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The Pen, the Sword, and the Crown: Islam and Revolution in Songhay Reconsidered, 1464–1493*

  • Lansiné Kaba (a1)


This paper examines the origin of the Askiya dynasty in Songhay, with an emphasis on the alliance between the militant ‘ulamā’ and the commanders of the northwestern province during the reign of Sonni 'Alī (1464–1492). The inadequacy of Sonni 'Alī's policy for dealing with the polarization in the cities, the increased role of the officers in these political matters, the rise of militant Islam and the division of the army: all these contributed to the downfall of the Sonni dynasty and the subsequent transfer of power to a regime inspired by Islam. The conflict in Timbuktu to which the ‘ulamā’ gave a religious justification precipitated the revolution. This revealed the importance of Islam as a factor of division, a motor for social action and political change. Indeed, many Muslim leaders had come to see themselves as members of a community worthy of ruling a predominantly non-literate country governed by a non-Muslim royalty. But for this they had to rely on the officers, and in particular Muḥammad Ture who, as a high official connected with both the main warring factions, could fulfil all the conditions for success. His victory introduced a new imperial era in the history of Islam in the Western Sudan.



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1 For an overview of sufism and political change in nineteenth-century Africa, despite the differences in leadership and doctrine, see Martin, B. G., Muslim Brotherhoods in 19th-century Africa (Cambridge, 1976); Abun-Nasr, Jamil M., The Tijaniyya: A Sufi Order in the Modern World (Oxford, 1965), contains pertinent remarks on sūfī militancy although the materials for the mainstream Tijaniyya in West Africa under European rule portray the order as an organization aligned on the side of the colonial government in Senegal.

2 See Wallace, Anthony, ‘Revitalization movements’, American Anthropologist, LIX (1956), 264–81. The factors which led to revitalization movements are linked to the stresses, deprivations and alienation which go with such rapid and imposed social change as colonial rule. For Wallace, revitalization indicates a deliberate, organized effort to construct a more satisfying cultural system after many significant aspects of the local culture have been seriously threatened by a pervasive crisis. The militant Songhay clerics displayed such conscious efforts. Although the Timbuktu chronicles did not mention the presence of sūfī orders, they referred to many prominent scholars in such sūfī terms as walī (holy man), taqi (virtuous and pious man), warī (god-fearing) and mukāshif (seer). See al-Rahmān al-Sa'dī, 'abd, Ta'rlkh as-Sūdān (hereafter cited as TaS), edited by Houdas, O. (Paris, 1964), chs. 9–11. These militant clerics hoped to establish a Muslim regime (as al-Ḥajj ‘Umar would initiate one in the nineteenth century).

3 To substantiate this idea of mutual coexistence, see footnotes 12, 13 and 14 below.

4 Jean Rouch, John Hunwick, Nehemia Levtzion and Elias Saad have in part examined this problem. Rouch's strong Afrocentric bias against Islamic politics in Songhay has led him to overlook the force which the Muslims represented in the society in the 1480s. Hunwick's sober analysis of Islam in Songhay, and Levtzion's detailed account of the interaction between religious and social issues, although remarkable, remain silent on the military's role. Elias Saad has examined the crisis in Timbuktu in terms of a struggle on the part of patrician families to preserve their influence. But this plausible view explains little why the scholars and notables succeeded in their struggle against the Sonni régime. See Rouch, Jean, Contribution a l'histoire du Songhay (Dakar, 1953); Hunwick, John, ‘Religion and state in the Songhay empire, 1464–1591’ in Lewis, I. M. (ed.), Islam in Tropical Africa (London, 1966), 296317; Levtzion, Nehemia, ‘The Western Maghrib and the Sūdān’, in Roland, Oliver (ed.), The Cambridge History of Africa, III (Cambridge, 1977), 331462; Ne'meh Saad, Elias, Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables, 1400–1900 (Cambridge, 1983), 3441.

5 For an appreciation of militarization, see TaS, 118; and Kāti, Mahmūd, Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh (hereafter cited as TaF), edited by Houdas, O. (Paris, 1964), 8285. In addition to the infantry and the cavalry, there were units specialized in navigation. Sonni ‘Alī initiated a draft system which touched all men able to bear arms.

6 The new opportunities could involve a more militant response to Sonni ‘Alī's challenge, as Elias Saad has shown; see his Social History of Timbuktu. Among economic developments was the growing role of the Crown in agriculture. Large royal estates with competent overseers and hundreds of slaves in the provinces produced various types of grain including rice in the flooded plains. See Kaba, Lansiné, ‘Power, prosperity and social inequality in Songhay, 1464–1591’, in Scott, Earl P. (ed.), Life Before the Drought: The Savanna-Sahel Zones of Africa (forthcoming).

7 See Goody, Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, 1977); idem (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1968).

8 The notion of party refers here more to a group of people sharing similar attitudes and goals in the dispute than to an open membership political body organized for the purpose of influencing the government.

9 To have an idea of the tension see Levtzion, N., ‘The Western Maghrib and the Sūdān’, and -Triaud, J., Islam et sociétés soudanaises au Moyen Âge (Paris, 1973). For the position of Sonni 'Alī see pp. (253, 254) below.

10 For an understanding of ancient Ghana and Mali, and the Almoravids, see Levtzion, Nehemia, Ancient Ghana and Mali (London, 1973). As for the Arabic sources, see Levtzion, N. and Hopkins, J. F. P., eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, 1981), reviewed by Fisher, H. J., ‘Early Arabic Sources and the Almoravid Conquest of Ghana’, J. Afr. Hist., XXIII, iv (1982), 549560.

11 For an appreciation of both an early exposure to Islam and the maintenance of the ancestral cult, see Niane, Djibril Tamsir, Sunjata: An Epic of Old Mali, trans. Pickett, G. D. (London, 1965).

12 Al-Bakrī, in Levtzion, and Hopkins, , Corpus, 87.

13 Abū, Zayd 'Abd al-Raḥmān Ibn Khaldūn, Histoire des Berbères, trans, de Slane, , III (Paris, 1934), 201. The pattern of separate towns for the indigenous population and the Muslims, with each having its places of worship, was common in the Sudan.

14 Levtzion, N., ‘Islam in West African politics: accommodation and tension between the ‘Ulamā’ and the political authorities’, Cahiers d'études africaines, 71, XVIII, iii (1978), 333345; idem, ‘The Sahara and the Sūdān from the Arab conquest of the Maghrib to the rise of the Almoravids’, in Fage, J. D. (ed.), The Cambridge History of Africa, II (Cambridge, 1978), 678.

15 'Abd Allāh Ibn Battūta, Abū, Voyages, trans. Defrémery, and Sanguinetti, (Paris, 1968), 435.

16 See Cissoko, S. Mody, Tombouctou et l'empire songhay: épanouissement du Soudan nigérien aux 15e–16e siècles (Dakar, 1975).

17 The Mandinka experience shows two contradictory tendencies. First, the Mandinka migrants, a minority in the region but linked to Mali's hegemony, tended to maintain a distinctiveness which could hinder the process of conversion. They looked to their ancestral home in Mali for values, and gave their language a dominant position in the trade across the wide area penetrated by their commercial networks. Secondly, however, the prestige of the Mandinka was associated with the religious overtones of their experience as long-distance traders and followers of a religion having an ecumenical and literary tradition. Somehow, in the mind of the local people, their entrepreneurial success was in part related to the superiority of their religious practice. Therefore, they could command respect, exert an influence, and make converts. See Wilks, Ivor, ‘The Transmission of Islamic Learning in the Western Sūdān’, in Jack, Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, 162197, and Lovejoy, Paul, ‘The Role of the Wangara in the Economic Transformation of the Central Sūdān in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’, J. Afr. Hist, XIX, ii (1978), 173193.

18 Such balance might account for the multi-dimensional religious consciousness characteristic of the Songhay religion: see Rouch, J., La religion des Songhay (Paris, 1960), 848.

19 The Magshāren were a faction of the large Berber Ṣanhāja group of the Western Sahara. See TaS, 17, and chs. 5, 7 and 10; see also Cissoko, , Tombouctou, 5253.

20 See TaS., 92.

21 Ibid. 38.

22 Ibid. 105.

23 Ibid. 40.

24 In ‘Akilu's words, these friends were of greater importance to him than anything else: TaS, 196.

25 Ibid. 41.

26 Ibid. 113–114.

27 This view raises a complex question. It is difficult to assume an incompatibility between devotional Islam and trade since traders can fulfil their canonical obligation almost anywhere. Thus the immorality of trade deals mainly with the unfair practices which increase gains. This immorality is evidenced in the anecdote about the Shaykh Sīdī Yaḥyā al-Tādālsi who ‘dreamed less and less of the Prophet Muhammad’ because of his involvement in trade. See TaS, 82.

28 See Levtzion, , ‘The Western Maghrib and the Sūdān’.

29 See Kaba, L., ‘Les chroniqueurs musulmans et Sonni Ali’, Bulletin de l'IFAN, XL, B, i (1978), 4965.

30 For an appreciation of literary production in Songhay see Charbonneau, A., ‘Essai sur la littérature arabe au Soudan d'après le Tekmilet ed-dibadje d'Ahmed Baba, le tombouctien’, Annuaire de la société d'archéologie de Constantine, XIX, ii (1855).

31 See Kaba, , ‘Power, Prosperity and Social Inequality in Songhay (1464–1591)’.

32 Because the intellectual climate did not spread quickly in the rural areas, the literate tradition could not have a wide effect. See Goody, J. and Watt, Ian, ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in History and Society, xv (1963), 304345.

33 Ibid. See also Levtzion, , ‘The Western Sūdān and the Maghrib’.

34 Goody, , The Domestication, 3233.

35 Hunwick, : ‘Religion and State in the Songhay Empire, 1464–1591’.

36 See TaF, 81–82, and TaS, 103.

37 See El-Hadji, Ravane MBaye, trans., ‘Un aperçu de l'Islam au Songhay ou réponses d'al-Maghili aux questions posées par Askia E. Muhammad, Empereur de Gao’, Bulletin de l'IFAN, XXXIV, B, 2 (1972) and ‘Abd-al, Aziz Batran, ‘A contribution to the biography of Shaikh Muhammad al-Maghili’, J. Afr. Hist, XIV, iii (1973), 381394.

38 Sonni ‘Alī is still remembered among the people of the Niger river valley as an extraordinary monarch. His bravery, his ability to metamorphose himself, and his other prowesses: all these are sung in epics, as in the following quotation:

The Shi flies in the night;

The Shi takes his flight at the first song of the rooster;

The Shi takes any soul;

He kills man between the shoe and the foot;

He kills between the jacket and the neck.

See Rouch, , Contribution a Vetude du Songhay, 184.

39 Hama, Boubou, L'empire songhay (Paris, 1974), 141.

40 Cultural nationalism may be more relevant here than the political nationalism which is aimed at liberating a territory from direct colonial rule. See Kaba, ‘Les chroniqueurs musulmans et Sonni Ali’.

41 Gardet, Louis, La cité musulmane: vie sociale et politique (Paris, 1969), 23. The understanding is that Muslims may participate in the decision-making processes according to their educational level.

42 See MBaye, , ‘Réponses d'al-Maghili’. The idea of consultation is implied in these questions and answers. Thus the Askiya Muhammad is implicitly portrayed as a good Muslim sovereign because he sought the scholars’ advice before making important laws.

43 Cissoko and Hunwick think that Fara, the region of ‘Alī's mother, was located in Hausaland while MBaye situates it in Dahomey (present-day Benin).

44 See Cissoko, , Tombouctou, 51; Rouch, , La religion des Songhay, 848.

45 Rouch, , Contribution, 181.

46 TaS, 109–110. The maternal grandmother of the historian al-Sa'dī was such a slave. Captured in Massina, she was offered to the grandfather of al-Sa'dī.

47 TaS, 109.

48 Ibid. 107.

49 MBaye, , ‘Réponses d'al-Maghili’, 250.

50 Ibid. 110.

51 Hunwick, , ‘Religion and state in the Songhay empire’, 302.

52 Sonni ‘Alī's dislike of the Fula is difficult to explain because the texts offer no clues. One may surmise that the Fula communities’ continuous uprisings in Massina to preserve their independence and their life style as nomads living among sedentary peoples might account for this situation.

53 Leaving the gynaeceum for the first time, these women were not accustomed to long walks: TaS, 107. The massacre left an impression so terrible that Amadagha, the area in which it occurred, is still known to some people.

54 The examples would be too numerous to be reported. The Aqīt, the Andaag-Muḥammad, the al-Ḥājj and the Hawugaru clans especially experienced this terrible havoc.

55 Saad, , Social History of Timbuktu, 34.

56 TaS, 115. As early as 1485, al-Ḥājj AḤmad Aqīt solicited God's assistance while on pilgrimage.

57 TaF, 98–99.

58 See Horton, Robin, ‘African conversion’, Africa, XLII, ii (1971), 85108. Horton's opinion that Islam introduced no new cosmology is questionable. The Islamic worldview was different from the established one. By its form, its social and political implications and its behavioural dimensions, the Islamic cosmology represented a new challenge to the ancestral order. On the other hand, Horton's analysis of the proximity and compatibility of these two cosmologies in the mind of the worshipper is most pertinent. A unified religious system would guide such an individual in his quest of inner peace.

59 Hunwick, , ‘Religion and state in the Songhay empire’, 301302.

60 Horton, R., ‘On the rationality of conversion’, part II, Africa, XLV, iv (1975), 375.

61 Indeed, the Askiya's pilgrimage to Mekka in 1495 would achieve this goal. He became a lieutenant of the Caliph.

62 TaS, III.

63 He sent a delegation led by the sharīf Muḥammad Tule to ask Sonni Baru to embrace Islam. (A sharīf is a revered person claiming to be a descendant of the Prophet.) The king refused because ‘he had fears for his sovereignty, as is natural on the part of the king’. A second request was arrogantly rejected. Finally, a third messenger, allegedly the historian Maḥmūd Kāti, told of being intimidated by Sonni Baru, adding, however, that he found renewed inspiration and courage in the poem: ‘My death today shall ensure Islam's triumph over the cross and its worshippers’ (the cross of Christianity symbolized all the unfaithful), TaF, 118. In a very pertinent critique of the early version of this paper, N. Levtzion has argued that this formal declaration of the jihād may be another case of tampering with this book by the shaykh Ahmad of Massina in the 1820s. Although the fact of tampering has been proven beyond a doubt, I think that the intelligentsia who fought in the ranks of Muḥammad Ture's rebel army would logically seek to make their opposition consistent with the classical doctrine of Islamic revolution. This formalism would be a tangible sign of their intellectual sophistication. The fact that Sīdī Maḥmūd Kāti, the first author of the TaF, was less than 25 years old in 1492 need not be a sufficient reason to dismiss his participation in the negotiations. As for the actual tampering, see for example Brun, Joseph, ‘Notes sur le Tarikh el-Fettash’, Anthropos (1914), 590596; Hunwick, J. O., ‘Studies in the Tarikh el-Fattash: its author and textual history’, Research Bulletin of the Center of Arabic Documentation, Ibadan University (December, 1969), 5765.

64 TaS, 118.

65 See Kaba, L., ‘Archers, Musketeers, and Mosquitoes: the Moroccan Invasion of the Sudan and the Songhay Resistance (1591–1612)’, J. Afr. Hist., XXII, iv (1981), 457–75.

66 See Diagne, Pathé, Pouvoir politique traditionnel en Afrique occidentale (Paris, 1967), 166.

67 For a theoretical discussion of the issues involved, see Cohen, Abner, The Politics of Elite Culture (Berkeley, 1981), and Meisel, J. H., The Myth of the Ruling Class (Ann Arbor, 1962).

68 TaS, 110–111.

69 His father was a Torodbe, and his mother seems to have been a princess. See TaF, 114, and Levtzion, , ‘The Western Maghrib and the Sūdān’, 427.

70 See Kaba, , ‘Power, prosperity and social inequality in Songhay’.

71 Cissoko, , Tombouctou, 92. Yet many Askiyas did not behave as ‘good Muslims’, and the mechanism of government was more a superimposition of some Islamic elements than a classical Muslim model.

72 TaF, 313. For a detailed account of some aspects of this context see also Saad, , Social History of Timbuktu.

73 The shaykh ‘Uthmān dan Fodio, the leader of the momentous jihād in Nigeria in 1804, and the shaykh Aḥmad Barry, the founder of the well-structured and puritanical theocracy of Massina in 1810 both saw themselves in the Askiya Muḥammad's tradition. The shaykh Aḥmad went so far as to tamper with the Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh to legitimize his rule and ennoble his image: cf. TaF, 17–19, and n. 63 above.

* An earlier version of this paper was read to the Conference on Religion and Revolution held at the University of Minnesota in November 1981. I would like to thank Nehemia Levtzion, John Hunwick, David Noble, Bruce Lincoln and John Thayer for their valuable comments. Special thanks go to Dr Humphrey Fisher for his pertinent critique.

The Pen, the Sword, and the Crown: Islam and Revolution in Songhay Reconsidered, 1464–1493*

  • Lansiné Kaba (a1)


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