Mansa Musa and Islam in Africa: Crash Course World History #16

Hi, my name’s John Green, this is Crash Course:
World History, and today we’re gonna talk about Africa. Mr. Green Mr. Green! We’ve already talked
about Africa. Egypt is in Africa, and you haven’t shut up about it the entire course
– Yeah that’s true, Me from the Past. But
Africa’s big – it’s like, super big – much bigger than it appears on most maps, actually. I mean, you can fit India and China, and the
United States if you fold in Maine. All of that fits in Africa! Like any huge place,
Africa is incredibly diverse, and it’s a mistake to focus just on Egypt. So today let’s go
here, south of the Sahara desert. [theme music] First, let’s turn to written records. Oh, right.
We don’t have very many, at least not written by Sub-Saharan Africans. Much of African history
was preserved via oral rather than written tradition. These days, we tend to think of writing as
the most accurate and reliable form of description, but then again, we do live in a print-based
culture. And we’ve already said that writing is one of the markers of civilization, implying
that people who don’t use writing aren’t civilized, a prejudice that has been applied
over and over again to Africa. But: 1. If you need any evidence that it’s possible
to produce amazing literary artifacts without the benefits of writing, let me direct your
attention to the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were composed and memorized by poets for centuries
before anyone ever wrote them down. And, 2. No less an authority than Plato said that
writing destroys human memory by alleviating the need to remember anything. And 3. You think the oral tradition is uncivilized
but here you are listening to me talk! But we do have a lot of interesting records
for some African histories, including the legendary tale of Mansa Musa. By legendary
I mean some of it probably isn’t true, but it sure is important. Let’s go to the Thought
Bubble. So there was this king Mansa Musa, who ruled
the west African empire of Mali, and in 1324-ish, he left his home and made the hajj, the pilgrimage
to Mecca. He brought with him an entourage of over 1000
people (some sources say 60,000) and, most importantly, 100 camel loads of gold. I wish
it had been donkeys so I could say he had 100 assloads of gold, but no. Camels. Right, so along the way Mansa Musa spent freely
and gave away lots of his riches. Most famously, when he reached Alexandria, at the time one
of the most cultured cities in the world, he spent so much gold that he caused runaway inflation
throughout the city that took years to recover from. He built houses in Cairo and in Mecca to house
his attendants, and as he traveled through the world, a lot of people – notably the merchants
of Venice – no, Thought Bubble, like actual merchants of Venice – right – they saw him
in Alexandria and returned to Italy with tales of Mansa Musa’s ridiculous wealth, which
helped create the myth in the minds of Europeans that West Africa was a land of gold, an El
Dorado. The kind of place you’d like to visit. And maybe, you know, in five centuries
or so, begin to pillage. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So what’s so important about the story of
Mansa Musa? Well, first, it tells us there were African kingdoms, ruled by fabulously
wealthy African kings. Which undermines one of the many stereotypes about Africa, that
its people were poor and lived in tribes ruled by chiefs and witch doctors. Also, since Mansa
Musa was making the hajj, we know that he was: A. Muslim, and
B. relatively devout. And this tells us that Africa, at least western
Africa, was much more connected to the parts of the world we’ve been talking about than
we generally are led to believe. Mansa Musa knew all about the places he was going before
he got there, and after his visits, the rest of the Mediterranean world was sure interested
in finding out more about his homeland. Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage also brings up a
lot of questions about west Africa, namely, what did his kingdom look like and how did
he come to convert to Islam? The first question is a little easier, so we’ll start with
that one. The empire of Mali, which Mansa Musa ruled
until the extremely elite year of 1337, was a large swath of West Africa, running from
the coast hundreds of miles into the interior, and including many significant cities, the
largest and best-known of which was Timbuktu. The story of the Islamization of the Empire,
however, is a bit more complicated. Okay, so pastoral North Africans called Berbers
had long traded with West Africans, with the Berbers offering salt in exchange for West
African gold. That may seem like a bad deal until you consider that without salt, we die,
whereas without gold, we only have to face the universe’s depraved indifference to
us without the benefit of metallic adornment. That went to an ominous place quickly. Right, so anyway the Berbers were early converts
to Islam, and Islam spread along those pre-existing trade routes between North and West Africa. Right, so the first converts in Mali were
traders, who benefited from having a religious as well as commercial connection to their
trading partners in the North and the rest of the Mediterranean. And then the kings followed
the traders, maybe because sharing the religion of more established kingdoms in the north
and east would give them prestige, not to mention access to scholars and administrators
who could help them cement their power. So Islam became the religion of the elites
in West Africa, which meant that the Muslim kings were trying to extend their power over
largely non-Muslim populations which worshipped traditional African gods and spirits. In order
not to seem too foreign, these African Muslim kings would often blend traditional religion
with Islam – for instance, giving women more equality than was seen in Islam’s birthplace. Anyway, the first kings we have a record of
adopting Islam were from Ghana, which was the first “empire” in western Africa.
It really took off in the 11th century. As with all empires, and also everything else,
Ghana rose and then fell, and it was replaced by Mali. The kings of Mali – especially Mansa
Musa, but also Mansa Suleyman, his successor – tried to increase the knowledge and practice
of Islam in their territory. So for example, when Mansa Musa returned from his hajj, he
brought back scholars and architects to build mosques. And the reason we know a lot about Mali is
because it was visited by Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan cleric and scholar who kind of had
the best life ever. He was particularly fascinated by gender roles in the Malian empire – and
by Malian women – writing, “They are extremely beautiful, and more important than the men.”
Oh. It must be time for the open letter. An Open Letter to Ibn Battuta: I wonder what’s
in the Secret Compartment today. Oh. I appears to be some kind of fake beard… Movie magic!
Stan, why did you do this to me? Dear Ibn Battuta, Bro, I love twitter and my x-box and Hawaiian
pizza, but if I had to go into the past and live anyone’s life, it would be yours! Because
you were this outlandishly learned scholar who managed to parlay your knowledge of Islam
into the greatest road trip in history. You went from Mali to Constantinople to India
to Russia to Indonesia; you were probably the most well-traveled person before the invention
of the steam engine. And everywhere you went, you were treated like a king and then you
went home and wrote a really famous book called the Rihla, which people still read today and
also, you could grow a real beard and I’M JEALOUS! Best wishes, John Green One more thing about Mansa Musa: There are
lots of stories that Mansa Musa attempted to engage in maritime trade across the Atlantic
Ocean, and some historians even believe that Malians reached the Americas. DNA investigation may one
day prove it, but until then, we’ll only have oral tradition. The Malian Empire eventually fell to Songhai,
which was itself eventually overthrown for being insufficiently Islamic, all of which
is to say that – like China or India or Europe – West Africa had its own empires that relied
upon religion and war and incredibly boring dynastic politics. Man, I hate dynastic politics. If I wanted to live in an ostensibly independent
country that can’t let go of monarchy, I’d be like Thought Bubble and move to Canada.
Oh, come on, Thought Bubble, that’s not fair. Shut up and take back Celine Dion! All right, now let’s move to the other side
of Africa where there was an alternative model of “civilizational” development. The eastern
coast of Africa saw the rise of what historians called Swahili civilization, which was not
an empire or a kingdom but a collection of city states – like Zanzibar and Mombasa and
Mogadishu – all of which formed a network of trade ports. There was no central authority
– each of these cities was autonomously ruled, usually, but not always, by a king.
But there were three things that linked these city states such that we can consider them
a common culture: language, trade and religion. The Swahili language is part of a language
group called Bantu, and its original speakers were from West Africa. Their migration to
East Africa changed not only the linguistic traditions of Africa, but everything else,
because they brought with them ironwork and agriculture. Until then, most of the people
living in the East had been hunter-gatherers or herders, but once introduced, agriculture
took hold, as it almost always does. Unless, wait for it, you’re the Mongols. Modern day Swahili, by the way, is still a
Bantu-based language, although it’s been heavily influenced by Arabic. On that topic,
for a long time historians believed that the East African cities were all started by Arab
or Persian traders, which was basically just racist – they didn’t believe that Africans
were sophisticated enough to found these great cities. Now scholars recognize that all the
major Swahili cities were founded well before Islam arrived in the region and that, in fact,
trade had been going on since the first century CE. But Swahili civilization didn’t begin its
rapid development until the 8th century, when Arab traders arrived, seeking goods that they
could trade in the vast Indian Ocean network, the Silk Road of the sea. And of course those
merchants brought Islam with them, which, just like in West Africa, was adopted by the
elites who wanted religious as well as commercial connections to the rest of the Mediterranean
world. In many of the Swahili states, these Muslim
communities started out quite small, but at their height, between the 13th and 16th century,
most of the cities boasted large mosques. The one in Kilwa even impressed Ibn Battuta,
who of course visited the city, because he was having the best life ever. Most of the goods exported were raw materials,
like ivory and animal hides and timber – it’s worth noting, by the way, that when you’re
moving trees around, you have a level of sophistication to your trade that goes way beyond the Silk
Road. I mean, if you’ll recall they weren’t just trading, like, tortoise shells and stuff
– not again! Africans also exported slaves along the east
coast, although not in HUGE numbers, and they exported gold, and they imported finished
luxury goods like porcelain and books. In fact, archaeological digs in Kilwa have revealed
that houses often featured a kind of built-in bookshelf. Learning of books through architecture nicely
captures the magic of studying history. Archaeology, writing, and oral tradition all intermingle
to give us glimpses of the past. And each of those lenses may show us the past as if
through some fun house mirror, but if we’re conscious about it, we can at least recognize
the distortions. Studying Africa reminds us that we need to
look at lots of sources, and lots of kinds of sources if we want to get a fuller picture
of the past. If we relied on only written sources, it would be far too easy to fall
into the old trap of seeing Africa as backwards and uncivilized. Through approaching it with
multiple lenses, we discover a complicated, diverse place that was sometimes rich and
sometimes not – and when you look at it that way, it becomes not separate from, but part of, our
history. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller, Our script supervisor is Danica Johnson, the show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself, and our graphics team is Thought Bubble. Last week’s Phrase Of The Week was “Animal
crackers.” If you want to suggest future phrases of the week or guess at this one, you can
do so in comments; also, if you have questions about today’s video, ask them, and our team
of historians will endeavor to answer them. Thanks for watching and supporting Crash Course.
And as we say in my hometown, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

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