The Empire of Mali

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa. Mali is bordered by Algeria on the north, Niger on the east, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire on the south, Guinea on the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania on the west. The name Mālī (مالي) was recorded as the name of the empire by Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9)Its size is just over 1,240,000 square kilometres (480,000 sq mi) with a population of 14.5 million. Its capital is Bamako.
the country’s southern part, where the majority of inhabitants live, features the Niger and Sénégal rivers.
Mali is the third largest producer of gold in the African continent, yet half the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day. [Human Development Indices, Table 3: Human and income poverty, p.35] This is a very different Mali as compared to the glorious Empire of Mali under it’s king Mansa Musa or Moosa the First of Mali.

During the 9th century, Muslim Berber and Tuareg merchants brought Islam southward into West Africa. Ruled by the Moravids or “al-Murabitoon” (المرابطون), a Berber dynasty of Morocco who formed an empire in the 11th century that stretched over the western Maghreb and Al-Andalus of Iberia (present Spain). The english word “Moravid” comes from the Arabic “al-Murabit”, the plural form being “al-Murabitoon” – literally meaning “one who is tying” but figuratively meaning “one who is ready for battle at a fortress”. At its peak in 1300, Mali was one of the most expansive empires in the world. The ancient cities of Djenné and Timbuktu were centers of both trade and Islamic learning.

There are two important names in the history of Islam in Mali: Sundiata (1230-1255) and Mansa Musa (1312-1337). Sundiata is the founder of the Mali Empire but was a weak Muslim, since he practiced Islam with syncretic practices (meaning combining of different (often seemingly contradictory) beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought) and was highly disliked by the scholars. Mansa Musa was, on the other hand, a devout Muslim and is considered to be the real architect of the Mali Empire. By the time Sundiata died in 1255, a large number of former dependencies of Ghana also came under his power. After him came Mansa Uli (1255-1270) who had made a pilgrimage to Makkah. [Professor ‘Abdurrahman I. Doi]

Imperial Mali is best known to us through three primary sources: The first is the account of Shihab al-Din ibn Fadl Allah al-‘Umari, written about 1340 by a geographer-administrator in Egypt. His information about the empire came from visiting Malians taking the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah. Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage projected Malis enormous wealth and potentialities which attracted more and more Muslim traders and scholars.He had first hand information from several, and at second hand, he learned of the visit of Mansa Musa. The second account is that of the traveler Shams al-Din Abu Abd‘Allah ibn Battua, who visited Mali in 1352. This is the first account of a West African kingdom made directly by an eyewitness, the others are usually at second hand. The third great account is that of Abu Zayd Abd-al-Rahman ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early 15th century. While the accounts are of limited length, they provide us with a fairly good picture of the empire at its height.

Mansa Musa was one of the first truly devout Muslims to lead the Mali Empire. He attempted to make Islam the faith of the nobility, but kept to the imperial tradition of not forcing it on the populace. He also made Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadaan a national ceremony. [“Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000-1800”. Nelson, 1971]. He could read and write Arabic and took an interest in the scholarly city of Timbuktu, which he peaceably annexed in 1324.

Timbuktu, Mali

Timbuktu, the legendary city founded as a commercial center in West Africa 900 years ago, is synonymous today for being utterly remote. This, however, was not always the case. It was a city famous for the education of important scholars whose reputations were Islamic. Timbuktu’s most famous and long lasting contribution to Islamic–and world–civilization is its scholarship and the books that were written and copied there beginning from at least the 14th century. The brilliance of the University of Timbuktu was without equal in all of sub-Saharan Africa and was known throughout the Islamic world. []

Via one of the royal ladies of his court, Musa transformed Sankore from an informal madrasah into an Islamic university which still stands today. Islamic studies flourished thereafter.

When Ibn Battuta arrived at Mali in July 1352, he found a thriving civilization on par with virtually anything in the Muslim or Christian world. This was during the reign of Mansa Sulaymaan (1341-1360). According to a 1929 English translation, said this about its inhabitants: “They possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.” [Sir Hamilton Gibb (translator, 1929), Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, p. 329].

The University of Sankore in Timbuktu was restaffed under Musa’s reign, with jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians. The university became a center of learning and culture, drawing Muslim scholars from around Africa and the Middle East to Timbuktu. Thus Islam received its greatest boost during Mansa Musa’s reign. The building program of Mansa Musa caused an intellectual and economic expansion that would continue into the later Middle Ages. It also established Mali as an economic global power and one of the intellectual capitals of the world. Mali became well known attracting students as far as Europe and Asia.
Diplomatic relations were established with Tunis and Egypt, and thus Mali began to appear on the map of the world.

Great Mosque of Djenné in MaliIslam began to spread in the Empire of Songhay some time in the 11th century. By the 13th century it had come under the dominion of the Mali Empire. The dynasty was renamed Sunni. The frontier of Songhay expanded and in the 15th century, under the leadership of Sunni ‘Ali, who ruled between 1464-1492, the most important towns of the Western Sudan came under the Songhay Empire. The great cities of Islamic learning like Timbuktu and Jenne came under his power between 1471-1476. The ancient manuscripts preserved at Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Center and in its private family libraries, such as the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, a suburb of Timbuktu, serve as eloquent witnesses to the influence of Timbuktu beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries. Islamic manuscripts in Mali_Songhay dynasty

Professor ‘Abdurrahman I. Doi’s work on the Spread of Islam in West Africa ( brilliantly explains it.Sunni ‘Ali’s was a nominal Muslim who used Islam to his ends. He even persecuted Muslim scholars and practiced local cults and magic. When the famous scholar Al-Maghilli called him a pagan, he punished him too. The belief in cults and magic was, however, not something new in Songhay. It existed in other parts of West Africa until the time the revivalist movements gained momentum in the 18th century. It is said of Sunni ‘Ali that he tried to compromise between paganism and Islam although he prayed and fasted. The scholars called it merely a mockery.

Sunni ‘Ali’s syncretism was soon challenged by the Muslim elites and scholars in Timbuktu, which was then a center of Islamic learning and civilization. The famous family of Agit, of the Berber scholars, had the post of the Chief Justice and were known for their fearless opposition to the rulers. In his lifetime, Sunni ‘Ali took measures against the scholars of Timbuktu (in 1469 and in 1486). But on his death, the situation completely changed: Islam and Muslim scholars triumphed. Muhammad Toure (Towri), a military commander asked Sunni ‘Ali’s successor, Sunni Barou, to appear before the public and make an open confession of his faith in Islam. When Barou refused to do so, Muhammad Toure ousted him and established a new dynasty in his own name, called the Askiya dynasty. Sunni ‘Ali may be compared with Sundiata of Mali, and Askiya Muhammad Toure with Mansa Musa, a champion of the cause of Islam.

On his coming to power, he established Islamic law and arranged a large number of Muslims to be trained as judges. He gave his munificent patronage to the scholars and gave them large pieces of land as gifts. He became a great friend of the famous scholar Muhammad Al-Maghilli. It was because of his patronage that eminent Muslim scholars were attracted to Timbuktu, which became a great seat of learning in the 16th century. Timbuktu has the credit of establishing the first Muslim University, called Sankore University, in West Africa; its name is commemorated until today in Ibadan University where a staff residential area has been named as Sankore Avenue.

Like Mansa Musa of Mali, Askia Muhammad Toure went on a pilgrimage and thus came into close contact with Muslim scholars and rulers in the Arab countries. In Makkah, the King accorded him great respect; he was turbanned. The King gave him a sword and the title of the Caliph of the Western Sudan. On his return from Makkah in the year 1497, he proudly used the title of Al-Hajj.

Askia took such a keen interest in the Islamic legal system that he asked a number of questions on Islamic theology from his friend Muhammad al-Maghilli. Al-Maghilli answered his questions in detail which Askia circulated in the Songhay empire.

The mansa’s defeat actually won Manden (West Africa) the respect of Morocco and may have saved it from Songhay’s fate. It would be the Mandinka (West African people) themselves that would cause the final destruction of the empire. Around 1610, Mahmud IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons who fought over Manden’s remains. No single person ever ruled Manden after Mahmud IV’s death, resulting in the end of the Mali Empire.

Later France seized control of Mali, making it a part of French Sudan. French Sudan (then known as the Sudanese Republic) joined with Senegal in 1959, achieving independence in 1960 as the Mali Federation. Shortly thereafter, following Senegal’s withdrawal from the federation, the Sudanese Republic declared itself the independent Republic of Mali. After a long period of one-party rule, a 1991 coup led to the writing of a new constitution and the establishment of Mali as a democratic, multi-party state.

Today (Jan 2013) Mali is under French invasion again. We pray that Allah restores Mali to its glory as it was under Mansa Musa.

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