Margari Hill, Stanford University
While the presence of Islam in West Africa dates back to eighth century, the spread of the faith in regions that are now the modern states of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Nigeria, was in actuality, a gradual and complex process. Much of what we know about the early history of West Africa comes from medieval accounts written by Arab and North African geographers and historians. Specialists have used several models to explain why Africans converted to Islam. Some emphasize economic motivations, others highlight the draw of Islam’s spiritual message, and a number stress the prestige and influence of Arabic literacy in facilitating state building. While the motivations of early conversions remain unclear, it is apparent that the early presence of Islam in West Africa was linked to trade and commerce with North Africa. Trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean predated Islam, however, North African Muslims intensified the Trans-Saharan trade. North African traders were major actors in introducing Islam into West Africa. Several major trade routes connected Africa below the Sahara with the Mediterranean Middle East, such as Sijilmasa to Awdaghust and Ghadames to Gao. The Sahel, the ecological transition zone between the Sahara desert and forest zone, which spans the African continent, was an intense point of contact between North Africa and communities south of the Sahara. In West Africa, the three great medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and the Songhay developed in Sahel.
The history of Islam in West Africa can be explained in three stages, containment, mixing, and reform. In the first stage, African kings contained Muslim influence by segregating Muslim communities, in the second stage African rulers blended Islam with local traditions as the population selectively appropriated Islamic practices, and finally in the third stage, African Muslims pressed for reforms in an effort to rid their societies of mixed practices and implement Shariah. This three-phase framework helps sheds light on the historical development of the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay and the 19th century jihads that led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in Hausaland and the Umarian state in Senegambia.
Containment: Ghana and the Takrur
The early presence of Islam was limited to segregated Muslim communities linked to the trans-Saharan trade. In the 11th century Andalusian geographer, Al-Bakri, reported accounts of Arab and North African Berber settlements in the region. Several factors led to the growth of the Muslim merchant-scholar class in non-Muslim kingdoms. Islam facilitated long distance trade by offering useful sets of tools for merchants including contract law, credit, and information networks. Muslim merchant-scholars also played an important role in non-Muslim kingdoms as advisors and scribes in Ghana. They had the crucial skill of written script, which helped in the administration of kingdoms. Many Muslim were also religious specialists whose amulets were prized by non-Muslims.
Merchant-scholars also played a large role in the spread of Islam into the forest zones. These included the Jakhanke merchant-scholars in [name region], the Jula merchants in Mali and the Ivory Coast, and the Hausa merchants during the nineteenth century in Nigeria, Ghana, and Guinea Basau,]. Muslim communities in the forest zones were minority communities often linked to trading diasporas. Many of the traditions in the forest zones still reflect the tradition of Al-Hajj Salim Suwari, a late fifteenth-century Soninke scholar, who focused on responsibilities of Muslims in a non-Muslim society. His tradition, known as the Suwarian tradition, discouraged proselytizing, believing that God would bring people around to Islam in his own ways. This tradition worked for centuries in the forest zone including the present day, where there are vibrant Muslim minority communities.