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 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.
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
"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
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 It was later superseded by the kingdom of Borno.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
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.
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
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
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