Islam is well known to be not merely a religion but a complete way of life. It is not surprising that the health of Islam should be closely related to its political, military and economic power. There are various spheres of economy which have served the interests of Islam as different opportunities presented themselves. This article synthesizes how this took place from the rise of Islam through its expansion to present day West Africa, in an attempt to show the economic basis for some of the fortunes and reverses of Islam in this part of the world.

Early Islam and the North African conquests: economics of booty

Islam is a missionary religion. MuĆammad saw himself called to proclaim a divine message and to warn people to accept it. Every Muslim is supposed to have the same impulse to call non-Muslims to the faith of Islam. There is supposed to be "no compulsion in religion" (Q. 2:256), and therefore no forced conversions. The conquests of the early centuries are explained not as an attempt to impose Islam on other people, but as the establishment of the rule of divine law (sharî`a), which tolerates Christian and Jewish sub-communities under the protective umbrella of Islamic supremacy. The inferior condition of these communities under Islamic rule is itself an incentive to conversion. The joy of "God's help and victory, when you see people flocking into the religion of God in waves" (Q. 2:110) was one important by-product of the wars which "opened up" countries to Islam. But a more immediate joy to the victorious soldiers was booty, a boon envisaged in the Qur'ân and subjected to precise legal provisions regarding its division (notably with a fifth for the Prophet or public treasury; cf. Q. 8:1,42; 59:6-10; 48:15-21).

Booty from Syria, Persia and Egypt was the basis of the economic prosperity of the Abû-Bakr and `Umar regimes. The vanishing of the sources of quick and plentiful booty was the reason for the austerity and political crisis of `Uthmân's regime, and the occasion of the coup in which `Uthmân lost his life and the first civil war began. (1)

Once the civil war was put to an end by the Umayyad victory, conquest of North Africa and the flow of booty resumed. But when the north of Africa was subjugated an the Berbers finally submitted to Islam, booty could no longer be taken from them. Nevertheless, an exploitative situation remained, leading the Berbers to revolt and set up and independent Islamic regime over most of Algeria and Libya under the banner of Khârijism, a marginal movement in Islam that stressed, among other things, equality of all Muslims.

Trans-Saharan contact (8th century): economics of trade

The Khârijite state of Tahirt controlled the Saharan routes. Before the Arabs came there was virtually no trans-Saharan movement, although there had been such traffic in pre-historic times when the desert was not so dry. The Arabs opened the way to the desert by making use of the potential of the camel, something previous rulers of North Africa had completely neglected. (2)

`Uqba ibn-Nâfi` was one of the many heroes of this conquest who imposed tribute on one town after another in the Fezzân (southern Libya) in the form of slaves. (3) The slaves could not be Muslims or, for that matter, Christians, according to the Sharî`a, but "pagans" were legitimate prey. This initiated a brisk trade in slaves from Kanem/Borno to Tripoli which lasted until the end of the 19th century.

At the western end of the Sahara, Arabs penetrated as far as the Senegal river and discovered that plenty of gold was available. The gold trade then became the major link binding Tahirt and the states of Takrûr, Ghana etc. in West Africa. (4) These states and empires, in fact, owed their existence to the gold trade by the simple principle that a large political unit emerges in order to secure and exploit a correspondingly large market basin. The kings of Ghana assured the safe-passage of the traders, and in return received a share of the gold that passed through their territory. Arab (or Arabized Berber) traders were essential to the well-being of the Sudanic states not only as trading partners, but also in providing services, notably communication and banking. Orders could be written in Arabic for commodities from afar, and credit could be established. The civil service of the Sudanic states thus became a Muslim preserve. These civil servants certainly advertised their religion, but the principal agents for assimilating would-be converts were the religious scholars (`ulamâ' or clerics) who followed the traders. They attracted people to Islam also by the mystery and magic of the Qur'ân and the charms or religious medicine which they dispensed as a supplement or rival with African traditional medicine.

Trade, then, both created the West African kingdoms and planted Islam in their capitals. Since the kings had to be spiritual fathers of all the people, they were slow in opting for Islam, but for the same reason they had to have a foot in it and observe some Islamic practices. particularly when kingdoms became large and racially heterogeneous (in the case of Mali), Islam became more important as a unifying ideology. By around the middle of the 11th century all the kings of the major Sudanic kingdoms (Takrûr, Ghana, Sila, Malal, Gao, Kanem) had become Muslim. Trade was the first gateway for Islam, but a military factor also came into play.

Slave trade with the Arabs (11th-15th century): economic militarism

The Murâbi≥s (or Almoravids) were a military movement among the Sanhaja Berber tribe reacting against the Zenata Berbers for control of the Saharan trade routes. (5) Started by `Abdallâh ibn-Yâsîn, a Sunnî Malikite (and thus of mainstream Islam), the Murâbi≥ movement quickly gained control over the whole of northwestern Africa from the Senegal river to Morocco, and took over Spain as well. The Murâbi≥s displaced Khârijism along the trade routes and became the agents the Sudanic states henceforth had to deal with in their trans-Saharan trade. Al-Maqrîzî and Ibn-Khaldûn state that the Murâbi≥s conquered Ghana, but earlier Arab sources do not mention this or any direct attacks on Sudanic states. (6) Nevertheless they had every motive to do attack them. They were nomads hungry for grain, roaming on the borders of farmers; such nomads have raided farmers for centuries, both north and south of the Sahara. (7) In addition they were ardent Muslims, and the farmers were pagan; so any food raid could also be interpreted as a jihâd.

Yet the fact that Murâbi≥ attacks on Sudanic states are hardly mentioned can be explained by the Murâbi≥ policy of alliances with one or another Muslim partner among the Sudanic states. For instance, Takrûr and Ghana were in competition for the dwindling resources of the Bambuk gold fields. (8) Takrûr had an alliance with the Berbers, which was exploited against Ghana. Murâbi≥ military help did not consist simply of fighting men, but also in the supply of large north African horses and swords.

Ghana was not destroyed, but its kings became Muslim at this time. To become Muslim is an excellent preventive medicine, because Muslims are forbidden to attack brother Muslims. Thus without any actual jihâd the Sudanic kings could be persuaded to adopt Islam.

The militarization of the Western Sudan in the 11th century had an impact on trading commodities. Military supplies (such as horses) were a favoured import, whereas slaves, the by-product of war, became an important export, notwithstanding the fact that the gold trade continued to flourish, especially with the opening of the Bure fields.

States of the 16th and 17th centuries: economic and political stagnation

Subsequent centuries saw the glorious (but not all that seriously Islamic) empire of Mali and Songhay. The Songhay empire came to an end with the Moroccan invasion of 1592. But no empire or kingdom rose immediately to take its place. West Africa, in fact seemed to go to sleep for a century or more. Pagan rulers reclaimed the debris of the on-time Islamic empires and Islam was preserved only in some independent towns such as Timbuktu and Jenne, or in migrant jamâ`as led by Muslim scholars or ™ûfîs. (9) These were self-sufficient communities (compare Christian "basic communities") for all their religious, economic, political and military needs, and in later years issued in jihâd movements which reestablished state Islam.

Why, we may ask, did not successor state immediately arise on the ruins of Songhay? The economic explanation again provides the answer. The trans-Saharan trade in the Western Sudan had shrunk to near nothing; so the Sudanic states dependent on this trade would die with or without an invasion from Morocco. The trans-Saharan trade dried up because of the Turkish occupation of North Africa in the 16th century. The Ottoman empire then covered three quarters of the Mediterranean littoral and was an economic zone of its own. The Turks in Algeria controlled only a narrow strip of coastal land and, like the Romans, had no interest in the Sahara. (10) This situation continued until the French occupation of Algiers in 1830. Only Kanem/Borno continued to have trade links with Tripoli because of the shorter distance and an undiminished demand for slaves.

Jihâd states: the Atlantic market

The jihâd movements which reestablished Islam as a state religion in the Western Sudan have religious explanations, which their leaders have left for us in their many writings. But the religious motivation would not have resulted in the formation of viable states without an economic basis. This came not from the Sahara but from the Atlantic.

Portuguese exploration of the West African coast in the 15th century led to a diversion of the gold trade to Elmina. This trade did not last long, because it could not compete in quantity or price with the gold that started to flow from the Americas. The Portuguese also dealt to a certain extent in slaves, for a time buying them in other ports and selling them for gold at Elmina. Yet slave trade became important only under the English and Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Atlantic trade was the major catalyst for the formation of several empires along the coast: Benin, Oyo, Dahomey, and Ashantee. (11)

In whatever ports the Europeans traded they noted the presence of people from the northern hinterland: Dyula (or Wangara) in Elmina, Hausa in Whydah etc. It was only a matter of time for the northerners to organize themselves to exploit the full potential of the Atlantic market. They too had products for market - and the only product the Europeans were really interested in from the 17th century was slaves. The only challenge was to secure the trade routes and obtain slaves cheaply and efficiently. This economic goal was given religious sanction and brought realization by means of jihâd.

The first clear case of such a jihâd was that of Alfa Karamoko in Futa Jallon in 1720-1750. Here the Muslim Fulani population overthrew the rule of the Dialonke farmers and established an organized system of capturing slaves and exporting them to the Gambian coast. (12)

The same pattern can be seen in the case of the Sokoto jihâd of `Uthmân dan Fodiye. (13) The Oyo empire was at the height of its power at the end of the 18th century as a result of a successful slave export economy in which Oyo obtained slaves mainly by raids in northern Dahomey and by purchase from Hausaland. Hausaland at that time was divided into many states, such as Kebbi, Gobir, Zamfara, Katsina, Zaria and Kano. These were frequently, if not constantly, at war with one another, and captives were abundant. The complaint of the Fulani reformers, however, was that Muslims were being sold as slaves to the Christians on the coast. `Uthmân dan Fodiye's jihâd put an end to the wars and slave taking among the Hausa states. These were consolidated into one caliphate under the leadership of Sokoto, under whose banner annual dry season slave raids were carried out in the Middle Belt and Adamawa. The export route went through the Oyo empire to the coast, where tolls were paid and revenue reduced. So one by one the Fulani subverted the powers that stood in the way of expansion to the coast: Nupe and Ilorin became Fulani emirates; the remains of the Oyo army took refuge in Ibadan, and the way was open to the coast and "dipping the Qur'ân into the sea". Yet by the time this was accomplished (1836 for the last crushing blow to the Oyo army), the slave markets at Ikorodu, Lagos and Badagry had nearly closed down because of concerted British and international effort to terminate slave trade altogether. By the mid 19th century the British were already on the coast ready to intervene in African political struggles. But the main reason the Fulani stopped their advance was that there was no more incentive to push on to the coast for the time being.

Slave raiding continued in the Sokoto empire until colonial times, but the slaves were used for domestic purposes and a certain amount of trans-Saharan export. Until the Ghaddafi regime removed the exhibit form the Tripoli museum, (14) there was on display the iron neck collars and chains found on the remains of a slave caravan lost in the Sahara. A photograph of the scene before the remains were collected showed a line of skeletons chained neck to neck. These could have come from Hausaland, but more likely they were from Borno, where Barth described in detail some slave raids he witnessed in the 1850s.

Colonial and independent times: centrally controlled distribution economy

With the abolition of the slave trade, African (and Muslim) commercial interest turned to new directions. There were several jihâds in far West Africa in the late 19th century as the French and English extended their power in the area (al-Hajj `Umar and Ahmadu of the Tokolor, Samori among the Malinke, Ma Ba Kiakhou Ba in Senegambia etc.). These jihads were short-lived power struggles in a fast changing political and economic scene; their economic background is not clear.

Under colonial rule, to speak of Nigeria, the Muslim emirs were content with a position of feudal privilege and power over an unenlightened population. In the meantime a parallel secular political order developed which took over all the real power. This, together with a new middle class of entrepreneurs and professional people, relegated emirate structures to a marginalized reminder of a past epoch.

Since independence, Islamic institutions have been helped by economic support come from Arab countries who, during the years of the oil boom, had plenty of money to disburse. On the whole, however, Arab aid to Africa has been negligible. Most of it has been for the building of mosques and scholarships for students of Islamic studies.

As for the indigenous economic system, traditional agricultural, pastoral and cottage industries survive to this day among all tribes and religions. Manufacturing and professional and technical skills have been mostly a Christian enterprise (except among the Yoruba), while the transport of goods from north to south and vice versa, along with the marketing of cattle and kola, have been a northern Muslim preserve. Yet both of these areas of the economy take second place to the oil revenue.

In independent Nigeria northern Muslims would be at an economic disadvantage were it not for their control of the federal government and its ministries, and thus the distribution of the oil revenue. This power has assured a continued development of economic infrastructures in the north, even in times of austerity, and has provided an incalculable opportunity for patronage distribution. For a time, tight central control over access to foreign exchange and import licenses, as well as over the awarding of contracts, assured a continuation of northern Muslim hold on political and economic power based on control of distribution rather than production. This economic power, of course, was used for the promotion of Islam.

Since the mid 1980s, IMF and World Bank pressure for privatization and free market policies led to a number of programs such as SFEM and SAP. In theory they could have changed the situation. By allowing the productive sector to have easy access to the foreign exchange necessary to get raw materials and spare parts, the productive and trading sectors should have picked up and prospered. This in turn would have led to a political challenge to northern Muslim hegemony.

In fact, some enterprises did well under the new policies. Yet patronage with kick-backs is still a more important part of the economy than free private enterprise. As long as this is so and Muslims are the patrons, Islam will continue ride high in Nigeria.


1. Cf. Laura Vecchia Vaglieri, "The patriarchal and Umayyad caliphates", Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 2, pp. 57-103.

2. Cf. Raymond Mauny, "Trans-Saharan contacts and the iron age in West Africa", ch. 5 in The Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 2 (1978), pp. 272-341.

3. According to Ibn-`AbadalĆakam; cf. J.F.P. Hopkins & N. Levtzion, Mediaeval Arabic sources on West Africa (Cambridge U.P.1981), pp. 12-13.

4. Cf. N. Levtzion, "The Sahara and the Sudan from the Arab conquest of the Maghrib to the rise of the Almoravids", ch. 11 in The Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 2 (1978), pp. 637-684.

5. Cf. P.F. Farias de Moraes, "The Almoravids: some questions concerning the character of the movement during its period of closest contact with the western Sudan", BIFAN, 29 (1967), pp. 794-878.

6. Cf. Humphrey J. Fisher, "Early Arabic sources and the Almoravid conquest of Ghana" Journal of African History, 23 (1982), 549.

7. Ibn-Khaldûn makes this nomadic habit almost a law of history; cf. The Muqaddimah, tr. F. Rosenthal, ed. N.J. Dawood (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), pp. 91-122.

8. Cf. N. Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali, (London: Methuen, 1973), pp. 44, 154-156.

9. On the use of this term, see Murray Last, The Sokoto Caliphate (London: Longmans, 1967). See also M. Hiskett, "An Islamic tradition of reform in the Western Sudan from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century", BSOAS, 25 (1962), pp. 577-596.

10. These factors are alluded to by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene, The emirates of northern Nigeria (London: Oxford U.P., 1966), pp. 106-108, but the blame is put on the Sudan rather than on North Africa. See also N. Levtzion, "Northwest Africa: from the Maghrib to the fringes of the forest", The Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 4 (1975), pp. 145-146.

11. For the case of Oyo, cf. P. Morton-Williams, "The Yoruba kingdom of y", p. 37; cf. his "The Oyo Yoruba and the Atlantic trade"; R. Smith, Kingdoms of the Yoruba, p. 45; I.A. Akinjogbin, "The prelude to the Yoruba civil wars", Odu, 1:2 (1965), p. 28; cf. his "The Oyo empire in the eighteenth century - a reassessment", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 3:3 (1966), p. 457; R. Law, The Oyo empire, c. 1600- c.1836 (Oxford, 1977), p. 219 and note 127.

12. Cf. W. Rodney, "Jihad and social revolution in Futa Djalon in the 18th century", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 4:2 (1968), pp. 269 ff.

13. Cf. J. Kenny, "The Sokoto jihâd: implications of Oyo's economic structure," Ife Journal of History, 1:1 (1993), 1-20.

14. I saw it there in 1969. It was gone when I visited the museum again in 1976.