African Civilizations and the Spread of Islam
Islam influenced sub-Saharan African culture without
incorporating African states into a Middle Eastern core.
During much of the classical period, links between sub-
Saharan Africa and the civilized cores were limited. Between
800 and 1500 C.E., contacts between Africa and other
civilizations intensified. One of the most influential of
the cultural influences was the conversion of some African
states to Islam. Islamization connected Africa more closely
to a Eurasian system of trade and exposed the emerging states
of Africa to new concepts of religion, commerce, and
political organization. State-building in Africa differed
from region to region, with rough similarities to other
regions of the world. The arrival of Europeans in the
fifteenth century further shaped the relationship of Africa
to a wider world.
- African Societies: Diversity and Similarities
African political society and culture varied enormously from
one region to another. Although universal religions
Christianity and Islam did penetrate Africa, religious and
political diversity remained the common denominators of
- Stateless Societies
Some African societies were organized around kinship groups
without the institutions associated with state formation.
Stateless societies lacked formal bureaucracies, individual
rulers and councils, tax systems, and armies. In West Africa
secret societies cut across kinship lines to limit the
feuding that was customary in groups organized according to
kinship. Such secret societies served as alternatives to
state authority. Stateless societies were in a constant
process of fragmentation and reformation, but they were
vulnerable to external pressures and unable to organize for
large-scale military or commercial ventures.
- Common Elements in African Societies
There were some similarities among many African societies.
The migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples provided a common
linguistic base. Animistic religion and witchcraft
characterized many African societies. African peoples
tended to believe in a creator deity who operated through
lesser spirits and the original settlers of the land.
Ancestor worship was common to much of African religion.
Africa was more divided than united by geography. Northern
Africa was part of the wider Mediterranean world. The
ecologies of sub-Saharan Africa varied widely, but in many
areas agricultural societies supported market economies and
commercial activity. Participation in international trade
with economies outside of Africa precipitated political
changes and stimulated the growth of African merchant groups,
but did not result in rapid technological progress. It is
possible that the African population numbered 30 to 60
million by 1500.
- The Arrival of Islam in North Africa
Northern Africa had been an integral part of the classical
world and, during the Roman Empire, exposed to Christianity.
Between 640 and 700 C.E., much of northern Africa fell to
Muslim armies in the first expansion of Islam. Much of the
Berber population was converted to Islam and eventually
created regional states at Fez and Sijilimasa. During the
eleventh and twelfth centuries, radical reformers among the
Berbers first the Almoravids, then the Almohades, moved
southward against the African kingdoms of the sub-Saharan
region. Islam appealed to African rulers as a means of
justifying their authority. The Islamic doctrine of equality
put Africans, Berbers, and Arabs on an equal footing.
- The Christian Kingdoms: Nubia and Ethiopia
Christian communities survived in eastern Africa from the
classical period. The Christian Coptic Church of Egypt
survived the Islamic expansion and even extended its
influence to the kingdom of Kush. The Ethiopian kingdom that
followed Axum in eastern Africa was the most important of the
independent Christian enclaves. In the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries, an Ethiopian kingdom under an ancient
dynasty continued to resist Muslim advance.
- Kingdoms of the Grasslands
African states developed in the grasslands south of the
Sahara through a fusion of Islam with African cultures.
Islamic influence reached Africa through three "coasts:" the
Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the savanna at the edge of
the Sahara. The grasslands were part of a trading network
linking Mediterranean North Africa with the forest regions to
the south. In this savanna region, important African states
developed. Ghana, founded in the third century C.E., was the
first of the savanna states. The Almoravids broke the power
of Ghana in 1076.
- Sudanic States
There were several Sudanic states that emerged in the sub-
Saharan savannas. These states typically were governed by a
patriarch or council of elders from a specific kinship group,
possessed a territorial core from which conquest was
launched, and depended on taxes and tribute drawn from
subordinate villages or regions. After the tenth century,
Islam supported the growth of kingship. Of the numerous
Sudanic states, Mali and Songhay were the most important.
- The Empire of Mali and Sundiata, the "Lion Prince"
Mali was founded in the thirteenth century when the Malinke
peoples broke away from Ghana. As in other Sudanic kingdoms,
the Mali royal family embraced Islam as a means of
strengthening their authority. Mali's prosperity depended on
agriculture and the control of trade routes linking the gold
fields to the south with the Mediterranean. Mali's period of
expansion occurred under the successful ruler, Sundiata.
Sundiata divided up the Malinke into clans with specific
occupations and established the principles of Mali's
government. After Sundiata's death, his successors
expanded his kingdom to control most of the Niger valley.
- City Folk and Villagers
Cities developed in Mali in response to the centralization of
authority and the expansion of trade. Some cities, such as
Jenne and Timbuktu, were not only great trading emporia, but
also cultural and educational centers. Despite the
prominence of urban centers, most people in Mali depended on
agriculture. Most agricultural holdings were small, family-
owned holdings worked by the head of the household, his
wives, and his sons. Despite relatively poor soils, Mali
farmers supplied sufficient food to support an imperial
- The Songhay Kingdom
As Mali declined, the kingdom of Songhay regained its
independence and replaced its former masters as an imperial
power in the Niger River valley. Songhay, with its capital
at Gao, flourished on the basis of the gold trade during the
fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Its most
powerful leader was Sunni Ali (1464-1492). By the mid-
sixteenth century, Songhay dominated the central Sudan. Like
other Sudanic states, Songhay represented a cultural fusion
of Islam with indigenous traditions. Invasion from Morocco
in 1591 precipitated the downfall of Songhay's empire. Other
states developed among the Hausa peoples of northern Nigeria
beginning in the fourteenth century. These states were based
on cities that managed to control militarily substantial
amounts of territory. Outside the Sudan, Islam penetrated
Africa along trade routes. Even in non-Muslim areas, Islamic
minorities were established among the populations.
- Political and Social Life in the Sudanic States
The development of unified states under dominant groups or
clans superimposed order over a collection of communities and
kinship groups. Islam provided a unifying thread to the
Sudanic states. It offered a common law for merchants,
reinforced the authority of ruling groups, and provided a
literate bureaucracy to aid in the process of government.
State formation in the Sudan, as elsewhere, increased social
stratification. Islam was forced to accommodate indigenous
religious practices in the Sudan, and many residents of Mali
and Songhay never converted to the new religion. One area in
which indigenous practices remained unchanged was the
relatively high status accorded women in Sudanic society and
the practice of matrilineal descent. Although slavery had
existed in Africa prior to the coming of Islam, Muslim demand
for slaves and the commercialization of the region
intensified the practice.
- The Swahili Coast of East Africa
Along Africa's Indian Ocean coast, trading cities astride the
commercial routes between Africa and Asia developed.
Although Islamicized, these cities retained much of the
indigenous Swahili culture.
- The Coastal Trading Ports
The Swahili coast was settled by Bantu-speaking peoples
between the first and tenth centuries C.E. Contact with
Asian peoples dated to the second century B.C.E., at which
time Asians reached the island of Madagascar and introduced
bananas and coconuts to Africa. By the eighth and ninth
centuries, traders from the Persian Gulf and Oman established
a foothold on the eastern coast of Africa. As early as the
thirteenth century, cities based on trade dotted the
coastline. Muslim families ruled these city-states,
including Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, Kilwa, Pate, and
Zanzibar. These cities exchanged ivory, gold, iron, slaves,
and animals from the African interior for luxury goods from
- The Mixture of Cultures on the Swahili Coast
The expansion of Islam to South and Southeast Asia during the
thirteenth century helped to bring the cities of the Swahili
coast into the Muslim Eurasian trade network. While ruling
families and merchants converted to Islam, much of the
population retained their indigenous beliefs. The Swahili
language of the coastal cities had a Bantu base with a large
admixture of Arabic words. Beyond the cities, Islam barely
penetrated the interior of southern Africa. In the sixteenth
century the Portuguese successfully imposed their control
over much of the Swahili coastal trade.
- Peoples of the Forest and Plains
Although pre-literate, advanced African cultures and states
developed along the western coast of Sub-Saharan Africa and
in the interior.
- Artists and Kings: Yoruba and Benin
In the interior of Nigeria several advanced cultures
developed. The earliest of these was ancient Nok, where the
population practiced agriculture, used iron, and produced
terra-cotta works between 500 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. After a
hiatus, the same region produced other cultures among Yoruba-
speaking peoples. The city of Ile-Ife controlled an agrarian
society and after 1200 C.E. produced portrait bronzes and
terra-cotta works seemingly associated with royalty. Other
Yoruba-speaking city-states developed in the same region. A
king, possibly considered divine, controlled each of the
cities. In Oyo, which emerged in the fourteenth century, kings directed
"princes" who were drawn from local lineages in neighboring
villages. A council of nobles and a secret society
circumscribed the authority of the kings. Similar in
structure and development to the Yoruba city-states was
Benin, formed in the fourteenth century among the Edo
peoples. Benin controlled a region along the Niger River to
the coast. Like the Yoruba, the people of Benin produced
remarkable works of art in ivory and cast bronze.
- Central African Kingdoms
The Bantu migration extended south of the Congo rain forest
region to the savannas of southern Africa by the thirteenth
century C.E. After 1000 C.E., African societies in this
region began to supplement kinship-based societies with
kingship. Among the more important kingdoms was Katanga,
where theruler and his family achieved a semi-divine
character. The royal bureaucracy was also kinship oriented.
- The Kingdoms of Kongo and Mwene Mutapa
The kingdom of Kongo flourished on the lower Congo River by
the fifteenth century. Organized in agricultural villages
around the capital of Mbanza Kongo, the kingdom consisted of
a confederacy of smaller states under the control of a
relatively powerful ruler, or manikongo. In the fifteenth
century, the kingdom was divided into eight provinces.
Another large Bantu confederation grew up around a series of
royal enclaves built after the ninth century C.E. The
greatest of these royal enclaves was Great Zimbabwe, which
served as the center of the kingdom. By the fifteenth
century, the rulers of Great Zimbabwe, called Mwene Mutapa,
were able to create a more centralized state that extended
from the interior of southeastern Africa to the Indian Ocean
coast. Its prosperity was based on control of the gold
sources in the interior. Despite fragmentation, continued
control of gold fields allowed the kingdom to survive into
the nineteenth century.
- Conclusion: Internal Development and External Contacts
The spread of Islam into Africa tied the continent more
closely to the civilizations of Eurasia. In much of Africa,
the fusion of Islamic and indigenous culture produced an
important synthesis. In other areas of Africa, particularly
south of the southern rain forests, Bantu concepts of
kingship and state formation continued to develop without
much contact with Islamic culture. When Europeans arrived in
Africa in the fifteenth century, they discovered powerful
kingdoms that already had long histories and patterns of
trade that linked Africa to the wider commercial world.