Islam and Christianity Growing in Africa

The Pope’s visit to Africa highlighted the rapid growth of Christianity on the continent, while Islam is growing at an equally fast rate.


“If demography is destiny, then Christianity’s future lies in Africa.” Such was one headline conclusion of a report by the Pew Research Centre into the changing nature of the religious landscape worldwide.

The US research organisation for the study of religion and public life has estimated that Africa has the world’s third largest Catholic population and fast-growing Pentecostal churches. It says that by 2050, the number of Christians in Africa will double, meaning that 40% of the world’s Christian population will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pew Research Centre also suggests that the number of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa will almost double to 27% of the population by 2060.

Although Africa was a major centre of Christian witness in the first three centuries after Christ (and the birthplace of influential Christian writers and theologians such as Origen, Tertullian and Augustine) it diminished in importance as Islam advanced westwards in the 7th and 8th centuries CE.

While North Africa has continued to be largely Muslim in make-up, sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing an enormous growth in Christian affiliation. The Pew Research Centre put the share of the Christian population in this region at 9% in 1910 rising to 63% in 2010.

As sub-Saharan Christianity continues to grow, so too does the number of the region’s Muslim adherents. In the same 2015/2060 time frame the share of all Muslims living in the region is projected to increase from 16% to 27% with the African sub-Sahara becoming home to the second largest conglomeration of Muslims outside the Asia-Pacific region.

In 2015 Indonesia was the most populous Muslim country in the world, though by 2060 it is projected that India will take its place. Although a mainly Hindu nation, India is expected to see its Muslim population rise to over 333 million (19.4% of the population) – followed by Pakistan and then Nigeria which by 2060 is expected be home to the third largest grouping of the world’s Muslims (over 283 million or 60.5% of its population).

A 2011 Pew report recognised Christianity as the world’s largest religious grouping with some 2.18 billion adherents or nearly a third of an estimated global population of 6.9 billion.

By the year 2035 Islam, already the fastest-growing of the world’s religions, will begin to outstrip Christianity in numerical strength globally, according to Pew’s projections. Around this date, it states, “the number of babies born to Muslims is expected to modestly exceed births to Christians”. If current demographic trends continue Pew predicts that Muslims will outnumber Christians by the end of the 21st century.


Professor Joseph Hellweg, Department of Religion, Florida State University

“The Global South is the world’s new source of Christian missionaries. Through “reverse evangelism,” or the “reverse-mission agenda,” Africans are taking the Gospel to Europe and the United States, the former centres of global evangelism. By 2004, for example, African priests, nuns, and other religious in the US Catholic Church had become so numerous that they founded their own association, the African Conference of Catholic Clergy to acknowledge their “importance as missionaries in the United States.”

In Africa and Latin America, Christianity plays a more central role in daily life than elsewhere in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, “Christians in Africa and Latin America tend to pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives than Christians elsewhere in the world.” By 2060, observers expect forty percent of the world’s Christians to live in Africa South of the Sahara. This is a staggering shift, one already bearing consequences for global Christianity.

In 2003 in the Anglican Communion, conservative African bishops protested the ordination of a gay bishop, Gene Robinson by the Episcopal Church in the US. Some Episcopalian parishes even left their US dioceses to affiliate with dioceses in Africa as a result.

As the global stature of African pastors grows, so too does the possibility that politicians will instrumentalize religious differences between Christians and Muslims as cleavage points in political conflicts in Africa, as in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.”

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy and co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement.

“We see not only radical groups but Islamic republics and theocracies as symptoms of a deep problem which is theocratic Islam or Islamism. If you look back in western history what were some of the tipping points towards secular liberal democracy? You could look back at say the Thirty Years War in which 8 million people died fighting against theocracy and then at a liberal enlightenment process over the following centuries that led ultimately to western democracy.

I hope similarly that, as we’ve ended the “Game of Thrones” approach to the Middle East of the 20th century, the west – especially we Muslims in the west  that have a laboratory to do this work – start to look at that quarter of the world’s population and the 56 countries that are Muslim majority countries as either becoming more distant from western democracy or actually beginning to transform against theocracy towards a liberal democracy.

The Arab Awakening was an opportunity. And I think they’re going to change these governments and it can either head towards true reform and liberty and liberalism or worse systems. There’s no military solution to the militant Islamism of Isis and al Qaeda. There are going to be new formulations of jihadists for the next century unless we begin to empower reformers, to empower democrats (small “d”) in Muslim consciousness.

In sub-Saharan Africa a number of these countries have been torn for centuries by tribal battles and the Islamists have been able to highjack many of these communities to legitimate authoritarian control. We need now in the west a critical thinking, a new school of thought, a new school of sharia that begins to write a 21st century version that lives very peacefully with secular liberal democracy and once that starts to happen in the languages of sub-Saharan Africa that will then begin to change. But probably the last section of the Muslim world that will change will be sub-Saharan Africa simply because of the illiteracy rate and the lack of penetration of some of the global media there.”

Dr. Marloes Janson,  Reader in West African Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“Some people are talking about a Pentecostal revolution taking place in Nigeria at the moment and I think Pentecostalism would be the most prominent form of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa. What I find most interesting is that other religious organisations, both mainline Christian and Muslim organisations are somehow influenced by these developments. So you see that the Catholic Church is “pentecostalising” so to speak.

The character is changing in the sense that all religious organisations, if they want to occupy space and convert people, would have to borrow in one way or another from the Pentecostal Movement. For example, mainline churches now offer night vigils in Lagos. They offer prayer healing. The Catholic Church is now called the “Catholic Charismatic Church” in many parts of south west Nigeria and I think these are interesting developments in themselves which suggest that a “Pentecostal revolution” is true.

The Friday prayers are not rescheduled but all the big Muslim organisations now offer Sunday prayer meetings that correspond with the timing of these Pentecostal services. Young people are attracted to the Pentecostal churches because of this very flashy health and wealth gospel, or its opening up of leadership positions to the younger generation and Muslim parents are concerned that their children might convert to Pentecostalism. So you see these Muslim prayer groups organising networking events, professionalisation workshops – even dating programmes for young single Muslim women called “Dating the Halal Way – and they’ve borrowed that from the Pentecostal Church. And this borrowing for me as an anthropologist is interesting because its shows that religion can no longer be studied as a kind of internally consistent, coherent belief system.”