Christianity and Islam both facilitated the growth of , both in the East and West. In Aksum, trade was “essential” to the kingdom’s development in northwestern Ethiopia, as it was strategically located geographically on a major trade route linking India with the rest of Africa, the Mediterranean, and Arabia (p. 205). Unlike many other kingdoms in Africa, the Aksum fully embraced Christianity within the first few centuries of the religion’s dissemination. Aksum was in fact one of the earliest Christian empires, operating fully independently from Rome, where Christianity would take root and become the hub of European cultural, economic, and political life. In its heyday, the kingdom of Aksum depended on the Christian mythos and ethos to sustain its centralized power under King Ezana, who declares his power to be God-given in his stele: “he has given me strength and power and favoured me with a great name through his son in whom I believed,” (p. 207). King Ezana’s stele is also written in language style akin to Biblical texts, creating an indelible cultural link between what would become Ethiopia and the Middle East. That link had already been firmly entrenched given the ethnic, geographic, and linguistic ties between Aksum/Ethiopia and the Middle East. As a result, King Ezana was able to conquer the entire region, from Nubia in the northeast to the top of the Arabian Peninsula. The Aksum Empire extended into the Sudan and Arabian Peninsula at its peak.
Furthermore, Christianity was able to remain entrenched in Ethiopia even after Aksum floundered, differentiating Ethiopia from its neighbors throughout the rest of the region’s history. Part of the reason for the resilience of Christianity in the region is that it was fully entrenched, not a superficial cultural icon with temporary value for the people but an integral part of their identity, heritage, and language. Its strategic geographic position also enabled Aksum to remain fairly wealthy even during its decline. Although its pinnacle of power diminished with the rise of Islam, Ethiopia retained its Christian culture and identity and remained connected to other Christian hubs in Egypt during the influx of Islam centuries after King Ezana declared himself a god-given king.
King Ezana had adopted Christianity in the 4th century. The Christian religion influenced the growth of power and economic growth in the region, creating some tension between Aksum and its neighbors as Islam came to the fore. Those tensions would influence political and economic decisions thereafter. Just as Christianity provided a driving force during the Kingdom of Aksum, leading Ezana to conquer neighboring lands, Islam likewise became a unifying and potent force throughout both North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Trade routes established by Arabs, who had the only means by which to traverse the otherwise impenetrable deserts of Africa, ensured that Islam would spread its influence in Africa relatively rapidly and much more rapidly than Christianity. Just as trade routes provided the economic power enabling Aksum to expand, so too did trade routes across the Sahara and into West Africa and North Africa allow otherwise small kingdoms to flourish. Moreover, the ways rulers used religion to bolster their legitimacy remains a common thread throughout the kingdoms of Africa.
Centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire, the resulting religious, cultural, and political vacuum in North Africa permitted the Islam to easily infiltrate its diverse regions. However, the most important means by which Islam spread throughout North Africa was via the trade routes that had already been established by caravanserai and which were becoming more robust. As Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula, so too did the flow of goods and ideas on the caravanserai trails dependent on the use of the Arabian camel (p. 208). Wealth and power flowed together simultaneously along the caravanserai, speeding up as early as the 7th and 8th centuries (p. 208). The spread of Islam throughout Africa not only disseminated the teachings of the religion but also diluted the power structure of the religion, shifting its focus gradually westward from its genesis in the Arabian Peninsula, through the peak of Baghdadi scholarship, onto smaller nodes of Muslim learning in places as far as Mali. Yet the decisions made by kings were almost invariably made to boost their power and influence in the region, even more so than it was to profess their faith or establish madrasas.
The writings of travelers, visitors, and other “outsiders” illustrate how Islam in particular influenced multiple regions of the African continent, from the Mediterranean to Mali to Mauritania. For example, Ibn Battuta writes about the remarkable culture in Walata, modern-day Mauritania. The region has already been converted to Islam, but the “brand” of Islam practiced there is radically different from the type that Ibn-Battuta was familiar with, which was more conservative given the author’s shock upon seeing matrilineal customs and gender equity in almost every aspect of social and political life including sexual parity in that both men and women could have multiple partners and were unabashed about their sexuality. For Ibn-Battuta, the liberal societies he encountered in East Africa seemed to clash with Islam except for the fact that the women were dutiful in their prayers (p. 219). Because Ibn-Battuta had traveled as far as India, he had numerous points of comparison to make between the ways Islam was expressing itself differently among the different indigenous cultures of the world. His writings, and those of Al-Gharnati, show how Islam manifested differently in different areas depending on the indigenous local cultures and customs. Both writers were especially fascinated by the ways sub-Saharan black Africans adopted Islam, given they were writing from the perspective of “outsiders” from the Middle East and North Africa.
Islam flowered in several regional hubs, promulgating the teachings of the Prophet wherever trade routes reached. In Mali, Timbuktu became a major hub of Muslim scholasticism with a university that blossomed in the 16th century in Sankore. The Sundiata epic is one that highlights not the growth of Islam in the Kingdom of Ghana, but one that celebrates instead the might of King Sundiata. Sundiata’s empire flourished due to the increase in trans-continental trade, almost all of which was inspired by Muslim traders. Around the same time as the growth of the West African Kingdoms and for similar financial and political reasons, the Moorish dynasties flowered and blossomed into the Iberian peninsula. Al-Gharnati’s writings show that the vibrancy of Islam in the Mediterranean region was a product of the wealth flowing through its trade routes, and also that those trade routes bolstered the spread of Islam in regions that were otherwise isolated. When Islam reached the mighty Ghananian kingdoms and those of Mali with their rich literary and cultural traditions, the result was less of a clash and more of a convergence. Already bolstered by global trade routes, the West African kingdoms readily embraced Islam and linked its teachings to its own traditions, customs, and culture.
As with Christianity, Islam linked together otherwise distinct and disparate societies. Trade routes could be solidified under the common rubric of Islam, which provided the sense of shared values, beliefs, and ideals. Islam would be adapted to suit the cultures in which it took root, but in many cases subverted the predecessor texts, myths, and social norms. Essentially, both Christianity and Islam became tremendous forces of colonization throughout the African continent and beyond to the Iberian Peninsula. So powerful had Islam become in the 16th century that it with Christian Europe at the time also at its peak, highlighting the core clashes between these two world religions that would characterize the following several centuries of history.
Sources of World Societies. Second Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s.