African History (Islamic Era)

This will introduce you to three of the great kingdoms of West Africa between the 9th and 16th centuries CE. They are the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. 

Use the map below as a reference while you are reading the texts.  The map shows the location of the three kingdoms of West Africa, as well as, many other kingdoms and empires throughout African history.

The Kingdom of Ghana

The Kingdom of Ghana is generally given the dates 9th to the 13th century CE by historians. It marks the beginning of a series of empires in West Africa that were involved in extensive commercial trade. You should note by looking at the map above that the area of the Kingdom of Ghana during this time period is farther north than the present day country of Ghana. Click here to see a map of present day Ghana.

Some have called the Kingdom of Ghana the "land of gold, " an excellent description since it was abounding in gold. The gold trade was largely responsible for the development of Ghana into a powerful, centralized kingdom. The peoples of West Africa had independently developed their own gold mining techniques and began trading with people of other regions of Africa and later Europe as well. At the time of the Kingdom of Ghana, gold was traded for salt that came down from the Sahara desert.

In addition to the gold trade, historians have pointed to a second important factor in the development of these West African Kingdoms. This was the use of iron. The use of iron to make tools and weapons helped some people to expand their control over neighboring people. These changes called for new forms of social organization, contributing to the development of centralized, powerful empires. Historians also say that the use of the horse and camel, along with iron, were important factors in how rulers were able to incorporate small farmers and herders into their empires.

The Ghanaian kings controlled the gold that was mined in their kingdom and implemented a system of taxation for their people. Around 1054, the Almoravid rulers came south to conquer the Kingdom of Ghana and convert the people to Islam. The authority of the king eventually diminished, which opened the way for the Kingdom of Mali to begin to gain power. The trade that had begun, however, continued to prosper.

Two important sources that have told historians about the history of the Kingdom of Ghana are the writings of a Spanish Muslim named Al-Bakri and archaeological finds. Archaeologists have worked at excavating a site that many believe to be one of the king's cities of the Kingdom of Ghana, Kumbi Saleh.

The Kingdom of Mali

Take another look at the map above showing Africa's kingdoms and empires.  Notice the relationship between Ghana and Mali. What do you see? The Kingdom of Mali includes all of Ghana plus a lot more territory! During its time, Mali was the second largest empire in the world only after the Mongolian empire in Asia. The dates that historians have designated for the Kingdom of Mali are from the 13th to 15th centuries CE.

The Kingdom of Mali came to control the gold trade that the Kingdom of Ghana had controlled before it, but it also expanded its trading in many ways. The Kingdom of Mali controlled the salt trade in the north and many caravan trade routes. Additionally, it traded extensively with Egypt and the copper mine areas to the east.

The founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Mali was Sundiata Keita. We know about him through the writings of a 14th century North African historian named Ibn Khaldun. Sundiata expanded the kingdom to include the Kingdom of Ghana and West African gold fields.

The most celebrated king of Mali was Mansa Musa. He greatly extended Mali's territory and power during his reign. He made a name for himself in distant regions throughout the Muslim world through his pilgrimage to Mecca, which is in present-day Saudi Arabia. Sixty thousand people and eighty camels carrying 300 lbs. of gold each accompanied him to Mecca.

Several great centers of Islamic learning were also established during the Kingdom of Mali. Among them were the legendary Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao. Scholars came from all over the Muslim world to study at these places, which have a long and rich history of learning in religion, mathematics, music, law, and literature. Although many people in Mali maintained their indigenous religions during this time, Islam was becoming well established throughout the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Songhay

Now take a look back again at the map of Africa's empires and kingdoms. You will see that the Kingdom of Songhay encompassed part of the Kingdom of Mali, as well as land beyond to the east and north. The dates for the Kingdom of Songhay partly overlap those of Mali, although the information that follows will reveal at what point Songhay gained control over certain portions of the old Kingdom of Mali. The dates for the Kingdom of Songhay are between 1350 and 1600 CE.

The exact origins of the Kingdom of Songhay are not clear to historians, although there are records of the King Kossoi accepting Islam around 1009 CE. This began an integration of commerce and religion to gain and maintain power that would continue throughout the history of the Kingdom of Songhay. Islam became a unifying force for the people and an important factor for maintaining state power.

The first of two great rulers in the Kingdom of Songhay was Sonni Ali. He came to power in 1464 CE and made the Songhay perhaps the most powerful state in western/central Africa at the time. He seized Timbuktu and Djenne, which had been parts of the Kingdom of Mali. These, as well as the capital city of Gao, continued to be important centers of learning and commerce. Sonni Ali was not a devout Muslim himself, but was sympathetic to indigenous religious practices. Most of all, he was concerned about his own ambitions to build a great empire.

His successor was Mohammed Askia, who came to power in 1493 CE. He expanded the kingdom even further and set up an even more advanced and strongly centralized government. He developed a new system of laws, expanded the military, and encouraged scholarship and learning. Unlike Sonni Ali, he was a devout Muslim, who used the combination of Islam and commerce to build his kingdom. He brought peace and stability to the kingdom during his reign.

The Kingdom of Songhay came to an end when the Moroccans invaded and conquered them. By 1600 CE, the days of the great kingdoms of West Africa were over.

The Coming of Islam to the Maghrib

Now we are going to go back in time again to the beginnings of and just prior to the Kingdom of Ghana, but this time we will be looking at a region called the Maghrib.

The region known as the Maghrib lies in North Africa, in what are now the countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. 

The Maghrib underwent significant changes beginning in the 7th century CE that led to a shift in its dominant religion to Islam. Before this time, the population consisted of a mix of Christians, Jews, and people practicing indigenous religions. Yet this began to change as Arabs gained more and more power in the region. The people living in the Maghrib at the time were called Berbers. Today their descendents still live in this region of Africa, and the majority of them follow Islam. During the period between the 7th century and 10th century CE (overlapping with the early days of the Kingdom of Ghana), Islam became accepted throughout this region. It remains the dominant religion there up to this day. How did this significant change occur?

Historians have explained that the Arabs brought Islam to the Maghrib as they moved into the area. The Arabs were a powerful political and military force in the region. At first, there was pressure for Berbers to join the Arab military and adopt Islam for reasons of political/economic advantage. However by the 8th century, Berbers were ready to adopt Islam as well as Arabic culture. They converted to Islam on a massive scale, but also continued to resent Arab domination in this region.

The Berbers developed their own unique expression of Islam in a doctrine called Kharidjism. This doctrine emphasized equality amongst Muslims and criticized the ruling authority of the Arabs. It became the Berber's ideology of struggle against Arab domination. Their resistance was aimed not at Muslim Arabs, but specifically targeted towards the ruling class.

Beginning in the late 8th century CE, the Idrisid dynasty strengthened the presence of Islam in the region through measures to convert the remainder of the non-Islamic population to Islam. By the 10th century, virtually the whole region known as the Maghrib had become Islamic.

During this time of the Arab conquest of the Maghrib in the 7th and 8th centuries, there was an influx of Muslim merchants who became involved in the trans-Saharan gold trade with the Great Kingdoms of West Africa that were just forming around this time.

While the presence of Islam in West Africa dates back to eighth century, the spread of the faith in regions that are now the modern states of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Nigeria, was in actuality, a gradual and complex process. Much of what we know about the early history of West Africa comes from medieval accounts written by Arab and North African geographers and historians. Specialists have used several models to explain why Africans converted to Islam. Some emphasize economic motivations, others highlight the draw of Islam’s spiritual message, and a number stress the prestige and influence of Arabic literacy in facilitating state building. While the motivations of early conversions remain unclear, it is apparent that the early presence of Islam in West Africa was linked to trade and commerce with North Africa. Trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean predated Islam, however, North African Muslims intensified the Trans-Saharan trade. North African traders were major actors in introducing Islam into West Africa. Several major trade routes connected Africa below the Sahara with the Mediterranean Middle East, such as Sijilmasa to Awdaghust and Ghadames to Gao. The Sahel, the ecological transition zone between the Sahara desert and forest zone, which spans the African continent, was an intense point of contact between North Africa and communities south of the Sahara. In West Africa, the three great medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and the Songhay developed in Sahel.

The history of Islam in West Africa can be explained in three stages, containment, mixing, and reform. In the first stage, African kings contained Muslim influence by segregating Muslim communities, in the second stage African rulers blended Islam with local traditions as the population selectively appropriated Islamic practices, and finally in the third stage, African Muslims pressed for reforms in an effort to rid their societies of mixed practices and implement Shariah. This three-phase framework helps sheds light on the historical development of the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay and the 19th century jihads that led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in Hausaland and the Umarian state in Senegambia. 

Containment: Ghana and the Takrur 

The early presence of Islam was limited to segregated Muslim communities linked to the trans-Saharan trade. In the 11th century Andalusian geographer, Al-Bakri, reported accounts of Arab and North African Berber settlements in the region. Several factors led to the growth of the Muslim merchant-scholar class in non-Muslim kingdoms. Islam facilitated long distance trade by offering useful sets of tools for merchants including contract law, credit, and information networks. Muslim merchant-scholars also played an important role in non-Muslim kingdoms as advisors and scribes in Ghana. They had the crucial skill of written script, which helped in the administration of kingdoms. Many Muslim were also religious specialists whose amulets were prized by non-Muslims.

Merchant-scholars also played a large role in the spread of Islam into the forest zones. These included the Jakhanke merchant-scholars in [name region], the Jula merchants in Mali and the Ivory Coast, and the Hausa merchants during the nineteenth century in Nigeria, Ghana, and Guinea Basau,]. Muslim communities in the forest zones were minority communities often linked to trading diasporas. Many of the traditions in the forest zones still reflect the tradition of Al-Hajj Salim Suwari, a late fifteenth-century Soninke scholar, who focused on responsibilities of Muslims in a non-Muslim society. His tradition, known as the Suwarian tradition, discouraged proselytizing, believing that God would bring people around to Islam in his own ways. This tradition worked for centuries in the forest zone including the present day, where there are vibrant Muslim minority communities. 

Although modern Ghana is unrelated to the ancient kingdom of Ghana, modern Ghana chose the name as a way of honoring early African history. The boundaries of the ancient Kingdom encompassed the Middle Niger Delta region, which consists of modern-day Mali and parts of present-day Mauritania and Senegal. This region has historically been home to the Soninken Malinke, Wa’kuri and Wangari peoples. Fulanis and the Southern Saharan Sanhaja Berbers also played a prominent role in the spread of Islam in the Niger Delta region. Large towns emerged in the Niger Delta region around 300 A.D. Around the eighth century, Arab documents mentioned ancient Ghana and that Muslims crossed the Sahara into West Africa for trade. North African and Saharan merchants traded salt, horses, dates, and camels from the north with gold, timber, and foodstuff from regions south of the Sahara. Ghana kings, however, did not permit North African and Saharan merchants to stay overnight in the city. This gave rise to one of the major features of Ghana—the dual city; Ghana Kings benefited from Muslim traders, but kept them outside centers of power. 

From the eighth to the thirteenth century, contact between Muslims and Africans increased and Muslim states began to emerge in the Sahel. Eventually, African kings began to allow Muslims to integrate. Accounts during the eleventh century reported a Muslim state called Takrur in the middle Senegal valley. Around this time, the Almoravid reform movement began in Western Sahara and expanded throughout modern Mauritania, North Africa and Southern Spain. The Almoravids imposed a fundamentalist version of Islam, in an attempt to purify beliefs and practices from syncretistic or heretical beliefs. The Almoravid movement imposed greater uniformity of practice and Islamic law among West African Muslims. The Almoravids captured trade routes and posts, leading to the weakening of the Takruri state. Over the next hundred years, the empire dissolved into a number of small kingdoms.

Mixing: The Empires of Mali and Songhay 

Over the next few decades, African rulers began to adopt Islam while ruling over populations with diverse faiths and cultures. Many of these rulers blended Islam with traditional and local practices in what experts call the mixing phase. Over time, the population began to adopt Islam, often selectively appropriating aspects of the faith. 

The Mali Empire (1215-1450) rose out of the region’s feuding kingdoms. At its height, the empire of Mali composed most of modern Mali, Senegal, parts of Mauritania and Guinea. It was a multi-ethnic state with various religious and cultural groups. Muslims played a prominent role in the court as counselors and advisors. While the empire’s founder, Sunjiata Keita, was not himself a Muslim, by 1300 Mali kings became Muslim. The most famous of them was Mansa Musa (1307-32). He made Islam the state religion and in 1324 went on pilgrimage from Mali to Mecca. Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca showed up in European records because of his display of wealth and lavish spending. Apparently, his spending devalued the price of gold in Egypt for several years. The famed 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali shortly after Mansa Musa’s death. By the fifteenth century, however, Mali dissolved largely due to internal dissent and conflicts with the Saharan Tuareg. 

Several Muslim polities developed farther east, including the Hausa city-states and the Kingdom of Kanem in modern Northern Nigeria. Hausaland was comprised of a system of city-states (Gobir, Katsina, Kano, Zamfara, Kebbi and Zazzau). The Kingdom of Kanem near Lake Chad flourished as a commercial center from the ninth to 14th century. The state became Muslim during the ninth century. Its successor state was Bornu. Modern day Northern Nigeria comprises much of Hausaland and Bornu in the east. By the 14th century all ruling elites of Hausaland were Muslim, although the majority of the population did not convert until the 18th century jihads. Much like the rulers of earlier Muslims states, the rulers of Hausaland blended local practices and Islam. 

Emerging from the ruins of the Mali Empire, the Mande Songhay Empire (1430s to 1591) ruled over a diverse and multi-ethnic empire. Although Islam was the state religion, the majority of the population still practiced their traditional belief systems. Many rulers, however, combined local practices with Islam. Sonni Ali, the ruler from 1465-1492, persecuted Muslim scholars, particularly those who criticized pagan practices. 

During the 13th century, Mansa Musa conquered the Kingdom of Gao. Two centuries later, the kingdom of Gao rose again as the Songhay Empire. Sonni Ali captured much of the Empire of Mali. Under [Aksia Muhammad] 1493-1529), the Songhay’s borders extended far beyond any previous West African empire. 

The Songhay state patronized Islamic institutions and sponsored public buildings, mosques and libraries. One notable example is the Great Mosque of Jenne, which was built in the 12th or 13th century. The Great Mosque of Jenne remains the largest earthen building in the world. By the 16th century there were several centers of trade and Islamic learning in the Niger Bend region, most notably the famed Timbuktu. Arab chroniclers tell us that the pastoral nomadic Tuareg founded Timbuktu as a trading outpost. The city’s multicultural population, regional trade, and Islamic scholarship fostered a cosmopolitan environment. In 1325, the city’s population was around 10,000. At its apex, in the 16th century, the population is estimated to have been between 30,000 and 50,000. Timbuktu attracted scholars from throughout the Muslim world.

The Songhay’s major trading partners were the Merenid dynasty in the Maghrib (north-west Africa) and the Mamluks in Egypt. The Songhay Empire ended when Morocco conquered the state in 1591. The fall of the Songhay marked the decline of big empires in West Africa. Merchant scholars in Timbuktu and other major learning centers dispersed, transferring learning institutions from urban-based merchant families to rural pastoralists throughout the Sahara. During this period there was an alliance between scholars, who were also part of the merchant class, and some warriors who provided protection for trade caravans. Around the 12th and 13th century, mystical Sufi brotherhood orders began to spread in the region. Sufi orders played an integral role in the social order of African Muslim societies and the spread of Islam through the region well into the 20th century.