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Musa Mansa

Musa Mansa

Mansa Musa (died 1337), king of the Mali empire in West Africa, is known mostly for his fabulous pilgrimage to Mecca and for his promotion of unity and prosperity within Mali.

Very little is known about the life of Mansa Musa before 1312. In that year he succeeded his father, Abu Bakr II, to the throne and thus gained the hereditary title of mansa. After this point he is fairly well covered in the tarikhs (Moslem chronicles) of North Africa and the western Sudan, which tell of his reign as a golden age. In contrast to his famous 13th-century predecessor Sundiata, Musa is practically forgotten in Malinke oral traditions.

Many modern writers feel that Musa's importance in West African history is exaggerated because of the fame he obtained during his truly impressive pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-1325. Other Sudanese monarchs had undertaken the pious journey in previous centuries, but the very scale and opulence of Musa's caravan made an impact on Cairo and Mecca which was remembered for years. He is said to have been accompanied by 500 slaves, each carrying a 4-pound staff of gold, and 80 camels with 300 pounds of gold each. All of this wealth was spent or given out as alms in the Arab cities.

The effect of this sudden glut of gold on Egypt was an inflation still observable 12 years later when al-Umari visited Cairo and recorded much of what we now know about Musa and Mali. The reputation which Musa established in Egypt soon spread to Europe, where as early as 1339 Mali appeared on a world map along with Musa's name. For the next 6 centuries the name of Mali was associated with fabulous wealth by Europeans.

Completion of his pilgrimage earned for Musa the coveted title of al-hajj, but this experience also taught him a great deal about orthodox Islam, and he returned to Mali with a strong desire to reform Islam there. He brought with him North African architects and scholars to carry out this task, but Islam remained, as before, the religion of the towns. The majority of the people lived in the country, and they continued to follow Malinke religious beliefs.

Musa developed diplomatic ties with the North African states and thereby facilitated an unprecedented growth of trans-Saharan trade, which in turn further enriched and strengthened the imperial government. Internal commerce and agriculture flourished, and the order and prosperity found in Mali in 1352-1353 by the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta were largely attributable to Musa's enlightened leadership earlier in the century.

On his death in 1337 Musa was succeeded by his son, Mansa Maghan (reigned 1337-1341), who had ruled during Musa's visit to Mecca and Cairo.

Further Reading

There is no book-length biography of Musa, but short biographical sketches are in Lavinia Dobler and William A. Brown, Great Rulers of the African Past (1965), and A. Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History (1966). More general books on West Africa should also be consulted, including E. W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (1958; rev. ed. 1968), and J. S. Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (1962). □

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