The Dawn of Islam in West Africa

West Africa, often an overlooked part of the Muslim world, is a place with a rich, and lengthy Islamic history. Islam first appeared here during the early 8th century and has had a strong influence ever since.

But how much do we know about this history? 

How often do we even hear about the 135 million Muslims living there today?

We wish to give you an insight into how Islam went from being the religion of the passing Arab traders to becoming the major state religion of various empires in the region – now practised by 54% of those living there today.

By learning more about the history of this area, we can give our West African brothers and sisters in Islam the recognition they deserve and begin to appreciate to what extent Islam belongs to all people of all colours.

The coming of Islam

Islam first came to West Africa in the 8th century. From there it spread slowly over hundreds of years in a peaceful process involving missionaries, traders, and scholars.

By this point, Islam was already widespread in neighbouring North Africa after the area was conquered by the Umayyad dynasty of Syria in the mid-7th century.

The Amazigh (also known as Berbers), the native inhabitants of North Africa, played an important part  in its spread via trade routes that crossed south through the Sahara and deep into West Africa.

Islam and trade

Early Islam was limited to communities living near the trans-Saharan trade route. Visiting Arabs and Amazigh built settlements along these routes, as mentioned by the Arab-Andalusian scholar Al-Bakri.

The great empires of West Africa were famous for their trade in salt and gold; the two largest and most valuable commodities being exported. Dates, camels, horses, timber, and local foods were also traded along the network spanning from north to south of the Sahara Desert and below it.

Although the local people of Ghana did not accept Islam, they were tolerant of it and allowed Muslim traders to settle in their lands. The king of Ghana also allowed Muslims to live in Kumbi (a great market town of the Ghana Empire) where they built 12 mosques and even had their own imam.

Bilad-al-Sudan

Although modern-day Sudan is the name of a country in the northeast of Africa (all the way on the other side of the continent), historically Sudan has been used to refer to a different part of Africa.

The word Sudan comes from Bilad-al-Sudan literally ‘Land of the Blacks’ – a term used by the earliest Arabs who came into contact with the lands of the black people living below the Sahara.

In this context, West Sudan refers to a large portion of West Africa where multiple empires inhabited, the three biggest empires, and most important in the spread of Islam, were:

  • Kingdom of Ghana (6th to 13th century)
  • Kingdom of Mali (1240-1645)
  • Kingdom of Songhai (1460-1591)

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Fun Fact: The Ghana Empire we mentioned is different to modern day Ghana, they’re in different locations, but modern day Ghana actually named itself in tribute to the old Empire!

The Kingdom of Ghana under The Almoravids

The Almoravids (from al-Murabit literally meaning “one who is trying”) were a Muslim Amazigh dynasty centred in Morocco. 

During the 11th century, they conquered the Ghana Empire to the south and imposed a ‘fundamentalist’ version of Islam on the local populations in an attempt to purify their beliefs.

Their conquest of the kingdom gave the conversion process new energy – under them the Islamic practices and laws of the population of Ghana became outwardly more uniform with a shift from Islam being mixed with traditional beliefs, to what the Almoravids believed to be true Islam.

However, they didn’t hold power in the region for long. Their rule over the Ghana Empire soon weakened and they eventually pushed the people of Ghana over the edge through excessive taxing and political agitation. The Ghana empire eventually collapsed into smaller tribal groups, losing its position of power by 1100.

Mansa Musa and the Rise of the Mali Empire

Towards the south, while the Ghana Empire was still thriving, the Mande (a collection of ethnic groups in the region) had also accepted Islam. During this time the religious climate was relatively open. The fact Muslims were tolerant towards the traditional spiritual beliefs of West Africans allowed Islam to spread more easily. Rulers became the first to accept Islam and blended it with the traditional beliefs of the region, and over time the local population followed in their footsteps.

After accepting Islam, the Mande went on to conquer Kumbi (the large market town of the Ghana Empire mentioned earlier) and took control of trade routes in the area. Kumbi was the last of the capitals of the Kingdom of Ghana before the Empire crumbled.

Out of the ruins of the Ghana Empire rose a new superpower in the region – the Mali Empire. 

While the founder of this empire wasn’t Muslim, by the year 1300 its rulers most definitely were. The most famous ruler of the Mali Empire was Mansa Musa, and under him, Islam took on a new status within the kingdom.

Mansa Musa made Islam the state religion of Mali – encouraging merchants, traders, and scholars from Egypt and North Africa to come to Mali to both trade and settle. Islam also introduced the skill of literacy to what had previously been a largely oral society, allowing scholars to now record traditions and history in books.

Mansa Musa gave the Mali Empire fame when he went to Hajj in 1324. 

He travelled more than 3000 miles to Makkah, with as many as 80,000 people accompanying him there. On his way, he stopped at Cairo after travelling for 8 months, along with his caravan of 200 camels carrying 30,000 pounds of gold, along with food, clothing, and supplies.

In Egypt, his donations and spending were so generous that he caused a recession from which it took the economy 10 years to recover.

When word began to spread in Makkah and Madinah that the king of Mali was coming, people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him. Mansa Musa paid in gold for every single good and service he received during his Hajj and gave lavish gifts to his hosts. Similarly to his time in Egypt, he spent so much gold that the value of it in the economies of the two holy cities plunged.

Mansa Musa (and his unlimited gold) put Mali on the map – literally; by 1375 Mansa Musa appeared on European maps holding a nugget of gold. He is believed to be the richest man to have ever lived.

When returning from Hajj, he brought the architect al-Sahili back with him and embarked on a large building program, erecting mosques and madrasas in the cities Timbuktu and Gao of Mali. 

Around the same time, several Muslim societies were developing further east, including the Hausa city-states and the Kingdom of Kanem in modern Northern Nigeria.

Songhai Empire 

One of the groups within the Mali Empire was the Songhai. The warrior Sonni Ali became their ruler in 1460. He built a powerful army allowing the Songhai to break away from the Mali empire and then eventually conquer it. 

Songhai ruled over a diverse and multi-ethnic empire.

Although Islam was the state religion, many blended it with traditional belief systems, and Sonni Ali was known to persecute Muslim scholars, especially those who criticised pagan beliefs.

Later rulers of the Songhai Empire supported Islamic institutions and sponsored mosques, libraries, and public buildings. By the 16th century, the city of Timbuktu was thriving commercially and became a world-leading centre of ‘ilm, attracting scholars from across the Muslim world. For the people of Timbuktu, literacy and books were symbols of barakah, power, and wealth. The prominence of Timbuktu as a centre of learning meant that the activity, and education of scholars in this city had wide-reaching effects which spread to reach the Ummah across the globe.

The fall of the Songhai Empire in 1591 marked the decline of the big empires in West Africa. Merchant scholars in Timbuktu and other centres of ‘ilm dispersed, sharing what they had learnt to the more rural populations.

Final words

In this post, we’ve only encompassed a drop in the ocean that is the Islamic history of West Africa. We hope by giving you a glimpse into this history, we will all be able to better value the diversity of our Ummah and be inspired to learn more about our origins. We encourage you to make the most of this Black History Month, and as always stay tuned as we try to help you achieve this, insha’Allah!

Note: one resource we’re loving this Black History Month (and we’re sure you’ll love too) is the History Nights ‘Inspiring Stories about Black Muslims in History’ series by ilmfeed with Mustafa Briggs. You can find the previous week’s lectures on ilmfeed’s YouTube channel and make sure to tune in live for the upcoming ones! 

The Legacy of Sumayyah Bint Khayyat

Another remarkable woman with great significance in early Islam is Sumayyyah bint Khayyat. She played an important role in early Islam by exhibiting strength in the face of persecution and being the first martyr in Islam.

Her Beginnings

Before embracing Islam, Sumayyah RA, a Black Abysinian (modern day Ethiopia) woman, was a slave in Makkah who was owned by Abu Hudhaifah ibn al-Mughirah, from the tribe of Makhzum. The tribe of Makhzum was one of the most powerful in Makkah and later became one of the most resistant tribes to both Islam and the clan of Banu Hashim (the clan of the Prophet SAW). Abu Hudhaifah ibn al-Mughirah gave Summayah in marriage to Yasir ibn Amir, a man from Yemen, and they had a son called Ammar ibn Yasir who was born in the same year as the Prophet SAW, the year of the elephant. Sumayyah RA’s family lived in Makkah in service to the entire tribe of Makhzum. She was one of the first 7 people to embrace Islam as a 60-year-old woman, along with her son Ammar. Her husband Yasir RA also embraced Islam soon after, making her whole family amongst the earliest to embrace Islam.

Her Persecution by the Quraysh

When the Prophet SAW began to preach Islam publicly, it resulted in the active persecution of the small Muslim community, and due to the societal disadvantage of the family of Yasir, they were left vulnerable to persecution. This family was not rich nor powerful, they had no protection, and were therefore at the mercy of the tribe. Those without protection were often targets for the cruelty of the Quraysh, and Abu Jahal (one of the leaders of the tribe) was one of the strongest opponents against Islam often gave the worst punishments and torture to harm the followers of the Prophet. He did not have any mercy on the old age of Sumayyah and Yasir, but instead used many forms of pressure, threats and torture to get them to renounce their faith. The Prophet SAW was troubled by the persecution of the Muslims, especially the family of Yasir, but he was not able to do anything to protect them. The only thing he could do was to comfort them by saying “Patience O family of Yasir! For you are destined for paradise” (Sahih al-Tirmidhi). It was this promise of paradise which strengthened them to be steadfast in their faith and to be patient with the trials they faced in this world. They were beaten and humiliated in public under the hot sun with no one to defend them, but they chose the reward of the hereafter and stayed true and never went back on ‘La ilahaillAllah Muhammad ur-rasulullah’.

Her Death

Despite their conviction and faith, Abu Jahal especially would not give up on targeting Summayah and her family, as he wished to send a message to the Muslims of Makkah that they would either need to renounce their faith or die. But, each time Sumayyah RA was tortured, she would respond with strength and conviction in Allah SWT and his messenger. This powerful man could not fathom how the faith of this old woman could not be shaken, which only enraged him further and on one occasion he took the violence to an extreme length, more than anything that had been seen before Islam. The entire family of Yasir were each tied to trees and tortured and beaten in front of one another so they would renounce their faith and curse the Prophet SAW. But, as physical torture increased, their perseverance and conviction would increase. Then, Sumayyah RA, weak from torture, used the remnants of her energy to spit at Abu Jahal from her position and humiliate him. A humiliation which would enrage him so far that that he took a spear and pierced her through her midsection, killing her and sending her to Allah SWT. Her husband Yasir RA also died soon after she did.

There is something wondrous about how this woman never saw bliss in this world and experienced only hardship, but with the first strike of Abu Jahal she was able to see the promise of the Prophet SAW, the promise of paradise. “And then that person from amongst the persons of the world be brought who had led the most miserable life (in the world) from amongst the inmates of Paradise. and he would be made to dip once in Paradise, and it would be said to him. 0, son of Adam, did you face any hardship? Or had any distress fallen to your lot? And he would say: By Allah, no,0 my Lord, never did I face any hardship or experience any distress.” [Sahih Muslim 2807].

So as the first mayr of Islam, although she did not see the glory days of the Islam, she preceded everyone from our Ummah to experience the promise of Allah SWT.

The Legacy of Lineage

In speaking about the legacy of Sumayyah RA we also speak of her son, Ammar ibn Yasir. He was a noble companion who faced a lot of persecution like his parents. However, on the occasion that he was tied to the tree, he was tortured until he had a moment of weakness and so maligned the Prophet SAW. Because of this, his life was spared by Abu Jahal. However, he recognised that he had erred and immediately went to the Prophet SAW and confessed. But the Prophet SAW asked ‘How did you find your heart?’, and Ammar RA replied that he was still a muslim in his heart so the Prophet SAW comforted him with the verses “Whoever disbelieves in Allah after his belief… except for one who is forced [to renounce his religion] while his heart is secure in faith. But those who [willingly] open their breasts to disbelief, upon them is wrath from Allah, and for them is a great punishment.” (16.106). After this, Ammar RA continued as a companion of the Prophet SAW and he helped build the first mosque in Islam. He participated in many battles and many years after the death of his parents, during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet SAW came to him and revealed “Allah has killed your mother’s killer”, to help alleviate Ammar’s anguish of seeing his parents’ killer roam Makkah for years without consequence. Ammar ibn Yasir was a strong warrior and years later, in the Battle of Siffin, he was also martyred. Thereby gaining the title of a martyr like his parents before him and making theirs a family of martyrs who gave their lives to protect and spread the message of Islam.

Her Legacy

The life of Sumayyah bint Khayyat was not one of ease before her death, again, she did not get to experience the ease in the glory days of Islam. Her life was one that was full of hardship, and as an old woman who was amongst the first to embrace Islam, she was persecuted, and her life became harder ever since. But her death is one of immense importance in Islamic history. Her death did not send the message of weakness which Abu Jahal had intended, but it sent one of strength and unshakeable faith. The significance of the fact that Sumayyah RA, an old Black Abyssinian woman, was willing to stand with her truth, and not just accept the torture but do what she could to fight back, and as a result lost her life, is the ultimate strength. She became a symbol of strength, courage, bravery and faith to all Muslims. The Prophet SAW himself assured her that her destination is paradise and she is an example that there is nothing more important than devotion to Allah SWT and standing strong in the face of adversity. She gave the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Allah SWT, and Allah honoured her sacrifice and exalted her status to being the first shaheeda of Islam. Allah SWT does not know the distinctions of this world, he just elevated her position because of her faith, and she was honoured in the best way.

THE DEPTH BEHIND THESE LEGACIES

We have only touched upon a portion of the lives of these remarkable muslims. There is a lot more to be learnt when you uncover their histories, as well as the stories of many other figures in the history of Islam. We encourage you to do your best to learn more, and also stay tuned for our next blog post which will help you on your journey!

The Legacy of Umm Ayman

The early history of Islam is marked by many remarkable black individuals who played an important role in the life of the Prophet SAW and the beginnings of Islam. We wish to give you an insight into one of these women and her legacy in the muslim ummah.

UMM AYMAN

The early history of Islam would not be done justice without honouring Umm Ayman, a woman truly like no other. The only one who can be said to have been with the Prophet SAW from the moment of his birth to the moment that he died. She is one of the few Muslims the Prophet SAW assured of paradise, and is a woman whom the Prophet honoured with the status of “mother after my own mother”.

Her Life

Barakah bint Tha’labah, later known as Umm Ayman was a young Abysinnian girl brought to Makkah and sold as a slave. She was fortunate enough to be brought into the household of a noble and gentle man, Abdullah ibn Muttalib, the father of the Prophet SAW. She took care of his affairs as well as his wife Aminah bint Wahb, the mother of the Prophet SAW. It was Barakah who comforted Amina whilst her husband left on a long journey and it was Barakah who conveyed the news of his death to her too. 

Whilst her husband was on the trip, Aminah fell ill and had a dream where she saw “lights coming from my abdomen lighting up the mountains, the hills and the valleys around Makkah” and it was Barakah who interpreted this to mean that she would “give birth to a blessed child who will bring goodness”. The young girl stood by Aminah’s side throughout her entire pregnancy and was also the only person present during the delivery of the Prophet SAW, where she was the first to hold him, bathe him, and care for him his entire life.

When Barakah RA was a young woman and the Prophet SAW was 6 years old, she accompanied him and his mother on a journey to Madinah, but on their return back to Makkah, Aminah fell seriously ill. She entrusted her son to Barakah and said “Be a mother to him, Barakah. And don’t ever leave him.” Aminah passed away at al-Abwa with Barakah and her son Muhammad SAW, so they buried her; Barakah then consoled the young boy and took him back to Makkah where they lived with the grandfather of the Prophet SAW, Abdul Muttalib. When the Prophet SAW was 9, his grandfather also died and Barakah was there to console him too. She stayed with the Prophet SAW throughout his life and although the Prophet inherited her from his father, he freed her. To him, she was his ‘mother after his mother’ and played a pivotal role.

The Marriages of Umm Ayman

Umm Ayman had devoted her youth to the Prophet SAW and remained unmarried, she lived to care for the young orphaned boy. However, as the Prophet SAW grew and got married to Khadijah RA at 25 years old, he encouraged her to get married too. He would say “Ya Ummah!” Now I am a married man, and you are still unmarried. What do you think if someone should come now and ask to marry you?” However, she would reply saying “I shall never leave you. Does a mother abandon her son?”. To which he would then say to his wife Khadijah RA “This is Barakah. This is my mother after my own mother. She is the rest of my family.” Khadijah RA said Barakah, you have sacrificed your youth for the sake of Muhammad. Now he wants to pay back some of his obligations to you. For my sake and his, agree to be married before old age overtakes you.” Barakah RA agreed and married Ubayd ibn Zayd from the Khazraj tribe of Yathrib (Madinah) and moved there. She gave birth to a son whom they called Ayman, and from then onwards she was known as “Umm Ayman”, the mother of Ayman. However, her marriage did not last very long as her husband passed away so she returned to Makkah as a widow with her son, and lived with Muhammad SAW in the house of the Khadijah RA.

Umm Ayman was one of the first to accept Islam as she lived in the Prophets household when he received revelation. She did not hesitate to believe in his message and Prophethood, and immediately submitted to the will of Allah SWT. She bravely endured the persecution of the Quraysh, and performed invaluable services for the cause. 

One night a few years after revelation, Umm Ayman risked her life to convey a message to the Prophet SAW by passing a blockade of disbelievers in Makkah to reach the House of Al-Arqam (where the Prophet SAW gathered his companions to teach about Islam). The Prophet SAW told her “you are blessed, Umm Ayman. Surely you have a place in Paradise.” And when she left he said to his companions: “should one of you desire to marry a woman of the people of paradise, let him marry Umm Ayman.” From them Zayd ibn al-Harithah, the Prophet SAW adopted son, said he would marry her because “By Allah, she is better than women who have grace and beauty”. From this marriage, despite her old age, she bore the child Usamah ibn Zaid, a boy whom the Prophet SAW loved like his own and people would say ‘he is the beloved son of the beloved’.

The Devotion of Umm Ayman

When the time of the Hijrah came, Umm Ayman, at the old age of about 70 years, also made the long and difficult journey on foot through the Arabian desert. She travelled through the intense heat and sandstorms and persisted in the way of Allah SWT fueled by her love for the Prophet SAW and his religion. On the journey she even found herself in a situation without any water. However, she believed in the mercy of her Lord, and Allah SWT sent down help. It was narrated that she saw a bucket tied with rope being lowered from the sky, it contained cold water for her to quench her thirst and cool her body. After this blessing she narrates that she ‘never felt thirsty after that, even when I fast on the hottest day’, what an honour. When she reached Madinah, her feet were swollen, her face covered with sand and dust, and upon seeing her the Prophet SAW wiped her face and eyes, massaged her feet and rubbed her shoulders, exclaiming: “”Yaa Umm Ayman! Ya Ummi! Indeed for you is a place in Paradise!”.

Even throughout history she witnessed every battle of the Prophet SAW, and accompanied him on expeditions such as to Khaybar and Hunayn. At the Battle of Uhud she distributed water to the thirsty and tended to the wounded. And when the Prophet was rumoured to have died and many muslims were running from the battlefield, she stood her ground along with some other muslim women to defend the Prophet SAW and the muslims. She would follow him everywhere as his protecting mother with a watchful eye.

Her Relationship with the Prophet SAW

Umm Ayman had been with the Prophet SAW throughout his life and he honored this relationship into his adulthood. She comforted him in times of hardship, treated him with care and affection, and he would do the same. They also shared a jovial relationship too, the Prophet SAW would laugh and joke with her and one such instance is when she came to the Prophet SAW said “O Messenger of Allah, may you give me an animal to ride.” The Prophet jokingly told her, I will give you the offspring of a she-camel to ride.” She said, “O Messenger of Allah, what will I do with the offspring of a she-camel? It would not be able to carry me.” The Prophet said: “Are riding-camels born except from she-camels?”. Their relationship contained light heartedness as well as full faith and conviction in the message of the Prophet SAW. On occasions he would ask how she was and she would reply “I am well, O Messenger of Allah, so long as Islaam is”. She had complete dedication to his cause and never forsook him or Islam despite the difficulties or persecution she may have faced, she never complained to the Prophet SAW about her hardships, but showed continual support.

The Death of the Prophet SAW

This woman’s entire purpose in life was defined by the moment she held the Prophet SAW and she had spent her entire life by his side. Therefore, after his death Abu Bakr RA and Umar RA would visit her, as they had seen the Prophet SAW do every day throughout his life, and would be there to comfort her.

Anas reported that after the death of Allah’s Messenger () Abu Bakr said to ‘Umar:

Let us visit Umm Aiman as Allah’s Messenger () used to visit her. As we came to her, she wept. They (Abu Bakr and Umar) said to her: What makes you weep? What is in store (in the next world) for Allah’s-Messenger () is better than (this worldly life). She said: I weep not because I am ignorant of the fact that what is in store for Allah’s Messenger () (in the next world) is better than (this world), but I weep because the revelation which came from the Heaven has ceased to come. This moved both of them to tears and they began to weep along with her. [Sahih Muslim 2454]

The Legacy of LineageThe legacy of Umm Ayman also lies in the greatness of her children

Ayman ibn Ubaid embraced Islam in Makkah and made the hijra to Madinah where he was a shepard and was entrusted to look after the goats of the Prophet SAW. He was a faithful companion of the Prophet and was also a participant in campaigns to defend Islam. At the battle of Hunayn when many of the muslims fled from the battleground because they were panic stricken; he was one of the 8 people who stood steadfast with the Prophet SAW. Ayman RA ended up being martyred at this battle, but the muslims were successful in their campaign. After his martyrdom, Al-Abbas RA, the uncle of the Prophet SAW composed a poem praising the steadfastness and bravery of Ayman ibn ‘Ubaid.

Usamah ibn Zaid, known as “The Beloved Son of the Beloved” having been born to parents the Prophet SAW considered as his own family, he was also loved immensely by the Prophet SAW. He cared for him and, as one of those who were born into Islam, was taught from an early age. He showed signs of great leadership in his early teens and attempted to join the muslims in the battles such as Uhud (although the Prophet SAW did not permit him) as well as the battle of the Trench where he fought bravely. He also participated in the battle of Mu’tah against the Byzantine alongside his father, Zayd ibn Harithah who was appointed head of the expedition but was later martyred in this battle. Usamah RA had the opportunity to encounter the Byzantines again as part of the last mission the Prophet SAW. The Prophet sent the muslims to face them and put the eighteen year old Usamah as their commander in chief. A young, yet intelligent, capable and accomplished fighter who was able to return to Madinah with his army and “people saw no army that was safer and richer in booty than Usamah’s army”. Usamah RA was a mighty warrior for the muslims and was greatly loved and respected.

Her Legacy

By the time Umm Ayman RA died, she had witnessed the death of both of her husbands, both of her children, and the death of the Prophet SAW. She also outlived Abu Bakr RA and saw the assassination of Umar ibn al-Khattab. She experienced hardships in her life yet lived through the lives of almost everyone who was a part of hers. She died with honour as she was devoted to the Prophet SAW and as such, he elevated her status to that of his mother. He honoured this woman despite her lack of tribe, her skin colour, gender and poverty; he held her in such high regard which made society honour her as a mother after the Prophet’s mother. The life of Umm Ayman was unique as the only one who lived so closely to the Prophet SAW from birth till death, and the Prophet himself said that she is a woman of Jannah. She is an example of sincerity and piety to the entire muslim ummah because of her love for the Prophet SAW, her commitment to Islam, her sacrifice and her service – all to please Allah SWT. She embodied her statement “I am good as long as Islam is good” and lived each day caring for the message and Prophet she knew to be true.