Islam’s influence on West Africa

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Muslim traders from the Middle East and North Africa brought Islam in West Africa in the 8th Century. Economic motivation, the draw of Islam spiritual message and the prestige of Arabic literacy are considered the factors that influenced the spread of Islam in West Africans regions. Indeed, from 800 CE to 1500 CE, the new practices brought by Islam influenced West African societies in some ways. Since then, scholars have tried to analyze the social, cultural and political forces caused by the Islamic inversion in West Africa.

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Culturally, Islam influenced West African regions in some ways that linked the area to the Islamic world. First, Islam changed religious practices of the Sub-Saharan communities through conversion of the African communities into Islamic religion. Moreover, the process of conversion was very peaceful because it had been preceded by long periods of mutual coexistence in cities and trade terminus. Through their conversion, the Africans could observe some of the Islamic cultural practices. For instance, the African communities learned and became conversant with the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Here, the converts worshiped in mosques, prayed in Arabic, fasted, went to pilgrimages and gave alms.

Secondly, the introduction of Islamic education had profound Islamic cultural influence on the Sub-Saharan communities. Indeed, Muslims build many schools and centers of learning. Timbuktu is one of the key Islamic centers of learning whose establishment shaped African cultural life. At Timbuktu, there existed the University of Sankore, divided into small schools that were run by a scholar or Imam. Arguably, the various courses and specializations offered in these centers influenced African cultural life in some ways. Notably, the general Islamic teachings given before specialization changed the African cultures, making Africans to adapt and observe the Islam ways life.

Lastly, Islam’s contributions on the emergence of urbanization in West Africa led to cultural influences. Indeed, Muslim traders and scholars are known to have influenced the development and stability of commercial centers and, therefore, changed the cultural life of the local population through new patterns of settlement. Through the growth of business centers, especially around the local mosques, urban life developed, making people migrate and adapt to town life as opposed to rural life.

The introduction of Islam in West Africa also had political influences on the African societies. Firstly, conversion into Islam was advantageous, especially to the rulers. In theory as well as in practicality, the West African rulers realized equality to North African leaders. The created balance was very vital in ensuring the existence of mutual diplomatic relations between the West and North Africa regions.

Secondly, Islam provided the West African rulers with effective means to increase their powers. Here, the pilgrimages to Mecca influenced notoriety among the rulers, making them exercise more control over their rules. Likewise, the introduction of the law (Malik) was very instrumental in emphasizing that legislation that would ensure political stability. Mainly, Islam helped West African rulers emphasize observation of the law as the base between centralized states and the rules. According to Lewis, “As far as the character of West African Islam is concerned, it is important to note the strong emphasis placed on the law (here Maliki) as the basis of Islam, its connection with the rise of centralized states, and its eventual fulfillment in the theocratic rule.”

Thirdly, Islam influenced the political line of succession that was different from the traditional practices that had existed in many Parts of West African regions. Specifically, Islam made succession patrilineal. Moreover, adoption of patrilineal meant the passage of succession through the father to the son and not the female lineage. Mali and Ghana are examples of the regions that experienced such remarkable changes.

Lastly, despite the positive influences caused by Islam in West African regions, Islam is also associated with various wars that marred many parts of the area. In fact, studies show that places, where the ruler could not strike a balance between the Muslim and Traditionalist cliques, were always prone to wars. Such were the regions associated with internal tensions that would break out as civil wars.

Social influence as one of the impacts of the existence of Islam in West Africa was never left behind. Like culture and politics, Islam’s influence on the social life of West African societies was portrayed in many ways. Firstly, the dressing habit of the Africans was changed by the contact that occurred between Muslims and the Africans. In such instances, the converted persons had to change their mode of dressing to fit with their newly acquired religion. For example, women began wearing vials. Additionally, women would cover their heads as a sign of respect.

Secondly, studies show that Islam influenced the eating habits as well as the types of foods consumed by the converted Africans. For instance, it is observed that through the influence of Islam, the Africans could eat foods such as boiled rice with some added seasonings. Besides, the new converts became strict with some foods that were restricted in Islam. Pork is an example of such food.

Thirdly, the spread of Islam contributed to the spread of Arabic language. Therefore, Arabic became the language of the West African communities besides their traditional languages. Through Islam’s influence, The Africans could speak, read and write Arabic words. The Arabic language could be used in schools as well as in Mosques for reading the Quran and sharia. “Timbuktu was a cosmopolitan city, an Islamic stronghold, where Arabic was widely spoken, written, and read, although it was never the official language.”

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Lastly, Islam influenced right treatment on women. Though traditional West African societies disowned women, Islam brought changes that uplifted the status of wives in many ways. “Their women are of surpassing beauty, and are shown more respect than the men.” In fact, Islam changed the notion that women could not be heard. A good example of places with such changes is Mali where Islam influenced the relatively higher position and better treatment for females.

In sum, Islam came to West Africa from Middle East and other parts of North Africa in the 8th Century. From 8CE -1500 CE, Islam spread to various regions of Sub-Sahara Africa causing remarkable changes in the region. As discussed, Islam had profound social, political and cultural influence on Sub-Saharan societies, leading to many positive as well as some negative changes.

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  1. Hunwick, John. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa D’s Ta R Kh Al-S D N Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents (Islamic History and Civilization). Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  2. Levtzion, Nehemia & Randall, Pouwels, L. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000
  3. Lewis, Ioan M. Islam in Tropical Africa. (2nd Ed). London: International African Institute, 1980.
  4. McKissack, Pat & McKissack, Fredrick. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: H. Holt, 1994.
  5. Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  6. Searcey, Dionne. “When West Africans Dress, the Fabric Is the Message.”  The New York Times. (June 3, 2016).
  7. Trimingham, J. Spencer. A History of Islam in West Africa. London: Oxford U.P., 1970.
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