Islam in the Medieval Sudan

Within a generation of the hijra--Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622, and hence the beginning of the growth of Islam, the youngest of the great monotheistic religions--the message of the Prophet would spread like wildfire into Asia in the east and Africa in the west. Membership in the umma, or worldwide community of believers, gave a deep sense of cohesion and community to all Muslims, regardless of race, ethnicity, status, or wealth. All shared the majestic simplicity of starkly monotheistic faith in Allah, "submission" (islam) to whom was expressed in adherence to the five "pillars" or fundamental practices of the new religion: a profession of faith, daily prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage.

Despite this ideal of a unity of faith, Islam in its early history did not escape the tendency to schism that has plagued other religions of the world (both Buddhism and Christianity, for example). Rivalries over the caliphate, which combined spiritual and temporal power in its oversight of Islam, led to the early split between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, a division which persists to the present day. The Sunni caliphs of the Umayyad line (661-750) in Damascus would flourish for a time, only to be eclipsed in the mid eighth century by the Abbasid caliphs (750-1258), who shifted the center of the Islamic world to Baghdad. A welter of further spiritual and political divisions within Islam--expressed by names and terms such as Almoravid, Sufi, Ibadi, Seljuk, Fatimid, Almohad, and many others--can leave the non-specialist feeling very confused upon trying to make sense of the early development of the Muslim tradition.It is an understatement to say that Islam exercised a profound effect on the history of the medieval Sudan. What is less obvious is that the Islam which made its way to this region was marked by great diversity, reflecting differing Muslim traditions, many of which had taken root in north Africa and Egypt.1 Also crucial for the history of Islam in west Africa is the fact that its spread southward across the desert was intimately tied to the relentless movement of the trans-Saharan trade. An understanding of the dynamics of Islam's first few centuries north of the Sahara is therefore necessary for a fuller comprehension of developments in the Sudanic belt itself.

Among the many striking successes of the early Arab warriors on jihad numbered the conquest of Egypt, which fell to Islam in 641. Muslim armies continued their drive west across north Africa, but soon encountered a more resistent foe than the Byzantine forces which had been so handily defeated in the lands around the eastern Mediterranean. These new enemies were the Berbers, the hardy "lords of the desert" who would come to dominate the trans-Saharan trade. Paradoxically, perhaps, the Berbers were attracted to the new religion even as they struggled against the bearers of its message. Soon the Berbers were Muslims every bit as fervent as the Arabs, and had moreover embraced an extremely strict form of the faith known as Khariji Islam, which emphasized utter equality between all members of the umma.2 After rebelling successfully against Arab domination, the Berbers were subject to the caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad in name only, and went on to play crucial and self-sufficient roles in the history of Islam and trade in Africa.

By the eleventh century, Berber society had given birth to yet another stringent school of Islam, that of the Almoravids. Followers of a Berber named Ibn Yasin, these "al-murabitun" (hence "Almoravid") or "warriors of the frontier" were an essential part of the religious environment of north Africa.3 But theirs was not the only type of Islam to be found here. Even before the eleventh century, a powerful Shi'ite dynasty--the Fatimids--ruled Egypt and Tunisia. One distinguishing characteristic of Islam under the Fatimids was their belief in a messianic figure, or mahdi, who would come at the end of time. Such expectations may have been taken up by the Almohad movement, which stressed not only the concept of the mahdi, but also the importance of direct mystical experience of the unity of God. Closely associated with the high point of Almohad Islam--which had largely displaced the Almoravids in north Africa by the twelfth century--was the spread of Sufi mysticism into the region around the year 1200.4

Multiple Muslim spiritualities, then, made their way to the western Sudan from north Africa and from Egypt. Berber merchants were often the chief bearers of the new religion, but others played important roles as well.5 Traders from Mali known as dyula or Wangarawa were Islamized relatively early, and carried the message of the Prophet to the central and eastern reaches of the Niger. Wandering Berber, Arab, Egyptian, and Sudanic scholars and clerics ('ulama')--some of whom claimed to be sharifs or descendants of Muhammad--found their way south of the Sahara, where they might gather a few pupils or disciples around them, set up a more formal madrasa or school, or even come to be advisors and confidants of kings. The two great Muslim clerics of the late fifteenth century--al-Maghili and al-Suyuti--were striking examples of this last phenomenon.

How was Islam, with its differing spiritualities but essential unity of faith, received in the western Sudan? The role of Islam in the Soninke kingdom Ghana provides an instructive case. Al-Bakri's famous description of life at the royal court of Ghana in the eleventh century contains some important clues about Islam's presence south of the Sahara almost a thousand years ago.6 In addition to telling of the power of the king--built upon the active trade in gold and salt which was the foundation of Ghana's economy--al-Bakri relates how the "city of Ghana" itself was divided into two distinct parts a few miles distant from each other: one town for the Muslims, and the other for the king and his non-Muslim subjects. The former was graced with many mosques, clerics, and scholars; one should not however assume that all Muslims there were necessarily "foreigners," since some Soninke individuals had probably come to accept the new faith even before their king did.7 The royal town, for its part, was not lacking a Muslim presence: in addition to numerous sites sacred to the traditional religion of Ghana, the "pagan" city possessed at least one mosque as a place of prayer for Muslims visiting the king's court. Such a "dual town" arrangement can be noted for other points of contact between Islam and traditional royal courts in the western Sudan (compare for examples the early history of the Songhay city of Gao).

Al-Bakri's account clearly indicates that the king, though not himself a Muslim, surrounded himself with Muslim advisors and officials, among whom numbered the royal treasurer. The Muslims' expertise in writing and hence record-keeping--and also perhaps the aura of prestige and exoticism gained by having "foreign" advisors--led the king to favor his Muslim courtiers over his non-Muslim ones. Significantly, the king's co-religionist subjects had to greet their sovereign with ritual gestures of prostration and extreme deference, while Muslims were exempt from such behavior, greeting the king "only by clapping their hands" instead.8

We see then a royal court where two religious traditions appeared to coexist, where the ruler, though clearly attracted to faith in Allah, knew that his own continued power depended on his ability to conciliate and reassure his subjects who had not yet embraced Islam. At the same time, the king of Ghana could benefit from the knowledge and skills of his Muslim counselors, who for their part were seemingly tolerant of their lord's continued ties to "paganism," which remained widespread among the people as a whole, especially outside the towns. These Muslims knew well the importance of the trading networks which were the source of Ghana's wealth, and knew also that religious animosity could easily upset the long-distance contacts and cooperation necessary for sustained and continuous trade between Ghana and the Berbers to the north.

Such is one model or image of Islam in the western Sudan, which can be identified for other times and places in the region (early Songhay again comes to mind). Yet this is not the only picture of the relationship between Islam and traditional culture that emerges from the sources. The early instruments of Muhammad's message could take a much more unyielding stance towards non-Muslims; Berber jihads against various Sudanic peoples in the latter part of the eleventh century are but one manifestation of a more aggressive spread of Islam south of the Sahara.9 Whether or not these jihads led to an Almoravid conquest of Ghana has been hotly debated in recent years.10 What they demonstrate in any case is that Islam could pursue a confrontational path, in addition to a conciliatory one, in the course of its development within the medieval Sudan. Nor were such confrontations of a purely religious character. In Hausaland, from the twelfth century on, the struggles between the city sarkis or rulers (who were Muslim) and the rural population (who were not) were just as much political, social, and economic in nature as they were religious, as the Kano Chronicle vividly reveals.

These conflicts did not always assume the form of armed struggle. Muslim scholars and clerics, anxious to further what they saw to be a much needed reform of Sudanic Islam, might dare to criticize a ruler openly for his policies of compromise and accommodation with the non-Muslim inhabitants of his realm. Such a desire for purification and reform, very much in keeping with the Khariji and Almoravid spiritualities described above, is seen in the opposition of Timbuktu scholars to the Songhay regime of Sunni Ali. Alternatively, the advice of influential but strict reformers such as al-Maghili might be sought by Sudanic rulers seeking to ensure that the beliefs and customs of their subjects conform more closely to the teachings of the Qur'an and the Shari'a, or body of Islamic law.

In conclusion, the presence of Islam in the medieval Sudan was a complex phenomenon. One might expect the fiery spirituality of the Almoravids to have overrun local religious culture in the regions south of the Sahara, but this was not the case. Both a willingness to compromise, and yet a frequent yearning to reform and purify, characterized the behavior of Muslims in west Africa. Indeed, the mutual relationship between Sudanic culture and universal monotheistic faith in Allah probably enriched both traditions, despite frequent tensions between the two. Many peoples of the Sudan drank deeply from the well of Islamic beliefs and learning, and the ties between Islam, trade, and governance of the realm became in time virtually unbreakable.


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