Islam (part 8)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

Spread Into Africa

The spread of Islam, from its heartland in the Middle East and North
Africa to India and Southeast Asia, revealed the power of the religion and its
commercial and sometimes military attributes. Civilizations were altered
without being fully drawn into a single Islamic statement. A similar pattern
developed in sub-Saharan Africa, as Islam provided new influences and contacts
without amalgamating African culture as a whole to the Middle Eastern core.
New religious, economic, and political patterns developed in relation to the
Islamic surge, but great diversity remained.

Africa below the Sahara was never totally isolated from the centers of
civilization in Egypt, west Asia, or the Mediterranean, but for long periods
the contacts were difficult and intermittent. During the ascendancy of Rome,
sub-Saharan Africa like northern Europe was on the periphery of the major
centers of civilization. After the fall of Rome, the civilizations of
Byzantium and the Islamic world provided a link between the civilizations of
the Middle East and the Mediterranean as well as the areas, such as northern
Europe and Africa, on their frontiers. In Africa, between roughly A.D. 800 and
1500, the frequency and intensity of contact with the outside world increased
as part of the growing international network. A number of social, religious,
and technological changes took place that influenced many of the different
peoples throughout the vast and varied continent. Chief among these changes
was the arrival of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad.

The spread of Islam across much of the northern third of Africa produced
profound effects on both those who converted and those who resisted the new
faith. Islamization also served to link Muslim Africa even more closely to the
outside world through trade, religion, and politics. Trade and long-distance
commerce, in fact, was carried out in many parts of the continent and linked
regions beyond the orbit of Muslim penetration. Until about 1450, however,
Islam provided the major external contact between sub-Saharan Africa and the

State building took place in many areas of the continent under a variety
of conditions. West Africa, for example, experienced both the cultural
influence of Islam and its own internal dynamic of state building and
civilizational developments that produced, in some places, great artistic
accomplishments. The formation of some powerful states, such as Mali and
Songhay, depended more on military power and dynastic alliances than on ethnic
or cultural unity. In this aspect and in the process of state formation
itself, Africa paralleled the roughly contemporaneous developments of western
Europe. The development of city-states, with strong merchant communities in
West Africa and on the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, bore certain
similarities to the urban developments of Italy and Germany in this period.
However, disparities between the technologies and ideologies of Europeans and
Africans by the end of this period also created marked differences in the way
in which their societies developed. The arrival of western Europeans - the
Portuguese - in the 15th century set in motion a series of exchanges that
would draw Africans increasingly into the world economy and create a new set
of relationships that would characterize African development for centuries to

Several emphases thus highlight the history of Africa in the
postclassical centuries. Northern Africa and the East African coast became
increasingly incorporated into the Arab Muslim world, but even other parts of
the continent reflected the power of Islamic thought and institutions. New
centers of civilization and political power arose in several parts of
sub-Saharan Africa, illustrating the geographical diffusion of civilization.
African civilizations, however, built somewhat less clearly on prior precedent
than was the case in other postclassical societies. Some earlier themes, such
as the Bantu migration and the formation of large states in the western Sudan,
persisted. Overall, sub-Saharan Africa remained a varied and distinctive
setting, parts of it drawn into new contacts with the growing world network,
but much of it retaining a certain isolation.

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