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Impacts of Islam in Africa: 1000-1750 AD

Updated on January 21, 2014
Fatimid Caliphate capitol
Fatimid Caliphate capitol | Source

Upon a split between two doctrines of Islam, the Sunni's and the Shiites, a new Islamic dynasty was founded in Egypt called the Fatimid Dynasty. After the Fatimid invasion of Egypt, Islam began to permeate through the rest of Africa. Islam's spread from 1000 AD to 1750 AD impacted Africa socially, culturally, and politically by instituting the slave trade, creating a rise in education, and adding Muslim leaders to West Africa's history.

Social Impacts

Africa was impacted socially by Islam through the institution of the Islamic run slave trade. When the Fatimid Dynasty established itself in Egypt it also established trading docks called entrepots in Cairo and Alexandria. These trading docks generally shipped to Arabia, the most Muslim dominated part of the world, and with increase trading opportunities came a thirst for trade expansion, which opened the door for the slave trade. Captured and sold into forced labor through the Muslim controlled trade routes, Africans became a status symbol for the wealthy in Arabia. Although Islamic writings did not prohibit slavery, they did set guidelines as to how slaves should be treated. Despite these parameters in Islamic scripture, ill treatment of slaves did exist, and the Islamic run slave trade paved the way for slave routes to Europe and the Americas in the future.

Islamic Slave Routes
Islamic Slave Routes | Source

Cultural Impacts

Africa changed culturally when the impacts of Islam spurred a rise in education. In the Empire of Mali, in West Africa, a city known as Timbuktu rose up as a place of culture, learning, and enterprise. Famous for its two large mosques, Muslim scholars would come to Timbuktu to debate theology and try to keep fellow African Muslims pure of the paganism of the past and true to the doctrines of Islam. This created for wide spread cultural crossing in Africa as people from all over the world came to share and spread ideas, particularly of the Muslim faith. Previously, Africa was known to be underdeveloped and backward, and African tradition had been passed down orally. However, with education becoming more accessible, surrounding Africans took advantage of the opportunity to participate in higher learning and literacy rates in Africa soared. Some historians believe that while literacy and education are always noble pursuits, the spread of Islamic dominated education in Africa destroyed African culture by painting their previous pagan and tribal religions in an antiquated light. Others argue that while much of African culture was lost it was due to advancement to the future not intentional destruction of the past, and culture must change in order to survive. Regardless, Islam impacted African culture forever by changing the religion and ideals of the African people through education.

Timbuktu University still stands today.
Timbuktu University still stands today. | Source

Political Impacts

Islam impacted politics in Africa as well, which gave Africa a more advanced and forward thinking appearance to the rest of the world. This change in image can be seen through one of the most famous emperors of the Mali Empire: Mansa Musa. He is most famous for being the richest man who ever lived due to his region's extensive gold deposits. Mansa Musa was Muslim, and upon his trip to Mecca, in Arabia, he passed through Cairo, the Fatimid Dynasty capitol. Here he made a great display of the wealth and prosperity of his region, by lavishing the Fatimid people and government with enormous gifts of gold, slaves, and exotic animals. It is hard for history to tell if this was a political statement on Mansa Musa's part, an attempt to show the Islamic leaders who had invaded Africa that Africans were not backward but were quickly progressing and in a wealthy position. Regardless of his intentions it is known that Mansa Musa went to great lengths to impress the Fatimid's and the rest of the Muslim world, and everyone's idea of Africa was reversed from backward to positively precocious. Some continuity is also inferred from Mansa Musa's display. Despite Islam's hold on Egypt, Arabic Muslim's did not control all of Africa politically from 1000 to 1750 AD. Parts of Africa continued to govern them self.

Islam’s sweeping power and popularity impacted Africa in a profound way, changing the continent and its people forever. Social, cultural, and political aspects were all altered and never returned to their untouched, original states. Although the slave trade, an upheaval of education, and political effects of Muslim leaders all brought great change, some continuity remained. Islam helped to form the Africa seen today.

Famous rendering of Mansa Musa and his gold.
Famous rendering of Mansa Musa and his gold. | Source

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