Points of View, American Stories

'Africa' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on Islam in Africa to 1800 C. E. includes the areas of Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Timbuktu. The article by Nehemia Levtzion is reprinted from The Oxford History of Islam edited by John L. Esposito in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Islam in Africa to 1800

Islam moved into Africa from three directions. It came from North Africa across the Sahara to Bilad al-Sudan (The Lands of the Black People), which is between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Chad. Despite six centuries of resistance from Nubian Christians, Islam expanded from Egypt southward, up the Nile valley, and west to Darfur and Wadai. Islam also moved from the Arabian peninsula across the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, and from there further south to the coast of East Africa. This chapter will analyze the diverse patterns of the Islamization of Africa and the variety of religious experiences encountered by African Muslims until the beginning of the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, several factors contributed to the change from accommodation with local cultures to Islamic militancy, which brought about the jihad movements of the nineteenth century.

Ghana and Mali

The earliest Arab expeditions in North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries penetrated the Sahara in two directions, from Tripoli toward Fezzan in southwestern Libya and from the Sus in southern Morocco. These Arab expeditions made their way on beaten routes along which trade had been carried for some time. Trade across the Sahara was carried by nomadic Berbers, who occupied both ends of the Sahara. By the tenth century Muslim traders from North Africa had their base in the commercial centers of Awdaghust and Tadmekka in the southern Sahara. From these towns they traded with the capitals of the kingdoms of Bilad al-Sudan, Ghana and Gao (in eastern Mali). Each capital city was composed of a Muslim town and a royal town. This residential separation allowed each group to practice its own religious rites without offending the other.

Writing in 1068, the Andalusian geographer al-Bakri (d. 1054) was able to gather precious information about Islam in three contemporary African kingdoms: Gao, Ghana, and Takrur (in lower Senegal). The king of Gao was Muslim, but the common people adhered to their ancestral religion, and pre-Islamic customs persisted at the court. The partial acceptance of Islam in Gao is contrasted with the zealous adherence to Islam of the king of Takrur, who compelled his subjects to observe Islamic law and carried out a jihad against his neighbors. The Islamic militancy of Takrur was exceptional, whereas Gao's symbiotic relationship between Islam and the traditional religion was more typical of Islam in West Africa.

In Ghana, Muslims lived under the auspices of a non-Muslim king, who invited Muslim traders to the capital and employed literate Muslims in his court. According to the geographer Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri (fl.1137–54) writing in 1137, the people of Ghana converted to Islam in 1076. This must have happened under the influence of the Almoravids, a militant Islamic movement in the southwestern Sahara. According to the geographer al-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100–65), Ghana was a Muslim state in 1154 and was still among the most powerful in western Sudan. By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, Ghana's power had declined and the political center of gravity shifted southward, where Mali, on the upper reaches of the Niger River, emerged as the dominant power. Al-Bakri's writings imply that there were also local Muslims in Ghana, traders who were part of a commercial network that extended from the towns of the Sahel to the sources of gold in the south. Muslims established trading centers that by the end of the fifteenth century reached the fringes of the forest. They created a commercial diaspora with a common religion, language, and legal system, the Shariah, a personal and extraterritorial divinely ordained law, which added to the mutual trust among merchants. Conversion to Islam thus became necessary for those who wished to join the commercial network.

The next phase in the process of Islamization began when Muslim religious leaders established communication with host kings. Al-Bakri presents an account of such an encounter that brought about the Islamization of the king of Malal, a small principality that two centuries later developed into the empire of Mali. The Muslim religious leader, according to this account, succeeded in winning over the king by demonstrating Allah's omnipotence. In this instance, praying to Allah saved the kingdom, whereas the sacrifices performed by local priests had failed. Al-Bakri's accounts, like other traditions, emphasize the role of the rulers as early recipients of Islamic influence and therefore the importance of kingdoms in the process of Islamization. Indeed, Islam did not penetrate into segmentary societies even when and where Muslim traders and religious leaders were present, because there were no rulers to mediate Islamic influence.

In the principality of Malal, as in Gao, only the king, his family, and his entourage accepted Islam. In this respect, Islam could have become a divisive factor between the Islamized kings and the non-Muslim commoners. Situated between their subjects and an influential Muslim minority, kings adopted a middle position between Islam and the local traditional religion. Kings behaved as Muslims in some situations but followed traditional customs on other occasions. They patronized Muslim religious experts but also referred to traditional priests. From this middle position, dynasties and individual kings could develop greater commitment to Islam or fall back on ancestral religion.

The Malinke (literally, “the people of Mali”) were the Mande-speaking people associated with the empire of Mali. Malinke chiefs had come under Islamic influence before the time of Sundiata, the founder and ruler of Mali. Sundiata, a great hunter and magician, led his people in a war of liberation against another powerful magician, Sumanguru, the king of Soso, in the Battle of Kirina. Though a nominal Muslim, Sundiata turned to the traditional religion for support. Two centuries later, Sonni Ali, who made the small kingdom of Songhay into a large empire, behaved in a similar way. Kings such as Sundiata and Sonni Ali, founders of empires, are the heroes of the national traditions, whereas the exploits of their Muslim successors—Mansa Musa of Mali and Askiya Muhammad of Songhay—were recorded only by the Arabic sources. From its center on the upper Niger River, Mali expanded into the Sahel in the direction of the Sahara. Muslim towns became part of the empire, and Muslim traders traveled over routes that traversed the empire. Through the control of the Saharan trade and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Mali came closer to the larger Muslim world. As the small Malinke kingdom evolved into a vast multiethnic empire, with influential Muslim elements inside and extensive Islamic relations outside the empire, its kings moved along an imaginary continuum, from attachment to the traditional heritage toward greater commitment to Islam. The emperor Mansa Musa (1312–37) made his empire part of the land of Islam. He built mosques with minarets, instituted public prayer, and attracted Maliki scholars. Mansa Musa visited Cairo on his way to Mecca in 1324, where he was described by an Egyptian official as a pious man, who “strictly observed the prayer, the recitation of the Quran, and the mention of Allah's name.” The same informant told Mansa Musa that his treatment of free women as if they were slave concubines was forbidden by Islamic law. “Not even to kings?” Mansa Musa asked. “Not even to kings,” replied the official, “Ask the learned scholars.” Mansa Musa responded, “By Allah. I did not know that. Now I will renounce it completely.” Shortcomings in the application of Muslim law were most apparent in marriage customs and sexual behavior.

In 1352-53, during the reign of Mansa Sulayman, Mansa Musa's brother, the great traveler and author Ibn Battutah (1304–68) visited the king's court. He was impressed by the way Muslims in Mali observed public prayer on Fridays and by their concern for the study of the Quran. He described the celebration of the two great Islamic festivals: the “sacrificial feast” on the tenth day of the month of the pilgrimage and the festival of the “breaking of the fast” at the end of Ramadan. The presence of the king made public prayer an official occasion to which non-Muslims were also drawn. In return, the prestige of the new religion was mobilized to exhort loyalty to the ruler. The alliance between kingship and Islam made Islam into an imperial cult. As national feasts the Islamic festivals accommodated such traditional ceremonies as the recitation of songs praising the king and the appearance of masks. Ibn Battutah crtiticized these and other pre-Islamic customs. Ibn Battutah was also critical of the practice of sprinkling dust and ashes on the head as a sign of respect before the king. In eleventh-century Ghana, under a non-Muslim king, only those who followed the king's religion knelt down and sprinkled themselves with dust; Muslims were exempted from this practice and they greeted the king by clapping hands. In the Islamized empire of Mali all subjects, Muslims and non-Muslims, had to follow the custom. In other words, under a non-Muslim ruler Muslims were not obliged to perform some traditional ceremonial acts, but under Islamized kings, who themselves combined Islamic and traditional elements, pre-Islamic customs had to be accommodated.

In the fifteenth century Mali lost its control over the Sahel and was cut off from direct contact with the trans-Saharan routes and the larger Muslim world. The capital declined and was eventually deserted by the foreign Muslim community. As more ethnic groups escaped Mali's domination, the kingdom gradually contracted back to its Malinke nucleus, and the traditional particularistic spirit of the Malinke nation triumphed over the universal supratribal appeal of Islam. Muslim religious leaders remained attached to the courts of the successor states of Mali and continued to render religious services to those Islamized chiefs, but they lost the Islamic zeal encouraged by the fourteenth-century kings of Mali. The chiefs returned to the middle position between Islam and the traditional religion, with a greater inclination toward the latter. Muslims in the capital and in provincial centers of government became integrated into the state's social and political systems. They were pious and observant believers themselves, but they often had to tolerate the more diluted forms of Islam as practiced by their kings and to take part in ceremonies in which pre-Islamic rites were performed. The situation of these Muslims was different from that of Muslims in commercial towns, which were often autonomous. For example, the king of Mali did not enter Diaba, a town of the fuqaha (those who are experts on Islamic jurisprudence), where the qadi (a judge administering religious law) was the sole authority. Anyone who entered Diaba was safe from the king's oppression and outrage; it was thus called “the town of Allah.”

Merchants were carriers of Islam rather than agents of Islamization. They opened routes and exposed isolated societies to external influences, but they were not themselves engaged in the propagation of Islam, which was the work of religious leaders. The leaders became integrated into African societies by playing religious, social, and political roles similar to those of traditional priests. Like traditional priests, Muslim men of religion were peacemakers, who pleaded for those who broke the king's laws. Mosques, like traditional shrines, were considered sanctuaries. Immunity of life and property was extended to men of religion only as long as they kept out of politics and posed no threat to the existing sociopolitical order.

Songhay and Timbuktu

In the fourteenth century, Walata—which served as the southern terminus of the Saharan trade—was still more important as a commercial town than was Timbuktu. The emperor Mansa Musa sought to encourage intellectual life in Timbuktu and Malian scholars to study in Fez. By the first half of the fifteenth century, the level of scholarship in Timbuktu was such that a student who came from the Hejaz realized that the scholars of Timbuktu surpassed him in the knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).

Under Malian rule the imams of the Friday mosque were Sudanese. (A Friday mosque is the large mosque where a town's entire population could gather for Friday prayer. A town could have many regular mosques but would most likely have only one Friday mosque.) After the Tuareg conquest of Timbuktu in 1433, scholars from the oases of the northern Sahara replaced Sudanese scholars as the imams of the Friday mosque. It was about the same time that the Sankore scholars, members of three Sanhaja families who had migrated from Walata, became prominent in Timbuktu. Those three Sanhaja families became very closely associated with Akillu, the Tuareg chief. When Sonni Ali, founder of the Songhay kingdom, conquered Timbuktu, Akillu brought a thousand camels to carry the fuqaha of Sankore to Walata. Those people of Sankore who had remained behind in Timbuktu were persecuted, killed, and humiliated by Sonni Ali because, he claimed, “they were close friends of the Tuareg.” Even a source as hostile to Sonni Ali as Tarikh al-Sudan (The history of the Sudan) admits that Sonni Ali's persecution of the scholars of Timbuktu notwithstanding, “he acknowledged their eminence, saying: ‘without the ulama the world would be no good.’ He did favors to other ulama and respected them.” The ulama favored by Sonni Ali were the descendants of scholars who had come from the northern Sahara and beyond, who unlike the Sanhaja of the southern Sahara had no relations with the Tuareg, Sonni Ali's enemies.

Sonni Ali combined elements of Islam with beliefs and practices of the Songhay traditional religion and was greatly respected as a magician-king. He observed the fast of Ramadan and gave abundant gifts to mosques, but he also worshiped idols and sought the advice and help of traditional diviners and sorcerers. He pronounced the shahadah (declaration of faith), without understanding its meaning. He prayed but was careless in observing the correct time of the prayers. Sonni Ali therefore was no different than most West African kings who maintained a middle position between Islam and the traditional religion, but he encountered unique historical circumstances. His successful military exploits brought him to rule over regions that had previously been under stronger Islamic influence. The political confrontation with the representatives of Islam, not the deficiency in the practice of Islam, brought about the declaration of Sonni Ali as an infidel. The legal and doctrinal justification of the takfir (charge of belief) against Sonni Ali, against the general consensus, was provided by the North African militant Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Maghili (d. 1503).

Shortly after Sonni Ali's death his son was overthrown by Askiya Muhammad, a senior commander in Sonni Ali's army, who entered into an alliance with the scholars of Timbuktu and with chiefs and governors of the more Islamized western provinces. A new balance was achieved between those provinces west of the Niger bend and Songhay proper, down the river, which remained strongly traditional and had hardly been affected by Islam. Askiya Muhammad made Islam one of the central pillars of the state. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca and visited Egypt on the way. There he met the Egyptian writer and Sufi teacher Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (1445–1505), who introduced him to the Abbasid caliph. According to al-Ifrani, Askiya Muhammad “took from him [al-Suyuti] his theological teachings and learned from him what is lawful and what is forbidden. He [Askiya Muhammad] also heard his [al-Suyuti's] lessons on the precepts and prescriptions of the Shariah and benefited from his advice and admonitions.” He came back with the title of caliph, which was granted him by the Abbasid caliph in Egypt.

From what is known about Songhay under the Askiyas (the royal title of the dynasty established by Askiya Muhammad), little was done in practice to reform the empire in line with Islamic political theory. The Askiyas sought the advice of the scholars of Timbuktu on religious issues rather than on matters of state policy, in which army commanders and other senior officials at the court were more influential. In 1498 Askiya Muhammad appointed Mahmud ibn Umar Aqit as qadi. He was succeeded by his three sons, who held office until the end of the sixteenth century. The transfer of the office of qadi to the Aqit family marked the growing influence of the Sankore Sanhaja scholars. As qadi Mahmud ibn Umar Aqit asserted his independence in Timbuktu to the extent that he sent away Askiya Muhammad's messengers, preventing them from carrying out the askiya's orders. There were also tensions in the next generation between Askiya Dawud, son of Askiya Muhammad, and the qadi al-Aqib, son of the qadi Mahmud. Once, following an exchange of hostile words, the qadi refused to see the Askiya, who was made to wait before the qadi's home for a long time before he was given permission to enter. The Askiya humiliated himself before the qadi until reconciliation. There were other ulama in Songhay, who played the traditional role of Muslim divines in Sudanic states as intimate advisers whose relations with the rulers were devoid of the tensions between the Askiyas and the qadis. These ulama prayed for the ruler and recruited supernatural aid to protect him and his kingdom, receiving in return grants of land and charters of privilege. Such documents were known as hurma in Songhay and mahram in Bornu, meaning “sanctity,” “immunity,” or “inviolability.”

Askiya Muhammad was deposed in 1528 by his son Musa, who defied the intercession in the dispute with his brothers. This was a departure from the accepted norms of political conduct, a sign of the unmitigated rule of violence. The period of illegitimate despotism came to an end with the accession of Askiya Ismail in 1537. He set free his father, Askiya Muhammad, who in return ceremonially invested Askiya Ismail with the insignia that he had received in Cairo from the Abbasid caliph: a green gown, green cape, white turban, and an Arabian sword. Askiya Dawud, the last ruler in the line of Askiya Muhammad's sons, ruled for thirty-three years (1549–82). As a prince he received a good Islamic education, and as king he continued to study with a shaykh who came to the palace every morning. He exceeded his father in generosity toward Muslim scholars. He gave his daughters in marriage to scholars and merchants. When one of the scholars of Timbuktu visited Askiya Dawud in his palace, he was shocked by the persistence of pre-Islamic practices at the court. “I was amazed when I came in,” the scholar said, “and I thought you were mad, despicable, and a fool, when I saw the people carry dust on their heads.” The askiya laughed and replied, “No, I was not mad myself, and I am reasonable, but I am the head of sinful and haughty madmen, and I therefore made myself mad to frighten them so that they would not act unjustly towards the Muslims.” Even a devoted Muslim like Askiya Dawud was therefore unable to relieve the monarchy of its pre-Islamic heritage.

There were between 150 and 180 Quranic schools in Timbuktu in the middle of the sixteenth century, which formed a broad basis for higher levels of learning in all the branches of the Islamic sciences. Students studied a subject with the scholar best known for his authority in that field. By the end of the sixteenth century scholarship in Timbuktu matched that of Morocco. During the time that the most prominent Muslim scholar in Timbuktu, Ahmad Baba (1556–1627), was exiled to Marrakesh (1594–1607), the leading scholars of the Maghreb, including the qadis of Fez and Meknes and the mufti of Marrakesh, came to hear his lessons. At that time intellectual life in Timbuktu was influenced by Egyptian scholars, with whom scholars from Timbuktu studied when they visited Cairo on their way to Mecca. Most of those scholars were from the Shafii school of law, with whom the Maliki scholars of Timbuktu studied subjects other than law, such as the hadith and mysticism. Scholarship in Timbuktu thus had wider exposure than the parochial Maliki scholars of Morocco. Indeed, the scholars of Timbuktu preferred the view of the more sophisticated Egyptian al-Suyuti to the zealous Maghrebi reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Maghili on issues that were central to West African Muslims. Al-Suyuti saw no harm in the manufacture of amulets, provided there was nothing reprehensible in them, but al-Maghili was against any trade in amulets. Al-Suyuti gave license to some forms of association with non-Muslims, but al-Maghili insisted that between Muslims and infidels there was only jihad.

Sufism was brought to Timbuktu from the Maghreb and the northern Sahara in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century the leading scholars of Timbuktu were Sufis. Like contemporary Egyptian Sufis, they were not affiliated to any Sufi brotherhood (tariqah). Commerce seems to have been problematic for mystics; a mystic who engaged in commerce was gradually deprived of his nightly visionary encounters with the Prophet. Still, some of the scholars famous as saints and ascetics were quite wealthy, mainly from gifts by the city's merchants, and more so through the generosity of the Askiyas. Members of scholars' families were sometimes important merchants. Individuals might have spent the first part of their lives as merchants before they retired to pursue advanced studies. The scholars of Timbuktu were also spokesmen for the city's trading community. Even legal opinions were influenced by commercial interests, such as Ahmad Baba's ruling on the lawfulness of tobacco, because Timbuktu became an important center for the tobacco trade.

Songhay and Timbuktu in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

 Following the Moroccan conquest in 1591, under the qadis' leadership the people of Timbuktu adopted a policy of passive submission and noncooperation with the conquering army. Timbuktu, which had been autonomous under the Songhay rule, became the seat of a military government. The presence of an occupying force disturbed life in this city of commerce and scholarship and led to a conflict between the military and the civilian populations. The pasha (highest-ranking official) and his troops resorted to harsh disciplinary measures when all conventions were broken. The pasha ordered the arrest of the leading fuqaha, and their houses were pillaged. Seventy prominent fuqaha were deported in chains to Marrakesh, among them the qadi Umar ibn Mahmud Aqit and Ahmad Baba. The fuqaha were under arrest in Marrakesh for two years, and Umar died in prison. Even after their release they were not allowed to return to Timbuktu. Only Ahmad Baba returned, after almost twenty years in exile.

After the exile of the fuqaha, according to the seventeenth-century author of Tarikh al-Sudan, Timbuktu “became a body without a soul.” The suffering of the people of Timbuktu increased as the struggle for power among the Moroccan military commanders intensified. The supply of food from the inner delta was cut off, as the routes were intercepted by the Fulbe and the Tuareg. During the seventeenth century the elite of Timbuktu was made up of the arma, descendants of the Moroccan conquerors, who held military and political power, the merchants, and the scholars. The political influence of the merchants increased because the pashas needed their financial support, and the merchants no longer needed the scholars as intermediaries. By the end of the seventeenth century, Timbuktu's impoverished mercantile community was no longer able to support a large specialized community of scholars. Lesser scholars, known as alfas, earned their livings as traders and artisans, mainly weavers and tailors. By the middle of the eighteenth century the pashalik of Timbuktu was in total eclipse. In about 1770 the Tuareg took possession of Gao, and in 1787 they entered Timbuktu and abolished the office of the pasha. The harshness of the nomads was mitigated by the scholars, whose religious prestige also carried political influence, reaching its peak with the revivalist movement led by Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1729–1811).

Linked by the Niger waterway to Timbuktu, the town of Djenné (in south-central Mali) developed as a distribution center for trade to the south. Merchants from the Sahara and North Africa extended their business from Timbuktu to Djenné. Their agents were the Dyula, who carried the trade to the sources of gold and kola in the Akan forest. In Djenné, deep in world of the Mandingue, Islam slowly gained ground, and pre-Islamic customs persisted there until the end of the fifteenth century, when a pious Dyula came from the south and destroyed the “idols' house,” where people had continued to worship. The ulama in Djenné were all Soninke and Mandingue and were highly respected by the rulers of Djenné, who sought their blessings.

The Bambara state of Ségou (in southern Mali on the Niger River) was founded in the middle of the eighteenth century by Biton Kulibali, who forced greater centralization to overcome older egalitarian patterns of Bambara communal life. He was supported by Muslim merchants and the ulama but was careful to maintain the balance between traditional and Islamic elements. It was customary for chiefs to send their sons to study with a Muslim cleric as part of their princely education. Although they were not meant to become Muslims, some did; some even became scholars. A qadi of Djenné in the second half of the sixteenth century was “from among the sons of the chiefs of Kala. He withdrew from authority and became a scholar.” In this way Biton Kulibali's son, Bakary, became a Muslim. As the ruler of the young Bambara state, Bakary failed to maintain the balance between Islam and tradition and was therefore deposed and killed. At that point N'golo Diara, a former slave of Biton Kulibali, seized power and established a new dynasty in Ségou. He also communicated on several occasions with the ulama in Djenné and Timbuktu, but he skillfully maintained the balance between traditionalism and Islam. While observing some Islamic rites, N'golo also remained the “great priest of the protecting idols.”

Through chiefly courts, where Islamic rituals were held, Islamic elements penetrated the culture of the Bambara, including the celebration of Islamic festivals as national feasts. The Scottish explorer Mungo Park (1771–1806), who visited Ségou in 1796 during the reign of Mansong, N'golo's son, was impressed by the influence of the Muslims at the court of Ségou. In the rival Bambara state of Kaarta, Park observed that “the disciples of Mahomet composed nearly one-half of the army,” and therefore “the mosques were very crowded” when the entire army gathered into the capital. But Park also recognized the persistence of pre-Islamic beliefs and practices: “Those Negroes, together with the ceremonial part of the Mahomedan religion, retain all their ancient superstitions and even drink strong liquors.”

In the eighteenth century there was an abundant supply of slaves in West Africa. Muslims owned more slaves for farming than did their non-Muslim neighbors. Whereas Bambara peasants owned a few slaves, who worked in the fields alongside members of the household, the Muslim Marka owned many slaves, who worked in the fields under the supervision of a foreman, who was himself a slave. The Marka master was then able to follow his commercial or clerical pursuits. Using slaves for farming gave Muslims the leisure to pursue learning and to teach. This was elaborated by the Jakhanke, who contributed to the growth of a rural tradition of Islamic scholarship.

By the fifteenth century Muslims developed a commercial network covering the area from the fringes of the Sahara in the north to the fringes of the forest in the south, and from the Atlantic coast of the Senegambia in the west to Hausaland and Bornu (in northeastern Nigeria) to the east. Most of the traders over this network were extensions of the Wangara, the Mandingue traders who carried on trade and Islam from at least the eleventh century. Those who traded to the west on the Gambia were the Jakhanke. Those Wangara who opened routes to Hausaland merged with the Hausa-speaking traders. Those traders of the middle Niger who entered the Akan forest, where the gold was, in the fifteenth century became known as the Dyula. These traders and the ulama, whether Dyula or Jakhanke, operated in the lands of the unbelievers, and for long periods they had to live in symbiotic relations with non-Muslims. They developed an ideology and a worldview that helped them to survive under these conditions, which Ivor Wilks has associated with al-Hajj Salim Suwari, who lived probably in the late fifteenth century. Suwari is regarded by the Dyula and the Jakhanke as the architect of their ways of life, having formulated precepts for the conduct of Muslims living among unbelievers. Under this ideology, Muslims may accept the authority of non-Muslim rulers, and even support them through the provision if religious services, so far as the Muslims are allowed to strictly observe Islam. Because they were aware of the danger of spiritual backsliding, as they lived in close proximity to unbelievers, the Muslims were also dedicated to Islamic learning. Because of their relative isolation, they were urged to travel to central places of learning in search of knowledge.

In their southern dispersion, west of the Black Volta River where most of the Dyula operated, the Dyula settled among “stateless” peoples, with whom they interacted socially and culturally but over whom they had little religious influence. Sometimes warriors who shared with the Dyula a common cultural Mandingue background moved along the trade routes, perhaps even as armed guards, and imposed their authority over these stateless people, as was the case of the Kong and the Gonja peoples. In the process of the state formation of Gonja, the warriors accepted Islam from the hands of a Dyula cleric who helped them to win a battle. The Gonja rulers were probably the first in the Volta basin to accept Islam. Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Islam was introduced to Dagomba, where the king encouraged trade and the migration of Muslims. A study of Islam in Dagomba reveals it to be a model for the cultural, social, and political integration of Islam into a state structure in ways that were typical of Mali and Songhay further north four or five centuries earlier.

The Senegambia

The first chapter in the history of Islam in present-day Senegal began with Takrur, whose Islamic militancy was described earlier by al-Bakri. Except for a few references in the Arabic sources of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and some oral traditions that are difficult to interpret, little is known about the history of Islam in this region until the end of the fifteenth century. At that time Portuguese sources and the chronicles of Timbuktu converge to shed light on a process of state building led by a Fulbe warrior named Tengella. He first created a Fulbe state in Futa Jallon (the mountainous district in western Guinea), and then moved further north to Futa Toro. In 1512 Tengella was defeated and killed by a Songhay army, and the conquest of Futa Toro was accomplished by Tengella's son, Koli Tengella, who created the Deniankobe dynasty of Futa Toro.

According to Tarikh al-Sudan, the descendants of Koli Tengella were considered as good Muslims as the rulers of Mali. But contemporary Tokolor scholars of Futa Toro viewed the Deniankobe as warrior chiefs. At the intersection of the Sahara and the Senegal valley, scholars were in confrontation with warriors. The Tokolor scholars of Futa Toro were known as Torodbe, a term that covered people of diverse social status and ethnic origins. They spoke Fulfulde and embraced customs of the pastoral Fuble, but unlike the Fulbe they were sedentary, and they were not necessarily of Fulbe origin. The maxim “Torodo is a beggar” associated them with the mendicant activities of Muslim scholars and students, who lived on charity. The openness of the Torodbe society is expressed in another maxim: “If a fisherman pursues learning, he becomes a Torodo.” In Futa Toro, however, learning among the Torodbe was at a lower level compared with the scholarship of their Toronkawa brethren of Hausaland. The Torodbe of Futa Toro were an integral part of the peasant society, unlike the Toronkawa of Hausaland, who separated themselves from both the Fulbe pastoralists and the Hausa-speaking peasants. Although the Toronkawa lived in rural enclaves, they cultivated an urban tradition of learning.

The symbiotic relations between the Deniankobe and the Torodbe had first been disturbed in 1673, when the Torodbe joined the militant movement of Nasir al-Din that spilled over the from the southern Sahara to Futa Toro. This movement was defeated by a coalition of the Deniankobe and Arab warrior tribes. The nomads of the Sahara, north of the Senegal River, continued during the eighteenth century to disturb life in Futa Toro. The Torodbe rose again in the 1770s against the Deniankobe, who had failed to stop the nomads' raids. This uprising developed in a jihad movement that overthrew the Deniankobe and created an Islamic imamate in Futa Toro.

Oral traditions connected the history of the Wolof to the Almoravids through the founding king of Jolof, who is said to have been a descendant of Abu Bakr ibn Umar. Though little known compared with Mali, Jolof, in the west, was nevertheless one of the great Muslim states in medieval West Africa. Its origins go back to the thirteenth century. For some time it was a tributary of Mali, but because of its marginal position, and with its own direct commercial relations with the Sahara, Jolof was culturally and economically autonomous. The kingdom of Jolof disintegrated in the sixteenth century, however, under the impact of the Atlantic trade. Kayor emerged as the most powerful state of the Wolof, both because of its favorable position on the coast and the benefits it derived from European trade. Intensive commercial activities and a process of political centralization enhanced the position of Muslims in Kayor. Since the middle of the fifteenth century European visitors were impressed by the role of Muslims in the courts of the Wolof chiefs as secretaries, counselors, and religious leaders. They considered the Wolof chiefs themselves as Muslims. It is significant, however, that neither in the European sources nor in the oral traditions is there any account of a viable traditional African religion among the Wolof. Oral traditions know no other religion than Islam from the dawn of Wolof history. It seems that most vestiges of organized traditional religion were eliminated under Islam's influence. Muslim religious leaders took over functions of the traditional priests, and even magic and religion were the prerogative of Muslim religious leaders.

The political and military elite were a warrior class, for whom drinking alcohol became a symbol of belonging, which only contributed to the tensions and confrontation between the ulama and the warriors. The growing influence of the Muslims in the court was counterbalanced by the tyeddo, the military core of Kayor. For the military and political elite, conversion to Islam implied joining the clerical community, a change of vocation and lifestyle. The Wolof chiefs therefore rejected demands by Muslim militants to convert. Tensions in the Wolof states grew when militant Islamic movements erupted in neighboring countries, mainly in Futa Toro. When Wolof clerics collaborated with the militants, they were severely punished and even sold into slavery, which was a violation of clerical immunity. Confrontation with militant Islamic movements changed political perceptions toward Islam. Whereas earlier European accounts referred to the Wolof as Muslims, later European travelers (since the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century), said that the Wolof were Muslims but their rulers were “pagans.” It was only since the end of the nineteenth century that the entire Wolof society converted to Islam.


Levtzion, Nehemia . "Islam in Africa to 1800." In The Oxford History of Islam edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/book/islam-9780195107999/islam-9780195107999-chapter-11.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #261: 'Africa' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 17, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/261.