Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi
Born in Timbuktu in 1596, Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi wrote, in Arabic, a chronicle entitled Tarikh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan). The document addresses the political, cultural, and religious history of the Songhay state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it also offers detailed accounts of various states in the Niger River valley into al-Saadi’s own day. Al-Saadi was particularly interested in the impact of Islamic thought and culture on the African kingdoms, as the following excerpt demonstrates. The document was discovered by a German explorer in the 1850s during his visit to Timbuktu.
Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, trans. John Hunwick (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 38–40.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī
Al-Bakrī was born in Spain, and it appears that he never left that country. However, he collected information from people he met who had traveled to the Sahara and the Sudan, and he published his findings in a work called The Book of Routes and Realms (Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik). Al-Bakrī, who died in 1094, was famous for his curiosity about the geography, languages, and natural landscape of places he had not himself visited. The greater part of his major book is still unpublished, but the following section provides insight into the changing religious landscape in Ghana in the early eleventh century.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī, “Ghāna and the Customs of Its Inhabitants,” trans. J. F. P. Hopkins, in N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 79–81.
In the medieval period Ethiopia became a multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious state in which the kings limited the church’s conversion efforts. Nevertheless, the kings continued to emphasize their Christian identity, and this factor is reflected in their adoption and endorsement of the Fetha Nagast, or Law of the Kings, in the mid-fifteenth century. This legal code had originally been written in Arabic by a Coptic Christian in Egypt, probably in the mid-thirteenth century. While living under Muslim rule, the Copts were allowed to adopt portions of Justinian’s law code and the resolutions of church councils for their own governance. Translated from Greek, and with many Biblical passages added, the code connected Egyptian Christians to their Byzantine, Roman, and Judeo-Christian heritage, founding the basis of law squarely in that tradition. The Ethiopian monarchs had the Arabic source translated into Ge’ez (the state language of Ethiopia at the time), and the translator added a section on kingship, a portion of which is offered below. The Law of the Kings remained the law in Ethiopia until 1930, when Emperor Haile Selassie I issued the country’s first modern constitution.
Excerpt from The Fetha Nagast, trans. Paulos Tzadua, ed. Peter L. Strauss (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009), 271–273.
Amda Seyon was a fourteenth century king of the Solomonid Dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974. The name of the dynasty, Solomonid, derives from the Ethiopian belief that the kings of Aksum (whom the Solomonids believed were their ancestors) were descended from King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. The kings of Aksum and the later Solomonids were Christian, and their king Amda Seyon, led them into warfare in 1329 against Muslims in the neighboring state of Ifat (in north-east Ethiopia). The Solomonids also fought against other neighboring states, including Christians and animists; however, the Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon portrays the war between the Solomonids and Ifat as a religious war between Christians and Muslims. The following excerpt features the king encouraging his army to fight on, paraphrasing the book of Psalms in the process.
The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia, trans. and ed. G. W. B. Huntingford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 67, 69-71.
Ismail ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir
The religiously inspired uprising against the British in Sudan during the 1880s is associated with the figure of the self-styled “Mahdi.” However, the primary motivation of Muhammad Ahmad Ibn Abdallah (1844–1885), who took on the title Mahdi (“rightly guided” or “messiah”) was to reform Islam from within. Similar to other early modern Islamic reformers, beginning with ‘Abd al-Wahhab in eighteenth-century Arabia, the Mahdi aimed to eliminate Sufi brotherhoods and remove the (to his mind) abominable medieval aberrations from Islam. The Mahdi’s anti-imperialist stance against the British was thus incidental: the British happened to occupy Egypt and to be moving on the Sudan in the midst of his anti-Sufism campaigns. The British focused on the siege of Khartoum in 1883, but this contemporary biographer of the Mahdi focuses on the renovation of Islam.
Haim Shaked, The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi: A Historical Study of ‘Kitab Sa’adat al-Mustahdi bi-Sirat al-Imam al-Mahdi’ (The Book of the Bliss of Him Who Seeks Guidance by the Life of the Imam al-Mahdi) (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1978), 66–68.
One of the great world travelers of all time, Ibn Battuta was an educated Moroccan who journeyed throughout Africa, the Middle East, Persia, and Asia. In 1354, at age fifty, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his travels, the Rihla (The Journey), to Ibn Juzayy, a court secretary in Morocco. Both men therefore had a role to play in shaping the narrative.
Ibn Battuta, “Mali,” from Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, trans. and ed. by H. A. R. Gibb. (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1929), 323–327, 329–330.
Archaeologists working in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana in 2006 may have found the oldest evidence of a form of human ritual behavior. One cavern contains a large rock, roughly 20 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, that resembles a giant python, with the natural features of the stone forming its eye and mouth. While its resemblance to a reptile may be natural, there are also several hundred man-made grooves along its side, indicating an attempt to replicate scales with fashioned tools. Spearheads were also found at the site, and similar ones in the area have been dated to 77,000 years ago. Researchers have concluded that this was a worship site for the inhabitants of the region in this period.
Photograph by Sheila Coulson, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo, Norway. National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061222-python-ritual.html