Islamization of the Sudan region
The Islamization of the Sudan region (Sahel) is a historical process of military conquest and religious conversion begun in the 8th century and mostly complete by the 16th, but ongoing in the sense that it is the source of social, religious and military conflict throughout the Sahel states.
Following its 8th-century conquest of North Africa, Islam ventured into Sub-Saharan Africa first along the Nile Valley towards Nubia and later also across the Sahara towards West Africa, interested in trans-Saharan trade, especially in slaves.
This expansion of Arab and Islamic culture was a gradual process lasting throughout most of the Middle Ages. The Christian kingdoms of Nubia came under pressure from the 7th century, but they resisted for several centuries, until the Kingdom of Makuria and Old Dongola collapsed by the beginning of the 14th century. A significant role in the spread of Islam in Africa was taken by Sufi orders during the 9th to 14th centuries, spreading south along trade routes between North Africa and the sub-Saharan kingdoms of Ghana and Mali. On the West African coast they set up zawiyas on the shores of the River Niger. The Sanusi order were also highly involved in missionary work in Africa during the 19th century, spreading both Islam and a high level of literacy into Africa as far south as Lake Chad and beyond. The Mali Empire became Islamic following the pilgrimage of Musa I of Mali in 1324. Timbuktu became an important center of Islamic culture south of the Sahara. Alodia, the last remnant of Christian Nubia, was destroyed by the Funj in 1504.
As a consequence, most of the Sudan region is today predominantly Muslim. This includes the Republic of Sudan (after the secession of Christian South Sudan), the northern parts of Chad and Niger, most of Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. The problem of Slavery in contemporary Africa remains most pronounced in these countries, along the racial boundary of Arabized Berbers in the north and blacks in the south. This concerns the Sahel states of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan in particular, continuing a centuries-old pattern of hereditary servitude going back to the historical Muslim conquests. In terms of warfare, the racial conflict between Arab or Arabized and non-Arab black populations is ongoing in the various internal conflicts in Sudan, most notably the War in Darfur, the Northern Mali conflict, and the Islamist insurgency in Northern Nigeria.
Contacts between Nubians and Arabs long predated the coming of Islam, but the arabization of the Nile Valley was a gradual process that occurred over a period of nearly 1,000 years. Arab nomads continually wandered into the region in search of fresh pasturage, and Arab seafarers and merchants traded in Red Sea ports for spices and slaves. Intermarriage and assimilation also facilitated arabization. After the initial attempts at military conquest failed, the Arab commander in Egypt, Abd Allah ibn Saad, concluded the first in a series of regularly renewed treaties with the Nubians that, with only brief interruptions, governed relations between the two peoples for more than 600 years. This treaty was known as the baqt. So long as Arabs ruled Egypt, there was peace on the Nubian frontier; however, when non-Arabs (for example, the Mamluks) acquired control of the Nile Delta, tension arose in Upper Egypt.
The Arabs realized the commercial advantages of peaceful relations with Nubia and used the baqt to ensure that travel and trade proceeded unhindered across the frontier. The baqt also contained security arrangements whereby both parties agreed that neither would come to the defense of the other in the event of an attack by a third party. The baqt obliged both to exchange annual tribute as a goodwill symbol, the Nubians in slaves and the Arabs in grain. This formality was only a token of the trade that developed between the two, not only in these commodities but also in horses and manufactured goods brought to Nubia by the Arabs and in ivory, gold, gems, gum arabic, and cattle carried back by them to Egypt or shipped to Arabia.
Acceptance of the baqt did not indicate Nubian submission to the Arabs, but the treaty did impose conditions for Arab friendship that eventually permitted Arabs to achieve a privileged position in Nubia. Arab merchants established markets in Nubian towns to facilitate the exchange of grain and slaves. Arab engineers supervised the operation of mines east of the Nile in which they used slave labor to extract gold and emeralds. Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca traveled across the Red Sea on ferries from Aydhab and Suakin, ports that also received cargoes bound from India to Egypt.
Traditional genealogies trace the ancestry of most of the Nile Valley's mixed population to Arab tribes that migrated into the region during this period. Even many non-Arabic-speaking groups claim descent from Arab forebears. The two most important Arabic-speaking groups to emerge in Nubia were the Ja'Alin and the Juhayna. Both showed physical continuity with the indigenous pre-Islamic population. The former claimed descent from the Quraysh, the Prophet Muhammad's tribe. Historically, the Jaali have been sedentary farmers and herders or townspeople settled along the Nile and in Al Jazirah. The nomadic Juhayna comprised a family of tribes that included the Kababish, Baqqara, and Shukriya. They were descended from Arabs who migrated after the 13th century into an area that extended from the savanna and semidesert west of the Nile to the Abyssinian foothills east of the Blue Nile. Both groups formed a series of tribal shaykhdoms that succeeded the crumbling Christian Nubian kingdoms and that were in frequent conflict with one another and with neighboring non-Arabs. In some instances, as among the Beja, the indigenous people absorbed Arab migrants who settled among them. Beja ruling families later derived their legitimacy from their claims of Arab ancestry.
Although not all Muslims in the region were Arabic-speaking, acceptance of Islam facilitated the Arabizing process. There was no policy of proselytism, however. Islam penetrated the area over a long period of time through intermarriage and contacts with Arab merchants and settlers.
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At the same time that the Ottomans brought northern Nubia into their orbit, a new power, the Funj, had risen in southern Nubia and had supplanted the remnants of the old Christian kingdom of Alwa. In 1504 a Funj leader, Amara Dunqas, founded the Kingdom of Sennar. This Sultanate eventually became the keystone of the Funj Empire. By the mid-sixteenth century, Sennar controlled Al Jazirah and commanded the allegiance of vassal states and tribal districts north to the third cataract and south to the rainforests.
The Funj state included a loose confederation of sultanates and dependent tribal chieftaincies drawn together under the suzerainty of Sennar's mek (sultan). As overlord, the mek received tribute, levied taxes, and called on his vassals to supply troops in time of war. Vassal states in turn relied on the mek to settle local disorders and to resolve internal disputes. The Funj stabilized the region and interposed a military bloc between the Arabs in the north, the Abyssinians in the east, and the non-Muslim blacks in the south.
The sultanate's economy depended on the role played by the Funj in the slave trade. Farming and herding also thrived in Al Jazirah and in the southern rainforests. Sennar apportioned tributary areas into tribal homelands (each one termed a dar; pl., dur), where the mek granted the local population the right to use arable land. The diverse groups that inhabited each dar eventually regarded themselves as units of tribes. Movement from one dar to another entailed a change in tribal identification. (Tribal distinctions in these areas in modern Sudan can be traced to this period.) The mek appointed a chieftain (nazir; pl., nawazir) to govern each dar. Nawazir administered dur according to customary law, paid tribute to the mek, and collected taxes. The mek also derived income from crown lands set aside for his use in each dar.
At the peak of its power in the mid-17th century, Sennar repulsed the northward advance of the Nilotic Shilluk people up the White Nile and compelled many of them to submit to Funj authority. After this victory, the mek Badi II Abu Duqn (1642–81) sought to centralize the government of the confederacy of Sennar. To implement this policy, Badi introduced a standing army of slave soldiers that would free Sennar from dependence on vassal sultans for military assistance and would provide the mek with the means to enforce his will. The move alienated the dynasty from the Funj warrior aristocracy, which in 1718 deposed the reigning mek and placed one of their own ranks on the throne of Sennar. The mid-18th century witnessed another brief period of expansion when the Funj turned back an Abyssinian invasion, defeated the Fur, and took control of much of Kurdufan. But civil war and the demands of defending the sultanate had overextended the warrior society's resources and sapped its strength.
Another reason for Sennar's decline may have been the growing influence of its hereditary viziers (chancellors), chiefs of a non-Funj tributary tribe who managed court affairs. In 1761 the vizier Muhammad Abu al Kaylak, who had led the Funj army in wars, carried out a palace coup, relegating the sultan to a figurehead role. Sennar's hold over its vassals diminished, and by the early 19th century more remote areas ceased to recognize even the nominal authority of the mek.
Darfur was the Fur homeland. Renowned as cavalrymen, Fur clans frequently allied with or opposed their kin, the Kanuri of Borno, in modern Nigeria. After a period of disorder in the sixteenth century, during which the region was briefly subject to the Bornu Empire, the leader of the Keira clan, Sulayman Solong (1596–1637), supplanted a rival clan and became Darfur's first sultan. Sulayman Solong decreed Islam to be the sultanate's official religion. However, large-scale religious conversions did not occur until the reign of Ahmad Bakr (1682–1722), who imported teachers, built mosques, and compelled his subjects to become Muslims. In the eighteenth century, several sultans consolidated the dynasty's hold on Darfur, established a capital at Al Fashir, and contested the Funj for control of Kurdufan.
The sultans operated the slave trade as a monopoly. They levied taxes on traders and export duties on slaves sent to Egypt, and took a share of the slaves brought into Darfur. Some household slaves advanced to prominent positions in the courts of sultans, and the power exercised by these slaves provoked a violent reaction among the traditional class of Fur officeholders in the late eighteenth century. The rivalry between the slave and traditional elites caused recurrent unrest throughout the next century.
- The "Sudan region" encompasses not just the history of the Republic of Sudan (whose borders are those of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, drawn in 1899) but of the wider Sahel, in Arabic known as bilad as-sudan "the land of the blacks".
- "The mobilization of local ideas about racial difference has been important in generating, and intensifying, civil wars that have occurred since the end of colonial rule in all of the countries that straddle the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. [...] contemporary conflicts often hearken back to an older history in which blackness could be equated with slavery and non-blackness with predatory and uncivilized banditry." (cover text), Hall, Bruce S., A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. – Sudan
- Spencer Trimingham, History of Islam in West Africa. Oxford University Press, 1962.
- Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (eds). The History of Islam in Africa. Ohio University Press, 2000.
- David Robinson. Muslim Societies in African History. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Bruce S. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960. Cambridge University Press, 2011, ISBN 9781107002876.
- Muslim conquest of the Maghreb
- Muslim conquest of Egypt
- Sahelian kingdoms
- History of Sudan
- History of Chad
- History of Niger
- History of Mali
- History of Mauritania
- Kingdom of Sennar
- Islam in Ethiopia
- Islam in Somalia
- Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2001).