Monday, October 27, 2014

Askia Mohammad: The Zenith of the Songhai Empire

Askia Mohammad depicted in Civilization V
The Songhai people rose from the obscurity of the once mighty Mali Empire to become the newest empire in the region thanks to the efforts of its founder Sunni Ali. Sunni Ali died in 1492, leaving his son in charge of the Empire. However, it would be interrupted by the ambitions of one of Ali’s most trusted general – Mohammad Ture or better known as Askia Mohammad. This cunning and tenacious general would march the Empire into its golden age.

Like Sunni Ali, nothing much is known about his birth and childhood. He only began to appear as one of the most trusted and loyal general and adviser to Sunni Ali.

In 1492, Sunni Ali died leaving his son, Sunni Baru, as his successor. The reign of Sunni Baru would prove to be brief. His father’s rule was marred with hypocrisy. His father proclaimed he was a Muslim. Yet he killed, tortured, and imprisoned a lot of Muslim scholars. The anger of the Muslims towards Ali then turned against Baru. The Muslims found a new Songhai ruler under the guise of Ali’s general – Mohammad Ture. Mohammad Ture had the ambitions of becoming the ruler of the vast and wealthy Songhai Empire. With the opportunity to become such, he grabbed it and launched a coup with the support of Muslim scholars against the Sunni Baru. They took over the capital – Gao – and sent Baru to exile while Mohammad Ture took the throne, established a new dynasty, and took the name Askia.

As a usurper, he needed to maintain the support of the Muslims in order to keep the throne. Askia then showed great religious zeal towards Islam. He showed devotion by going to a Hajj or pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca from 1497 to 1498. While on the journey, he further cemented his Muslim connection with the authority given to him by the Abbasid caliphate during the time of his Hajj. Also, his conversations with the famous Islamic scholar in present-day Algeria, al–Maghili, made him more popular to Muslims back home. His policies towards Muslim scholarship was praised. Thus, Islamic scholarship in the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne, once declined during the time of Sunni Ali, became active and alive again. Although a devout Muslim, Mohammad also did not wanted to antagonize the local traditional religions and showed tolerance towards them.

His exploits as great Muslim also reflects equally with his great military skills. As a general during the time of Sunni Ali, Askia Mohammad was no stranger to war. Askia continued the military expansion campaigns launched by his predecessors. He used the Songhai cavalry, infantry, and riverine fleet in order to extend his reach. By the time of his death, the Songhai Empire occupied the salt abundant mines of Taghaza in the north. In the east, the Songhai Empire’s border reach the Aïr Mountains. To the south, Askia became bog down in Kanembornu. And in the west, the Sengal River became the western end of the empire. In modern day standards, the Empire occupied the modern southern Mali, Niger, Northern Burkina Faso, and Northern Nigeria. Mohammad Askia was not able to expand further to the Mossi States and Haussaland due to their stiff resistance against the Songhai.

As a ruler, Askia improved the administration of the Empire that Sunni Ali established. Askia was credited with the establishing of a tax system that funded his military campaigns and religious activities. Also he appointed ministers that would handle the cases of the treasury, army, navy, and agriculture.

Askia ruled for about 35 years. He passed in 1528 leaving the Songhai Empire as the most powerful country in the region. Askia was buried in a tomb in Gao where it is today recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Askia Mohammad left a towering legacy. As a lieutenant of Sunni Ali he was cunning and smart enough to earn founder of the Songhai Empire. His loyalty to Sunni Ali however did not encompassed loyalty towards the son. With strength and the crescent in his back, he took the bold move to usurp the throne and lead the Songhai Empire to its zenith. His piety, warrior skills, and administrative skills brought him respect by his people. Respect, which his people showed by entombing his mortal remains in a modest tomb. Askia Mohammad was a great ruler of the Songhai Empire.

See also:
Songhai Empire
Sunni Ali
Tuareg Salt Caravan

Alexander, L. & W. Rucker (eds.). Encyclopedia of African American History. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

Beck, R. et. al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Florida: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co., 2012.

Stearns, P. (ed.). Oxford Encyclopedia of World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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