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The African legend of Sundiata and the spread of Islam

The use of camel caravans helped the spread of Islam in Africa.
The use of camel caravans helped the spread of Islam in Africa.

The most famous king of medieval West Africa was Sundiata Keita (r. 1217-1255), founder of the kingdom of Mali. At its height, that empire ruled over large portions of modern Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Burkina Faso. While Sundiata is a historical figure of great importance, he is best known as a legendary epic hero — in a sense, the “King Arthur” of Africa — a mythical figure who overshadowed his historical alter ego.

Sundiata was born into an age of religious transition in West Africa. Beginning around 300 B.C., the introduction of the camel from Arabia into the Sahara inaugurated a gradual social and economic revolution. Not only could humans now dwell in the Saharan deserts, they could also cross those deserts to the fertile lands of sub-Saharan Africa.

By the seventh century, this camel trade began to access the gold fields of southwest Africa, inaugurating international trans-Saharan cultural and economic exchange. But the grueling 52-day camel caravan across the Sahara was not for the faint of heart. Ibn Battuta — the greatest traveler of the premodern world — left a detailed account of his Saharan caravan journey in 1351. These caravans led to the fabulously rich and exotic city of Timbuktu, which was the world’s most important gold emporium until the newly discovered gold mines and treasures of the Americas assumed that rank.

Most of the merchants crossing the Sahara were Muslims, both Arab and Berber, who brought their religious beliefs and practices with them to southwest Africa, where they established small permanent Muslim merchant colonies.

Being wealthy and important aristocrats, these Muslims began to intermarry with the local African aristocracy, and within three or four generations the descendants of these early merchants formed a new social class in Mali who believed in a mixture of Islam and their indigenous African religion. Since most of the leading families of Mali wanted marital alliances with the rich Muslim merchants — providers of exotic luxury and prestige goods — Islam slowly spread among the Malian aristocracy.

But it was a strange, syncretistic Islam. Orthodox Islam is strictly monotheistic, and does not countenance the veneration of partners alongside God. (Many Muslims regard even Christian Trinitarianism as polytheistic.)

This, of course, created a problem for African polytheists who recognized Allah as the High God but declined to abandon the traditional deities of their tribal ancestors. The solution to this problem was provided by the jinn (also “djinn” or genies), a category of supernatural beings discussed in the Quran, where, in chapter 72 (“The Jinn”), a group of them are said to have converted to Islam after hearing the prophet Muhammad reciting the Quran. These jinn are unseen nature spirits, endowed with free will, who can be good or evil, beneficent or harmful. They appear frequently in legends and stories such as those of the “Arabian Nights.”

When Islam was introduced into West Africa, the Muslim merchants began to equate the deities of their African trading partners with these Quranic jinn. Hence, all could agree that Allah was the one true High God, but the jinn/African gods were nonetheless real spiritual beings of power. They should not be worshipped as partners with Allah, but should nonetheless be placated.

In the legendary “Epic of Sundiata,” the founder of the kingdom of Mali is depicted as a faithful Muslim who is nonetheless a powerful magician/shaman battling evil jinn and sacrificing to good ones. He thus symbolizes this syncretistic phase of the spread of Islam in southwest Africa.

Muslim scholars who eventually settled in the sub-Saharan merchant colonies brought with them a more “pure” form of Islam that was then promulgated among the royal family. Within 60 years of Sundiata’s death, the imperial family of Mali was clearly much more strictly Muslim. Mansa Musa (“King Moses”) — Sundiata’s grandnephew, who reigned 1312-1337 — is noted for a pilgrimage to Mecca during which he distributed so much gold in alms that the metal’s value declined throughout the Middle East for years.

Thus, Muslim merchants brought Islam southward to the fringes of the Sahara Desert while, a few centuries later, Christian merchants from Europe brought Christianity northward via the coastal regions of southwest Africa. (Paradoxically, both Muslim and Christian merchants were also slavers.).

In 2013, a Malian named Yeah Samake — a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint and BYU graduate — ran for president of the modern state of Mali, where the legendary Sundiata and, later, Mansa Musa once ruled his ancestors. He currently serves as Mali’s ambassador to India.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.