Songhai Kingdom Converts to Islam

The kingdom of Songhai, with its strategically situated trading and manufacturing city of Gao on the Niger River, became the first West African kingdom to convert to Islam.

Summary of Event

North African caravan routes that grew before the year 1000 were established as trade routes bringing goods to such commercial centers as Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne in what is now Mali. These caravans, however, brought more than material goods to their destinations. They brought to these relatively isolated enclaves ideas, philosophies, and concepts that reflected happenings in the non-Muslim world and in the Islamic world of Tunisia, Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan. Trade;Africa
[kw]Songhai Kingdom Converts to Islam (c. 1010)
[kw]Islam, Songhai Kingdom Converts to (c. 1010)
Songhai kingdom;Islam and
Africa;c. 1010: Songhai Kingdom Converts to Islam[1500]
Religion;c. 1010: Songhai Kingdom Converts to Islam[1500]
Trade and commerce;c. 1010: Songhai Kingdom Converts to Islam[1500]
Abū ՙUbayd Abdallāh al-Bakrī
Mansa Mūsā
Sonni ՙAlī
Muḥammad I Askia

Established caravan routes connected Gao with Tunisia via Ghadames and Air and connected with caravan routes that led to Tripoli to the north and Chad to the south. It was the tradespeople, largely nomadic Berbers Berbers , who, toward the end of the tenth century, introduced Islam Islam;Africa into the thriving commercial and manufacturing city of Gao Gao , whose inhabitants up to that point were largely believers in the animistic sects that were traditional in Africa and that concerned themselves with the jinni (mysterious creatures) and magic. People who followed these sects regarded their ancestors as sacred because they were thought to serve as intermediaries between living people and the unseen, mystical forces that controlled their destinies.

Gao enjoyed a favored location on the east bank of the Niger River just south of the Niger bend. Timbuktu Timbuktu was located some 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the northwest and Jenne Jenne was slightly farther to the southwest. Caravans reached Gao not only from the north but also from Arabia and Egypt via Sudan in the east. They brought with them such utilitarian items as horses, copper, weapons, cloth, as well as trinkets such as beads and bracelets. They traded these items for luxuries like gold, ivory, kola nuts and, later, ostrich feathers and leather. There was also a market in slaves from areas around Gao.

The rise of Gao, which became the official seat of the Songhai aristocracy, can be documented as early as the beginning of the ninth century. The historian Ibn Khaldūn noted that it was the birthplace of Abū Yazīd in 893. By that time it was already a thriving trading center, sometimes referred to as Kawkaw, to which numerous Muslim traders, Arab and Berber, came to exchange their wares.

In 1010, the fifteenth dia, Kossoi Kossoi , strongly influenced by Muslim traders, converted to Islam. The royal capital was moved from Koukya to Gao. The geographer Abū ՙUbayd Abdallāh al-Bakrī Abū ՙUbayd Abdallāh al-Bakrī reported that when Kossoi officially became the ruler, he was called Kanda and adopted Islam as his official faith. The caliph (Muslim leader) of Baghdad provided the emblems of Kossoi’s office by giving him a sword, a shield, and a copy of the Qur՚ān, which established a strong official link between the ruler of Gao and Islam.

Kossoi, in accordance with the mandates of the Islamic faith, made his hajj (pilgrimage) to the holy city of Mecca. He recited faithfully the five daily prayers expected of Muslims, fasted during the month of Ramadan, and erected mosques in his empire. Not all of his kingdom, however, was Muslim, nor was he necessarily bent on converting those who had not accepted the faith, as was the king of Takrur, who made mandatory the conversion of his subjects to Islam.

During this transitional period, court ceremonials observed the pagan traditions of the past. When the king ate, women danced before him, and seven drums, the symbol of magical and mystical power, rolled. No one worked while the king was eating, after which his leftover food was pitched into the Niger River amidst great cheering, and then work was resumed. Although the acknowledged royal religion was Islam, a majority of the common people did not profess that faith. The official leaders had a foot in each religious camp, a necessity if they were to rule successfully. Religion;Mali

Kossoi and the kings who followed him in Mali—Sundiata Sundiata , Mansa Mūsā Mūsā, Mansa , and Sonni ՙAlī Sonni ՙAlī —followed Islamic conventions and consulted with Muslim imams, the teachers of Islamic philosophy, and with marabouts, Islamic clergymen who ministered to the sick and led their followers in prayer. They simultaneously consulted, however, with traditional animist priests, which kept Islam from becoming a divisive force within their communities.

During the eleventh century, Gao was partly a Muslim town and partly a town whose people clung to their traditional, ancestral, animistic worship. These divergent religious elements were officially separated by residential area so that the two groups could follow their religious conventions of the faith without antagonizing the other. These twin towns existed close to each other for several centuries. As a result, the religious factions within Gao were reasonably harmonious.


The empire of Mali was established in the eleventh century and it reached its high point under the leadership of Sundiata, who followed the Islamic faith. Mansa Mūsā built on Sundiata’s success and in the early fourteenth century extended his empire from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the territory east of Gao. Mansa Mūsā made his hajj to Mecca Mecca;Mūsā, Mansa[Musa, Mansa] and was regarded as an ardent follower of Islam. Officials in Egypt who met him when he was bound for Mecca considered him a pious man strict in his observance of daily prayers, recitations from the Qur՚ān, and frequent reverential mention of Allah’s name.

The empire of Mali began a rapid decline when several hereditary kings proved to be ineffective leaders. The Songhai Empire of Gao came into the ascendant. Sonni ՙAlī and Muḥammad I Askia Muḥammad I Askia , who were both Muslims, established themselves as extremely effective kings, expanding their empire substantially. By this time, Islam was much more firmly a part of society in Gao, although it still existed side by side with the traditional animistic religion of large numbers of its people.

Further Reading

  • Esposito, John L., ed. The Oxford History of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. This exhaustive study of Islam offers cogent information about Mali, particularly Gao, in relation to the development of Islam there and its course through the centuries that followed its beginnings in the early eleventh century. The text is well written and appropriate for those new to the field.
  • Falola, Toyin. Key Events in African History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Discusses the rise of Islam beginning in the seventh century and includes the chapter, “Kingdoms of West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, a.d. 1000-1600.” Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Hiskett, Mervyn. The Course of Islam in Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994. Several chapters address the rise of Islam in West and Northwest Africa. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Hunwick, J. O. “Religion and State in the Songhay Empire, 1464-1591.” In Islam in Tropical Africa, edited by I. M. Lewis. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964. Although the essay focuses largely on a later period, it does mention in succinct detail the early manifestations of Islam in Gao, showing how it ran its course over several centuries. The editor’s collection of fourteen essays, including a lengthy and detailed introduction, was sponsored by the International African Institute and is well presented.
  • Insoll, Timothy. “Looting the Antiquities of Mali: The Story Continues at Gao.” Antiquity 67 (September, 1993): 628-633. Tells the sad and shocking story of how impoverished thieves in Mali, working in pairs, have looted the tombs of ancient Muslims and others buried in mounds within walking distance of contemporary Gao. Using a multidisciplinary approach involving survey and surface collection, archaeologists believe the site near Gao will enable them to document the spread and acceptance of Islam in the area between 800 and 1200.
  • Kenny, Joseph. The Spread of Islam Through North to West Africa, Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries: A Historical Survey with Relevant Arab Documents. Lagos, Nigeria: Dominican, 2000. Although this text might be difficult to locate, it is a valuable collection of Arab and other sources exploring the expansion of Islam into North and West Africa, beginning in the seventh century. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall L. Pouwels, eds. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. A comprehensive examination of the history of Islam in Africa. Introductory chapter looks at the “Patterns of Islamization and Varieties of Religious Experience Among Muslims of Africa,” and Nehemia Levtzion’s chapter, “Islam in the Bilad al-Sudan to 1800,” touches directly upon the beginnings of Islam in Mali and reveals how many people in Gao and other towns in Mali clung to their animist religious practices. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.