Askia Muhammad I

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Askia Muhammad I

reigned 1493-1528

Ruler of the songhai empire


Askia the Great. Widely known as Askia the Great, Askia Muhammad I was the most renowned ruler of the Songhai Empire. There is no doubt, however, that he had no constitutional right to ascend the throne. Muhammad was the chief minister to Sunni Ali (ruled 1464-1492), who on his death was succeeded by his son Abu Bakr Da’u (known as Sunni Baru). In 1493 Muhammad, who did not belong to the Songhai royal family, deposed Sunni Baru and made himself ruler. Muhammad violated the Songhai mode of succession because he did not possess the sacred symbols of national cults that constitutionally entitled the possessor to the throne. Furthermore, if—as was generally believed— Muhammad came from Soninke rather than Songhai lineage, he did not meet the ethnic eligibility requirement for succession.

Military Leader. Muhammad created a large standing army, as well as an imperial bodyguard consisting of 3,000 cavalrymen and archers. With the skillful use of horse cavalry, he used his formidable military might to enlarge the Songhai Empire, subduing the Mossi Empire in 1498 an. justifying this conquest on the ground that their ruler had refused to accept Islam. After freeing the Songhai from the potential threat posed by the Mossi, Muhammad expanded the empire in several directions. He extended its northern reaches to the Sahara Desert.

Westward Expansion. In the west he incorporated much of the old Empire of Mali, beginning with the conquest of Bagana in 1499-1500. In 1502 he moved further west, capturing Diala. After failing in 1505 to breach the walled cities of Borgu—whose harsh terrain and tsetse flies made conditions difficult for Songhai horses—Muhammad conquered Galam in 1507.

Eastward Expansion. Muhammad was able to expand the imperial reach of Songhai as far east as Hausaland, easily capturing Hausa states such as Gobir, Katsina, and Zaria. Although Muhammad was not able to conquer another major Hausa state, Kano, he brought Kano under the ambit of Songhai imperial domination by making one of his daughters the wife of the ruler of Kano. Through this arrangement, his new son-in-law paid tribute equal to onethird of Kano’s annual revenue to Songhai.

Alliance Building. Part of Muhammad’s military genius consisted of skillful cultivation of military alliances with neighboring states. For instance, his alliance with the Kanta of Kebbi enabled him to fight against the Tuaregs at Air and Agades in 1516. He captured both cities and imposed his rule on their inhabitants.

Religious Leader. Muhammad was devoted to Islam. He is said to have been the first Songhai ruler to send his children to an Islamic school, and he insisted that his Muslim subjects observe Islamic injunctions. He introduced and enforced the wearing of the veil by Muslim women and the practice of keeping Muslim women in purdah. Despite his Islamic zealotry, however, Muhammad recognized the rights of his subjects to practice the religions of their choice and appointed a high priest to administer the religious affairs of his non-Muslim subjects.

Pilgrimage. In 1497-1498 Muhammad fulfilled one of the five pillars of Islam by going on hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. He took 300,000 pieces of gold, of which 100,000 were spent for charity in the holy cities. Such lavish gifts may have been designed to impress the people of Mecca with the power and wealth of Songhai; yet, they also seem to have been motivated by a genuine desire to show compassion to the poor. He also built a hostel in Mecca for Songhai pilgrims. During this journey, he persuaded the ruler of Mecca to appoint him the caliph of West Africa, a title that had both religious and political significance, lending legitimacy to his claim to the throne he had usurped from its true heirs.

A Lover of Learning. Muhammad encouraged Islamic learning through lavish patronage of Muslim clerics. He recruited Muslim scholars from Egypt and Morocco to teach at the famous Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu and set up centers of learning in various other cities, including Gao, Djenné, and Walata. Apart from the religious instruction, Islamic jurisprudence and basic bureaucratic skills were taught at these centers of learning. Islamic clerics also provided cultural and diplomatic linkages between Songhai and the Muslim world.

Astute Administrator. Muhammad was a talented administrator. Because he recognized that a ruler could not base his governance on military force alone, he tried to engender his subjects’ consent to his governance by means such as allowing a measure of religious freedom in the empire. By permitting conquered non-Muslims to practice their religions, he avoided the possibility that his enemies could use religion to mobilize opposition to his rule. Muhammad centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy, which was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice. He replaced some local rulers with members of his family or people personally loyal to him. He divided the kingdom into provinces with governors to oversee them. He set up a council of ministers and appointed high-level officials, including a commander of the fleet, a minister of forests and fisheries, and a master of the court.

Encouraging Agriculture and Trade. Muhammad built irrigation canals to enhance agricultural production. He showed his genius in administration by introducing common weights and measures throughout the empire, and he also appointed an inspector for each of its important trading centers. Given the dependence of the Songhai economy on trade, these innovations were important policy measures.

Loss of Power. Muhammad lived into his eighties, becoming blind and feeble. In 1528 several of his many sons staged a coup, deposing him and placing his son Musa on the throne. Musa was forced to abdicate in 1531, and the declining Songhai Empire was ruled by a succession of Muhammad’s sons and grandsons until it fell to Moroccan troops in 1591.


J. O. Hunwick, “Songhay, Borno, and Hausaland in the sixteenth century,” in The History of West Africa, edited byj. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, second edition, 2 volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 1987), I: 264-301.