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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 14    Issue 02   01 - 31 July 2019

The Legacy of Islamic Civilization in Africa

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Eurocentrism, which connotes a deeply entrenched belief in the supremacy of Western civilization, is a pervasive feature of much of Western intellectual tradition and cultural consciousness. It is conspicuously reflected in the Western view of civilization and modernity, in the historiography of science and technology, medicine and art and in the history of ideas.

A corollary of Eurocentrism is the Western view of non-Western cultures and civilizations, which betrays either an ignorance or absence of recognition of their contributions. By and large, Western attitudes towards other cultures and civilizations are at best condescending and at worst scornful. Francis Bacon (d. 1621), a well-known English scientist, philosopher and statesman, claimed that paper, the magnetic compass, gunpowder and printing were the key inventions that separated the modern (Western) world from the traditional world. He did not know, or did not care to know, that each of these institutions had originated in China. The Austrian sociologist Norbert Elias maintained that the ‘civilizing process’ began in Europe. He failed to recognize that this process occurred in other parts of the world and in much earlier times. The German historian and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann (d. 1768) held that the ‘true ideal of beauty’ could be seen only in the Greek aesthetic and artistic tradition. He considered Chinese art as inferior and decadent. Ironically, Chinese art exerted considerable influence on European art and decoration in the 18th century. The Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (d. 1835) considered the Chinese language inferior to European languages. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (d. 1803) was contemptuous of Chinese national character. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (d. 1859), a British politician and statesman, divided the world into civilized nations, with Britain representing the zenith of civilization, and barbarians, who comprised the non-Western peoples. He haughtily declared that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.” Some of the towering figures in 19th century Europe, such as Alexis de Tocqueville (d. 1859), August Comte (d. 1859), who is considered the father of sociology, and John Stuart Mill (d. 1873), viewed the Chinese as inferior.

The depiction and representation of Africa in the history of Western thought has been surrounded by a great deal of racial prejudice, stereotypes and wild generalisations. Africa has always been considered the dark continent, bereft of civilization and progress and as the breeding ground of superstition and disease. Africans were regarded as scarcely better than beasts. Thus, Voltaire said of Africans, “A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens, and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must, for everything.” Hegel wrote, “What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the condition of mere nature, and which had to be presented here as on the threshold of the World’s History.”

The fact of the matter is that Africa has never been isolated from the rest of the world, that extensive trading and cultural network linked the continent to large parts of Asia and Europe, that it has a long history of technological and cultural achievements. As early as the 9th century, there existed an extensive network of trade between northern Africa and the caravan towns in the southern edge of the Sahara. Copper goods and articles that were manufactured in Africa were often exchanged for gold dust, which was cast into ingots. The ingots were used for making gold coins, which ere in great demand in the Arab world.

Francois-Xavier Fauvelle, a French specialist in African history, in his book The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, describes a mode of payment – similar to what we today call a cheque – sent by a sub-Saharan merchant to a Muslim businessman in the Moroccan town of Sijilmasa for the sum of 42,000 dinars. 1

Fauvelle also writes that more than a century and a half before Columbus’s expedition to the Americas, a Malian ruler named Abu Bakr II sent an expedition consisting of 200 ships with the purpose of discovering the “furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean.” Unfortunately, the expedition did not meet with success.

However, Abu Bakr II was not disheartened by the failure of this expedition. He sent an even larger expedition, equipped with 2,000 ships with himself in command. This expedition also resulted in failure.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, approached by a Berber on camelback; detail from The Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques, 1375

Mali is a land-locked country located in western Africa. Currently it has a population of about 14.5 million, of which 90 per cent are Muslim. The major ethnic groups in the country are the Bambara, who constitute about one-third of the total population, Fulani and the Berber. Mali has rich mineral resources, including iron ore and bauxite, gold and copper. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. In the early medieval period, Mali was on a trans-Saharan caravan route. Between the 12th and 15th century, two major trading empires, the Malinke empire and the Songhai empire, flourished in the region.

Islam reached Mali in the 11th century from the Maghreb through the trans-Saharan trading networks. In the medieval period, merchant caravans brought, in addition to salt, gold and slaves, scholars, Sufis and teachers, who set up madrasas and built mosques. Mali became a French colonial outpost in 1907. The independent Republic of Mali was formed in 1960.

The history and culture of Mali represent a fascinating mixture of African and Arabic influences. In the early 12th century, Timbuktu, now in Mali, became famous for its fabulous wealth, especially gold, and for its scholarly tradition. A culture of high literacy and scholarship flourished in the city from the 13th century, which lasted for nearly 700 years. It earned a reputation as the most important centre of Islamic learning and culture in west Africa. By the mid-16th century it boasted well over 150 Islamic schools. Timbuktu, Djenne and other cities in Mali are dotted with hundreds of mosques as well as tombs of scholars, Sufi saints and teachers. In recent years nearly a million manuscripts, written in the Sudanese-Arabic script, have been discovered in Timbuktu. These manuscripts cover a wide range of subjects, including Quranic exegesis, Hadith, Islamic law, history, geography, mathematics, physics, optics, chemistry and astronomy.

The Great Mosque at Djenne is one of the most remarkable monuments of African architecture. It has been constructed entirely from sun-dried mud bricks, coated with clay, and palm-trunk inserts. The original structure was built in the 13th or 14th century. After it crumbled due to the ravages of the weather, it was reconstructed in 1907. It stands on a raised plinth measuring 250 feet.

Since the mosque is made of mud, it develops cracks due to the scorching desert heat and therefore requires to be maintained with regular care. Every year the whole town comes together to replaster the walls with clay, which provides an occasion for great festivity and rejoicing and reinforces community solidarity. In 2006 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture declared the mosque in danger of collapse and launched an extensive restoration project. The mosque has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Adjacent to the Great Mosque is the Djenne Manuscripts Library, which has thousands of Arabic manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts date from the 11th century. The British Library has launched, under its Endangered Archives Programme, a project to preserve the collection through digitization. Some 40,000 images of manuscripts have been put online.

From the 8th to the 16th century, Mali was part of three empires that dominated trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves, salt and other precious commodities: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. In the late 19th century, Mali came under French control and became a part of the French Sudan. An independent Republic of Mali was established in 1960.

Islam came to Mali in the 11th century. Timbuktu (formerly spelled as Timbuktoo), located in the north of the country, has been the most important city of Mali. From the 13th to the 16th century, Timbuktu was well-known across Africa as well as Europe for its flourishing trade, its fabled wealth and its tradition of learning and scholarship. In the 16th century, it had a population of about 60,000. It was the starting point for African pilgrims going on the Hajj. Timbuktu’s society and culture represent a fascinating synthesis of West African and Arab influences. By the mid-16th century Timbuktu boasted over 150 Islamic schools and many public libraries. The city is dotted with mosques and the tombs of saints, scholars and renowned teachers. Timbuktu has been known as the city of 333 saints. Historically, madrasas, public libraries and Sufism have played a major role in the spread of Islam in Western Africa.

Timbuktu has had an enviable reputation as a city of Islamic learning. Nearly a million manuscripts on Islamic disciplines and on science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine are preserved in the city’s public libraries and private collections. Some of the manuscripts date from the 10th century. Three of Timbaktu’s ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums and cemeteries were added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1988.

The history of Australia’s discovery is likely to be rewritten with the recovery of some ancient coins that were minted in East Africa in the 10th century. The story began to unfold at the end of World War II when an Australian soldier, Maurie Isenberg, who was posted at a radar station at the Wessel Islands in Australia’s north coast, spotted some ancient coins on the beach. He picked them up and kept them in a tin and nearly forgot about them. He happened to remember the coins in 1979 and decided to send them to a museum for identification. The museum’s numismatic experts found that four of the coins dated to 1690 and belonged to the Dutch East India Company. The remaining five were minted at Kilwa, now in Tanzania, between the 10th and 14th century.

An Australian anthropologist, Ian McIntosh, who is based at Indiana University, Indianapolis, USA, has taken up a project, funded by the Australian Geographic Society, to investigate the site at the Wessel Islands where the coins were discovered and to explore their historical and geographical context. Professor McIntosh will commence his project in July this year and will be joined by a team of Australian and American historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists and Aborigine rangers.

McIntosh has in his possession a 70-year map of the Wessel Islands, located about 130 kilometres off Australia’s northern coast, prepared by Maurie Isenberg, which might throw some light on the geographical context of the coins. McIntosh is exploring several possible explanations for the discovery of the coins. A plausible explanation lies in the extensive trading network that linked southern and eastern Africa, India, China and the Spice Islands that goes as far back as the 10th century. McIntosh is inclined to believe that Australia was part of this trading network. This trade route was already very active, a very long period of time ago, and this may be evidence of that early exploration by people from East Africa or from the Middle East, McIntosh added.

Trading Networks and the Land of Zanj

The advent of Islam on the East African coast can be traced back to the 8th century. One of the earliest mosques on the coast, constructed at Shanga in the Lamu archipelago, is dated between 780 and 850 A. D., and it survived until the early 15th century. Early Islamic influences on the coast came mainly from Yemen and Hadramawt.

In Arabic historiography, Bantu-speaking black Africans living on the east coast of Africa are described as “Zanj”. As far back as the 9th century, there existed extensive maritime trading routes that linked East Africa, Arabia, India, China and the Spice Islands. The celebrated historian and chronicler Abul Hasan Ali al-Masudi (d. 956) writes that there were Muslim communities living in the land of Zanj in the 10th century. This area covered the present-day Mogadishu, Tanzania and Mozambique. The Swahili city states were first established by Muslim traders. The coastal cities in present-day Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique were vibrant trading hubs from the 10th to the 16th century, where African, Arab, Indian and Chinese traders met and exchanged goods and commodities.

Kilwa Sultanate

Kilwa is an island in present-day Tanzania and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is said that the earliest settlers in Kilwa were the followers of Zayd ibn Ali (d. 122 A. H.). They were subdued and overthrown by a Persian prince from Shiraz, Ali ibn al-Hasan Shirazi, in 975. The rule of the Shirazi dynasty lasted until 1277, when it was succeeded by an Arab dynasty headed by Abul-Mawahib. The Arab dynasty lasted until 1505 when it was overthrown by the Portuguese.

During the sultanate period, Kilwa emerged as a flourishing trading centre, attracting merchants and sailors from distant lands, including Arabia, Persia, India, China and Achen (Indonesia). The Kilwa sultanate established its supremacy over the entire east African coast up to Mombassa, Zanzibar, Malindi and Mozambique. In the 12th century, Sultan Sulayman Hasan captured the port of Sofala, which was renowned for the export of gold and ivory. During its heyday, Kilwa was one of the principal trading ports in the Indian Ocean, trading gold, ivory, iron, cloth, jewellery, amber, porcelain and slaves. Gold was mined at Great Zimbabwe and carried by caravan and then by boat to Fatimid Cairo. It appears plausible that sailors and traders from Kilwa visited Australia’s northern coast in the course of their travels. Interestingly, an Aborigine legend mentions a secret cave, located close to the beach where Isenberg found the coins, which is believed to be filled with doubloons and ancient weapons.

Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa in 1331 and met the sultan. The first Portuguese naval expedition to the Indian Ocean, under Vasco da Gama, reached Kilwa in 1497. The Portuguese sailors were highly impressed by the expertise of seafarers in Kilwa and admired their navigational instruments. Archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of a mosque, porcelain and glass that have been dated to the 9th century. Arab chroniclers report that when the Portuguese began arriving in Kilwa in the early 16th century, there were nearly 300 mosques in the sultanate.

Most of the coins minted at Kilwa during the sultanate period were copper-based. Some of these coins are preserved at the British Museum and at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. An exact replica of one of the coins found by Isenberg, which was issued by Kilwa’s Sultan Sulayman ibn al-Hasan in the early 14th century, is at the British Museum.

Archaeological excavations, historical investigations and geographical and geomorphic surveys, to be carried out by McIntosh and his colleagues in the next few months, might lead McIntosh to the conclusion that Australia was discovered by Muslim seafarers and navigators from Kilwa almost nine centuries before European explorers set foot on the continent.


1. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/06/27/medieval-africa-lost-kingdoms/ ?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR%20Medieval%20Africa%20Andrea%20Dworkin%20 Sierra%20Leone&utm_content=NYR%20Medieval%20Africa%20Andrea%20Dworkin%20Sierra %20Leone+CID_0afec56c89eae3997a101557bfa54bc6&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term= Africas%20Lost%20Kingdoms

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