Reign of Mohammed I Askia

During Mohammed I Askia’s rule, the Songhai Empire reached the height of its political, economic, and military power. Songhai became the most powerful state in the Western Sudan during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The overthrow and death of Mohammed presaged the demise of the empire in 1591.

Summary of Event

Songhai, a state in West Africa that reached its height between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, expanded rapidly into an empire in the mid-fifteenth century. This rapid expansion was accompanied by economic prosperity, military coups, palace and dynastic assassinations, civil wars, and long as well as short periods of peace. Emperor Mohammed I Askia personified all these imperial phases. Indeed, even his ascent to power was turbulent. Songhai Empire
Sonni ՙAlī
Sonni Baru
Mohammed I Askia
Askia Mūsā
Sonni ՙAlī
Sonni Baru
Askia Mūsā
Mohammed II Askia
Askia Daud
Mohammed I Askia

Following the mysterious but allegedly accidental drowning of Songhai ruler Sonni ՙAlī in 1492, ՙAlī’s son, Sonni Baru, took the reins of power. However, like his father, Baru, a half-converted Muslim, encountered insurmountable problems from the Muslim community, especially urban dwellers. He was accused, as his father had been, of mistreating Muslims and of still following “pagan” customs. For example, there were allegations that he never prayed five times a day, instead cramming all five rites into the evening prayer. Islam;Africa

Baru was weakened by a dispute regarding the rules of succession to the Songhai throne. While the Muslim tradition insisted that the oldest son ought to succeed, traditional Songhai practice required that the Council of Elders determine who, among the sons of the deceased king, should ascend to the throne. Furthermore, a clash existed in the empire regarding financial practices. Whereas most of the people still preferred the barter system, the Muslims had introduced a money economy and insisted that this should be the empire’s mode of purchase and trade.

When Baru refused to accede to Muslim demands for better treatment and resisted the introduction of the Sharia (Islamic law) into the empire, Muslim leaders asked Sonni ՙAlī’s top general and prime minister, Mohammed Ture, to overthrow the emperor. A civil war ensued in 1492, resulting in Ture’s victory and his ascent to power in 1493. Known by birth as Mohammed Ture, the new emperor took the name of Mohammed I Askia and founded the Askia Dynasty. Askia meant “the usurper,” and the name was meant to emphasize the fact that he had taken the government by force.

Once in power, the general took upon himself the task of reforming the entire empire. To improve the country’s administrative efficiency and guarantee maintenance of his power, Mohammed I Askia divided Songhai into five vice-royalties, each under a vice-royal, or regional commissioner, he appointed. Each vice-royalty was subdivided into provinces entrusted to appointed governors, most often members of the emperor’s family or his closest friends.

Mohammed then took steps to further centralize power by making Gao his capital. He expanded the size of the council of ministers by including the commander in chief of the army (the balama); a minister of finance or chief tax collector (farimundya); a chief of the navy (hi-koy) for the Niger fleet; a minister of rivers, lakes, and fisheries (hari-farma); and a foreign minister. The latter office had become necessary now that foreigners were constantly entering the country as official visitors, traders, scholars, tourists, and religious preachers. For financial and economic uniformity, Mohammed also unified weights and measurements throughout the empire.

Mohammed appointed and fired judges and tax collectors (who were scattered in the towns and markets of the empire) at will and carefully selected envoys to neighboring states. Realizing the prestige and the higher status attributed to Islam, he began to demonstrate religious fervor as a true Muslim. To the Muslim community, Mohammed claimed that his overthrow of Sonni ՙAlī was designed to fulfill Allah’s will toward the purification of Islam.

Mohammed I Askia’s newly acquired devotion was followed in 1496 by one of history’s most celebrated pilgrimages to Mecca. The emperor reportedly traveled with an entourage of 1,000 infantrymen and 500 horsemen and carried 300,500 mithkalds of goods. The hajj lasted two years. While in transit through Egypt, Mohammed had an audience with the sharif, the spiritual leader of the Muslims there, who appointed him his caliph (lieutenant) throughout the Songhai Empire and the Sudan.

Just as Mansa Mūsā of Mali had done 250 years earlier, Mohammed made sure his trip would be memorable by demonstrating extraordinary generosity and religious devotion. He budgeted 300,000 pieces of gold for his journey: 100,000 for the trip’s expenses, 100,000 for distribution as alms in Mecca and Medina and for the support of pilgrims from the area, and the remaining 100,000 earmarked for miscellaneous expenses. Afraid of the Muslim urban community, Mohammed I Askia on his return introduced the Sharia, even though he allowed traditional (non-Muslim) practices at the palace. Indeed, he surrounded himself with Muslim learned men and had muezzins calling for morning prayers throughout the country daily.

Positioned as an enlightened leader and a shrewd politician, Mohammed I Askia patronized scholars, doctors, students, lawyers, musicians, and priests and created the first professional standing army in the empire, with each soldier riding on his own camel, according to Leo Africanus, who visited Songhai in 1510. On the war front, Mohammed’s most frequent and almost always successful campaigns were directed against the Mossi Mossi (1498-1499), whom he mercilessly killed or captured, bringing Mossi children to Songhai to be raised as Muslims and employed in his army. He also defended the empire against continuous incursions by Tuaregs, who were creating havoc along the northern and eastern borders of the empire.

However, despite the discipline and devastating impact of the professional Songhai army, one Hausa state, Kano Kano (Hausa state) , successfully resisted one of Mohammed’s sieges for a year. The state was never conquered or made tributary to Songhai. In fact, to guarantee peace with Kano, Mohammed compelled his daughter to marry Kano’s king. The failed siege of Kano notwithstanding, tradition has it that Mohammed I Askia was defeated in battle only once in his imperial reign, namely, by the state of Kebbi during King Kanta’s rule.

His otherwise successful military forays enabled Mohammed to expand Songhai until it reached the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the west, Nigeria in the east, and the borders of Algeria in the north. Arab scholars of the time noted that, quite often, mounted on a camel and surrounded by his noblemen, Mohammed I Askia not only traveled through the thriving cities of Timbuktu and Djenné but also visited the countryside, whose routes and paths had been made entirely safe by his ubiquitous army. As a sign of his power and wealth, it is reported that his scepters of gold weighed as much as 1,300 pounds.

Mohammed ruled for almost thirty-five years. In his eighties, he became almost totally blind and was therefore asked to abdicate. However, he refused to relinquish power. As a result, he met with a palace revolt led by one of his own sons, Mūsā. In an attempt to save his throne, he asked for assistance from one of his brothers, Yahia, who, unfortunately, was killed by the insurgents. Mūsā ascended to power in 1528. However, Mūsā was such an ineffective ruler that his brother, Bengam Korei, assassinated the emperor and replaced him as Mohammed II Askia in 1531. Mohammed II’s reign was also brief, and he was replaced by another brother, Ismail, in 1537. Ismail rehabilitated his father politically, but Mohammed I Askia died a few months thereafter.


Although not the founder of the Songhai Empire, Mohammed I Askia not only preserved the empire but also made it the most powerful of the Western Sudanic states, giving it a national identity and a place on the world map. He enhanced the empire’s various educational, commercial, and religious centers, including Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné, as well as creating new ones. The bases of his power were his control of trans-Saharan trade to and from West Africa, his monopoly over gold and salt (from the Taghaza mine in the Sahara), and his military genius. He used his standing professional army effectively to thwart and conquer his enemies, and he created and maintained a navy, a feat that had eluded other leaders in the region for a long time. After Mohammed, Songhai had only one other great ruler, Askia Daud (r. 1549-1582), who temporarily corrected the empire’s decline and presided over a period of peace and prosperity. After Daud’s death, however, the empire declined once more and was conquered by Morocco in 1591.

Further Reading

  • Appiah, Kwame, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Mali and Songhay.” In Africana: Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience. New York: Civitas Books, 1999. A succint treatment of Mali and Songhai for anyone interested in Sonni ՙAlī and Mohammed I Askia and the relationship between the two empires.
  • Brooks, Lester. Great Civilizations of Ancient Africa. New York: Four Winds Press, 1971. A most insightful, extensive, and interesting treatment of ancient Africa, including Egypt, Kush, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.
  • Falola, Toyn, ed. African History Before 1885. Vol. 1. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2000. Divided into four sections. Falola’s third section is devoted specifically to the Sudanese states and societies and others in sub-Saharan Africa, giving prominence to the powerful Songhai Empire.
  • Hale, Thomas, trans. The Epic of Askia Muhammad. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. A primary source for much of what has been written about the famous ruler, including the popular myths about him.
  • Ogot, B. A., ed. History of Africa from the Sixteenth to the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 5. Paris: UNESCO, 1992. Commissioned to some of the most renowned African scholars by the United Nations during the late 1980’, this is one of the most extensive, most authoritative, least biased, and most respected historical works on Africa and its people.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

16th century: Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire