West African Civilization (1400-1591) - The Growth of Islam in West Africa
Standards: 7.4.4
  • Trace the growth of the Arabic language in government, trade, and Islamic scholarship in West Africa.
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The Growth of Islam in West Africa

Key Terms and People

Sunni Ali Ber: king of Songhai, Ali Ber means "Ali the Great"

cavalry: mounted troups

infantry: foot soldiers

tyrant: cruel ruler who uses power against his or her subjects without any limits

siege: military plan in which the attacking army cuts off supplies to the defenders

Askia Muhammad: Songhai emperor, conquered new lands and spread Islam even farther


Section Notes

The Rise of Songhai

  • As the empire of Mali weakened the empire of Songahi grew in power. Songhai became the largest of West Africa's trading empires. The first king was Sunni Ali Ber. He was a cruel tyrant that used his calvary and infantry to conquer the trading cities of Gao, Djenné and Timbuktu, along the Niger River, and control the empire.
  • Sunni Ali Ber allowed his troops to loot the city of Timbuktu and had many people killed. Goods traded at Timbuktu included gold and salt.
  • Sunni Ali Ber's soldiers encircled Djenné in a siege. Sunni Ali Ber treated them and their people with respect. As a result of conquering the city Songhai dominated the trans-Saharan trading routes.

The Spread of Islam and Arabic

  • When Askia Muhammad took control of Songhai his goal was to expand the empire and spread the Islamic faith. He also srengthened Islam by appointing judges to enforce laws based on the Qur'an. He also encouraged, with money and gifts, Islamic scholarship. Timbuktu became a leading center of Islamic learning. In Timbuktu, Arabic provided a common language for traders to arrange deals and to keep records.
  • The main work of scholars from Timbuktu included copying old manuscripts and writing new books in Arabic.
  • Songhai faded after 1591. It was attacked by Morocco soldiers armed with guns. The Songhai empire gradually declined.


Summary: The rise of the Songhai Empire helped spread Islam and the Arabic language across West Africa.

Study Guide Questions

How did Sunni Ali Ber control his growing empire?

How was Arabic important in Songhai?

What were Gao, Djenné, and Timbuktu?

How did Sunni Ali Ber's treatment of the people of Timbuktu and Djenné differ?

In what areas of Songhai life was the Arabic language used?

How did the leaders of Songahi strengthen Islam and the Arabic language in West Africa?

Practice Test

Homework: Choose one
  1. Workbook Chapter 6 Section 1 (Page 71)
  2. Answer three of the study guide questions using complete sentences.
  3. Draw a picture of something important from this section and summarize this section of the text (three sentences minimum).