Sonni Ali

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Extent of the Songhai Empire, circa 1500.

Sonni Ali, also known as Sunni Ali Ber or "Sunni Ali", was born Ali Kolon.[1][2] He reigned from about 1464 to 1492. Sunni Ali was the first king of the Songhai Empire, located in west Africa and the 15th ruler of the Sonni dynasty. Under Sunni Ali's infantry and cavalry many cities were captured and then fortified, such as Timbuktu (captured in 1468) and Djenné (captured in 1475). Sonni conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg whom Ali expelled to gain control of the town.

Sonni Ali organized a fleet to patrol the Niger river. During his reign, Songhai surpassed the height of the Mali Empire, engulfing areas under the Mali Empire (and the Ghana Empire before it). His death, in late 1492, is a matter of conjecture. According to the Tarikh al-Sudan, Ali drowned while crossing the river Niger.[3] Oral tradition believes he was killed by his sister's son, Askia Muhammad Ture.[4][5] He was succeeded by his son, Sonni Baru, who was challenged by Askia because Baru was not seen as a faithful Muslim.[6] Askia succeed the throne. According to the Tarikh al-Sudan it is believed that this action caused Sonni Ali's sister to shout out "Askia!"(forceful one), at the news of this take over.[7]

Sonni Ali ruled over both urban Muslims and rural non-Muslims at a time when the traditional co-existence of different beliefs was being challenged. His adherence to African animism while also professing Islam leads some writers to describe him as outwardly or nominally Muslim.[8] This perspectively is entirely rejected by some scholars (such as Muhammad Shareef) who claim that the debate of fusion of Islam and indigenous African religions is not peculiar, unique or in any way diminishes someone's claim to being a Muslim. Owen Alik Shahadah claims that it is problematic for historians to become theologians and narrow the definition of Islam to support their 21st century politics.[9]

Preceded by
Silman Dandi
King of Songhai
Succeeded by
Sonni Baru


  1. ^ Adeleke 1996, p. 16
  2. ^
  3. ^ Hunwick 1999, p. 100
  4. ^ Hunwick 1999, p. 100n55
  5. ^ Dictionary of African historical biography, Editors Mark R. Lipschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen, (University of California Press, 1986), 229.
  6. ^ Towards an Understanding of the African Experience from Historical By Festus Ugboaja Ohaegbulam
  7. ^ African Legends
  8. ^ Hunwick 1999, p. xxxix
  9. ^ "Arab Slave Trade: Nominal Muslims". African Holocaust Society. Retrieved 2007-01-04. 


  • Hunwick, John O. (1999), Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-11207-3 .
  • Adeleke, Tunde (1996), Songhay, New York: Rosen Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8239-1986-2 .

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