Mansa Musa of Mali: Transforming our perceptions of African and Islamic history.

March 4, 2016


Musa Keita I, most commonly known as Mansa Musa, was a West African emperor (“Mansa”), scholar, alhaji and businessman. Born in the late 1200s, Mansa Musa ruled the kingdom of Mali, a vast empire which encompassed most of West Africa, including present day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, transforming his kingdom into one of the most prolific centres of Islamic learning. The University of Timbuktu, one of the first, and therefore oldest, universities to have ever been established (older, might I add, than Oxford, Cambridge or any other Western academic institution) had long produced religious, scientific and mathematical material. It has widely been documented, both in Western and Middle Eastern manuscripts, that students and scholars would travel to Timbuktu, taking new concepts and practices with them as they returned to their native homelands.


A devout Muslim, Mansa Musa established Islam as the central religion of the Malian empire. However, most Malians who adopted Islam as their religion retained some of their indigenous African customs, creating a culture in which indigenous African religion and Islam lived side by side.


As a religious leader, Mansa Musa introduced Eid as a national ceremony. He standardised the teaching of Arabic and he transformed the Sankore Madrassah (another centre of learning in Timbuktu) into an established Islamic University. The various madrassahs of Timbuktu were renowned throughout the Islamic world, not only for the knowledge that was produced there, but also for the production of Quranic manuscripts, memorised and handwritten in a unique style of Arabic calligraphy. Unfortunately, most of the manuscripts produced in ancient/medieval Timbuktu have been destroyed, either by European colonialism, civil war or natural devastations such as floods.


Some Quranic manuscripts, however, have survived. I read an article recently that over 60 libraries in Timbuktu are owned by local families and institutions, with nearly 30,000 ancient manuscripts being studied, catalogued and preserved. Though I scorn the history of European colonialism and the cultural pillaging that went with it, I have seen some Timbuktu manuscripts myself, both at the British Museum and, more recently, at the British Library at their exhibition on West Africa.

 Now heralded as the wealthiest man to have ever lived (some estimate that Mansa Musa was worth over $400 billion), Mansa Musa is just one of many historical figures who demonstrate that African civilisations profoundly influenced (whether it be culturally, intellectually or economically) Europe and the wider Islamic world. It has been widely documented that Mansa Musa went on Hajj in the year 1325, using his wealth to give zakat (charity), trade and build mosques, houses and other forms of infrastructure across North Africa and Arabia. There are even scholars who believe that Mansa Musa inadvertently helped to finance the Italian Renaissance, pulling Europe out of “the dark ages” into the cultural and intellectual period of the European renaissance.


Another figure central to the historical relationship between Mali and the wider world is Mansa Musa’s older brother, Abubakari II. Known as “the voyager king”, Abubakari is said to have abdicated as “Mansa” of Mali, handing the position instead to Musa Keita I, to explore the wider world. In his book They Came Before Columbus historian Ivan Van Sertima claims that Abubakari travelled to the Americas two centuries before Christopher Columbus, establishing contact with native American peoples. Of this, Sertima states:


“The court tradition of Mali and documents in Cairo tell of an African king, Abubakari the Second, setting out on the Atlantic in 1311. He commandeered a fleet of large boats, well stocked with food and water, and embarked from the Senegambia coast, the western borders of this West African empire […]. Neither of the two Mandingo fleets came back to Mali to tell their story, but around this same time evidence of contact between West Africans and Mexicans appears in strata in America in an overwhelming combination of artefacts and cultural parallels.” (p.28)


Though some historians have disputed the claim, it is nonetheless interesting to consider that African Muslims have a history in America that predates the arrival of the transatlantic slave trade. Mansa Musa, Abubakari II and the kingdom of Mali not only reinforce the idea of African excellence, but they also demonstrate how Africans and African nations have historically shaped and influenced Europe and the Islamic world: a far cry from the image of Africa that is usually sold to us.



Alhaji – is an honorific title given to a Muslim person who has successfully completed the Hajj(pilgrimage) to Mecca



Further reading


When We Ruled by Robin Walker: ‘West Africa’ (p.25), ‘Islamic Scholarship’ (p.64), ‘The West African Coast’ (p.313), ‘West Africa’s Golden Age’ (p.359).






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