In the following article historian Omar H. Ali explores a lesser-known aspect of the global African Diaspora, the spread of African peoples and their cultures throughout the Indian Ocean basin.
Africans had become a visible part of the Indian Ocean world long before the advent of Islam in the seventh century C.E. For over half a millennia prior to the formation of the initial ummah wahida-community of Muslims-in western Arabia, Africans were enslaved and taken across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula and as far away as the Indian subcontinent. In time, the descendents of Afro-Arabs would become among the leading sailors in the region. Guiding dhows propelled by seasonal winds, these mariners transported and traded a range of commodities, including slave cargo, between Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Men and women of African descent would assume a variety of subaltern positions in the Indian Ocean world, from concubines, domestic servants, pearl divers, tea and date plantation workers, to bodyguards, palace guards, and soldiers. The founding and spread of Islam by the Prophet Muhammed and his followers beginning in 610, and continuing over the next centuries, would extend and build upon an existing African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean world.
Within the first four centuries of its founding, Islam spread as both a religion and a political force. From the Arabian Peninsula, Muslims moved down the Zanj (parts of the East African coast) and eastward to the areas comprising modern-day Iraq, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, and beyond. By the fourteenth century, Muslim-ruled city-states dotted the East African coastline and gained popular support in Malaysia and Sumatra (Indonesia); by the mid-sixteenth century, Islam had not only become dominant in northern India but counted a number of vibrant communities in distant China. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Muslims enjoyed protected status and even held high-ranking government positions-as with the Admiral Zheng He, who led an imperial fleet to