Islam spread into sub-Sarahan Africa after many people in North Africa, on the southern coast of the Mediterranean had adopted it. The genesis of Islam to societies within sub-Sarahan Africa gave the converted Muslims an opportunity to interact with the rest of the Islamic empire through trade and cultural exchange, giving them access to important material and intellectual resources.

The religion of Islam first began to spread southward from North Africa through traders and merchants to the "Kingdoms of the Grasslands". These caravan routes met Sudanic states such as Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Hausa. Although most individuals did not convert to Islam, the ruling class did, believing that the arrival of Islam reinforced their ruling power.

States like Mali in the 13th century soon became models for Islamic states within Africa; people built mosques, attended public prayers, and were encouraged to express "faithful obedience" to the king (one of the reasons why Islam was so readily accepted by African rulers). One famous leader of Mali was , who was famous for his illustrious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, which included 60,000 men and 12,000 trades. This pilgrimage, despite its exorbitant costs, served to exchange goods and ideas across the African continent, and further included the sub-Sarahan community within the global community.


A Mosque Built During Golden Age of Mali: The knowledge and architectural style was imported and fused with traditional materials after Mansa Musa's pilgrimage in 1342.
A Mosque Built During Golden Age of Mali: The knowledge and architectural style was imported and fused with traditional materials after Mansa Musa's pilgrimage in 1342.


After the decline of traditional states like Ghana, a new empire, like the Songhay kingdom, became the preeminent force within sub-Sarahan Africa. The Songhay rulers called "askia" and the founder of the empire Sunni Ali were Muslim, and aspects of Islam pervaded in African society. Nevertheless, these Africans still retained parts of their culture; men and women were seen together mingling in public and women were also to travel around unveiled. Some Muslim devotees were upset by some of the traditional beliefs and practices (some of them were Pagan) the people from Songhay held, especially their interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.


The extent of the Songhay Empire
The extent of the Songhay Empire



Other, smaller Islamic states were autocracies, with powerful rulers imposing Islam on other smaller tribes that practiced animism. One state, Kano, for instance, ruled over a city called Hausa, and made it an Islamic center of learning.


As Islam spread through Sudan and sub-Sarahan Africa, older traditions were fused with newer Islamic practices and beliefs. Since many African leaders still ruled over subjects that were not Muslim, they avoided complete assimilation to the world of Islam; many of their political and social trends remained the same. But the fusion cultures still remained; one clear example of syncretism in these Sudanic states was the status of women - some states, for instance, continued to be traced through a matrilineal line. Also, African connection to the rest of the Islamic world produced a spike in the slave trade for over 700 years.

By around 1000 AD, Islam was also introduced to the Swahili coast through Muslim merchants. Islam promoted commerce on the east coast of Africa, tying that large geographic region with season trade to China, India, and the Arabian peninsula over water, and with caravan trading routes inland. Several major port cities that cropped up on the Swahili coast included Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilw. Most Swahili people retained their own traditional beliefs and the only people who converted were those who lived in major port or trading cities but Islam still provided a common bond between all people and encouraged encouraged trade, in addition to affected some important aspects of society.