the Sahara: The Failure of an
Early Modern Attempt to Unify Islamic Africa
University of California at Santa Barbara
Invisible Barriers: The Problem with Regionalization
The traditional area studies approach towards Africa is to
divide the continent between North Africa (Arab Africa) and
sub-Saharan Africa (Black Africa). The North African
states of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco (and
sometimes also the Sudan and Mauritania) are linked with the
Arab world and the Middle East.1
The countries that border these lands to the south, and that
are geographically much closer than those of the Middle East,
are usually studied separately as øWest Africa,Ó øEast Africa,Ó
or øCentral Africa.Ó Through the use of this model,
a mental barrier is constructed, located approximately in
the middle of the Sahara desert, which can blind scholars
to the many economic, cultural, religious, and ethnic links
between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. These links
have always existed, and continue to exist today, as evidenced
by the presence of many sub-Saharan Africans living and working
in the states of North Africa, and by the current claims of
the Moroccan government to sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
Economic connections between North Africa and the regions
south of the Sahara were established long before the Islamic
conquests of North Africa in the early eighth century.
Trade was carried out along several dominant caravan routes
over the course of hundreds of years. Over the centuries,
the main commodities being exchanged included gold, ivory,
ostrich feathers, cola nuts, civet, ambergris, animal hides,
camels, and slaves. These things were traded for items
such as salt, sugar, cloths, brass vessels, horses, and books.
E. W. Bovill describes the cross-Saharan trade in this manner:
øFrom the Nile valley in the east to the Atlantic in the west
there was trafficking in gold with the interior of Africa
at all times in recorded history. Slaves and gold, gold
and slaves, provided the life-blood of the trade of the Maghrib
with the Sudan.Ó2
This trade was so prosperous that changes in the trade routes
led to the rise and fall of different trading centers over
the centuries. The wealth of the caravan trade also
inspired numerous efforts by African and European states to
establish control over the trade routes. Yet, the source
of the West African gold trade remained surprisingly elusive
for the foreign potentates who made these attempts.
Another link between the two regions was provided by the Islamic
religion. In both East and West Africa, the spread of
Islam moved from north to south.3 The expansion of
Islam was initially connected with the work of Muslim traders
in the regions south of the Sahara.4
The official recognition of Islam by African rulers led to
its further infiltration into African tribal communities.
Often Islam was carried to the south through the efforts of
Sufi brotherhoods that originated in North Africa. One
example of this can be seen in the Tijaniyya brotherhood,
which began in southern Algeria during the eighteenth century,
and which spread extensively throughout West Africa.
The connection to the Tijaniyya is so strong today that many
West African Muslims make a stop at the shrine of Ahmad al-Tijani
in Fes prior to completing the pilgrimage to Mecca.5
Ethnic and cultural connections between the regions north
and south of the Sahara are also strong. In southern
Morocco, the dark-skinned Haratin are believed to have descended
from unions between Arab or Berber masters and their black
slaves. As a result of changing economic patterns in
the twentieth century, the Haratin have moved throughout Morocco,
particularly to large cities such as Rabat or Casablanca.6
These same trends can be seen in the other countries of North
Africa as well. Cultural influences from the south are
also evident, and are found in such areas as popular music,
religious practices, and styles of dress. Gnaoua musicians,
who come from a religious brotherhood consisting of descendents
from former slaves, are encountered all over Morocco.
Their music and dress emphasize the sub-Saharan origins of
their group, and they are known for their participation in
magical and spiritist practices.
The Unifying Influence of Islam and the Caliphate
Although Westerners have often failed to recognize these links
between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, this mental barrier
has not always existed in the minds of Africans. The earliest
written records that we have of sub-Saharan Africa are almost
all from the pens of Arab writers. Whether they traveled
to sub-Saharan lands in person, as did Ibn Battuta, or wrote
about this region based upon reports received from others,
as did al-Bakri, these writers provide a number of details
about life south of the Sahara during the pre-modern period.
Certainly the Arab writers of North Africa and al-Andalus
(modern Spain) did not view the black inhabitants of these
regions as being equal to themselves in culture, sophistication,
or quality of life. Their writings include many anecdotes
about the strange practices and unusual appearance of the
sub-Saharan people. Nevertheless, they recognized the
economic value and inherent interest of the region.7
The expansion of Islam in the sub-Saharan lands during the
thirteen and fourteenth centuries created another bond between
the two areas. As mentioned before, it was North Africans
who first brought Islam into these regions, through their
contacts of trade and travel. As Islam expanded
south of the Sahara, it took on a different flavor than it
had in the northern part of the continent. Yet, it never
completely lost its connections with North African Islam.
Black African scholars kept themselves abreast of intellectual
and political developments in such northern centers as Cairo
and Fes, and those Africans who were fortunate enough to make
the pilgrimage to Mecca passed through these lands, further
strengthening connections. Sometimes influences would
actually run in the other direction. In fact, it was
nomad tribes from the southern Sahara who established the
famous Almoravid dynasty, which ruled the western Maghrib
and al-Andalus for over one hundred years.
Despite these connections, no thought appears to have been
given to creating a state that would link the regions north
and south of the Sahara until the sixteenth century.
It was the Moroccan Sadi dynasty that made the first attempts
in this direction. By the mid-sixteenth century, the
Sadis had managed to wrest control of Morocco from the hands
of the Portuguese colonizers and the Berber Wattasid dynasty,
and could begin to direct their attention towards the south.
In 1557, the Sadi sultan Muhammad al-Shaykh launched an invasion
of the salt mines of Taghaza, which had been under the control
of the West African Songhay dynasty to that time.
Salt was an important element in that it served as the main
commodity that was traded for gold. Muhammad al-Shaykh
was unable to follow up on this victory, however, since he
was murdered by Turkish mercenaries shortly afterwards.
However, this same interest in the south would be shown
by the son of Muhammad al-Shaykh in the 1580s, but this time
with a slightly different thrust.
Ahmad al-Mansur rose to the throne in Marrakech on the
heels of the Sadis magnificent victory over the Portuguese
in the Battle of Wadi al-Makhazen (August 4, 1578).
An ambitious man, al-Mansur would not be satisfied with simply
ruling over the lands of Morocco. However, with the
powerful Spanish state to the north, and the Ottoman Empire
having established control to the east in Algiers, al-Mansur
had no direction in which to expand other than southwards.
The region was certainly tempting economically, due to the
wealth that was generated by the gold and slave trades originating
in West Africa. Al-Mansur believed that his possession
of firearms and the modern military practices utilized by
his army should enable him to triumph over the swords, spears,
and tribal confederations available to the Songhay state.
And yet, the sultan had more than simply economic motivations
for considering an invasion to the south. Sadi rhetoric
itself propelled al-Mansur towards expanding his state.
Unlike the preceding Berber dynasties, the Sadis claimed
to be sharifs, or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
In their competition with the Wattasids, they had argued successfully
that, as sharifs, they were the divinely appointed rulers
of the country. Backing up their position with the use
of Quranic verses and hadith that asserted the superiority
of the Prophets family, the Sadis had used their sharifian
status as the primary justification for their rule.
In fact, the logic of this argument meant that the Sadi sharifs
were not only the legitimate rulers over Morocco, but also
over the entire Islamic world. Muhammad al-Shaykh had
clearly implied this through statements such as his derisive
reference to the Ottoman sultan as øThe Sultan of the FishermenÓ
and his claims that he would meet up with him in Cairo (which
was being administered at that time by the Ottomans).8
It was for such swagger as this, put into action when Muhammad
al-Shaykh attempted to take Tlemcen on the western borders
of Ottoman territory, that the Turkish sultan had the Sadi
Ahmad al-Mansur had similar ambitions as his father, but he
was enough of a political realistic to recognize that he lacked
the strength to challenge the Ottomans directly. And
yet, it was under al-Mansur that the theory of sharifian supremacy
was developed to its fullest extent. The sultan employed
court panegyrists and poets such as Ibn al-Qadi, al-Fishtali,
and al-Masfiwi to trumpet the superiority of his claim to
Islamic headship, particularly in the eastern Islamic lands.9
In the meantime, al-Mansur made concrete plans to exert his
authority over the Islamic states of sub-Saharan Africa, using
the ancient theory of the caliphate as his justification.
Al-Mansurs claims represented an attempt by an Early Modern
monarch to reinvigorate an Islamic institution that had been
important during the earliest centuries of Islam, but which
had vanished in all but name after the decline and fall of
the Abbasid Empire.10
The original caliphs were believed to be successors of the
Prophet Muhammad. Their position initially involved
both spiritual and political leadership, which is reflected
in the title øPrince of the Believers.Ó The caliph was
believed to have authority over the entire Muslim community.
Particularly critical to the political legitimacy of the early
caliphs was their association with the house of the Prophet,
their claim to uphold the practices of the true faith, and
their successful expansion and defense of Islamic realms through
military might. So strong was the sanctity of this office
that Muslim potentates continued to give lip service allegiance
to the Abbasid caliphs, long after the latter had lost all
true political authority. After the Mongol conquest
of Baghdad in 1258 destroyed the Abbasid caliphate, the Mamluk
dynasty of Egypt co-opted an Abbasid descendent and moved
him to Cairo as a puppet øcaliphÓ in order to substantiate
their claims to supremacy in the Islamic world. However,
no serious attempts to revive this institution along its original
lines were made until the sixteenth century. At the
same time that the Ottoman dynasty was considering how they
might effectively apply the title of caliph to legitimize
their primary position in the Islamic world, Ahmad al-Mansur
began to openly assert that his caliphal claims better fit
the historic qualifications for the position of øPrince of
It was in his role as the rightful caliph over the Islamic
world that al-Mansur made his approach to the Islamic rulers
of the kingdoms bordering the Sahara on the south.
In letters written to the rulers of Bornu, Kebbi, and Songhay,
al-Mansur asserted his caliphal supremacy and maintained that
he was only attempting to restore Islamic unity as God intended
it, under the rightful leadership of the family of the Prophet.
The sultans letters to the sub-Saharan monarchs emphasized
that he needed their support in order to stem the progress
of the unbelieving Europeans, and to fulfill his role as leader
of holy war to advance the expansion of Islam. Nowhere
in his letters did al-Mansur ever indicate that he viewed
the sub-Saharan lands as a different region from his own territory.
Instead, the clear implication of his message was that, as
members of Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam), the sub-Saharan
Africans should willingly submit to al-Mansur as the rightful
caliph over all Muslims. Submission would bring blessing
and prosperity, while resistance would bring destruction.
The Sadi sultan seems to have been envisioning the reestablishment
of the caliphate in the western lands of Islam; a caliphate
that would span the Sahara on both sides, and would serve
as a challenge to Ottoman supremacy.
Although this idea seems far-fetched to us now, living as
we do in the age of nationalism and self-determination, al-Mansurs
approach was in accordance with historic Islamic ideology.
During the early centuries of Islam, the Umayyad and Abbasid
caliphates managed to hold together vast empires, spanning
large territories that today encompass a number of separate
national entities. During the time of al-Mansur, the
Ottoman empire also brought together many different regions
under one head, while, superficially at least, applying the
title of caliph to their sultan. Al-Mansur had no reason
to think that he couldnt do the same, especially given that
his claims for leadership were better than those of the Ottomans.
In addition, the long-standing economic and religious connections
between North and West Africa only encouraged the sultan to
conceive of these two areas as being part of one community,
which ought to be linked politically as well.
He argued that, as a sharif, he was uniquely qualified to
lead this community, and that the rulers of the sub-Saharan
Islamic states ought to recognize and submit to his authority.
Forced Unity? Al-Mansurs Invasion of West Africa
As is often the case, the practice of implementing al-Mansurs
ideas of a western caliphate was more difficult than its theoretical
conception. The sultan spent several years in negotiation
with the sub-Saharan Borno and Songhay states, and in preparing
his army for an invasion to the south. Although he obtained
a written oath of allegiance from the sultan of the Bornu,12
al-Mansurs attempts to exert his authority over the Songhay
met with outright refusal from their leader, Askia Ishaq II.
As a result, the Sadi sultan launched his invasion of Songhay
in 1591.13 Due to their enormous advantage in firearms and
military organization, al-Mansurs troops were initially quite
successful in conquering the region and annexing it to the
Moroccan empire. Efforts were made to persuade the most
influential members of West African society to willingly give
their allegiance to al-Mansur, and to stabilize the area under
Following this victory, the Sadi scribe al-Fishtali would
proclaim triumphantly, øThe command of al-Mansur was effective
from Nuba to the ocean on the western side . . . (and he gained)
marvelous authority that had never existed for anyone before
However, it would turn out that al-Mansurs authority south
of the Sahara was ephemeral at best. After a short period
of time, a Songhay resistance movement arose, resulting in
many years of armed struggle between the Moroccan conquerors
and the Songhay resistance, and dooming al-Mansurs project
to eventual failure.
If, as I have argued, the regions north and south of the Sahara
have long enjoyed many and varied connections, and if al-Mansurs
justification for his annexation of West Africa fit in with
traditional Islamic ideology, at least two questions are raised
by this failure: 1) What were the reasons for the short duration
of effective Moroccan authority in West Africa? 2) Why
did the West Africans fail to buy into al-Mansurs explanation
for the invasion?
Regarding the first question, many historians explain this
failure as being due to several factors. First of all,
they believe that al-Mansur was simply interested in milking
profits from the West African gold mines, and that he made
no effort to develop the infrastructure for a more permanent
annexation of Songhay lands. Secondly, they argue that
Morocco lacked the capacity to effectively incorporate the
large Songhay territory, separated from southern Morocco by
miles of desert wasteland, into the Moroccan empire.
Although their superiority in weaponry gave the Moroccans
an initial advantage in their battle with the Songhay, the
permanent annexation of this territory to Morocco was a different
The Moroccan historian Abd al-Krim Kurayyim contests the first
explanation for the failure of al-Mansurs endeavor to annex
West Africa to his empire. He argues that the Moroccans
attempted to establish a stable administration for governing
the country, and even made efforts to improve agricultural
methods in the region. Kurayyim maintains that not all
of the Songhay resented the arrival of the Moroccans, and
lists a number of cases in which the invaders received a warm
response.16 He places most
of the blame for the disorder that befell West Africa after
the Moroccan invasion upon the Songhay leaders who continued
to resist Moroccan authority, leading to a protracted guerilla
war throughout the Songhay regions.17 In addition,
misfortunes that occurred within Morocco itself, including
an extended plague after 1596, could be adduced to help explain
the Moroccan failure to capitalize upon their military victory
through effectively annexing the Songhay territory.
Another scholar, Lansine Kaba, disagrees with Kurayyims favorable
interpretation of Moroccan efforts to integrate the Songhay
lands into their empire. Kaba mostly attributes the
Moroccan failure to the second factor listed above, i.e. that
Morocco lacked the capacity to effectively incorporate Songhay
territory. Kaba argues that, while al-Mansur had developed
a highly sophisticated army (by sixteenth-century standards),
the Moroccan governmental, societal, and economic infrastructure
lacked the same degree of sophistication. Indeed, in
order to develop such an army, al-Mansur had been forced to
rely upon mercenary troops mostly recruited from Andalusian
refugees, European renegades, and Turkish mercenaries.
Since these troops lacked any long-term identification with
Morocco itself, they were untrustworthy, and tended to be
overly harsh in their administration, and unreliable in their
commitment to the sultans goals. Finally, Kaba argues
that al-Mansurs invasion of the Songhay was carried on mostly
with Europe in view. Desirous of keeping pace
with the European powers, al-Mansur sought to unite West Africa
under his authority, in order that he might be able to utilize
its resources to strengthen his position vis-a-vis the other
Mediterranean states. However, instead of achieving
this goal, Kaba believes that the invasion turned out to be
a complete disaster, which øfinally swallowed up both the
conqueror and the conquered.Ó18 Not only was the effect of continued
warfare devastating to the economy and society of West Africa,
but the cost of supporting a long-distance foreign war placed
undue strain upon the Moroccan economy. It drained away
resources that could have been better used elsewhere in developing
an infrastructure that would be able to compete economically
with the Europeans.
Regarding my second question (as to why the West Africans
did not buy into al-Mansurs justification for his invasion),
I again refer to the works of Kurayyim and Kaba. As
Kurayyim points out, the sources indicate that a number of
the Songhay leaders did initially welcome the Moroccans, and
seemed prepared to cooperate with their authority. However,
the documented abuses undertaken against the local population
by Moroccan troops seem to have turned the populace against
the invaders. This hearkens back to Kabas point that
the mercenary nature of al-Mansurs troops may not have been
the most advantageous for establishing a long-term connection
with the Songhay lands.
Indeed, it seems that most West Africans believed that al-Mansurs
claims to unify the Islamic community were made for self-serving
reasons, and not for the purpose of advancing the cause of
Islam. Their experience of this øunification projectÓ
was violence, turmoil, the loss of their possessions, and
general anarchy.19 Whether the rebellious
Songhay are blamed for this chaos (per Kurayyim), the mercenary
soldiers (per Kaba), or the disingenuous aims of al-Mansur
himself (per many other historians, including Dahiru Yahya,)20 the end result was not conducive to garnering West
African support for a greater Western Caliphate under the
headship of al-Mansur.
Kaba makes one other observation that is relevant to our discussion.
Regarding the Songhay resistance, he writes that the retreat
of the Askia and his entourage into the historic Songhay heartland
øgalvanized the resistance and gave a ¥national character
In a footnote, Kaba explains that resistance to the abuses
inflicted upon the populace by the Moroccan army øassumed
a ¥national character in that it entailed broad trans-ethnic
feelings hostile to alien rule and based on some type of common
Thus, Kaba alludes to the beginnings of proto-nationalist
feelings in West Africa, some of the earliest forebodings
of a mindset that was to become predominant in Africa and
the rest of the world during the nineteenth and twentieth
The Divisive Impact of Nationalism
After the time of al-Mansur, no further attempts were made
to reinvigorate the Islamic institution of the caliphate in
its role of providing political and spiritual leadership for
the entire Muslim world. Although the Ottoman Empire
maintained the position of caliph down to the twentieth century,
the Ottomans never relied upon this title as a key foundation
for their political legitimacy. In fact, the caliphate
became so unimportant to the Ottomans that several modern
scholars have debated over whether they ever asserted caliphal
supremacy at all.
Perhaps the Ottomans neglect of this title was simply a sign
of changing times. Overarching unifying concepts, such
as the Islamic ideal of the caliphate, have not done well
during the modern period. Since the early nineteenth
century, the concepts of the greater Islamic community and
the caliphate have increasingly been unable to combat the
rising tide of nationalism, and its accompanying fragmentation
into smaller and smaller communities. While it is outside
the scope of this paper to trace the rise of the nationalist
ideal, suffice it to say that nationalism is a western concept,
developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
which has had mixed results when applied to the non-western
world.24 Because of the economic and
political power of the West, and also because nationalist
ideologies have proven to be an effective means by which local
elites in developing nations can legitimize their authority,
the nationalist ideal became almost exclusively dominant throughout
the world during the twentieth century. This was true
even in states that presumed to adhere to more universalizing
doctrines such as Muslim nations and communist countries.
Certainly the concept of the modern nation state, which includes
such ideas as the right of self-determination, common citizenship
available to all inhabitants of a country, and other related
notions, promises many advantages to developing states.
And yet, what it has frequently delivered is increased inequality
and ethnic conflicts, øborder warsÓ over proper boundaries
between lands, and the subdivision of regions that once functioned
effectively as a unit into smaller entities that have trouble
competing on their own. Many of the modern nation-states
are clearly colonial constructs arising from Western political
decisions during the colonial period. These include
the rather spurious distinction between the nations of Syria,
Lebanon, and Jordan, states that had no separate identity
prior to the intervention of the colonizers. Another
example is the linking of the Christian southern Sudan with
the Islamic northern Sudan (a decision that has resulted in
a long and bloody civil war that continues to this day).
It is also interesting how often a nationalist conception
seems to develop in contradistinction to an opposing øother,Ó
such as we saw earlier in this paper when we observed the
beginnings of a Songhay ønationalismÓ coming into being only
in response to the oppression of the Moroccan invaders.
In the same way, it can be argued that Palestinian nationalism
has developed only in response to the imposition of the Israeli
nationalist vision, or that Bosnian nationalism arose in response
to Serbian aggressiveness. The Armenians coexisted relatively
peacefully with the Ottoman Turks for hundreds of years prior
to the late nineteenth century, when the simultaneous development
of Turkish and Armenian nationalism led to the infamous Armenian
massacres. In the same way, similar examples could be
multiplied with regard to Africa and other parts of the developing
Regionalism is also a by-product of the West, arising from
the nineteenth-century drive to understand and categorize
the world, particularly in a way that made it clear that the
West was the most advanced civilization on earth. Regionalism
tends to essentialize certain areas according to characteristics
that are felt to typify them. Sometimes the process
of regionalism is spurred on by the inhabitants of those regions
themselves. In the case of North Africa, the dominant
culture has been a self-identified Arab culture. Believing
Arab cultural values to be superior to Berber or sub-Saharan
cultural values, the Maghrib has chosen to identify itself
with the Arab world, even during periods of dominance by Berber
dynasties such as the Almoravid or Merinid dynasties.
By focusing solely upon this self-chosen identification, however,
scholars run the risk of missing very important cultural contributions
by subordinate groups within the society.
Towards a New Conception of Africa
Through this study, I have sought to demonstrate the long-lasting
connections between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
Although these connections existed centuries before the coming
of Islam, they grew stronger throughout the Islamic period.
During the sixteenth century, the Sadi sultan Ahmad al-Mansur
observed the economic, cultural, and religious connections
between the two regions, and argued that there ought to be
political unification between them as well. And yet,
it was at this point that things broke down, as al-Mansur
was unable to achieve his dream of a caliphate that spanned
both sides of the Sahara. The unification project for
such a broad expanse of territory was too difficult for a
moderately-powerful state, lacking in sophisticated infrastructure,
such as Morocco, to achieve. Despite the existence
of these many inter-connections, they were insufficient to
support political unification.
In fact, if Kabas argument is correct, al-Mansurs attempt
at integrating West Africa into his state had long-lasting
disastrous consequences for both North and West Africa.
By destroying the strongest centralized state in sub-Saharan
Africa, al-Mansurs invasion did irreparable damage to the
trans-Saharan trade routes that had enriched both Morocco
and West Africa. Instead, this trade increasingly began
to be diverted to the south, where it was accessed by European
merchants along the Gold and Slave Coasts. And the process
of devoting all of the states efforts towards the invasion
exhausted the Sadi dynasty, making it extremely vulnerable
to outside interference and collapse, once misfortune hit
in the form of the plague and various famines. The sons
of al-Mansur tore his dynasty apart after his death, and Morocco
would never again challenge for supremacy in the Islamic or
Mediterranean worlds. In attempting to establish a form
of African political unity, al-Mansur hastened division and
decline, leaving West Africa unprotected before the European
onslaught that was to come in the following centuries.25
Perhaps we make the same mistake as did al-Mansur, albeit
with less disastrous results. We assume that where there
are economic, religious, and cultural connections, political
connection ought to exist as well. Or, conversely, we
conclude that if there is not a dominant political or ethnic
connection between different areas, then the two areas ought
to be considered as separate and distinct. One of our
primary modern conceptions for viewing the world, nationalism,
develops unity among people by emphasizing their distinctions
from others. This naturally leads to division and conflict.
Thus the Maghrib, which has been unified under different dynasties
several times in the past, cannot get past the nationalist
barrier to achieve any degree of Maghribi unity today.
This is true even though attempts have been made towards this
end, and it is clear that there would be benefits for
all the countries of the Maghrib through the achievement of
some higher degree of cooperation between them.
In contrast to nationalism and regionalism, I have argued
that the historic Muslim ideal of the caliphate established
connections that lasted for centuries between regions that
we would view as being very different from one another.
These connections did not always involve strong political
control. One example of this can be seen in the decentralized
approach that the Ottomans took towards ruling the provinces
on the outer reaches of their sizable empire. Another
example is found in the efforts made by sub-Saharan rulers
in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries to have their
authority officially approved by the puppet Abbasid caliph
in Cairo. Simply having this seal of approval legitimized
the Islamic status of these African kingdoms, and tied them
in with the Islamic heartlands, no matter how remote their
states might be.
Certainly I am not recommending a return to the Islamic caliphal
ideal, nor could such a thing be brought about even if it
were attempted. The modern world is different from the
medieval world in substantial ways, and there is no way to
turn back the clock. Still, I think it is time to recognize
some of the weaknesses of the modern concepts of nationalism
and regionalism, and to work to move beyond the limitations
that they place upon us.
How can scholars overcome the pitfalls of the blinders that
are set up by these modern concepts? If I were to propose
another model for viewing the continent of Africa, I would
be falling into the same regionalist trap that I am criticizing.
Instead, we, as teachers and scholars, must make a concerted
effort in our instruction and research to point out the unifying
connections between regions that often go over-looked in todays
world. If we can teach our students to think in the
same way, perhaps tomorrows leaders can emerge as somewhat
more broad-minded than our generation has proven to be, and
less limited by constructs that are viewed as being hard and
fast. At any rate, it would be worth our best efforts
to attempt to achieve such results.
1 The four countries of North Africa that
are located to the west of Egypt (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria,
and Morocco) are usually referred to as a group by the term
øMaghrib,Ó which comes from an Arab word meaning øthe farthest
2 Edward William Bovill, The Golden Trade
of the Moors: West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century
(Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1995), 22.
Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1958.
3 Since my expertise is in western Africa,
most of my examples are derived from that region. However,
many of the same points can be made about East Africa as well.
For more information on the Islamic connections between the
regions north and south of the Sahara in East Africa, see
Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels, editors, The History
of Islam in Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000).
In particular, the following articles in that volume deal
with the spread of Islam in East Africa: øThe East African
Coast, c. 780 to 1900 CEÓ by Randall Pouwels, pp. 251-272;
øEast Central AfricaÓ by Edward A. Alpers, pp. 303-326.
4 On this point, Levtzion and Pouwels write
øThough merchants opened routes and exposed isolated societies
to external influences, they did not engage in the propagation
of Islam. Conversion to Islam was the work of men of
religion who communicated primarily with local rulers.Ó Ibid.,
5 Further information on the role of Sufi brotherhoods
in North and West Africa can be found in an article by R.G.
Jenkins, entitled øThe Evolution of Religious Brotherhoods
in North and Northwest Africa, 1523-1900Ó in Studies in
West African Islamic History, edited by J.R. Willis.
(London: Frank Cass and Co., 1979), 40-77.
6 One recent study of the Haratin in Morocco
is found in Remco Ensels book, Saints and Servants in
Southern Morocco (Leiden: Brill, 1999). Ensels
research on the Haratin took place mostly in an oasis community
in southeast Morocco, and it focuses upon the relationship
between the Haratin and the sharifian nobility of this community.
However, Ensel also touches upon the effects of modernism
upon the traditional roles of the Haratin and upon their exodus
from the rural areas to the urban centers of Morocco.
Ensel also includes an extensive bibliography for further
research on this topic.
7 For more on the early Arab writings about
sub-Saharan Africa, see Nehemia Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins,
editors, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African
History (Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner Publications, 2000).
Original publication: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
This work contains an exhaustive collection of excerpts from
the early Arabic writers on sub-Saharan Africa, translated
into English by J.F.P. Hopkins, which makes these texts extremely
accessible to the modern reader.
8 These comments by Muhammad al-Shaykh are
recorded in an anonymous history of the Sadi dynasty, entitled
Tarikh al-dawla al-Sadiyya al-Daraiyya al-Tagmadertiyya,
edited by George Colin, Institut des Hautes Etudes Marocaines
(Rabat: Editions Felix Moncho, 1934). This text has
been translated into French, and is included in a collection
of Moroccans sources by E. Fagnan, entitled Extraits inedits
relatifs au Maghreb: Geographie et Histoire (Alger, 1925).
The quotes mentioned above are found on p. 381 of Fagnans
9 Abu Faris Abd al-Aziz al-Fishtali. Manahil
al-safa fi maathir mawalina al-shurafa. Editor:
Abd al-Karim Kurayyim. (Rabat, 1973). This is the one
surviving work from the pen of al-Fishtali, the chief scribe
of al-Mansurs state, and it is considered to be the main
source for the dynasty of al-Mansur. The other leading
writer from al-Mansurs court was Ahmad Ibn al-Qadi.
A number of Ibn al-Qadis works survive to this day.
His primary panegyric work is entitled Al-Muntaqa
al-maqsur ¥ala maathir al-khilafat Abi al-Abbas al-Mansur.
Editor: Muhammad Razzouq. (Rabat: Mektabat al-Maarif, 1986).
This work consists mainly of a meditation upon the great character
qualities of al-Mansur which, the scholar argues, showed him
to be the rightful caliph of Islam. The surviving poetry
of al-Masfiwi can be found in Manahil al-Safa, as well
as in Kitab al-Istiqsa li-akhbar duwal al-Maghrib
al-Aqsa by the nineteenth-century Moroccan historian,
Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Khalid al-Nasiri al-Salawi. The
section on al-Mansur is found in Volume Five of this work.
This volume has been translated into French by al-Nasiris
son, Muhammad al-Nasiri, and appears in Archives Marocaines
34 (1936). The poetry of al-Masfiwi, as well as that
of the other main poets of the age of al-Mansur, is analyzed
in a recent book by the Moroccan scholar Najala al-Marini,
entitled Al-Shar al-Maghribi fi ¥asr al-Mansur al-Sadi
(Rabat: Nashurat Kuliat al-Adab wa al-Alum al-Insania, 1999).
The panegyric role of the works of Ibn al-Qadi and al-Fishtali
is analyzed in detail in my upcoming dissertation, entitled
øChosen by God to Rule: The Revival of the Caliphate and Political
Legitimacy in Early Modern MoroccoÓ (Ph.D. diss., University
of California Santa Barbara, 2001).
10 The Abbasid dynasty, known as the second
great caliphate of Islam, arose in Baghdad after the overthrow
of the Umayyads in 750 CE. The dynasty finally came
to an end when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and destroyed the
caliphate in 1258 CE, however the Abbasid caliphs had lost
most of their political power approximately 300 years before
that date. From the mid-tenth century to the mid-thirteenth
century, political power in the Islamic east was divided between
a number of sultanates, most of whom looked to the Abbasids
as figureheads who could legitimize their reigns. These
dynasties, such as the Buyids, Ghaznavids, and Seljuks, provided
political and military protection for the Abbasid caliphs,
in exchange for being formally recognized by these caliphs
as Gods designated political leaders (sultans) for their
11 For information on the Ottoman use of
the title of caliph, see the following works: H.A.R. Gibb.
øLufti Pasha on the Ottoman CaliphateÓ in Oriens 15
(1962), 287-95; Colin Imber, øSuleyman as Caliph of the Muslims:
Ebus-Suuds Formulation of Ottoman Dynastic IdeologyÓ in
Soliman le Magnifique et son Temps, edited by Gilles
Veinstein. (Paris: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences
Sociales, 1992); Colin Imber. øIdeals and Legitimation
in early Ottoman historyÓ in Suleyman the magnificent and
His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World,
edited by Metin Kunt and Christine Woodhead. (London:
Longman, 1995); Chantal de la Verone, øRelations entre le
Maroc et la Turquie dans la seconde moitie du XVI et le XVII
siecleÓ in Revue de lOccident musulman et de la Mediterranee
15-16 (1973), pgs. 391-401.
12 Al-Fishtali includes a detailed account
of the negotiations between al-Mansur and the Bornu in Manahil
al-Safa, 67-73. Apparently, the Bornu sent a delegation
to al-Mansur while he was in Fes, requesting military aid
to assist them in their holy war against the infidels in their
region. Al-Mansur responded that he could not provide
the requested aid until the sultan of the Bornu, Mai Idris
Aloma, took an oath of allegiance to the sultanate of al-Mansur.
Al-Fishtali asserts that Idris Aloma agreed to these conditions,
and signed an oath of allegiance, which the Sadi scribe drew
up himself, and which he appends to his account of the negotiations
with the Bornu. The main problem with this account is
that it does not fit with subsequent events. There is
no indication anywhere that al-Mansur provided the military
aid that Idris Aloma had asked of him. Indeed, given
his planned assault upon the Songhay, it is doubtful that
the Sultan would have had the resources to devote to such
an alliance with the Bornu. And there is also no record
that the Bornu aided the Moroccans in any way when al-Mansur
later launched his offensive against the Songhay capital in
Gao. Indeed, there is no further mention anywhere about
this supposed alliance, a fact that seems very strange given
the strong language in which the agreement was couched.
In his 1972 article, "Songhay, Bornu and Hausaland in
the sixteenth century," John Hunwick speculates that
al-Mansur was unable to fulfill his promise of military aid
due to his other obligations and that consequently "no
appeal for support was made to Bornu by al-Mansur when his
forces were engaged in subduing Songhay during the last decade
of the century." John Hunwick, in History of West
Africa, Volume One, ed. J.F.A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), 211-212.
Al-Fishtalis account is largely included in al-Nasiris history,
almost word-for-word from Manahil al-Safa, and can
be found in the Archives Marocaines French translation
(cited above), 178-192.
13 A considerable amount of scholarship
has been produced on the topic of the Moroccan invasion of
the Songhay state. Among the most important works:
Henry de Castries, øLa Conquete du Soudan par el-Mansour (1591)Ó
in Hesperis 3, 1923, 433-488; John Hunwick, øAhmad
Baba and the Moroccan Invasion of the Sudan, 1591Ó in Journal
of Historical Society of Nigeria 2 (1962), 319-24; Evariste
Levi Provencal, øUn document inedit sur lexpedition sadide
au SoudanÓ in Arabica Occidentalia 2 (1955), 89-96;
Raymond Mauny. øLexpedition marocaine dOuadane (Mauritanie)
vers 1543-1544Ó in Bulletin de lInstitut Francais dAfrique
Noire 11 (1949), 129-140; L. Mougin, øLes Premiers Sultans
Saadides et le SaharaÓ in Revue de lOccident musulman
et de la Mediterranee 20 (1975), 169-187; Georges Pianel,
øLes Preliminaires de la conquete de Soudan par Mawlay Ahmad
al-MansurÓ in Hesperis 40 (1953), 185-97; John Ralph
Willis, øMorocco and the Western Sudan: Fin de siecle
- fin de temps. Some Aspects of Religion and Culture
to 1600,Ó in The Maghreb Review 14:1-2 (1989), 91-95.
In addition to these articles, the invasion is also discussed
in Weston F. Cook, Jr., The Hundred Years War for Morocco:
Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern
Muslim World. (Boulder : Westview Press, 1994),
as well as in the works of Bovill, Kaba, Yahya, Hunwick, and
Kurayyim, referred to elsewhere in these notes.
14 An example of this is the Sultans letter
to Abu Hafs Umar, the qadi (Islamic judge) of Timbuktu, prior
to the invasion of Songhay. Al-Mansur writes, øWe addressed
this noble letter to you, so that you might be the first to
respond to (the) call (to submission to al-Mansurs caliphate),
and give answer to its summons; and so that you might through
it raise your voice in those lands, and make clear to people
these gleaming proofs, for them to learn from them what God
has made incumbent upon them as regards obedience to this
noble Prophetic imamate, without which practices (of religion)
are not accepted by God.Ó øLetter from Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur
to Qadi ¥Umar b. Mahmud, dated Shawwal 998/August 1590Ó translated
into English and included in John Hunwicks book, Timbuktu
and the Songhay Empire (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 300-301.
Not only does this book include an English translation of
al-Sadis Tarikh al-Sudan, the main West African
account of the Songhay empire, including the invasion by al-Mansur,
but it also includes a number of other accounts of the invasion,
as well as some diplomatic letters related to the conquest.
Although al-Mansur attempted to persuade Qadi Umar to support
his regime, the religious leadership (ulama) of Timbuktu
remained so hostile to the Moroccan invaders that the Moroccans
were forced to export all of the leading ulama from
Timbuktu to Marrakech in 1594 in attempt to quell rebellions
in that city.
15 Al-Fishtali, quoted in Al-Nasiri, Archives
Marocaines 34, 217.
16 Abd al-Krim Kurayyim, Al-Maghrib fi¥ahd
al-dawla al-Sadiyya (Casablanca: Sharikat al-Taba wa
al-Nashr, 1978), 164-165.
17 Ibid., 165-171. In these pages,
Kurayyim presents his argument that the majority of the Moroccan
pashas ruled justly, and did their best to establish peace
and security in the former Songhay lands. He also suggests
that al-Mansur took concrete steps to deal with Moroccan abuses
every time they were brought to his attention, and that he
established an administrative system that was actually functioning
effectively for the majority of al-Mansurs reign.
18 Lansine Kaba, øArchers, Musketeers, and
Mosquitoes: The Moroccan Invasion of the Sudan and the Songhay
Resistance (1591-1612),Ó in Journal of African History,
22 (1981), 457-475.
19 The Sudanese historian al-Sadi put it
this way, in his seventeenth-century work, Tarikh al-Sudan:
øThe Sadian army found the land of the Sudan at this
time to be one of the most favored lands of God Most High
in any direction, and the most luxurious, secure, and prosperous,
thanks to the baraka (blessing) of the most auspicious,
the divinely-favoured Commander of the Faithful Askia al-hajj
Muhammad b. Abi Bakr, because of his justice and the strictness
of his all-encompassing authority, which was as effective
at the borders of his kingdom as it was in his palace . .
. . All of this changed then: security turned to fear, luxury
was changed into affliction and distress, and prosperity became
woe and harshness. People began to attack one another
throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, raiding
and preying upon property, (free) persons and slaves.
Such iniquity became general, spreading, and becoming
ever more serious and scandalous.Ó This selection is
excerpted from John Hunwicks translation of Tarikh al-Sudan
in Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire (cited above), 192-193.
20 Dahiru Yahya, Morocco in the Sixteenth
Century: Problems and Patterns in an African Foreign Policy
(Harlow, Essex: Longmans Press, 1981). Yahya is one
of the few historians who write in English to seriously consider
the ideology put forth by al-Mansurs panegyrist, al-Fishtali.
Yahya argues that al-Mansurs main motivation for the invasion
of Songhay was to gain control of the gold trade, but that
the sultan had an ideological problem in justifying the invasion
of another Islamic regime that had been living at peace with
his state. For this reason, states Yahya, al-Mansur
was forced to develop the elaborate ideological justification
regarding øuniting the lands of Islam,Ó so that he could quiet
the objections of the Moroccan religious leaders who took
issue with the invasion. While Yahya should be credited
for his extensive archival work and his thoroughness in dealing
with the original source materials, I believe that his interpretation
of the reasons for the development of al-Mansurs ideology
is too limited. Yahya fails to take into account other
evidence demonstrating that al-Mansur was attempting to advance
the same ideology in Cairo and Damascus, locations which would
have no bearing at all on his invasion of the Sudan.
In addition, Yahya fails to conclusively demonstrate the existence
of the Islamic opposition to the Sudanese project that he
claims motivated the development of al-Mansurs ideological
23 Interestingly, the Moroccan historian
Mohammed Hajji has argued that the 16th and 17th
centuries witnessed the beginnings of Moroccan nationalism
as well. In his article, øLIdee de Nation au Maroc
et quelques-uns de ses aspects aux XVI et XVII sieclesÓ (Hesperis
Tamuda 9, 1968, 109-121), Hajji maintains that the Moroccan
resistance against Portuguese and Spanish territorial incursions
represent the earliest expressions of a Moroccan national
consciousness, and that the same resistance displayed against
Turkish attempts to exert authority over the region show that
the Moroccan response included an element of national consciousness
that superceded religious affiliations.
24 For a thought-provoking and convincing
argument regarding the foundations and growth of nationalism
in the modern world, see Benedict Andersons monumental work,
Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983; revised
and extended edition published by Verso 1991).
25 Kaba makes this point when he writes
øWith the disaster in the Sudan, the last great Arab hope,
unfortunately, came tumbling down. Then there emerged
a Europe-centered dominion of the economy from which the Maghrib
and West Africa have yet, nearly 400 years later, to recover.Ó
Copyright: © 2001 by the American Historical
Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle. Format by Chris Hale.