West African Kingdoms were centers of trade, culture and scholarship in the centuries preceding the European Age of Discovery. The Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai dominated the region. One source of power for African rulers was the religion of Islam. Islam became the quasi state religion of the Songhai Kingdom, the last powerful empire before European expansion began, allowing it to create a highly-organized and literate culture.
Mali and Mansa Musa
Mali, and its most important ruler, Mansa Musa, helped introduce Islam on a wide scale to West Africa. Ghana, the first large West African kingdom, reigned from 750 to 1235. Mali rose to prominence in 1230, witnessing its height under Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312 to 1337. During this time, he captured Timbuktu, an important trade center, and Gao, the capital city of Songhai, spreading Islam to them both. Though Musa encouraged conversion to Islam, he allowed the majority of Malians to continue practicing traditional African religions.
Sonni Ali and the rise of the Songhai Empire
The Songhai assumed control of West Africa after the demise of Mali and continued the thrust toward Islam. From 1462 to 1492, King Sonni Ali worked to consolidate the empire by instituting a policy of centralized control from Gao. Rather than paying the customary tribute, and then ruling at home independently, local kings accepted the authority of the Songhai.
Though he claimed to be a Muslim, there is evidence that Ali remained committed to traditional African religions. In Timbuktu, Islamic scholars, known as ulama, began planning the overthrow of Ali. The rationale for displacing Ali was his continued warmth toward traditional religions. Sonni Baru succeeded his father Ali, who died in 1492. Baru continued the policy of coexistence between Islam and African religion. Frustrated with this situation, Muslims, led by General Askiya Muhammad, deposed Baru by force.
Askiya Muhammad and Islamic Songhai
With the removal of Sonni Baru in 1493, the path toward the full acceptance of Islam by the Songhai was set. Muhammad, who led Songhai from 1493 to 1538, not only practiced the faith but also governed from an Islamic framework. The appointment of Islamic judges demonstrated respect for the religion’s principles of justice. From 1494 to 1497, Muhammad made a pilgrimage to Mecca. During his stay, the Songhai ruler established official diplomatic relations between Gao and Mecca. Understanding the importance of culture and knowledge to the religion, he elevated the ulama, his Muslim scholars, in the public eye.
Timbuktu and Islamic Advancements
The growth of Timbuktu, the home of African-Muslim scholarship, symbolizes the acceptance of Islam by the Songhai. Long suppressed by traditional rulers, the city reached its zenith under Muhammad. By the end of the 15th century, there were already 180 Islamic schools in the city. The first Muslim University in West Africa, Sankore, arose during this era. Timbuktu became renowned as a leading global center of learning.
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