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The Songhai Empire: Religion & Social Structure

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

Any teacher (or student) of secondary and post-secondary students searching for lesson plans on world history or ancient African history, here's a lesson for you! The information in this lesson will cover the Songhai Empire and its religion and social structure.

The Songhai Empire

The Songhai were a people in West Africa located along the Niger River who were initially overshadowed by the Mali Empire. As the Malian Empire's strength weakened, the power and strength of the Songhai grew immensely, and eventually the Mali Empire fell to the Songhai. Early converts to the Islamic religion, the strength of the Songhai Empire was predicated by the Islamic faith and powerful Muslim leaders like Sonni Ali and Muhammad Askia. The university at Timbuktu was also a central draw of the empire and drew students from across Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.

Religion Among the Songhai

The Songhai Empire was the strongest Muslim state in Sub-Saharan Africa during its time from the 14th through the 16th century. In 1010, Muslims from the Middle East and Northern Africa began to move into their region of the continent, and the Songhai became early converts to the religion, especially among the ruling class. Before the upper echelons of the empire began to convert to Islam, traditional and ethnic-based religions were practiced among the Songhai.

These religions were based in ancestor worship with additional canon associated with different creation gods and lesser deities with associative properties like war, fertility, and metalworking. However, the lower classes among the Songhai would remain loyal to their traditional and cultural religions, with the ruling class espousing tolerance for other religions. For example, practitioners of magic called Sohanti were found in the empire during its entire history and never made the conversion to Islam.

The government system of the empire was predicated upon Sharia Law, with strict rules and regulations for men and women found in the Quran. It was due to the Islamic faith that the Songhai Empire became the powerful trading state that it was, and a leader in the gold, salt, and slave trade between West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. When Songhai ruler Muhammad Askia made the Hajj, a pilgrimage required of all able Muslims, he did so in grand fashion. He brought as much gold as he could with him on his trip to show the quality and quantity of the main natural resource of the Songhai Empire.

Timbuktu was established sometime around 1100 CE, during the time of the Mali Empire. Its ideal location in the Sahara made it the perfect trading post for gold and salt, but overtime it became known for its cultural ties to the Islam faith. The oldest mosques in West Africa are found in Timbuktu; Djinguereber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahya became centers of learning for all Muslims. Most of the scholars of Timbuktu were Muslims from Mecca and Egypt, and by 1450 numbered more than 25,000.

In 1468, Timbuktu was added to the Songhai Empire by Sonni Ali,l and it continued as a center of the Islamic faith in Africa. When Muhammad Askia became ruler in 1493, he used the scholars at Timbuktu as his moral and legal counselors, and due to his extreme patronage the trade city saw its greatest point of intellectual and economic power where merchants from North Africa would gather to buy and sell salt, gold, slaves, and knowledge.

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