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! 

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