Posted by Rafiq A. Tschannen
West Africa SOURCE: BBC
Islam first came to West Africa as a slow and peaceful process, spread by Muslim traders and scholars. The early journeys across the Sahara were done in stages. Goods passed through chains of Muslim traders, purchased, finally, by local non-Muslims at the southern most end of the route.
In the 5th century transporting heavy loads long distance was made much easier by the introduction of the camel to the trade routes. There were many trading partners in Sub-Saharan Africa. Gold was the main commodity sought by the North. Until the first half of the 13th century the kingdom of Ghana was a key trading partner with the Muslim North.
WEST AFRICAN KINGDOMS: THE KINGDOM OF GHANA
The kings of Ghana in the 11th century were not Muslims, but Muslims played a crucial role in their government. The great Spanish scholar Al Bakri describes the king of Ghana in the 11th century, Basi, as being a man who:
“…led a praiseworthy life on account of his love of justice and friendship for the Muslims…The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer.
There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars.”
Al Bakri, from the Book of Routes and Realms, Corpus of Early Arabic sources for West African History, Levtzion and Hopkins.
Another trade route forged by Muslim traders went from Zawila (in what today is Southern Libya) down to Bornu and Kanem. Al Bakri regarded Zawila as a very important commercial crossroads, and from its description it is clearly a lively and prosperous centre of Islamic faith:
“It is a town without walls and situated in the midst of the desert. It is the first point of the land of the Sudan. It has a cathedral mosque, a bath, and markets. Caravans meet there from all directions and from there the ways of those setting out radiate. There are palm groves and cultivated areas which are irrigated by means of camels…”
Al Bakri, from the Book of Routes and Realms, quoted in Corpus of Early Arabic sources for West African History, edited by Levtzion and Hopkins.
After Zawila, carrying on directly South, traders eventually reached the Kingdom of Kanem near Lake Chad, a flourishing commercial centres between the 9th and 14th centuries. Kanem converted to Islam in the 9th century. It was later superseded by the kingdom of Borno.
By the 14th century the most powerful kingdom in West Africa was Mali under the leadership of Sundiata. One of his successors, Mansa Musa, made a celebrated hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. His retinue was so huge and luxuriously dressed, and carrying such vast amounts of gold, that he became the talk of the Muslim world.
As well as being very prosperous, Mali became a great seat of learning renowned throughout the Muslim world.
“We used to keep the Sultan company during his progress, I and Abu Ishaq al-Tuwayjin, to the exclusion of his viziers and chief men, and converse to his enjoyment. At each halt he would regale us with rare foods and confectionery.
His equipment and furnishings were carried by 12,000 private slave women, wearing gowns of brocade and Yemeni silk.”
An account of Emperor Mansa’s hajj, given to Ibn Khaldun by Al-Mu’ammar, quoted from the Muqaddima by Levtzion and Hopkins in Corpus of Early Arabic sources for West African History.
ISLAMIC REFORM AND CONQUEST IN WEST AFRICA
By the 14th century the ruling elite of the Hausa city states were all Muslim. They comprised Gobir (most northern), Katsina, Kano, Zazzau (the most southern), Zamfara and Kebbi.
The majority of the people did not convert until the 18th century, when a series of jihads were launched by the Fulbe, tired of the corrupt ways of the ruling elite.
First the Muslim states of Futa Jallon (modern Guinea) and Futa Toro (southern Senegal) were established. Then the city states were conquered one by one. This was accomplished by the Sokoto jihad under the leadership of Usman dan Fodio – scholar, military strategist and religious leader. Sokoto became the seat of a new Caliphate.
Islam leaders spread the faith further into Yorubaland Nupe. Dan Fodio’s sons Mohammed Bello and Abdullahi took over the practical running of this great Muslim territory.
Listen to the court musicians of the current Emir of Zazzau in Zaria, Northern Nigeria
FIGHTING THE FRENCH
The momentum of reform was continued by Umar Tal, a Tukulor scholar who conquered three Bambara kingdoms in the 1850′s-1860′s. The territory was taken by the French in the 1890′s. Another formidable enemy of the French was Samori Toure who kindled some of the glory of old Mali with his Mandinka Empire and 30,000 strong army. He used the latest quick loading guns, which his blacksmiths knew how to mend. After his death, his son was defeated by the French in 1901.
ISLAM AND COLONIALISM IN WEST AFRICA
The British colonial administrators had some respect for Islam. They recognised its power to impose uniformity and spread a degree of literacy. When Queen Victoria sent two bibles to the Abeokuta mission, mindful of the spread of literacy through Koranic schools, she ensured one of them was in Arabic. Colonial officials who had served in Egypt, felt quite at home in the Muslim area of West Africa.
In northern Nigeria, the British undertook not to interfere with the Muslim order and exercised colonial authority through the Emirs. At the same time they discouraged people from going to North Africa to further their studies in the Islamic institutes of higher learning there, fearing the broadening of horizons this entailed would lead to a radical outlook. From 1922 onwards, Egypt enjoyed independence and stood as an inspiration to many people in Africa still under colonial rule.