World History 2 32 - 3.1.2 The Spread of Islam

The Arab conquests of North Africa and the gradual advance of Islam into West Africa from the eighth century did much to unify what had been largely regional trade into a truly cross-desert system of commerce. The spread and adoption of Islam by nomads, such as the Tuareg and Sanhaja of the Niger region, helped expand the networks of exchange. Shared values and rules established by Islamic tradition and law engendered a sense of mutual trust and respect among devout Muslim traders and caravanners. African traders and merchants recognized other benefits of conversion beyond the spiritual, which included guarantees afforded by contract law that was based on Islamic law and made possible by widespread Arabic literacy. They also enjoyed the extension of credit and promissory notes between multiple parties, who were all investors in a caravan, and an increasingly extensive information network in which oasis towns acted as centers of communication and exchange.

Africans may also have been led to convert to Islam by other factors. A significant motivation was likely the harsh terms the conquering Muslims imposed on non-Muslims, which included exorbitant taxation as well as demands for hundreds (according to some sources, thousands) of enslaved people. These people, the majority of whom were probably Amazigh, were then shipped to markets in Damascus or Baghdad to be sold or transported onward to other market towns in the east. Since Islamic law forbade the enslavement of fellow Muslims, countless Amazigh people decided to convert to avoid being taken captive.

Once Islam reached the savanna south of the Sahara, ruling African elites adopted it, and in some cases they blended it with their traditional beliefs, a process called syncretism. Muslims, who could read and write Arabic script, were sought after as administrators by rulers whose languages did not have their own alphabets. The tendency of non-Muslim kingdoms to employ Muslim merchant-scholars as advisers and scribes (as, for example, in the kingdom of Ghana) in turn helped raise the profile of Islam among Africans and further encouraged conversion.

As commerce expanded, Islam gradually spread along the trans-Saharan trade routes and created a network of believers who trusted each other, thanks to a common language—Arabic—and shared values, traditions, and customs such as regular daily prayer. These shared social bonds and trust allowed trade to increase among peoples at some considerable distance who were otherwise unknown to one another. Another social interaction crucial to the widespread diffusion of Islam was intermarriage between Muslim traders and local women, who raised their children as Muslims. By the thirteenth century, Islam had spread into the region of Lake Chad and the Kingdom of Kanem by way of trans-Saharan trade (Figure 3.7).

A map of the continent of Africa is shown. There is a pink portion in western Africa labeled ‘Mali Empire’ and in the middle of northern Africa there is a green area labeled ‘Kanem-Bornu Empire.’ Red dotted lines that indicate trade routes crisscross the northern part of the continent from black dots, with two crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into Arabia. Blue dots that indicate the spread of Islam cover all of North Africa, Arabia, the portion of Asia shown, Southern Europe, and the eastern coast of Africa.
Figure 3.7 By the fourteenth century, Islam had spread throughout North and West Africa, including Kanem-Bornu (green area), and had become the state religion in the kingdom of Mali (pink area) and, in time, in Songhai, Mali’s successor. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax