Islam’s spread south of the Sahara usually followed a pattern of gradual and peaceful conversion.(The Earth and Its Peoples Vol. 1 372-373) Indeed, Cheikh Anta Diop attributes the success of Islam in West Africa to “the fact that it was propagated peacefully at first by solitary Arabo-Berber travelers”.(163) This paradigm is reinforced by Toyin Falola, who writes that “the most important agency in the spread of Islam was international trade”.(86) By international trade is meant the trans-Saharan trade that occurred between the indigenous blacks and Berbers of Africa and Arab merchants who would “[introduce] Islam, literacy, and the beginnings of a cash economy”.(Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations 71) In addition, another body of people who helped the spread of this monotheistic way of life were itinerant culamā, like those present in Jinnī when its king accepted Islām. Armed with reeds, wooden slate boards, and the Book they carried within their bodies, clerics [culamā] brought Islam to sub-Saharan West Africa. (The Walking Qur’an 78) This trade of goods and ideas would “[lead] to the rise of an African-Islamic civilization by the Middle Ages”.(Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations 71)
What then are we to make of the character Narr the Moor in “Fari the She-Ass”? The narrator points out to us at one point, that Narr is a devout Muslim, but we are not supposed to be surprised or impressed by this “since it was his duty to show himself worthy of his ancestors who had introduced Islam into the country by force”.(B. Diop 99) Similarly, in “Mother Crocodile” we are told that Islām was spread by a bloody sword. These apocryphal accounts of Islām’s dispersal throughout Africa, generally speaking, and West Africa, in particular, fly in the face of historical fact. The historicity of Mother-Crocodile’s description when she speaks “of the red colour of the water after the passing of the white men, who had taught the black men to bow down like them to the rising sun”(B. Diop ) must be questioned with respect to its claim of a violent spread of Islām.
We will see later on that there is a kernel of truth in the stories mentioned above, but on the whole the expansion model being argued is problematic. Mother-Crocodile may hold the keys to unlocking this puzzle. Preparatory to detailing this invasion-conversion model, Mother-Crocodile informs us of Ghanian merchants, past kings and a glorious empire, of ”Soumangourou… Soun Diata Kéita and… the empire of Mali”.(B. Diop 47) That the names are listed in chronological order suggests that we are to take the events and names mentioned as following linear time, in which case a clear picture emerges.
By 1068 C.E., Ghana was ruled by the Soninke, “the indigenous inhabitants of the area, who had established their capital at Kumbi, the greatest trading centre of the western Sudan”.(Peoples and Empires of West Africa 31) Ibn Khaldūn writes that when the merchants entered West Africa they didn’t find any kingdom greater than that of Ghana; he then goes on to mention that the capital comprised two cities situated on the banks of a river. (6:266) One of those cities was the “Muslim quarter where North African merchants resided during their trading missions to Ghana.”(31-32) While analyzing al-Bakri’s account of the kingdom of Ghana, Rudolph T. Ware III posits that there is a strong suggestion that “many of the Muslims in Ghana were indigenous West Africans,” and he cites as proof “the large numbers of mosques”, as well as “a mosque even at the non-Muslim King’s compound”.(86)
This empire was to be afflicted by internal and external problems, one of which was an incursion from the North. Cheikh describes the Berber invasion of Ghana in the following manner:
“While the Berbers remained vassals of the Black emperor of Ghana for centuries, the Almoravide(sic) revenge on Ghana lasted only ten years: it ended in 1087 with the death of Abubeker-Ben-Omar(sic), killed by the arrow of a Black warrior inside the borders of present-day Mauritania.”(90-91)
Far from being an invasion by foreign whites, the Almoravids were indigenous Berbers, subordinates who revolted, by which it may be understood that this was an internal conflict between Africans. Rudolph Ware III contends that while “an earlier generation of scholars assumed that the Almoravids conquered Ghana and converted its rulers” this “theory has been thoroughly debunked.”(94) Indeed, Cheikh Anta Diop brushes this conflict aside, stating, “[C]onversion of these regions [i.e. West Africa] was to be the work of autochthonous marabouts”.(163)
After Abu Bakr was killed “the Sanhaja confederacy once again split into its component parts” and “[the] power vacuum created by the military decline of Ghana was first filled by the rise of the Susu, a nation famous for its blacksmiths and infantry”.(Empires of West Africa 42) One must admire, Mother-Crocodile’s ability to evoke a thousand years of history by a few well-placed words, for the Susu came to be ruled by none other than Sumanguru (Soumangourou), “a great war-leader whose position as leader of the Susu cults was reinforced by his reputation as an outstanding magician”.(42)
Sumanguru later clashes with a contemporary of his, another historic figure from Mother-Crocodile’s tale, Mārī Jāṭah (the Lion King; Soun Diata Kéita).(Ibn Khaldūn 6:266) We are told: “In the Battle of Kirina (near present Koulikoro in the Republic of Mali) c. 1235, the Mandingo, led by Sundiata, defeated Sumanguru. Power in the western Sudan then passed to Kangaba, forming the nucleus of a new Sudanese empire, Mali.”(“Sumanguru”) Though, Ibn Khaldūn does not mention whether Soun Diata Kéita was Muslim, he does state that the succeeding king, Mansā Wālī, performed Ḥajj, one of the five pillars of Islām.(6:267)
As time passed, Mali would become a massive empire, rivaling Ghana. Toyin Falola writes, “Under Mansa Musa (ca. 1312-37), Mali attained the height of its power … adding areas twice the size of the former kingdom of Ghana.”(95) Cities like Jenne, Gao, Niani, and Timbuktu fell within the shadow of this just king’s authority.(95) Further, Peoples and Empires of West Africa credits Mansā Mūsā with being “responsible for establishing islam as the official religion of Mali cities,” and attributes his patronage of the culamā with encouraging the growth of indigenous Muslim scholarship.(52)
It is likely that Mother-Crocodile and Naar the Moor are referring to the invasion of what Ibraheem Sulaiman describes as, “Moroccan hordes who killed many of the inhabitants of western Sudan, slew the ‘ulamā’, captured as many as thirty thousand people and sacked the towns.”(37) This atrocious event which Diop dates to 1593 occurs centuries after Islām entered West Africa.(100) According to some the invasion was precipitated by greed. Moroccan rulers, we are informed, “…had long been envious of the rich resources of Songhai…” and, in fact, “[as] early as 1546, Askia Ishak had to discourage Moroccan ambitions by despatching 2000 Tuareg to ravage southern Morocco.” (Peoples and Empires of West Africa 77) Ironically, Toyin Falola considers this Moroccan invasion to be one of the reasons that “Islam declined as a religion, and trade routes were disrupted.”(101) Moreover, The African Caliphate suggests that the desolation of the Songhai empire was one of the causes for the rise of the marabout, Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio.
We may conclude by stating that the growth of Islām owes much more to the indigenous population than it does to apocryphal invasions by so-called “white Muslims” and aberrant incursions by belligerent, and at times, coreligionists coming out of Morocco. Indubitably, many of the seeds for the growth of Islām in West Africa were planted by African kings and the marabout.
Al-Sacdī, cAbdur-Raḥmān ibn cAbdullāh ibn cUmrān ibn cĀmir. Tārīkh al-Sudān. Paris: Librairie D’Amerique Et D’Orient. 1981. Electronic.
Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa. Trans. Harold Salemson. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. 1987. Print.
Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press. 1998. Print.
Falola, Toyin. Key Events in African History: A Reference Guide. 1st ed. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2002. Print.
Ibn Baṭūṭah, Abū cAbdullāh Muḥammad ibn cAbdullāh. Riḥlah Ibn Baṭūṭah Tuḥfah al-Nadhār Fī Gharā’ib al-Amṣār Wa cAjā’ib al-Asfār. Ed. Muḥammad cAbdul-Muncim al-cUryān Lebanon: Dār Iḥyā al-cUlūm. 1987. Electronic
Ibn Manthūr. Lisān al-cArab. Ed. cAbdullāh Alī al-Kabīr, Muḥammad Aḥmad Ḥasballāh, and Hāshim Muḥammad al-Shādhalī. Cairo: Dar al-Macārif. N.d. Electronic.
Stride, G. T. and Ifeka, Caroline. Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000-1800. 1st ed. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation. 1971. Print.
“Sumanguru”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
Ware III, Rudolph T. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. 1st ed. The University of North Carolina Press. 2014. Print.