The Rise of the Muslim Songhai Empire in West Africa
Compiled by: Syed Muhammad Bokreta
The Songhai Empire began when the Songhai king took advantage of a weakened Mali Empire to extend control over more territory. The Songhai people had long settled along the middle region of the Niger River , using the river for transport, fishing, hunting, and agriculture.
By the ninth century this middle region of the Niger had been integrated into the state of Songhai , with its capital at Kukiya. Merchants traded with villages along the Niger and as far as the town of Gao , which had been founded by Berber merchants, attracted by the Bumbuk gold trade of Ghana . In 1009, the fifteenth king of Songhai converted to Islam and decided to live in Gao.
Gao attracted Muslim merchants and scholars and became the most important settlement and commercial centre and afterwards the capital, it was in the fifteenth century, when the empire of Mali was greatly weakened, that Songhai was able to expand its territory. Sonni Ali Ber (Ali the Great) extended his rule from Gao to Timbuktu and Djenne in the mid-fifteenth century, and then conquered the whole kingdom of Mali , using a powerful army of horsemen and a fleet of war canoes.
Sonni Ali is remembered in Songhai oral tradition as a magician of great power rather than following the Mali Empire system of Islamic city rule over a non-Islamic rural people, Sonni Ali mixed an unorthodox observance of Islam (Ibadite-Khawarij rite) with traditional African religion. He was a man of the people rather than the elite ruling class of Muslim clerics and scholars.
He is regarded as a great military commander who carried out a strategic campaign of conquest along the Niger River . He is said to have retaliated against the Muslim leadership within Timbuktu after they failed to provide promised transport for his troops to cross the river, the chroniclers have a different viewpoint - Sonni Ali is portrayed as a capricious and cruel leader.
In the 16th century chronicle of Abd Arrahman Assadi, a historian based in Timbuktu , Sonni Ali is described as an impious and unscrupulous tyrant. He is recorded as having massacred hundreds whilst plundering the city of Timbuktu , killing or driving out the Tuareg and Sanhaja clerics who had acted as civil servants, teachers, and as preachers at the Sankore mosque.
With the death of Sunni Ali in 1492, his son proved unable fill the vacuum. This signalled the end of the Sonni Dynasty and the rise to power of Askia Mohammed. Askia Mohammed continued in the footsteps of Sonni Ali, building the largest state ever seen in the history of West Africa . Unlike Sonni Ali, however Askia Mohammed was a very devout Muslim, he went to restore to prominence the University of Sankore in Timbuktu.
As with Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire before him, Askia Mohammed made a spectacular Hajj to Mecca, where he was appointed Caliph of western Sudan. This effectively made him the spiritual head of all Moslems in West Africa, he has also greatly improved the learning centres of the Songhai by encouraging scholars to come from other parts of Africa (as well as Europe and Asia) to settle in Timbuktu and Jenne, and built as many as 180 Koranic schools in Timbuktu alone. Indeed, the Sankore University in Timbuktu developed a reputation for scholarship in rhetoric, logic, Islamic law, grammar, astronomy, history, and geography.
During Askia Mohammad Toure's brilliant reign, the Songhai Empire was characterized by order, stability, and prosperity. His most important innovation was to open up the ranks of government service. Previously, the status of the leaders of the empire was determined upon the basis of birth. Under Askia Muhammad Toure, however, men could achieve high office based upon their scholarship and intellect regardless of their social position.
Askia Muhammad Toure also organized and established a permanent professional army which enabled him to expand the territory of Songhai and turn the Songhai Empire into the largest empire every known in the Western and Central Sudan.
Askia Mohamed Toure met the Algerian Scholar and great Warrior Sheikh Bin Abdulkarim Al Maghili around the year 1500 AD who fresh from his campaign against the Jews due to their all out mischief in the land of Touat (Tamentit and Adrar present Algeria) Al Maghili gave him a Fatwa (Religious edict) regarding his power-taking and warned him against the infidel and pagan plots against his Islamic rule [Les Grandes Dates de L’Islam –Robert Mantran –Page 110].
Unfortunately and as it is widely known through the history of early Islam when discord, lust and ego reached the epic in dynasty-family ruling, things will turn bad as a lineage to this tradition , Mohammed was deposed by his son Askia Musa in 1528, who in turn was followed by a series of short lived successions Askia Mohammed II (1531-1537), Askia Ismail (1537-1539), Askia Issihak (1539-1549), Askia Dawud(1549-82), Mohammed Bani (1586-88) and finally Issihak II (1588-91).
The expansion of the Songhai Empire had caused consternation amongst its neighbours. In 1591, Morocco under the rule of Sultan Ahmad Al-Mansour of the Saadite Dynasty and worried by Songhai’s dominance of the Trans Saharan trade attacked Songhai main commercial centres. The Moroccan army aided by European firearms met with initial success but failed to establish a grip on their conquests. They had however done enough damage to facilitate the decline of Songhai.
Songhai’s collapse ended the Golden age of West African empires that stretched from 400 AD to 1600 AD. While great nations states like the Ashanti, Benin and the Kanem Bornu Empires came later, they never rivalled the influence and size of the Songhai Empire.