Chapter 8 African Beginnings

Islam and African Scholarship

In the Middle Ages, Baghdad became an international center of learning and scholarship. Arabic scholars collected all of the ancient texts of wisdom from the Old World (the ancient civilizations we studied in the first half the course between 3000BC and 500AD)-- especially from Greece, India, and Persia-- they took this ancient scholarship and translated it (into Arabic), synthesized it (fitted the knowledge from the different thinkers together to make a synthesis--a combination of parts that make a new whole), and developed it (they built upon the great ideas of the ancient thinkers and took them further-- for example the Arabic scholars studied and preserved ancient Greek geometry as well as arithmetic from ancient India and developed algebra from the two.)

The following selections are from Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s chapter titled “The African Past” in his seminal book on African-American history, Before the Mayflower.

“As a religious ethic, Islam seems to have been unusually effective in cutting across racial lines. All Moslems, whatever their color, were brothers in the faith….In this climate a man could be a slave today and a prime minister tomorrow….many blacks played heroic roles in the rise and spread of Islam….numerous black generals, administrators, and poets. When, in the eighth century, the Arabs exploded and carried Islam across North Africa and into Spain, blacks went with them. Among the black personalities in the court…of Seville, for example, was a ‘learned and celebrated poet, a black of the Sudan, Abu Ishak Ibrahim Al Kenemi.'”

“In the same period three powerful statesGhana, Mali, and Songhay—emerged in the Western Sudan….it seems probable that the upper classes and leaders, especially in the large cities, were black Moslems.”

“As political entities, Ghana, Mali, and Songhay do not suffer in comparison with their European contemporaries. In several areas, in fact, the Sudanese empires were clearly superior…. Basil Davidson wrote…’Anglo-Saxon England could easily have seemed a poor and lowly place beside [Ghana].’”

“The economic life of these states revolved around agriculture, manufacturing, and international trade. Rulers wielded power through provincial governors and viceroys and maintained large standing armies….Ibn-Batuta, an Arab traveler who visited Mali in the fourteenth century, was impressed by the flow of life in these states.”

“Trade and commerce flourished in the great cities that sprang up in the Sudanese savannah, and the intellectual life was brisk and stimulating. Jenne and Timbuktu were known throughout the Moslem world as centers of culture and learning.”

“The power and wealth of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay stemmed from the trans-Saharan trade, which exerted a profound influence on Sudanese civilization. The basis of this trade was gold.”

Ghana, which was old when the Arabs first mentioned it in A.D. 800, dominated the Sudan for almost three hundred years, flourishing in the ninth and tenth centuries and reaching the peak of its power in the early part of the eleventh century. [See the section on ancient Sudanic civilization on the Chapter 1 outline on the web for a discussion of the rise of the western Sudanic states beginning with Wagadu, later called Ghana, in 300 B.C.]”

“In the eleventh century Ghana fell to [the Almoravids], and the torch of Sudanese civilization passed to Mali, which began as a small Mandingo state on the left bank of the upper Niger River. Although the history of this country goes back to the seventh century it owes its fame to two men—Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa. Keita transformed the small state into a great empire. Musa, the most celebrated ruler of [medieval] Sudan, came to power in 1307 and put together one of the greatest countries of the medieval world. Musa is best know for a pilgrimage he made to Mecca in 1324 ….Musa returned to his kingdom with an architect who designed imposing buildings in Timbuktu and other cities of the Sudan.”

“Mali declined in importance in the fifteenth century and its place was taken by Songhay, whose greatest king was Askia Mohammed. Askia, a general who had served as prime minister, seized power in 1493, a year after the European discovery of America. He reigned for nineteen years and built the largest and most powerful of the Sudan states. His realm was larger than all Europe and included most of West Africa.”

“A brilliant administrator and an enlightened legislator, Askia reorganized the army, improved the banking and credit systems and made Gao, Walata, Timbuktu and Jenne intellectual centers. Certain scholars…believe he was one of the greatest monarchs of this period. ‘In personal character, in administrative ability, in devotion to the welfare of his subjects, in open mindedness towards foreign influences and his wisdom.’”

“Timbuktu during Askia’s reign, was a city of some one hundred thousand people….One of the most fabled and exotic cities of in the medieval world, the Sudanese metropolis was celebrated….The older Sankor Mosque, to which was attached the University of Sankore, was the center of intellectual life…”

“In the narrow streets of this Sudanese metropolis, scholars mingled with rich black merchants and young boys sat in the shade, reciting the Koran. Visiting Arab businessmen wandered the streets….Youths from all over the Moslem world came to Timbuktu to study law and surgery at the University of Sankore; scholars from North Africa and Europe to confer with the learned historians and writers of the black empire. Es Sadi, a Timbuktu intellectual who wrote a history of the Sudan, said his brother came from Jenne for a successful cataract operation at the hands of a distinguished surgeon. Es Sadi, incidentally, had a private library of sixteen hundred volumes.”

“If we can credit contemporary reports, Timbuktu, during the reign of Askia the Great, was an intellectuals paradise.”

“’In Timbuktu,’ Leo Africanus said, ‘there are numerous judges, doctors, and clerics, all receiving good salaries from the king. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a big demand for books in manuscript….More profit is made from the book trade than from any other line of business.’”

“The age of the great Sudan empires ended, but several states to the east and the south, notably Mossi, Hausa, Kanem-Bornu and Ashanti, retained political identities down to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Great Zimbabwe and other stone cities in southern Africa suggest that strong states flourish inland. Vigorous centers of culture also existed on the East Coast, where black and Arab merchants traded with India and China.”