The Human Story – Islam and Trade in Medieval Africa

The controversial British historian Hugh Trevor Roper through a galvanised and very Eurocentric point of viewing history wrote that the only history in Africa is the history of Europe in Africa and that Africa was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” Was he correct? Let’s find out.

Much of African history has been preserved and handed down through the generations through oral tradition rather than through the written word. These days we tend to think of written records as being the most accurate and reliable form of description… then again, we do live in a print-based culture (you are reading this after all!!).

It has already been noted in an earlier article of the series that one of the markers of civilisation is the ability to record things in the written form. This implies that peoples who do not develop a writing style are not “civilised” – a prejudice that has been applied many times to describe Africa, its peoples and its history.

However, if you need evidence that it is possible to produce incredible artefacts of literacy without first creating the benefits of writing then let me direct your attention to two of the central pieces of ancient Greek literature: namely, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The Greek poet Homer’s voluminous poems were memorised and recited by subsequent poets for centuries before anyone had the idea of writing them down. Secondly, no less an authority than Plato himself said that writing destroyed humanity’s ability to memorise by alleviating the need to remember anything (he may have had a point – I cannot remember anything on my shopping list unless it’s written down). And finally, to transport ourselves thousands of years to the present, everyday billions of people around the globe tune into radio and television rather than pick up a book and I do not think that anyone would consider our times as uncivilised.

Mansa Musa and his Golden Pilgrimage

Whether or not you consider lack of written records as civilised or uncivilised there are many interesting records of African historical note that have made their way down the generations, including the tale of the African king Mansa Musa.


Mansa (King or Emperor) Musa ruled the vastly wealthy Islamic Mali Empire in western Africa from 1312 to 1337. Sometime in the middle of his reign (it is thought around about 1324, Musa left his home to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Arabian city of Mecca. You may remember that the Hajj was one of the Five Pillars of Islam and all devout Muslims are expected to at least attempt to visit the city at least once in their lifetime. He brought with him an entourage of over 1,000 people and some say as high as 60,000, but most importantly to this story is that he travelled with one hundred camel loads of gold.

Along the way Mansa Musa spent freely and gave away much of his riches: most famously when he reached the Egyptian city of Alexandria, one of the most cultured and learned cities of antiquity and the medieval period. Musa spent so much gold in the city that he inadvertently caused runaway inflation throughout the city and the price of the precious metal plummeted. Alexandria took years to recover from the recession.

The great king built homes in Cairo and Mecca to house his many attendants and as he travelled throughout northern Africa and the Middle East a lot of people took notice, particularly the merchants of Venice. These merchants returned home to Italy with tales of Mansa Musa’s ridiculous wealth which, in turn, helped to foment the myths in the minds of Europeans that West Africa was a land laden with gold; exactly the kind of place that you’d pillage. The seed was sown and a couple of centuries later, Europeans did indeed pillage West Africa of both its physical wealth and of its people.

So, what is so important about the tale of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage? Well, firstly, it tells us that there were African kingdoms that were ruled by fabulously wealthy African kings which sort of undermines the modern stereotypes of Africa: that the people were poor and lived in basic tribal hierarchies ruled by chieftains and preached to by shamanistic witchdoctors. It also tells us that Mansa Musa was making the Islamic holy pilgrimage to Mecca which demonstrates that he must have been a relatively devout Muslim. This simple tale of one king’s (and his colossal entourage’s) journey east also illuminates us to the fact that West Africa was far more connected to other parts of the world than contemporary views are generally led to believe. Mansa Musa knew all about the places that he was visiting before he got there and after his journey the Mediterranean world was very keen to learn more about his homeland with its seemingly inexhaustive treasures.

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca also dredges up a lot of important questions about medieval West Africa. Principally, what did his kingdom look like? And how exactly did he come to follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad?

Islamic Empires Come and Go in the West


The Empire of Mali (1235 – 1670) encompassed a massive swathe of West Africa which ran from the Atlantic coast hundreds of miles inland and included many large cities, the largest and most well known being the city of Timbuktu (which was settled as early as the fifth century BCE). How this impressive territory came to follow the doctrines laid out by the Prophet Muhammad is one that was mirrored all over Africa.

The story of the Islamisation of Africa is a little complicated. Pastoral North Africans called Berbers had long traded with the peoples of West Africa with the Berbers offering life-preserving salt in exchange for West African gold. The Berbers were early converts to Islam and the religion spread along those pre-existing trade routes between the people of North Africa and West Africa. So, the first converts to Islam in Mali were the traders who benefitted from having a religious, as well as a commercial connection to their trading partners in the north and the rest of the Mediterranean. The kings followed the traders, perhaps because following the religion of the more established kingdoms in the north and east would provide them with more prestige, not to mention access to administrators and scholars who could help them solidify their power.

Consequently, Islam became the religion of the elites in West Africa which meant that Islamic kings were trying to exert their power over largely non-Muslim populations which worshipped traditional African gods and spirit deities. In order to not seem too foreign to their subjects these kings would often blend the traditional local religion with Islam, for example by providing women with more rights than in the birthplace of their adopted religion.

The first records that we have of kings adopting Islam come from the Ghana Empire (700 – 1240) which was probably the first true empire located in West Africa and it really took off around the eleventh century. As with all empires across the world throughout history the Ghana Empire rose and fell to be replaced by the next up and coming empire: in this case it was the Malian Empire. The kings of the Mali Empire, especially Mansa Musa and his successor, Masa Sulieman, tried to increase the knowledge and practice of Islam within their territory. For example, when Mansa Musa returned from his Hajj, he brought back scholars and architects to build mosques.

The real reason that we know so much about the Empire of Mali is because it was visited by a man called Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan cleric and scholar who led an incredible life. He was particularly interested in gender roles within the Malian Empire and by Malian women. Ibn Battuta was an extremely learned scholar who managed to develop his vast knowledge of Islam over one of the greatest road trips in history. The Moroccan born Battuta travelled from Mali to Constantinople, to India, Russia and China and even to the islands of Indonesia: he was quite possibly the most well-travelled man before the invention of the steam engine. Everywhere that Ibn Battuta visited, he was treated like a king and he wrote a book, capturing the world of his day, called Rihla which is still widely read today.


However, as unfortunate as it may be, as with all great empires, the Malian Empire eventually fell and was replaced, in parts, by the West African Songhai Empire (a one-time dependency of the Mali Empire) which itself, in turs, collapsed to be replaced by various states of varying local dominance.

All this is to say that much like Europe, China and India, West Africa had its own empires that relied upon religion, war, dynastic politics and familial power struggles in order to survive, thrive and ultimately decay and dive.

On that note, it is now time to cross the vast continent and explore how civilisation evolved in the east of Africa.

East African Trading

An alternative model of civilisation developed on and around the shores of East Africa from that of their fellow Africans in the west. The eastern coast saw the rise of the Swahili civilisation which was neither an empire nor a kingdom but rather a collection of city-states, perhaps the most well-known being Zanzibar, Mogadishu and Mombasa, all of which formed an intricate network of trading posts. There was no one central authority to govern these trading posts, but rather each city-state was autonomously ruled, usually, but not always, by a king.

There were three things linking these city-states in the east that make the argument for them having a common culture. These were language, trade and religion. The Swahili language is part of a linguistic family known as Bantu and, curiously, its original speakers originated in West Africa. Their migration east altered not just the linguistic traditions of East Arica but everything else as they brought with them iron work and agriculture. Until this point most of the people living in East Africa had been hunter-gatherers or herders but once agriculture was introduced it revolutionised life in that part of the world, as it almost always has done.

For a long time it was believed that these East African cities were all founded by Arab or Persian traders exclusively for trading, owing much to the prejudices of earlier western scholars and historians who did not believe that Africans were sophisticated enough to found such great cities. However, nowadays, we recognise that all the major Swahili cities were established long before Islam arrived in the area, and that trade had been occurring since at least the first century CE.

However, it is also acknowledged that Swahili culture and civilisation did not truly begin its rapid development until the eighth century when Arab traders arrived on the shores looking for goods that they could trade on the vast Indian Ocean network: the Silk Road of the Seas. Of course, these merchants brought the religion of Islam with them, which was adopted by the ruling elites, just as it had been in West Africa, who sought religious as well as commercial connections to the rest of the Mediterranean world.


In many of these Swahili city-states the Islamic communities started out quite small but at their height during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries most of the cities boasted large and magnificent mosques, the one in Kilwa (an island off modern day Tanzania) even impressing Ibn Battuta with its great dome.

Most of the goods exported from these east African Islamic communities were raw materials like ivory, timber and animal hides. However, much like the rest of history, there is also a darker side to the history of the east African trading posts: the east African slave trade. Although humans were not exported in the huge numbers that would be seen later in the west during the Atlantic Slave Trade, human life still had a price tag and slaves were traded for imported luxury goods like porcelain and books. In fact, archaeological digs at the aforementioned Kilwa have unearthed houses that often contained bookshelves built into the walls.

The learning of script consumption through archaeology neatly captures the magic of studying history. Through a mixture of archaeology, writing and oral tradition we are presented with a concoction that intermingles and provides us with a glimpse into the past. Each of these lenses may show us the past as if through some distorted fun-housesque mirror but when we are conscious of these distortions, we can at least recognise them for what they are.

Studying Africa reminds us that we need to study many sources and lots of different kinds of sources if we are to get a fuller picture of the past. If we only relied on written sources, it would be far too easy to fall into the old trap of viewing Africa as backward and uncivilised. However, by approaching the subject matter through multiple source types we are introduced to a complicated and diverse place that was sometimes rich and sometimes poor. When we look at it from these different angles, African history becomes not separate but very much part of the human story: a very “historical part of the World.”

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades

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