Islam in West Africa

Essential Question

How did Islam spread to the empires of West Africa?

What influence did the Arabs/muslims have on West Africa?

Islam in West Africa


In the 1060s a Muslim group called the Almoravids (al-moh-RAH-vidz) tried to expand Islam in West Africa. They attacked Ghana in the 1060s in an effort to force its leaders to convert to Islam. The people of Ghana fought hard against the Almoravid army. For 14 years they kept the invaders at bay. In the end, however, the Almoravids won. They destroyed the city of Koumbi Saleh.

The Almoravids didn't control Ghana for long, but they certainly weakened the empire. They cut off many trade routes through Ghana and formed new trading partnerships with Muslim leaders instead. Without this trade, Ghana could no longer support its empire which led to its collapse.


While the people of Ghana rejected Islam, the people of Mali embraced it. Mali's most famous ruler was a Muslim king named Mansa Musa (MAHN-sah moo-SAH). Under his skillful leadership, Mali reached the height of its wealth, power, and fame in the 1300s. Because of Mansa Musa's influence, Islam spread through a large part of West Africa.

Mansa Musa wanted to spread Islam in West Africa. To encourage this spread, he hired architects from other Muslim countries to build mosques throughout his empire. Elaborate mosques were built in Timbuktu, Djenne, and other cities. Mansa Musa hoped that people would accept Islam as he had, but he did not want to force people to convert. Still, during his reign, Islam became very popular in Mali.

He built Islamic schools that made Timbuktu the center of Islamic scholarship or formal study and learning. Students traveled from all over the world to study Islam in Timbuktu.

Following their king's example, many people from Mali went to Mecca. In turn, many Muslims from Asia, Egypt, and other parts of Africa visited Mali. These journeys between regions helped create more trade and made Mali even richer.


Like the leaders of Mali, the leaders of Songhai were also Muslims. As such, they shared a common religion with many of the Berbers who crossed the Sahara to trade in West Africa. Because of this shared religion, the Berbers were willing to trade with the Songhai, who began to grow richer.

Like Mansa Musa, Askia the Great the leader of Songhai took his Muslim faith very seriously. After he defeated Sunni Bam, Askia made a pilgrimage to Mecca, just as Mansa Musa had 200 years earlier.

Also like Mansa Musa, Askia worked to support education. Under his rule, the city of Timbuktu flourished once again. The great city contained universities, schools, libraries, and mosques. Especially famous was the University of Sankore (san-KOH-rah). People arrived there from all over West Africa to study mathematics, science, medicine, grammar, and law. In the early 1500s, a Muslim traveler and scholar called Leo African us wrote this about Timbuktu:

"There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers, and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly honors learning. Many hand-written books imported from Barbary [North Africa] are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce [trade] than from all other merchandise.''

-Leo Africanus, from History and Description of Africa

Djenne also became a center of learning, especially for medicine. Doctors there discovered that mosquitoes spread malaria. They even performed surgery on the human eye.

Timbuktu and Djenne were centers of learning, but they were also trading centers. Merchants from distant lands came to these cities and to Gao.

Most of Songhai's traders were Muslim, and as they gained influence in the empire so did Islam. Askia the Great, himself a devout Muslim, encouraged the growth in Islamic influence. Sponsored and supported Islamic studies so all scholars learned Islam and how to read and write Arabic so they could study the Qur’an. Arabic gave the West African people something they did not have before, a written language. It allowed them to keep better business records and arrange deals. This allowed for better trade across the Saharan trade now that all merchants could communicate in Arabic.

Islamic influence was also in the laws. Many of the laws he made were similar to those of Muslim nations across the Sahara. His laws were based on the laws of the Quran and he also appointed Muslim judges to interpret laws. All laws were written also written in Arabic so even the common people could read.

Discussion Questions

  • How popular was Islam in Ghana?

  • How did wealth from trade across the Sahara help make Mali a center of Islamic learning?

  • How did Askia Muhammad use the courts to strengthen Islam?

  • How might the use of Arabic benefit West African traders?

Activity 2: What were the reasons Islam spread to West Africa and what effects did Islamic religion and culture have on West African Civilizations?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities