Summary and Themes

The arts and architecture was influenced heavily by the spread of Islam.  With this spread, the Sudanic states began with a new style of architecture: beaten clay.  The arts go on as the griots keep the stories going through speech and such.

With the spread of Islam, the African societies were given a chance to be unique.  And as the griots keep the stories through speech, they are able to keep histories and legends as an oral tradition instead of only writing them down.  This gives them a way to pass down stories for the illiterate from generation to generation.

Religion is an important factor when societies interact. When Muslims began to trade with African societies, they also spread Islam. This concept, which will be described in the key terms, is known as Islamization. Islamization caused most of Africa to convert to Islam, showing how universal the Islamic religion had become. However, African societies did not conform to Islamic principles. Converting simply meant that Africans could adapt the more idealistic beliefs of Islam, which they then assimilated into their cultures. These differences were made obvious when Muslims from the Middle East interacted with African societies, such as the fact that women had more freedom in Africa. 

However, not all African kingdoms were Islam. For example, Ethiopia managed to maintain its own distinctive and Christian identity. This is an impressive accomplishment, considering the fact that Ethiopians had to face pressures from other African states and later the Europeans. Therefore, one can observe a common trend in African societies adapting certain religions and making them their own. Africans usually received these ideas through trade, for Africa was famed for its gold and art.  

Key Places, Regions or Map to Note!

Maghrib: This is the Arabic term for western north Africa.  The Arabs originally used this word to mean "lands to the west".

Ethiopia: A Christian Kingdom in the highlands of eastern Africa.  This kingdom was controlled under the dynasty of King Lalaibela.  It kept Christianity as its religion during the Muslim expansion throughout Africa.  

Sahel: The extensive grassland belt at the southern edge of the Sahara.This was an area with very active trading and where people from the Sahara would come in vast numbers.  Along the Sahel was were several African states developed between the trading cities.  But these states were prone to attack from other places and from periodic droughts.  

Right: Location of the Sahel on a map of Africa

Sudanic states: States trading to North Africa which mixed in many ideas including Islamic ways.   They would have leaders who were of the same lineage or elders from the same family. These were conquest states which drew on taxes, tribute, and military support of the subordinate areas, lineages, and villages.  The leaders were considered sacred and were often surrounded with rituals.  

Mali: State centered between the Senegal and Tiger river.  Also known as the "State of the MAlinke People."  The Malinke broke away from the control of Ghana in the 13th century.  The rulers supported Islam by building mosques, attending public prayers, and supporting preachers.  They were an agricultural society and this combined with an active tradition of trade in many products.

Songhay: Successor state to Mali; dominated Middle reaches of the Niger valley. 

Timbuktu: Niger Port city of Mali; has a famous Muslim university.Located just off the flood plain on the great bend in the Niger River.  

Left: A map that shows where Timbuktu is in Mali.

East African Trading Ports: Commercial centers mixing cultures such as Arab and African cultures.  It included Zimbabwe, Mogadishu,Pate, etc...

Kongo kingdom: The Kongo kingdom was an agrarian society that was established on the lower Congo River in the late 15th century. They ruled through a hereditary monarchy, and there capital was at Mbanza Kongo.  Many people live in the cities and towns and they had a division of labor.  

Nok: Nok was a village in central Nigeria, and was famous for its realistic terra cotta sculptures (500 B.C.E.-200 C.E.). This was important because it spread through to the neighboring African states.

Hausa states: States such as Kano, among the Hausa of northern Nigeria; combined Islamic and indigenous beliefs.

Yoruba: The Yoruba empire was made up of city-states, which were each ruled by a king who claimed to be divine. The king had his own royal court, but did not have absolute power as divine rulers do.  In Ile-Ife, a basic system of checks and balances was produced. A council made up of nobles advised the king, but in turn were under review by the Ogboni, who were a society made up of religious and political leaders. Yoruba was very organized when it came to political matters.  

Ile-Ife: Ile-Ife was the holy city and cultural center of the Yoruba. Ile-Ife had an aristocratic government, which ruled over peasants. This city was concentrated towards the arts so, these terra-cotta objects showcase the talent of African artists.  

Axum: Axum was located in the Ethiopian highlands and was heavily influenced by the ideas of its neighbors in the Arabian peninsula. Axum was a Christian country and would later develop to become what is now Ethiopian Christianity. Ethiopa is one of the few countries that did not convert to Islam like other African states did and it caused These tensions that still exist today.

Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe's are stone houses that local rulers lived in, located near the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. Zimbabwes prove the incredible artistic ability that characterize most African societies.

Great Zimbabwe: Great Zimbabwe was the greatest of these royal stone courts, where a great centralized government once existed in the 15th century. It is a very important architectural achievement for African societies, so much so that people once thought that it was the Phoenicians or the Arabs who built these elaborate stone structures.

Above: This is an aerial view of Great Zimbabwe today. Though only its ruins survive, archaeologists have been able to trace the history of its rulers through the ruins. 

Left: This picture illustrates what Great Zimbabwe would have looked like.

Ghana: Ghana is located in east Africa and was famous for its gold and salt trade. It was an Islamic state and had an impressive army, causing it to become the most powerful Sudanic state during the 4th-11th centuries.This allowed other Sudanic states to become more powerful, therefore establishing a pattern of one state declining and the other becoming more powerful.

 Ifriqiya: Ifriqiya is what the Romans called north Africa. The Romans had ruled over Ifriqiya over time, but eventually lost control of this area when their empire declined.

Benin: Benin was a city-state of the Edo, and was known by the Europeans for its bronze and ivories.  Benin's king was powerful and controlled a lot of territory, which impressed the Europeans.

 Important Figures or People to Remember!

Lalibela: The 13th century Ethiopian ruler who built great rock churches.

Right: Mural with an image of what King Lalibela looked like

Above: An Ethiopian rock church.

 Juula: Malinke merchants who traded throughout the Mali Empire and west Africa.  They formed small partnerships and groups to carry out trade throughout the area.

Mansa: Title of the ruler of Mali.  This translates to "emperor".  The first mansa or was Sundiata.

Mansa Kankan Musa: On of Sundiata's successors who made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the 14th century that became legendary because of the wealth distributed along the way.  From Mecca, he brought back poet and architect Ishak al-Sahili, who came from Muslim Spain.  This architect was the one in charge of making the several mosques and a way of architecture using beaten clay.  

Left: Picture of Mansa Kankan Musa

Ishak al-Sahili: An architect who returned with Kankan Musa to mali; created a distinctive Sudanic architecture using beaten clay.

Sundiata: The first mansa, he created a unified state that became the Mali empire.  He died in 1260.

Muhammad the Great: Extended the boundaries of Songhay in the mid-16th century.

Mwene-Mutapa: Mwene-Mutapa was the ruler of Great Zimbabwe, whose territory reached the Indian Ocean. The rulers of his court controlled the trade for gold in Africa, causing them to become a powerful state. Because of its gold fields, however, remnants of this civilization continued to remain.

Sunni Ali Ber: Sunni Ali Ber ruled Songhay, and lived from 1464-1492. He was known to be a unrelenting military commander, causing Songhay to expand and become a large empire. Because of this, Sunni Ali established regional governments which had their own militias. That way, Sunni Ali could truly unify and control the Songhay kingdom.  This shows not only the military prowess of African rulers, but their ability to have a distinct culture and government.

Luba: The Luba lived in Katanga, where they established by a royal line of rulers. This monarchy was said to have control over the fertility of the people and their crops, which established their divine right to rule. These political systems showed how the Luba had certain families ruling over most of society, which is a common trend in African societies.

Ibn Batuta: Muslim traveler who described African sociteies and cultures.

Juula: The juula were Malinke merchants who formed partnerships so that they could be able to trade throughout west Africa. The juula's importance in the Malinke empire convey that trade was highly valued in African societies. 

Caliph: Caliphs were the leader of Islam. In the Sudanic states, caliphs were actually African monarchies. They were prominent and had many political advisors. Caliphs controlled both political and religious Islamic matters. African leaders were attracted to the idea of caliphs, which gave them free reign over both government and religion.This shows that Islam's principles are universal and can be adapted by different societies. 

Griots: Professional oral historians who served as keepers of traditions and advisors to kings.

Zenji: Arabic term for the people and the coast of east Africa.

Important Movements/Actions/Notions to Note!

Stateless Societies: These are societies of varying sizes organized through kinship and lacking the concentration of power found in centralized states.  These societies can be larger and more extensive than the neighboring states.  They did have forms of government, but the authority and power normally held by a ruler and his court in a kingdom could be held instead by by a council of families, or by the community itself where there would be no need to tax the population to support the ruler and others in the high class.

Almoravids: They are a puritanical Islamic reform movement among the Berbers of northwest Africa made in the 11th century.  Because they were launched on the course of a holy war waged to purify, spread, or protect the faith, they built an empire reaching from the African savanna to Spain. 

Demographic transition: Demographic transition is when a population increases, caused by a lower mortality and birth rate. Having these factors positively influencing a society means that basic necessities are being provided, therefore causing a longevity in individual lifespan. 

Almohads: A later puritanical Islamic reform movement among the Berbers of northwest Africa.  They also built an empire reaching from the African savanna to Spain.  They are characteristic within Islamic history, often developing in peripheral areas and dedicated to purifying society by returning to the original teachings of Muhammad.

 Islamization: Islamization is the spread of Islam into southwestern Asia and northern Africa. This was made possible by Islamic conquests, which later brought many converts into Islam. Islamic principles, especially those of equality, attracted many different people. This made Islam a world religion, and is especially portrayed in most of Africa converting to Islam. 

Left: This map shows when and where Islam spread in Africa. 

Sharia: The Sharia is an Islamic law code that is based on the Qur'an and Hadith. The Sharia taught Muslims to trace their ancestry through their father (patrilineal). Because of this, African Islamic societies shocked other Muslims for their allowing women to mingle freely with men.

Jihad: Jihad is a holy war in behalf of Islam. The purpose of jihad is to spread, purify, or protect Islam. Many Westerners misunderstand Muslims because of Muslim extremists who wage Jihad on nonbelievers.

Bantu migration: The Bantu were a group of people that lived in Nigeria. When the Bantu people migrated southward, they brought their language with them. This caused most of Africa to have languages that stemmed from the Bantus. Therefore, the Bantu migration helped to unify Africa under one common language, although there were still some regional dialects.

Left: This map shows where the original Bantu language groups originated. It also shows the spread of the Bantu language to different areas of Africa. 

Matrilineal: To be matrilineal means that one traces your ancestry through your mother. Some African societies were matrilineal, although most Muslims are patrilineal. This meant that although Africans accepted Islam, they did not entirely conform to its ideals and principles. 


Political Structures and Forms of Government 
African Societies had various forms of structures or governments to effectively lead and control their people. Most regions of Africa were stateless societies which were controlled by kinship and the power of centralized states. They often had a vague form of government, but the authority was held by a council, court or the community itself. For example, Yoruba Empire as a whole was made up of city states. Each states had own royal court and power, which means that they did not have official central government or states to control the overall matters of all states. Yoruba had distributed the power to each countries, which later led to the sophistication of political matters. 
However, there were some significant countries that had strong centered government which managed to have a lot of power. Great Zimbabwe, the royal stone courts, represents the strongly centralized government once existed in the 15th century. Likely, Kongo Kingdom had a central government which controlled the most. Kongo Kingdom had established the form of hereditary monarchy, to efficiently control the small city states. Historical terms like ‘Mansa’ demonstrate the power of central kingdom too. Mansa means the emperor. Mansa had a strong authority to held country together and lead it.


Throughout all the trading and interaction of the different states of Africa, the different cultures were mixing together. While these were mixing Islam religion was being introduced to the different areas causing it to spread all over. This was how Islam spread throughout africa through trade, this is also a key term known as Islamization. Many African states converted to Islam but some stayed Christian for example; Ethiopa was one of a few that stayed Christian instead of converting. This caused many tensions between the states and later on in History the Europeans. This shows that African societies will adopt certain religions or ideas and make it their own.

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