Known to medieval geographers as the Sudan, this area extends from the Sahara desert in the north to the mouth of the Niger river in the south, and from Atlantic in the west to Lake Chad in the east. The region was subject to the influence of Islam from the eighth or ninth century onwards and by the nineteenth century large areas were Islamicized.
West Africa can be divided into four main zones, the Sahara, the Sahel, the Savannah and the rain forests. The largest zone is the Sahara desert which extends from the Atlas mountains in Morocco and Algeria to the Senegal river. Until recent times the vast dunes and extreme temperatures of this desert have formed an impenetrable barrier to all except the nomadic tribes which inhabit the area. South of the desert is band of semi-arid country known as the Sahel (Arabic for coast) where there is an intermittent vegetation of scrub and occasional small trees. Below this is the Savannah region characterized by a rich growth of grass and plentiful seasonal rainfall. Further south near the coast, especially in Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, are the dense rain-forests. In recent times the area of the Sahara and the Sahel have been increasing at the expense of the Savannah, probably due to human activity. The best example of this phenomenon is the area occupied by the empire of Ghana which in medieval times was rich grassland and is now desert.
The means by which Islam penetrated into West Africa was via the trade routes from North Africa. The main goods involved in the trade included gold, slaves, ivory and gum from West Africa and manufactured goods from the Mediterranean area. This trade was a continuation of pre-Islamic Roman and Byzantine trade routes and was in the hands of the Berber tribes of the Sahara. Already by the end of the seventh century there are accounts of Muslim traders from North Africa and Egypt in the markets of the Sudan. By the end of the eighth century the northern part of the trade was controlled by the semi-independent Berber dynasties of the Rustamids in Morocco and the Idrisids in western Algeria. These dynasties controlled the northern termini of the West African routes at Sijimassa and Tahert and were able to collect taxes from this lucrative trade. It was this trade which was one of the motivating forces behind the rise of the Fatimids in North Africa. With the support of Berber tribes the Fatimids gained control of most of North Africa in the ninth century and by the tenth century were in a strong enough position to take control of Egypt, Africa's wealthiest province.
The role of the Berbers in the dissemination of Islam amongst the peoples of the Sudan was critical, particularly in the area of present-day Mauritania. The Berbers in this area are known as the Sanhadja or Muthalamin and were the ancestors or the Almoravids who invaded Spain in the eleventh century. They comprised three main tribal groups, the Lamtuna, Massufa and Godala, who were allied into a loose confederation. The most prominent of these groups was the Lamtuna who arrived in the area in the eighth century and captured the oasis city of Awdaghast in Mauritania. By the tenth century most of the Sanhadja leaders had adopted Islam which they used to wage a jihad against the southern kingdoms.
The southern part of West Africa below the Sahel was dominated by the three great empires of Ghana, Mali and Gao. Each of these empires was composed of a particular language group; thus Ghana was controlled by Soninke-speaking peoples, Mali by Manding peoples and Gao by Songhay people. These were not empires in the modern sense but rather confederations of language and kinship groups which owed allegiance to a central ruler whose capital was often mobile. The empires are difficult to define in territorial terms as they had differing degrees of control over different peoples over a wide area. The key to the rise and fall of these empires was the control of the gold trade with North Africa.
Ghana controlled an area roughly equivalent to south-eastern Mauritania and south-western Mali and flourished between the ninth and eleventh centuries. During this period Ghana was the main opposition to the Sanhadja Berbers of western Mauritania and in 990 captured the Berber city of Awdaghast. Although it was a pagan country there were large numbers of Muslims in Ghana's administration and by the eleventh century the capita] was divided into two cities, a Muslim city and a pagan royal city. In spite of this the Almoravid Berbers launched a jihad against the empire and in 1077 destroyed the capital and forced the survivors to convert to Islam. A reconstituted kingdom of Ghana managed to survive until 1240 when it was incorporated into the empire of Mali.
The rise of Mali was due to a number of factors including the decline of the empire of Ghana and the discovery of a new oriferous (gold producing) region on the Niger river. The Mali Empire was formed by the unification of two groups of Manding peoples in the thirteenth century, and was located south of Ghana on the banks of the Niger, although it later took control of much of the former empire of Ghana. Unlike Ghana's, the ruler of Mali was a Muslim although most of the people within the empire remained pagan. The most famous of Mali's rulers was Mansa Musa who made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 during which he gave away large quantities of gold. By the end of the fifteenth century Mali was in decline due to the devastating effects of rival claimants to the throne, a shift in trade patterns and increasing attacks from the Tuareg and Mossi.
The empire which grew to replace the power of Mali was the Songhay Empire of Gao, with its centre on the banks of the Niger in the east of the modern state of Mali. Gao had a long history stretching back to the ninth century when it was an important kingdom on the route to Tahert in Algeria and Ghana and Silgilmasa to the west. By the ninth century the ruler of Gao was Muslim, although it is probable that this was merely one of the king's religions. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Gao became subject to the empire of Mali: when this declined at the end of the fourteenth century Gao began taking over some of the outer dependencies of Mali. By the end of the 1460s Ali, the founder of the Songhay Empire, had taken Djenne and Timbuktu thus gaining control of some of the principal trading towns of the Sahel. Ali was succeeded by Askiya Muhammad who consolidated his territorial conquests and introduced Islam as the state religion. The empire flourished for the next hundred years until the Moroccan conquest of 1591.
In addition to the medieval empires which dominated West Africa there are a number of trading cities on the border of the Sahara desert which,although sometimes incorporated into empires, were essentially independent. The most important of these cities were, from east to west, Oualata, Timbuktu and Agades. Oualata in western Mauritania rose to prominence in the thirteenth century after the collapse of Ghana when it was populated by refugees from Awdaghast and other cities. The city was predominantly Ibadi with a mixed Arab Berber population and was one of the principal towns trading with Sijilmasa in Morocco. Further west, in the modern state of Mali, is the famous city of Timbuktu, established as a nomadic Tuareg encampment in the twelfth century. During the fifteenth century under Songhay rule the city became the principal intellectual and religious centre in West Africa. The city has a mixed population of predominantly Berber origin although there are significant numbers of Soninke and Manding.
Whilst the medieval period in West Africa was dominated by the great empires the period after the sixteenth century was characterized by the emergence of smaller independent cities and kingdoms. The post-medieval period is also notable for the integration of Islam into local culture. Whereas Islam had previously been the religion of foreign traders and local rulers who adopted Islam as another attribute of kingship, it now became the religion of whole groups and villages. In the nineteenth century this was partially achieved through jihads or holy wars, but the more common method of diffusion was through the urbanized trade networks. The widespread adoption of Islam throughout West Africa meant that the nature of the religion itself was modified to conform to local ritual requirements. In most cases this meant that local rituals and cultures were adapted to serve Islamic requirements, although in other cases (such as among the Ashante) this meant the adaptation of Islamic forms for use in essentially pagan societies.
Islamic West Africa south of the Sahel can be divided into two main language groups, the Mande-speaking peoples of Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana, and the Fulbe-speaking peoples of northern Nigeria and Futa-Djallon in Guinea. The Mande-speaking peoples occupy roughly the same area as the empire of Mali, although the main cities of the post-medieval era are further east than the old capitals of Kangaba and Niani. The main Manding cities are Mopti, Djenne, Segou, Bobo Dioulasso, Wa and Kong,each of which functioned as independent or semi-independent states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most famous of these cities is Djenne whose origins may be traced back to the thirteenth century. Although the city did not rise to prominence until the sixteenth century, by the nineteenth century it was one of the main towns in West Africa. Less well known but equally important in the propagation of Islam was the city of Kong established by immigrants from Segou and Djenne in the eighteenth century. Kong was located further south on the edges of the equatorial forest (present-day Ivory Coast) and developed as a centre of Islamic scholarship and commerce for the surrounding area.
The Fulbe-speaking people occupy two distinct areas either side of the area dominated by the Mande peoples. First to be settled by Fulbe-speaking people was the Hausa area of north Nigeria where they arrived as Muslim clerics in the fifteenth century. Hausaland already had an established, partially Muslim, society dating from the beginning of the eleventh century, comprising seven independent city-states. These cities, known as bakwoi, were Dauro, Kano, Gobir, Katsina, Zaria, Biram and Rano. Kano and Katsina already had an Islamic tradition and it was these cities that the Fulbe developed into a seat of Islamic learning and culture. Although Hausaland was subjected to subsequent waves of influence, most notably Songhay rule in the sixteenth century and large-scale immigration from Agades in the eighteenth, the Fulbe continued to arrive both as clerics and pastoralists. In the nineteenth century the urbanized Fulbe instigated a jihad for Islamic reform in the Hausa states. The result was a new state based on the recently founded capital of Sokoto, known as the Sokoto caliphate. The success of the Sokoto caliphate encouraged Fulbe in the neighbouring region of Adamawa (present-day Cameroon) to carry out a similar jihad from their newly established capital of Yolo. The jihad was similarly successful and Adamawa was eventually included within the Sokoto caliphate.
Two thousand kilometres further west is the other area of Fulbe domination in the Futa-Djallon region of Guinea. The early Fulbe migrations into this area were peaceful and were accompanied with intermarriage with the native Djallonke people. From the late seventeenth century onwards there was an intensification of the immigrationuntil the eighteenth century when it was organized into a jihad. By the end of the eighteenth century Fulbe control of the area was complete with a capital established at Timbo.
The Islamic architecture of West Africa reflects the complexities and diversities of its history as well as the differing natural environments. In the past, analysis of the architecture of the area has tended to concentrate on the influence of North Africa and the Middle East rather than to examine the indigenous cultures and architecture of the area. Three main sources of influence were identified each of which ignored the possibility of local invention or development. The most far-fetched idea was that the monumental architecture of the region was developed from the dynastic architecture of Egypt and was transmitted by the migration of Songhay people from the upper Nile to the Niger. The second explanation attributes the entire West African architectural tradition to the Andalusian poet and architect al-Saheli who accompanied Mansa Musa on his return from the Hajj in 1324. Whilst there is some information that al-Saheli did design an audience hall it is unlikely that this or any other work he may have carried out created an architectural style for the whole region. The third suggestion is that the Moroccan invasion of 1591 was the primary influence on the subsequent architecture of the region. Whilst the Moroccan invasion was certainly accompanied by builders and craftsmen and may have had some influence this was not sufficient to create a complex and distinct architectural style. More recently scholars have emphasized the architectural styles and beliefs of indigenous pagan cultures as influences on the later Islamic architecture of the region.
A wide variety of building materials and techniques arc used over this vast region. The techniques are largely defined by the material, which may be grouped into three basic types, stone, mud and wood. Stone predominates in the western Sahara and Sahel and tends to be associated with Berber architecture. The best examples of stone cities are found in Mauritania at sites like Chinguit, Oudan, Tijika, Qasr el Barka and Tichit. Excavation has shown that Koumbi Saleh, the capital of ancient Ghana, and its sister city Awdaghast were also built of stone. Many of these sites were originally founded as ribats, although they later grew into large trading cities. The most common method of building in stone in the area uses split limestone in dry-stone wall constructions. The limestone used in the buildings comes in several colours from green and yellow to rose, depending on local availability. The outer faces are usually left unplastered although at Tichit the inner surfaces are coated in clay and a mud mortar is used for some of the walls (at Oualata both the inner and outer surfaces are covered in mud plaster). A characteristic feature of this masonry is the use of triangular niches sometimes arranged to form composite triangular features. Also common are projecting corbels, bands of triangular niches forming chevron patterns and battered walls. The roof and ceilings are usually built of split date-palm trunks arranged diagonally over the corners, forming a square shape in the centre which is then covered by further split-palm beams arranged longitudinally. Above the beams, is placed a woven matting of split palm fronds, on top of which a layer of earth is spread. Although in the cities the buildings are built to a rectangular or square plan, many of the buildings in villages are built with a round plan or with rounded corners. Even in Chinguit itself many of the houses are built with the external corners rounded off.
Whilst stone is the building material of the western Sahara, mud is the characteristic building material of the southern Sahel and the Savannah areas. Sometimes mud is used in combination with stone as at Timbuktu and Oualata, suggesting either the integration of two cultural traditions or the interface between two different environments.
At Oualata the buildings are essentially dry-stone constructions covered with layers of mud plaster which serve no structural function. The effect of the mud-plaster coverings is to make the buildings look like mud-brick structures suggesting a cultural tradition originating from the southern Savannah regions grafted on to an existing Berber architecture. This suggestion is strengthened by the makeup of the population, a mixture of Berber and Soninke people. Inside the houses of Oualata, the areas around doorways and niches are decorated with brilliant white wall paintings in the form of arabesque medallions.
The use of the mixture of mud and stone at Timbuktu is very different from the practice at Oualata; thus the buildings have a rubble-stone core held together by mud mortar and plaster. The quality of the stones used at Timbuktu mean that it would not be possible to build houses solely out of stone, thus the mud plaster and mortar here perform a structural function whilst the stone is used for strength. In many Timbuktu houses exposed limestone is used for corner quoins and door jambs and the building of any house starts with the laying out of four corner stones.
The decoration of buildings at Timbuktu suggests a close relationship with the stone-built Berber cities of Mauritania; thus the triangular niches and chevron bands are here executed in mud brick. This architectural similarity is paralleled in the ceilings and roofs which employ the same method of diagonally split palm beams. The preference for stone architecture is most clearly expressed on the interior of the oldest part of the Djinguere Ber Mosque where round 'Roman' a arches made of dressed limestone are used to support the roof. The distinction between stone and mud-brick architecture in Timbuktu is observed by the builders who are divided into two castes depending on which material they use. It seems likely that there was a pre-existing mud-architecture tradition in the area which was developed by the incoming Berber population who were unable to find their normal building materials.
The city of Agades was founded as a Berber city and one might expect it to be built of stone especially as the surrounding Berber villages consist of rectangular stone structures with Oualata-style ceilings. However, the city itself is made almost entirely of mud and resembles the Hausa architecture of north Nigeria. The reason for this could perhaps be attributed to the city's abandonment in the eighteenth century and it should be noted that a sixteenth-century traveller described the city as built in the Berber style. The subsequent rebuilding of the city in the nineteenth century was by people from north Nigeria which may explain its close relationship to Hausa architecture.
Mud either as brick or as pise is associated with the greatest examples of West Africa's monumental architecture such as the mosque of Djenne or the minaret of Agades. The area most suited to mud-brick architecture is the Savannah region where there is enough water to make bricks, plaster and pise yet not too much rain to dissolve the dried mud walls. Mud architecture lends itself to the creation of plastic sculptural forms on fairly simple structures, thus a simple rectangular facade can been livened by the addition of crenellations, engaged pillars and decorative panels. The traditional methods of mud architecture vary from one town to another; thus in Djenne cylindrical mud-bricks are used whereas in other towns simple dried-earth lumps will be used as the building material. Stylistically there are two main groups of mud architecture, a western tradition originating in the Manding cities of modern Mali and a more easterly tradition in the Hausa cities of north Nigeria.
The western style, often referred to as the 'Sudan style', can trace its origins to the city of Djenne in Mali. This architecture is characterized by the elaborate decorated facades of houses which emphasize verticality by the use of crenellations, engaged pillars and division into several registers. Mosques are distinguished by large minaret-like towers above the mihrab and tapering buttresses terminating in cone-shaped pinnacles. The mihrab towers are usually covered with projecting wooden stakes, known as 'toron'. These stakes were often found all around the walls of a mosque and functioned as scaffolding although they may also have some ritual significance. The most famous building in Djenne is the Great Mosque built in 1909 on the ruins of the previous mosque. It was meant to be a replica but differed considerably from the ruined original which had been recorded before its destruction. The new mosque was built with French funding and guidance from French military engineers and was used by the French as a basis for a neo-Sudanese style. Thus in 1955 the French Administration at Mopti built a new Friday mosque, using the new Great Mosque of Djenne as a model. Although the new Sudan style was based on the pre-colonial style it emphasized symmetry and monumentality at the expense of tradition and ritual .
Like the western tradition of mud architecture the origin of the eastern tradition can be traced to one main town, which in the case of Hausa architecture is Kano. Externally Hausa architecture is plainer than its western counterpart, although inside it displays a wide variety of decorative motifs. Hausa buildings are distinguished by their extensive use of wood and may be regarded as timber-frame buildings as opposed to the more pure mud-brick architecture in the west. The origins of this style are thought to derive from mat-frame tents where the mat-walls are gradually replaced with earth walls. The advantages of this can be seen in the use of one of the most characteristic features of Hausa architecture, the ribbed dome. This consists of a number of ribs converging in the centre and covered over with palm-frond matting. These domes may be set on a square or circular base producing either a single central point or a central square at the intersection of the ribs. The wooden ribs (usually acacia wood) are then plastered with mud to produce free-standing arches which are decorated with abstract designs. Flat roofs are achieved by building light mud walls on top of the ribs between the centre and the outer wall, making the ribs into giant armatures or brackets with a curved inner profile. South of the Hausa area in the region of Adamawa the concept of mud-brick architecture with flat roofs is modified by the use of conical thatched roofs. This adaptation is necessary in a region where high rainfall makes flat roofs impracticable. One of the more interesting results of this is that in order to preserve the appearance of an Islamic rectangular or square house facades are built on to the front of thatched buildings. These stage-like facades built of mud are enlivened by the use of elaborate arabesque designs above projecting doorways.
Further west, in the Futa-Djallon region of Guinea, wood and thatch replaces mud as the main building material. The buildings of this region consist of circular huts covered with huge conical thatched roofs supported by large central poles. The lower part of the roof is supported by shorter poles contained within a circular outer wall. The eaves of the thatched roof project beyond the line of the outer wall so that from the outside the walls and entrances are barely visible. Mosques in the region are built in the same manner as the houses, but inside the hut there is a flat-roofed rectangular mud-walled building with a mihrab in the east wall. According to local tradition the mosque is only the square building inside whilst the outer thatched building is merely for protection. This arrangement further strengthens the idea that in West Africa Islam can only be represented by rectangular or square architecture of mud or stone.