Did the Trans-Saharan Trade Spread Islam?

Many mosques within central Sudan exist because of the trans-Saharan trade route.
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Beginning in the eighth century, Islamic traders crossed the Sahara desert in what is referred to as the Trans-Saharan trade, helping to extend the geographic reach of their religion. As trans-Saharan trade spread Islam through a network of merchants, agriculturists, intellectuals, rulers and urban dwellers, Islam gained greater influence in Africa and beyond.

1 History of the Route and the Founding of Timbuktu

Camel bones found in the Senegal valley indicate that individual Arabian traders had crossed the Sahara beginning as early as the third century, as camels are not native to west Africa. However, it was not until several centuries later that a regular flow of traders began to traverse the Trans-Saharan route. The route experienced heavy trade during the 12th century with the permanent settling of Timbuktu. Large numbers of Islamic scholars settled in the city, which allowed Islam to spread in a primarily intellectual way.

2 Archeological Record

Timbuktu was not the only city or region to adopt Islam as a result of the trade route. The archeological evidence for Islam, and its connection to the Trans-Saharan trade route, is found in two areas in particular: Sudan and Nigeria. Central Sudan served as a kind of trading bridge between Songhai in the west and Darfur in the east. As a result, there are numerous sites bearing Islamic architecture or artifacts, such as the traditional religious objects at the palace of Kotoko Logone-Birni. The presence of Mosques in Zaria in Nigeria, along with other Islamic fortifications, indicate that the city adopted many Islamic religious customs shortly after coming into contact with the Trans-Saharan trade route in the 14th century. The Masallaci Juma mosque in particular is evidence that Islam thrived in Zaria.

3 The Almoravids and Founding of Marrakesh

The Almoravids were a tribe that controlled the trade routes between sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Maghrib. Their leader Yahya ibn Ibrahim al-Jaddali met with an Islamic scholar named Abdallah ibn Yasin al-Jazuli. After this meeting, Yahya adopted Islamic law and began forcefully implementing this law on those he encountered, an unpopular move which eventually drove him to settle on an island in the river Senegal. The Almoravids eventually founded Marrakesh, which would play an important role in the defense of Islam in Europe.

4 Beyond Africa

While warring Islamic forces actively pursued converts in Spain and the Atlas Mountains, the effect of the trade route as a religious conversion force is felt less in Europe than in sub-Saharan Africa. Because the trade route functioned primarily as a method of commerce, Islamic converts usually came to the religion for either monetary or personal reasons, not because they were forced to do so. Trade was particularly effective in terms of garnering converts in the sub-Saharan Niger region during the eighth century. In Europe, the Almoravid currency was popular, but data for the number of direct converts to Islam is lacking.

Julia Lai is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles-based arts and literature publications. She graduated from University of California, Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in history and has been writing professionally since 2008.