Islam's Spread in West Africa

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  • 0:01 Spread of Islam
  • 0:54 Berbers & Trade
  • 2:05 Containment & Mixing
  • 2:53 Reform & Jihad
  • 3:26 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 explains the gradual spread of Islam into West Africa. In doing so, it discusses the influence of the Berbers and the trans-Saharan caravan trade of the Saharan region.

Spread of Islam

Many times when we think of a people group converting to a new faith we picture missionaries trekking through jungles to meet undiscovered people groups. Once there, the missionaries begin sharing their faith in a very intentional manner. The people group then decides whether to accept the new faith or send the missionaries packing. Although this scene has played out in certain parts of the world, it is not at all how Islam, a religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, spread throughout West Africa.

As we'll see in today's lesson, Islam spread throughout West Africa slowly, sort of like how water seeps into packed sand. In other words, rather than being intentional and instant, it was circumstantial and gradual. When speaking of circumstance, the main thing that introduced Islam to West Africa was economic trade.

Berbers & Trade

To explain, somewhere between about the 8th and 9th centuries North African Islamic Arabs known as Berbers began making their way into West Africa. Traveling by way of camel, the Berbers brought with them things like silk and salt in hopes that West Africans would be willing to swap for gold.

Fortunately for the Berbers, the West Africans were willing to part with some of their gold and soon the trans-Saharan caravan trade, a system of extensive trade routes that connected the Saharan region to the outside world, was born. This caravan trade was at its peak from about the 9th to 13th centuries. During this time, the sands of the West African desert became sort of like super highways as goods came bustling in and out of the region.

In fact, some tales assert that just one caravan could have up to 10,000 camels or more. Just imagine all they could carry! However, many historians will argue that it was not the massive amounts of goods it transported that made the trans-Saharan caravan trade so impactful. Instead, it was the Islamic faith, which the Berbers carried with them, that left a lasting mark on the people of West Africa.

Containment & Mixing

Now, as we said earlier, the area's conversion to Islam did not happen overnight. It wasn't like the Berbers came preaching and all of a sudden whole villages converted to Islam. Instead, it was very gradual. In fact, historical accounts suggest that at first West African kings tried to contain the growth of Islam by dictating that Islamic communities remain separate from West African ones. However, due to the large influx of Arabs into the area, this became a rather vain attempt.

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