Mansa Musa Research Paper

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Mansa Musa, also called Kankan Musa, ruled the West African empire of Mali at its height. Under his reign, Mali expanded its territories and strengthened its control of West Africa’s salt and gold trades.

Mansa Musa, despite his accomplishments as a ruler of Mali who expanded his empire’s territory and trade, is best remembered for his extravagant hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1324, which fostered stronger diplomatic, cultural, and scholarly ties between Mali and Islamic North Africa. As a result, stories of Mansa Musa’s power and wealth spread throughout the Islamic world as well as Europe, elevating the kingdom of Mali onto the world stage.

Mansa Musa’s Mali emerged from the earlier empire of Wagadu (or Ghana, 300 CE–1240). Around 1050, Wagadu was invaded by the Almoravids (Berber Muslims), who swept through the Mauritanian Sahara, Morocco, and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). After the Almoravid invasion (1054–1076), the empire of Wagadu fell apart. Around 1240, Sundiata, Mansa Musa’s legendary Mandinka ancestor, defeated another regional power and former vassal state of Ghana, the Susu armies of Sumanguru, allowing Mali to emerge as the empire of Ghana’s successor.

When Mansa Musa began his reign in 1312, Mali already controlled the trans-Saharan trade routes between the salt deposits of Taghaza (in the central Sahara) in the north and the gold-bearing lands of Wangara (southern savannah and forest regions of West Africa) in the south. During his reign, Mali strengthened its control of the trade routes by seizing important cities such as Gao and Timbuktu (Tombouctou), on and near the Niger River, respectively, and Walata (in present-day Mauritania). His forces expanded westward to the Atlantic coast of Takrur (in present-day Senegal) and eastward beyond the Middle Niger.

Mansa Musa brought the western Sudan under a unified economic and legal system. Mali’s successful extension of law and order came as a result of the unity provided by Mansa Musa’s sponsorship of Islam. The administrators, traders, and many of Mali’s urban subjects were Muslims. Islam provided a shared value system, which facilitated safe travel, especially for the Wangara gold traders, who operated freely, despite clan or territorial differences. The great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/69), who traveled through Mali shortly after Mansa Musa’s reign, marveled at Mali’s great level of security.

However, Mansa Musa still ruled over a primarily non-Muslim population. During his travels, Ibn Battuta complained about the incorporation of indigenous Mandinka customs into court ceremonies, festivals, and daily life. In fact, Mansa Musa’s legitimacy, in the eyes of the Mandinka, rested largely upon his descent from Mali’s founder, Sundiata, who continues to be prominent in the oral traditions of Mali. Similarly, al-‘Umari (1301–1349), a great chronicler from Cairo, noted that while Mansa Musa extracted tribute from the gold-producing non-Muslims of his empire, he was reluctant to force them to convert to Islam for fear of damaging his empire’s economy.

Despite the blend of religious and cultural traditions present in Mali, there is little doubt concerning Mansa Musa’s piety and commitment to Islam, as evidenced in his well-chronicled hajj in 1324. According to the North African historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), he arrived in Cairo accompanied by a caravan that included some 12,000 servants and 80 camels laden with loads of gold dust. Al-‘Umari explained how Mansa Musa’s lavish spending depressed the price of gold in Cairo for the next twelve years.

While in Cairo, Mansa Musa was persuaded to visit the Mamluk sultan, al-Malik al-Nasir (reigned 1309–1340). Several Arab sources include an anecdotal account of their meeting. When asked to kiss the ground before the sultan, Mansa Musa flatly refused. However, he offered to prostrate himself before Allah, his creator. This clever compromise won him the respect of al-Malik al-Nasir. The sultan honored Mansa Musa as an equal, allowing him to sit at his side, and gave him robes of honor and the necessary provisions for his journey to Mecca.

Mansa Musa’s sensational display of wealth, power, and piety helped to expand Mali’s influence beyond West Africa. Under Mansa Musa, ambassadors were established in both Egypt and Morocco. Mansa Musa also brought Egyptian scholars to Mali. With the help of learned men such as the Andalusian poet and architect Abu-Ishaq Ibrahim-es- Saheli (died c. 1346 CE), Mansa Musa built a royal palace and new mosques in Timbuktu and Gao, which introduced the distinctive burnt mud brick and wooden-post architecture found throughout the western Sudan.

North African scholars also helped to encourage the establishment of Islamic schools. Mansa Musa sent students to study Sunni Maliki Islamic law in Fez and Cairo, and North African scholars came to Niani, Timbuktu, and Djenne. This exchange of scholars laid the foundations for the creation of the great Sankore University in Timbuktu, which became famous throughout the Islamic world during the time of the Songhai Empire (flourished 1450–1591). Therefore, Mansa Musa’s reign and pilgrimage were essential in the development of Islamic scholarship in West Africa.

Even in Europe, Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage aroused interest. The famous Catalan Atlas, created by Abraham Cresques in 1375, depicts Mansa Musa seated on a throne, holding a nugget of gold. The Catalan Atlas announced Mansa Musa’s wealth, the presence of a sophisticated state in the African interior, as well as the commercial opportunities available in West Africa.

Mansa Musa’s reign brought prosperity and security to the West African empire of Mali. He skillfully administered one of the largest empires in the fourteenth-century world. He fostered enduring crosscultural interaction with the Islamic world while still maintaining many of Mali’s traditional religious and cultural practices. Through trade, diplomatic, and scholarly ties with North Africa, Mansa Musa’s reign exposed West Africa to the world beyond the Sahara. Thus, Mansa Musa is considered one of the greatest precolonial statesmen in African history.


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