Islam at a Crossroads in West Africa


narrated by Chris Gratien
featuring Wendell Marsh, Rabiat Akande, and Ann McDougall
| From the 10th century onward, Islamic polities emerged in West Africa. Centered on the southern edge of the desert, these states built empires that benefited from the brisk Saharan trade. With time, they also built centers of Islamic learning as the wider population of West Africa began to embrace Islam. In this episode, we study what Islam meant for West Africa and what West Africa means for the history of Islam. We trace the evolution of Islamic polities in the region, which were built on the mineral wealth of salt and gold. Like other states of the period, they were also built on slavery and the slave trade. In our discussion, we focus on how the local tradition of Maliki jurisprudence engaged with the question of slavery, especially as the trade became increasingly racialized and global around the turn of the 17th century.


From the 10th century onward, Islamic polities emerged in West Africa. Centered on the southern edge of the desert, these states built empires that benefited from the brisk Saharan trade. With time, they also built centers of Islamic learning as the wider population of West Africa began to embrace Islam. 

In this episode, we study what Islam meant for West Africa and what West Africa means for the history of Islam. We trace the evolution of Islamic polities in the region, which were built on the mineral wealth of salt and gold. Like other states of the period, they were also built on slavery and the slave trade. In our discussion, we focus on how the local tradition of Maliki jurisprudence engaged with the question of slavery, especially as the trade became increasingly racialized and global around the turn of the 17th century.

"The Making of the Islamic World" is an ongoing series aimed at providing resources for the undergraduate classroom. The episodes in this series are subject to updates and modification.





Wendell Hassan Marsh is Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. He is a post-disciplinary scholar of Islam in Africa, textuality, and the theory and practice of African Studies. His teaching interests include Islam in Africa, African Intellectual History, Postcolonial and Critical Theory, Religion and Politics, Francophone Literature and Culture, and Black Studies.
Rabiat Akande is a scholar at the Harvard University Academy for International and Area Studies and an Affiliate Fellow at Harvard Law School Program on Islamic Law. She is a legal historian of Islam, its political theology, and its relations with the state, society, and other religions in Colonial and Postcolonial Muslim Africa. She has a doctorate in law and is licensed to practice law in Nigeria and New York.
E. Ann McDougall is a Professor in History & Classics Department at University of Alberta. She has published widely on the history of West Africa and the Sahara.

Credits

Interviews by Chris Gratien
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Music (by order of appearance): Aitua - The Grim Reaper - Jocker; Chad Crouch - Pacing; Chad Crouch - Dusk; Chad Crouch - Daybreak; Chad Crouch - Platformer; A.A. Aalto - Canyon; Zé Trigueiros - Sombra; Zé Trigueiros - Big Road of Burravoe


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Major Islamic polities of pre-modern West Africa. Each of these states controlled the major cities of their regions, but as we note in the podcast, the Islamic empires of West Africa were not territorially-bounded entities as maps like this might suggest. Many communities in this region were highly mobile and the domains of these states were fluid. Image Source: 7th Grade Social Studies

West Africa was one of the few centers of the premodern Islamic world that was not part of the early conquests, but Islam's history there stretches back more than a millennium. The first Muslims to arrive on the southern edge of the Sahara were merchants and Sufis, some of whom found their way into the courts of local rulers. Around the desert edge or Sahel, a number of Islamic polities emerged between the 10th and 15th centuries. The three most significant were Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. These states were enriched by the regional and trans-Saharan trade facilitated by the introduction of camels in the centuries prior. The most important commodity was salt, which was extracted from the desert in a variety of forms ranging from controlled evaporation of seawater to mining of ancient lake beds. The salt mines at Taghaza deep in the desert north of Timbuktu supplied the Sahel economy for centuries.


Salt for sale in a market of Mopti, Mali. Source: Wikipedia / Robin Taylor.


During this period, West Africa also developed a distinctive tradition of Islamic jurisprudence rooted in the Maliki madhhab, nurtured in part by the Almoravid movement among the Sanhaja of the Sahara. During the 11th century, the Almoravids carried out campaigns in the southern desert edge while also establishing a dynasty in North Africa and al-Andalus. The campaigns of the Almoravids in Sub-Saharan Africa have often been cast as wars of conquest against non-Muslims. But as we note in the podcast, there were already Muslim rulers in West Africa at the time of the Almoravids rise, and the dynamics of conflict did not always break down along religious lines 

The Mali Empire and the subsequent Songhay Empire would go on to built Islamic institutions and support the development of Maliki scholarship between the 13th and 16th centuries. As one of the main schools of Islamic jurisprudence that foregrounds custom as a source for law, Maliki thought blended with the diversity of customary practices in West Africa. In cities like Timbuktu and Gao, imperial rulers patronized madrasas and Islamic legal courts that welcomed scholars from North Africa and elsewhere and produced scholars who traveled and were read beyond the Sahara. Figures like the Sultan of Mali Mansa Musa also increased the region's reputation for wealth in gold. When Mansa Musa stopped in the Mamluk capital of Cairo en route to Mecca and Medina for hajj pilgrimage, he distributed so many gifts that decades later his legendary generosity was still alive in popular memory.


The so-called "Catalan Atlas," a mappamundi produced by the Majorcan cartographic school in 1375, depicted West Africa with apparent illustrations of Mansa Musa holding a piece of gold (see center) and a camel rider wearing dress resembled that of the Sanhaja Almoravids. Image Source: Alamy

During these centuries, local populations in the Sahel converted to Islam at an increased rate. This fact became clear during the momentous fall of Songhay in the late 16th century. Ahmad al-Mansur, the Sultan of the ascendant Saadi dynasty in Morocco, sent troops to conquer Songhay. Among their captives was the Timbuktu scholar Ahmad Baba al-Massoufi. In Fez, he became renowned for his knowledge of Maliki jurisprudence. Upon his return to Timbuktu following the death of Ahmad al-Mansur, Ahmad Baba composed a treatise entitled The Ladder of Ascent, in which he addressed legal questions concerning slavery that were apparently common at the time. The questions revealed that the practice of slavery was becoming racialized, but in his responses, Ahmad Baba emphatically affirmed that it was not skin color but rather whether or not they were Muslim that defined a person's status vis a vis the question of enslavement. Moreover, he placed the burden of proof on the merchant or purchaser when it came to determining the status of an enslaved person, noting that it was always better to err on the side of freedom. Ahmad Baba's responses were in line with prior legal principles concerning the practice of slavery, but the new context associated with the rising Atlantic slave trade revealed Islamic law's emancipatory dimensions.

Songhay was the last great Islamic empire prior to West Africa's long and gradual encounter with European colonialism. But Islam and Islamic learning continued to spread both in the region and in other ways among enslaved people in the Americas that are only recently being brought to light.


A page from "Faṣl fī uṣūl khalq ibrāʼ Adam," part of the Omar ibn Said collection at the Library of Congress. Omar ibn Said was a learned man from modern-day Senegal who was captured, enslaved, and brought to the United States. To learn more, explore the collections.

To learn more about Islam in West Africa, we recommend listening to our interviews with Ousmane Kane and Olduamini Ogunnaike. And to learn more about material covered in the podcast, consult the bibliography below.



SELECT READINGS

Akande, Rabiat. 2020. "Secularizing Islam: The Colonial Encounter and the Making of a British Islamic Criminal Law in Northern Nigeria, 1903-58". Law and History Review. 38, no. 2: 459-493.

Bennett, Herman L. African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Eltantawi, Sarah. Shari'ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria's Islamic Revolution. Univ of California Press, 2017.

Gomez, Michael A. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. 2020.

Gubara, Dahlia EM. "Revisiting Race and Slavery through ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti’s ‘Aja’ib al-athar." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 2 (2018): 230-245.

Hall, Bruce S. A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960. 2014.

Halverson, Jeffry R. "West African Islam in Colonial and Antebellum South Carolina." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs36, no. 3 (2016): 413-426.

Hunwick, John Owen, and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAbd Allāh al- Saʿdī. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Saʻdī's Taʼrīkh Al-Sūdān Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents. Leiden [etc.]: Brill, 2003.

Hunwick, John O., and Ousmane Kane. The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Insoll, Timothy. The archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kane, Ousmane Oumar. Beyond Timbuktu: an Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa. 2017.

Last, Murray. The Sokoto Caliphate. Harlow: Longmans, 1967. 

Lovejoy, Paul E. Ecology and Ethnography of Muslim Trade in West Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2005.

_____. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Lovejoy, Paul E., Olatunji Ojo, and Nadine Hunt. Slavery in Africa and the Caribbean: A History of Enslavement and Identity Since the 18th Century. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Lydon, Ghislaine. "Inventions and Reinventions of Sharia in African History and the Recent Experiences of Nigeria, Somalia and Mali." Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 40, no. 1 (2018).

_____. On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic law, trade networks, and cross-cultural exchange in nineteenth-century Western Africa. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Mamdani, Mahmood. "Introduction: Trans-African Slaveries Thinking Historically." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 2 (2018): 185-210.

Marsh, Wendell Hassan. "Re-Membering The Name Of God." Chimurenga, March 2015. https://chimurengachronic.co.za/re-membering-the-name-of-god/

McDougall, E. Ann. 1990. "Salts of the Western Sahara: Myths, Mysteries, and Historical Significance". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 23, no. 2: 231-257.

Oba, Abdulmumini A. "Islamic law as customary law: The changing perspective in Nigeria." The International and Comparative Law Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2002): 817-850.

Said, Omar ibn, and Ala A. Alryyes. A Muslim American slave: the life of Omar Ibn Said. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.

Shaw, Thurstan. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns. London: Routledge, 1995.

Umar, Muhammad Sani. Islam and Colonialism: intellectual responses of Muslims of Northern Nigeria to British colonial rule. Vol. 5. Brill, 2006.

Ware III, Rudolph T. The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, 2014.







Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.

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