WASSCE History TextbookHistory ClassroomPre-Colonial History

Islam in West Africa: Introduction, spread and effects

Mansa Musa

Africa was the first continent that Islam spread into out of Arabia in the early seventh century. Almost one-third of the world’s Muslim population resides today in the continent. It was estimated in 2002 that Muslims constitute 45% of the population of Africa. Islam has a large presence in North Africa, West Africa, the horn of Africa, the Southeast and among the minority but significant immigrant population in South Africa.

The first West Africans to be converted were the inhabitants of the Sahara, the Berbers, and it is generally agreed that by the second half of the tenth century, the Sahara had become Dar al-Islam that is the country of Islam.

In this chapter, we shall look at the spread of Islam in West Africa as well as the effects of Islam. We shall also find out the activities of the Almoravids.

The Spread of Islam in West Africa

After the Berbers’ Islamisation, the religion spread into the Western Sudan from the closing decades of the tenth century. First, Islam spread into the regions West of the Niger Bend (Senegambia, Mali), then into Chad region and finally into Hausaland.

According to some Arabic sources, the first Black ruler to embrace Islam was the King of Gao who had done so by 1009. The first King of Mali to become a Muslim was Barmandana, who was reigning by the middle of the eleventh century. The Kings of Ghana, on the other hand, did not embrace Islam until about the beginning of the twelfth century, after the Almoravid invasions.

In the Chad region, it appears from the Arabic sources that Umme Jilmi, who became the king of  Kanem in 1086 was the first Muslim King. Islam was first introduced into Hausaland from either Kanem or Air in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, but it did not really take root there until during the second half of the fourteenth century.

Reason for the spread of Islam in West Africa

The following are the reasons for the spread of Islam in West Africa. By the end of the fifteenth century, Islam had spread southwards to the fringes of the forest belt.

i.               The Nature of Islam

The nature of Islam as a religion accepting polygamy to some extent, its tolerance of traditional African religions, its simplicity of doctrine and mode of worship helped propagators to make converts in Africa. These factors also made Islam easily adaptable to the African communities with which it came in contact. Again, the Islamisation of Africa was paralleled by the Africanisation of Islam. The making and sale of charms and amulets, which were believed to offer protection against evil forces and generally ensure success in life, were important in winning over converts.

ii.             Trade

Another major reason that led to the rapid spread of Islam in West Africa was the trans-Saharan trade network. From the seventh century onwards, Muslim traders from the Maghreb and the Sahara started settling first in some of the market centres in the Sahel and then in the Savanna areas. Al-Bakri, a renowned Arabic Scholar and merchant wrote in 1067, that the capital of ancient Ghana was already divided into two parts; about six miles apart, the Muslim traders’ part which had as many as twelve mosques and the King’s part had one mosque for the use of the king’s Muslim visitors. It was these resident Muslim traders who converted the rulers and the principal local town’s people to Islam. Also, according to Kano Chronicles, during the reign of Yaji, the King of Kano from 1349 to 1385, the Wangarawa came from Melle bringing the Mohammedan religion. These examples grew the process of Islamisation or conversion to Islam, as it gathered momentum.

iii.           Activities of Muslim Clerics

Islam also spread into West Africa through the activities of Muslim clerics, marabouts and scholars or mallams. These clerics or learned men founded their own religious centres which attracted students from all parts of the Western Sudan and who on the completion of their studies and training went back to their own homes to win converts. Many of them went on lecture or missionary tours to convert people, while others became advisers to Sudanese Kings on how to become effective rulers. Some clerics devoted a great deal of their time to writing books and instructions on all aspects of Islam for the education and conversion of people or the purification and strengthening of Islam. Some examples of clerics follow:

Ibu Khadija al-Kumi, a Muslim missionary and Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, a poet, scholar and architect from Granada were both invited by Mansa Musa to accompany him on his return from his celebrated pilgrimage in 1324/5. Both of them settled in Mali where they taught Islam. Al-Sahili also designed the great mosque of Timbuktu as well as a magnificent palace for Mansa Musa in the capital of Mali.

Again, the great Mande scholar, Abd Rahman Zaite (now identified as Abd al-Rahman Jakhite) settled in Kano on the invitation of Rumfa, the King of Kano. He built a mosque and introduced the practice of Koran recital and other devotional exercises.

Another brilliant Berber scholar called Abd al-Rahman al-Maghili (1477-78) established his Zawiyaie Islamic school in Tuat in the Sahara, and from there went on a missionary tour of the Western Sudan which lasted from 1492 to 1503. During this tour, he visited Air, Takedda, Kano, Katsina and Gao and preached to both rulers and commoners.

iv.           Activities of Rulers

Islam gained ground in West Africa through the activities of the individual rulers. The rulers of the Western Sudan encouraged the trans-Saharan trade and extended hospitality to both traders and visiting clerics, but perhaps one of the most important ways in which they encouraged acceptance of Islam was through their own conversion. With a Muslim King or ruler it rapidly became a matter of prestige among the aristocracy also to convert to Islam in many kingdoms. Many rulers made considerable efforts to encourage Muslim institutions such as Islamic tax and legal systems or the provision of facilities such as mosques, through the appointment of Muslim officials such as judges and butchers who observe the Islamic code and to lead prayers, celebrating Muslim festival and ordering every town under their control to observe the ritual prayers. The pilgrimages that many of the rulers undertook – such as Mansa Musa and Askia Mohammed — had a considerable spiritual effect increasing their determination both to strengthen and purify Islam and to spread it even further.

v.             Holy War

What is more, another way in which Islam was introduced and spread in West Africa in general and Western Sudan, in particular, was the militant jihad, or the waging of holy war against infidels or lukewarm Muslims. This method allowed the third and final stage of the process of Islamisation to reach its climax with the nineteenth-century jihad in the Western Sudan, between Mali and Senegambia and Hausaland in northern Nigeria.

The first jihad in the Western Sudan which has accounts was that waged by the head of the Sudanese confederation. It was Tarsina against the Sudanese people in 1023, soon after his return from the pilgrimage to Mecca. He was killed during these clashes. The second is that of the King of Takrur, War-Ajabbi, before his death in 1040. The third and the best known of these early jihads was the one declared by the Almoravid movement of ancient Ghana between 1048 and 1054 by the scholar, Abdallah Ibn Yasin. Between 1056 and 1070s, the Almoravid conquered the whole area between ancient Ghana and Sijilmasa. By 1087 the Almoravid Empire stretched from Senegal in the south across the Mediterranean to Spain in the north.

vi.           Inter-marriage

Islam also spread on to West Africa through inter-marriages. The Muslim merchants from North Africa came down settled and married the African women who became Muslims including their children.

vii.         Scholars

The early Muslim missionaries opened Islamic schools and colleges. The products of these schools and colleges also did well by spreading the religion. They worked with the rulers as advisors, councillors etc. For instance, Ibn Yasin established a Zaniyaor college and founded the Almoravid movement which contributed considerably to the spread of Islam in the Sahara and Western Sudan. Also one of the greatest clerics and missionaries of Western Sudan was al-Hajj Suware, the Soninke scholar founded the important Zawiga at Diakha – Bambuk which attracted students from all over Western Sudan during the first half of the thirteenth century. Scholarship was indeed also attractive to rulers in West Africa, because the widespread use of the Arabic script made administering their kingdoms easier, and tax revenues easier to accrue. Thus, Timbuktu became known for its famous Djingnereber Mosque and prestigious Sankore University, both of which were established in the early 1300s under the reign of the Mali Empire, most famous ruler Mansa Musa.


Islam had a great impact on the people and states of Western Sudan and for that matter West Africa in general. Unlike Christianity, Islam is not a just a religion or a mass of doctrines or beliefs and rituals, but rather a complete way of life or civilization. The following are the effects of Islam in West Africa.


i.                  Unity

Islam cut across family, clan and ethnic ties and loyalties and emphasized unity and brotherhood. It enabled rulers to build larger Kingdoms and empires embracing different peoples and Linguistic groups. It also provided them with a commonly accepted basis of authority in place of African traditional religious which differed from place to place. Many of the rulers of Western Sudan, such as Mansa Musa of Mali, Askia Mohammed of Songhai and Idris Alooma of Borno did attempt to use Islam in these ways to generate a feeling of unity and as a basis of their authority.

ii.                  System of Administration

Most of the Muslim rulers of Western Sudan adopted the Muslim systems of justice and taxation. Thus, Islam promoted a more efficient administration in some of the states of Western Sudan since it enabled the rulers to employ educated Muslims as secretaries, administrators, judges and diplomats and also to correspond with provincial rulers and administrators. It is significant that even non-Muslim rulers such as those of ancient Ghana before the eleventh century employed some Muslims in their administration. Furthermore, the holy wars which some rulers waged helped to extend the frontiers of their states.

iii.                  Establishment of Diplomatic Relations

The rulers of Western Sudan established strong diplomatic relations with other Muslim rulers abroad as Mansa Musa and Idris Alooma did with those of Egypt and Tunis respectively. Other diplomatic connections were with the Ottoman Empire and Al-Andalus in southern Spain.

iv.                  Army

The hajj brought pilgrims into contact with technology and scholarship at the centre of the Muslim world, which were often adopted and introduced when the pilgrims returned home. For instance, Idris Alooma of Borno brought back from his pilgrimage musketeers and Turkish military instructors, and created musketeers corps in his army which enabled him to extend the frontiers of his state relatively with ease.


v.                  Pilgrimage to Mecca.

The pilgrimage or hajj which Muslims were expected to undertake if they were able to do so, contributed in many ways to the growth and strength of some of the states. The hajj enabled the pilgrims to acquire first the highly coveted title of Al-Hajj and more importantly, the Barka, that is, the spiritual power which a pilgrim acquired by touching the black stone of the Ka’ba or Great Temple in Mecca and visiting the tomb of the Prophet at Medina. This power was of great importance, especially for the rulers, since it greatly increased their reputation and religious standing among their subjects.

Indeed, it is because of the acquisition of this power that the hajj was and is still so popular among Muslims, especially, Muslim rulers.

vi.                  The Pillar of Islam

There was the replacement of the worship of false gods in some areas. Converts seriously observed the five pillars of Islam, namely; daily prayers including the Friday congregational prayer, fasting, compulsory alms-giving and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).


vii.                  Literacy

Islam introduced literacy as well as Muslim education into West Africa. Literacy made it possible for scholars to preserve the history and the oral traditions of some of the states in books. Examples of such books are the Tarikh es Sudan written by Al-Sa’di in Timbuktu in the seventeenth century. Literacy also enabled people in the Western Sudan to join access to the invaluable Islamic literature, sciences and philosophy which broadened their knowledge, improved their statecraft and widened their horizon.

viii.                  Establishment of Schools

As Islam continued to spread in West Africa, schools and educational centres were established in large towns and cities in Western Sudan. Such towns include Jenne, Timbuctu, Gao Kano and Katsina, and were as much creations of the Islamisation of the Western Sudan as they were of the trans-Saharan trade.

ix.                  Great Scholars

Islam produced great scholars in Western Sudanese states and West Africa as a whole. Among them are; Mahamud Kati(1468-1593) a Soninke scholar who wrote the Tarikh al Fettash (The Chronicle of the Seeker). The second was Abdurrahman-as Sadi a government secretary and diplomat who wrote the Tarikh al Sudan (The Chronicle of Sudan). The third was Ahmed Baba, the author of fifty works on law and a biographical dictionary. Thirteen of his writings are known. He was also the owner of an important library.

x.                  Change in Culture

There was also a change in cultural life as a result of the introduction of Islam in West Africa. In all the states of Western Sudan-Muslim wives of prominent men were required to live in purdah (seclusion) and to veil their faces when they went out.


xi.                  Architecture

Islam helped in the introduction of burnt brick, for example, Ibrahim As-Sahil designed a magnificent brick mosque in Gao, Timbuctu and a stone palace in Mali for Mansa Musa.

xii.                  Trade

Islam promoted trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean. The religion developed and widened the trans-Saharan Caravan trade. The trade enriched the West African and Muslim traders. Muslims from North Africa came in their numbers and settled in the commercial centres. This helped in the development of the cities such as Timbuctu, Gao, Jenne and Kano.


The Islamic religion had a great effect on West African societies. In the first place, it challenged traditional African religion, weakening the basis on which some of the Sudanese states such as Kanem and ancient Ghana rested, contributing to their downfall.

Secondly, it often divided the ruling group into Muslim and non-Moslem factions, conflict between which further weakened some of the states such as Songhai.

Thirdly, the jihad not only caused periodic outbreaks of instability and chaos in Western Sudan but also precipitated the downfall of some states like the Hanusa.

From here it is important to understand the history of Islam in West Africa through different movements. So the remainder of the chapter looks at some key moments: the Almoravids and Ghana, the role of the Jakhanke the rise of Sokoto in Nigeria, and the importance of Omar Tal in the 19th century.


The term ‘Almoravid’ comes from the Arabic word ‘al-Murabit, literally meaning “one who is trying” but figuratively meaning “one who is ready for battle at a fortress”.

The Almoravid dynasty was an imperial Berber Muslim dynasty centred in Morocco. It established an empire in the 11th century that stretched over the western Maghreb and Al-Andalus. The dynasty was founded by Abdallah Ibn Yasin. The Almoravid capital was Marrakesh, a city which was the ruling house founded in 1062. The Gudala nomadic Berber tribes of the Sahara, traversing the territory between the Draa, the Niger and the Senegal rivers.

The Almoravids were crucial in preventing the fall of Al-Andalus to the Iberian Christian kingdoms when they decisively defeated a coalition at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086. This enabled them to control an empire that stretched 3,000 kilometres North to South, from Senegambia to Spain.

Abdallah Ibn Yasin was a Gazzula Berber and probably a convert rather than a born Muslim. His name can be read as “son of Ya Sin”.  Ibn Yasin certainly had the ardour of a puritan zealot, his creed was mainly characterised by a rigid formalising and a strict adherence to the dictates of the Quran and orthodox tradition.

Ibn Yasin’s arguments were disputed by his audience. He responded to questions with charges of apostasy and handed out harsh punishments for the slightest deviations. The Gudala soon had enough and expelled him almost immediately after the death of his protector, Yahaya Ibn Ibrahim, sometime in the 1040s.

Ibn Yasin, however, found a more favourable reception among the neighbouring Lamtuna people. Probably sensing the useful organizing power of Ibn Yasin’s pious fervor, the Lamtuna chieftain Yahya Ibn Umar al-Lamtuni invited the man to preach to his people. The Lamtuna leaders, however, kept Ibn Yasin on a careful leash, forging a more productive partnership between them. Invoking stories of the early life of Muhammed, Ibn Yasin preached that conquest was a necessary addendum to Islamicization, that it was not enough to merely adhere to God’s law, law was necessary to also destroy opposition to it. In Ibn Yasin’s ideology, anything and everything outside to Islamic law could be characterized as “opposition”. He identified tribalism, in particular, as an obstacle. He believed it was not enough to urge his audiences to put aside their blood loyalties and ethnic differences, and embrace the equality of all Muslims under the Sacred Law, it was necessary to make them do so. For the Lamtuna leadership, this new ideology dovetailed with their long desire to refound the Sanhaja union and recover their lost dominions. In the early1050s, the Lamtuna, under the joint leadership of Yahya Ibn Umar and Abdallah Ibn Yasin-soon calling themselves the al-Murabitin (Almoravids)-set out on a campaign to bring their neighbours over to their cause.

The Almoravid Conquest In Northern Africa

From the year 1053, the Almoravids began to spread their religious way to the Berber areas of the Sahara, and to the regions south of the desert. After winning over the Sanhaja Berber tribe, they quickly took control of the entire desert trade route, seizing Sijilmasa at the northern end in 1054, and Aoudaghost at the southern end in 1055. Yahya Ibn Umar was killed in a battle in 1057, but Abdullah Ibn Yasin, whose influence as a religious teacher was paramount named his brother Abu Bakr Ibn Umar as chief. Under him, the Almoravids soon began to spread their power beyond the desert, and conquered the tribes of the Atlas Mountains. They then came in contact with the Berghouata, a Berber tribal confederation, who followed an Islamic “heresy” preached by Salih Ibn Tarif three centuries earlier. The Berghouata resisted. Abdullah ibn Yasin was killed in battle with them in 1059, in Krifla, a village near Rommani, Morocco. They were, however, completely conquered by Abu Bakr Ibn Umar, and were forced to convert to orthodox Islam.  Abu Bakr married a noble and wealthy Berber woman, Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyat, who would become very influential in the development of the dynasty.  Zaynab was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Houara, who was said to be from Kairouan.

In 1061, Abu Bakr Ibn Umar made a division of the power he had established, handing over the more-settled parts to his cousin Yusuf Ibn Tashfin as viceroy, and also assigning to him his favourite wife Zaynab. Ibn Umar kept the task of suppressing the revolts that had broken out in the desert. When he returned to resume control, he found his cousin too powerful to be superseded. In November 1087, Abu Bakr was killed in battle – according to oral tradition by an arrow, while fighting in the historic region of Sudan.

Yusuf  Ibn Tashfin had in the meantime brought the large area of what is now known as Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania into complete subjection. In 1062 he founded the city of Marrakech. In 1080, he conquered the kingdom of Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) and founded the present city of that name, his rule extending as far east as Oran.

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