The Islamic World to 1600
The early Islamic penetration of Africa was limited to the north, across Egypt and the Maghrib. By the 13th century, however, the religion had travelled further south, through the work of missionaries and along trade routes, into sub-Saharan Africa. The gold kingdoms of West Africa were one area in which Islam established itself.
The Kingdom of Ghana had ruled much of West Africa, and had controlled much of the gold and salt trade in the region, immediately prior to the arrival of Islam. This kingdom covered a wide expanse of territory in West Africa, but it must be noted that it did not correspond to the territory of the present-day country of Ghana. The spread of the Muslim Almoravids from Morocco into Ghana in the mid-11th century marked the beginning of Ghana's downfall, and by the 13th century it had completely disappeared as a state.
Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca, 1324
Courtesy of William Penn Charter School
The Kingdom of Mali soon filled the void left by the collapse of Ghana, and some of Mali's leaders adopted the religion brought by the invading Almoravids - Islam. Because the Kingdom of Mali controlled all three of the main gold fields in West Africa, whereas Ghana had controlled only one, it grew very wealthy and Timbuktu rose as a major trading city. The most influential and memorable ruler of Mali was Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312 to 1337, over what has been called the "Golden Age" of Mali. He is generally credited with solidifying the presence of Islam in West Africa, which until his rule was present only in missions and Muslim trading posts, although the religion still had little influence on the general population. As well, Mansa Musa was instrumental in expanding his kingdom's gold trade to the Mediterranean, through increased trading ties with the Merinid empire in North Africa and the Mamluks in Egypt. Mansa Musa is also well known for his pilgrimage to Mecca, which he undertook in 1324. It was reported in sources of the time that he brought 60,000 followers, 500 slaves, and 80 camels with him, all carrying gold. Passing through Tripoli and Cairo, among other cities, also helped in developing trade relationships with foreign cities, because Mali's wealth in gold did not go unnoticed.
Mansa Musa brought architects and builders back with him as he returned from his pilgrimage, and soon Timbuktu was a commercial city of 100,000 people. Public buildings, mosques, and libraries were built, and traders came from all over Europe, the Islamic world, and other parts of Africa to do business in Timbuktu. Scholars also came from afar to study at the prestigious University of Sankore.
Timbuktu's importance continued to grow as the Kingdom of Mali faded under the increasing power of one of Mali's subject peoples, the Songhai. The Songhai empire, which had completely eclipsed Mali by the late 14th century, was the last of what has been called the "Great Three" West African empires - after Ghana and Mali. Songhai built upon the existing Islamic tradition established by the Kingdom of Mali, and most of Songhai's 17 kings, the administrators, and the bureaucrats in urban centres were Muslim. The faith did not spread through the general population, however, and most of the kingdom's subjects retained their adherence to traditional religions. Many of those who did convert to Islam, including Songhai's rulers, combined elements of their ancestral religions with Islam. Sonni Ali, the Songhai ruler from 1465 to 1492, once declared that he could turn himself into a vulture, and he severely persecuted any Muslim who criticised the paganism of that statement.
Under the reign of Askia Muhammad (1493-1529), Songhai became the largest empire in West Africa at the time, covering much more territory than either Ghana or Mali ever had, and including over one thousand different cultures. The Songhai empire strengthened the trading ties that Mansa Musa had established with other Islamic empires in Africa - most notably, the Merinids in the Maghrib, and the Mamluks in Egypt. By 1591, however, the kingdom had become too large to administer, and an invasion from Morocco that year virtually destroyed the empire. Its Islamic legacy, however, remains in many places in West Africa today.
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