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10 April 2017

West Africa: A Gem of Islamic History

Muslim Hands

Since 2008 Muslim Hands has been helping to maintain The Great Mosque of Djenne (Mali) - a listed UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest mud-built structure in the world. As one of the most famous landmarks in Africa, the Great Mosque hosts both an Islamic Library and Heritage Centre housing texts dating back to the 14th century. Djenne itself is the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa, the most important historical site in Mali and an important centre of Islamic learning dating back to the 13th century.

Throughout the 12th to 16th centuries, West Africa was in fact a great hub of scholarship and trade with a impressive reputation throughout the Muslim World. The Medieval period was a golden era for West Africa and from the early 14th century until the Moroccan Moors invaded in 1951, the closely linked city of Timbuktu and the Sankore Madrasa were considered the intellectual centres of Africa. This renowned university has been compared to the likes of as Al-Azhar (Egypt), Al-Qaurawan (Tunisia), Al-Qurtuba University (Spain) and Qarawiyyin (Morocco) as influential important centres of learning within classical Muslim civilisation.

As you can see, West Africa has been of great important religious and scholarly influence within the Muslim world. Its history hosts a variety of prominent Islamic scholars, poets, writers and figures, many of which are still influential in local faith and culture today. Here are four of the most famous West African Muslims from the last century - see how many you recognise!

1. Mansa Musa

c. 1280 - c.1337

Mansa Musa – also known as “The Lion of Mali” - was the emperor of the West African Mali Empire, an area covering southern Mauritania, Mali and the immediate surroundings. The empire was incredibly wealthy and Musa is listed as the richest man in history. It is estimated that he was worth an astonishing $400 billion! As a devout Muslim, he was widely known across Africa and the Middle East for having completed Hajj, during which he gave huge gifts of gold to each country he visited on the way.

Musa was responsible for building mosques and madrasas in Timbuktu and Gao and it was during his reign that the Sankore Madrasa was built. This important centre of learning attracted Muslim scholars from across Africa and the Middle East to Timbuktu and included mathematicians, astronomers and jurists brought to the university by Musa. 

2. Ahmed Baba

1556 - 1627

Ahmed Baba was an Islamic author, teacher, philosopher, historian and jurist. Known as “The Unique Pearl of His Time”, Ahmed lived to be a prominent figure and great achiever in an era later marred by the slave trade. As Chancellor of the Sankore Madrasa during the reign of Askia the Great, he was a highly important scholar and writer - considered to be Timbuktu’s greatest scholar and one of the greatest scholars of the 16th century.

Ahmed wrote 40 books in total, almost all of which are centred on different topics. The Ahmed Baba Institute (1973), a research centre and library in Timbuktu which holds around 20,000 manuscripts, was named in honour of Ahmed and his magnificent work.

Reading the Qur’an outside Djenne mosque, Mali.

3. Mohammed Bagayogo

1523 - 153

Mohammed Bagayogo was an important scholar and philosopher who became the Sheikh and teacher of the renowned scholar Ahmed Baba. As the Imam at Sidi Yayha Mosque and an important madrasa at the University of Timbuktu, he also taught at two other universities including the University of Sankore. Mohammed wrote on an extensive range of topics such as medicine, law, astronomy and history and was given a doctorate by the ulama of Al-Azhar University when passing through Cairo on his travels during Hajj. Much of his written work is held at the Ahmed Baba Institute and some additional manuscripts can also be found in French museums. As a local man, born in Djenne and later dying in Timbuktu, Mohammed Bagayogo is also known for his resistance against the French colonial occupation of Mali.

4. Amadou Bamba

1853 - 1927

Amadou Bamba was a prominent religious leader and founder of the city of Touba (1887), home to the Great Mosque of Touba – sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest mosque. Viewed as one of the greatest spiritual leaders in Senegalese history, he has also heavily influenced contemporary Senegalese culture. As a religious leader, poet, Muslim mystic and marabout, he wrote on topics such as meditation and Quranic study (tafsir) whilst also leading a non-violent pacifist struggle against the French colonial occupation, teaching the greater jihad (jihad al-akbar) and promoting learning and fearfulness of Allah. Amadou is also known for inventing the traditional spiced coffee mix Café Touba – given to his followers for medicinal purposes.

Around Djenne’s Great Mosque.

Here at Muslim Hands, we’ve continued to support the running of the Great Mosque of Djenne for 11 years as this mosque is a key symbol of West Africa's rich Islamic heritage. However sadly, staff are struggling to maintain this beautiful treasure of Islamic history. As a global Ummah we must treasure our vibrant cultural diversity and strive to support the upkeep of this historical symbol of our faith. As Prophet Muhammad (saw) said:

'The most beloved of places to Allah are the mosques...' (Muslim)

Brothers and sisters, we need your generous donations. Maintaining the upkeep of the mosque and paying its staff – including the Imam, Muezzins and cleaners costs just £8,000 a year. That’s around just 3% of the yearly total expenditure for a central London mosque.

Fisabilillah, please donate today and help ensure that this vital piece of history is preserved for generations of Muslims to come.


Muslim Hands UK

Established in 1993, Muslim Hands is an international aid agency and NGO working in over 50 countries worldwide to help those affected by natural disasters, conflict and poverty.

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