Africa and the Spread of Islam

African Civilizations And The Spread Of Islam


The spread of Islam, from its heartland in the Middle East and North Africa to India and Southeast Asia, revealed the power of the religion and its commercial and sometimes military attributes.

Civilizations were altered without being fully drawn into a single Islamic statement.

A similar pattern developed in sub-Saharan Africa, as Islam provided new influences and contacts without amalgamating African culture as a whole to the Middle Eastern core.

New religious, economic, and political patterns developed in relation to the Islamic surge, but great diversity remained.

Africa below the Sahara was never totally isolated from the centers of civilization in Egypt, west Asia, or the Mediterranean, but for long periods the contacts were difficult and intermittent.

During the ascendancy of Rome, sub-Saharan Africa like northern Europe was on the periphery of the major centers of civilization.

After the fall of Rome, the civilizations of Byzantium and the Islamic world provided a link between the civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean as well as the areas, such as northern Europe and Africa, on their frontiers.

In Africa, between roughly A.D. 800 and 1500, the frequency and intensity of contact with the outside world increased as part of the growing international network.

A number of social, religious, and technological changes took place that influenced many of the different peoples throughout the vast and varied continent.

Chief among these changes was the arrival of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad.

The spread of Islam across much of the northern third of Africa produced profound effects on both those who converted and those who resisted the new faith.

Islamization also served to link Muslim Africa even more closely to the outside world through trade, religion, and politics.

Trade and long-distance commerce, in fact, was carried out in many parts of the continent and linked regions beyond the orbit of Muslim penetration.

Until about 1450, however, Islam provided the major external contact between sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

State building took place in many areas of the continent under a variety of conditions.


West Africa, for example, experienced both the cultural influence of Islam and its own internal dynamic of state building and

civilizational developments that produced, in some places, great artistic accomplishments.

The formation of some powerful states, such as Mali and Songhay, depended more on military power and dynastic alliances than on ethnic or cultural unity.

In this aspect and in the process of state formation itself, Africa paralleled the roughly contemporaneous developments of western Europe.

The development of city-states, with strong merchant communities in West Africa and on the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, bore certain similarities to the urban developments of Italy and Germany in this period.

However, disparities between the technologies and ideologies of Europeans and Africans by the end of this period also created marked differences in the way in which their societies developed.

The arrival of western Europeans - the Portuguese - in the 15th century set in motion a series of exchanges that would draw Africans increasingly into the world economy and create a new set of relationships that would characterize African development for centuries to come.

Several emphases thus highlight the history of Africa in the postclassical centuries.

Northern Africa and the East African coast became increasingly incorporated into the Arab Muslim world, but even other parts of the continent reflected the power of Islamic thought and institutions.

New centers of civilization and political power arose in several parts of sub-Saharan Africa, illustrating the geographical diffusion of civilization.

African civilizations, however, built somewhat less clearly on prior precedent than was the case in other postclassical societies.

Some earlier themes, such as the Bantu migration and the formation of large states in the western Sudan, persisted.

Overall, sub-Saharan Africa remained a varied and distinctive setting, parts of it drawn into new contacts with the growing world network, but much of it retaining a certain isolation.

African Societies: Diversity And Similarities

The continent of Africa is so vast and the nature of its societies so diverse that it is almost impossible to generalize about them.

Differences in geography, language, religion, politics, and other aspects of life contributed to the diversity and to Africa's lack of political unity over long periods of time.

Unlike many parts of Asia, Europe, and North Africa, neither universal states nor universal religions characterized the history of sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet universal religions, first Christianity and later Islam, did find adherents in Africa and sometimes contributed to the formation of large states and empires.

Issues In Understanding Africa

Perhaps because of the trends of European history, much of the history of Africa, like the history of the rest of the world, has been written in terms of organized political entities, states and empires.


These political entities have been the units for understanding the past, and their rise and fall have provided the flow of history.


Historians of Africa have realized, however, that while some African societies had rulers who exercised control through a hierarchy of officials in what can be called states,


other African societies were "stateless," organizing around kinship or other forms of obligation and lacking the concentration of political power and authority we normally associate with the state.


The African past reveals that the movement from stateless to state societies was not necessarily an evolutionary development.


Stateless peoples who lived in villages organized around either lineages or age sets -


that is, groups of people of the same age who are considered to have similar responsibilities to society -


did not need rulers or bureaucracies and existed side by side with states; sometimes the stateless societies were larger and more extensive than the neighboring states.


Stateless societies had forms of government, but the authority and power normally exercised by a ruler and his court in a kingdom could be held instead by a council of families or by the community,


with no need to tax the population to support the ruler, the bureaucrats, the army, or the nobles as was usually the case in state-building societies.


Stateless societies had little concentration of authority, and vhat authority only affected a small

part of the peoples' lives.

In these societies, government was rarely a full-time occupation.

Other alternatives to formal government were also possible. Among peoples of the West African forest, secret societies of men and women exercised considerable control over customs and beliefs and were able to limit the authority of rulers.

Especially among peoples who had sharp rivalries between lineages or family groupings, secret societies developed that cut across the lineage divisions.

The secret societies incorporated their members after an initiation that might have been based on knowledge, skills, physical tests, an initiation fee, or all of these.

Members took on an allegiance to the society that transcended their lineage ties.

The secret societies settled village disputes; enforcement or punishment was carried out by masked junior members acting on behalf of the secret society so that no feuding between families resulted.

The secret societies acted to maintain stability within the community, and they served as an alternative to the authority of state institutions.

Throughout Africa many stateless societies thrived, perhaps aided by the fact that internal social pressures or disputes could often be resolved by the splitting off of dissidents and the establishment of a new village in the relatively sparsely populated continent.

Fragmentation and a "frontier" open to new settlement were constant features in much of African history.

Still, stateless societies found it difficult to meet external pressures, mobilize for warfare, organize large building projects, or create stable conditions for continuous long-distance trade with other peoples.

All these needs or goals contributed in various ways to the formation of states in sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, stateless societies left fewer records or traditions of the exploits of great heroes; thus, we know less about them.

The existence of stateless societies and their transformation into states are a constant of African history even beyond 1500.

Common Elements In African Societies

Amid the diversity of African cultures, it is also useful to note certain similarities in language, thought, and religion that provide some underlying unities.

The spread of the Bantu-speaking peoples provided a linguistic base across much of Africa, so that even though specific languages differed, structure and vocabulary allowed for some mutual understanding between neighboring Bantu-speakers.

The same might be said of the animistic religion that characterized much of Africa.

The belief in the power of natural forces personified as spirits or gods and the role of ritual and worship - often in the form of dancing, drumming, divination, and sacrifice - in influencing their actions was central to the religion of many African peoples, although local practice varied widely.

African religions had well-developed concepts of good and evil. Africans, like Europeans, believed that some evil, disasters, and illnesses were produced by witchcraft.

Specialists were needed to combat the power of evil and eliminate the witches.

This led in many societies to the existence of a class of diviners or priests who guided religious practice and helped protect the community.

Above all, African religion provided a cosmology - a view of how the universe worked - and a guide to ethics and behavior.

Many African peoples shared an underlying belief in a creator deity whose power and action were expressed through spirits or lesser gods and through the founding ancestors of the group.

The ancestors were often viewed as the first settlers and thus the "owners" of the land or the local resources, and through them the fertility of the land, the game, the people, and the herds could be ensured.

Among some groups working the land took on religious significance, so the land itself had a meaning beyond its economic usefulness.

Religion, economics, and history were thus closely intertwined.


Then too, the family, lineage, or clan around which many African societies were organized had an important role in dealing with the gods.


Deceased ancestors were often a direct link between their living relatives and the spirit world.


Veneration of the ancestors and gods were part of the same system of belief. Such a system was strongly linked to specific places and people.

It showed remarkable resiliency even in the face of contact with the more generalized principles of religions such as Islam and Christianity.

The economies of Africa are harder to describe in common terms than some basic aspects of politics and culture.

North Africa was fully involved in the Mediterranean and Arab economic world, and stands clearly apart. Sub-Saharan Africa varied greatly from one region to the next.

In many areas, settled agriculture and skilled ironwork had been established before the postclassical period or advanced rapidly during the period itself.

Specialization encouraged active local and regional trade, the basis for many lively markets and the many large cities that grew both in the structured states and in the decentralized areas.

The bustle and gaiety of market life were important ingredients of African society, and women as well as men participated actively.

Trade was handled by professional merchants, in many cases in hereditary kinship groupings.

Participation in international trade increased in many regions in this period, mainly toward the Islamic world and often through the intermediary of Arab traders.

While African states benefited from their ability to tax the trade, they stood at some disadvantage in trading unprocessed goods, such as gold, ivory, salt, or slaves, for more elaborate products made elsewhere.

International trade stimulated political and cultural change and furthered the growth of African merchant groups, but it did not induce rapid technical or manufacturing shifts within Africa, except for some important innovations in the excavation of mines.

Finally, we should note that one of the least known aspects of African societies prior to the 20th century is the size and dynamic of their populations.

This is true not only of Africa, but of much of the world. Archeological evidence, travelers' reports, and educated guesses are used to estimate the population of early African societies, but, in truth, our knowledge of how Africa fits into the general trends of the world population is very slight.

By 1500, Africa may have had 30 to 60 million inhabitants.

The Arrival Of Islam In North Africa

Africa north of the Sahara had long been part of the world of classical antiquity, where Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Vandals traded, settled, built, battled, and destroyed.

The Greek city of Cyrene (c. 600 b.c.) in modern Libya or the great Phoenician outpost at Carthage (founded c. 814 b.c.) in Tunisia attest to the part North Africa played in the classical world.

After the age of the Pharaohs, Egypt (conquered by Alexander in 331 b.c.) had become an important part of the Greek world and then later a key province in the Roman Empire, valued especially for its grain.

Toward the end of the Roman Empire, Christianity had taken a firm hold in Mediterranean Africa but in the warring between the Vandals and the Byzantines in North Africa in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., considerable disruption had taken place.

During that period, the Berber peoples of the Sahara had raided the coastal cities.

As we have seen with Egypt, North Africa was also linked across the Sahara to the rest of Africa in many ways. With the rise of Islam, those ties became even closer.

Between A.D. 640 and 700 the followers of Muhammad swept across North Africa from Suez to the Pillars of Hercules on Morocco's Atlantic shore.

By A.D. 670 Muslims ruled Tunisia, or Ifriqiya, what the Romans had called Africa. (The Arabs originally used this word as the name for eastern North Africa and Maghrib for lands to the West.) By 711, Arab and Berber armies had crossed into Spain.

Only their defeat in France by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732 brought the Muslim advance in the West to a halt.

The message of Islam found fertile ground among the populations of North Africa.


Conversion took place rapidly within a certain political unity provided by the Abbasid dynasty.

This unity eventually broke down and North Africa divided into a number of separate states and competing groups.

In opposition to the states dominated by the Arabic rulers, the peoples of the desert, the Berbers, formed states of their own at places such as Fez in Morocco and at Sijilimasa, the old city of the trans-Saharan caravan trade.

By the 11th century, under pressure from new Muslim invaders from the East, a great puritanical reformist movement, whose followers were called the Almoravids, grew among the desert Berbers of the western Sahara. Launched on the course of a jihad, a holy war waged to purify, spread, or protect the faith, the Almoravids moved southward against the African kingdoms of the savanna and westward into Spain.

In 1130 another reformist group, the Almohades, followed the same pattern. These North African and Spanish developments were an essential background to the penetration of Islam into sub-Saharan Africa.

Islam offered a number of attractions within Africa. Its fundamental teaching that all Muslims are equal within the community of believers made the acceptance of conquerors and new rulers easier.

The Islamic tradition of uniting the powers of the state and religion in the person of the ruler or caliph appealed to some African kings as a way of reinforcing their authority.

The concept that all members of the ummah, or community of believers, were equal put the newly converted Berbers and later Africans on an equal footing with the Arabs, at least in law.

Despite these egalitarian and somewhat utopian ideas within Islam, practice differed considerably at local levels.

Social stratification remained important in Islamicized societies and ethnic distinctions also divided the believers.

Despite certain teachings on the relative equality between men and women, the law recognized that the monetary penalty for killing a man was twice that for killing a woman.

The disparity between law and practice, between equality before God and inequality within the world, sometimes led to reform movements of a utopian type. Groups like the Almohades are characteristic within Islamic history, often developing in peripheral areas and dedicated to a purification of society by returning to the original teachings of the Prophet.

The Christian Kingdoms: Nubia And Ethiopia

Islam, of course, was not the first universalistic religion to take root in Africa, and the wave of Arab conquests across northern Africa had left behind it islands of Christianity at various places.

Christianity had made converts in Egypt and Ethiopia even before the conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D. Aside from the Christian kingdom of Axum, Christian communities thrived in Egypt and Nubia.

The Christians of Egypt, the Copts, developed a rich tradition in contact with Byzantium, translating the gospels and other religious literature from Greek to Coptic, their own tongue, which was based on the language of ancient Egypt.

On doctrinal and political issues they eventually split from the Byzantine connection.

When Egypt was conquered by Arab armies and then converted to Islam, the Copts were able to maintain their faith, recognized by Muslim rulers as followers of a revealed religion and thus entitled to a certain tolerance.

The Coptic influence had already spread up the Nile into Nubia, the ancient land of Kush.

Muslim attempts to penetrate Nubia were met with such stiff resistance in the 9th century that the Christian descendants of ancient Kush were left in relative peace as independent Christian kingdoms until the 13th century.

The Ethiopian kingdom that grew from Axum was perhaps the most important of the African Christian outposts.

Cut off from Christian Byzantium by the Muslim conquest of Egypt and the Red Sea coast, surrounded by pagan neighbors, and probably influenced by pagan and Jewish immigrants from Yemen, the Christian kingdom turned inward.

Its people occupied the Ethiopian highlands, living in fortified towns and supporting themselves with agriculture on terraced hillsides.

Eventually through a process of warfare, conversion, and compromise with non-Christian neighbors, a new dynasty appeared, which under King Lalaibela (d. 1221) sponsored a remarkable building project in which eleven great churches were sculpted from the rock in the town that bore his name.

In the 13th and 14th centuries an Ethiopian Christian state emerged under a dynasty that traced its origins back to the marriage of Solomon and Sheba.


Using the Geez language of Axum as a religious language and Amharic as the common speech, this state maintained its brand of Christianity, in relative isolation while facing constant pressure from its increasingly Muslim neighbors.

The struggle between the Christian state in the Ethiopian highlands and the Muslim peoples in Somalia and on the ied Sea coast shaped much of the consequent history of the region and continues to do so today.

When one of these Muslim states, with help from the Ottoman Turks, threatened the very existence of the Ethiopian kingdom, a Portuguese expedition arrived in 1542 at Massawa on the Red Sea and turned the tide in favor of its Christian allies.

Portuguese attempts thereafter to bring Ethiopian Christianity into the Roman Catholic church failed, and Ethiopia remained isolated, Christian, and fiercely independent.

Kingdoms Of The Grasslands

Islam spread through North Africa by conquest, much as it had done on the Indian subcontinent and in the Middle East.

The situation differed in Africa south of the Sahara. The old caravan routes now carried Muslim merchants, teachers, and mystics who settled among the African peoples and the states south of the Sahara.

Sometimes by war, but more often by peaceful conversion, Africans were brought into the new faith.

As the Islamic wave spread across North Africa, it sent ripples across the Sahara, not in the form of invading armies, but at first in the merchants and travelers who trod the dusty and ancient caravan routes toward the savanna.

Africa had three important "coasts" of contact: the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the savanna on the southern edge of the Sahara.

On the edge of the desert, where a number of resource zones came together, African states such as Ghana had already formed by the 8th century by exchanging gold from the forests of West Africa for salt or dates from the Sahara or for goods from Mediterranean North Africa.

Camels, which had been introduced from Asia to the Sahara between the 1st and 5th centuries A.D., had greatly improved the possibilities of trade, but these animals that thrived in arid and semiarid environments could not penetrate into the humid forest zones because of disease.

Thus the Sahel, the extensive grassland belt at the southern edge of the Sahara, became a point of exchange between the forests to the south and North Africa - an active "coast" where ideas, trade, and people from the Sahara and beyond arrived in increasing numbers.

Along that coast a number of African states developed between trading cities, taking advantage of their position as intermediaries in the trade.

But location on the relatively open plains of the dry Sahel also meant that these states were subject to attack and periodic droughts.

Founded probably in the 3d century A.D., Ghana rose to power by taxing the salt and gold exchanged within its borders.


By the 10th century its rulers had converted to Islam and Ghana was at the height of its power.


At a time when William the Conqueror could muster perhaps 10,000 troops for his invasion of England, Muslim accounts reported that the king of Ghana could field an army many times that size.


Eventually, however, Almoravid armies invaded Ghana

from North Africa in 1076, and although the kingdom survived, its power was in decline so that by the beginning of the 13th century new states had risen in the savanna to take its place of leadership.

Sudanic States

There were a number of Sudanic kingdoms, and even during the height of Ghana's power neighboring and competing states persisted, such as Takrur on the Senegal River to the west and Gao (Kawkaw) on the Niger River to the east.

Before dealing with the most important kingdoms that followed Ghana, it will be useful to review some of the elements these states had in common.

The Sudanic states were often led by the patriarch or council of elders of a particular family or group of lineages that established control over its neighbors.

Usually these states had a territorial core area in which the people were of the same linguistic or ethnic background, but their power extended over subordinate communities.

These were conquest states that drew on the taxes, tribute, and military support of the subordinate areas, lineages, and villages.

The effective control of subordinate societies and the legal or informal control of their sovereignty are the usual definition of empires. Ghana, Mali, and Songhay and some of their neighbors were imperial states.

The rulers of these states were considered to be sacred individuals and were surrounded with rituals that separated them from their subjects.

With the conversion of the rulers of Ghana and Takrur after the 10th century, Islam was used to reinforce indigenous ideas of kingship so that Islam became something of a royal cult.

Much of the population never converted, and the Islamicized ruling families also drew on their traditional powers to fortify their rule.

A number of savanna states rose among the various peoples in the Sudan.


We can trace the development and the culture of two of the most important, Mali and Songhay, as an example of the fusion of Islamic and indigenous African cultures, within the context of trade and military expansion, that these states represented.

The Empire Of Mali

The empire of Mali, centered between the Senegal and Niger rivers, was the creation of the Malinke peoples, who in the 13th century broke away from the control of Ghana, which was by then in steady decline.

In Mali the old forms of kingship were reinforced by Islam. As in many of the Sudanic states, rulers supported Islam by building mosques, attending public prayers, and supporting preachers.

In return, sermons to the faithful emphasized obedience and support of the king.

Mali became a model of these Islamicized Sudanic kingdoms. The economic basis of society in the Mali Empire was successful agriculture.

This was combined with an active tradition of trade in many products, although like Ghana, Mali also depended on its access to gold-producing areas to the south.

Malinke merchants, or juula, formed small partnerships and groups to carry out trade throughout the area.

They spread beyond the borders of the empire and throughout much of West Africa.

Sundiata: Mali's "Lion Prince"

The beginning of Malinke expansion is attributed to Sundiata (sometimes written Sunjata), a brilliant leader whose exploits serve as the foundation of a great oral tradition.

The griots, professional oral historians who also served as keepers of traditions and advisors to kings, began their epic histories of Mali with Sundiata, the "Lion Prince."

Listen then sons of Mali, children of the black people, listen to my word, for I am going to tell you of Sundiata, the father of the Bright Country, of the savanna land, the ancestor of those who draw the bow, the master of a hundred vanquished kings. . . . He was great among kings, he was peerless among men; he was beloved of God because he was the last of the great conquerors.

After a difficult childhood, Sundiata, representing the Keita clan, emerged from a period of interfamily and regional fighting to create a unified state.

Oral histories ascribed to him the creation of the basic rules and relationships of Malinke society and the outline of the government of the empire of Mali.

He became the mansa, or emperor. Provincial leaders and subkings ruled with the approval of the mansa, who also served as supreme judge and leader.

Sundiata, it was said, "divided up the world," which meant that he was considered the originator of social arrangements.

There were 16 clans of freemen entitled to bear arms and carry the bow and quiver of arrows as the symbol of their status, five clans devoted to religious duties, and four clans of specialists and tradesmen such as the blacksmiths and the griots.

Division and grouping by clans had apparently existed and represented traditional patterns among the peoples of the savanna in ancient Ghana as well, but Sundiata as the hero of origins was credited with the creation of this social arrangement.

While he creatid the political institutions of rule that allowed for considerable regional and ethnic differences in the federated provinces, he also stationed garrisons to maintain loyalty and security.

Travel was secure and crime was severely punished as Ibn Battuta, the Arab traveler, reported: "Of all peoples," he said "the Blacks are those who most hate injustice, and their emperor pardons none who is guilty of it." The security of travelers and their goods was an essential element in a state where commerce played so important a role.

The Successors Of Sundiata

Sundiata died about 1260, but his successors expanded the borders of Mali till it controlled most of the Niger valley almost to the Atlantic coast.

A sumptuous court was established that hosted a large number of traders.

Mali grew wealthy from the trade. Perhaps the most famous of Sundiata's successors was Mansa Kankan Musa (c. 1312-1337).

As a Muslim he decided to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1324 and his trip brought the glory and wealth of Mali to the attention of the Muslim world and eventually to the Europeans as well.

Accompanied by hundreds of richly-dressed servants and retainers and distributing gold along the way, Mansa Musa's pilgrimage created a sensation in Egypt and across the Sudan.

It was said that so much gold was spent or distributed while he was in Egypt that it caused a devaluation of the currency. In 1375, a Jewish mapmaker in Spain illustrated one of his maps with the image of the Emperor of Mali who held a golden scepter in his hand, evidence that the fame of Mali was spreading.

Mali's contact with the outer world brought changes and innovations. Mansa Musa brought back from Muslim Spain the poet and architect Ishak as-Sahili, whom he had met in Mecca.

He directed the building of a number of important mosques and expanded the use of sun-dried bricks as a major building material.

A distinctive form of Sudanic architecture developed, making use of local materials, especially beaten clay. This can still be seen in the great mosque of Jenne.

City Folk And Villagers

The cities of the western Sudan began to resemble those of North Africa, but with a distinctive local architectural style.

The towns were commercial and often included craft specialists and a resident foreign merchant community.

The military expansion of states, such as Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay, contributed to their commercial success because the power of the state protected traders.

Also, the booty and captives acquired in conquest became part of the trade itself, exchanged for luxury goods and horses from North Africa.

A cosmopolitan court life developed as merchants and scholars were attracted by the power and protection of Mali.


Mandinka juula traders ranged across the Sudan and exploited their position as middlemen.


"Port" cities flourished, such as Jenne and Timbuktu, which lay just off the flood plain on the great bend in the Niger River.


Timbuktu was reported to have a population of 50,000, and by the 14th century its great Sankore mosque contained a library and an associated university where scholars, jurists, and Muslim

theologians studied.

The book was the symbol of civilization in the Islamic world, and it was said that the book trade in Timbuktu was the most lucrative business of all.

For the vast majority of people in the empire of Mali or any of the other Sudanic states, life was not centered on the royal court, the great Mosque, or long-distance trade, but rather on the agricultural cycle and the village.

Making a living from the land was the preoccupation of most people, and about 80 percent of the villagers lived by farming. This was a difficult life.

The soils of the savanna were sandy and shallow. Plows were rarely used.

The villagers were people of the hoe who looked to the skies in the spring for the first rains to start their planting.

Rice in the river valleys, millet, sorghums, some wheat, fruits, and vegetables provided the basis of daily life in the village and supplied the caravan trade.

Even a large farm would rarely exceed ten acres and most were much smaller.

Clearing land was often done communally, accompanied by feasts and competition, but the farms belonged to families and were worked by them.

A man with two wives and a number of unmarried sons could work more land than a man with one wife and a smaller family.

Polygyny, or the practice of having multiple wives, therefore, was common in the region and it remains so today.

Given the difficulties of the soil, the periodic droughts, insect pests, storage problems, and the limitations of technology, the farmers of the Sudanic states - by the methods of careful cultivation, crop rotation, and, in places like Timbuktu, the use of irrigation - were able to provide for their people the basic foods that supported them and the imperial states on which they were based.

The hoe and the bow became symbols of the common people of the savanna states.

The Songhay Kingdom

As the power of Mali began to wane, a successor state from within the old empire was already beginning to emerge. The people of Songhay dominated the middle reaches of the Niger valley.

Traditionally, the society of Songhay was made up of "masters of the soil," that is, farmers, herdsmen, and "masters of the waters," or fisherfolk. Songhay had begun to form in the 7th century as an independent kingdom perhaps under a Berber dynasty.

By 1010 a capital was established at Gao on the Niger River, and the rulers had become Muslims, although the majority of the population remained pagan.

Dominated by Mali for a while, by the 1370s Songhay had established its independence again and began to thrive, as new sources of goldlfrom the West African forests began to pass through its territory.

Gao became a large city with a resident foreign merchant community and a number of mosques. Under a dynamic leader, Sunni Ali (1464-1492), the empire of Songhay was forged.

Sunni Ali was a great tactical commander and a ruthless leader. His cavalry expanded the borders to the north and south and seized the traditional trading cities of Timbuktu and Jenne.

The whole middle Niger valley fell under his control, and he developed a system of provincial administration to mobilize recruits for the army and rule the far-flung conquests.

Although apparently a Muslim, he met any challenge to his authority even when it came from the Muslim scholars of Timbuktu, whom he persecuted. Sunni Ali was followed by a line of Muslim rulers who took the military title of askia.

These rulers, especially Askia Muhammad, the "Great," extended the boundaries of the empire so that by the mid-16th century Songhay dominated the central Sudan.

Life in the Songhay Empire followed many of the patterns established in the previous savanna states. The fusion of Islamic and pagan populations and traditions continued.

Muslim clerics and jurists were sometimes upset by the pagan beliefs and practices that continued among the population, and even more by the local interpretation of Islamic law.

The facts that men and women mixed freely in the markets and streets, that women went unveiled, and that at Jenne young girls went naked shocked Muslim clerics, who wanted to impose a strict interpretation of the law of Islam.

Songhay remained the dominant power in the region until the end of the 16th century. In 1591, a Muslim army from Morocco, equipped with muskets, crossed the Sahara and defeated the vastly larger forces of Songhay.

This sign of weakness stimulated internal revolts against the ruling family, and eventually the parts of the old empire broke away.

The demise of the Songhay imperial structure did not mean the end of the political and cultural tradition of the western Sudan.

Other states that combined Muslim and pagan traditions rose among the Hausa peoples of northern Nigeria, based on cities such as Kano.

The Hausa states developed to the east of Mali and Songhay and to the west of Kanem-Bornu, a major state of the central Sudan.

The earliest Muslim ruler of Kano took control in the late-14th century and turned the city into a center of Muslim learning.

In Kano, Katsina, and other Hausa cities of the region an urbanized royal court in a fortified capital ruled over the essentially animistic villages, where the majority of the population lived.

With powerful cavalry forces these states were able to extend their rule and protect their active trade in salt, grains, and cloth. Internecine warfare, however, kept any one of them from dominating the others.

While these later Islamicized African states tended to be small in size and local in their goals, they reproduced many of the social, political, and religious forms of the great empires of the grasslands.

Beyond the Sudan, Muslim penetration came in various forms.

Merchants became established in most of the major trading cities; religious communities developed in each of these, often associated with particular families.

Networks of trade and contact were established widely over the region as juula merchants and groups of pastoralists established their outposts in the area of Guinea.

Muslim traders, herdsmen, warriors, and religious leaders became important minorities within these segmented African societies, composed of elite families, occupational groups, free men, and slaves. Intermarriage often took place, but Muslim influence varied widely from region to region.

Nevertheless, families of juula traders and lineages that became known as specialists in Muslim law spread widely through the region, so that by the 18th century there were Muslim minorities scattered widely throughout West Africa, even in those areas where no Islamicized state had emerged.

Political And Social Life In The Sudanic States

We can generalize from these brief descriptions of Mali and Songhay about the nature of the Sudanic states. The village communities, clans, and various ethnic groups continued to organize many aspects of life in the savanna.

The development of unified states provided an overarching structure that allowed the various groups and communities to coexist.

The large states usually represented the political aims and power of a particular group and often of a dominant family.

Many states pointed to the immigrant origins of the ruling families, and in reality the movement and fusion of populations was a constant feature in the Sudan.

Islam provided a universalistic faith that served the interests of many groups.

Common religion and law provided solidarity and trust to the merchants who resided in the cities and whose caravans brought goods to and from the savanna.

The ruling families used Islamic titles, such as emir or caliph, to reinforce their authority, and they surrounded themselves with literate Muslim advisors and scribes who aided in the administration of government.

The Muslim concept of a ruler who united civil and religious authority reinforced traditional ideas of kingship.

It is also important to note that in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, the formation of states heightened social differences and made these societies more hierarchical.

In all the Sudanic states, Islam was fused with the existing traditions

and beliefs.


Rulership and authority was still based on the ability to intercede with local spirits, and while Sundiata or Sunni Ali might be nominally Muslim, they did not ignore the traditional basis of their rule.


Because of this, Islam in these early stages in the Sudan tended to accommodate pagan practice and belief.


Large proportions of the populations of Mali and Songhay never converted to Islam, and those who did convert often maintained many of the old beliefs as well.


We can see this fusion of traditions clearly in the position of women.

A number of the Sudanic societies were matrilineal and some recognized the role of women within the lines of kinship, contrary to the normal patrilineal customs inscribed in the Sharia, or Islamic law.

As we have just noted in the case of Songhay, North African visitors to the Sudan were shocked by the easy familiarity between men and women and the freedom enjoyed by women.

Finally, we must also take note that slavery and the slave trade between black Africa and the rest of the Islamic world had a major impact on women and children in these societies.

Various forms of slavery and dependent labor had existed in Africa prior to the arrival of Islam. While we know little about slavery in central Africa in this period, slavery had been a relatively marginal aspect in the Sudanic states.

Africans had been enslaved by others before, and Nubian (African) slaves had been known in the classical world, but with the Muslim conquests of North Africa and commercial penetration to the south, slavery became a more widely diffused phenomenon, and a slave trade in Africans developed on a new scale.

In theory, slavery was viewed by Muslims as a stage in the process of conversion - a way of preparing pagans to become Muslims - but in reality conversion did not guarantee freedom.

Slaves in the Islamic world were used in a variety of occupations, such as domestic servants and laborers, but they were also used as soldiers and administrators who, having no local ties and affiliations, were considered to be dependent and thus trustworthy by their masters.

Slaves were also used as eunuchs and concubines; thus the emphasis on women and children.

The trade caravans from the Sahel across the Sahara often transported slaves as well as gold, and as we shall see, other slave-trade routes developed from the African interior to the east African coast.

The tendency for the children of slave mothers to eventually be freed and integrated into Muslim society, while positive in one sense, also meant a constant demand for more slaves.

Estimates of the volume of this trade vary widely. One scholar places the total in the trans-Saharan trade at 4.8 million, with another 2.4 million sent to the Muslim ports on the Indian Ocean coast.

Actual figures may have been considerably lower, but the trade extended over 700 years and affected a large area. In a way, it was one more fashion in which the Islamic civilization touched and modified sub-Saharan Africa.

The Swahili Coast Of East Africa

While the kingdoms of West Africa came under the influence of Islam from across the Sahara, another center of Islamic civilization was developing on the seaboard and offshore islands of Africa's Indian Ocean coast.

Along that coast, extending southward from the horn of Africa to modern-day Mozambique, a string of Islamicized trading cities developed that reflected their cosmopolitan contacts with trading partners from Arabia, Persia, India, and China.

Islam provided the residents of these towns a universal set of ethics and beliefs that made their maritime contacts easier; but in East Africa, as in the savanna kingdoms of West Africa, Islamization was slow to penetrate among the general population, and when it did, the result was often a compromise between indigenous ways and the new faith.

The Coastal Trading Ports

A first century Greek account of the Indian Ocean, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, mentioned some ports in East Africa but was somewhat vague as to the nature of the local inhabitants; that is, whether they were Africans or immigrants from the Arabian peninsula.

From that century to the 10th century, the wave of Bantu migration had clearly reached the East African interior.

Bantu-speaking pastoralists in the north and agriculturalists in the south mixed with older populations in the region. Other peoples were also moving to the African coast.

Contact across the Indian Ocean dated back to at least the 2d century b.c.

From Indonesia or Malaya, seaborne immigrants settled on the large island of Madagascar and from there introduced foods, such as bananas and coconuts, to the African coast.

These were widely adopted and spread rapidly along the coast and into central Africa. Small coastal villages of fishermen and farmers, making rough pottery and working iron, dotted this coast.

By the 8th and 9th centuries visitors and refugees from Oman and the Persian Gulf had established themselves at some of these villages, attracted by the possibilities of trade with the land of Zanj, the Arabic term for the East African coast.

The villages were transformed from relatively homogeneous and egalitarian societies with shared language, ancestors, and traditions into more cosmopolitan and diverse communities.

By the thirteenth century, a string of urbanized trading ports sharing

the common Bantu-based and Arabic-influenced Swahili language and other cultural traits - although governed by separate Muslim ruling families - had developed along the coast.

Towns such as Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, Kilwa, Pate, and Zanzibar eventually contained mosques, tombs, and palaces of cut stone and coral. Ivory, gold, iron, slaves, and exotic animals were exported from these ports in exchange for silks from Persia and porcelain from China for the ruling Muslim families.

The Arab traveler Ibn Batuta was impressed with the beauty and refinement of these towns.

He described Kilwa as "one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world" and was also impressed by the pomp and luxury of its ruler.

Kilwa, in fact, was particularly wealthy because it controlled the southern port of Sofala, which had access to the gold produced in the interior (near "Great Zimbabwe"), and because of its location as the farthest point south at which ships from India could hope to sail and return in a single monsoon season.

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, Kilwa flourished in the context of international trade, but it was not alone.

At their height, perhaps as many as 30 of these port towns dotted the coast.

These were tied to each other by an active coastal commerce and, in a few places, to the interior by a caravan trade, although it was usually Africans who brought the goods to the coast.

Kilwa and Mogadishu minted their own coins by the 14th century, and cowrie shells were also used as a means of exchange.

Textiles from India and porcelain from China were brought by Arab traders.

Some Chinese ports sent goods directly to Africa in the thirteenth century, and as late as 1417 and 1431 state-sponsored expeditions sailing directly from China stopped at the East African coast to load ivory, gold, and rare woods.

Such contact was discontinued after 1431 by the Chinese, and goods from China came to the coast thereafter in the ships of Arab or Indian traders.

The Mixture Of Cultures On The Swahili Coast

The Islamic overlay in these towns benefited this long-distance commerce.

The 13th century was a period of considerable Islamic expansion, and as that faith spread eastward to India and Indonesia, it provided a religious bond of trust and law that facilitated trade throughout ports of the Indian Ocean.

The ruling families in the East African trading ports built mosques and palaces; the mosque at Mogadishu was begun in 1238.

Many of these ruling families claimed to be descendants of immigrants from Shiraz in Persia, a claim intended to legitimize their position and orthodoxy.

In fact, some evidence indicates that the original Muslim families had emigrated to the Somali coast and from there to other towns farther south.

The institutions and forms of the Muslim world operated in these cities.

Merchants, scholars, and travelers from elsewhere in Islam visited the towns.

Ibn Batuta noted in his description of Mogadishu his reception by the local quadi, or judge, and sultan, the formality of worship in the mosque, and the similarity between local customs and those of Yemen.

Yet while Islam tended to be the faith of the rulers and the merchants, the majority of the population on the East African coast, and perhaps even in the towns themselves, retained their previous beliefs and culture.

African culture remained strong throughout the area. Swahili language was essentially a Bantu language into which a large nsmber of Arabic words were incorporated, though many of them were not incorporated until the 16th century.


The language was written in an Arabic script sometime prior to the 13th century; the ruling families could also converse in Arabic.


Islam itself penetrated very little into the interior among the hunters, pastoralists, and farmers.


Even the areas of the coast near the trading towns remained relatively unaffected.


In the towns, the stone and coral buildings of the Muslim elite were surrounded by mud and thatch houses of the non-Muslim common people, so that Islamization was to some extent class-based.


Still, a culture developed that fused Islamic and traditional elements.


Family lineage, for example, was traced both through the maternal line, which controlled property (the traditioral African practice), and through the paternal line, as was the Muslim custom.


Swahili culture was a dynamic hybrid, and the Swahili people

spread their language and culture along the coast of East Africa.

By the time the Portuguese arrived on this coast around 1500, the Swahili culture was widely diffused.

Kilwa was no longer the predominant city, and the focus of trade had shifted to Malindi and Mombassa on the Kenya coast; but the commerce across the Indian Ocean continued.

Vasco da Gama's ships arrived at Kilwa in 1498 and acquired a Hindu pilot to guide them to India, certainly nothing unusual except for the European involvement.

Eventually, the Portuguese raided Kilwa and Mombassa in an attempt to shift the focus of trade into their own hands.

Their outpost on Mozambique island and control of Sofala put much of the gold trade in their hands.

The Portuguese discovered, however, that since most of the gold was produced by alluvial washings rather than in fixed mines it was difficult to control production, and some gold continued to pass through the network of Muslim traders.

Although the Portuguese built a major outpost at Fort Jesus in Mombassa in 1592, they were never able to control the trade on the northern Swahili coast.

The East African patterns, as established by 1500, persisted even more straightforwardly than those of the Sudanic kingdoms.

Peoples Of The Forest And Plains

As important as the Islamic impact was on the societies of the savanna and the East African coast, other African peoples in the continent's interior and in the forests of West Africa were following their own trajectories of development.

By A.D. 1000, most of these societies were based on a varied agriculture sometimes combined with herding, and most societies used iron tools and weapons.

Many were still organized in small village communities in which lineage, age sets, or other forms of social organization predominated. In various places, however, states had formed.

Some of these began to resolve the problems of integrating large territories under a single government and ruling subject peoples.

While Egypt, Kush, and Ethiopia had developed writing, and other areas borrowed the Arabic script, many sub-Saharan African societies were preliterate and transmitted their knowledge, skills, and traditions by oral methods and direct instruction.

The presence or absence of writeng has often been used as a measure of civilization by western observers, but as in pre-Colombian Peru, various African societies produced considerable accomplishments in the arts, building, and statecraft - sometimes in the context of highly urbanized settings without a system of writing.

Artists And Kings: Yoruba And Benin

In the forests of central Nigeria objects in terra-cotta of a realistic and highly stylized form have been discovered near the village of Nok.

These objects, most of which date from about 500 b.c. to A.D. 200, display considerable artistic skill.

The inhabitants of ancient Nok and its region practiced agriculture and used iron tools.

They remain something of a mystery, but it appears that their artistic traditions spread widely through the forest areas and influenced other peoples.

Nevertheless, there is a long hiatus in the historical and archeological record between the Nok sculptures and the renewed flourishing of artistic traditions in the region after about A.D. 1000.

Among the Yoruba-speaking peoples of Nigeria at the city of Ile-Ife, remarkable terra-cotta and bronze portrait heads of past rulers were produced in the period after A.D. 1200.


The lifelike representations of these portraits

and the skill of their execution place them among the greatest achievements of African art.

The craftsmen of Ile-Ife also worked in wood and ivory. Much of the art seems to be associated with kings and the authority of kingship. Ile-Ife, like other Yoruba states, seems to have been an agricultural society supported by a peasantry and dominated by a ruling family and an aristocracy.

Ile-Ife was considered by many peoples in the region to be the original cultural center, and a number of them traced their own beginnings to it.

Yoruba origins are, in fact, obscure. The Yoruba themselves believed that Olodumare, the Divine Spirit, created the world and then was moved to create humankind.

He placed humans at Ile-Ife, and from there people migrated and eventually occupied the world. Thus Ile-Ife was seen as the holiest city of the Yoruba, their place of birth.

Another legend maintained by the royal historians was that Oduduwa, a son of the king of Mecca, migrated from the east and settled in Yoruba.

Modern historians have suggested that the real origins were perhaps Meroe and Nubia, or at least in the savanna south of the Sahara.

In any case, the Yoruba spoke a non-Bantu language of the West African Kwa family and recognized a certain affinity between themselves and neighboring peoples, such as the Hausa, who spoke Afro-Asian languages.

The Yoruba were organized in a number of small city-states, each controlling perhaps a radius of 50 miles.

The Yoruba were, in fact, highly urbanized, although many of the town inhabitants farmed in the surrounding countryside.

These city-states developed under the strong authority of regional kings, who were considered divine.

The person of the king was surrounded with a royal court of great size that included secondary wives, musicians, magicians, and bodyguards of soldier-slaves.

His rule was not absolute, however, and it was limited by other forces in society.

We can use the example of the Yoruba state of Oyo, which had emerged by the 14th century.

Its king, the alafin, controlled subject peoples through "princes" in the provinces, drawn from local lineages, who were allowed to exercise traditional rule as long as they continued to pay tribute to Oyo.

In the capital a council of state, made up of nobles from the seven city districts, advised the ruler and limited his power, and the Ogboni, or secret society of religious and political leaders, reviewed decisions of the king and the council.

The union of civil and supernatural powers in the person of the ruler was the basis of power.

The highly urbanized nature of Yoruba society and the flourishing of artisan traditions within these towns bears some similarity to the city-states of medieval Italy or Germany.

Patterns similar to the Yoruba city-states could be found among Edo peoples to the east of Yoruba.

A large city-state called Benin was formed sometime in the 14th century under Ewuare, "The Great" (1440-1473).

Benin's control was extended from the Niger River to the coast near modern Lagos.

Benin City was described by early European visitors in the 16th century as a city of great population and broad avenues.

The Oba, or ruler, lived in a large royal compound surrounded by a great entourage, and his authority was buttressed by ritual and ceremony.

That authority was also the theme of the magnificent artistic output in ivory and cast bronze that became characteristic of Benin.

Tradition had it that Iguegha, an artisan in bronze casting, was sent from Ile-Ife to introduce the techniques of making bronze sculptures.

Benin then developed its own distinctive style, less naturalistic than that of Ile-Ife, but no less impressive.

Celebration of the powers and majesty of the royal lineage as well as objects for the rituals surrounding kingship were the subjects of much of this art.

When the first Europeans, the Portuguese, visited Benin in the 1480s, they were impressed by the power of the ruler and the extent of his territory.

Similarly, the artists of Benin were impressed with the Portuguese, and Benin bronzes and ivories began to include representations of Portuguese soldiers and other themes that reflected the contact with outsiders.

Central African Kingdoms

South of the rain forest that stretched across Africa almost to Lake Victoria lay a broad expanse of savanna and plain, cut by a number of large

rivers such as the Kwango and the Zambezi.

From their original home in Nigeria, the Bantu peoples had spread into the southern reaches of the rain forest along the Congo River, then southward onto the southern savannas, and eventually to the east coast.

By the 5th century A.D. Bantu farmers and fishermen had reached beyond the Zambezi, and by the 13th century they were approaching the southern end of the continent.

Mostly beyond the influence of Islam, a number of these central African peoples had begun their own process of state formation by around A.D. 1000, replacing the pattern of kinship-based societies with forms of political authority based on kingship.

Whether the idea of kingship developed in one place and was diffused elsewhere or had multiple origins is unknown, but the older system based on seniority within the kinship group was replaced with rule based on the control of territory and the parallel development of rituals that reinforced the power of the ruler.

A number of important kingdoms developed. In Katanga, the Luba peoples modified the older system of village headmen to a form of divine kinship in which the ruler and his relatives were thought to have a special power that ensured fertility of people and crops; thus only the royal lineage was fit to rule.

A sort of bureaucracy grew to administer the state, but it was hereditary so that brothers or male children succeeded to the position.

In a way, it was a half-step toward more modern concepts of bureaucracy, but it provided a way of integrating large numbers of people in a large political unit.

The Kingdoms Of Kongo And Mwene Mutapa

Beginning about the 13th century, another kingdom was forming on the lower Congo River.

By the late 15th century this kingdom of the Kongo was flourishing.

On a firm agricultural base, its people also developed the skills of weaving, pottery, blacksmithing, and carving. Individual artisans, skilled in the working of wood, copper, and iron, were highly esteemed.

There was a sharp division of labor between men and women. Men took responsibility for clearing the forest and scrub, producing palm oil and palm wine, building houses, hunting, and long-distance trade.

Women took charge of cultivation in all its aspects, the care of domestic animals, and household duties. On the seacoast, women made salt from sea water and they also collected the seashells that served as currency in the Kongo kingdom.

The population was distributed in small family- based villages and in towns. The area around the capital, Mbanza Kongo, had a population of 60,000-100,000 by the early 16th century.

The kingship of the Kongo was hereditary but local chieftainships were

not, and this gave the central authority considerable power to control subordinates.

In a way, the Kongo kingdom was a confederation of smaller states brought under the control of the manikongo, or king, and by the 15th century it was divided into eight major provinces.

The word mani means blacksmith, and it demonstrated the importance that iron and the art of working it had in its association with political and ritual power.

Farther to the east another large Bantu confederation developed among the farming and cattle-herding Shona-speaking peoples in the region between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers.

Beginning in the 9th century A.D., migrants from the west began to build royal courts in stone, to which later immigrants added more polished constructions.


There were a number of these zimbabwe, or stone house, sites (about 200 have been found) that housed local rulers and subchiefs, but the largest site, called Great Zimbabwe, was truly impressive.


It was the center of the kingdom and had a religious importance as well, associated with the "bird of God," an eagle that served as a link between the world and the spirits.


The symbol of the "bird of God" is found at the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and throughout the area of its control.


Great Zimbabwe (not to be confused with the modern nation of Zimbabwe) included a number of structures, some with strong stone walls 15-feet thick and 30-feet high, a large conical tower, and extensive cut-stone architecture made without the use of mortar to join the bricks together.


Observers in the 19th century suspected that Phoenicians or Arabs had built these structures, but archeologists have since established that a Bantu kingdom had begun construction in stone by the 11th century A.D. and had done its most sophisticated building in the 14th and

15th centuries.

By the 15th century, a centralized state had begun to form centered on Great Zimbabwe. It controlled a large portion of the interior of southeast Africa all the way to the Indian Ocean.

Under a king who took the title of Mwene Mutapa (which the Portuguese later pronounced as Monomotapa), this kingdom experienced a short period of considerable expansion in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

Its dominance over the sources of gold in the interior eventually gave it great advantages in commerce, which it developed with the Arab port of Sofala on the coast.

Evidence of this trade is found in the glass beads and porcelain unearthed by archeologists at Great Zimbabwe.

By the 16th century, internal divisions and rebellion had split the kingdom apart, but control of the gold fields still provided a source of power and trade.

Representatives of the Mwene Mutapa called at the East Coast ports to buy Indian textiles, and their regal bearing and fine iron weapons impressed the first Europeans who saw them.

As late as the 19th century, a much-reduced kingdom of Muenemutapa survived in the interior and provided some leadership against European encroachment.