Arabic Language & Islamic Scholarship Growth in West Africa Video

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  • 0:02 Trade Spreads Culture
  • 0:47 Northern Arabs
  • 1:25 Process of Spread
  • 2:07 Mansa Musa
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the spread of the Islamic faith and Arabic language into Africa. We'll explore Mansa Musa, his pilgrimage, and the University of Timbuktu.

Trade Spreads Culture

Unlike as so often happens, the spread of Islam and the Arabic language in Africa did not come through war or conquest. Instead, it happened slowly, trickling through the region like water seeping through densely packed sand. Today, we'll discuss this process as we take a look at how Islamic culture and the Arabic language infiltrated Africa.

Stated simply, the Arabic language and the Islamic faith came to Africa by way of trade. Trade across the region of West Africa and the Niger River was so booming from about the 10th through 16th centuries that some texts actually refer to the region as the sandy sea, comparing it to thriving ocean trade routes. Camels were even called the ships of the desert.

Northern Arabs

One of the very first groups of merchants to venture into West Africa were Arabs from the north. Loaded down with goods, they carried things like salt and silk, hoping to swap them for West African gold! However, the salt and silk carried by their camels were not the only things the Arabs brought along. They also transported their language and their Islamic faith, a religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. As often happens when two people groups meet, these things soon began to seep into the culture of Africa. Yes, it was a slow process, but it happened all the same.

Process of Spread

There are precious few written records of the process of this spread. Based on the evidence we have, historians believe that, at first, West African kings tried to halt the growth of Islam by dictating that Islamic communities remain set apart from West African ones. Unfortunately for the kings, the influx of Arab merchants was so great that this proved rather futile. As time went on, the rulers of West Africa gave up on this containment plan and parts of the Islamic faith began to mix with the traditional faiths of the Africans. In other words, the African people sort of blended parts of Islam into what they already believed.

Mansa Musa

As time went on, some of the rulers of West Africa actually converted completely over to the Islamic faith. The most famous of these rulers was Mansa Musa, an extremely wealthy West African king. So dedicated to the Islamic faith was this guy, that he actually made a long pilgrimage, or religious journey, to the lands of Arabia! Coming home from this pilgrimage, history tells us that Mansa Musa returned with books upon books written in the Arabic language. Of course, books are no good without teachers to teach them, so he also brought back Islamic religious scholars. With this, the religion of Islam and the Arabic language made its way deeper into African culture.

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