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The Rise of Islam in the Songhai Empire: King Askia Muhammad's Jihad

Updated on March 16, 2015
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Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Arab Empire rapidly spread across North Africa, effectively converting those it conquered to Islam. The religion itself, however, spread beyond the Arab Empire's borders, finding a home in various kingdoms all around it. The equally mighty Songhai Empire was a notable example. Without a war or military invasion, how did Islam come to dominate a kingdom that once subscribed almost entirely to animism?

The Rise of the Songhai Empire

Though their descendants are now a minority sect in one of the world's poorest countries, the Songhai once ruled West Africa with an iron fist. Their empire, at its zenith, stretched from what is now central Niger all the way to the Senegalese west coast, engulfing nearly all of modern day Mali.

As a tribe, the Songhai formed some time before the 10th century when invaders subjugated various smaller ethnic groups who had settled along the banks of the Niger River in what years later became the Songhai capital of Gao. Among these groups included the Sorko, who were highly skilled fishermen and boat builders, the Gow, who were hunters specializing in large river animals such as crocodiles and hippopotamuses, and the Do, who mostly lived as farmers. Under a common ruler, these tribes eventually merged into one, speaking a common language, now know as Songhai.

Gao rose to prominence when the nomadic Berber traders from northern Africa began to trade with the Ghana Empire to the east, which had become the most powerful kingdom in the region at that time. Gao became a major trade hub between the two groups, who also began to build settlements there. As Gao prospered exponentially from the trade, it grew into is own small kingdom in which Songhai chiefs emerged from the woodwork, taking control of it and several nearby villages along the trade route.

Eager for a taste of the tiny region's riches, the neighboring Mali Empire swooped in to conquer Gao around 1300 AD, also accumulating Timbuktu, which was another well-established trade hub. For the next 130 years, Gao remained a Malian colony.

As tumultuous circumstances began to politically and financially weaken the Mali Empire, Gao, under Sunni Suleyman's leadership, took up arms and ultimately won their independence in the 1430s. Running with this momentum, Suleyman's successor, Sunni Ali Ber, led his kingdom on a military campaign expanding it into the colossal juggernaut known today as the Songhai Empire.

The Songhai Empire

Map of the Songhai Empire at its zenith.
Map of the Songhai Empire at its zenith. | Source

Islam in the Songhai Empire

The North African traders who helped Gao prosper and grow were Muslims themselves, which caught the attention of many West African elites. In fact, the first known Songhai who converted to Islam was a king known as Za Kusay in the year 1010. However, at that time the ruling class had no interest in spreading the religion to peasants, who generally followed animistic beliefs involving multiple gods, possession dances, and spell casting, which are still practiced to a lesser extent today.

Islam did not really trickle down to the non-ruling class until after Sunni Ali Ber's death in which one of his generals, Askia Muhammad I took over the throne. Though Sunni Ali professed to be a Muslim, oral tradition suggests he also stayed true to traditional animistic beliefs. Whatever the case, Sunni Ali made little effort to spread Islam to others. Askia Muhammad, on the other hand, was an Islamic purist.

Organizing and rebuilding the lands Sunni Ali captured, Askia Muhammad immediately appointed Islamic judges and oversaw the construction of hundreds of Islamic schools throughout the empire, including Sankore, West Africa's first known Muslim University, in Timbuktu. Those who sought religious enlightenment and those simply looking for a good education flocked to these schools, picking up Islam and spreading the word along the way.

Known as an apt diplomat, Askia Muhammad made his famed voyage to Mecca in 1495 with an impressive entourage and around 30,000 gold pieces, which he both gave away to charities and used to shower the people he encountered with lavish gifts. Winning many hearts with this gesture, he established diplomacy between Gao and Mecca and was officially made “Caliph of the Western Sudan,” granting him unprecedented authority among West African Muslim monarchs. On his way back from Mecca, he recruited scholars from Egypt and Morocco to return with him to Songhai and teach at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, bringing a higher standard of quality to Islamic studies. He also donated generously to Islamic universities as noted by Leo Africanus during his famous travels through the region:

“In Timbuktoo there are numerous judges, doctors and clerics all receiving good salaries from the king. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a big demand for books in manuscript, imported from North Africa. More profit is made from the book trade than from any other line of business.”

Al-Maghili's Answers to Askia Muhammad's Questions

Document in which al-Maghili gives Askia Muhammad guidance on how to administer his kingdom.
Document in which al-Maghili gives Askia Muhammad guidance on how to administer his kingdom. | Source

Once Islam was well established in his kingdom, Askia Muhammad sent missionaries to various neighboring lands to spread the word. The Fulani, Tuareg, Mossi, and Hausa tribes remain predominantly Muslim to this day as a result of the king's Jihad, though historians typically claim he never forced them or anyone in his kingdom to convert. He simply incentivized them by setting up Muslims as the elite and providing a stepping stone for the poor and uneducated to become a part of this elite. In other words, he made Islam an attractive alternative.

More than five centuries after Askia Muhammad's death and the hard fall of the once mighty Songhai Empire, Islam still remains the dominant religion in all the lands he once ruled. European colonization in the 20th century did very little to change this.

Thus, contrary to popular belief, not all Islamic nations were conquered by the Arab Empire nor forced to convert to Islam by the power of the sword. The spread of Islam to the Songhai Empire remains a vivid example of how powerful methods of influence and incentivization can be in promoting an ideology.

The Songhai Empire

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