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World History Volume 1, to 1500

15.1 Culture and Society in Medieval Africa

World History Volume 1, to 150015.1 Culture and Society in Medieval Africa

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Analyze the relationship between the physical geography of Africa and the migration of peoples like the Bantu
  • Discuss how Christianity and Islam arrived and spread throughout western Africa

As the second-largest continent on the planet, Africa’s vast landmass possesses a great variety of different terrains and climatic regions. In some cases, these regions have inhibited the movement of people, technologies, languages, cultures, and religions. For example, the Sahara stretches from the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa to the Red Sea in Egypt and forms a nearly impassable barrier between the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa. Only with considerable effort have some groups been able to penetrate this arid zone. For this reason, the people of North Africa have historically had stronger cultural, political, and religious connections to the Mediterranean world than the peoples south of the desert. Other regions like the Sahel (the environmental threshold that is the southern portion of the Sahara) and the tropical woodland savanna are spread across large portions of the continent and have in some ways encouraged the migration of groups. The migrating Bantus, for example, spread their languages and ironworking technology throughout this region.

African Geography, Migrations, and Settlement

North of the Sahara is a thin strip of forest and scrubland hugging the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Like other parts of the Mediterranean world, it has a relatively mild climate with sufficient rainfall, wet winters, and dry summers. For this reason, the arable land there is suitable for growing grains like wheat and barley, originally domesticated in the Fertile Crescent and disseminated around the sea over thousands of years. Likewise, this northern African region has had a long history of cultural contact with other Mediterranean cultures like the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans. As a result, the cultural practices, religions, and languages of the larger Mediterranean world have had, and continue to have, a huge impact on this region.

South of the Sahara is the Sahel, a semiarid belt of land that separates the desert in the north from the savanna in the south. The Sahel is a transitional zone that stretches some 3,300 miles across the continent. The farther south, the longer is the rainy season (four months on average), the more temperate is the climate, and the greater is the abundance of pasturage and forage plants for livestock (especially cattle and sheep), including grasses, thorny shrubs, and baobab trees. The word Sahel is derived from the Arabic sahil, meaning “shore.” This is a reference to the view held by many that the Sahara was a vast sea of sand that could be navigated only with great difficulty.

The Sahara’s extremely dry conditions are hostile to both plants and animals, so only small-scale human settlements are possible. These are clustered around the desert’s oases, which amount to a fraction of a percentage of its total landmass. During the Middle Ages, these oases were crucial hubs connecting trade routes across the desert, nowhere more so than in West Africa, where medieval kingdoms competed for control over markets and the movement of goods across the region.

During the medieval period, the Sahara provided powerful West African kingdoms with a vital commodity: salt. Almost completely unobtainable in the inland regions south of the Sahara, salt was mined from sites such as Taghaza and transported in enormous slabs on the backs of camels in caravans that crossed the desert to West African villages and beyond (Figure 15.4). Salt became the second most prized good traded across the Sahara—the first being gold. Indeed, salt was such a valuable commodity that the king of Ghana stored it in the royal treasury alongside gold nuggets.

A sepia colored photograph is shown of a dry, sandy desert with simple round huts with rectangle doors in the background. In the front, a line of nine camels linked together with rope walks with rectangular slabs tied at their sides. Two figures lead the line dressed in long robes in white and dark colors with matching cloths tied on their heads. By the sixth camel, fives figures walk dressed in long robes and cloths on their heads in white and dark colors. The background shows the dry desert and a white sky.
Figure 15.4 A Precious Commodity: Salt. This early twentieth-century photograph shows a caravan of camels laden with sixty-pound slabs of salt crossing the Sahara near Timbuktu. In medieval Africa, salt was second only to gold in value and was transported in much the same way. (credit: modification of work “Tombouctou-Arrivée d’une caravane de sel (AOF)” by Collection particulière/Wikimedia Commons, Pubilc Domain)

The southern frontier of the Sahel is marked by the transition to grasslands and tropical woodlands of the savanna. While the Sahara is dry and arid, the savanna is more temperate and wetter, carpeted with grasses and studded by scattered trees. At its extreme end near the West African rainforests stretching from modern-day Sierra Leone to Ghana, the savanna can see as much as forty-eight inches of rain per year (the rainy season lasts from May to October), which is similar to the average annual rainfall of New York City in the United States. Alongside a greater abundance of vegetation, the savanna is also home to a wider range of wildlife, including cattle, antelope, and giraffes. Endowed with a hospitable environment, climate, and geography, the plains of the savanna have historically been the region with the greatest concentration of human settlement in Africa.

Winding through the savanna and Sahel regions of West Africa is the Niger River. Along its fertile banks, people have grown staple crops like sorghum, African rice, and millet for hundreds of years. Approximately 2,500 miles in length, the Niger is West Africa’s longest river. It was critical to the development of medieval West African kingdoms, both for its ability to sustain intensive agriculture and as a crucial transport conduit for goods and commodities (Figure 15.5). It was in the areas drained by the Niger River where West Africa’s great empires emerged, profiting from the flows of salt from the north and gold from the south. In this way, these empires grew fabulously wealthy.

A map is shown with water highlighted blue and land highlighted beige. The Mediterranean Sea is located to the northeast, the Strait of Gibraltar is located in the northwest, and the Gulf of Guinea is labelled in the south. Lake Chad, the Niger R., the Senegal R., the Benue R, and the Congo R. are labelled in Africa. The following countries are labelled in Africa, from north to south: Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Western Sahara (Morocco), Mauritania, Mali, Cabo Verde (Cape Verde), Senegal, Niger, Chad, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin,  Nigeria, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea. The cities of Timbuktu and Gao are labelled with red stars on the Niger R. in Mali.
Figure 15.5 The Niger River. From its source in the Guinea Highlands, the Niger, the third-longest river in Africa (after the Nile and the Congo), travels through a great part of the interior of West Africa before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean in southern Nigeria. As the major source of water for both the western Sahara and Sahel, the Niger was crucial to the establishment and development of trading centers at Gao and Timbuktu. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

To the south of the savanna lies the tropical rainforest, Africa’s third major environment alongside the desert and the savanna. Relative to the Sahara, the African rainforest covers a far smaller geographic footprint: some two million square miles, or roughly 10 percent of the continent’s total landmass. Nevertheless, the rainforest is rich in biodiversity, including pygmy hippopotamuses, giant forest hogs, canopy monkeys, and chimpanzees, as well as thousands of species of plants. In West Africa, dense stretches of rainforest can be found in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire. In this area, the Bantu initially encountered the Nok people, from whom they acquired the metallurgical knowledge that enabled them to move into and later emerge from the equatorial rainforest between 500 and 1000 CE. The gradual dispersal of the Bantu throughout much of southern Africa followed.

Bantu speakers had been migrating from this area possibly since as early as 3000 BCE. But with the adoption of ironworking technology from the Nok, these ironworking farmers were able to travel throughout much of the eastern, western, and southeastern regions of the subcontinent. Their Iron Age economy was dominated by farming, mostly of sorghum and millet, with some livestock including cattle, pigs, and chickens, although animal husbandry tended to be secondary to farming. Because the regions into which they moved were only thinly populated by roving bands of hunter-gatherers, the Bantu were able to choose the most suitable land for farming. Early Iron Age Bantu settlements tended to be small, typically consisting of a dozen or so round houses encircling a livestock pen of cattle or goats. Larger settlements (sometimes in the range of several hectares) could be found in regions such as Natal, favored by large Bantu kinship groups because of the combination of rich biodiversity and sparse population. Settlements were placed close to iron ore and wood for the smelting of carbon steel. The early Iron Age Bantu economy necessarily focused on self-sufficiency with little potential for trade, although some small-scale trade did take place, particularly of sought-after commodities like copper and salt in regions of the Congo and Tanzania.

Until about the eighth century CE, the Bantu developed and exploited the resources of the more favorable areas and adapted the local environments. Throughout, they remained a stateless society organized along kinship lines. Women tended crops, prepared food, and minded the smaller children, while men tended livestock, hunted for meat and for animal skins for clothing, and engaged in trade with other villages. Women leaders were the exception; archaeological evidence of male dominance is considerable. Authority was decentralized in any case, with no rigidly hierarchical power structure to exercise central authority.

From the tenth century, relatively powerful Bantu kingdoms began to appear in the savanna to the south of the Central African rainforest, and in the plateau between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers in the interior of southern Africa. Their large settlements displaced the region’s earlier inhabitants. This revolution in the ancient African political landscape was the combined result of the introduction of Neolithic cultivation and animal husbandry on the one hand, and the adoption of Iron Age technologies, tools, and weapons on the other. The succession of medieval Bantu kingdoms that emerged dominated these regions economically, politically, and culturally.

Migrating originally from West Africa, the Bantu would have recognized much of the geography and climate of southern Africa: there is desert, such as the Kalahari and Namib in southwest Africa, and vast savanna. Entire regions of the modern countries of Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique are blanketed by grassland, as is a large area that extends from southern Mozambique into northeastern South Africa. Both the vegetation and wildlife of the southern African savanna resemble that of West Africa in many ways. The southern African climate also has much in common with that of West Africa, encompassing everything from semiarid to temperate zones, with each experiencing varying amounts of rain. Broadly speaking, the eastern area of the region (including Mozambique and eastern South Africa) is wetter than the western area. The west is sapped of moisture, in part by the Atlantic Ocean’s cold Benguela Current. The resulting dryness of western South Africa was a key factor in the development of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts (Figure 15.6).

An image of a photograph is shown of a wavy, sandy landscape with a three patches of green, small bushes and a bright blue sky with more sand seen in the far off background.
Figure 15.6 The Kalahari Desert. Parts of the Kalahari Desert are especially dry, making life there quite a challenge. (credit: modification of work “Kalahari” by Quinn Norton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Throughout the Middle Ages, the river systems of southern Africa were exploited by the large civilizations developing there. For example, the Limpopo River basin spreads across the southern reaches of today’s Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the northern extreme of South Africa, and the eastern edge of Botswana. The basin’s temperate climate and well-watered landscape encouraged the migration of San hunter-gatherers from southwestern Africa and the settlement of Bantu peoples. The Bantu, who arrived from the north, brought with them the knowledge of ironworking, farming, and livestock herding they had acquired over generations of migrations throughout sub-Saharan Africa. From the tenth century onward, they used this knowledge to cultivate farms across extensive field systems along the basin and to accumulate large herds of cattle.

As the settlements around the Limpopo River grew, so too did the need to manage the basin’s resources and govern the affairs of the people there. As a result, centralized systems of governance emerged among the Bantu peoples in the region, particularly in the Iron Age culture of Leopard’s Kopje in Zimbabwe. This cattle-keeping culture, whose name derived from the site where it was identified (kopje means “small hill”), dominated the area for nearly two centuries, but by the thirteenth century, it had given way to an even larger and more complex state, Great Zimbabwe.

The Expansion of Christianity in Africa

Throughout its history, North Africa’s fate and fortunes have been connected to the Mediterranean Sea and the peoples who share its borders. Whether economic, political, or spiritual, changes and innovations occurring in this region have had lasting and important consequences for Africa. These changes often went hand in hand; as the Roman Empire grew and expanded, for instance, so did Christianity.

Christianity emerged as a distinct religion in the second half of the first century and soon spread into communities around the Roman-controlled Mediterranean world. Being part of the Roman Empire, North Africa became home to some of the world’s earliest Christian communities. According to Christian tradition, Saint Mark traveled to the Egyptian city of Alexandria and founded the first Christian community in Africa there around the middle of the first century. Regardless of whether we accept this tradition as factual or not, it is indisputable that by the third century Alexandria was a major center of Christianity. By that time, the influential School of Alexandria was an important center for theological research, and the bishop of the Church of Alexandria was held by Christians to be as important as the pope (the bishop of Rome). It was from Alexandria that Christianity spread south along the Nile, penetrating the reaches of Upper Egypt.

The growth of the church in Africa mirrored its expansion across the Mediterranean and drew the attention of Roman officials. In general, the Roman Empire was not interested in persecuting the followers of the many religions practiced around the empire, even members of new religions like Christianity. However, some actions of early Christian communities were seen by Roman officials as disruptive to peace and stability in the empire. For example, Christians refused to participate in the state cults that honored the Roman gods and protected Roman society. Such refusal was interpreted as treason and occasionally punished accordingly, such as under Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68. But during the reign of Emperor Decius in 250, official empire-wide persecution noticeably increased, reaching its height under Emperor Diocletian in 303. During this time, Rome undertook a series of official persecutions meant to restore the primacy of ancient pagan religious worship and practice throughout the empire.

In Africa, these persecutions prompted many orthodox Christians to flee the relative security of the Nile and seek refuge in the western desert. There, some chose to dwell in solitude as hermits while others chose to build monasteries and live as part of communities of the faithful. One of the latter was Antony of the Desert, who, around the year 300, chose to end his life of isolation and welcomed the company of those who wished to live with him and follow his teachings. Soon, numerous religious settlements cropped up throughout the desert (Figure 15.7).

A map is shown. Land is highlighted beige and water is highlighted blue. White lines crisscross the map and blue and gray lines are shown on the land. Africa is labelled in the south, Europe in the north, and Asia in the east. The Atlantic Ocean is labelled to the northwest, the Mediterranean Sea is labelled in the middle, and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are labelled in the southeast. Green areas labelled on the map indicate “Christian area before 325 CE.” Areas highlighted green include: small areas north and south of the Strait of Gibraltar, small areas all along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, small areas to the east of the city of Londrum as well as south on the coast, small areas in the south of Europe, and small areas north and north east of the city of Nicaea. Orange areas labelled on the map indicate “Christian area by 600 CE.” Orange areas labelled on the map include: most of western Europe, southern Europe, small areas along the northern African coast, and a large area to the east of the Mediterranean Sea on the way to Asia. Black dotted arrows run throughout the map. One arrow begins just southwest of Tipasa in Africa and runs west, then turns north to head through the city of Tingitanum and then across the Strait of Gibraltar to the city of Corduba in Europe. Another black dotted line with arrows on both ends runs between the city of Ephesus in the northern part of the Mediterranean west and then north to the city of Londrum in northern Europe. It also splits off to the northeast before it hits Londrum. Two dotted arrow lines start in the city of Rome – one heads north and one heads south. Three dotted arrowed lines begin in the city of Byzantium – one heads east just north of the city of Nicaea, one heads northwest and one heads north into Europe, splitting into two. A dotted arrowed line begins in Antioch and heads northeast. Three lines begin in Alexandria – one heads south past the city of Memphis and toward Lake Nasser in Africa, one lines heads south through the middle of the Red Sea, and one heads east to just south of Jerusalem. Other cities labelled on the map, from west to east are: Syracuse, Athens, Pergamum, Palmyra, and Damascus.
Figure 15.7 The Early Spread of Christianity. The Christian faith spread widely throughout the Mediterranean world, including in northern Africa, from the first through the sixth centuries. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Within a hundred years, three distinctive forms of monasticism had emerged in northeast Africa. Many isolated hermits continued to dwell in northern Egypt. In southern and northwestern Egypt, however, religiously devout men and women preferred to live a communal existence. Monks in southern Egypt gathered together as bands of “brothers” who lived together and shared their daily work. Another type of monasticism emerged in northwestern Egypt. West of the Nile delta monasteries were more hierarchical in structure. At the head of the monastery was a man known as the abbot (“father”). Around him he gathered other men willing to live according to his directions and his teachings. Religious women also chose to engage in the monastic lifestyle. Like men, some chose to live in communities of the faithful, where they sometimes assumed leadership roles. Others, like Amma (Mother) Sarah, preferred a more solitary existence. According to legend, for sixty years Amma Sarah lived a severely ascetic existence in a small dwelling beside a river, probably the Nile, at which she never looked because she was so focused on the state of her soul that little else held interest for her. The way of life pioneered by the devout men and women of North Africa would be imitated by Christians in Europe and elsewhere.

Christianity quickly spread beyond Egypt southward to Ethiopia. The eventual rise of the Christian Kingdom of Aksum was due in large part to the efforts of the missionary Frumentius. Shipwrecked on the Eritrean coast, Frumentius was brought to the royal court and in the role of tutor converted King Ezana, then a devout polytheist. Following his baptism, Ezana sent Frumentius to Alexandria to ask that the head of the Christian Church in Egypt name a bishop for Ethiopia. The bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, duly appointed Frumentius, who assumed the name “Selama.” It was likely Bishop Selama who founded Ethiopia’s first Christian monastery.

It was also from Egypt that Christianity spread westward in the second and third centuries along the North African coast to the Maghreb, the region of northwest Africa lying between modern-day Morocco and Libya and encompassing a vast tract of the Sahara. One of the places in this region where Christianity appears to have flourished was Carthage. Like Christians in Egypt, the community in Carthage was also subject to Roman persecution during the third century. Most of the evidence we have of this community comes to us in the form of martyr stories. One such story, passed down through a diary, tells of the life of Perpetua, a young Christian mother imprisoned along with her infant and her pregnant servant Felicitas, who gave birth while in prison. Perpetua and Felicitas were executed with other Christians in the arena at Carthage.

To avoid a similar fate, many Christians in North Africa chose to renounce their faith openly while still practicing it in safety. Often the Roman authorities would be satisfied if church leaders simply handed over their scriptures. While this practice seemed preferable to execution for some Christians, others found the refusal to accept martyrdom for their faith an inexcusable offense. Once the persecutions ceased in 313 with the Edict of Milan, which granted religious toleration to Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, many in North Africa refused to recognize those who had renounced their faith as leaders. They further held that any sacramental acts performed by these leaders after they had renounced the faith were invalid, including baptisms, weddings, and even the consecration of clergy. This caused a huge rift in the North African Christian community that became known as the Donatist controversy, named after a Carthaginian bishop named Donatus who led the movement. The problem grew to such proportions that Emperor Constantine had to intervene. Yet even after Donatus was exiled to Gaul (modern France) in 347, the controversy in North Africa continued.

The man who ultimately brought an end to the Donatist rift was one of Christianity’s most influential thinkers, Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was born to a Roman colonist father and indigenous African mother in Tagaste, Roman Numidia (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). At the age of seventeen, he took up his studies in Carthage and then went on to become a teacher of rhetoric at the imperial court in Milan. During his time in Italy, Augustine read an account of the life of Antony of the Desert, the famous Egyptian hermit, and was inspired to convert to Christianity (Figure 15.8).

An image of a worn and faded painting is shown. In the image a dark-skinned man sits on a large, elaborate white and gold chair, dressed in long white robes with brown trim. He is almost bald, has a white beard, long nose, and shows deep lines across his forehead. He is barefoot and holds a roll of paper in his left hand. His right hand is in the air and held over a book. The book has white pages with brown and gold trim on an obscure table. The background is brown, yellow, and white in abstract waves.
Figure 15.8 St. Augustine. An influential Christian philosopher and theologian who was later made a saint, Augustine was born in Roman Numidia in the fourth century. This image from a sixth-century fresco, the earliest known of him, shows him as darker skinned, an acknowledgment of his origins as a Romanized African. (credit: “Augustine Lateran” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Augustine returned to North Africa and was appointed bishop of Hippo (present-day Annaba, Algeria) in 395. By this time, the Donatist controversy had been roiling North Africa for approximately a century. A fierce critic of the Donatist view, Augustine was determined to wipe it out. He was the chief opponent of the Donatists at the 411 Council of Carthage, assembled by the emperor to finally resolve the thorny issue. As a result of Augustine’s efforts, the council ordered the Donatists expelled from the church. Despite this fatal blow, elements of the Donatist sect persisted in North Africa until the seventh century.

In addition to his success in combating the Donatists, Augustine left an indelible mark on the early church by writing hundreds of works about Christian doctrine. Perhaps the most influential of these was The City of God, which he wrote in response to the Visigoths’ sack of Rome in 410. In this work, Augustine argued that any kingdom created by humans—including Rome—could fall, but the Kingdom of God, composed of the people who embraced the Christian faith, would persist forever. In effect, Augustine was reassuring the Christians who had witnessed the near-destruction of Rome that it was not the end of the world. The Christian society that had been created over the centuries—the Kingdom of God—would carry on.

Augustine was a major force in helping Christianity assume a more uniform character across the empire. Also, as the Roman Empire became more Christian, religious persecution by Christians against pagans became more common throughout the empire. One of the most violent acts of Christian persecution occurred in Alexandria. In 415, a mob of Christians set upon Hypatia, a pagan philosopher, as she traveled the streets of the provincial capital in her chariot. Pulled from the cart, she was dragged to a nearby temple where she was tortured, flayed alive with shards of roof tiles, and then dismembered. Her body parts were carried to a nearby site and burned. Hypatia’s murder in Roman North Africa was a signal event in the assertion of Christian dominance in the empire, which had witnessed a dramatically violent shift in the tide of persecution throughout the Mediterranean world. So recently pagan, the Christian Roman state now embarked on pogroms and persecutions of pagans and unbelievers meant to eradicate every semblance of the ancient Roman belief systems. An essential feature of this program was the fact that violence against pagans was both actively and passively tolerated by the central administration and provincial governors, leading to the abuse and murder of pagans and the destruction of their temples, altars, and sanctuaries by Christians across the Roman world.

The persecution of pagans in the empire coincided with efforts by the church leadership to reel in aspects of the faith that some considered unorthodox. This process culminated with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and its decision concerning the nature of Christ. Since the early years of the church, the faithful had been of two minds about the precise nature of Jesus. Some believed he was both fully divine and fully human—the Dyophysite position—while others believed Jesus’s humanity was inseparable from his divinity—the Monophysite position. The Monophysite position dominated in Egypt, but the council decreed it heretical, triggering a schism that brought the ejection of monks and church members throughout Egypt. From that point, the Christian Church in Egypt followed a more independent path and gradually became more isolated from the wider Christian world. It became known as the Coptic Church, reflecting the acceptance of Coptic as both the major literary language and the language of public worship in Egypt at the time.

By the eighth century, following the direction of the patriarch of Alexandria, the Coptic Church had uniformly adopted Monophysite Christianity and was flourishing in the upper reaches of the Nile valley. The Christian Kingdom of Aksum thrived until its final destruction by the Zagwe queen Gudit in the tenth century. Queen Gudit and her descendants established the Zagwe Kingdom with its capital at Roha. Later, under King Lalibela, who ruled from 1181 to 1221, Roha became a major pilgrimage center for Christians, styled “the new Jerusalem.” Lalibela renamed the stream flowing through his capital the River Jordan and built new churches by having them carved out of solid rock. By the thirteenth century, Monophysite Christianity was well-established in northeastern Africa.

The Expansion of Islam in Africa

By the start of the seventh century, Christianity seemed firmly entrenched across Egypt and the Maghreb. But by the end of that century, the situation had changed dramatically as the religion of Islam swept across the region. Founded in the early seventh century, within a few decades, Islam had gathered armies that consolidated control of the Arabian Peninsula and the region of the Levant and established a bridgehead in Byzantine Egypt from which to launch the conquest of North Africa. As Muslim conquerors advanced across the region, they established settlements that eventually developed into the towns and cities that would house the officials of the Islamic Caliphate, the area ruled over by the leader of the Islamic state, the caliph (Figure 15.9).

A map is shown. Water is highlighted white with no labels and land is highlighted gray and other colors. A triangle-shaped peninsula in the southeastern portion of the map is highlighted brown and labelled Middle East, indicating “Expansion under Muhammad, 622-632.” Six arrows start in the west and head north, east, and south in all directions from the start within this area. An area highlighted orange is located north and northeast of the brown area as well as to the west, south of the water. It is labelled Near East and indicates “Expansion during the Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661.” Black arrows run throughout all this area. Areas highlighted yellow at the west of the map are labelled Iberian Peninsula and North Africa as well as an area east of the orange area in the east of the map indicating “Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750.” Black arrows are also seen in these areas. Most of the land south, east, and some north is highlighted gray with black dots which indicates “Farthest extension of the spread of Islam, 751-1700.”
Figure 15.9 The Spread of Islam. This map shows the spread of Islam over time and across North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Near and Middle East. (credit: modification of work “Age of the Caliphs (version with more surrounding space)” by Brian Szymanski/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 661, the Umayya family of Mecca assumed control of the caliphate and combined the previous conquests into a functioning state with a capital at Damascus in Syria. Under their rule, the position of caliph changed from being a family member or close associate of the prophet Muhammad into a dynastic, heritable position passed from father to son. The Umayyad dynasty extended the reach of the caliphate through military conquest until it encompassed all of North Africa's Mediterranean coast. With Egypt as its launching pad, the Muslim conquest of Byzantine-controlled territories in the Maghreb region of North Africa proceeded in three stages between 642 and 709.

The earliest Arab accounts of the conquest date from some two hundred years later and are not very detailed, although they serve as the basis of our understanding of these events. After Egypt was conquered, the Islamic advance across North Africa stalled because of the thousand-plus miles of desert between the Nile delta and the Byzantine province of Africa centered on Carthage. But by 647, tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers had begun their march to the Maghreb. That same year, they engaged with and defeated the forces of the Byzantine governor at Tripolitania (in modern-day Libya).

By 665, a second invasion of North Africa was underway. Once again, an army of tens of thousands of Arab soldiers marched from Egypt, this time determined to take Carthage. Reinforced later by forty thousand soldiers from Damascus, the Islamic advance established a beachhead at Kairouan in modern-day Tunisia. Kairouan, which became the capital of the Islamic province of Ifriqiya, was the center of Islamic operations that plunged Arab armies into the heart of North Africa, including Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. After prolonged campaigns against indigenous tribes and the forces of the Byzantine provincial government, Carthage finally fell to a third Arab invasion in 698.

After taking Carthage, Arab armies continued their sweep across North Africa. Along the way, their numbers were swelled by African soldiers. Many were forced to join the Arabs while others volunteered, hoping to share in the spoils that would result from a planned invasion of Spain, which took place in 711. That year, armies of the Umayyad Caliphate sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded the Iberian Peninsula. A few years later, Islamic forces had occupied all the major towns in the peninsula and advanced as far north as Narbonne, France. In less than a century, Islam went from being a novel religious movement centered on the Arabian Peninsula to an empire that stretched from Iraq in the east to the Atlantic coast of North Africa in the west. Despite its spectacular success, however, the Umayyad dynasty was unable to hold onto power and fell to revolution in 750. That year, the Abbasid family from Mecca seized control of the Islamic Caliphate and relocated its capital from Damascus to Baghdad, where it would remain for five centuries.

The Islamic military conquest of North Africa might have ended in the eighth century, but the spread of Islam did not. Islam was diffused throughout West, East, and sub-Saharan Africa primarily by merchants, traders, scholars, and missionaries. Muslim Berbers (Amazigh) carried the ideas of Islam from North Africa along the many trans-Saharan trade routes they used. In this way, the ideas of the religion penetrated the arid desert and reached West African trading towns like Gao and Koumbi Saleh, the capital of the Ghana Empire. Over time and through increased exposure, some ruling sub-Saharan African elites began to adopt it, and in some cases, they blended it with their traditional beliefs. Although the Ghanaian kings themselves did not convert, they recognized the importance of the Muslim-led trans-Saharan trade to their economy and so tolerated Islam. In acknowledgment of this fact, they allocated a second town of their capital to Muslim merchants and traders. This district took on a distinct Islamic character, a fact borne out by the presence of mosques within it.

By the eleventh century, the broader Islamic world extended across North Africa and the western Sahara into Ghana in the western Sudan. However, even by this late date, Islam had made only a limited impact in West Africa, and many Amazigh groups tended to mingle both Islamic traditions and native African religious practices. Some more orthodox Muslims in the region found this less than satisfactory and sought to rectify the problem. What emerged were reformist Islamic kingdoms in West Africa. The earliest was the Almoravid state, which arose in the eleventh century. Centered in Morocco and led by a radical Islamic scholar, the Almoravid state grew rapidly through Islamic fervor and military conquests. By the 1070s, the Almoravids controlled a vast portion of West Africa from the Mediterranean coast of Morocco to the edges of the Ghana Empire. In the process, many groups in these areas were more thoroughly Islamized. In this period, Islam truly began to expand among the people of Ghana.

By the middle of the twelfth century, the religious enthusiasm of the early Almoravid conquests had largely died down. The descendants of the early founders preferred the peace and luxuries of settled life in Morocco to jihad (war on behalf of Islam). This situation was unsettling to some of the Amazigh, who then launched a successful war of religious reform against the Almoravids and established their own reformist West African kingdom, the Almohad Kingdom. The empire forged by the Almohad Caliphate was short-lived, however, and by the thirteenth century, it had been fatally weakened by internal rebellions.

As the geopolitical configuration of the West African kingdoms changed, the center of the regional economy shifted away from Ghana. By the thirteenth century, the kingdom of Mali had become the dominant political and economic force in the region. Unlike the rulers of Ghana, the Malian elite—including the mansa or king—converted to Islam. Mansa Musa, perhaps the most famous ruler of Mali, drew the attention of observers from Arabia to Spain when he went on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324–1325. Renowned for the wealth of his kingdom, Mansa Musa distributed so much gold during a stopover in Cairo that the Egyptian economy suffered high inflation for more than a decade according to some reports. On his return to Mali, Mansa Musa brought with him Muslim scholars, architects, and books, all of which helped deepen the Islamic character of Mali. At Timbuktu, for example, the Djinguereber Mosque was built, and schools and universities specializing in the study of the Quran were established, cementing that city’s growing international status as a place of Islamic scholarship and learning (Figure 15.10).

Two images of photographs are shown. (a) This image shows a sandy-colored stone buildings with tall rectangular doors on the left. Triangle shaped projections come out of the building on the front and left sides shown. The left wall is taller and scalloped at the top. A tower with projections on all sides sits in the middle of the roof. The ground is brown and sandy and people are seen standing around on the left side in white shorts, long white robes, and white turbans. A wire runs through the image at the top left. (b) this image shows a tall pyramid shaped structure with dark projections sticking out the sides. Adjacent brown sandy buildings are in front of and behind the pyramid structure. They have walls with rounded tops and brown wooden doorways. A cart with two donkeys pulling it is shown in the bottom left corner with three dark skinned people in shirt and pants/shorts standing around it.
Figure 15.10 The Djinguereber Mosque. (a) (b) Fourteenth-century Timbuktu was a great center of learning specializing in Islamic law, philosophy, and science. These photos show two views of the famous Djinguereber Mosque, built there in 1327. (credit a: modification of work “Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu” by “upyernoz”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0; credit b: modification of work “Timbuktu Mud Mosque, Mali, W. Africa” by Emilio Labrador/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

By the end of the fourteenth century, West African rulers from Mali to Hausaland (present-day Nigeria) had adopted Islam and completed the Islamic encirclement of sub-Saharan Africa. Islam also spread throughout East Africa, although its progress there was checked by entrenched Christianity among the kingdoms of Nubia and the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum. By the 1200s, however, such resistance had been severely weakened, and many Christian kingdoms had become Muslim. An important exception was the Kingdom of Abyssinia, the Christian successor state of Aksum and Zagwe. Farther east, in the African Horn, the Muslim sultanates of Ajuran and eventually Adal rose.

Islam faced less competition farther south. In the eighth century, Muslim traders from Arabia and Egypt began to settle in towns and trading centers along the Swahili coast, the part of eastern Africa that stretches along the Indian Ocean. By this time, it was home to countless settled Bantu communities, many of which prospered thanks to their role in connecting regional and burgeoning international trade. The Arab incomers intermingled and mixed with the Bantu peoples, creating a unique blended language and culture in an urban, trade-based society.

By the tenth century, the Swahili coast was acknowledged as an important commercial center. Writing in 915, the Arab traveler al-Masudi described the area’s vigorous trade, which included exports of everything from ambergris and ivory to gold and leopard skins and such imports as stone bowls, Islamic pottery, and glass vessels. By the 1200s, a distinct Swahili civilization had emerged, speaking a distinct Arabic-Bantu dialect, oriented toward the sea rather than the African interior, dominated by independent city-states that specialized in trade, and Islamic in faith. This Swahili language and culture had a powerful influence in the towns of the east African coast. Yet despite Islam’s success along the coast during the medieval period, it made virtually no impact on the peoples of the East African interior until many centuries later.

The spread of monotheistic belief systems like Christianity and Islam throughout Africa proceeded along many fronts, including military conquest, commercial exchange, and cultural diffusion. At no time was the process straightforward and uncomplicated, and conquerors and merchants alike confronted unique challenges. While people adopted these religions for different reasons, whether a firm belief in a better afterlife or the tangible commercial benefits that accompanied conversion, the medieval period of African history nevertheless witnessed a revolution in the nature of belief. This is not to say that ancient African belief systems were eradicated. Indeed, while Christian missionaries and Muslim teachers had little respect for traditional religious practice in Africa, the adoption of Christianity or Islam was often the product of adaptation to the traditional practices and rituals of African peoples.

The Africanization of these faiths was largely circumstantial, of course. For example, whereas Christianity emphasized monogamy, Islam allowed a man to take several wives. Thus, Islam would find a more receptive audience among African societies that already practiced polygamous marriages, which were otherwise forbidden in the Christian tradition. The cross-pollination of religious tradition helped to perpetuate ancient African belief systems in both rural and urban communities. Indeed, the Africanization of Islam among the peoples of the Swahili coast produced a distinctive form of the faith, one that included ancestor worship and the appeasing of spirits, as well as the development of unique grave-marking habits and the placement of traditional offerings in mosques.

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