Spread of Islam in West Africa (part 1 of 3): The Empire of Ghana
Description: How Islam spread into sub-Saharan region of West Africa, and the great civilizations it established there, taking its inhabitants out of paganism to the worship of One God. Part 1: Islam reaches West Africa, and a history of the Islamic Empire of Ghana.
By Prof. A. Rahman I. Doi
Published on 10 Apr 2006 - Last modified on 16 Oct 2011
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> Islamic History
> In Detail
Muslim geographers and historians have provided excellent
records of Muslim rulers and peoples in Africa. Among them are Al-Khwarzimi,
Ibn Munabbah, Al-Masudi, Al-Bakri, Abul Fida, Yaqut, Ibn Batutah, Ibn Khaldun,
Ibn Fadlallah al-’Umari, Mahmud al-Kati, Ibn al Mukhtar and Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di.
Islam reached the Savannah region in the 8th Century C.E., the date the written
history of West Africa begins. Islam was accepted as early as 850 C.E. by the
Dya’ogo dynasty of the Kingdom of Tekur. They were the first Negro people who
accepted Islam. Trade and commerce paved the way for the introduction of new
elements of material culture, and made possible the intellectual development
which naturally followed the introduction and spread of literacy.
Eminent Arab historians and African scholars have
written on the empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kanem Bornu. They document famous trade routes in Africa - from Sijilmasa to Taghaza, Awdaghast,
which led to the empire of Ghana, and from Sijilmasa to Tuat, Gao and Timbikutu.
Al-Bakri describes Ghana as highly advanced and economically a prosperous
country as early as the eleventh century. He also discusses the influence of
Islam in Mali in the 13th century and describes the rule of Mansa Musa, whose
fame spread to Sudan, North Africa and up to Europe.
Spread of Islam in West Africa
Islam reached the Savannah region in the 8th Century
C.E., the date the written history of West Africa begins The Muslim-Arab
historians began to write about West Africa in the early 8th century. The
famous scholar Ibn Munabbah wrote as early as 738 C.E., followed by Al-Masudi
in 947 C.E. As Islam spread in the Savannah region, it was quite natural that
commercial links should also come to be established with North Africa. Trade
and commerce also paved way for the introduction of new elements of material
culture, and made possible the intellectual development which naturally
followed the introduction and spread of literacy, and for which parts of the Sudan were to become famous in the centuries to come. In the Kingdom of Tekur, situated on both banks of the Senegal, Islam was accepted as early as 850 C.E., by the
Dya’ogo dynasty. This dynasty was the first Negro people who accepted Islam.
It was for this reason that Muslim-Arab historians
referred to Bilad al-Tekur as ‘The Land of the Black Muslims.’ War-jabi, son
of Rabis, was the first ruler of Tekur in whose reign Islam was firmly
established in Tekur and the Islamic Shari’ah system was enforced. This gave a
uniform Muslim law to the people. By the time the Al- Murabitun of Almoravids
began their attack on Tekur in 1042 C.E., Islam had made a deep impact on the
people of that area. Al-Idrisi in 1511 described the Tekur Country as ‘secure,
peaceful and tranquil.’ The capital town of Tekur was also called Tekur which
had become center of commerce. Merchants used to bring wool to sell there from
Greater Morocco and in return, took with them gold and beads.
We have enough documents about the history of this
region since it was known to the Arab historians as the Bilad al-Sudan, the
land of the Blacks. In the medieval period, the most well-known empires that
grew there are known until our day: The empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kanem Bornu. Eminent Arab historians have written about the glories of these
lands, notable among whom are Al-Bakri, Al-Masudi, Ibn Batutah and Ibn Khaldun.
Besides these scholars, there were local scholars whose works have come down to
us. As for example Tarikh al-Sudan, the History of the Sudan, by Al-Sadi and Tarikh al-Fattash by Muhammad al-Kati.
There were famous trade routes, like the one from Sijilmasa
to Taghaza, Awdaghast, which led to the empire of Ghana, and another from
Sijilmasa to Tuat, Gao and Timbikutu. There were others which connected the
present Nigeria with Tripoli via Fez to Bornu and Tunisia with Nigeria via Ghadames, Ghat, and Agades to Hausa land. These routes had made all the above
mentioned places famous trade centers. These centers of trade invariably
became centers of Islamic learning and civilization. New ideas came through
visiting traders in the field of administrative practices. We shall study
briefly the expansion of Islam in each of the ancient empires of Western Sudan.
Islam in the Ancient Empire of Ghana
Al-Bakri, the Muslim geographer, gives us an early
account of the ancient Soninke empire of Ghana. His Kitab fi Masalik wal
Mamalik (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms) describes Ghana of 1068 as highly advanced. Economically, it was a prosperous country. The King had employed
Muslim interpreters and most of his ministers and treasurers were also Muslims.
The Muslim ministers were learned enough to record events in Arabic and
corresponded, on behalf of the king, with other rulers. “Also, as Muslims,
they belonged to the larger body politic of the Islamic world and this would
make it possible to establish international relations.”
Al-Bakri gives the following picture of Islam in Ghana in the 11th century:
The city of Ghana consists of two towns lying on a
plain, one of which is inhabited by Muslims and is large, possessing 12 mosques
one of which is congregational mosque for Friday prayers: each has its Imam,
Muezzin and paid reciters of the Quran. The town possesses a large number of jurists,
consults and learned men.
Spread of Islam in West Africa (part 2 of 3): The Empires of Mali and Songhay
Description: How Islam spread into sub-Saharan region of West Africa, and the great civilizations it established there, taking its inhabitants out of paganism to the worship of One God. Part 2: A history of the empires of Mali and Songhay.
By Prof. A. Rahman I. Doi
Published on 10 Apr 2006 - Last modified on 18 Apr 2006
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> Islamic History
> In Detail
Islam in the Empire of Mali
The influence of Islam in Mali dates back to the 15th
century when Al-Bakri mentions the conversion of its ruler to Islam. There was
a miserable period of drought which came to an end by offering Muslim prayers
and ablutions. The Empire of Mali arose from the ruins of Ghana Empire. There
are two important names in the history of Islam in Mali: Sundiata (1230-1255)
and Mansa Musa (1312-1337). Sundiata is the founder of the Mali Empire but was
a weak Muslim, since he practiced Islam with syncretic practices and was highly
disliked by the scholars. Mansa Musa was, on the other hand, a devout Muslim
and is considered to be the real architect of the Mali Empire. By the time
Sundiata died in 1255, a large number of former dependencies of Ghana also came under his power. After him came Mansa Uli (1255-1270) who had made a
pilgrimage to Makkah.
Mansa (Emperor) Musa came to power in 1312 and his fame
reached beyond the Sudan, North Africa and spread up to Europe. Mansa Musa
ruled from 1312 to 1337 and in 1324-25 he made his famous pilgrimage to Makkah
[Hajj]. When he returned from his pilgrimage, he brought with him a large
number of Muslim scholars and architects who built five mosques for the first
time with baked bricks. Thus Islam received its greatest boost during Mansa
Musa’s reign. Many scholars agree that because of his attachment to Islam,
Mansa Musa could introduce new ideas to his administration. The famous
traveller and scholar Ibn Batutah came to Mali during Mansa Sulaiman’s reign
(1341-1360), and gives an excellent account of Mali’s government and its
economic prosperity - in fact, a legacy of Mansa Musa’s policy. Mansa Musa’s
pilgrimage projected Mali’s enormous wealth and potentialities which attracted
more and more Muslim traders and scholars. These Muslim scholars and traders
contributed to the cultural and economic development of Mali. It was during his reign that diplomatic relations were established with Tunis and Egypt, and thus Mali began to appear on the map of the world.
Islam in the Empire of Songhay
Islam began to spread in the Empire of Songhay some time
in the 11th century when the ruling Za or Dia dynasty first accepted it. It
was a prosperous region because of its booming trade with Gao. By the 13th
century it had come under the dominion of the Mali Empire but had freed itself
by the end of the 14th century when the dynasty was renamed Sunni. The
frontier of Songhay now expanded and in the 15th century, under the leadership
of Sunni ‘Ali, who ruled between 1464-1492, the most important towns of the Western Sudan came under the Songhay Empire. The great cities of Islamic learning like Timbuktu and Jenne came under his power between 1471-1476.
Sunni ‘Ali’s was a nominal Muslim who used Islam to his
ends. He even persecuted Muslim scholars and practiced local cults and magic.
When the famous scholar Al-Maghilli called him a pagan, he punished him too. The
belief in cults and magic was, however, not something new in Songhay. It
existed in other parts of West Africa until the time the revivalist movements
gained momentum in the 18th century. It is said of Sunni ‘Ali that he tried to
compromise between paganism and Islam although he prayed and fasted. The scholars
called it merely a mockery.
Sunni ‘Ali’s syncretism was soon challenged by the
Muslim elites and scholars in Timbuktu, which was then a center of Islamic
learning and civilization. The famous family of Agit, of the Berber scholars,
had the post of the Chief Justice and were known for their fearless opposition
to the rulers. In his lifetime, Sunni ‘Ali took measures against the scholars of
Timbuktu (in 1469 and in 1486). But on his death, the situation completely
changed: Islam and Muslim scholars triumphed. Muhammad Toure (Towri), a
military commander asked Sunni ‘Ali’s successor, Sunni Barou, to appear before
the public and make an open confession of his faith in Islam. When Barou refused
to do so, Muhammad Toure ousted him and established a new dynasty in his own
name, called the Askiya dynasty. Sunni ‘Ali may be compared with Sundiata of
Mali, and Askiya Muhammad Toure with Mansa Musa, a champion of the cause of
On his coming to power, he established Islamic law and
arranged a large number of Muslims to be trained as judges. He gave his munificent
patronage to the scholars and gave them large pieces of land as gifts. He
became a great friend of the famous scholar Muhammad Al-Maghilli. It was
because of his patronage that eminent Muslim scholars were attracted to Timbuktu, which became a great seat of learning in the 16th century. Timbuktu has the
credit of establishing the first Muslim University, called Sankore University, in West Africa; its name is commemorated until today in Ibadan University where a staff residential area has been named as Sankore Avenue.
Like Mansa Musa of Mali, Askia Muhammad Toure went on a
pilgrimage and thus came into close contact with Muslim scholars and rulers in
the Arab countries. In Makkah, the King accorded him great respect; he was
turbanned. The King gave him a sword and the title of the Caliph of the Western Sudan. On his return from Makkah in the year 1497, he proudly used the title of
Askia took such a keen interest in the Islamic legal
system that he asked a number of questions on Islamic theology from his friend
Muhammad al-Maghilli. Al-Maghilli answered his questions in detail which Askia
circulated in the Songhay empire. Some of the questions were about the
fundamental structure of the faith, such as ‘who is a true Muslim?’ and “who
is a pagan?” When we read Shehu ‘Uthman Dan Fodio’s works, we can see some of
his arguments quoted on the authority of Al-Maghilli. In other words,
Al-Maghilli’s detailed discussions of the issues raised by Askiya Muhammad
played a great role in influencing Shehu.
Spread of Islam in West Africa (part 3 of 3): The Empires of
Kanem-Bornu and Hausa-Fulani Land
Description: How Islam spread into sub-Saharan region of West Africa, and the great civilizations it established there, taking its inhabitants out
of paganism to the worship of One God. Part 3: A brief history of the Islamic
Empires of Kanem-Bornu and Hausa-Fulani Land.
By Prof. A. Rahman I. Doi
Published on 10 Apr 2006 - Last modified on 06 May 2014
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- Rated by: 18
> Islamic History
> In Detail
Islam in Kanem-Bornu Empire
Kanem-Bornu in the 13th century included the region
around Lake Chad, stretching as far north as Fezzan. Kanem today forms the
northern part of the Republic of Chad. Islam was accepted for the first time
by the Kanem ruler, Umme-Jilmi, who ruled between 1085-1097 C.E., through a
scholar named Muhammad B. Mani, credited for bringing Islam to Kanem-Bornu. Umme-Jilmi
became a devout Muslim. He left on a pilgrimage but died in Egypt before reaching Makkah. Al-Bakri also mentions that Umayyad refugees, who had fled from Baghdad following plans to liquidate their dynasty at the hands of the Abbasids, were
residing in Kanem [21, 22].
With the introduction of Islam in Kanem, it became the
principal focus of Muslim influence in the central Sudan and relations were
established with the Arab world in the Middle East and the Maghrib. Umme’s son
Dunama I (1092-1150) also went on a pilgrimage and was crowned in Egypt, while
embarking at Suez for Makkah, during the third pilgrimage journey. During the
reign of Dunama II (1221-1259), a Kanem embassy was established in Tunisia around 1257, as mentioned by the famous Andalusian historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406
C.E.). It was almost at the same time that a college and a hostel were
established in Cairo, named Madrasah Ibn Rashiq. Toward the end of the 13th
century, Kanem became a center of Islamic knowledge and famous teachers came
from Mali to teach in Kanem. By the middle of the 13th century, Kanem
established diplomatic relations with Tuat (in the Algerian Sahara) and with
the Hafsid state of Tunis at embassy level. The Kanem scholars and poets could
write classical Arabic of a very high standard. We have evidence of this in a
letter written by the Chief scribe of the Kanem court dating from 1391 to 1392.
The historian Ibn Khaldun calls Dunama II as the ‘King
of Kanem and Lord of Bornu,’ because his empire had expanded as far as Kano in the west and Wadai in the east. It is said that Dunama II opened a Talisman (Munni
or Mune), considered sacred by his people, and thus brought a period of
hardship to his people. It was because of his enthusiasm for the religion of
Islam that he committed this ‘abomination’ (perhaps the talisman was a
traditional symbol of divine (kingship) and alienated many of his subjects).
In the late 14th century, a new capital of the Kanem
empire was established in Bornu at Nigazaragamu by ‘Ali b. Dunama, also called ‘Ali
Ghazi, who ruled during the period 1476 to 1503. This thriving capital
continued until 1811. ‘Ali revived Islam. He was keen on learning its
principles. He used to visit the chief Imam ‘Umar Masramba to learn more about
the Islamic legal system. He, by his own example, persuaded the nobility and
Chiefs to limit the number of their wives to only four.
The Islamization of Bornu dates from the time of Mai
Idris Alooma (1570-1602). We come to know about him through his chronicler,
Ahmad ibn Fartuwa. In the 9th year of his reign, he went on a pilgrimage to
Makkah and built a hostel there for pilgrims from Bornu. He revived the
Islamic practices and made all and sundry follow them. He also set up Qadhis
courts to introduce Islamic laws in place of the traditional system of
customary law. He built a large number of brick mosques to replace the existing
ones, built with reeds.
In 1810 during the period of Mai Ahmad the glories of
the Empire of Bornu came to an end, but its importance, as a center of Islamic
Islam in Hausa-Fulani land
There is a well-known Hausa legend concerning the origin
of the Hausa state, attributed to Bayajida (Bayazid) who came from Begh to
settle down in Kanem-Bornu. The ruling Mai of Bornu of that time (we do not have
any information about the time) welcomed Bayajida and gave his daughter in
marriage to him but at the same time robbed him of his numerous followers. He
fled from the Mai with his wife and came to Gaya Mai Kano and asked the
goldsmith of Kano to make a sword for him. The story tells us that Bayajida
helped the people of Kano by killing a supernatural snake which had prevented
them from drawing water from a well. It is said that the queen, named Daura,
married him in appreciation of his service to the people. Bayajida got a son
named Bawo from Daura. Bawo, himself, had seven sons: Biran, Dcura, Katsina, Zaria, Kano, Rano and Gebir, who became the founders of the Hausa states. Whatever may be
the merit of this story, it tries to explain how Hausa language and culture
spread throughout the northern states of Nigeria.
Islam came to Hausaland in early 14th century. About 40
Wangarawa graders are said to have brought Islam with them during the reign of ‘Ali
Yaji who ruled Kano during the years 1349-1385. A mosque was built and a muedthin
(one who calls to prayer) was appointed to give adthan (call to prayer) and a judge
was named to give religious decisions. During the reign of a ruler named,
Yaqub (1452-1463), one Fulani migrated to Kano and introduced books on Islamic Jurisprudence.
By the time Muhammad Rumfa came into power (1453-1499), Islam was firmly rooted
in Kano. In his reign Muslim scholars came to Kano; some scholars also came
from Timbuktu to teach and preach Islam.
Muhammad Rumfa consulted Muslim scholars on the affairs
of government. It was he who had asked the famous Muslim theologian
Al-Maghilli to write a book on Islamic government during the latter’s visit to Kano in the 15th century. The book is a celebrated masterpiece and is called The Obligation
of the Princes. Al-Maghilli later went to Katsina, which had become a seat
of learning in the 15th century. Most of the pilgrims from Makkah would go to
Katsina. Scholars from the Sankore University of Timbuktu also visited the
city and brought with them books on divinity and etymology. In the 13th
century, Katsina produced native scholars like Muhammadu Dan Marina and
Muhammadu Dan Masina (d. 1667) whose works are available even today.
The literature of Shehu ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, his brother,
Abdullahi, and his son Muhammad Bello speaks of the syncretic practices of the
Hausa Fulanis at the end of the 18th century. The movement of ‘Uthman Dan
Fodio in 1904 was introduced as a revivalist movement in Islam to remove
syncretic practices, and what Shehu called Bid’at al-Shaytaniyya or Devilish Innovations.
The spread of Islam in Africa is owing to many factors,
historical, geographical and psychological, as well as its resulting
distribution of Muslim communities, some of which we have tried to outline. Ever
since its first appearance in Africa, Islam has continued to grow. The scholars
there have been Africans right from the time of its spread. Islam has become
an African religion and has influenced her people in diverse ways.
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