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1492 – Islam & Christianity In Africa After The Death Of Sonni Ali The Great Of Songhay

September 11, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

December 20: Sonni Ali the Great of Songhay dies.

The first king of the Songhay empire, Sonni Ali ruled for nearly 30 years over a territory stretching from the mouth of the Gambia River on the Atlantic Coast of west Africa nearly 2,000 miles east to central Niger, an area larger than modern-day Spain, France and Germany…combined. (This at a time when modern-day Spain, France and Germany were still divided into scores of smaller states.)

Ali’s sudden death at the end of 1492 (he drowned while crossing a small tributary of the Niger River) precipitated a power struggle between his son and heir, Sonni Baro, and his chief military leader, Askia Muhammad Touray.

“It was one of the great decisive battles of the world—though Western tradition has forgotten or ignored it. Sonni Baro owed nothing to the mullahs and had every reason to arrest the spread of Islam south of the Sahara. Had he triumphed might have been stopped at the edge of the Sahel. Askia Muhammad, on the other hand, owed his throne to Muslims and invested heavily in practicing and promoting their religion.” (p. 74)

Sonni Ali’s death provides an opportunity for Felipe Fernández-Armesto to discuss a variety of geo-religio-political changes occurring throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, and tie them to the theme of his book.

“The events of 1492 hardly affected the remote interior and south of Africa. But the death of Sonni Ali Ber in the waters of the Niger, the consolidation of Portuguese influence that followed the baptism of Nzinga Nkuwu in Kongo, and the renewal—which was going on at about the same time—of Ethiopia’s diplomatic contact with the rest of Christendom were decisive events in carving the continent between Islam and Christianity. With Askia Muhammad’s triumph in Songhay, the accession of Alfonso I in Kongo, and the success of Pedro de Covilhão’s mission to Ethiopia, the configurations of the religious map of Africa today—where Islam dominates across the Sahara and in the Sahel, as far as the northern forest belt, and along the Indian Ocean coast, with Christianity preponderant elsewhere—became, if not inevitable, highly predictable.” (p. 86)

Other posts in this series:

 

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