The Roots Remake and Why Black America's Islamic Ancestry Has Been Hidden

The Roots Remake and Why Black America's Islamic Ancestry Has Been Hidden

Timbuktu Manuscripts

Black men and women of America are quite literally direct descendants of some of the greatest Empires in African history. This is fact...a fact that has a lot to do with why we've been subjected to all that we have been since slavery began. This descent includes the legacy of the Moors, and the Sudanic Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali (Manden) and Songhay that collectively included various ethnic groups of people all up and down the western region of Africa where the vast majority of diasporan Africans were kidnapped from. These Africans were the ones Kunta Kinte originated from, with the ethnic group technically being known as Mandinka in the West (Malinke is another way of pronouncing it). Despite the constant depiction of Africans as animist and polytheistic in popular culture...many, many Africans are in fact Muslim and have been for many centuries. Long before the colonial powers of Europe set their "scramble" for Africa into motion, powerful Black dynasties ruled a stretch of land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and further at times into Europe and some say the Americas. Many of these innocent Muslims got caught up in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and would make their way into the United States via the Middle Passage. As slaves, their descendants would lose their cultural connection with the Motherland and would be forced to convert to Christianity and the rest is history.

Before I begin in earnest, I have to say that yes...I'm aware of the fact that not ALL Blacks in America share this lineage. Many Black Americans have ancestry that goes back to modern-day Ghana (which isn't the same as medieval Ghana) and Nigeria among non-Islamic groups such as Akan-speakers and Yoruba-speakers just to name a couple. However if we're going to have a more nuanced perception of our ancestry, then we have to include all of it.

The groups of people that I'm going to mention in this blog entry primarily speak one of the many Mande languages. Mande is one of the largest, most widely-spoken language families in West Africa with sub-groupings and sub-dialects spread all-throughout the region in countries such as Mali, Senegal, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia. However I will also speak on ethnic groups like the Songhai which speak a language known simply as the Songhai language which is NOT part of the Mande language group...meaning Songhai people are of a different lineage culturally even though they share similarities with many Mande-speakers such as religion and being part of that 1,000+ year period of the last African golden age which began around 300 C.E. 

The Ghana Empire

The beginning of this Golden Age of Africa began with the founding of the Ghana Empire by the Mande-speaking Soninke people sometime around 300 C.E. as mentioned above. Much like with Ancient Kemet being renamed Egypt by foreigners, Ghana has suffered that in the sense that Ghana wasn't technically the name of the Empire itself...it was the title given to the monarch. Originally before becoming an Empire, it was known as Awkar and existed in the modern-day countries of Mauritania and Mali. It's capitol was called Kumbi Saleh and the stone ruins still exist to this day in southern Mauritania.

According to Robin Walker, author of 'When We Ruled,' the origins of Ghana/Awkar may go back even further to about 250 C.E. due to research done in one of the early Ghanaian cities known as Old Djenne which had a population of 20,000 people by 500 C.E. (a population size you wouldn't see in London for another 700 years). Once it became an Empire, numerous industries developed across the land including the long-distance trade of gold and salt. Industries such as pottery, farming, ship-building, jewelery-crafting, brick-making, etc. In order to expand territorially, the Soninke developed military supremacy in the region and fought with lances and swords of iron against enemies who fought with bars of ebony.

Ancient Ghana/Awkar also maintained a thriving economy backed by the gold dinar. On the issue of the Ghanaian/Awkaran economy, Robin Walker states...

On the traffic, the Ghanaian authorities imposed a series of import and export taxes. Each merchant, for example, typically paid one dinar of gold (a gold coin) in taxes before being allowed to bring one donkey-load of salt into Kumbi. Moreover, each merchant had to pay another two dinars in gold for the privilege of taking that same donkey-load of salt out of Kumbi. Thus, every time a donkey-load of salt passed through the capitol, the Ghanaian treasury was three dinars richer. A dinar was equal to 72 grains of barley. Other goods were also taxed...Ghana also produced or traded metal goods, cotton cloth, copper, and so-called ‘Morocco’ leather. The Moroccans sold the leather into Europe, hence the name but perhaps ‘Ghanaian’ leather may have been a more appropriate term.
— Robin Walker, 'When We Ruled,' Chapter: West Africa's Golden Age, Page 363

In 1067, Ibn Khaldun described suburban stone houses in Kumbi Saleh standing in gardens with other buildings made of stone supported by wooden beams made of acacia wood. He also described the Ghanaian/Awkaran capitol as one of the most populated cities in the world at the time. In the 10th century, Ibn Haukal described the enormous size of the transactions between merchants in the region describing one where a check was written for 42,000 gold dinars to a merchant in Audoghast by his partner in Sidjilmassa. Al-Bakri described the royal court of Tunka Menin as having a level of wealth equaled only by that of the Aegean period.

Ghana existed as a non-Muslim state for most of its existence. It's rulers would eventually convert to Islam to strengthen trade with Muslims to the North, but for the most part it's citizenry would retain their traditional belief systems. Things began changing in 1055 C.E. when Ibn Yasin would take the city of Audoghast from Ancient Ghana/Awkar who controlled it prior. Audoghast was a wealthy city full of rich merchants, elegant houses and fine public buildings. All of the wealthy caravans traveled through it's gates and it is said that meat was plentiful. This was the beginning of the Almoravid Dynasty of Moorish fame and represents the beginning of the decline of the Ghana/Awkar Empire. What many people don't realize is that the Moorish Almoravid dynasty was basically made up entirely of West African people...many of whom were Ghanaian converts to Islam who followed Ibn Yasin. The Almoravid movement itself came almost entirely out of Senegal which at the time was known as Tekrur and was a semi-Independent polity controlled by the Ghana Empire. So the rise of the Almoravids essentially represented a civil war in Ghana and in 1076, the Black Almoravids sacked Kumbi Saleh and proceeded to conquer Spain establishing one of the largest Empires in the world at the time. This was AFTER they founded the city of Marrakesh in Morocco.

The Moorish Dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohades

I'm not going to go too, too deep into the history of the Moors. You can fill up a book just about them, their history, their culture and the influence they had on Europe. The documentary below called 'When the Moors Ruled in Europe,' provides a good introduction into who the Moors were and some of their history. It's one of the few documentaries made in the West about the Moors due to the fact that the Moors themselves have largely been written out of history. Another source is the must-read book entitled 'The Golden Age of the Moor,' which was compiled by Ivan Van Sertima and is one of the best books on the subject I've found to date.

So to not jump back and forth through history we're going to skip over the first Moorish dynasty of the Ummayyads and begin talking about al-Andalus (aka Moorish Spain) after the Almoravids sacked the capitol of Ghana/Awkar. The documentary above is really good, however they skip over mentioning the fact that Moor means Black. They show the glory of al-Andalus without mentioning this and play it off as if Blacks didn't enter into the picture until the Almoravid dynasty was formed. This is not true and Blacks were a major element, a dominant element, within Moorish society from the very beginning. The documentary begins talking about the Almoravids an hour in exactly at the 1:00:00 mark. For another take on the Moors that's much more honest I suggest you check out the Hidden Colors series.

One of the greatest military generals you've never heard of is a man by the name of Yusuf ibn Tashfin and he was the Moor put in control of the Northern territory of the Almoravids before his conquest of Spain. The Almoravid army consisted of thousands of Black Moors from West Africa with Indian swords. They had thousands of light calvary soldiers mounted on camels who were armed with bows and arrows as well as javelins. They went into battle with elephants as well and at the Battle of Zallaca in 1086, pushed back the forces of the Castilian King Alphonso VI establishing the Almoravid dynasty of Moorish Spain. However the Almoravids didn't stay in power more than a century and in 1147, another group of West Africans going by the name Almohad took over Almoravid territory following the sacking of Marrakesh and did their own form of conquering in Spain. Though the Almoravids were out of power, a branch of them would still remain in power on the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain and in Tunisia until 1203 and would go by the name Banu Ghaniyah which clearly sounds like a play on Ghana which would make sense given their origin in Africa. In Golden Age of the Moor, Jose Pimienta-Bey writes that the Almohades came from West Africa just like the Almoravids and included the people of Ghana, Mali, Senegal and Songhai.

The Alcazar Palace built in 1181 by the Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf I

The Almohads, unlike the Almoravids, were not as strict on a literal understanding of the Quran and encouraged non-theological pursuits and sought a more secular approach to knowledge. It was under Almohad rule that the greatest Moorish scholars flourished such as Averroes. Averroes was born to a wealthy Cordovan family in 1126 during Almoravid rule. Both his grandfather and father held the position of Chief Judge under the Almoravids in Cordova. Under the Almohads, he became a famed physician and mathematician in al-Andalus. However he would have his greatest impact studying the ancient philosophy of Aristotle. The writings of Averroes sought to understand the relationship between religion and ancient philosophy. His writings would become so impactful and heavily followed that a movement known as "Averroism" was formed that would even have an impact on the Catholic Church. Averroism became a popular school of Islamic philosophy that would influence Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas and would directly lead to the development of 'scholasticism.'  Scholasticism was essentially a new way of thinking and forming of critical thought and logic. It became the basis of academia in new European Universities that would teach their early students the tenets of Averroism. Averroes was a pure rationalist who's writings would form the basis of rational debate and logical reasoning. His impact cannot be understated, however when a new Almohad ruler came into power...he clashed with his Orthodox views and was banished from al-Andalus and eventually died in Marrakesh, Morocco in 1198. Averroes discovered the physics concept of inertia in the 12th century centuries before Kepler and he stressed the importance of analytical thinking as a prerequisite to interpret the Quran. 

There are many of Black men who can be talked about with regards to Moorish history and it should also be noted that not all Moors were Muslims. Moor simply means Black and was applied to all dark-skinned people from Africa. There were Christian Moors and if you were a Black person who practiced a traditional African system of worship you were liable to also be called a Moor. However the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties represents the era of Moorish Spain where the men in control were directly of West African stock, despite the fact that you will find white-washed retellings of the story that de-emphasize the West African element and over-emphasize the North African element of the Moors. For more information, I suggest the reading of the two books listed above.

The Mali Empire

Before the Almohad dynasty collapsed in 1269, a new Imperial powerhouse began taking shape in the area nearby the location of Ghana/Awkar. It became the largest Empire in West Africa and was known as Manden. Many in the West know of it as Mali and it was founded by Sundiata Keita between 1235 and 1240. Keita was a member of a Mandinkan dynasty that scholars believe went back as far as the 9th century. Before becoming an Empire however, Mali/Manden went through a pre-Imperial phase that would transition into the Imperial phase with Sundiata's military victory at the Battle of Kirina in 1235. The battle saw the defeat of the Sosso kingdom which tried to fill the power vacuum that developed after the collapse of Ghana/Awkar in 1076. Between the fall of Ghana and the rise of Mali, numerous smaller kingdoms of Mande-speaking people existed, but with the military defeat at Kirina in 1235, Sundiata Keita (aka the Lion King) was able to bring two large regions together under one umbrella. The capturing of Kumbi Saleh in 1240 from Ghana sealed the deal.

The Mali Empire existed over an area the size of Western Europe and was essentially the first federalized state in West Africa due to it's laws and codes. It was the 2nd largest civilization in the world during the 14th century with only the Mongol Empire being larger. Not only that, but Mali/Manden was actually governed by a Constitution known as the Kouroukan Fouga that united the Mandinkan clans under one centralized government. The Kouroukan Fouga led to the development of the Gbara which was the deliberative body or Great Assembly of the Mali Empire that legislated over much of West Africa during the Middle Ages going forward.

Malian Discovery of the New World

Around the year 1342 C.E., an Egyptian scholar by the name of al-Umari published a book that contained information about two maritime voyages ordered by a Malian ruler named Abubakari II (aka Abu Bakr II) prior to Mansa Musa taking the throne in 1312 C.E. According to the documented account, Abubakari II ordered the construction of 400 ships total filled with men and enough food, gold and water to last 2 years. The objective was to explore the Atlantic Ocean and discover what may be on the other side (assuming they didn't already know there was land over there to begin with). After this first voyage, only one ship returned and told the King Abubakari what had happened. Abubakari then ordered the 2nd voyage, this time with 2,000 ships with enough provisions to last even longer. Mansa Musa was left in charge and Abubakari II was never seen again.

If you want to read an in-depth argument for an African "discovery" of the "New World" before Columbus then I suggest you read another Ivan Van Sertima book called 'They Came Before Columbus.' Abubakari II set sail 181 years before Columbus and the chances of him NOT reaching the New World is not that high actually. Unless his voyage was destroyed by a massive storm in the Atlantic or something, he was on the current that'll take you directly to the New World...even if he didn't know where he was going.

Mansa Kankan Musa I

Mansa Musa I of Mali

With the disappearance of the former Mansa Abubakari II, Kankan Musa I was put on the throne in 1312 becoming the famous ruler Mansa Musa. Musa is best known for ruling over the Mali Empire at its height and in its most illustrious era. Mali at this time enjoyed a tremendous amount of wealth due to its control of vast gold mines that created so much wealth that Mali became the envy of the known world. Timbuktu, a city of learning and scholarly advancement in the Empire, was portrayed as a type of Shangri-La and students traveled there from all around Africa to learn from Malian teachers.

Mansa Musa is regarded as not only the wealthiest man of his era, he is regarded as one of the wealthiest men to ever live in human history. His net worth, adjusted for inflation, is estimated to have been around $400 billion which is more than the wealth of J.D. Rockefeller and the Rothschild family. During his time, Imperial Mali received tribute from 13-24 semi-independent vassal states in alliance with the kingdom. Mansa Musa also maintained a standing army of 100,000 men or which about 10% consisted of calvary mounted on both camels and horses.

Medieval Mali/Manden became such a powerhouse, that their culture spread like wildfire throughout the region. Scholars such as Matt Schaffer have made the argument that Mandinkan culture became so dominant and long-lasting that traces of it can be found among African-Americans who are descendants of different groups of West Africans who would have been influenced by Malian culture and so therefore bearers of that glorious legacy.

Of course the vast area of Eastern Mali - the Heartland - contains Mande-speakers. But from here the influence spread out all along the Gambia River, the Pakao region of southern Senegal, northern Guinea-Bissau, major regions or Guinea and Sierra Leone, significant territory in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and even a border area of North-Western Nigeria....Further amplifying this seeming ethnic fragmentation is that one key slaving area - along the Gambia River - of vital importance to the slave markets of coastal South Carolina and Georgia...Since the early 17th century the Mandinka have pre-dominated in villages along both sides of this river, settling there after Manding (the Ancient Mali Empire) expanded and began to disintegrate at the end of the 15th century.
— Matt Shaffer: Bound to Africa - The Mandinkan Legacy in the New World, Cambridge University Press

Many Black Americans, not all, are direct descendants of this legacy. If you have ancestry that goes back to any of the countries listed above...then you're likely a descendant of the Malian Empire. Possibly even Ghana/Awkar and maybe even the Almoravids and Almohads. The latter probably has fewer people given their origins are in Senegal which is one country in particular and not an entire region.

The Songhai Empire

As large as Mali/Manden was, the Songhai Empire was the largest of the 3 Sudanic kingdoms and represents the last of the vast West African empires. African-Americans may have ancestry connecting them with Songhai people too, as mentioned above however...Songhai people speak a different language entirely from that of Mande-speakers.

The first Songhai dynasty was called the Dia dynasty and began in 690 C.E. and lasted until 1338 C.E. The capitol city was called Kukya and was considered very ancient with one scholar named as-Sadi claiming it went back to the time of the Pharoahs.

For a period of time, Songhai cities were under the control of the Mali Empire, but as the empire began to fall, it allowed Songhai ruler Sonni Ali Kolon (aka Sonni Ali Ber) to declare Songhai independence from Mali in 1338 as he founded a new dynasty and formed the Songhai empire...now the Songhai would go through an Imperial phase akin to Sundiata Keita and the Mali Empire generations prior.

Unlike the previous Sudanic empires, Songhai would reach a level of power and prestige in the Islamic world unlike any civilization before it. In 1496, Askia Mohammed I took a pilgrimage to Mecca and met with the Caliph of Egypt who was basically the Islamic version of the Pope of the Catholic Church. After a brief discussion, the Caliph of Egypt made Askia the Caliph of the Western Sudan...the spiritual ruler of all West and Central African Muslims. In 1496, Songhai became an Imperial Caliphate and the most powerful nation in Africa outside of Egypt.

Songhai consisted of territory comparable in size to the entirety of Europe and Askia is remembered today as Askia the Great. However as great as the Songhai Empire was, it too collapsed in 1591 and left a power vacuum that no one was ever able to fill. It's impossible to know how history might have been different had Songhai not fallen and there was an Imperial presence to ward off foreigners. Songhai was destroyed militarily by Moroccan forces aided by England that went into battle with guns, ammunition and cannons...weapons Songhai did not have.

It's unclear why Morocco invaded Songhai in 1591 with the help of Europeans no less. We know what the European agenda was as it's obvious that by this time the wealth of Africa was very well known in Europe. It's possible the Moroccans felt intimidated by the growth of an African superpower and it's important to note that this was long after the time of the Almoravids and Almohads...two great Black dynasties. Morocco at this time was far past the era of the Moors and you wonder how much racial/ethnic animus played a role in this as well. Whatever the case may be, independent Black African states would remain for several centuries before the era of European Imperialism...however no nation would reach the level of Mali/Manden and Songhai.

Why The Islamic Legacy of Black America Has Been Hidden

The history lesson provided above alone shows why this history has been hidden. Part of it I believe is religious animus between Christians and Muslims. However the other very real and obvious reason is that you can't maintain a system of white supremacy while at the same time acknowledging the past greatness of Black people. African-Americans are direct descendants of this rich legacy and should be proud of it and should do more research on it. There's this whole right-wing belief that Europeans "civilized" Africa and that we'd be no where without them. The last African golden age shows you exactly why that belief reeks of the savior complex and cultural hubris. Outside of just being historically inaccurate and likely racist...because "obviously" Black people could never build a civilization on par, or greater, than that of anything in Europe. Oh wait, that DID happen and was the case for centuries until some unfortunate events in the 1500's.

Not all Black Americans, or even Blacks in the diaspora period, share this history genetically. I have had the fortune of having my maternal DNA lineage traced (from 2 different DNA companies) and can proudly say that I have genetic links to Sierra Leone, specifically the Mende people of that country. The Mende are Mande-speakers with a historic legacy to the Mali Empire where they lived in the past. This information doesn't mean I think people should go out now and convert to Islam. This isn't a religious message at all. However history should be acknowledged for what it is. Kunta Kinte wasn't JUST a Mandinkan warrior...he was the carrier of a legacy that for hundreds of years dominated nearly all of Western Africa. A legacy that is every bit part of our history as Black people in America. A legacy that deserves to be retold cinematically and artistically. 


Sources

  1. When We Ruled - Robin Walker
  2. The Golden Age of the Moor - Ivan Van Sertima
  3. The Mandinka Legacy in the New World - Matt Schaffer, History in Africa, Volume 32, 2005 (321-369)...click link above^^
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