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Discuss the Effect of Islam upon West Africa Essay

Change Over Time Essay Assignment #1The camel, with its ability to travel long distances without water and carry heavy loads, facilitated trans-Saharan communication. During the seventh and eighth centuries CE, Islamic conquerors had added North Africa to the dar al-Islam. By the end of the eighth century CE, Muslim merchants had crossed the Sahara and initiated commercial relations with Sub-Saharan West Africa and by the beginning of the second millennium, Islam had become entrenched in West African life. Islam dramatically changed West Africa culturally, politically, and economically in the time period between 1000 CE and 1750 CE, but many staples of West African society remained the same.

Economically, Islam ushered a new era of economic prosperity into West Africa. The adoption of Islam by West African states provided them with common ground upon which states such as Mali greatly expanded their gold trade to encompass Arab and Mediterranean nations. Established Muslim trade routes facilitated the huge increase in the volume of African trade. Commercial cities sprung up across West Africa, with commerce increasing Timbuktu’s population to 100,000. In the twelfth century, Muslim merchants introduced cotton, rice, and citrus fruits to West Africa; by the sixteenth century cotton was the main textile produced in West Africa.

European demand for cotton textiles ensured that West Africa would remain economically prosperous. Islamic merchants expanded the African slave trade to a continental level, providing Europeans with a framework upon which to build the catastrophic Atlantic slave trade, replacing small scale tribal slavery with huge state economies built entirely around capturing slaves and selling them to foreign nations. However, despite these huge changes in economic methods and volume, West African states relied heavily upon trade as the principle form of economic support throughout periods of Islamic influence.

The increase in trade with Islamic merchants between 1000 and 1750 led to the permeation of Islamic culture among West African peoples. Islamic rulers built large mosques and universities where people could learn about Islam, as well as other areas of knowledge. These universities spread literacy within West African society. Islam was generally tolerant of traditional values, such as polygamy. This allowed it greater popularity than Christianity, and decreased resistance to conversion. Islam was not forced upon citizens by their kings, but rather was voluntarily encouraged. Despite this, many people adopted Islam, especially those who interacted with Muslim merchants. However, many of those who adopted Islam did not adopt Islam in its original form, but rather combined it with traditional religious beliefs to create a syncretic religion. There was much social turmoil among purists, such as the Fulani, and those who practiced syncretic Islam. Despite the large Islamic influence in the area, many chose not to adopt a syncretic faith and rather kept their traditional beliefs.

The integration of Islamic culture into West Africa, as well as the economic prosperity that Islamic trade brought West Africa, led to the creation of large centralized states. As opposed to the small kingdoms, such as the kingdom of Ghana, that the first Islamic merchants encountered in West Africa, by the fifteenth century two large centralized empires had emerged. Islamic influence played a large part in the creation of these large empires. Firstly, the revenue created by integration of West Africa into Islamic trade allowed West African rulers to create and support large standing armies. These armies ensured that these empires could protect their peoples and sources of income, as well as exert their influence.

Secondly, Islamic law, known as Shari’a, introduced to West Africa allowed for unified rule. Previously, varying tribal laws had caused disorder and fragmentation, as well as discontent. Islamic law facilitated and demanded the creation of large centralized empires. However, Islam itself did not necessarily become the exclusive religion of these empires; many, indeed most, citizens of these empires clung to and practiced their traditional pagan religious beliefs. Following the collapse of these two empires, West African political structure returned to the small regional kingdoms that had been West African norm before Muslim merchants crossed the Sahara.

Overall, the Islam greatly, sometimes even completely, changed cultural, political, and economic environments in West Africa between 1000 CE and 1750 CE. Examples of this change include the introduction of centralized kingdoms, trans-Saharan trade, and Muslim values. Despite this great change, many elements of West African society, such as popular religion, dependence on trade, and basic values remained the same despite Islamic influence up through 1750 CE. Near the end of that period, Africa began to be colonized by European nations, and fell under European influence.

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