer players to be Muslim. But, he claims, sportsmen there, maybe, find it easier to fast.

AFZAL KHAN CHIEF EXEC., SANTOS: Well, I think they'll become easier because everyone of them is fasting and, you know, the whole culture around that city or that suburb is Islamic, and everyone is fasting.

TILSLEY: It's 7:00 p.m., and for the first time for more than 16 hours, food and drink is passing their lips. A Durban Muslim soccer boss has invited Santos colleagues to break the fast in his home. The industry in South Africa has, if anything, closed ranks, become closer since the events of September 11.

SOLOMONS: It doesn't affect us at all. And it didn't affect anything in our circumstances, because we are quite clear and we are like families together. And, you know, irrespective of what your religion is, we treat each other like brothers and sisters.

TILSLEY: And the core of Santos prays with their hosts. Fasting has not daunted them. The team is strong in faith and in deeds. Santos have two matches in hand, and are second in the South African Premiere League.

Paul Tilsley, for INSIDE AFRICA, Durban.


MAKGABO: And just ahead on INSIDE AFRICA: Interpreting Sharia Law in Northern Nigeria. We'll meet a woman whose execution has been put on hold during Ramadan.


MAKGABO: And welcome back.

Now, one aspect of the Islamic religion that stirs controversy in some countries is the interpretation of Sharia Law. Sharia Law is a system of governance based on the teachings in the Koran. In many African countries with large Muslim populations, this is not an issue because Sharia is not practiced. In Nigeria, many northern States, however, have begun to adopt the system. Now, one woman, convicted by a Sharia Court, is crying foul.

This report, now, from Jeff Koinange.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Meet Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu, 35, divorced mother of five. And this, for her, is death row. She's been convicted of adultery, and under Sharia Law practiced in Nigeria's Muslim north, the maximum penalty is death. She lives in this village just outside the ancient city of Sokoto, bedrock of Islam, and a place where time seems to have stood still. Everything about it is a throwback from Biblical times.

"There is no justice," she says. "Sharia has been unfair to me in that there are no just grounds for such a harsh sentence."

Safiya says she is the victim of repeated rape by a man whom the Sharia Court found not guilty due to lack of sufficient evidence.

"I'm not guilty," she says. "The man attacked me three times, and God is my only witness. Only God can save me now, because I have no witnesses to testify otherwise."

Sharia Law here dictates her penalty. She'll be put in a pit up to her neck while several hand-picked men stone her to death. It's a method as ancient as it is barbaric, and that practice has been condemned by human rights groups and Nigeria's president.

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO, NIGERIAN PRESIDENT: Sharia Court can also allow us to appeal.

KOINANGE (on camera): So you're confident that this will not happen?

OBASANJO: I believe it may not happen.

KOINANGE (voice-over): Despite his calls for clemency, it's not clear how he plans to keep his promise. Her lawyer says the tragedy extends beyond the method of death to how Sharia affords the accused a chance to defend themselves. Safiya had no lawyer at trial.

ALIYU MUSA YAWURI, SAFIYA'S LAWYER: She was not represented. Both the Constitution and even the Sharia legal system provide for legal representation. She is supposed to have been informed of her rights to legal services of a lawyer. You can see how she is living in utter poverty. She doesn't even -- she is not even aware of these rights. Nobody bothered to explain these rights to her.

KOINANGE: And many here worry that the poverty of many defendants makes for a double standard.

NASURU MUSA YAWRI, USMANU DANFODO UNIVERSITY: We have to assure ourselves that others are not, you know, committing similar offenses and getting away with it. I think that is a fundamental question people are asking. You know, we -- if it is going to be applied, let it be applied across the board. Whoever, you know, does a similar offense, should also be punished in a similar manner.

KOINANGE: In the meantime, Safiya is trying to live a normal life, torn between doing her daily chores and telling her children that she may not be with them for much longer. She's especially concerned for 10-month- old Sakina (ph), whom she is still breast-feeding.

"I just wish they can withdraw this case and let me go on with my life," she says.

(on camera): Sentencing was to have taken place these past week, but it's been postponed because it falls in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Safiya, therefore, has a two-week stay of execution before her appeal is heard and her fate determined. Translation: the jury is still out on whether she lives or dies.

In Sokoto, Nigeria, I'm Jeff Koinange for INSIDE AFRICA.


MAKGABO: And finally, a return to Egypt. But this time, the pre- Islamic era -- a collection of art from early Egyptian history.


DR. PETER LACOVARA, CURATOR OF ANCIENT ART: This exhibition of the Thalassic collection is all assembled by one man, Theodore Halkedis, and it's probably the largest private Egyptian collection, certainly, in the country if not in the world. And it's being shown publicly for the first and only time here at the Carlos Museum, in Atlanta.

It's wonderful, because it has such a range of depth and quality and time. It stands from the Predynastic period, around 4,000 B.C., right up until the Roman period in the 1st century A.D.

he really had a wonderful eye; and so the title of the exhibition, "The Collector's Eye," really points out that sort of eye of a collector in picking out particularly fine pieces and unusual materials, as you'll see.

He got interested in collecting by an unusual route. He started collecting grand tour objects, which where souvenirs that sort of wealthy European gentlemen brought back from distant lands in the 18th and 19th century. And then he specifically got interested in Egyptian things. It's just a mania with sort of this craze for things Egyptian.

And then this is a wonderful clock, which is really sort of apparently Egyptomania. It's a French clock, and they've actually copied real Egyptian pieces that were in the Louvre museum. These are tiles that came from the step pyramid at Sukara (ph). And that step pyramid was the first pyramid and the first stone building in history, actually. And they lie in the underground chambers. They were meant to imitate reed matting on the walls.

This is Amenhotep III, or Amenhotep the Magnificent, as he's sometimes called, because he was one of the greatest builders of ancient Egypt.

Well, this is the son of Amenhotep III, Akhnaton, who is famous for changing the religion to the worship of one god instead of many gods. And it shows him worshipping the Aton, which is shown in the form of a sun disk.

These are wonderfully preserved vessels. And they probably come from the embalmer's cache, from the material left over from making the mummy for Ramses II.


MAKGABO: Well, thanks to Nadia Lancy (ph), one of our team members for taking us along. "The Collector's Eye" is on view at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. Now, for more information, all you have to do is go to Once again,

And as always, INSIDE AFRICA loves to hear from you. So if you have a comment about the program and know of an event that we should be adding to our calendar, why not e-mail us at"? Your response may be used on a future broadcast.

And that's all for this week. Thanks for joining us and hope you're tuning in again next week. I'm Tumi Makgabo.





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